map The Good Life

by Loraine Shields

Published in Issue No. 52 ~ September, 2001

The Mah Jong Cafe was across the street from the Gulf. Even though it
was late October, the sun was warm and the breeze sultry. The waves
made little more than a lapping sound that was hard to hear through
the passing traffic and the cries and laughter of some children
playing in the sand.

The front of the restaurant was open air save for a six foot
breakfront of louvered glass windows. All the slats were closed except
at one table. A couple sat there. The husband was reading his paper
and the wife was looking around.

Walter Benziger took off his cap to get more sun. Eileen Benziger
tried to wheel her chair closer to the table.

A bird hopped on the ground next to them.

Eileen thought the bird was hungry but wary of getting closer. She
whistled at it. She leaned forward and trilled with a sing-song sound
through her lips. The bird fluttered away.

Mrs. Benziger sat back in her wheelchair and dropped her hands into
her lap. She realized her mistake. She should have sung to him. Her
voice soothed animals. She used to sing to her daughter all the time.
Even common phrases.

“Aaww. Walter, the birdie is so hungry and I have nothing to give
him,” she said. She spoke to the back of her husband’s paper. He did
not respond. She looked for the bird.

The three remaining walls of the restaurant were covered with white
trellises; growing up the trellises was salmon-colored bougainvillea.
A warm breeze came and, as Walter held down his hair so it would not
get mussed, a few of the bougainvillea leaves parted.

That bad bird had flown into the bougainvillea and was peeking out at
Mrs. Benziger. She saw it right away and wagged her head from side to
side.

“What ‘cha doin’ sweetheart?” she sang to the tune of “Good Morning
Heartache.” The bird continued to look at her and cock its head from
side to side. It seemed to be listening to what she said. She tried to
turn her chair around because her neck was getting stiff from twisting
it so much, but her arthritic hands could not grasp the wheels. She
tried several times and then put the idea out of her mind.

“Walter, I wish you’d pay some attention. This bird has rhythm.”

Walter turned a page and cleared his throat.

“I wish I had something for it. When Rita gets here we’ll have a good
time looking at this bird.” Mrs. Benziger spoke to her husband’s
newspaper. “Walter, go get some noodles.”

The bird dove out to a table in the center of the room. It danced
around in a circle. Mrs. Benziger thought it was showing off for her.

“Walter, this is a very smart bird. I wish Rita could see this! I’m
afraid she’ll miss it.” Eileen turned her head and called to her
husband, hoping that he would look, also. “Walter, for goodness sake!
It’s dancing.”

She turned back to the bird and clapped her hands together silently,
trying to keep in time with his movements. Then she sang him a
lullaby:

Darlin’ little fellow,

What are we to do?

Wind is comin’ stronger now,

And the sky ain’t blue.

“You get a hundred percent for your dance. I wish I had something to
give you, sweetheart.”

The bird glared at her and flew straight up and away.

Eileen tried to sit better in her chair, but she kept sliding down. To
the back of her husband’s newspaper, she snapped, “You’re too slow,
Walter. You live in a dream world. You never catch the action. The
bird lost its patience with us.”

From three o’clock on, the tables were covered with pink and white
flowered tablecloths. Little metal clips were attached to the sides so
the material would not blow in the wind. Mrs. Benziger tried to circle
the outline of one of the flowers with her finger. It was a
chrysanthemum. Then she picked up her menu and stared angrily at the
paper facing her.

“Bobby Short has no soul!” She reached out and fanned at her husband’s
newspaper with her menu to get his attention.

“Let up,” he said and flapped out his paper even wider and stiffer.

She had her distance glasses on and was reading the back of The New
York Times
that her husband held. The words, “Carlyle Hotel
Pianist,” and a picture of Bobby Short vibrated in front of her in the
breeze.

“He’s staccato. All staccato. His head sinks when he plays. Like
this.” Mrs. Benziger jutted her head back and forth and then wagged it
from side to side.

“Bobby Short, Bobby Short, Bobby Short, he plays all nervy. He should
wake up every morning and be ashamed of himself.” She pointed her
finger toward heaven and then looked around once more for the bird.

“Let up,” said Walter, turning a page and clearing his throat.

“He plays major key and minor music.” Mrs. Benziger began to sing,
“Satin Doll,” staccato and derisive. Her voice was mellifluous and
clear as a bell, but she was making exaggerated up and down gestures
with her shoulders and her hands twitched in the air. “DA DADA DUMP
DUMP DA DA DA DADA DA Dump Dump!”

“Let up on it. Give it a rest.”

“He plays kadoodle. For people who know nothing. He has no minor key
in his soul! I could run circles around him.”

