Mr. Eisenstein’s Holiday
by Gary Inbinder
|part 2 of 3|
Eisenstein relaxed in a large leather armchair situated conveniently close to the bar. Late afternoon sunshine filtered through open French doors and bay windows. The light sparkled on polished oak and walnut in most areas of the mezzanine lounge, while some nooks remained dim. Our friend preferred the shadows, where he could remain obscure and detached from the other guests.
Not much had changed in ten years, at least not in the decor: the same leather armchairs and round, glass-topped tables strategically dispersed for the guests’ comfort; the same ebony grand piano with top down and keyboard cover closed, awaiting the evening’s entertainment; the same brick and copper fireplace, its embers banked in mild weather.
The ambience had something familiar and restful about it that welcomed Eisenstein. He relaxed until Mr. and Mrs. Painintheass entered with another couple. Their simian guffaws and f-bomb laden jabbering subverted his temporary illusion of well-being.
Where were their children? He wondered. The question crossed his mind and vanished as quickly as it came; the matter of the Painintheass brats’ welfare did not concern him. But they were like migraine headaches; even when they were absent, he feared their recurrence.
Eisenstein nursed his scotch; it was not his favorite twenty-year old single malt. Rather, he drank an inferior ten-year-old blended product. The difference in price — eight dollars per glass — had decided the issue. A decade earlier, he drank for pleasure; now, he drank for escape.
Mrs. P. emitted a blood-curdling whoop that reverberated throughout the lounge just as Eisenstein was sipping scotch. The woman’s hyena imitation jarred him so that his hand jerked and he spilled a drop on his best shirt. “If only that had been her death cry from the stake driven through her heart” he muttered as he mopped the spot with his water-dampened napkin.
While our friend was thus preoccupied, a refreshing ocean breeze blew through the lounge bar. Eisenstein glanced toward the terrace. The twilight sky seemed a rococo composition in blue, pink and gold — a glimpse of sublime beauty in contrast to Painintheass ugliness.
Eisenstein gestured to his server. She came promptly. “I’m taking my drink outside. Please bring me another and you may keep running a tab.” Eisenstein took himself and the remainder of his scotch outdoors. The place seemed empty, which suited our friend’s mood.
He took a seat at a small table next to the white balustrade that bordered the mezzanine terrace. His server brought him a fresh drink and removed his empty glass. She returned to the bar, and our friend began a conversation with an imaginary woman he called “my friendly ghost.”
“She’s pretty, don’t you think?” The ghost sitting across from him smiled while admiring the waitress’s firm little behind.
“I wouldn’t know.” He held his glass a moment before sipping. Then he put down his scotch and rinsed his mouth with ice water.
“How is it?”
“Your favorite scotch, of course.”
He winced. “This is hardly my favorite. I’m drinking failure.”
“What does failure taste like?” The ghost knew, but she still wanted his opinion.
“It tastes like the dirt on your grave.” He searched the ghost’s face for some reaction to his remark. She seemed mildly amused, which was irksome. He turned his face seaward, and stared at the dark Pacific. White waves rolled over the surface, breaking on the rocks and washing the sandy shore. The breeze rustled palms lining the road that ran along the coast between a private beach and the hotel. His face wrinkled, and he shivered. “It’s cold out here.”
“Not too cold, Mr. Eisenstein.” He glanced up and saw a real woman smiling at him. The ghost had disappeared but the woman standing beside his table resembled the apparition — so much so that she startled him speechless. “I’m sorry,” she continued, “I suppose you don’t remember me, but then you didn’t recognize me the last time we met either, and I’m afraid I’ve embarrassed you. What an amazing coincidence, our meeting here after all this time.” She spoke in a familiar but pleasant sort of chatter.
Her reference to their last meeting jogged his memory. It had been at this hotel, ten years earlier, at a healthcare law seminar. In addition, he remembered that he knew her from some time before that encounter, but he could not recall from where or when. The coincidence was certainly amazing; in fact, it was uncanny and disturbing. He smiled nervously, got up from his chair and greeted her. “I... I do remember you, but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name. I’m so sorry; it’s a sign of old age, I guess.”
The woman laughed softly, but there was nothing outwardly reproachful in her demeanor — at least not that Eisenstein could detect. She went on as though their meeting was the most natural thing in the world. “That’s all right, I’m not so old and I’ll admit I’ve forgotten your first name.”
Had he told her his first name? He had never forgiven his parents for naming him Victor Hugo after his father’s favorite author. In his youth, family and friends called him Vick, and that name, Vick Eisenstein, reminded him of someone who wore silk suits, spent too much time in Las Vegas, and had a collection of Sinatra records. He blushed and stuttered, “Uh... my name’s Victor, so you can understand why I prefer Eisenstein.”
“Why I think Victor’s a lovely name. I have a Great-Uncle Vick; he’s a wonderful old guy.”
“I’ll bet he is,” our friend grumbled to himself. Remembering his manners, he asked, “Will you join me Ms.... uh...?”
“Thank you, I will, and it’s Laura Brown. Please call me Laura.” She sat opposite Eisenstein and continued smiling. She appeared to be about forty, petite, with bright green eyes, pale, flawless skin and sensual mouth. Her long, silky chestnut hair glistened, and she wore a simple black cocktail dress that showed her figure to advantage.
