Smoking Section

smoking cigarRawlings and I are out of town for the week, auditing a small hospital in Polk Contry. We have Fran with us. This is her first job since college and her first business trip since she started with the firm three months ago. I suspect she’s a little anxious—first time out, wants to make a good account of herself—that kind of thing. Also, she’s travelling with two married men. Not that she needs to worry about Rawlings or me, but thinking about it from her point of view, I guess you never really know what you’re going to have to deal with until it’s right there in front of you.

Rawlings is in charge. He’s got a couple of years seniority on me. He’s a little hard to get along with sometimes. In fact, he can be a real insensitive clod. He has a way of finding out what really annoys you, and then needling you about it. Lately he’s taken to calling Fran ‘Frannie’ even though he knows she doesn’t like it. Rumor has it he’s in line for a partnership offer sometime soon.

The work is not hard, but it is tedious. We work till eight or nine o’clock every night. Then we go to our hotel rooms to freshen up. Rawlings likes to stop on the way to buy a couple of those canned cocktails at the liquor store. He favors Manhattans.

The three of us go to dinner together every night, alternating between a seafood place and a steakhouse, the only two decent restaurants in the area. They are both in the neighboring town, about ten miles away.

Tonight we are at the seafood place. The lobby of the restaurant is filled with autographed snapshots of the owner with different celebrities, playing golf, having dinner—casual stuff. I always stop to look at them. There’s Dinah Shore, Joey Bishop, Burt Lancaster. They look like regular people in these pictures, plain folk vacationing in sunny Florida.

When we are seated, Rawlings has his customary two martinis. He’s already had one of the canned Manhattans back in his room. He’ll drink the second before he goes to bed. I know he will ask me to drive his car back to the hotel, so I can’t have a drink myself.

Our entrees arrive. In the middle of an animated story about his wife and kids, Rawlings knocks over a pot of drawn butter. It makes a mess. Some splashes onto my jacket. I’m upset, but try not to show it. Rawlings apologizes, offers to pay the cleaning bill, too gracious too late.

Fran smiles. She has a pretty smile … usually. This one is not it. This one is closer to a grimace. She knows I’m angry. I look at her and shrug. I know it was only an accident, but now I’ll have to wear my only other jacket for the rest of the trip. Fran always wears terrific clothes. I figure someone like her, someone who is careful about their appearance, must understand my frustration.

I notice that Fran has beautiful hands. They are smooth and fine and shapely. They seem always to know where to go, how to arrange themselves. Fran never looks ill-at-ease, even in embarrassing situations. I think it’s because she knows what to do with her hands. I wish I could be like that.

A man and woman are having dinner at the table next to ours. The woman, who looks younger than the man, is agitated about something. She is leaning forward very intently, talking in a low voice. Occasionally she makes a point by tapping her finger on the table top. Her voice goes up when she does this, but not so much that we can tell what she is talking about. The man doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t register any reaction at all.

After a while, the man pulls an envelope out of the pocket of his jacket and hands it to the woman. She opens it and takes out a card. It looks like an anniversary card, but it’s hard to be sure. She leans back to read it, then puts it down on the table without saying anything. She eats in silence for a few minutes. Then she leans forward and starts in again with the fussing and the finger tapping. Whatever it is she’s on about is not over.

We have dessert and coffee. Rawlings orders brandy. The waiter comes by to offer refills on the coffee. He stops at the next table where the man and woman have just finished their main course. He asks how they enjoyed their meal.

The woman is suddenly loud enough to be heard through most of the room. Heads turn. Conversations stop.

The fish was just awful,” she announces. “I can’t believe you would serve it.”

Really, madam, I’m terribly sorry,” the waiter says. “I didn’t realize the fish was bad. May I bring you something else?”

No, you can’t bring me something else, you idiot. I can’t eat anything else. The fish has made me nauseous.”

The waiter notices, along with some of the rest of us watching, that the woman has eaten most of the food on her plate. He remains polite and conciliatory.

I’m truly sorry, madam. I wish you had said something earlier. I would have been only too happy to bring you something more to your liking.”

Well excuse me for not mentioning it,” she says. She’s in full voice now. “But I was busy gagging down this fish, okay?”

Rawlings finds this exchange very entertaining. His eyes fairly twinkle. He pushes his chair back slightly and settles into it, crossing one leg over the other. He takes a cigar out of his picket and removes the cellophane wrapper and the label. He runs the length of the cigar under his nose, inhaling deeply. He brings it to his mouth and rolls the end around on his tongue.

The waiter has left. The woman is glaring about, looking for support from the tables around her, defying anyone to disagree with her assessment of the fish. She sees Rawlings with his cigar.

I hope you’re not going to smoke that thing,” she says.

Rawlings looks at her steadily. He takes another cigar out of his pocket and hands it across the gulf between the two tables to the man she is with. The man takes it, and studies it as if he has just been given something of immense value. Rawlings takes out his lighter. It is one of those brushed stainless steel lighters with a hinged top. It has an enameled crest on the side. He flips open the top. It makes a rich, jubilant clink.

The woman scowls. The man unwraps his cigar. Rawlings flicks the flint wheel. He brings the flame to the end of his cigar. He draws several deep mouthfuls of air through the cigar, letting the smoke drift back out with each puff. The flame grows bigger and brighter with each draft. It reflects off Rawlings’s glasses and illuminates the cloud of smoke into a blue, beatific haze.

Rawlings reaches the lighter toward the man. He holds it by the lid so it will reach a little further. The man leans forward and touches the end of his cigar to the flame.


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