“Lock it up for the night.”

Eileen’s glasses were crooked on her nose, and when she went to adjust
them her menu slid. She tried to grab it, but her hands could not grip
the laminated surface. It fell to the floor.

She tried to snap her fingers at his paper. “People have no ear.
They’re so easily led–like you with that ‘Titanic.’ You can’t shut me
up about that ‘Titanic.’ No one remembers ‘Cleopatra.'”

“Let up.” Walter waved his paper at the passing waiter. “Say, fella, I
need a glass of water.” He cleared his throat.

“No ice.” Eileen smoothed out the table cloth in front of her.

“Say, fella, I want ice. Lots of ice.” Walter shifted his seat
slightly so he could get more sun on his face while he read.

“One with ice, one without ice.” Eileen spoke slowly and loudly and
distinctly. She mimed putting ice into a glass and taking ice out with
her fingers. There would be no mistakes.

This was Winston, the waiter they didn’t like. He always got
everything wrong. That’s because he didn’t listen. Some people weren’t
raised to listen. He didn’t notice the menu on the floor. He was
standing on it. His neck was hopelessly weak like a tortoise’s and his
hair scant and dyed yellow, which was strange for a middle-aged
Persian. Mrs. Benziger knew that he gambled and that he thought he
looked suave. He smelled like cigarettes and was constantly hewing up
phlegm in the alley. They couldn’t wait for him to leave.

The restaurant was empty except for two businessman, who sat a few
tables away with their briefcases open at their sides. One was on a
cell phone. Mrs. Benziger thought he was faking the call. The other
was signing a contract. Eileen did not like business being done in a
restaurant. People doing business didn’t taste the food and they wrote
it off on expense accounts. Eileen thought that wasn’t fair. She saw
Winston hanging around for the businessmen’s tip. He liked having
plenty of cash; she often saw him counting it in the corner and
talking to himself.

Walter put down his paper so that it covered her plate and her
eyeglass case.

“Don’t do that! You’re covering me up! I want to breathe! Ever since
we first met you’ve always needed to get on top of me.” Eileen pulled
her plate and eyeglass case from underneath the paper and pressed them
to her chest. “I am me and you are you–we are separate.”

The waiter had returned and was filling her glass. A stream of water
and ice cascaded down.

“No ice!” Eileen threw her eyeglass case on the plate and reached for
the glass as if to protect it, but she couldn’t get a grip so she put
her two fingers in it and fumbled. It fell to the ground and smashed
on the cement. She hid her hands in her lap.

Winston kicked the pieces of broken glass under the table next to
them. He looked directly between Walter and Eileen out the louvered
window to the beach across the street. “You ready?”

“No, we’re waiting for Rita, she always takes care of us,” Eileen said
and looked around for another glass so the waiter could pour the water
into it.

“No thanks, fella, Rita has it covered,” Walter added, right on top.
It seemed that they spoke in sync. They both wanted him to leave.

“Rita’s late,” Winston said, without moving. He continued to look out
the window.

“Say, fella, Rita always leaves the pitcher on the table.”

A truck passed. It seemed too heavy for the street, and its vibrations
shook the panes of glass and made the silverware jump. Eileen wanted
to report it. She shaded her eyes with one hand and tried to see the
make and model and plates so she could phone it in. She reached down
for her purse to get out her reading glasses and a pen and some paper
so she could write it all down. The straps were just a little too far
away. The metal arm of her chair prevented her from bending all the
way.

Winston got out his pad and pencil and waited.

Walter took a sip of ice water and squinted his eyes with pleasure. He
leaned his head back and looked up at the sun and held out his hands,
palms up, and basked. “Ah, the good life,” he said and continued to
sun bathe.

Eileen stared hard at the broken glass under the next table and
chairs. She raised her eyebrows up and down a few times to show
Winston she didn’t miss a trick. “We’ll just relax here. With the duck
sauce and noodles–when you bring them.” She mimed the dipping of
noodles in duck sauce and eating them, so he would get it. She wanted
him to leave.

A soft breeze blew through the slatted frame. Walter and Eileen turned
toward it and smiled.

“Rita’s late. I’ll take your order.” Winston leaned forward, over Mrs.
Benziger, and she ducked down. He began to shut the glass louvered
window in front of them.

“No!” She tried to grab at his sleeve but missed. “You’re not going to
get away with that! That’s why we come here.” She fanned herself with
her napkin. She was breathing heavily and her hands and neck were
shaking. “We don’t like to be cooped up. We want the air.” She twisted
around in her chair to make sure he put up the lever all the way. You
had to keep your eye on this one.

