“Good evening, ma’am. Yes, can you hear me? Good evening, and once more, good evening. We have great news for you. Great news, indeed. You have won our sweepstakes, chosen from a pool of valued customers, and the prize is something very wonderful. Something of which you have perhaps dreamed. If you choose to claim this prize, for the comparatively small cost of a five-course meal, you will be given a gift you may not have expected to receive in your lifetime. Are you ready to hear what that gift is?”
Nora had brought home hot and sour soup from China Bistro, and was in the midst of slurping up a long strand of shiitake and dolloping rice into the bowl because the base was particularly fiery tonight. “Depends,” she said, and wiped her chin with a scratchy napkin. “Tell me the prize, and if this is a scam.” She finished swallowing, and said, “Be honest. I respond well to honesty.” She would have hung up, but the man had a nice enough voice, rather lilting, as Indian voices could be. Like spoken music. Thursday night, she’s eating take-out, why not listen to a lovely male tenor undulating like shaken fabric through her phone?
“A scam! Oh, that is a good one, yes indeed. No, ma’am, I can assure you, beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is no scam. I would not work under such conditions.” He chortled good-naturedly then stopped himself with a throat clearance.
“Under what conditions do you work?” Without elaborating, she let that question hang in the receiver and the satellites it traveled through. Let him—whoever he was—do with it what he would. She had her food, and a mission to consume it after starving the better part of a day. In an instant she could hang up and he would have to dial another reticent victim. He was paid to be the warrior, not she. She, at the moment, was eating and her goal was to taste mindfully, closing her eyes each bite if she had to.
“The prize is a memory,” he said, and offered no other explanation.
Your greatest memory. A time that made your life. The moment or hour or day you would freeze in time if it were at all possible. The defining point of who you were before and who you might be after. The promise of what was to come. This memory. This very one.
In a series of phone calls that followed over the next several weeks, the telemarketer tempted her with such morsels. His calls felt to Nora alternately like courtship or hard sell. She asked him frankly, several times, if he was hawking computer memory, which he denied with fervor bordering on indignation. “Oh no, ma’am, of course not, nothing of that nature. I am not that kind of salesman. I got out of that business long ago. I’ve made a life change.”
Ah, the vaunted life change, Nora thought. She’d heard about that from her unemployment counselor, her therapist, various creditors, and her father, who’d taken to quoting self-help books in his dotage. She’d heard enough to fill an alternative lifestyle resume. Throngs of fashionable people embarked on quests to change their lives, but when change sought you, well now, that was an altogether different matter.
So she gradually fit his calls into her evening routine, at the risk of being worn down by the musical, alluring voice, because they were no more offensive than any of the other calls she got. And she’d known herself to be in danger anyway since losing her job, back before the rest of the country was informed they were in a recession. She had been one of the first to find out what that meant: her boss summoning her into his office without looking her in the eye; the presence of his new marketing maven, with whom he was having an affair and who did the dirty work for him; the request to train a twenty-something anorectic they were hiring to fill three entire positions slotted for collapse.
At first Nora had said she might help, gazing out a window at the snowy grounds nestled in the Green Mountains. She loved the place, after all: years before she’d traveled there in desperation to learn to control her chaotic eating habits and was subsequently hired to lead the PR team. Her passion for the wellness resort doubled its revenues. Hell, she’d even done some telemarketing herself, both cold and warm calls. She was better at warm, however, so respected the Bangalore fellow his talent at roping her in.
Despite her affection for the resort, and after packing her office belongings into a cardboard box, she’d told her boss and the adulterous adjunct, joined at his hip or thereabouts, that she would rather sell Jenny Craig to twelve-year-olds than train someone for the job they’d fired her from. She wasn’t that committed a victim. And she sloshed the remains of a Big Gulp onto his windshield before she departed the parking lot.
“Exactly what restaurant would this be?” she asked the mellifluous voice. “I’m kind of out here in the sticks, you know, on a budget? Can’t afford to drive to the city on top of the cost of a pricey meal.”
There was a volley of staccato chortling in her receiver. “Oh, ma’am, this is why I so enjoy our conversations. You are very funny. You are a humorist, I am quite sure of it. We will not make it necessary for you to drive to any city—you will dine at a local establishment.”
