Benjamin tiptoed his way out of the office and across the cafeteria like a spy working on a critical mission. He turned a corner, glancing furtively about when, out of nowhere, a voice called his name just as he reached the exit.
“You coming to the happy hour?”
He straightened, rolled his eyes and turned to see who’d caught him making his grand escape. It was Victor, the accountant, sitting on a chair waiting by the door. In Benjamin’s opinion, no one important.
“Nah, not tonight,” he replied, leaning against the wall.
Years ago, Benjamin would have been the first to meticulously organize these happy hours and most team lunches. So much so that his colleagues nicknamed him “Party Benji.”
“Anything to get out of the office and have a good time,” he used to tell his colleagues.
Nowadays, Benjamin vanished the moment his work day was done.
Victor studied Benjamin’s face and offered, “It’d be fun. When was the last time that you -?”
Benjamin pushed away from the wall, determined to leave now that the situation had been assessed. He made his way to the doorway and looked back at Victor, uninterested, “My cousin is in town for the weekend. He and his wife are coming over for dinner tonight. You know, fancy dinner and all. I’ll be meeting her for the first time.”
That was a lie, a white one but a lie nonetheless. Benjamin hadn’t hosted anything or been invited for dinner at a friend’s place in over two years. Hanging out in public places made his anxiety turn to paranoia so he stayed home instead.
“Bring them along. We won’t mind.” Victor insisted as he cracked his fingers. “Even my wife joins us from time to time.”
Benjamin kept silent.
“What are you cooking anyway?”
“O –Ortobello pasta.”
“Portobello pasta, you mean?”
“Yes,” Benjamin replied. He’d never been much of a cook and he wasn’t sure if Portobello were vegetables or pasta but he had heard that word before and went along with his story. “It’s a family recipe from my mother. Maybe next time tough.” He headed outside at a quick pace to end the interrogation. Getting caught and then getting away was more exhilarating than he’d thought. He turned back towards Victor, thankful for the challenge and waved him goodbye by lifting two fingers.
The air was cold and the sky was turning grey. The diminishing light and bone chilling wind made finding his car keys in his long black blazer a struggle. He fumbled as he walked towards his car but once he found them, he clicked on the button to start the engine and turn on the heater. The motor roared as he set foot on the gas and on to his weekly Friday ritual.
He marveled at how Victor had caught him in his daring escape but he couldn’t be bothered by that. Just like every Friday evening, he dialed the number. The phone rang six times before going to voicemail.
“Good day,” she said. “You’ve reached the Miller home. Please leave a message and we’ll call you back when we feel like it.” A short pause followed. “If you don’t hear from us, it’s because we didn’t feel like it.” A symphony of bells could be heard as she giggled to the end of the recording. When he heard that he hung up. That was the voice he’d missed for the last two years. That voicemail was the closest thing he found to remember her by. Old photographs of her brought memories but that voice on the phone brought him to tears every time.
And so, the ritual continued. First stop was the florist three blocks away from the office. Same place, same time every Friday night. An old Colombian woman named Leona greeted him with a bouquet of thirteen roses. Claire once told Benjamin that she learned during a vacation in France that an even number of roses in a bouquet brought bad luck. Benjamin remembered that and from that moment on, he always bought her thirteen roses.
“Evening Mr. Miller,” Leona welcomed him with a large smile as she stood behind the cash register. “Your roses are ready Senor.” She left the flowers on the counter and counted them out loud in front of Benjamin to confirm the number was exact.
He picked the roses up with his left hand and buried his face in them to take in the full aroma while he retrieved forty dollars from his pocket. Like every other time, he gratefully handed her the money and told her to keep the change.
She grabbed the money and grinned — “Have a nice weekend Senor.”
“You too,” Benjamin replied before heading out of the store.
The leaves had started changing color days before signaling the change of the seasons. Benjamin sat comfortably in his car to admire the colors of fall.