“Yeah, fella,” said Walter, “we like the good life.”

Winston hummed to himself as he walked away.

Eileen couldn’t make out the tune. “Noodles!” she called.

A gentle breeze came over them. Walter reached across the table and
took Eileen’s hand. She reached out and held his hand with both of
hers. The table cloth was saturated with light.

“Doll Baby, my Doll Baby,” Walter said.

Eileen patted his hand. Walter’s hands were strong and the hairs on
his wrist looked blond against his sunburned skin.

“Say, when’s Veronica coming?” he asked.

Eileen looked out to the beach and saw a child running by himself. She
knew he would fall.

“She’s going to try to stop by on Thanksgiving weekend. She can’t make
it on Thanksgiving day because she’s having her own party. But she’ll
try to fly in for a day or so,” she said.

“You never tell me anything.”

Sure enough, the child fell. It was like clockwork. Now, he was
crying. The mother was so slow. “I made reservations for her at the
hotel,” she said.

“I don’t like her flying all around. It’s dangerous during the
holidays. It’s ridiculous to spend all that money on such a short
trip.” Walter was getting worked up.

“Let her do what she wants.”

“She’s never had any head for business. She could have her party here.
Did you tell her we have a kitchenette? You’d better call and tell
her. I bet she doesn’t know that.”

“Drink your ice water, Walter.”

“I’d like to get some more use out of that kitchenette. Tell her we’ve
got all of the amenities. I bet she doesn’t know our set-up. You
should call her. Tonight!”

“Calm down, Walter. Have a sip.”

Walter drank his water down thirstily. He sat back in his chair and
looked up at the sun. “Now, that’s settled. I feel better.”

Winston shoved the sauce and noodles onto the edge of the table and
strode away.

Walter took up the newspaper and began to read.

“I’d like to find a way to get rid of newspapers,” Eileen said.

She moved the noodles and duck sauce to the center of the table and
tasted a noodle, carefully. “I thought so! They’re stale!” She looked
around for the waiter. “You’ve got to keep alert with this one.” She
saw Winston out in the alley through the trellises at the back of the
restaurant. “Yoo-hoo!” she called. He was smoking a cigarette and
pretending not to notice her. “The noodles are stale! Yoo-hoo!
Winston!” He noisily spat up some phlegm.

One of the businessmen got up to go to the bathroom. He tapped on the
trellis to get Winston’s attention. “That nice lady in the wheelchair
wants fresh noodles.”

Eileen signaled a thank you to him.

The businessman smiled and continued on his way to the rest room,
rubbing his hands together as if he had discovered something.

Eileen was slipping down in her chair. She tried to sit up.

Walter sneezed. He pulled up his collar.

Eileen said, “Bless you, honey.”

The businessmen were leaving. They waved.

“Thanks for the musical interlude. You’ve got a beautiful voice,”
called the one who had been on the cell phone.

Eileen waved back and thought he was probably very successful in
business because he noticed details and had good taste. She sang a few
bars from “Stella By Starlight” to escort them to their car. She liked
being productive.

Winston stopped at the businessmen’s table to scoop up his tip. He
snapped all the bills in order, facing the same way.

He came over to their table. He always looked over their heads. He
never made eye contact.

“The noodles are stale. You took them from the top of the box and they
are soggy because we are by the water and everything gets soggy. Rita
always digs into the middle so the noodles will be crisp.” Eileen
demonstrated all of this very carefully for him.

Without a word, Winston leaned between them and dumped the noodles out
of the window onto the sidewalk. Then he sauntered away.

“Walter, he’s a fresh one. He’s probably on a losing streak. You can
always tell.” She looked down at the noodles. She called out into the
air, “Birdie, birdie, come back, honey, I’ve got food for you now.”

Some children were running with a dog in the sand. The tide was coming
in a little rougher now, and they’d have to be careful to keep a safe
distance. Eileen couldn’t see where the mother was.

Walter put down his newspaper and took off his reading glasses. “Say,
Rita’s here!”

She came right over to their table. “Oh, I hope you haven’t been
waiting long.”

“No, no,” Eileen said.

“We just got here,” Walter overlapped.

“Oh, this is terrible. You’ve got no noodles, Mrs. Benziger, and you
love them so.” She leaned over and picked up the menu. “You two want
the early bird?”

“Yes,” they said.

