My name is Darnell Lamm, that's Lamm with two M's. I'm a clerk at Bradley's Super Market downtown, or I was at the time this story begins. This is my incredible story.
"Okay, Sam, I'm on my way, and I'm walking not driving, so don't worry about me, okay. Sheesh! You're worse than my mother, rest her soul," I said, as I exited the Iron Skillet. Sam watched me go out and smiled; he could smile; he had my back, read looked out for me almost every night.
The Skillet was my favorite watering hole; hell, it was my only watering hole. I was a regular there after work almost every night. Since I lived and worked but four blocks away, I never had a problem with drinking and driving. Tonight, though, I would normally have driven: it was thirty-one degrees and brother that's cold, especially with a twenty knot wind adding the wind chill factor.
I was shivering and cursing myself for being too cheap to call a cab. Well, next time I'd remember—probably.
The street was dead mortal silent. No cars, no hubbub, just silent. As I passed the doorway to Jed's market, I heard something. It was like—chattering. "I looked more closely. Huddled in the doorway, as far back as it was possible to get, was a woman, no a girl.
I stared at her. Homeless, I figured. Homeless, hopeless, and freezing to death.
"Miss, are you all right? Can I help you?" I said. She just stared back at me. She said nothing. "Miss, you can't stay here; you'll freeze to death."
"Huh?" she said
"Miss, let's go down to the all night donut shop," I said. Well, I couldn't just walk away and leave her there could I.
She looked at me strangely, like she had just thought of something. She struggled to get up, and she came with me. I helped her walk; she was stiff as could be from laying there in the cold. And, I could tell by the look of her, as she stood, that she was just skin and bones. This was not good.
We made it the one block up and one more over to the donut shop. We took a table with fixed chairs in the back—I hate fixed chair seating, but it's what they had.
"Hot chocolate?" She nodded. I ordered two and a couple of chocolate éclairs; this girl needed the calories. I paid, and brought them back to her. She was rubbing her hands together desperately trying to warm up.
I looked her over closely for the first time. A teenager, I thought: thin, raven hair, sunken eyes, and a pasty complexion: this waif was not going to survive another night like this. Her clothes weren't exactly ragged, but all she had was a light windbreaker, sneakers, and a dirty print sundress; not exactly winter wear in Columbus, Ohio.
"Say, what's your name? How long have you been on the streets?" I dared ask her.
"And, how old are you?" I added, thinking I already knew the answer.
"Carmela, Carmela Long. A few months. I'm twenty-four," she said, her teeth still chattering. She saw the surprise on my face when she announced her age, but she said nothing.
"I take it you have no place to stay?" I said, realizing how obviously ridiculous my question was before it was even out of my mouth.
"No," she said.
Okay, she was homeless, and she'd been that way for months! I had to get her out of there, and safe.
The walk to my place was short, four blocks, but I didn't relish the idea of trying to get this little bag of bones that far on foot with her stumbling along at a snail's pace. I pulled my cell and called a cab.
She didn't struggle. She was going to the home of a complete stranger, and she said absolutely nothing. She just nodded when I'd suggested it. I wondered if she were at all afraid of what some strange man might be trying
to do to her. But, no, I think all she was thinking about were the éclairs she was wolfing down and staying out of the cold.
The cab ride was short, but I still had the walkup to negotiate with my little victim of the night.
Struggling a little, I was able to get my new boarder upstairs to the apartment; it was a three story walkup, and I was on the top floor.
"Okay, Carmela, I am going to put you to bed. It's almost 3:30AM," I said. I laid her on my queen size bed and took off her shoes. Her socks were filthy and they smelled something awful, and they were full of holes. Jesus, how could a nation as rich as the USA allow such misery to be. Damned Wall Streeters, I thought.
I pulled the comforter up and around her and she snuggled under it. Her eyes flickered, a hint of a satisfied smile flashed in my direction, and she slept. I headed back out through the kitchen and its small dinette which flanked my tiny living room and its skimpy complement of furnishings.
It wasn't much, my place, but it was warm and cozy and, well, it was home.
I sacked out on the couch; it was but a few feet from the door that separated me from where my guest was sleeping soundly.