“Local, seriously?” Nora said, and tried to think of a restaurant nearby that could actually put on a five-course meal.
“Please, ma’am, if you would be so kind, tell me your zip code and I will search my data base.”
She rattled off the zip, accustomed as she was to giving it along with many other numbers used to identify her of late.
“We appreciate your patience, ma’am. I have here that you will be dining at Sid’s Steak Shack. This restaurant is approximately two point five miles from your residence.”
“Sid’s?” she said, incredulous. It was fewer than 2.5 miles from her—it was more precisely within a mile or so of her rented cottage. “You want me to pay you for the privilege of eating at Sid’s? How much will this run me?”
“Remember, if you please, ma’am, you will be receiving more than a meal. Included in our cost is also the memory.” His tone was measured, concerned, as if she had somehow not followed the dips and leaps of his accented English.
What freaking memory, she was tempted to say, and Will it be computer generated? But she balked, fearing she would be subjected to details of his reported life change. Instead, she provided her credit card number. Yet another identity code she was dealing with these days, and his was the only voice that promised anything better than advice. Her life change left her smack in the middle of a depressed resort town, the witch of poverty preparing the oven, and no white pebble-stones to show Nora the way out. Not even breadcrumbs.
There was a swath of summer woven around this late May night and it, more than anything else, enticed Nora to take the coupon, printed from her computer, to Sid’s for an overpriced meal. Allison, the usual hostess, greeted her at the door with the snatching of a menu and the canned phrase, “Welcome to Sid’s Steak Shack, right this way.” The usual adolescent busboy whose name she didn’t know brought her water and a chilled vegetable tray, and the usual waitress, Ruth, asked if she needed more time. Nora took a mental note that Ruth had let her hair grow in gray and finally ditched that awful peachy rinse. Then she pulled the coupon from her handbag.
Ruth pushed the readers up the bridge of her nose and studied the strip of paper. “Hmmh,” she said. “Haven’t seen one of these before. I guess that would be your first course.” She inclined her head toward the celery and carrots. “Want a drink? This says a drink’s included.”
Nora politely declined. The whole coupon business embarrassed her—she knew she’d been had. Also she knew alcohol made her lose track of how much she had eaten, and avoided it since making that discovery.
“Suit yourself,” Ruth said. “Maybe I’ll have a drink on you when my shift is over.”
“Absolutely,” Nora said, but the waitress had already left the table.
Looking down the length of the restaurant, Nora saw she was the only customer besides an older portly gentleman sinking into his bar chair. If it had been the traditional barstool, he would have been on the floor, or draped backward in a position his body could not achieve except when drunk. She chuckled to herself at the image that created in her head.
Ruth slid a salad plate onto the table. “Course number two,” she said, winking. “It’s self-serve.”
Sid’s had a decent salad bar, and Nora bypassed the mayonnaise mixes for julienned jicama, sliced mushrooms, shredded beets, cauliflower florets and romaine. She chose a low-fat vinaigrette dressing, but couldn’t resist adding some sunflower seeds and fried wonton on top. You had to allow yourself tidbits or the discipline got to be too much.
On her way back to the table, she passed the bar where the drunken gentleman awoke and raised his glass. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow…” He paused in remembering, then light came into his face. “For tomorrow, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!” He slammed the glass down on the bar, and his chin went back to his chest.
Nora caught the bartender’s eye. A serpent tattoo wound around his forearm, and his hands clutched a magazine, folded open. He glanced up from the page, barely shook his head, and went back to his article. She hoped the employees knew this old guy, and would call his wife or a taxi to rescue him. They for certain didn’t have much else on their agenda.
The following hour was more or less the gentleman dozing at the bar, ignored by the bartender, and Ruth delivering the remaining “courses,” which were an entrée (filet mignon grilled beyond the requested medium-rare, and mushy chopped broccoli), a baked potato with ramekins of butter and sour cream, and dessert. Nora stared down at the bowl that contained a single scoop of vanilla ice cream—that was it, not even a sprig of mint or slice of maraschino cherry as garnish—and was beyond disappointed. She was ashamed at the loneliness and despair that had driven her to make this bargain, to squander money she needed as a cushion until she found employment. Over by the door, Allison the hostess and the sullen, nameless busboy murmured to each other, probably something disparaging about the loser adults who populated this room. The two teens wouldn’t have spoken to each other had they not been thrust into that room, where the best thing they could do was rebuke what they saw.
