At 1:30 pm on Saturday afternoon Carol was walking down main street. It was a beautiful spring day, Carol was happy and carefree, which was the word she used mentally to describe her mood to herself. She strode along the sidewalk almost skipping, so light was her step, swinging her blue shopping bag back and forth in rhythm with her legs. If she could whistle, she would be whistling but that was a trick Carol was unable to master. Her brothers all whistled, her father whistled incessantly, annoyingly out of tune which may hint as to why Carol refrained from trying. Besides, pursing her lips like that as if she were begging for a kiss, especially in public, was just not lady-like.
Whistle or no whistle, a tune was in order for a carefree walk on such a fine day, so she mentally hummed a tune in her head which set her mouth in a whimsical smile. Her lips, with just the slightest hint of ruby red gloss, were perfectly shaped, not too fat, not too thin with the perfect little ‘V’ shape under her nose. Carol knew that her lips were her best facial feature and she spent more time and money tending to them than most women spent on their hair. Her nose sat regally above these near perfect red lines, like a guardian eagle perched high up in a tree. Her eyes, securely hidden behind the dark screen of her shades, were disproportionally small next to her nose and no amount of makeup could amend nature’s imbalance.
Carol had long since overcome her adolescent resentments and anger at her imperfect features and had craftily compensated for their shortcomings with style and grace. Her hair was carefully styled for the oval shape of her face and artfully framed her ears which sat perfectly balanced on each side of her head. Well chosen outfits completed the impression of elegance and poise as men turned their heads and women appraised. She smiled at familiar faces as they walked past and stopped to exchange a few words with a couple of old friends that she had not seen in a while.
Carol’s day was bright with her hopes and her life, nothing could change the feeling that everything was right. Her eyes rose up to take in the clear blue of the sky then fell down to the ground at the sound of a passing baby’s cry. She looked at the mother who, with a phone in her hand, was ignoring her child scrunched awkwardly in its pram. The sight of the mother and her phone set Carol’s mind off on one of her increasingly frequent mental side-trips. This one involved evolution and the ever-present smart phone at the end of everybody’s arms. She was so embroiled in her sci-fi fantasy involving cyborgs and robotic implants that she failed to notice the long, tan colored hood of a vintage convertible as it pulled to the curb next to her.
“Get in,” said the smiling man from the driver’s seat. “Let’s go for a drive, have some lunch, my treat.”
Startled out of her reverie, Carol stopped walking and looked first at the car which was old but appeared brand new, all polished and shining and a convertible too. Then she looked at the man, half turned in his seat, with a smile on his face and a perfect row of gleaming white teeth.
“Tom,” she said in surprise. “I didn’t recognize the car.”
“I just got it today. Isn’t it cool? Come on get in. You’ll just love these old leather seats. And besides a convertible is just perfect for you. You were made for it and it was made for you.”
Carol paused for a moment’s debate; she hadn’t finished all her shopping but most of it could wait. She opened the door and slid on the seat, careful to keep her dress over her knees and his arms out of reach.
Tom was the only son of the local dentist, Dr. Keith, hence all the money and the gleaming white teeth. Carol and he had grown up together and dated in high school before they went off to college, he to be a dentist and she to learn to teach. Standing just over six feet tall, Tom was blessed, his mother thought cursed, with classic, All-American good looks, the epitome of a high school quarterback except his father would not let him play football for fear of injuries and potential damage to his expensively perfect teeth. Tom was on the swim team which gave him the broad shoulders above the requisite narrow waist that made many a female heart flutter no matter what their age as he strolled around the country club pool with a nonchalant look on his face.
His eyes were brown, the same color as his hair which was always well-groomed and just the right length. The only blemish that nature had left was a small dark mole on Tom’s left cheek but most of the women thought it added a certain vulnerable charm. His mouth was the least appealing feature on young Tom’s face. Where Carol’s lips were near perfect and curved in just the right places, Tom’s lips were thin and at their edges slid down to a sneer. Whether this was a physical accident of nature or an affectation, a product of his attitude and social status, no one could say.
