If Margy Hurley had known she’d be spending so much time behind the bar of her new place looking out at that wall, she’d have passed on the local art and put up real imitation Degas, not some amateur’s bizarre take on the famous ballet dancers that greeted her—and the patrons of Margy’s Bistro.
Margy heaved a sigh as she were the one bending over backwards in toe shoes.
When God wanted to punish you, she thought, He gave you a restaurant.
If Frank were here, he’d jingle the rosary in his pocket, say it wasn’t so and to give God some credit. Mostly Margy believed Frank, but at times, she liked her way better and swore it was the honest truth.
Times like today, she thought, dropping a squeeze of lemon into an electric iced tea and not bothering to mop up the dribbles. Dribbles created more pattern for the patina on her prized zinc bar top.
Margy kept one eye on the front door and was rewarded not with the bartender she was expecting but her sister, who breezed in and was immediately arrested by the framed so-called art.
“Margy,” Vicky said, swinging onto a bar stool as if it were her name over the door, “you should have called.” Filing in next to Vicky was Margy’s buddy from high school, Diana. The two of them carried brown paper shopping bags from Bloomingdale’s, which they slung onto the floor next to their stools. “I have access to tons of art. I could have made much more appropriate choices for you.”
“What’s goin’ on?” Margy asked, figuring it was a greeting polite enough for her to get away with while simultaneously ignoring Vicky’s remark.
“Moms’ day out,” Vicky said.
“More like moms’ two hours out between shuffling kids around,” Diana said. They chuckled like it was some private joke Margy could never appreciate.
“I’ll have my usual,” Vicky said.
“One ‘savvy b’ coming up.” Margy already had an opened bottle of house sauvignon blanc waiting. She pulled the cork out and gave Vicky a judicious, standard house pour, measuring it against a dummy glass filled with water that stood next to the swizzle sticks.
Vicky frowned. “Jeez. Could you spare any?”
Margy shoved the cork back in the bottle. “Exactly five and a quarter ounces. Gotta watch my costs.” Margy poured the same for Diana, who didn’t complain, and filled the women in on her day, which most definitely did not include Bloomingdale’s.
“Got the new bartender startin’ tonight,” she said with optimism, then turned to Diana. “Kind of a shame you never learned to bartend back in the day.”
“Oh no, don’t look at me that way,” Diana said. Margy hadn’t been hinting about hiring Diana, but it never hurt to keep an eye out for prospects. “I got out a long time ago and you are not dragging me back in.”
When Diana’s father, Spiro, owned this place and it had been called Spiro’s Greek Isles, he had six kids and they’d all helped. But then one by one they grew up and left. None had wanted to take over. Through her friendship with Diana, Margy had gotten her start junior year at Spiro’s, working the coat check Friday nights.
“Hint, Margy,” Diana said with a wink. “We all went on to college and made something of ourselves.”
“Yeah, thanks a bunch.” Only Margy—not even a family member—had become a lifer in the business, eventually jumping from Spiro’s to go work at snazzier, and more lucrative, places in the city. She’d logged more time in Manhattan fine dining establishments than she cared to remember, and much of it she didn’t.
Yet through it all, she’d never lost her love for her old boss, or his old place, where the braised lamb shank had been the special for thirty years.
Now, Margy’s Manhattan tenure—the good, the bad, and the ugly—was behind her, and Spiro had closed shop and headed for Florida. When she’d discovered he was retiring, the notion of opening her own place took hold of her and didn’t let go. After two years of negotiations and endless red tape obtaining the necessary licenses, permits and inspections, and aided by most of her inheritance, life savings, a hefty loan and her chef as a junior partner, Spiro’s was now Margy’s. So, too, were its high yellowed ceilings, musty smell, and nicked woodwork that screamed “vintage.”
And now Margy’s foo-foo interior designer sister wanted to come in here and do away with the character of the place.
“These seats are so uncomfortable,” Vicky said. “You should get new ones.”
“It’s a small floor, Vick, and I gotta turn tables. I don’t want people camping out.”
Gone was Spiro’s Santorini look. No more ultra-white paint on the walls, no more Aegean-blue glass vases on the tables. Though Margy vowed to keep the spirit of the place (and the leaky dishwasher) after the journey to accessible French. She did add some touches of her own. Near the front door, under the oversize mirror, sat a stone-topped scrolled metal console table, which she’d nabbed at a flea market and which now served as a host desk. A curtain of smoky blue beads cordoned off the coat check, which she’d converted into a tiny office.