Nora thought, Okay, so, I paid for this. I might as well take a bite, but what she spooned into her mouth was like no other vanilla ice cream ever made. It was transcendent—that was the word that played in her mind as she closed her eyes to discern the flavors. There were bold notes of honey and lavender, but undertones of spices too subtle and compatible to distinguish. Some sort of genius blend or lucky accident created this taste that was more than taste—it was a journey to a faraway haven. All in one bite, and then she took another, and another. So engrossed was Nora in savoring each spoonful that she didn’t hear Ruth’s approach.
“I won’t be bringing a check, but gratuity wasn’t included.” She set a faux leather sleeve at the table’s edge.
Nora opened her eyes. “Right. Sorry, I’m just shocked, you know, at how good this ice cream is. It didn’t look very enticing in the bowl.”
“Huh,” Ruth said, and regarded Nora scraping the spoon around for melted remains. “I don’t go in much for sweets, but I’ll have to try some. Take care and come again.”
Suddenly, Nora felt extremely tired, unaccustomed as she was to large, heavy meals. She waited till Ruth shuffled through the swinging kitchen door, then slipped a ten into the folder, and slunk past the still-murmuring teenagers to her car. A few hundred yards down the road, she sensed she wasn’t going to make it home before falling asleep at the wheel. She pulled off the highway onto a wooded dirt drive, and lost consciousness.
This was the day she had eaten herself into obesity to forget, the day she spent on a hill overlooking acres of sage chaparral and the wide Pacific. Hobson and she often came here to rehearse duets, the light fare of musicals adapted from serious literature. It was a five-minute drive from campus, where they’d gotten to know each other when she took advantage of free tuition for employees. Hobs, the instructor, enthusiastic about her “effortless vibrato,” kept encouraging Nora to come back. Which she had, of course. She signed up for every level of voice he taught. It felt good to be called on for the demos in front of his class, to be noted for something she did on her own, rather than what she was commanded to do as an administrative assistant. Her boss, the fussy dean of humanities, was exacting. In voice, it was all about nuance and interpretation.
This day, though, Hobs was different, nervous, unlike the easy friend he’d been to her for four years, hardly saying a word on their drive from the school. He parked the car and sighed, hands massaging the wheel.
“What?” she said to him. “Are you stuck there? Super-glued?”
He put both hands to the nape of his neck, adjusting his graying ponytail. “Nope. I’m good. Better than good. Stupendous, if you really want to know. I’ve separated from my wife.”
“You are kidding me,” she said, pivoting her body away from the door she leaned against, and toward him. She knew they’d been having second-child deliberations, that Hobs wanted no more kids and Wendy did. “Has she got a shrimp in the microwave?”
Hobson grinned, then caught himself, saying, “No, that’s the point. We’re done. Negotiations shut down.”
“We need air,” Nora said, and turned to exit the car as she had planned. She was the one who needed to breathe, truthfully. She’d imagined on a few occasions that Hobs might leave his wife, who didn’t work yet nonetheless complained like a rusty hinge about his lack of ambition. But Nora never dared think beyond that unlikely event, which just then leapt to a higher point on the likely scale.
Hobs followed her, and she practically jogged to their clearing on the hill. When he caught up, he clutched at something blue he’d pulled from the backseat. It was a color that never occurred in nature, even in a tropical sea. She stared at it rather than meet his gaze.
“This? Wendy’s parting gift. It’s a sheer from our bedroom window, typical of the stupid style I tolerated for her sake. She threw them out the second story as I was leaving.”
“Hobs, where are you going to live? What about JoeJoe?” Her voice raised an octave at the mention of his son’s name. Apart from the thrill his announcement had produced in her, she till now had only been his friend and was concerned for him as such.