At first, back in school, Carol thought the sneer was cute, reminding her of Elvis, her parents were big fans. Later, after they’d been dating for a while, Carol saw a whole different side as Tom’s insecurities made him superior and cruel when he made fun of her looks in front of the school. After that day and after the pain and the tears all Carol could see was the disdain in his eyes and the mock in his sneer. Yet she knew that underneath it all, behind the superior façade, was a scared little boy pretending to be a man, trying to please a father who could not be pleased.
Half of the town breathed a sigh of relief when Tom left for college somewhere far to the East. They groaned when eventually he returned to work with his father, the only dentist for miles around. Dr. Keith said his son would soon take over his practice so that he could move to Florida and play golf while his new wife taught Pilates. Tom’s mother who was the only one of the family that was liked around town, fought and died of cancer when he was at college. It was no surprise at all when a year later, Tom’s father married his assistant who’d been on the sidelines just waiting. The whole town knew they’d been messing around.
Tom was the one who was affected the most. The anger and hurt shone in his eyes as he grappled with the hole left behind by his mother’s death. She was the one that knew him the best, she cradled his weakness and bolstered his strength, and tried in vain to steer him away from his destiny, to be just like his father, vain, selfish and mean. On the day of her funeral, Tom tore through the town, drinking and howling out loud as if he somehow had to justify his grief. He wanted the entire town to notice and share in his sorrow. Carol tried to hide but she was not spared when a drunk and crying Tom banged on her front door demanding to be let in. Carol, anxious for her own safety, would not come out of the house and Tom would not leave until her father called the sheriff who unceremoniously cuffed him and took him away.
Small towns are the same across the entire world, gossip is ugly and seldom forgotten. A checkbook may buy silence but never respect no matter how rich the pen. Although Tom was generally branded as a spoiled, rich brat, a large portion of the town’s population excused his behavior on account of his bereavement. Some pitied him, not for the loss of his mother, but for his loss of self-control. The sheriff gave him a warning about disturbing the peace and after the funeral Tom wisely disappeared. He was never seen in public around town until after he’d graduated and returned to join his father’s dental practice. When he finally returned, some people remarked how much he had changed but a few, like Carol, were not so convinced by Tom’s reformation and preferred to wait and watch from afar.
Brief snippets of these memories flashed through Carol’s mind as she settled into the soft leather seat of Tom’s new car. What the hell am I doing here? she asked herself as she reached for the door handle to get out of the car. But she was too late as Tom hit the gas and the car sped away from the curb. He was laughing and talking as they drove out of town, waving his right arm in the air as he talked mostly of himself. Carol shrank back with her back against the door, as far away as possible from Tom’s waving hand. She was aware of his voice, hearing only about every fourth or fifth word, the wind rushing by drowned out most of the sound.
Carol was having her own internal debate, questioning her own motives for letting down her guard and being in the car. She finally concluded that she had been in such a happy daze walking through town, the weather was perfect and she was at peace with herself and the world. Hell, you soon changed that, didn’t you girl? She thought as the car picked up speed on the open county road. She had been so distracted by her fantasies about cell phones and surprised by Tom’s sudden appearance that she had acted automatically, without thinking. One little lapse and you’re back in the hot seat, so to speak. And she giggled at her own joke. Tom mistook her laughter for her approval of something he said and dropped his floating hand onto her left shoulder and gave it a slight squeeze. Taken by surprise, Carol jumped, brushed his hand away and pushed back further into the door. As an after-thought she turned and made sure the car door was locked.
Sitting up straighter, Carol decided that she had better pay attention to what was happening and where they were going. Tom was showing off, speeding around the tight bends of the country road that followed the course of the river, and that made her nervous. It was as if they were back in high school and he was trying to impress her driving in his daddy’s new car. The car kept drifting over the double yellow lines down the center of the road and they narrowly missed side swiping an oncoming truck.
Looking around nervously, Carol knew where they were and had a pretty good idea of where Tom was headed, if he was being truthful about lunch. This last thought started a slew of panic-thoughts in her brain until, two minutes later, Tom turned into the entrance of Eloise’s, a very exclusive restaurant overlooking the river and Carol was able to relax.