Vicky swiveled in her stool, giving Margy’s poor art choices another painful glance.
“I only put those up on the wall because I thought, ‘Impressionism? It’s so done,’” Margy explained.
She ought to have opted for something more appropriate to her concept: French cuisine tailored to the masses. The Margy’s menu offered cassoulet (stew); profiteroles (cream puffs); and paté (fancy liverwurst). Margy didn’t want her guests forgetting where they were—a quirky old storefront place in Queens. The masses would love Impressionism.
“At least fix the squeaky front door,” said Vicky, who clearly didn’t get the concept.
“That’s the sound of business coming in,” Margy countered. And, hopefully, soon, the sound of her new bartender.
A man and woman walked in. She gave them a welcoming smile and directed them to seat themselves.
Vicky aimed her critical eye toward the black and white tiles beneath her feet. “Margy, you should have put in a new floor,” she tut-tutted.
“I like this floor. It has character.” And probably asbestos, but who needed to know?
“It has rust marks.”
“That’s how you know where the tables are supposed to go,” Diana explained.
Diana, at least, knew what she was talking about. What with the floor being uneven and all, if you didn’t have them lined up in the exact right position, they were going to rock. Same way for thirty years.
Originally, Margy had planned to do the bussing and the hosting herself. What better way to introduce herself to her clientele? Plus, the waiters would get to keep more of their tips, and they’d be happier and less likely to quit.
Second part of the plan, hire a couple good bartenders. Bartenders often brought their own following. So much for her plan: She’d been open two weeks and gone through three bartenders already.
She glanced at the stranger who’d apparently taken up residence at the end of the bar. He was hard to miss with his more salt than pepper hair shorn in a buzz cut, red high-top sneakers on his feet, and solid black clothing.
“Half of my staff is in a twelve-step program and the other half is in denial,” she said, tossing the remark over her shoulder and pleased when the mystery man signaled his enjoyment of her little joke with a wink. It wouldn’t have felt right to leave him out. He’d been in nearly every day this week, ordering the same drink—a rare, hard-to-find pastis from a small, family-owned French producer—and then nursing it for hours. Margy figured she’d be lucky to go through a bottle of the stuff in a year. Now she’d have to put another one down on her next order.
“Margy,” Vicky said, “you should have some nicer vases for the flowers.”
Margy surveyed the twenty-three cramped tables of the small dining room, each bearing a cylinder of plain glass and a single-stemmed daisy. “These are perfect. They’re just ugly enough no one’ll walk off with ‘em.”
“Margy, you should open for brunch. People love brunch.”
Boy, Vicky was really on a roll today, Margy thought.
“I hate brunch.” Everyone in the industry with a lick of sense—a small sample, to be sure—hated brunch. “Vicky, the day I walked out of Chez Matisse,” she said, dipping a long spoon into a tumbler of vodka and vermouth and giving the contents a vigorous stir, “I swore with God as my witness I’d never serve eggs Benedict again, and for ten years I have kept that promise.”
That was longer than she’d kept to sobriety, and she had no intention of going back on either. And that went for high chairs and blender drinks, too.
She knew what Vicky was up to with Diana, dragging the neighborhood through here because she didn’t think Margy could make it without her help. Who needed Facebook and Yelp when you had a sister like Vicky?
You have a tendency to not show up in life, was the excuse Vicky usually gave for butting in. Margy couldn’t exactly argue. There was unfortunately a long line of pink slips in Margy’s past that backed up Vicky’s case.
But who else was there to haggle with the linen service or keep an eye on the inexperienced blonde she’d hired to wait tables? Half an hour Margy had spent on the phone with the linen guy over a bundle of soiled tablecloths she had to send back and which he tried to withhold credit for. Unfortunately, the soil was in the shape of waiter shoe prints. And blondie, instead of learning the menu, described every dish the same way—as having an “awesome sauce.”
Margy smiled. “I’m here now,” she said evenly. And she had been—every day. Then a movement by the window caught her eye. “Uh-oh, table’s rockin.’”
Over at table eight, the couple who’d come in had taken it upon themselves to turn the table ninety degrees for a better view (good luck) and now it was rocking and butting up against the table next to it, which she would now not be able to seat until they left.
Spiro would have thrown them out by now.
But Margy didn’t have time for that, seeing as how she was stuck behind the bar with order tickets backing up. In this business, you had to look at the bigger picture, she thought, because the day-to-day could drive a person bazooey.