“Well, Nor, I thought we would talk about that.” Just then he shook out the curtain, which unfurled like a dance veil caught in slow motion, lovely in movement despite its improbable color. Hobson smoothed it over the adobe ground, and motioned for her to sit beside him. As she obliged, the wind lifted her hair, and when it resettled, a strand caught on her mouth. He brushed it aside, took her face in both his hands, and kissed her.
When the kiss was over, Nora turned and faced the enormous ocean. Her heartbeat rattled through her in a way that was frightening. She was thankful to have worn black pants today instead of a skirt; she felt on the verge of wetting herself, and pants would provide a layer of extra protection and concealment. Hobs spoke between air intakes that caught like sobs, and she measured every breath of her own, struggling for control over her wayward body.
He told her he was in love with her, that he had been for over a year now. He exclaimed over her beauty—the green-gold flecks in her eyes, the classic curves of her body that reminded him of a cello, her skin that pinked and glowed without the benefit of makeup. It was all so natural she wasn’t aware of it, he knew that, which was part of the charm. Her wit and hearty laughter. Her compassionate sighs when he confided in her. The two of them were simpatico, they were a match, he could no longer live the life he had been living, he hoped with every ounce of idealism left in him there was a chance she felt the same.
Nora continued to stare at the ocean, and a change took place: the heartbeat calmed itself to mere thuds, and everything else in her that needed calming followed. Hobs sat back on his elbows, knees bent in front of him, awaiting her reply. She put her arms around his knees and rested her head atop them, and he began to stroke her hair.
She hadn’t forced this issue. She hadn’t resorted to the romantic tricks touted on covers of women’s magazines at checkout stands throughout the supposedly civilized world. A man had declared his ardor to her, and all she had been was herself, learning to sing.
Nora woke to a sky still light. What had passed like a rich hour in memory had only been minutes in her car—she checked her watch. Every moment of the dream or reverie, or whatever it was, had been precise and real. She’d felt the wind lift her hair, his warm hands on her face. When they’d kissed she had tasted the onion he’d built into his veggie burger at lunch. Incredible, she thought as she drove the final stretch home. She’d relived the afternoon exactly, but in a fraction of the time it had actually taken.
Once back in her cottage, she dressed in her tank top and yoga pants, stretched, and set her alarm. There was an interview scheduled at 9:30 the next morning and she couldn’t risk missing it. She slept the unbroken sleep of the infrequently blessed.
“Good evening again, ma’am. I trust that today was pleasant for you. Do you have a few moments?”
Nora believed it best not to reveal how glad she was to hear the telemarketer’s voice. All day long after the interview she fretted, not about the job she might or might not land at a resort of greater renown than the one that laid her off, but of how she might request another coupon.
“I have some time. What up?” she said, casually, though her heart was doing its chest rattle again.
“What up?” His melodious chortle spiraled through the receiver. “That is good, ma’am. You are young at heart, I am convinced. I wish to ask questions about your experience at Sid’s last night. Customer satisfaction is to us of utmost concern, and we would greatly appreciate your input.”
“Any discounts in it for me?” She had lived long enough to know if you can articulate what you need, your chances of receiving it increase.
His tone became slightly more businesslike. “Of course, ma’am. I am at liberty to offer a ten percent discount on your next coupon purchase if you would do us the kindness of participating in our survey. Are those terms agreeable to you?”
“Yes, fine.” She wished he’d start with the questions, for God’s sake, and dispense with the formalities. Flashes of the memory inserted themselves into her thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else. She inhaled the smell of sagebrush floating through the screen of her open window. There was nothing remotely like that here in the Vermont woods.
“On a scale of one to five, five being best and one being worst, how do you rate the quality of the food you were served?”
“Three, except for dessert, which was five.”
“You must give me one number only, ma’am. Shall I say four?”
“No. Three and a half. Dessert was the only item that was special.”
“Okay. Good. Now, on the same scale, how do you rate the conduct of the restaurant staff?” He awaited her responses with patience, no prodding, though she could hear the drone of his equally ambitious compatriots in the background.
The questions continued in this vein, and she answered them while fielding flashbacks of the memory: the onion in Hob’s kiss, and weeds poking through the curtain sheer, the wind shifting and resettling everything in a new way.