Rita worked like lightening. She was very organized, and she
anticipated people’s needs. That’s what Mrs. Benziger liked about her.
Rita reminded her of herself. Within seconds they had fresh noodles
and steaming hot Won Ton soup and Mrs. Benziger had a glass of water
with no ice and Rita put extra green in both of their soups because it
was good for them. She lifted Eileen up in her chair so that she was
sitting comfortably. She pulled over two chairs and put one next to
Mrs. Benziger and put her pocketbook on it so she could reach it. The
other she put next to Mr. Benziger for his paper. In just a few
minutes everything was the way it should be.

Rita brought a cup of Egg Drop soup for herself and sat down with
them. Winston tore off his apron and muttered to himself as he went
down the alley.

The three of them blew on their soup and ate contentedly.

Walter patted Rita on the back and said, “Isn’t this the good life?”

“She just got here, Walter, let her enjoy her soup. Rita, there was
the cutest bird. I think he escaped from someone’s home because he was
so tame and smart.”

“Yeah, Rita, Eileen was singing and he was dancing. Everybody was
watching and some businessmen told Eileen she made them feel like they
were on Broadway.”

“Rita, are you getting enough rest? We always think about
you–especially when you have an exam. How are you feeling,
sweetheart? Walter, give her the card.”

“Say, what’s the matter with me! Here it is. Just a little something.”
Walter handed an envelope to Rita. They insisted on giving her little
envelopes of “allowance” money each week. Rita had not accepted it at
first, but Mr. Benziger nearly had a stroke; he had gotten so excited
the paramedics were called. After that Rita gave in.

“Let’s just enjoy the soup de loop and the noodles,” Mrs. Benziger
sang. She knew that Rita was not supposed to sit down with them, but
once it had started about a year ago Rita had kept it up. Eileen felt
Rita did not want to let them down. Rita was conscientious. Eileen
tried to think of something to say to make Rita laugh.

Walter said, “Say, Rita, did you ever hear about how Chicago got its
name? Chick-in-the-car. Car-on-the-go. Chicago. See.”

Rita laughed. She covered her mouth and held onto Walter’s hand.
Eileen was worried that Walter was annoying her while she ate.

It was nice at this time of day when there were no other customers and
Rita could rest with them.

“Rita, open your present.”

“Not now, Walter, let her just sit and look out. Rita is just like me.
She likes to look out at the sea. She’s a dreamer. She has an artistic
soul.”

“She’s got my soul! She loves to read and educate herself. She is a
practical person. Look how she works this job and goes to high school.
I’d like to see you do that. Say, Rita, do you have any homework you
need help with today?”

“Walter, let her eat first, we can do homework later. Everything in
moderation, I always say.”

“Say, Rita, Sweet Child, did you see the article about the giant sea
turtles that were found on our beach?”

“I hope we saved them,” said Rita.

“Yeah,” said Walter. “They’re safe.”

“You read that newspaper all day long and you never say anything.
Thank God for Rita. She gets it all out of you. So, Rita, how are you
today?”

“She’s doing fine. Look at those hands. She’s got spatula hands. She
can deal with anything because she’s practical.”

Rita lay her head down on the table and began to cry.

“Now, look what you’ve done! We were just enjoying the sea and then
you had to get practical. This is dinnertime!” Eileen ate some noodles
out of nerves and then tried to think of what she could do to distract
everyone.

Walter said, “Stick with me kid and you’ll wear diamonds,” and he
patted Rita on the head.

Eileen was afraid that their dinner might be getting cold in the
kitchen. She tried to think of a song.

Rita wiped her eyes. “I feel I am home with you. You are my home.” She
got up, took away their cups and headed for the kitchen.

Some last streaks of sun bathed Walter’s hair. It looked like ivory in
moonlight. What a lucky break that the doctors had said no chemo.
Walter would have died without his hair. He was so proud of it.

The sea was turning gray and almost all of the children had gone. One
mother and child were left. She was pushing him on a swing. An ice
cream vendor came by ringing his bell. The mother stopped pushing, and
the little boy jumped off and ran toward the cart. A last treat before
going home, Eileen thought.

Rita returned with their entrees, and Eileen decided she should sing
to Rita while she ate to soothe her and show how much they loved her.
The Kung Pao Chicken was too hot anyway.

People passing by stopped for a moment and looked at the old man and
the young girl eating while the woman sang to them, gesturing with her
hands to her heart and then flapping her arms wide. She had an
extraordinary voice no matter what the words were.

She sang:

In autumn’s truth,

And summer’s youth,

Eileen turned to Walter and pounded on her heart,

I hear your heart.

I only wish

That throughout time

We’d never part.

They clapped. Walter said, “Doll Baby!” and Rita said, “Thank you,”
and then became silent.

Eileen ate. She loved food, especially when she felt she had
accomplished something and she could justify it as a reward. She was
rewarding herself handsomely.