Though Margy hadn’t thrown anyone out of Margy’s Bistro yet, she did dream of it. That was the best part about owning your own place—reserving the right.
Vicky, the day I walked out of Chez Matisse, I swore with God as my witness I’d never serve eggs Benedict again, and for ten years I have kept that promise.”
She excused herself and headed for table eight. As she drew near, she changed her expression from lethal glower to obliging smile. “Let me help you with that.” Then she yanked it back into place, and earned a lethal glower from the patrons in return.
On her way back, she caught the scent of licorice wafting from Mr. High Tops’ pastis, and her stomach started to toss. Blech. Who would nurse that putrid yuck? What kind of masochist wanted to make that taste linger?
Margy shuddered and thanked God—yet again—for aversion therapy.
Up at the bar, her surly chef set down a plate of Brie and crisped slices of baguette. Margy picked it up and slipped it in front of Vicky and Diana.
“Leftovers.” Usually the cheese was served to guests accompanied by apricot preserves made in house. Vicky looked down at the reduced portion and didn’t hide her disappointment. “No apricot preserves?”
“There wasn’t any of that left over,” Margy said tartly to her mooching sister. “And you’re welcome.”
Her waiter Donte stopped by to pick up his order and vent. “Finally, a real drink. The water’s been really sticky today.”
Vicky and Diana gave quizzical glances.
Margy explained. “Everybody’s ‘sticking with water.’ Not ordering something they have to pay for.”
Margy drank a lot of sticky water herself these days.
“By the way, we’re short on tablecloths,” Donte said, setting the martini she’d made onto a tray.
“Well, quit using ‘em to wipe up spills,” she replied as he sailed off.
Vicky spread some cheese onto the toast. “I know what I wanted to tell you. It’s about the Sunset Supper benefit for the children’s hospital. Guess what? I got a spot on the organizing committee. We’ll get to work together.”
Margy felt her glower return. It was bad enough having her sister in here every day. Now, she had an off-site event—her very first one for her own place—and Vicky was going to be there, too?
This day kept getting better and better—not.
Margy sighed and turned her sights on her zinc bar top. It was very Paris cafe in the ‘20s, with a patina that Vicky’s husband’s money couldn’t buy. Did Vicky give her credit for that? Margy caught herself for thinking ill of the dead, and then stopped scrubbing.
Older sister out, new bartender in. That was all she needed to make Margy’s a success.
And a five-star review for her onion soup gratinée wouldn’t hurt, either.
Every inch of Margy’s expression, from the tight grimace on her face to the regretful shake of her head as she kept muttering, “Shoulda put up Degas,” over and over, confirmed the suspicions Vicky held back about the toll running a restaurant was obviously taking on her younger sister.
“You should have let me help,” Vicky said, extending a freshly manicured hand, which Margy declined to accept. “This is why you have a sister who is an interior designer. If you can’t call her, who can you call?”
But Margy didn’t call, not for the floor—charming, checkerboard black-and-white but undoubtedly toxic—or the chairs—rickety—or the ceiling fan—wobbling dangerously over their heads as they spoke. Margy claimed she didn’t want to blow all her capital on frivolous upgrades, but Vicky could have gotten her some great deals. And then everyone would’ve said, “Oh, look at that nice French restaurant. Just exactly what this neighborhood needs. Let’s all go to Margy’s!”And Vicky’s sister’s bistro would’ve been a big success from day one.
No one—certainly not Margy, after all she’d overcome—deserved ballerinas from hell on their walls.
“Shoulda put up Degas,” Margy said for the fourth time.
“They look angry,” Vicky agreed.
“And bruised,” Diana seconded.
Angry and bruised. Not unlike Margy’s chef, Mad Dog, or whatever his name was, despite the free food he slipped Vicky every time she came in.
“I would have found something much more appropriate,” Vicky assured her, then set her mind to work on a solution.
“How about some Alphonse Mucha posters? Art Nouveau is in right now.” She envisioned Tournée du Chat Noir with its slinky black cat and worn red letters on a background of faded yellow. It could go right over there, she thought, aiming her gaze at an empty spot near the front door. Then maybe a vintage travel poster to keep it company.
Now that she was back living in New York, Vicky wanted to make things better between Margy and her. She wanted them to be close, the way sisters were supposed to be. The way they’d never truly been, despite everything.
For much of their adulthood, they’d lived in separate states. On opposite coasts, even. Vicky hadn’t been there for Margy in the tough times, nor had Margy been there for Vicky. But now they were both back in the old neighborhood, and now they could be there for each other.