Very attractive, our friend thought. So why flirt with a washed-up old man? Then, maybe she believed that his circumstances had not changed in ten years. Perhaps she was a bimbo frequenting this once exclusive hotel in search of a sugar daddy. Eisenstein knew the type — at any rate, he thought that he did.
He glanced at her hand in search of a telltale diamond, and saw none. And it was a pretty hand, with long, slender fingers and carefully manicured and polished nails. His eye scanned the terrace; they were the only guests seated outside. He politely asked if she wanted a drink and she answered in the affirmative, while presuming to call him “Vick.”
Eisenstein signaled the waitress and then had an awkward moment worrying that Ms. Brown might expect him to pick up her tab. He recalled that she had been a hospital administrator and wondered if she had lost her job in the recession. “Are you still working for the same hospital?” He reckoned that if she answered, “Yes” or she was similarly situated financially, it would get him off the hook.
“Oh I’ve moved up a bit. I’m Executive Vice President and CFO for the hospital group now.” She said this matter-of-factly but softly, almost apologetically, as if wanting to be truthful without bragging.
“If that’s the case,” Eisenstein thought, “you can buy the drinks.” He eyed his companion. She was certainly good-looking and, if truthful, unmarried — no ring — and not lacking for money. Of course, it could all be a sham. He smiled and with just a hint of sarcasm in his voice, which she did not seem to detect, said, “I’m glad you’re doing so well.”
“Thanks; it sounds better than it really is,” she replied with the sort of modest self-deprecation that proud people affect. “Are you still a regional counsel?” She inquired with a hint that his status might no longer equal hers.
“No, I’m retired.” That sounded better than saying that his employer had eliminated his job in a downsizing. He had received a retirement package that was more silver than gold, and it had tarnished considerably in the recent market crash.
She smiled sympathetically. “Oh you’re much too young to be retired, but we’ve had our layoffs too. I suppose no one is safe in times like these.”
He thought of replying, “Thanks for your empathy,” but why be sarcastic? He remembered something about Laura Brown that had impressed him at the time of their last meeting — her ingenuousness. He fumbled around for a more appropriate response.
He started by repeating himself, adding a “truly” for emphasis and an assurance of his sincerity. “Thanks, and I’m truly glad to hear that you’re doing so well.” He paused a moment, then continued, “You know, the last time we met...” He stopped again; he was about to say something awkward, and her wide-eyed gaze and warm, red-lipped smile unnerved him. “I recall you gave me your card, and I promised I’d call you about... something. I’m sorry I didn’t.”
“Why be sorry? I’m sure you had more important things on your mind.”
The waitress came for their order. Eisenstein requested his favorite scotch — Why not? No one lives forever — and Laura ordered Bombay Sapphire and tonic.
They carried on a safe shoptalk conversation. At one point, she questioned why he did not get back into their relatively recession-proof business. Someone with his experience could do quite well, even on a part-time consulting basis. She would talk to people, if he were interested.
He nodded indifferently. Why be sorry? It all came back to him now. She had given him her business card and asked if he would attend the next scheduled seminar. He said that he would, but he did not attend.
Following the seminar, a woman lawyer colleague, married with children, had teased him. During the introductions, the most attractive woman in the room had blurted out, “Oh I know Mr. Eisenstein.” Several attendees had smiled or laughed. Eisenstein had flushed with embarrassment. He had only a vague recollection of Laura Brown from an evening course they had attended a few years earlier. His friend reproached him with a knowing smile. “She obviously likes you and you didn’t even remember her name.”
“Cat got your tongue?” Laura questioned. He had drifted while pondering the past. She continued smiling enigmatically as she sipped her drink.
“Sorry,” he muttered, “my mind wanders. Another sign of old age, I guess.” That was a lame excuse; her presence bewildered him and he had simply run out of things to say.
“You say that too often — about your age,” she scolded. “You don’t look a day over fifty.” She saw right through him. He pleaded age as an excuse for his dullness and indifference.
There was a sudden eruption of drunken laughter; the Painintheasses and friends had come out to the terrace. Their appearance reminded Eisenstein of the monkey house at a zoo, except here the monkeys were not caged. The noisy party settled at a nearby table, but not before Mrs. P. bent over the balustrade and puked her appetizers and cocktails into the bushes.
Eisenstein downed his drink and eyed his companion with a desperate look. “Would you like to go for a walk? The grounds here are still lovely.”
His “still,” said volumes as well as his disgusted frown that expressed a longing to escape from all life’s Painintheasses. She agreed, and they waited for their server who had gone to attend to the Painintheass party. True to form, that group monopolized the young woman an inordinately long time while changing their orders, complaining about the bar not serving drinks that existed only in their muddled brains, laughing hysterically at their own unfunny jokes, making suggestive comments about the waitress, complaining about the service, and so forth.
When Eisenstein and Laura settled their tabs, there was some polite back and forth about who would pay and they finally agreed to an even split. As they were leaving the terrace, Laura glanced at Mrs. Painintheass, turned toward Eisenstein and observed, “She’s a celebrity. She has her own reality show — Trailer Park Party.”
“No doubt,” our friend replied mordantly.
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Gary Inbinder