When they were finished eating, Rita cleared their plates and brought
two packages to the table. “Now, I’ll open my envelope, if you open
these.”

She handed a package to Mr. Benziger.

“Oh, you shouldn’t have–” Mrs. Benziger began, but Walter cut her
short.

“No, no, no, if Rita wants to give me something that’s up to her.
Don’t always interfere.”

“I’m not interfering. I don’t want to be a bother to her.”

“This is a present for me!”

“All right! Open it then!”

“I’ve gotten you something too, Mrs. Benziger.”

“Oh, honey, you shouldn’t spend your money. You shouldn’t have.”

Mr. Benziger tore open his package. It was a silver frame with a
picture of the three of them sitting at a table; around the border of
the frame were the words: “The Good Life.”

“Say, Eileen, Sweet Child listens to every word I say! She knows
golden words when she hears them.”

“Oh, Walter, thank her and stop talking about yourself.”

“Mrs. Benziger, you should open yours.”

“Yes, honey.” Eileen noticed a blush in Rita’s cheek.

Rita hugged Walter. “I’ll wrap it back up for you so it doesn’t get
scratched.”

“No, no, no! I want to display it right here. I don’t want to hide it
now. It might get lost. We’ve got to look at it closely, Sweet Child.”

Mrs. Benziger was trying to open her present, but something was
bothering her and her fingers couldn’t tear the paper on the little
box. She put it in her mouth and tried to rip it with her teeth.

She heard the roar of the waves for the first time that day. The beach
was totally empty now. She had always liked the wild ocean while
Walter preferred the dullness of lakes. The Gulf was their last
compromise.

“Here, let me do that for you, Mrs. Benziger,” Rita said, and she
opened the present.

It was a lipstick tube of “Fire and Ice,” Eileen’s favorite color.
Rita applied the deep vermilion to Eileen’s lips.

Eileen noticed a tear weaving down Rita’s cheek.

She gently brushed it away.

“You’re leaving, Rita, and you don’t know how to tell us.”

Rita knelt beside Mrs. Benziger’s chair.

“Why are you making her cry, Eileen? Let up on it. Give it a rest!”

“Don’t worry about us, Rita. We’ll be fine!” Eileen kicked Walter
under the table. “Rita is sad because she has to leave and she’s
worried about us, but we’ll be fine. Won’t we, Walter?”

“Where are you going?”

“I was accepted into a college in New York. Your money helped give me
my tuition. It’s far away, but I want you to visit me, and I’ll come
back as much as possible.”

“Yes, Sweet Child, anytime you want. Plane fare is on us. But don’t
worry. We follow the good life.” Walter reached over and patted Rita
on the back.

“I’ll miss you so,” said Rita.

“Now, Rita it’s a beautiful afternoon and I want you to get the most
out of it. You’ve got to grab things while you can. Look how quickly
time goes.”

“Say, Rita, you didn’t open your envelope. What’s the matter here with
everyone? I’m the one who’s giving first.”

“Stop focusing on yourself, Walter.”

Rita opened her envelope. In it was a check for $75, with a note in
Walter’s writing: “For Our Dawn of The Night, Child of Tomorrow.”

It was getting chilly and late, and Rita knew they’d be gone soon. She
noticed the rest of the louvered windows were closed. She knew that
Mrs. Benziger liked to look out; so she went along the front of the
restaurant and opened them all. A steady breeze blew in and shadows
flooded their table. Rita turned on a heat lamp so they wouldn’t get
cold. “I’ll be right back,” she said.

Rita blew them a kiss and ran to the kitchen to get them some hot tea.

Walter sipped some water. “Say, when’s Veronica coming?”

“She’s going to try to come for a day or so over Thanksgiving weekend.
But she’s having her own party on Thanksgiving day so she can’t be
with us then.”

“You never tell me anything.” He reached for his paper and held it up
to read.

Eileen looked out through the open front of the cafe. She was glad she
could see down the whole sidewalk now. She would think of something to
sing when they left the restaurant so that Rita wouldn’t feel bad.

Walter leaned back and let the heat flow over him. “I’m soaking up the
good life.”

account_box More About

Loraine Shields holds a B.A. in Literature from Reed College. In 2000 she received the James Kirkwood Prize in Creative Writing from UCLA Extension for her short story, "Giverny." In addition to short story writing, Loraine has acted in films and plays for twenty years. "The Good Life" is dedicated to the memory of her parents, Walter and Helen Shields.
  • All the slats were closed except
    at one table. A couple sat there. The husband was reading his paper
    and the wife was looking around.