But Margy didn’t seem to want it—or Vicky.
“You see, my older sister,” Margy said pointedly to nurse Diana, “who’s spent just as little time working in restaurants as she has in hospitals, has no faith in me.”
“That is not true,” Vicky insisted. “I am here to support you and cheer on your success.” Vicky put a chipper, confident note into her voice. “I happen to know a lot of people. I could bring in a lot of business.”
“You haven’t lived in this neighborhood in twenty years.”
Maybe not, but Vicky was back now, and reconnecting with old friends. and making new connections. Something that was vital for any business, but especially the hospitality business, as Margy well knew.
Even after twenty years, people still came up to Vicky and gushed warmly over her. And sometimes, she knew, they whispered about her behind her back. Poor Vicky. But mostly they gushed. Such tragedy and she’s still a trooper.
Diana polished off the last of the Brie and set her knife down on her plate. “The boys must be dying for summer vacation. First year in a new school can be tough. How are they doing?”
“Let’s see,” Vicky said. “Adam misses the country club. Ian has no friends. At least Bruce is looking forward to first grade in the fall.”
Wiping the corner of her mouth, Diana nodded. “That’s cause he knows he’s going to have a cute teacher.”
Cute teacher? Vicky gulped wine and shook her head. “No. Nancy in the office said her name is Lorraine something.”
“Yeah, Lorraine Foley.”
“With a name like Lorraine she has to be about a hundred, right?”
“Take away seventy-two years,” Diana said, while Vicky took a time-out and squeezed her eyes half-shut because math.
“Twenty-eight, huh?” she said finally. “And cute?”
“As a button. Michaela had her last year. Fluffy blond hair, big green eyes. Southern accent. Lots of charm. Makes men gaga.”
“Bruce is six.”
Vicky crooked an arm. “Boy, they sure start young. You’re lucky you have daughters.”
Vicky couldn’t help but glance at her sister, who sipped her water in silence, wearing her trademark sulky pout. Margy didn’t have sons like Vicky or daughters like Diana. Margy had Margy’s Bistro, and that was it.
The two women continued to make plans, plans that Margy would by default be left out of, chained as she was to her new business. Historically, Diana was Margy’s friend, but lately she and Vicky had hit it off. Like Diana, the sisters’ mother had been a nurse, and Vicky had even taken a year of nursing school. Could Vicky help it if both she and Diana had kids of similar ages, furthering their connection? Could she help it if they both liked to laugh and have fun?
Another reproving look from Margy sulking over her water glass, and Vicky hadn’t even done anything except say yes to a kids’ pool party with a new friend.
Vicky noted that when she’d poured her wine, Margy pushed the cork deeply into the neck of the bottle so hard her thumb tinged red from the effort. Vicky took that as a sign of tension. A drink order came through and Margy read the ticket. “Another electric iced tea? Can’t this chick have a simple glass of wine this round?”
“She says she doesn’t want to mix liquors,” the waiter said.
“You don’t say,” Margy said, grabbing bottles in the well to make the cocktail, which was nothing but a mix of liquors—gin, vodka, tequila, rum, and something blue that Vicky had forgotten the name of.
“People still drink those?” Vicky said. “I haven’t had one since Frank went into the seminary.”
There it was again, the reproving look.
Margy was the baby of the family, the third child, after their brother, Kevin, and then Vicky. Margy always needed the security of good examples, and if the older ones weren’t behaving, she got very upset, though Vicky couldn’t imagine what she’d done that was wrong.
Was it Vicky’s fault she was a positive person? Was Vicky to blame for being life-affirming? Could Vicky help it if she had a healthy self-esteem? Or if she looked good, she thought, her feet brushing her shopping bag, wearing horizontal stripes?
If anyone could have used an image makeover, it was Vicky’s sister. Take today’s outfit, for starters. Her severe gray suit with its high-necked satin blouse, and her wine-colored hair sprayed stiff into a giant flip would have looked great on Margy—if she were two decades older and a senator’s wife, instead of thirty-seven and available.
Why did she always have to go around looking as if it were November?
“Hey, guess who’s been back hanging around the neighborhood, too,” Diana said. “Al Romano.”
At the mention of Al Romano, for one tiny second the years fell away from Margy’s face—finally—and her tired eyes softened and widened and she looked sixteen again.
