|The Platinum Hamburger (The Tinder Box)
by Julie Baumgold
"We are fully booked for January and February," Meredith said on Thursday, January 2nd. She tossed blond roiled rivers of hair and bent over the mahogany reservationist's desk.
"But you have only been open a day," said the caller.
"I've known Sam Greene since 1968. I did the first story on him ever. He sends me steaks from his ranch every Christmas for Christsakes…"
"I'm sorry, sir. We are fully booked for the entire month."
"There must be someone else I can talk to…" Stage three already, Meredith thought, and he hasn't even given his name so I can't Google him or check the List of the Permitted. What a jerk and how she loved her new job. As the youngest in her large family, she had never had anything like power and at home her beauty meant nothing to any of them.
"Well, we'll see about that…" said the man, full in the hysteria of stage four (uncomprehending fury), and slammed down the phone. She assumed his assistant would find the way to the secret phone number and soon learn the manager's email. If he was who he said he was, he would find his way into the restaurant within the week and be seated somewhere invisible in the back or on the side alcoves because he must be old.
Sam Greene might pass by his table full of smiles and comraderie. He could afford to be kind. Meredith and the others were there to set the tone. The others had to be nice, Meredith had to be firm and beautifully forbidding. A smile from her would be relenting.
A beautiful bitch gatekeeper at the door, and on the phone with her recently acquired somewhat English accent. Again she smiled as the phone, the wrong line, rang for the 43rd time that morning.
Two other reservationists joined her as the day went on and Kaya, one of the walk- them-downstairs hostesses who would seat them. All of the female staff were dressed alike in gray flannel trousers and short cashmere sweaters, with a string of real pearls provided by Sam Greene, black loafers with Gucci horse bits on the flap, a "snaffle" to Meredith who had grown up riding horses.
"Samantha Golden, table for two," said the hard voice of a girl in fur.
The coat girl was holding her jacket dripping with fur tails and lined with fur.
Fur lined with fur, Meredith had never seen that before but she had seen the face in the columns she was forced to read for her job.
"Of course, Ms. Golden, Kaya will take you on down."
"The restaurant is down two flights."
"Yes, of course." Still, she looked around to make sure.
Samantha Golden walked off without taking the ticket for her coat.
Whoa, what was this swinging into the door? A real soldier in uniform and combat boots with a Sam Greene shopping bag, a duffle bag, and a shy young smile. He came right over to Meredith and leaned on her reservationist post, forbidden territory. A scar ran down his right eyebrow and his face looked like he had been outdoors for many months in hard weather.
"Y'll got hamburgers here?"
Meredith was about to go into her full Meredith mode then a little drift of the movie she had seen that weekend reoccurred. It was American Sniper. Also she thought of one of her brothers who had deployed and how he was these days back home, often in the dark and so quiet.
"Kaya, will you take this gentleman down… Table 24," she said the table number in a whisper. She told him she would check his duffle.
Down they went and down further, passing big bright sconces on the wall like octagonal eyes. The room was fairly empty for a place with such desperation going on upstairs and on the phones. Kaya brought the soldier over to his table, the one next to Samantha Golden who was waiting for her friend. She watched Samantha look up at their approach, enjoying the slight widening of her eyes.
"Hi, Ma'am," the soldier said to Samantha Golden as Kaya smiled into her stack of menus. He seated himself as though it hurt. She gave a menu to each of them.
"Holy shit!" the soldier said.
Samantha looked across the empty restaurant, like a rooftop sniper scanning for his likeliest prey.
"Where are you?" she said into her phone. "Hurry up." She was murmuring something, sounding annoyed.
"$24 for a hamburger?" he said.
Samantha said nothing but did another scan of the wood-paneled room and the ceiling which was covered in burnished gold leaf paper panels to impart a warm friendly glow for those who had attained a seat.
"What are you having, Ma'am?"
Carl, the waiter, was enjoying this too much to take their drinks order just yet.
"Some place," said the soldier looking around at the walls, the color and texture of caskets he had seen. "Guess you see places like this all the time, Ma'am. Not me, not where I've been."
Samantha Golden swished around in her bag and put on her sunglasses. She circled the bag and moved it closer to her body. She had long pink nails and gold on both wrists.
The soldier was again studying the menu. He took out his phone and took a picture of it.
Samantha Golden looked over at the oblong blue pill he was taking with her first sign of interest.
"You have any more of those? I can't get any right now."
"Only a whole duffle bag…."
Samantha Golden smiled and tossed her head in that way she had that had made many men felt reprieved. She was about to look at her watch but instead looked full on at the soldier with her big hazel eyes as she tugged at the neck of her peach sweater.
"I'm carrying a lot of cash now and I can give you whatever you want…I have about two thousand."
Bobby Shapps was moving through the room to her with his usual authority.
Samantha shook her head and put her finger to her lips.
"This soldier and I have some business upstairs," she said to Bobby. He plopped down like the fat man he was and unfolded the Personal Journal section of his Wall Street Journal.
Upstairs they took the duffle to a corner alcove of the bar and sat on a banquette together. It was not unusual for Samantha to sit wherever she liked in places.
The soldier unzipped his heavily streaked duffle and a little cloud of desert air with bits of dried mud floated up into the dark bar. He pulled out two large baggies of blue and yellow pills and Samantha gave him twenty hundred dollar bills still in their envelope from Chase Manhattan Bank Private Client Services.
In went the baggies to Samantha's big maroon bag which had a little gold lock and key dangling from one side. She licked her tiny lips which matched the color of her sweater.
"Guess I'll be moving on," the soldier said. "I can get my burger someplace else and you look busy with that fat dude."
"Won't be stayin', ma'am," he said to Meredith, "I'm going home. Tell Mr. Sam Greene that was one great hamburger."
He bent way down and gave Samantha Golden a kiss on the peach blush of her cheek and left the palace to those who belonged inside.
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