Tuesday, July 14, 2020

New Fiction by Linda McMullen


            I only ever ordered grasshoppers because Cynthia Northrup did.  The crème slimed my tongue with the viscous vestiges of last year’s trapped-in-a-laundry-vent Thin Mint. 
I suspected Cynthia only ordered them to set off her flaming-fall-foliage tresses.
Our parents – longtime drop-by-for-a-beer/barbeque/birthday neighbors – assumed our friendship: any pair of young people within a three-year radius must possess an affinity for one another.  Cynthia was a year ahead of me at Salem North; we sat kitty-corner in Algebra II.  (I should say, I formed one corner of her eight-desk ring, otherwise consisting of Matt, Desmond, Jim, Josh, C.J., Adam, and Tommy.  I got 90+ on every test and none of them ever glanced toward my paper.)
After college, Cynthia and I boomeranged successively. 
Neither of us contemplated the other’s existence until we both appeared in Bar None one night.  She asked the manager for an old-school application; I skulked near the door, waiting for a Tinder date (or, it emerged, Godot).  We waved, halfheartedly. 
The three poorly-tipping customers in the bar, dismayed by their ability to hear one another, trickled out.  The bartender’s short sleeves rippled over his biceps; I purportedly recommitted to looking out for my (still absent) date.  The bartender extended his hand to Cynthia.  “Grant.” 
He offered her a poison ivy-tinted beverage – “No charge” – while she bent over her old-school hard-copy application, her V-neckline sinking. 
Cynthia said “thanks” without looking up. 
Then, with the utmost surprise – no “But soft!” about it – he noticed me.
“Grant,” he called.
“Fern.”  Mom’s favorite book: Charlotte’s Web. 
“I should, uh – I’ll get you one too,” he said.  I sipped mine with every appearance of gratitude; he mopped the counter at Cynthia’s elbow.
Cynthia signed her application but Grant interjected with a steady stream of questions about her experience, promising to put in a good word with Leif, the manager.  Cynthia responded with unfeigned seriousness and I found myself itching to slap her.
I texted my date.  He couldn’t lie if he didn’t respond, right?
“This is the best grasshopper I’ve ever had,” I called. 
“Thanks,” replied Grant.  To Cynthia: “Do you see yourself working late hours?  No… other commitments?”
I set down my drink, half-finished, picked up my purse.  
“You didn’t like it?”
“Trying to keep a clear head.”
Grant: everything I’d been unable to find in a boyfriend to date.  A job that would not shock the IRS, and, presumably, an eighth-grade-or-better reading level.  I sought his eyeline, but he was pouring out three nut varieties for Cynthia.
Cynthia handed in her application, called to me, “Hey, can I get a lift?”  
Grant’s face crumbled like a soap opera hero’s.  
I said, “I walked, actually,” which had the benefit of truth.
Cynthia pulled a face, involuntarily.  Grant murmured, “I can get you an Uber… when you’re ready.” 
I suppose some synapse finally fired, because she beamed.  “That’d… be nice.”
I exited.  

Five months and a remarkably unnecessary number of ghostings later…

…having frequently spotted Grant pulling into the Northrups’ driveway …
…I returned to Bar None with an under-inflated balloon bunch and a somber-eyed teddy bear.  I was ostensibly hosting a defective bachelorette party for Amelia from marketing.  She had asked me to be her bridesmaid due to a complete dearth of options.  I had selected Bar None for identical reasons.
Amelia spotted Grant and raised her eyebrows significantly at me.
“He’s seeing someone.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“Ever see a low-speed car wreck in real time?” 
Grant presented us with laminated menus.
“What would you like?” I asked.
“Something rich,” Amelia said.  
“I make a decent grasshopper,” said Grant.
“Two, please,” I managed, knees disintegrating, stomach lurching.  Grant nodded without recognition.
Six grasshoppers later – only one and a half of them mine – I packed Amelia and four shrunken balloons into a Lyft.  Then I helped Grant close the place down, in the sense that I toyed with my phone for another ninety minutes atop a teetering stool.  We emitted occasional half-sentences.  He let drop, “my ex… of two days… seeing someone else…” 
At some point thereafter I gently suggested continuing the conversation at his apartment.  
We dated.  (I resumed my tip-tilting seat at Bar None during slow shifts, stayed over).  I imbibed green sludge and tried to replicate ‘30s movie-star lashes.
“You need to see an optometrist?” he asked.
Cynthia blew in one evening with an ex-Marine and a dress cut down to there and Grant offered his best impression of a wolverine on the wrong end of a home invasion.  
But he slid a grasshopper in front of her.  
“On the house.”
And when, inevitably, the Marine strode out, nearly ripping the door off its hinges, and Grant suggested he’d get an Uber for me, I re-downloaded Tinder.  
Right after tipping my bilious drink down Cynthia’s emerald dress.

- © Linda McMullen 2020

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over sixty literary magazines, including Drunk Monkeys, Storgy, and Newfound.

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