Vicky watched as Margy continued making the electric iced tea. She covered the pint glass with the metal mixing shaker, picked the two vessels up as one unit, shook, set it down, hit the top shaker with the heel of her hand to release it, poured the contents into a chilled glass, cut a twist from a lemon—deeply, well into the rind, which Vicky took as a sign of hidden hostility—twirled the twist around her pinky finger, and set the icy concoction onto the rubber mat.
All without getting a drop on her First Lady of Indiana suit.
“Someone said they saw him next door nosing around the pool hall,” Diana said.
“He must be working on another book,” Margy said.
“Still single, huh?” Diana asked.
“Can you blame him?” Margy blurted, her voice—and eyes—washing over with emotion. “He was practically left at the altar—for a movie star.”
Diana clucked disapproval. “Thirty-seven and never married. What’s wrong with him?”
“Why does something have to be wrong with him?” Vicky countered, though she had no idea why she should jump to Al Romano’s defense. He was Margy’s old high school boyfriend, not hers.
“Hello?” Diana said. “Loser. Like that jerk Tommy Cortese.”
“Al’s not like Tommy,” Vicky said quickly, jumping to Al’s defense again, though it was completely unnecessary. Diana had grown up in this neighborhood, too, and knew all the same people the Hurleys did. Besides, a person didn’t have to stay single to be a loser or a jerk. “Some jerks actually do find women to marry,” Vicky said, catching another reproving look from Margy.
“Did you know that moron came into the ER the other night with a knife through his foot?” Diana said.
Margy sneered. “Tommy? He would.”
“Came this close to severing his toe.”
“The little piggy that had none,” Diana said. “And it was hanging by a thread, I tell you. Cut right through his tube sock. You should have seen the blood.”
Vicky felt her stomach pitch and then roll. “Don’t.” She leaned forward to steady her head in her hand. “I can’t take it when you talk about sick people.”
“And the reason you dropped out of nursing school remains a mystery to this day,” deadpanned Diana.
“Tommy had better have a speedy recovery,” Vicky said. “He’s supposed to start work on my attic in two weeks.”
The look on Margy’s face tightened. Not great, Vicky thought, but at least it was a reprieve from reproving.
“If there’s nothing wrong with Al Romano and he’s looking to settle down, he’s going to find himself a young thing,” Diana said.
“Men,” Vicky said. “They bounce back awfully quick, don’t they?”
“Not Daddy,” Margy offered, along with another teenage innocent look.
“Al will probably stop by to see you, don’t you think?” Vicky said, then glanced at the time. “Speaking of Bruce, I better run. I have to pick him up at that birthday party.”
“I should go, too,” Diana said.
Vicky laid some cash down on the bar, though Margy didn’t charge them for their wine, and together she and her new friend, shopping bags in tow, headed to the squeaky front door, shuddered one more time at the ballerinas from hell, and walked out into the brilliant June day.
“Look who’s coming this way,” Diana said.
Vicky grinned. “Speak of the devil.”
They both slid their sunglasses down their noses, the better to catch Al Romano as he sauntered into view. These days Al was looking quietly handsome, a big improvement from the quietly awkward look he’d sported as a teenager. His dark hair still had a way of flopping over his pair of sad dog eyes, and the worn black blazer he had on over his white t-shirt and jeans seemed authentically rumpled, if a bit standard.
Vicky felt Diana’s elbow in her ribs and then winked back at her because they could both clearly see. There was nothing wrong with Al Romano. Absolutely nothing at all.
The old neighborhood had been good to Al Romano, story-wise. Back in his pre-teen years, there’d been a series of murders throughout the borough, known as The Pool Hall Slasher killings, named after the location where the first one had taken place, right next door to Spiro’s joint. The murders had stoked young Al’s thirst for facts and crime, inspiring him to become a journalist, and later, an author. It was here, in this comfortable corner of Queens, that his detective character Rossetti dwelt. Al had three novels under his belt starring the reticent but resolute sleuth. The first one was a smashing success, the second one did all right, and the third one tanked.
Now, without a book deal and armed only with the names on his contact list, freelancing Al looked for the old neighborhood to come through for him one more time, on one more story.
Al would have to see Vicky Walker (or Vicky Hurley Walker, or whatever she called herself these days) for that story.
And he was not alone in his quest for an interview.
A dozen other media players—bigger names than him—were all after the same thing Al was after. But none of them would be as nice. So far, Vicky had said no to all the others.
She’d said no to Diane Sawyer. She’d said no to Oprah. Vicky Walker had said no to freakin’ People. She’d said no to every broadcast network, cable outfit, and news outlet—softball and hardball, new media and old—in the American and British presses. And now Al was betting the old neighborhood would be good to him one more time and she’d say yes to him.