The sun is the only alarm clock that I own, and it worked perfectly today. The bad news is that I had to get up to turn it off. I pulled the curtains about half way closed and went into the kitchen to put the coffee on; I had a splitting headache, and the exercise wasn't helping. Looking at the wall clock, I noticed it was almost 10:30AM. It was then I remembered that my bedroom was occupied. Carmela? Right, her name was Carmela. I called down to the coffee shop across the street. It was late for breakfast, but I knew that Clyde would be there cooking. I called down to double my usual breakfast order, albeit three hours later than usual. I asked for it to be delivered; something I did from time to time when I was hung over, like now. I was glad I had the day off.
I knocked on the bedroom door. I heard some rustling around, and then some desperate running and coughing. "Carmela? Are you all right?" I said, listening closely at the door.
"Uh—uh—yes. Uh-uh—who are you?" she said. She was obviously confused. I smiled. This was going to be interesting.
"I'm Darnell Lamm. We met last night."
"Huh?" The door opened, and she was still dressed in last night's clothes; well, what else would she be dressed in."
"I'm Darnell Lamm," I repeated now face to face with her. "I found you last night. Do you remember?" I said.
I could see that she was processing the information I was unloading on her, and she wasn't sure exactly how to respond. I took the bull by the horns. "Look," I said. "Take a shower; you need it worse than I do. I've ordered breakfast up too. After you've cleaned up a bit and eaten we'll talk, okay?"
"Okay," she said. She was clearly very timid and unsure of everything.
After the shower, she emerged looking refreshed. But, she was again dressed in her filthy clothes; I'd be getting her some new stuff. The food arrived just in time. I paid the delivery boy and spread the Styrofoam takeout containers on the table. I'd set the coffee maker up some minutes before and it was almost done brewing; it smelled good.
We looked at each other, and I wondered about her past, why she was on the streets, where her family was. So I asked.
"Where's your family?' I said, sipping the black elixir.
"Don't want me. They took my baby away from me: it was illegitimate in their eyes, so they took it away from me," she said. "I left after that."
"I see. No job obviously?"
"No, I had one, but the manager kept hitting on me, so I left. I should've let him screw me; it's been tough," she said.
We talked for some time. "We've got someplace to go," I said. Finish up.
"Where?" she said.
"You need clothes. I've got a little money saved. We'll get you fixed up," I said. She stopped chewing; her mouth was still full of food. She swallowed.
"You mean it?" she said. Twenty minutes later we were standing in front of an ATM. I had five hundred in my savings; it was all of the money I'd been able to save—what can I say; it costs a lot to live in the city. I pulled out four hundred and handed it to her.
We headed to the strip mall a few blocks up the street. I told her to knock herself out that I'd wait in the Denny's across the street. She smiled at me and asked me a question.
"Mr. Darnell, I mean Lamm, is that a birthmark on your right cheek?" I'd seen her staring at me funny a few times, and I'd wondered why; now I knew.
"Yes, kinda unsightly huh?" I said.
"No, no, it's just kinda star-shaped and I wondered if it was an injury or something, that's all," she said.
"No, it's a birthmark," I said, repeating myself. She waved to me and left to shop. I never saw her again.
I waited for some hours before it became apparent that she'd disappeared on me. Well, no good deed goes unpunished, I guess. I headed back to my apartment. The manager's daughter was waiting for me.
"Mr. Lamm, my dad wondered if you could pay the rent today," she said, smiling.
Jenna Wilcox, my landlord's daughter, at twenty-two, was six years my junior. Pretty and sexy I had the hots for her and she knew it.
"Yeah," I said, "come on in." I wrote the check and handed it to her. She put it on the table, leaned forward, wrapped her slimjim arms around my neck and kissed me passionately. Six months later we were married.
Jenna and I got along good those first years. The sex was good, the marriage typical, and the economics of it maybe a tad above average. We had just celebrated our fifth anniversary when the shit it the fan.
I lay next to her now wondering what I had done. We had been married for five years. We knew each other did we not? I had thought so, but now I wasn't so sure. No, that's not right, I did know for sure, and the answer was that I, at least, did not know her.