The highway was quiet for a Friday night, which is what he preferred anyway. Cars drove by as he set up cruise control to 110 km/hour. Despite his car being high tech, the glovebox still opened by itself when he drove over bumps. This time the stack of CDs he’d stashed in there fell out. One of them caught his attention. It had his initials in cursive. After sliding it into the car’s CD player, he remembered exactly what it was. The second he heard the opening, he knew it was the first mixed tape Claire made him when they started dating. A mishmash of oldies, rap and death metal songs — tunes he hadn’t heard in years still sounded familiar and he surprised himself by humming along, remembering almost every word.
He’d lost track of time listening to the music. When he looked around he realized he’d gotten off the highway, there were no more lights guiding the way. It was one of those one lane roads surrounded by sandy steep ditches. Red and yellow lights blinked ahead of him in the distance. A red mini car followed him, a bit too close, he thought. He stepped on the gas to increase the distance between his car and the tailgater.
A heavy metal song about drugs came on and he rolled down the windows and sang along at the top of his lungs. It reminded him of how he used to go on road trips with Claire, he remembered their last trip to Boston. This was as close to a happy memory than anything else he’d experienced in the last two years. He sang himself ragged, singing and screaming at times.
The blinking lights he’d observed earlier grew closer. He’d driven this route the past two years and hadn’t realized that there was a restaurant in the area. Next to it was a large sign hanging from metal chains swinging from side to side. It read “Pops Burgers 4ever.” There were more cars parked there than it appeared from afar. He was distracted for a second as he tilted his head to look into the restaurant. As he turned his eyes back to the road he saw a white dove flying straight toward the windshield. He lost control of the steering wheel and tried hard to regain control but it was too late to hit the break. The red car behind slammed into him, caused him to fishtail and dragged him along with it into the ditch just beyond the restaurant. When everything settled and it was safe to open his eyes, he saw white smoke was coming out of both hoods.
He carefully stretched his limbs to make sure nothing was broken, and then closed his eyes in relief.
An attractive woman, maybe Asian he thought, knocked on the window.
“Are you ok? What happened out there?” she shouted, looking back to the street to see what might have caused him to drive off.
Benjamin opened the door, unbuckled and slowly got out. “I’m ok. I, I saw a –” He stopped himself from finishing the sentence, he thought about how foolish it would sound to tell a stranger that he thought he’d seen a white dove flying straight toward him. “I saw something race across the street.”
She frowned, with a look of confusion, tilted her head and said, “I didn’t see anything.”
“Of course you didn’t, you were too busy riding my ass!” he retorted. He bent and looked into the car toward the passenger seat to check on the bouquet. The flowers looked like they hadn’t moved.
“I’m so sorry. I saw your break lights and before I knew it, I felt the car driving straight into yours and then we were in the ditch,” she said, turning her head toward her vehicle to evaluate the damage done. The Jaguar icon fell off the hood of her car and there was a large dent over the headlights. She exhaled and whispered to herself “It could be worse, I guess.”
He looked over to the Honda and realized that the damage to is car had been worse, he’d sustained the brunt of the damage. He ran his fingers through his hair and yelled, “Oh god! How am I supposed to get there now?” He kicked the front wheel of the car out of frustration.
Unphased by his visible frustration, the woman extended her hand, “I’m Keiko, with a “K”.
Benjamin looked around and then looked back at her. Did this woman really think that they could be friends like nothing happened? He guessed so. He took her hand and said, “Benjamin with –uh –a “B”.”
“So, Benjamin, let me call my insurance company to sort this out. I’ll call a tow truck to get us out of here as well.”
As you should he thought to himself but only said, “I’ll call my insurance too.” He mumbled a few choice words as he walked to the front of his car to make his call.
Waiting for someone to answer, Keiko stood and listened to his conversation. She giggled at Benjamin yelling at his phone, calling the person on the other end all sorts of animal names without ever dropping obscenities. The scene was almost theatrical.
Fifteen minutes later, Benjamin hung up and sat by the side of the road waiting for Keiko to finish her call.
She hung up and jogged over to him, “I’ve got good news! My insurance will take care of both of us. As for the tow truck, well, the lady said it would take up to three hours for someone to show up. Busy night, apparently.”
“Seriously? Alright then.” He’d felt a drop of something on his neck but wasn’t quite sure what it was. He reached over to see if it was a raindrop when he saw the raindrops begin to fall.