Once inside the restaurant the maître de, with a dubious French accent, greeted Tom by name and title and told him his usual table was ready which turned out to be one of the best tables by the large windows overlooking the beautiful gardens leading down to the river. By the time they were seated Carol noticed she was shaking and her anger was growing. She was mad at Tom for his reckless behavior but she was more angry at herself for putting herself in such a dangerous and compromising situation. A free lunch in a good restaurant was one thing but what was the price? She knew that with people like Tom, there was always a price to be paid somewhere down the line. He was obviously pleased with himself and his smug attitude was beginning to irritate Carol especially when an older couple stopped by the table to say hello. They barely gave Carol a glance when she was introduced, making her feel like a professional escort rather than a friend. Her anger was simmering, so to cool off a little she excused herself once their orders were taken, and sought refuge in the ladies’ room where she told herself to calm down, enjoy the meal, say thank you and go home.
When she got back to the table, Tom was half-way through a martini and there was one waiting for her. “Come on, drink up. Relax a little and have fun. The sun has officially passed its highest point of orbit.” Like most drunks, Tom spoke a little too loudly with a look that was a cross between a smile and a leer.
Carol sat down and pushed her martini glass away and took a sip of water.
After a moment’s pause, Tom downed the rest of his drink in one gulp, reached across the table, grabbed her drink and said, “Don’t mind if I do.” He took a healthy swig and said “Come on Carol, I thought this would be fun. Loosen up a little, will you? I haven’t seen you in so long.”
Carol looked more closely at his eyes from across the table. They were watery and turning red making her wonder how many drinks Tom had downed before meeting her in town. She leaned forward slightly and asked, “How did you know I would come with you today?”
“What?” asked Tom, bewildered.
“When we came in, they said they had your reservation ready. How did you know I would come with you today?” Carol asked.
“Who could refuse such a great offer – me and the car and a lunch at Eloise’s?” Tom replied with his arms flung wide. “Besides, I saw you on the street and you looked like you could use a good meal.” Then he laughed out loud at the look on her face, spraying her with a mixture of martini and saliva.
Just then the waiter arrived with a bottle of white wine which Tom made a big deal of sampling before nodding his approval. Show off, thought Carol and she put her hand over her glass and said, “None for me, thank you.” And the waiter gave her a look that said he understood before he quickly walked away.
Tom took a large sip of wine and said, “Hmm, this is good. You don’t know what you’re missing.” Then he leaned back in his chair and said, “I can see you haven’t changed much. Still little Miss Prim and Proper with her nose in the air. I know a good plastic surgeon, by the way, if you ever want to get that fixed.”
That did it and he knew it. He knew her one weak spot was her nose.
“How’s your father, these days? Do you still live at home where daddy can protect you? Does he still stand in the doorway with a shotgun in his arms frightening off all the boys that come sniffing around his precious little girl?”
That one hurt. Carol’s father had died from the Covid virus three months ago and Tom should have known that but now she realized what Tom was doing and how stupidly naive she had been. This was not about friendship, remembering old times. This was about revenge. This was about getting back at Carol and her family for the humiliation on the day of his mother’s funeral. This was for embarrassing him in front of the whole town by having him arrested. This was the price. Carol stared at Tom with the sneer on his face, looking more like a rabid weasel than Elvis Presley. Scrunching the linen napkin in her right hand to stop herself from slapping him hard across his mocking mouth, she looked away from him and tried to find some composure in the well-tended gardens outside. There were a thousand things she wanted to say but none would make their way from her mind to her mouth. Her lips kept moving but no words would come out making her feel, quite literally, like a fish out of water.
“What’s the matter Miss Priss, cat got your tongue?” Tom said mockingly before he emptied the wine glass into his mouth. Carol turned to look at him again and noticed almost abstractly that the wine bottle was already almost empty and that was the last straw. There was no way that Carol was going to ride in the car with anyone who had been drinking so heavily, and she sure as hell was not going to be Tom Keith’s designated driver.