What the fuck was the problem? We had just had sex. She'd orgasmed and so had I. Then out of the blue she said something that I will never forget to my dyin' day regardless of what happens to us in the final analysis.
"Darnell, you don't satisfy me. You're not terrible in bed. I just came; I have to give you that; and I—we—usually both do. But it's not enough. Tonight was a test for me, for you too. Darnell, I have taken a lover, and I am going to keep on seeing him. I had to tell you. I can't go on cheating on you like I have for these past several weeks.
"I'll understand if you want a divorce," she said.
I looked at her in such shock that I think she was beginning to laugh, but she checked herself when the tears started clouding my vision. Well, I guess she still did have some feeling for me, after all. "What?" I choked. It was all I could think of to say.
"I know this is a shock. I don't want a divorce," she said. "I love you not him. But, I will not tread on your pride and my self-respect, by treating you like an unknowing cuckold.
"It's up to you, dear, if you want to stay married," she said.
I looked at her and my feelings for her, my love for her began to evaporate. My heart was broken. It wasn't fair. Soon my emotions took over and began to fill me with despair. "Is your lover near?" I asked with a calm of my own that I did not feel.
"No, tonight was just for us. I told him I had to be sure. I am now," she said.
I looked at her face, so calm and—frank. "You know," I said, "when I married you, I had long thought, I mean seeing all of the stuff that was happening around us: my friends, yours, strangers in the news; that no one could ever really trust someone else to be true, rely on them. But, I changed my mind after we began going together. I really thought I had found my soulmate, my true love, the one that I could trust. It's obvious to me now that I was right in the first place.
"Thank God we don't have children," I said, as I pulled on my pants and slid my tee-shirt over my head.
"Darnell, I wish—" She stopped in mid sentence to watch me. "I wish it weren't this way. I don't want you to hurt, and I really mean it. But, it has to be this way. But, we can still have sex once in a while if you really want it. I won't cut you off completely; I told him that. He wanted me to, but I told him you were too good to me to do that to you."
"You say sometimes," I said, as I finished dressing. I stood and stared at her. I wanted to cry, scream, even hit her; but I just waited.
"Huh?" she said, finally.
"You say you and I can have sex sometimes. How often is that? Once a week?" I said.
"Well..." My face felt hot. I was—nervous—psychologically shaken.
"Once a month," I said.
"Something more like that," she said.
"And him, how often?' I said. She looked down not answering me.
"Once a week?" She still didn't answer me. "Two or three times a week?"
She looked up at me. "Darnell, there is no need to talk about him. But, yes, maybe two or three times a week or so with him. I won't throw him in your face, Darnell. You need never meet or even hear about him. We're not trying to humiliate you. And, you're no unknowing cuckold. You're my man, my main man. It's just that sex—I can't go on faking it anymore. I need to be able to be, do, be myself. He fulfills that need for me. But, in everything else you're the one and he has no say."
"And, I don't, haven't, I mean satisfied you all of these years. You've been faking it all of these years!" I said.
"Darnell don't torture yourself. Like I say, you can get off once in a while. Have me, and I promise to make it nice for you," she said.
"Mercy," I said.
"Huh?" She looked questioningly at me.
"A mercy fuck, maybe once a month if I'm good that's what I get. That's what you mean when you say I can get off once in a while. Well, what if I go out and get me a girlfriend, you know to get myself off more often?" I said, finally starting to stand up for myself. What if I do decide to get a divorce?
"Darnell, I told you, I'd understand if you want a divorce. I don't think it's the best thing for you though. In the distribution of assets—well.
"And Darnell, you won't get yourself any little bit of fluff on the side, I know you; you love me. And, no, when you and I do it, it won't be any mercy fuck. It will be making love. It will be recommitting ourselves to each other. I told him that, you know. That you and I were committed to each other that we love each other.
"He didn't want me to tell you about—us. He thinks your male ego won't be able to handle it very well. Well, he doesn't know my man like I do. Like I said, I know you love me and will let me have this. That's how strong my marriage is, I told him," she said. She actually looked proud of herself—no—of me!
