story #19

on the button
 
ON THE BUTTON
 
Now of course all my regular customers are teddy bears to me, but Steven and Olivia are the lumpy, understuffed monkey and fish you sewed in Ms. LaMay’s 8th grade home ec class, and that you’ve never lost track of, even once, in all the years since. They’re the only adulterers I know. I think so anyway.
            Steven and Olivia drive up from the city in a Hershey-colored Japanese car on the third Friday night of every month. The next morning, Saturday, they glide in between 8:00 and 8:20. Steve is eggs benedict with black bean and green pepper hash, light on salt, a ramekin of maple syrup on the side, and coffee, black. Olivia is two cranberry johnnycakes, no syrup (not even on the side), and chamomile. And “real butter.” She asks for “real butter” like a little orphan who’s just hearing about it for the first time, every time. The first weekend Steven was so nervous about the adultery that when I sat them in the booth by the window he introduced himself as Rodney and tried to shake my hand. So cute. Olivia leaves a twenty and a ten on a $19.88 check. He reads the front page and then skips to the jobs section of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
            One month, Steven slouched in and then another woman, a woman with a red buzz cut followed him. Then Olivia came in behind her. This new, growling-like woman was wearing a lily-print blouse that smelled like dust. Steven looked at the wall and asked me for a table.
            I never eavesdrop on my regulars. My conviction is that this brings us closer, because I’m never distracted by how much debt they’re swimming in or how small his sack is. I can serve them for who they really are. But that day, Lily Blouse was louder than her shirt:
            “There’s still an us here,” Lily Blouse said. She knocked over her water.
            “Just because you went out and made a you-all with him doesn’t meant that the us we had before you-all just stopped. The thing you have doesn’t come up to half what us is. And if you think it does, go ahead and leave, Olivia. And slut kiss your apartment goodbye.”
            I still didn’t realize, not until after the lunch rush when they had long since slunk single file back out the door, that Lily Blouse was married to Olivia, not Steven.
            The funny thing is: The walls at The Rose B&B, where Steven and Olivia stay, they’re basically just two sheets of pink wallpaper stuck back-to-back. And Sheila Wigand, who owns The Rose, she swears they’ve never done it there. And Sheila’s been tuning in so long, if two dust mites were doing it in her place, she’d know.
            Steven and Olivia vanished after that. Months later, a tired priest with stringy hair that was fading blonde to grey came in and ordered Dutch cinnamon oatmeal, and I accidentally brought him black bean and green pepper hash. I imagined my two regulars having run away for good, lying together on a cloudy beach in a country not known for its beaches.
            Then at 8:00 on a drizzling morning, Olivia came back. Lily Blouse came right behind her, and you wouldn’t believe it, but she was wearing the exact same shirt as a year before. And it still smelled like dust.
            Lily Blouse demanded Belgian waffles with lemon whipped cream, extra raspberry compote, and a Coke. She couldn’t stop smiling as she asked me about each antiques store in town. Olivia ordered her usual, though she didn’t specify real butter. I didn’t mention it because, oh well, I assumed we all were starting over.
            But then the next month it was Steven and Olivia. They were back and like teenagers. They did jittering impressions of Lily Blouse catching diabetes from last month’s breakfast. (Even though my sister has diabetes, it was funny.) Steven couldn’t get over how smart Olivia was. This was so smart, he said. Celia (that was Lily Blouse’s name) didn’t need much at all, he said.
            I should have told them that I was on their side that morning, because we were never able to get our rhythm back. Every month they shuffled. Steven and Olivia came one month. Olivia and Lily Blouse the next month. Then no one for two months. Then Steven and Olivia again. Lily Blouse never ate the same thing twice. I didn’t feel too bad for her. She was like a kid. She didn’t know. I looked up to Olivia though, more and more. She did what needed to be done. Or most of it, anyway. Sheila Wigand said she didn’t think Olivia was doing anything with either of them.
            I was stupid. I’d been thinking all along that Steven and Olivia only truly existed here, in the beat up blue booth by the window that looked on the parking lot of the Herb Garden Cafe in Hudson. But that was just the tip. They were talking all the time. Obviously they had an agreed upon schedule, because Steven wouldn’t have come in here with a girl if he had the slightest fear he’d get caught. He was too pale a man for that.
            I say girl, but she must have been forty-five. Her chin was slowly sliding down her neck, and her hoopy plastic earrings swayed just a bit as she inhaled and exhaled through her mouth. As I walked back to take their order, I felt as if I’d been going down stairs and suddenly missed a step. Steven was eggs benedict with black bean and green pepper hash. The girl couldn’t decide.
            “Olivia, the other woman that I’m with, she really likes the wheat toast,” Steven said. “They use real butter.”
 
– Louis Wittig 
 
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