She slammed the screwed-up napkin on the table, stood up and leaned forward towards his grinning face and said, “You disgust me.” She stood up fully, grabbed her bag and turned to leave then suddenly turned back to him and said, “My father passed away three months ago and, by the way, the earth orbits the sun, not the other way ‘round…doctor.” She fairly spat out the last word with so much emphasis that people at the other tables started to look and shake their heads. She didn’t care what they thought and walked slowly, and she hoped proudly towards the front of the room.
As she neared the front door it suddenly hit her that she had no way of getting home. There were no taxis in town and Uber was unheard of. She needed to leave right now before Tom decided to make another embarrassing scene. The maître de with the bad French accent asked if, “Mademoiselle,” was alright and if he could, “Be of any assistance?” but she doubted his sincerity as much as his authenticity. She said she needed to get back to town as soon as possible but he gave a very Gallic shrug of his shoulders and turned to greet another couple who had just walked in.
Carol was desperately scrolling through her contacts list on her phone trying to find someone who could pick her up and give her a ride home. As the third call she made went straight to voice mail she made an impetuous stamp of her foot then a voice behind her said, “What’s going on here? Can I be of some help?”
Carol turned around and looked into the face of a woman she had not seen in years. After a moment of silent shock she said, “Mary-Beth, what are you doing here?”
Mary-Beth smiled and said, “Hello Carol, it’s been a long time. I work here.”
“You work here?” asked Carol, looking around.
“Well, actually I own the place,” said Mary-Beth, taking Carol’s arm and steering her towards her office.
Just then a waiter came up to say Carol’s order was ready. Mary-Beth told him to put it into a to-go box and bring it to the office, “And charge it to Dr. Keith’s account,” she added with a grin. “I was watching the two of you and was wondering how long you would last. You beat my best guess by five minutes.”
While they waited for the food order the two women got reacquainted.
“So, you’re Eloise, then? I often wondered who she was.” Carol was relaxing a little, feeling safe in the confine’s of Mary-Beth’s office.
“Yes and no,” replied Mary-Beth. “I bought the restaurant two years ago and the name came with it. The original owner was not called Eloise, either. I like to keep the name a mystery, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi to the place.”
“Ooh, listen to you, Miss la-di-da or should I say mademoiselle?” Said Carol, giving a mocking bow. “Is that guy out there really French?” she asked conspiratorially. Just then there was a knock on the door and a waiter brought in Carol’s food.
“Right,” said Mary-Beth. “Let’s get you home, come on. And to answer your question, no he is not. He’s from Trenton, New Jersey. I keep telling him to drop the accent but he claims it makes him a lot of money on tips.” She ushered Carol out of the office, locked the door and had a quiet word with the maître de who shot Carol a nasty look, then she beckoned Carol to follow her outside. Carol ran over to Tom’s car and grabbed her shopping bags from the back seat of the convertible. She thought briefly about keying the car and then had a better idea. She decided to put the to go box with her lunch in it under the passenger seat, out of sight. As drunk as he was, Tom would never see it but in a few hours he would certainly smell the salmon as it went bad in the sun.
Once they were in Mary-Beth’s small Lexus SUV and on the road, Carol told her what she had done with the food and apologized for wasting the meal. Mary-Beth cracked up laughing and thought it was a marvelous idea and then she asked, “What were you doing with that pig, in the first place?”
Carol was initially taken aback by the bluntness of Mary-Beth’s question until she remembered that her old school friend used to be well-known for speaking her mind and not mincing her words.
At twenty-eight years old, Mary-Beth Watson was two years younger than Carol. She stood five-feet four inches tall in her bare feet with a well-proportioned figure that had developed early when she and Carol had been at school together. Her noticeable bust, at an age when other girls were barely wondering about their own, drew a lot of attention, most of it negative, from both genders. The girls, out of jealousy and the boys because of ignorance. She was picked on and bullied, which is what caught Carol’s attention.
Carol, because of her lanky figure and prominent nose, also stood out and thus apart from the regular herd, making her life miserable and forcing her to spend her school days alone. Until, one day she stumbled across a group of boys and girls, all the wealthy kids who hung in their own exclusive clique, as if already preparing for life in the country club set. They were picking on young Mary-Beth of the blossoming breasts. Carol, who was older, was about to step in and break up the scene, when suddenly there was a ferocious scream and two boys and three girls were thrown to the ground.