I needed to know who this guy was, who my competition was. "Who is he? I said.
"His name doesn't matter, Darnell. You don't know him. It would just bother you to know his name. Let it go. Let's just be together like before, well, almost," she said.
"I can't do this, Jenna, I can't. I'm going out. I need to be alone for a while." I'd finished dressing. I turned from her and left. I was sick to my stomach, both because she had so totally humiliated me and because my marriage of five years was ending, and ending badly. I was ending badly.
She made some noises about not wanting me to go out so late, but she knew I had to have some space and didn't really push very hard for me to stay.
I had my jacket and the clothes on my back, my wallet, and absolutely no idea what I was going to do. Out of the blue, I remembered the waif that I'd tried to help out years before. I wondered how she'd fared. Her story had been similar to mine in that those she'd loved and depended on had shit on her. Of course she'd shit on me. Well, I made up my mind. I headed for a nearby motel. It was midnight. I'd shack up there for a night or two and make up my mind how I was going to handle my wife and her lover. Well, that was my plan. Plans don't always materialize like we might expect.
I rose early. I showered and dressed. I called in sick to work; I needed the day off. After eating at Denny's, I went to the bank. The shock I got there was unnerving. She'd cleaned everything out. That was what she meant when she implied that a divorce would not be economically good for me. She, and her lover, had planned on making me their wiling cuckold and provider while holding me in thrall. Well, I might not be much, but I'm not going to be fucked over without a fight. Someday, I'd have mine; I had no idea at that moment how long that someday would be in coming.
She'd left two-hundred in the account and another two-hundred in savings. Everything else was gone: CDs, cash, even the safe deposit box was empty, all my important documents, passport gone. I closed the accounts. I headed back to the motel with $460 in my wallet. I spent another night and hit the road. I decided to just disappear.
As I strode along the street downtown, I wondered what she'd be thinking as I made no effort to contact her or return home. I wondered if she'd feel any guilt about leaving me so few options and so little money, essentially fucking me over every which way she could. My eyes narrowed. Whatever happened, to me, someday I would get mine back.
I paid for a forty dollar bus ticket and headed for Indiana. I had no papers, no proof of identity, except my Ohio driver's license, oh, and my ATM card which was now worthless because of my closing the accounts they were based on.
I had to find shelter and a job and fast.
It was the seventh of May. Unable to find a job, I was fast running out of cash. It was then I realized that I was now jobless, homeless, and derelict. That was the first night of my new status: I was a bum.
"I don't know Melvin. He's just disappeared. He's been gone for a week and the store hasn't heard from him. I guess laying it on him like that was a bad idea after all. Like you said, his pride couldn't handle it," said a concerned Jenna, as she sat across the table from her lover, Melvin Goode.
"Jesus, I was afraid of this," he said. "No word at all then?"
"No, none. He cleaned out the last monies from the checking and savings accounts and closed them. He's got a little cash, but not much, and he has no credit cards; you know he never believed in them.
"He's gonna have to call sooner or later. He can't last long on the funds he has," she said, hopefully.
"He can last out there forever, Jenna. All he has to do is find a job, any job," said Melvin.
"What am I going to do, Mel? He was paying the bills. I don't work. I never have. I have no skills," said Jenna.
"Well, I could move in here with you? I work. I can take over the bills. But, if I do that, you have to divorce Darnell and marry me," he said. She looked at him strangely. She nodded.
The streets were cold during the winter. I thought about moving to Arizona, but that would cost money, and I had zero funds. At least the bay of the warehouse was out of the wind. Jesus, how I hated the wind.
Fifteen years, now, of this bullshit, and not a day of it not thinking of Jenna and wondering if she even gave a shit. My mind often returned to that last week in Ohio before I'd left my home, my wife, my job, and all hope of any kind of life. Oh, that's not right either; I had a life. It was a life of self-pity and despair, but what the hey, it was more than some folks had, right.
I wondered if Jenna had divorced me; I was sure she had. Probably married her asshole lover. What a laugh. He'd cheat on here too. Fact was she just wasn't all that hot a lover. Who was I kiddin', she was a great lover; I was the asshole mediocrity, if that even.