Keiko put her purse over her head and said, “I’m hungry. Want to go have dinner while we wait?”
“No, thanks. I have something to do.” He unlocked the door of his driver’s seat and again looked at the bouquet.
“It’s raining and there’s nothing around here for another two or three miles,” she said, trying to convince him.
Benjamin slid his body over the driver’s seat to reach the bouquet of roses. As he grabbed it, he thought that perhaps Keiko was right. The place he was heading to would still be open hours later. In the pouring rain, the roses would be drenched by the time he got there and he’d have to throw them out. It couldn’t be helped, he’d have to show up late. What harm would it cause if he showed up late anyway? No one was keeping score. He dropped the flowers on the backseat, grabbed his umbrella under the passenger’s seat and slid out of the car. “I’ll join you,” he said.
The parking lot reeked of garbage and rotten food. Benjamin heard Keiko grimace at the smell as she led the way to the door. He hoped the food was better than the smell. His first thought was that the place looked like it hadn’t been renovated in decades. The walls were an orange and brownish parquetry. That pattern was mainly used on floors but the person who designed this place marched to the beat of his own drum. The place was packed. Benjamin was surprised considering the number of cars in the parking lot. Posters of celebrities from the fifties covered the walls and a jukebox in the corner next to an ATM machine played a Johnny Cash song — something about murdering his wife.
A waitress in a wheelchair greeted them at the door, “Good evening, for two?”
“Yes,” Keiko answered.
“Follow me.” The waitress grabbed two menus off the counter and led them to a booth table for two overlooking the highway.
As Benjamin continued to take in the place their waitress introduced herself, “My name is Ginette and I’ll be your waitress tonight. Anything I can start you with?”
Keiko was quick to answer, “A bottle of house wine, please.”
Benjamin glanced at the blackboard behind where someone had written the daily and asked for the first thing he saw. “Actually, I’ll get the BLT sandwich. I guess I am hungry after all.” His eyes crinkled at the corners.
“And you, ma’am?” Ginette asked. “You going to let your man eat alone?” She clearly hadn’t assessed the situation.
“No, no we’re not –” Benjamin tried to correct the waitress.
Before he finished his sentence, Keiko replied. “Huh, no, no –” She hunched over and flipped through the menu until she found what she wanted. Like a child, she looked at Ginette and pointed at the image of a chicken breast with fries and veggies. “Here’s what I want.”
“Will do.” Ginette rolled away.
Before Benjamin could ask why she’d ordered the wine she said, “I just rammed my Jag into your bumper, the least I can do is share a bottle of wine with you.”
“You didn’t have to,” Benjamin replied. He thought to himself, All I need is for this lady to get drunk and ram her Jag into more helpless bumpers tonight.
“So, what do you do?” she asked, moving the ketchup bottle away from the center of the table to look at Benjamin.
The last thing he needed was this lady knowing his personal business, he squinted his eyes at her and looked away as he answered, “I work in a tiny office with numbers. Nothing very exciting. Let me tell you that much.” He folded his arms across his chest while directing his attention to the ceiling.
He wondered why this stranger sitting across from him needed to know what he did for a living? He certainly didn’t care how she paid her rent. Her overly friendly approach started to make him feel uncomfortable. He was still upset about the car accident and hoped she’d take it more seriously, not order bottles of wine to share with her victim.
After a long silent pause, she said, “I just got back from Spain.”
“Oh, um, Nice,” he responded to the unsolicited information.
While they waited for their food Keiko kept trying to strike up a conversation but the more she talked, the longer he stalled. He sat there, leaving more silence before his responses. His answers were short and firm and slightly abrupt. He hoped she could tell that he wished he could be anywhere else but here, sitting with her in this beat up restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
He wasn’t fooling her. There was sadness in his voice. She could tell he wasn’t interested in sharing his story. She followed his eyes to see what he was staring at so intensely. It was the evening news. Something about the Dow Jones dropping for a second week in a row and how the price of gas will affect the tourism industry in America.
Again, trying to get into his head, she asked, “Hard times these days, huh?”
Benjamin took a sip of his water and responded, “Yep.”