As Carol approached the crowd the rest quickly drifted away and she tentatively approached Mary-Beth who was still snarling like a dog. Slowly, over time, the two lonely outcasts became friends. Mary-Beth came from a poor family that lived outside of town. She had two older brothers; one was in jail the other was a Marine. The boys treated her like another brother growing up and in so doing, she had learned how to fight. Her father was from Ireland, some said on the run from the Brits, and from him she inherited a quick tongue that lashed out with like a cruel hard whip. It was from her mother, however, that Mary-Beth received her two greatest gifts, her looks and her brain.
Both Carol and Mary-Beth were top of their class in their respective years which only served to further stoke the fires of their peers’ jealousy yet despite their intelligence they couldn’t be called nerds. Mary-Beth became a pitcher with a powerful right arm and Carol was a sprinter, the local track star. Carol, being older, was the first to graduate and then went off to college where she excelled with her legs and her brain. She stayed in touch with Mary-Beth for the first couple of years but once Mary-Beth graduated she just disappeared.
Carol looked at her old friend as she drove them away from the restaurant. “Comrades-in-arms,” or the CIA for short, Mary-Beth had named them when they were at school and she smiled as she remembered some of the antics they had gotten into. Mary-Beth had grown into her good looks and was quite beautiful, Carol thought, although there was hardness in her eyes that would keep people at bay. Her brown hair was short and fashionably styled, but easy to manage. Her old friend appeared to be in excellent shape which made Carol wonder how much she worked out.
Mary-Beth’s answers were curiously vague when Carol asked what she had been doing for the past ten years. Was she being evasive or her old cryptic self? she wondered, before settling on the latter. That’s Mary-Beth to a tee, thought Carol, as she smiled at another old-school memory.
“What brought you back here? I never thought you’d be the one to hang around this old town.” Carol asked, as innocently as she possibly could.
Mary-Beth flashed her a quick look, then kept her eyes on the road. There was something professional about the way that she drove, two hands on the wheel, at ten and two, and eyes fixed on the road. “My dad got sick and I had to come home. What about you? You still teaching school?”
There’s that avoidance again. Answer a question with a question, turn the focus around. Carol’s curiosity was aroused but she decided to play along for a while and answered her friend. “Well, I was up until last year. Then the pandemic hit and I just couldn’t get into virtual teaching so, as soon as I was able, I quit.” Mary-Beth did not immediately respond, so Carol asked another question. “How did you manage? Didn’t you have to close the restaurant because of the pandemic?”
“Yeah, we did. But I have some investors who kept us afloat. We took the time to redo the place, and now we’re ready to go.” Mary-Beth finished talking but never took her eyes off the road ahead. “We’re getting into town. Where can I drop you?” she asked.
“Oh, just drop me by the bank on Main. I’m parked ‘round the corner. Thank you for doing this, Mary-Beth, you got me out of a bad situation. I owe you one,” said Carol, slowly gathering all her bags together.
“You don’t owe me a thing. ‘Comrades in arms,’ remember,” said Mary-Beth smiling. She found a spot to pull over and the two of them swapped phone numbers and vowed to get together soon.
Over The Limit
The paramedics said it was the worst accident that they had seen in quite some time. The tan convertible was wrapped around the base of an old oak tree that was at least two feet in diameter. The body was found thirty feet away from the car, wrapped around a much smaller tree. The seatbelt had not been used. The victim’s head was in the river. In fact, the M.E. stated later that the real cause of death was drowning. Because of that, it was not immediately apparent that the driver had been drinking. That fact was discovered during the autopsy when the man’s blood alcohol levels were, “through the roof,” as the M.E. attested later to the investigating officer of the State Police.
The other car, a Lexus SUV, was several yards away from the convertible and almost in the river. The female driver was still in the car with her seatbelt fastened. She was not alive. From the damage to the driver’s side door of the SUV, the State Police surmised that, speeding around a blind curve, the convertible had verged across the center of the road and had T-boned the oncoming Lexus. The only thing puzzling the troopers at the scene was a piece of grilled salmon lying on the ground between the two cars.