The weather wasn't too bad, yet. Fifty degrees, Friday, and 6:00PM the big animated sign on the bank across the street announced. I huddled in the shadow of the supermarket's loading dock; I checked the dumpster every day at this time; they usually dumped the wilted produce and sometimes other stuff at this time of day. Hey, it's how I shopped these days.
I'd have to head back to the warehouse and the cover of its receiving bay soon. I didn't want Carlos trying to steal my place again. If he tried, I had my shiv, and I knew how to use it; one did have to protect one's turf.
A black Lincoln pulled up a few yards a way. I wondered what the owner of wheels like that was doing at a low class market like this one. No beluga caviar for sale inside here for sure, I thought.
The uniformed driver got out and opened the door for the lady passenger. He was a big guy, looked like he probably doubled as a bodyguard. For her part she was lovely. Gray business skirt and jacket, dark hair, 34B cups, and a butt to die for. Way out of my class for damn sure. For the first time that day I smiled to myself. The smile faded as I saw her advance toward me. I unconsciously shrank back into the shadows trying to become invisible.
She came up in front of me, staring at me. It looked like she was trying to decide something.
"What's your beef, lady," I said, more than a little uncomfortable with her being there, staring at me.
She just continued to look, and then nodded to her companion, the driver. He came toward me. He grabbed me by the arm and started to lift me.
"Gently, Albert, he's mine," she said.
"Hey, what the hell is going on! I don't know you. Leave me alone," I said, as forcefully as I could.
Albert hustled me toward the Lincoln. Some passersby looked on amused. I was not amused.
"Hey, this is kidnapping!" I protested. "What the fuck are you..." The big man stopped, held me fast and spoke to me.
"Listen, bub, the lady wants to talk to you. After she does you can do whatever you think is right, okay?" His words, interrupting my protestations, and my train of thought stopped me. What could this rich broad want with me. It sure as hell wasn't my money or my obvious good looks, which I didn't have any of.
I was seated in the back, while the woman and the driver were up front ignoring me.
We headed into town. He pulled the Lincoln up in front of some trendy restaurant with a French name emblazoned over it. He came around and opened first her door helping her out, and then the back door.
He clearly expected me to debark, but I was getting real hot under the collar. "They ain't gonna let me in there," I said. "That's one of those ties only places, and you may not have noticed, but I ain't wearin' no goddamned tie."
"Just get out, please," said Albert. "The lady wants to have a few words with you, and then I will take you anywhere you wanna go, okay?"
"I muttered something about him bein' lucky I was in a good mood. Total bullshit of course; he'd have beat me right handed; then left handed, and then fed me to the fishes, but I had my pride.
I almost had to laugh at myself. Pride? Pride wasn't worth a fuck; look where it's gotten me, I thought. Lost me a home, a wife, a good job, my self-respect, and now I've been kidnapped by some middle-aged rich broad. Jesus was my life fucked up. I was going to have to have another long and serious talk with myself.
I was led by the arm, gently, but by the arm into the main dining area of the fanciest restaurant I'd ever been in. The maître 'd greeted us and didn't even seem to notice the rags I was wearing, or how I smelled if it came to that. I knew I smelled like last week's fish dinner, but not a peep out of him.
I wasn't stupid. Clearly the woman had influence and he wasn't messin' with her choice of dinner companions. Finally, seated, Kong disappeared leaving me to the tender mercies of my captress.
"What would you like?" she said, smiling.
"Look, lady, I don't know what this is all about, but it's getting cold outside, and I gotta get home—back," I said.
"We can talk about that on a full stomachs, okay," she said.
"Okay, but in case there was any doubt in your mind, I'm a little short on funds," I said.
"It's on me," she said. I looked at the fucking menu and it was actually in fucking French! She saw my confusion, and giggled lightly.
"May I order for us?" she said. I nodded. I was becoming very confused. "Nothing to fancy, okay," I said. "I don't do escargot."
"Agreed," she said. She ordered in French. The waiter, who had been standing there since Kong had beat a retreat—in fear of me no doubt—noted the order and headed off to do his duty. A carafe of burgundy was placed in front of us, and damned if a tray of crackers and caviar didn't appear thirty seconds later.