When the time came. Which was not now, when she was obviously out shopping and wining and dining with Spiro’s daughter, Diana.
There was nothing wrong with Al Romano. Absolutely nothing at all.”
It was Al’s job to observe, to pick out details, and he took note of Vicky Walker’s appearance, not that it was hard.
With every step of her lively gait, her skirt swayed, one of those prints you saw this time of year on women. A lot of flowers and a lot of pink. The whole effect was…kinda floating, kinda bouncy, kinda both at the same time. Flouncy, he supposed.
There seemed to be not only feminine grace in her step, but joy in living. Shiny shades hovered above her bright smile. A straw bag dangled from one wrist, along with her Bloomingdale’s bag. She toddled on backless heels, showing off her slender ankles.
And her hair!
Beachy waves. That was what they called them. Al had read it in Haute. The new strawberry color—new since high school, anyway—was working for her.
It was funny how people turned out. Al never would have figured foxy Vicky Hurley for a mother of three boys, but there she was. And not just a mother of three boys, but a widow with three boys, at the tender age of thirty-what-was-it? Eight? No. Two years ahead of Al and Margy in high school. So it must be nine.
In his early newsroom days, Al had known a fellow reporter whose cheeks flushed bright red and whose hands trembled whenever he talked to his editor. Everyone dismissed him as a harmless fuzzball—including his sources, and that gave him a tremendous advantage. Al couldn’t make himself blush, and trembling took more energy than he wanted to expend on appearances. But he had a lock of hair with a mind of its own that liked to fall into his eyes. It made people think of a sheepdog, and therefore trust him. He used it to disarm those reluctant to be interviewed, and they’d talk.
Al kept cool as the women headed his way.
“Vicky, Diana. Hello,” he said.
“Hi, Al. Are you here to see Margy?”
“She inside?” His hair fell forward.
“Yeah, go on in. Good to see you,” Vicky said.
“Good to see you, too.”
“Bye,” Diana said.
Al paused outside the beat-up wooden door to Margy’s, ready to push down on the brass handle. He lowered his head and went in.
Inside it was much darker, shielded from the afternoon sun, and the change in light had Al seeing stars, or at the very least flouncy layers of flowered skirt. Margy was bent over behind the bar, rummaging through one of the built-in coolers. As the door squeaked in his wake, she popped up fully into view. Al swore that when she caught sight of him, before breaking out into one of her fragile smiles, her face fell, just for an instant, as if she were expecting someone else.
“I thought redheads weren’t supposed to wear pink,” he said, strawberry-colored beach waves crashing through his brain.
Margy glanced at her blouse. “It’s burgundy, and it matches,” she said, pointing to her own dark red hair’s rigid curl.
From the open kitchen came a racket of skillets and dishes.
“I need a bird on the rail!”
Al glanced toward the source. “Surly chef.”
“He recently went vegan,” Margy explained.
“Ah.” Then, a thought. Margy’s Bistro wasn’t vegan. “How does he know if everything tastes right?”
Margy hunched a shoulder. “You know chefs. He says it just does.”
At least the place had customers. A few at tables, but only one other guy at the bar, with a gray buzz cut and dark red sneakers. Al inclined his head hello and grabbed a stool.
“The place looks nice,” he said to Margy. “Big change from Spiro’s.”
“Yeah, don’t look over that way,” Margy said, waving toward a wall and a framed series of what he gathered were supposed to be portraits of ballet dancers. Al took in the lacerated legs and tutus the color of contusions.
“Ouch. Somewhere Degas weeps.”
“I told you not to look.” Reaching into the cooler again, Margy pulled out an imported beer, twisted it open and set the green bottle down in front of Al. “They said you were in the neighborhood.”
“Who’s they?” Al said, taking his first sip.
“You know. People. Said you were at the pool hall next door, asking a lot of questions.”
“I’m a reporter. I’m always asking questions.”
“That’s what I figured, you were working on a new book.”
Al leaned in close over his beer. “Not exactly a book. More like a magazine piece.”
“Oh. I thought you wrote novels now.” Her voice held the tiniest of question marks.
“I do that, too,” he said, meaning he might not do that again, or at least not for the time being. Or possibly ever. It hadn’t been a good year for Rossetti, on the page or at the cash register.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
An early happy hour crowd was starting to filter in, and Al didn’t want to take up too much of Margy’s time. He wanted to say hello and wish her well. It wasn’t every day a person’s high school sweetheart opened her own restaurant.