She might as well be talking to a wall based on that conversation. She tried entertaining herself by going through the menu but couldn’t help but ask, “Where were you headed so far outside the city? As far as I know there’s nothing but bears and sand around here.”
“And this restaurant,” he answered with a half-smile.
She chuckled. “Right.”
He took another sip of his water and gave her a half truth, “Just visiting an old friend.”
“Your friend must be happy to see you. It must be quite lonely living so far away from everything. I know I could never live where going to the grocery store almost feels like an expedition.”
His eyes remained focus on the television screen which someone changed to a sports channel. Benjamin never cared much for sports but it was easier than looking Keiko in the eye and having a meaningful conversation.
Keiko saw the reflection of the television screen on the window and asked “You like hockey?”
Again, not fooling her. He rolled his eyes and said, “Not really, no.”
“What do you like to do when you’re not driving in the middle of nowhere, or watching the news?” she asked, pushing back a chunk of her hair behind her left ear.
Benjamin noticed her habit from the corner of his eye. It reminded him of Claire and how she would often do the same thing to keep her hair from falling down into her eyes. That forgotten quirk about Claire made him smile as he turned to the conversation, “I, uh, I –”
“Chicken for the lady and BLT for the gentleman.” Ginette lay the plates on each side and filled both glasses with wine. “Enjoy.”
“Thank you,” Keiko replied as Benjamin nodded at the waitress before she rolled away.
“I’m sorry for my bad manners, I forgot to ask you what you did for a living.” Benjamin pursed his lips and threw two fries in his mouth.
“Oh –I paint,” She replied.
“That’s unusual. You do that full-time? Anything you painted I would know.”
“Well, I, uh, stuff. I just got back from Spain where I participated in an exhibit at the art museum in Madrid, “The Museo Nacional del Prado”.
“Huh, that’s something,” he responded, not knowing what this meant in terms of work. “Spain, huh?” He repeated to try to hide his ignorance.
A man wearing a blue uniform with colorful patches over his knees stepped foot in the restaurant and shouted. “Anyone here call for a tow truck?”
Benjamin and Keiko both raised their hand at the same time as the man walked over to their table. “I’m Emilio.” He grabbed a chair and sat between the two. “I got good news and bad news.”
“Good news is I got both of your cars out of that ditch.”
“Thank you, sir,” Keiko said, as she cut her chicken breast into small pieces, and removed all the fried skin.
“What is the bad news then?” Benjamin enquired.
“The Jag is fine but the Honda, on the other hand, I need to bring to the garage. It wouldn’t be safe to drive it. I can drive you back though.”
Right when Emilio mentioned the state of his car, Benjamin thought about the bouquet of roses left in the backseat. He hunched over, sighed and devoured the rest of his BLT. In two years, he hadn’t missed a week of bringing flowers to his wife’s grave. No reason was good enough not to.
Keiko dug in her purse and pulled out a business card. “If you ever want to go for a drink or attend one of my exhibits. What are you doing tomorrow night? I am organizing a small exhibit with local paint –”
“I can’t. I –uh –I have plans.”
She held the card out to him and blinked her eyes, “It will last five days.”
“I can’t. It’s just that –”
“Oh god, I’m so sorry. You’re married? Is that it? I always fall for married men. What’s wrong with me? I noticed you had no ring on your left hand so I thought that maybe –” She blushed like a young girl caught red-handed stealing candies at a convenience store.
He reached for her hand, “Keiko, it’s not that.”
“You don’t have to explain Benjamin. Dinners on me, it’s the least I could do after I caused the accident.”
“Thank you,” Benjamin replied with a half-smile.
Emilio sat there watching them fumble over their shared misunderstandings. All he expected to do was drive the client home and then his car to the garage. He hadn’t expected to watch this poor woman’s advances turned down at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
“Let’s go,” Benjamin said to Emilio as he shook Keiko’s hand before walking out.
As he and Emilio walked out of the restaurant, he asked him. “Actually could you stop at the graveyard before driving back?”
“Huh, sure,” Emilio said.
Benjamin unlocked his car hooked to the back of the toe truck and grabbed the bouquet of roses. They both entered the truck and Emilio put on some Mexican folk music.