“Ma’am? I’m sorry to take so much of your time, but I’ve just asked my final question. Once again, how would you rate our promise to provide you with a memory?”
“You can’t measure high enough,” she said, and thought she heard him mumble, a bit knowingly, but it might have been one of the associates seated in a computer cubby beside him.
When the resort called to arrange a second interview, Nora printed out a Sid’s coupon to celebrate. Why not? The meal would be cheaper this time, and the callback was a clear sign her days of joblessness were numbered. Things were about to improve.
She’d previously gone to the restaurant on a Sunday night; tonight was Tuesday, but inside Sid’s seemed the same. Allison was hostess, sulky busboy brought a vegetable tray, and silver-haired Ruth asked if Nora needed more time. She also asked if there would be a coupon, and Nora nodded, cheeks flushing back to her ears.
En route to the salad bar, she saw the drunken gentleman dozing in his chair, ignored by the tattooed bartender. The older fellow woke as before, toasting Nora with bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, and resumed his torpor. The bartender shook his head, perhaps just a little more vehemently than the last time. Nora returned to her table with the feeling that she belonged in this place with these people, comforted by the dim predictability they might not have chosen but was theirs anyway. It even belonged to the young people in their rejection of it.
The entrée tonight was prime rib, also overcooked, paired with zucchini steamed into a new molecular structure with canned Parmesan sprinkled on top. The baked potato, with toppings. At last, the ice cream, plain as porridge in a pot, though the taste was anything but. In preparation for a quick getaway, Nora laid out the ten she would leave as a tip, and wolfed the scoop in less than a minute, resisting the temptation to swipe the bowl clean with her finger. She rose to leave, pantomimed at Ruth the gesture for cash, rubbing her thumb on her index finger, and pointed to the table. Fatigue crashed on Nora fast this time; she teetered by the adolescents, much to their eye-rolling amusement. In the light of the open door, she glanced at her wristwatch.
Five minutes later, she revived in the car, steeped in the memory of her afternoon with Hobson. Her handbag was with her and intact, her car door locked, and all as it should be around her, except that she’d visited the day in her life when she knew what it meant to be summoned, to be needed, and to comply.
The second interview did not go well. Nora approached it with the optimism of one already chosen for the job rather than with the gravity of one being considered. Perhaps her mood stemmed from the headiness of the memory, or the frivolity that recently drove her to spend excessively on dinners out. Whatever the cause, Nora sensed gushiness was not a tone the management team desired, deadpan in their note taking. Word she hadn’t made the final cut arrived a few days later via a form email that wished her the best in her search for meaningful employment.
Strangely, the news didn’t upset her. What concerned her more was how much time had passed since she heard from the telemarketer. She avoided calls from her VDOL caseworker, her dad, her therapist, waiting instead for the caller ID that read Unknown. This was the guy she wanted to talk to. In the interim, she applied for a credit card that would pay off her current charges at 0% interest, and give her a little more available balance to play with.
Nora subsisted on blips of the memory and its tangents. The moment Hobson stepped up and took the chance of asking her to do the same was the frontispiece, and all that had followed—the lovemaking, living together, two-seater kayak outings, spats, making up, iris petals strewn on the carpet (along with the gaudy blue sheer) leading to a bath he had drawn for her—paled in comparison. After two years and as his final decree loomed, he ultimately rejoined his marriage out of guilt and fear at Wendy’s persistent threats to deny him even part custody of JoeJoe. Nora, sobbing, had said, “But Hobs, you don’t love her!” to which he replied, “I love my son.” There were months of binge eating, which calmed the tears, and loaded pounds onto her frame, transforming curves into slabs. Even if Hobs had found the courage to crawl back and beg for forgiveness, he would have scuttled away at the sight of her then. The wellness resort brought Nora to Vermont and returned her to health, and here she remained, jobless, middle-aged, but at her optimal weight.
We expect too much. That was the trouble, and Nora knew it as well as she knew the fat content of an avocado. The books, the magazines, the TV talk shows, the internet ads made believe that you could have it all—perfect body, perfect home, perfect vocation, perfect relationship, perfect wardrobe—but really the best you could get was some, and it was at best only temporary.