I had done some pickup labor over the course of the last year, and every dime I'd made added together would not have been able to pay for the lunch that was apparently being prepared for us at that very minute.
We nibbled on the caviar and crackers, and she made a few small, and singularly unsuccessful, attempts to get me to feel at my ease. The food came. Hamburgers and fries. "Thank God," I said aloud. She giggled again.
I looked her over as we ate. Maybe forty-five, intelligent. Beautiful, as I'd noticed earlier; and mysterious. I was stuffed. I wiped my mouth on the expensive blanket sized napkin.
"Is that a birthmark?" she said finally.
"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything," I said. She just stared and smiled. I looked askance at her.
"You don't remember me do you," she said.
"No," I said. "I know I'd remember."
"Well, you'd be wrong then. We did meet. We even spent the night together. It was years ago," she said.
"Look lady, I ain't much, but I got a little pride left, not much but a little. I know for a fact that I have never walked in the kind of circles you walk in. We never met."
"Hear me out," she said. "Twenty years ago, you found me in a doorway freezing my ass off. You fed me, gave a place to stay for the night, and then..."
She smiled broadly. "You do remember. I'm surprised you remember my name. And for the record, I have never forgotten yours, Darnell Lamm with two m's. Sorry I ran out on you that day. I mean after you gave me the money. But, I was still very confused and wary. No excuse, I know, but I was taking care of me, then. Things are different now," she said.
"Clearly," I said.
The ice broken, we talked for two hours straight. She got my story and I got hers.
She owned the damn restaurant we were eating in, that one and fifty-seven others just like it. She'd used the money I'd given her to buy some clothes, gotten herself a job at an insurance agency, listened, invested in the market in the good 'ole days and made a killing, actually several killings, and then got out.
The restaurant business was good, and she had a talent for choosing good managers and so had prospered. Her places of business were located in half a dozen Mid-Western states.
She'd seen me by accident one day, a few months earlier, as I came out of one of her restaurants, after having worked their sculling dishes and doing general cleanup for meals and a few bucks. My birthmark was the tipster. She tried to catch me, but I was lost to her before she could find me. She'd put Kong out there looking for me. He'd finally gotten lucky and seen me digging for produce at the market just yesterday. They'd made plans and decided to shanghai me today.
"Look, Darnell, you helped me, so I'm helping you. I owe you four hundred bucks plus interest. I want you to get some clothes and a place. Then, show up here at the Chez Robards on Monday. You'll have a good job waiting for you. I owe you. Okay?" she said.
"Look," I said, "I would like to get my money back but..."
"Please, Darnell, accept my help. Don't let your male ego get in the way of this hand up. I really need to help you," she said.
I had to hand it to her. She had hit on the one argument I couldn't gainsay. My fucked up ego had got me where I was, and it was time I accepted that little reality and took a chance on getting myself out of the damnable hole I was in.
"Okay," I said. "Beggars can't be choosers, and a job is what I really do need. I'll do a good job for you too; I promise you that."
She smiled broadly. "I know you will, Darnell," she said. "She pushed an envelope across the table to me.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Your $400 plus twenty years interest," she said. "If you like Kong can drop you at an apartment building I took the liberty of arranging for you. I think it'll fit your needs."
I nodded. "Okay, thanks. I mean it," I said. I began to tear up for the first time in twenty years.
She covered my hand with hers. "Darnell, it'll be all right. It'll be a little bit strange at first, I'm sure, but you'll be fine. Okay?"
"Yeah," I said, beginning to blubber.
The job was cook's assistant: ten bucks an hour. I learned the ins and outs of the kitchen fairly quickly and the rest of the business piecemeal as I went along. I was determined to do a good job and not embarrass myself. Plus I wanted to more than earn the $400 a week the job paid me. I got a small cut of the tips on my shift too; that added another twenty to thirty a week extra to my check.
