Chapter 69 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Jim knew from the moment he saw Rhonda that the whole thing was a mistake. It was non-love at first sight.

She was sitting at a small table near the back of the bar. The table looked very small indeed because Rhonda looked so big. She wasn't exactly fat (though she was certainly a bit overweight) she was just big. She was tall and had a large frame, broad shoulders, and big, muscular arms. Jim, who was neither tall nor heavyset, felt daunted and puny when he looked at Rhonda. This was also a bit of a surprise for him. He'd been fearful about the adjective "tremendous" but had forgotten about this concern after looking at the photo she'd sent. The portrait-style photograph had completely failed to convey her large size, and Jim was therefore rather shocked by it.

Jim stood a few feet back from the table looking at her, wondering if he had any chance of escape, if he could move on past the table without stopping, acting as if he were someone else, casually wandering towards the door and into the safety and freedom of the night air. However, he hesitated too long.

Rhonda looked at him and smiled. "Jim! Hello!"

Jim faked a smile. "Hi! You must be Rhonda!"

"Yep! Have a seat! I've already ordered some appetizers."

Jim frantically tried to think of some way of getting out of all of this, but was unable to. He stood there, awkwardly looking at Rhonda, who smiled back at him unceasingly. At last he resigned himself to the ordeal, and slumped into the chair.

"I ordered mozzarella sticks and chicken wings," said Rhonda. "They should arrive any minute."

"Oh good," said Jim with actual enthusiasm, since he very much liked both chicken wings and mozzarella sticks.

Another thing that surprised and disturbed Jim was her hair. The Rhonda in the photo had straight, smooth hair, which seemed fairly long and looked very nice. The Rhonda in person had short, permed, very curly hair, which Jim disliked intensely.

"Did you have any trouble finding the place?" asked Rhonda.

"No, no trouble at all," said Jim.

Jim was embarrassed by the long stretches of silence, even though Rhonda continued to smile at Jim and seemed almost contented. Jim wondered what Rhonda was thinking.

The waitress appeared, set the appetizers on the table, asked if they wished to order drinks, wrote down their orders, and vanished. Jim noticed that the waitress was very attractive, and as she scurried away he wished wistfully that he was having this blind date with her instead. Rhonda had ordered a beer, but Jim, who wasn't much of a drinker, had ordered a Coke. He immediately wished that he too had ordered a beer; it was going to be a long meal.

They munched mozzarella sticks and chicken wings. Rhonda attempted to start conversation on several topics: music, movies, hobbies. Her interests struck Jim as commonplace and dull, and the conversations quickly fell apart.

Rhonda's face was caked with makeup. She'd been wearing makeup in the photo, but not as much and not as thickly applied. It wasn't so very noticeable in the picture, but in real life, it looked ghastly. Her lips were bright red, glossy, and rather plastic looking. Her eyelids were blue. Pink smudges incrusted her cheeks. Jim found all of this ugly and revolting. He hated makeup. He thought it looked stupid and unnatural. He thought Rhonda looked more like a Barbie doll than an actual person. Why were her eyelids blue? Blue isn't a normal color for eyelids.

Rhonda appeared to be searching for some topic of conversation to bring up. At last she broke the silence. "Have you got your Christmas shopping done yet?"

What Jim thought was "Good Lord, it's the last week of November! Who gets their Christmas shopping done this early?"

What Jim said was "No, not yet. It's kind of early, isn't it?"

Rhonda said, "Oh, I guess, but I always like to get my Christmas shopping done early. I hate dealing with the crowds at the mall."

Jim couldn't think of anything to say to this, particularly because he thought that anyone who finished their Christmas shopping a month in advance was goofy. Silence again dominated their conversation.

The waitress reappeared, with the beer and the Coke. She asked if they were ready to order their entrees.

Jim's single goal was to find a way of ending the ordeal as quickly and painlessly as possible. He said, "Gee, I don't know. I wasn't really all that hungry, and the appetizers kind of filled me up."

Rhonda wouldn't go for it, though. She clucked over Jim's lack of appetite, but it didn't inhibit her own. "Well, I'm going to have the grilled turkey and Swiss. Are you sure you don't want anything, Jim?"

Jim had been lying about not being very hungry, but he couldn't change his story too drastically. "Oh, OK, I guess I'll have an order of fries."

The awkward minutes crawled by. Rhonda had realized by now that the whole thing was collapsing and she was attempting to shore it up with a new round of conversation starters. These of course did no good. Jim was reminded of the hours he spent in church as a kid, listening to endless sermons, desperately impatient for liberation and freedom, but bound by etiquette and a stern mother to sit still and to act calm and serene.

The waitress finally arrived with their food, and the process of eating took the attention off of the lack of conversation.

And the time finally came when the end was in sight. The waitress brought the check, and Jim paid it. Then, acting quickly lest his parole be denied, he stood up and said to Rhonda, "Well. This was very nice. I'll call you next week, OK?"

Rhonda looked blankly at Jim. "OK," she said. Then it looked like she might say something else, so Jim quickly said "OK! Then I guess I'll see you later." And he turned his back on her and strolled, as quickly and yet as casually as he could, toward the front door. As he exited, he looked back and saw that Rhonda was still sitting at the table. She had her elbow on the table and was holding her head up with her right hand, her palm pressed against her forehead.

On returning home, Jim located and threw away Rhonda's photo, letter, and phone number. He never intended to call her again. Then he locked himself into his closet, put a fresh sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began to write a story.

He worked on it until 2:30 in the morning.

It was called "Wishing Well."

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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