“Been a long time,” he said. “Not since that, what was it called, 666?”
“Six cubed,” Margy corrected. Actually, the name had been Six3. No one ever could figure out how to pronounce it, which had been part of the problem. “The club with the hell theme.” She shook her head. “My lowest point.”
“Mine, too.” Al took a long sip of his beer. “Only I didn’t know it.” Margy had managed the Manhattan hot spot for its celebrity owner; Al had reluctantly attended the opening with his celebrity girlfriend. That night marked the beginning of him losing the woman he’d been planning to marry.
A look of disgust crossed Margy’s face. “With me, I knew it.” She paused, then cracked a small smile. “Come to think of it, maybe it was the mojito bar before rehab that was my lowest point.” She shuddered. “Who wants to muddle mint for twelve hours on a Friday double? No wonder I crashed.”
“So just plain Margy’s Bistro, huh?”
“Yeah, I went back and forth about it. First it was gonna be Bistro Marguerite, then La Marguerite and then Marguerite’s Bistro. Then I figured Margy’s was what everyone was gonna end up calling it anyway. So, voila.” Her hand struck the air with a flourish.
“Anyway, full disclosure,” Al said. “This piece I’m doing, it’s for Haute magazine.”
Margy groaned. “Another name no one knows how to pronounce.”
Before he’d tried his hand at writing detective novels, Al worked as a newspaper reporter. Mostly he wrote about crime and disasters. He’d done investigative pieces before but never for Haute.
“They got me writing about Flight N484TW,” he said, glossing over the fact that he wasn’t exactly having his arm twisted by the editor there, that the story was more Al’s own idea. “I’m interested in talking to your sister.”
“So’s everybody,” Margy sniffed. “You just missed her.” Clearing the bar, she curled her fingers around the stems of two wine glasses, one of which had lipstick stains the same peachy color Al had noticed on Vicky.
To Al, Margy’s face had the gentle curves of one of Botticelli’s maidens. If you asked him, that was what she should have hanging on her wall. Margy lacked the polish and panache of Vicky, who had no discernible trace of a local accent. Years of presenting herself on camera and radio on various home makeover shows had bred it out of Vicky.
Behind the bar was a small dishwasher. Margy dumped the remaining wine in the sink and shoved the glasses in.
“Everybody’s always crying over Vicky. ‘Ooh, ooh, Vicky, she’s had such a loss,’” Margy said. “Well, I had a loss, too.”
“I know,” Al said. The last time he’d seen the sisters was at their father’s funeral, going back over two years now. “I’m sorry.”
“You wouldn’t even know our father passed away for all the attention paid to Vicky.” The anger in Margy’s voice grew. “Just because her jackhole of a husband went kablooey over the Titanic.”
Al stopped his sympathetic head tilting long enough to smile.
Kablooey over the Titanic. Al may have been the writer, but Margy had a way of putting things sometimes. The site of the ocean liner’s wreckage wasn’t the exact spot in the North Atlantic where the plane had exploded, but Margy’s description did capture the simplicity of the American public imagination, especially when it came to geography. America was over here, England was over there, and in between was the Titanic. In between was also where the chartered jet carrying eleven people, including Vicky’s financier husband, Clive Walker, seemingly disappeared on a January night two and a half years ago.
The event happened a mere three weeks after the Hurley girls lost their father to natural causes.
“Let’s just say not everyone who died that night was a saint,” Margy continued about her brother-in-law. “I never could figure out what my sister saw in him.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not eulogizing the guy.”
“Good. Cause you won’t get any glowing tributes from me,” Margy said. “You know what Clive used to do?” She lunged forward at the waist, jabbing the air angrily to make her point. “He and Vicky came into a place I was working at one time. He refused to look at the menu. Made me tell him what was on it and order for him. Then he claimed not to be impressed with what I brought and told me he’d had better, even as a half-eaten lamb chop was hanging out of his giant yapper.” Margy settled back onto her heels in a sullen stance. “You know what the saddest part is? You gotta figure one of those boys inherited his jackass gene. I vote Adam.”
So Margy didn’t like her sister’s taste in husbands. Al chalked it up to sibling rivalry. But still, he was walking a line. “Margy, it’s only fair to warn you,” Al said. “We may be old friends, but when you’re talking to me about this, I’m still a reporter on a story. I got eyes and ears and a notepad.” Which were stowed away in his shirt pocket at the moment, but nonetheless…
Margy’s eyes brightened with delight. She clearly didn’t take his words as a threat. Or maybe she did have it in for her sister.