The apartment she'd set me up in was small. It reminded me of the old place I'd had when I'd found her that night twenty years before. Nothing fancy, but serviceable. Oh, and the envelop she pushed across the table to me? It had $2,000 in it: my $400 plus $80 interest for each of the twenty years. She wasn't being extravagant, but she was being fair; I appreciated that. If she were only obtainable, I would love to have been able to take her back to Ohio and rub her in Jenna's face. That would have been the crowning achievement of my entire miserable existence. But, delusions of grandeur that extravagant were not to even be contemplated. I wondered though, who her lover, husband, fiancé, whoever was.
Cal Whitley was my boss. He was a genuine chef, not just some fairly talented cook. He'd studied Culinary Arts in New York many years before and had even done a stint at Delmonico's in the early eighties. I'd been working at the CR for almost nine months before I saw Carmela again. It was a strange meeting.
"Darnell, someone out front wants to see yuh," said Cal.
"Me?" I said.
"Yeah, go on, I'll cover," said Cal. I wiped my hands off and headed toward the front. It was 11:00AM, the breakfast crowd had already cut country and we were getting ready for the lunch bunch.
I rounded the counter where the register was and saw her. She looked fantastic. "Carmela, you look great," I blurted, then bit my tongue. She was the boss and I didn't want to mess with her or make her feel weird.
She smiled brightly. "Thank you, Darnell, a woman needs to hear that once in a while," she said.
"Yeah, well if you're not hearing it enough, shoot your husband," I said. Okay, I was fishing.
"I'm not married, Darnell, but thank you again," she said. "Are you busy?"
"Well, I mean, no. I mean there's the lunch crowd gonna be here soon. I mean you know," I said.
"Well, I'm the boss, and I'm giving you the rest of the day off," she said.
"I'm taking you to lunch, but not here. I want to talk to you. Would that be all right?" she said.
"Well, of course, but I have to tell, Cal. I'm kinda leaving him in the lurch. I mean..."
"I've taken care of that. Cal will be all right. His wife's coming in to help him. She used to work here. She was your predecessor before she decided to go to school," she said.
"Oh, okay," I said. "Sure then."
Kong, a.k.a. Albert drove us to small bar and grill on the edge of town. The ride took seventeen minutes. I know because I kept looking at my new forty dollar watch. Not a word was spoken between us. Every once in a while, this beautiful woman would look at me and smile. I couldn't meet her eyes for any length of time; well, I was nervous; I felt like a teenager on his first date.
We pulled into the parking lot and Albert let us out of the back seat.
We headed inside of the semi-darkened, overly cool, bistro.
We took a booth against the far wall. A girl approached with menus. "You can order for us this time," said Carmela.
I looked askance at her, but she just waited for me to make the decision. "Two burgers, no fries," I said. "Oh, and a couple of light beers." The girl nodded, noted it all down, and disappeared.
"Good choices," said Carmela. "I guess you're wondering why I asked you here today."
"That would be close to being true," I said. "It's been a while. Months actually. I wondered if you were still around. But—but—it's none of my business. I mean I didn't mean..."
"Please, Darnell, relax. Okay. You're a very special guy to me. You don't have to treat me like I'm queen of the May or something," she said, still smiling all too happily.
"Uh—Carmela, you're clearly very successful and I'm just a cook's helper. A good one though, I hasten to add. Plus, you're super beautiful, and if I were any more average than I am, they'd study me," I said.
She laughed out loud now. "Yes, you are a very good employee, Darnell. I've gotten the reports. And, as for being average looking; well, that's in the eye of the beholder.
"Darnell, I have left you alone these months because I knew you had to get your bearings. You were pretty much a mental train wreck when I found you. I know what that's like. I knew you needed time. I hope I've given you enough time. Can I ask, how are you; I mean really," she said.
I leaned back in the seat. My hands dropped to my side. I looked at her. It was a true Kodak moment. "Okay, I guess. I keep going back over what happened to me. But, I feel—I guess in control of my life more than before. That's all thanks to you," I said.
"Do you still love her?" she said. "I mean after all of this time."
"No. Frankly, I want revenge. But, I know that's just a pipe dream. Hell, I don't even live in Ohio anymore. If she knew where and what I'd been these past fifteen years. Well, she'd have a good laugh at my expense, her and her lover. Heck she's probably married to the asshole," I said.