Minutes later, Emilio parked right in front of the gate of the cemetery and watched Benjamin step out of the car as he took a whiff of the flowers. Emilio decided to walk around the graveyard while waiting. He approached Benjamin and looked at the tombstone.
“How long has it been?”
“I’m sorry man.”
Benjamin sighed, eyes fixed on the monument.
“I know it’s not my business but are you going to call back that woman?”
“No,” Benjamin replied, downplaying his decision.
“You’re right Emilio. It’s none of your business.”
The ride back lasted an hour long and nothing else was said during the trip. Emilio parked in front of Benjamin’s house and turned off the engine. “So, sir, the garage will call you tomorrow to confirm the timeline and the cost. Have a good night, sir.”
“Sounds good. You too.” Benjamin shook the man’s hand before stepping out of the truck.
Benjamin checked the mailbox out of habit before going into his house. He sat on the couch and turned on the television. The hockey game was still playing with five minutes left. Something happened in that restaurant. Found himself thinking about Keiko, he hadn’t thought of anyone other than Claire in two years. What was different about her, he wondered? The buzzer brought him back to reality. He grabbed the remote to change the game to a news channel and pressed the mute button. He lay on the sofa and tried reading the headlines but dozed off instead.
Minutes later, the phone rang. Half asleep he reached over to the phone on the coffee table.
“Hi Love,” the voice said.
“Who is this?” he responded still groggy, too exhausted to put any thought into figuring out who the person on the other line could be.
“It’s Claire. Your wife.”
He dropped the phone as tears started rolling down his face. The light on the phone was red meaning someone was on the line but the number marked unknown.
“Love, you there? Hello?” the voice asked.
He dried his tears with his shirt and grabbed the phone with the other hand. “But how do I know it’s you?”
“It’s me, believe me. This morning you had one toast with peanut butter, the other with cheez whiz. You didn’t want to go to your happy hour –Again. You got into a small car accident when you thought you’d seen a dove.”
The voice kept talking but his mind went blank. These things she told him that no one else would have known gave him shivers. He swallowed his saliva and closed his eyes. “You’re calling about the flowers? I’m sorry I was late.”
“Benji, I’m not calling about the flowers. You brought me enough flowers already that I have enough that will last me a lifetime.”
“But I love you and I always will. I could never love anyone else the way I love you.”
“Try Benji, try. You need to live again. Remember “Love me forever and I’ll promise to stay.” She recited a line of one of the first poems he sent her when they were still in college. “This is why I’m calling. Because you love me doesn’t mean you can’t love anyone else.”
“I am gone now. Leave our story in the past where it fits perfectly. You’ve loved me like no one else ever did. I know you have it in you. You have so much more to give, don’t keep it all for yourself Benji. Good night.”
“But –” She hung up before he could finish his sentence.
He placed two fingers on each eye to make sure he wasn’t dreaming because he’d never had a phone conversation with his deceased wife before. A strange noise came from the window like something was trying to break in. He scanned the view outside and saw a white dove sitting on a branch at eye level. The dove looked him in the eye and winked before flying away. None of it made sense so he shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut. When he opened them he saw a white feather on the branch.
The words he’d heard Claire say moments ago resonated in his mind. All of it was true. Claire was right. Benjamin was breathing but far from living. The love he once gave her freely was still there inside him. He glanced at his watch and it marked nine fifteen. It was still early enough to start a phone conversation. He fished his pockets and found Keiko’s business card. It was colorful with a phone number and an email address. Nothing made any sense but love had this way of showing up when it was least expected.
Benjamin sat on the couch, flipping the card back and forth a couple of times before making up his mind once and for all. He grabbed the phone, dialed the number on the card. His heart beat faster and faster after every ring. Just like that time he phoned Claire many years before to ask her on a date.
Mathieu grew up in Ottawa, Paris and Washington, D.C. He now lives in the suburbs of Ottawa, Ontario and works in Communications. He is a big fan of European TV series, classic rock and exotic food. He is an avid reader of Noir fiction and poetry. His work has recently been published in Fabula Argentea.