“That night was hardly Vicky’s fault,” he said.
Margy bit her lip. “I know. But it’s always been that way with her. She steals everything.”
“Does this go back to some fight about a hairbrush when you were twelve?”
Al didn’t remember the dynamic between the sisters being this tense. But then again, Al hadn’t spent much time around Vicky. Al and Margy were two years younger than Vicky, an eternity in high school. She’d run with a different crowd—and gone out with Frankie Cortese.
Margy sputtered and shook her head. “Talk about last call.”
Aside from the cockpit voice recorder, the last human communication from Flight N484TW before it met its fate had come from Clive Walker. He’d made a phone call, via the plane’s satellite technology, to his wife. That phone call had ended moments before the explosion took the plane into the water and eleven souls into eternity.
Al assured Margy he wouldn’t be exploiting her sister’s tragedy, and would Margy happen to know if Vicky would be willing to talk to him?
Margy frowned. “Poor you.”
Poor you. Leave it to super-sensitive Margy to look at the misunderstood journalist with pity in her eyes. In all his years of reporting, Al had elicited a lot of reactions when introducing himself to people who didn’t want to talk to him, and he’d been called a lot of things. Poor you wasn’t one of them.
“She’s been pretty quiet about the whole thing since it happened,” he persisted.
“Because it feeds her ego. Makes her look above it all, which gets her even more attention.”
“I thought she moved back here to get away from all the attention.”
“Come on, you almost married a big star. You know how PR is done.”
She had to go and remind him of that.
Al wondered: Was that really Vicky Walker’s M.O.? Vanity? Was that why she hadn’t said anything beyond giving bare-bones facts to the authorities? Or was it something else? He supposed it could be possible, but then he considered his source: Margy. There was that sibling rivalry to consider, plus Margy’s own resentful nature. He was fond of his former sweetheart and all, but she was what she was.
“That’s hardly fair,” Al said.
He didn’t need Margy’s permission to talk to her sister, but he’d like to have her blessing. This was not what he’d expected from Margy. He’d anticipated resistance and a certain protectiveness of Vicky. In fact, he mildly expected Margy might tip Vicky off to what Al wanted. Blood was still thicker than water.
“Look,” he said, then paused. “I’m a reporter. Reporters go after stories. It’s a good story. Vicky hasn’t talked to anyone in the press and I understand why. I can do right by her. If she’ll talk.”
“Yeah, she’ll talk. And talk and talk and talk. Don’t let that dignified silence bit fool you. That’s Vicky looking after her image. Deep down inside, she’s dying to make what happened to Clive all about her.”
Al tried changing the subject to defuse the growing tension. “Roy over at the pool hall said you’re having a grand opening party next Sunday.”
Margy nodded. “For family and friends. Drinks and passed apps.”
“Do I get to come?”
Al and Margy chatted for a while about her new place.
“Come here and check this out,” she said, turning her back to the guy at the end of the bar and lowering her voice. “I already got a barfly.”
“Guy down the end of the bar.” She gave a tilt of her head. “Drinking the pastis. Been in every day this week.” They both looked down the bar. The man inclined his head in a hello. “He’s kind of mysterious.”
“Is that so?”
“At first, I was afraid of him, thinking he was going to ask for protection and threaten to break something if I didn’t pay up. But he’s been here since last week and no offer.”
Margy then made Al an offer of a bit to eat, but French fries cooked in duck fat by a vegan chef seemed as iffy a proposition as cement shoes, and besides, he couldn’t stay. He did finish his beer, and when he pulled out his wallet, she motioned for him to put it away. “Reporter’s ethics, you know,” he said.
Margy guffawed. “News flash, Al. Ethics, not a big deal among your kind.”
“You might be a source someday,” he said, paying her no mind. He pulled out a ten.
“Put that away.”
“At least let me tip your bartender.” Who did not seem to be around, whoever he was.
“Forget it. I’m bartender today and don’t get me started on why.”
They went back and forth until Margy finally took his ten and gave it to her dishwasher.
“Well.” He rapped his knuckles on the bar. “Just to let you know, I’ll be swinging by Vicky soon to check things out for myself.”
“Knock yourself out,” Margy said, giving him one last sad look to send him on his way. “But I’m telling you. Gonna end up being Vicky, Vicky, Vicky.”
And then she added, “One more thing before you go.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
“Come, let me show you what I did with the coat check.”
Copyright 2017 by Karen Tomsovic
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