She looked at me strangely. "I have more than one business, Darnell. This one, the restaurants is my favorite; but I have several others. I do quite well, but I remain a private person. I don't go out much, and I move around pretty much incognito. It's how I prefer it," she said.
"You travel in an awfully fancy car, driven by a very obvious bodyguard to be trying to be incognito," I said.
She looked serious. "Albert is there because my ex has tried to hurt me. It's been a while since he last tried, but he's out there, and well..." she didn't finish.
"Jesus!" I said. "What about the cops! Is there anything I can do?" I felt like an idiot saying that. She obviously had the resources to protect herself without the assistance of a cook's helper.
She reached across the table and touched my cheek. "That's so sweet," she said.
"I have him under surveillance. He's tried to mess with me and my life since the divorce three years ago," she said.
"Surveillance?" I said.
"Yes, I felt I needed to keep an eye on him, and I have. The interesting thing is that the PI I hired to do the job was so expensive; that after a while, I decided to buy the agency. Cost a pretty penny too, but not as much as around the clock protection. I still have costs of course, but I make a profit from the company and now it pays for itself and then some. The PI, Howard, is my employee now as are all of his old employees, all five of them: two other PI's and three clerical staff.
"Anyway, I hope you don't mind, but I checked up on you ex," she said. "Nothing obvious or especially intrusive," she said.
I sat bolt upright but said nothing. She smiled. "She did marry the—asshole," she said; "his name is Melvin Goode."
Well, I finally knew the name of the asswipe! "They divorced two years ago. They have a child, a small boy, age five I think. She caught him cheating and gave him his walking papers.
"I checked him out too. He's not really that bad a guy, but he can't keep it in his pants. But, I guess you know all about that. He does visit the kid every month; he has visitation every third Saturday," said Carmela. "But, he's unemployed and doesn't help much monetarily."
"Jesus!" I said.
"She works now. Same job you had at one time as I recall, well, almost. She works for a supermarket. She's a checker," she said.
"So, she's gotten over me for sure," I said. "As if that was any kind of problem for her."
"Actually, she talks about you from time to time," said Carmela. "The good 'ole days she calls them."
"The PI got her to talk about me?" I said, incredulous.
"No, I did. I own the store she works at; well, I have half ownership. I bought in when they hired her. The store was going under. I had my management team put a plan for its salvation together, presented it to Henry Wilson, the then sole owner; and, he bought into it," she said.
"Carmela! Why! I mean you—you didn't—you didn't need the store; we both know that," I said. This whole thing was getting very confusing.
"Because I love you," she said, quite matter-of-factly.
"Huh?" I felt numb, stupid—no, numb and stupid. "Huh?"
"You heard me. I have since the beginning. But you were married when I came back to claim you. I didn't check up on you again, figuring you were still married, that is until I saw you that day coming out the back of one of my places here in Indiana. The rest as they say in the parlance, is history.
"So, will you marry me?" she said.
No one, and I mean but no one, in the storied history of man, had ever been as stunned as I was at that moment. But, I recovered nicely. I got down on my knees. "Carmela will you do me the honor of marrying me?" I said, ignoring her proposal.
"Yes, dear Darnell, I will," she said smiling down at me. All of a sudden there was clapping all around us in the half filled bistro. I took her hand in mine and kissed it. I smiled, stood and bowed to my audience. I pulled her up from her chair and kissed her very gently and lovingly. The clapping achieved new heights.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in conversation at her place, an amazing condo on the eighteenth floor of a downtown office building. She had maid service because her busy schedule did not allow for homemaker time.
"Okay, so you've been spying on me for months," I said smirking. "You know how unsettling that is? A man gets to have some secrets doesn't he?"
"Hmm, I don't know about that," she said. "I may just decide to keep you on a short leash." She was giggling.
"Carmela, on a serious note, why did you buy that store, really?" I said. "I mean, she divorced me and married someone else, and I don't want anything to do with her."
"Darnell, for one thing the store is showing a profit now, and Mr. Wilson is more than grateful. He handles operations, and my staff handles PR and accounting.