Her some was the day on the hill. She’d kept the blue curtain for a time, a souvenir, draping it as a valance above her cottage’s picture window. Then she stuffed it into a box of warped record albums, shoes with ground-down heels, clothing that no longer fit, and gave it away as charity.
“Good evening, ma’am. It has been a while, has it not?”
“Definitely, it has.” Nora held herself aloof from the voice she’d spent a month hoping for, the memory fading as her last coupon meal ranged farther into the past. She broke down once and dined at Sid’s without a coupon, ordered the special ice cream for dessert, but it wasn’t even close, and when she asked for the kind that tasted of honey and lavender, the waitress, who wasn’t Ruth, replied in a tone reserved for the extremely slow or obviously deranged, that Sid’s menu had never offered such an item.
Nora waited for the telemarketer to speak.
“I trust your experience at Sid’s was satisfactory, and the accompanying memory, also?”
Nora sighed, and practiced boredom, heart thumping. “Another survey?”
He chortled faintly, and said, “Oh, no ma’am. We will not subject you to another of those. It is a one-time process.”
There would be no more discounts from Mr. Unknown…nothing but full-price from this day forward.
“And?” Again she waited.
“Our customers respond in the way you do, ma’am, by reporting that their food and service were only average, but the memories extraordinary. I tell you this because you have been known to request honesty.”
“Interesting,” she said, and thought how implausible it was, how nearly miraculous, that every single restaurant had accomplished a mediocrity that called forth brilliant memories.
“Now, ma’am, so that I don’t take up more of your evening, would you like to purchase an additional dinner at Sid’s?” Gone were the friendly banter and showmanship. She was no longer a challenge but a given, a person to be maintained rather than won, someone in the fold, not out in the vast, wild fray.
Nora bought the coupon.
When she arrived at Sid’s on a night that wasn’t Sunday and wasn’t Tuesday either, the door was locked shut. A hand-lettered sign pasted over it read: THANKS A BUNCH TO OUR LOYAL CUSTOMERS. IT HAS BEEN 10 YEARS OF PLEASURE TO SERVE YOU BUT THIS ECONOMY HAS DONE US IN. GOD BLESS. A dumpster big as an apartment compromised the parking lot. She peered through a window of the restaurant, and saw the interior emptied of everything that wasn’t nailed in place, including the bar chairs. Behind her a pickup truck pulled in, crunching and spitting gravel.
“You the owner?” she said, folding in half the coupon she’d wasted ink to print.
The driver, a sun-freckled laborer, hopped down from the cab. “Naw. They took off somewhere south. Florida, probably. We’re remodeling for a pizza franchise. Don’t know which one. I forgot my level today when I left.”
“Great,” Nora said, and plopped down in her driver’s seat, feet still on the gravel. She hummed a riff of show tune.
The young man removed his baseball cap and said, “Anything I can do to help?”
Nora put on her sunglasses, contemplating the offer. “Yup,” she said. “I think I need you to toss this for me.” She crumpled the coupon and handed it over to him.
The laborer jogged to the lip of the dumpster and slam-dunked the wadded paper, throwing his hands in the air to celebrate. Something in this gesture—the exuberance of it—was reminiscent of her very first boyfriend who’d shattered the globe of a chandelier with such a move. Her mother had defended the boy, opposing Nora’s father who wanted to call his parents and make them pay for a replacement. “He just got a little too carried away,” her mother had said. Now she was many years dead from cigarettes and gin, and Nora’s addled father clung to self-help as if it were an equal opportunity employer.
The young man disappeared behind the building. She stared after him for a while, and at the future he had taken and lobbed into the dumpster. That future unfolded in her mind: the bartender older, his tattoo leached by flaky skin, Nora herself on a barstool, babbling nonsense to strangers then draping backward into a yogically impossible arch, her silver hair sweeping the floor. The bartender shrugging, diners walking back to their tables in horrified fascination. And herself again, finishing this performance nightly by sleeping it off in the driver’s seat.
The construction worker had relieved her of this fate with the comic kindness he’d shown, and she was thankful. Gratitude pressed on Nora with the force that brings what’s windblown back to earth. She put her car in gear, and drove into the distance toward the moments that surpass entire decades, waiting like bargains for her to claim them.