Ed was chopping carrots and summer squash when Susan came home. She put on an apron and checked the open cookbooks to see what they were making. She took the package of chicken thighs from the refrigerator and started to rinse the pieces in the sink.
“Good day at work?” he asked.
“It was all right. How was your day?”
“So far, so good,” he said. He had spent the afternoon studying. In two hours, his bartending shift would start. He kissed her cheek. “Ah. You’re wearing the earrings.” They were silver, with black stones to match Susan’s raven hair.
“I like them. I’ve been wearing them a lot, or hadn’t you noticed?”
“They remind me. I’m in sort of an ethical bind.”
“About the earrings? Why, sweetie? Did you steal them for me?” She took flour out of the cupboard.
“No. It’s something much trickier than that.”
“I’m listening.” She mixed salt, pepper, and flour together in a bowl.
“There’s this guy who comes into the bar Monday nights during football season. Mick. And last year, after the last Monday game of the season, he stays until closing. He kind of buttonholes me, which is okay because there aren’t more than a couple of other customers, and they’re on their way out. He talks and talks about how good his life is, but there’s this one thing he can’t decide, and he wants to leave it up to me. He says `The blonde, or the brunette?'”
Susan coated the chicken thighs in the flour mixture. “Meaning?”
“He had been dating these two women, and he liked them both. He figured that if he asked, either one would marry him. He couldn’t make up his mind which one to ask.”
“And you said?”
“Well, I told him I didn’t have an opinion. I didn’t know the women. I didn’t really know him. But he said that made me impartial, and he wanted my answer anyway. So I said blonde.”
Susan stopped flouring the chicken. “Blonde,” she said.
“I could just have easily said brunette.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I was just trying to tell him something that would end the conversation and send him on his way. It was time to close. I wanted to come home and climb into bed next to you. I didn’t think it mattered what I said.”
“If it didn’t matter,” she said, going back to work on the chicken thighs, “why didn’t you say brunette?”
“That’s not even the story, babe. See, he didn’t come in again until the next football season. So it’s been maybe eight months. And when he sees me, it’s like I’m his long-lost brother. He keeps telling everybody they should ask me for advice because the advice I give, it’s primo. He has never been happier in his life.”
“So did he leave a good tip?”
“Yeah, but it gets better. The next week, he has an envelope for me. `Your consulting fee,'” he says. Inside I find $270 in crisp bills. And this is at the start of the evening, when he’s stone cold sober. I tell him I think he’s a little crazy. I have no problem keeping the money, though.”
“If he’d go $270, why not $300?” Susan said. “Two-hundred and fifty would be more of a round number. What’s the extra twenty for? Or why is thirty missing?” Chicken sizzles in the pan.
“Like I’d have any idea? I never laid eyes on his new wife. Anyway, that’s where the money for your earrings came from. It came out of my $270 consulting fee. But that’s not the end of it. This week, I could tell he had been drinking already even before he came in to the bar. He didn’t say anything at all to me other than to order his first two rounds. So, later, when his glass is almost empty, I ask if he wants anything else. He says, `I want my money back.’ He wants me to repay the consulting fee. At first I said, `No way.’ But he said, `Come on. You know you didn’t really earn it.’ And he’s right. I mean, he could have flipped a coin. I just made a fifty-fifty choice for him.”
“And you told him to marry the blonde.”
“I told him I had spent the money. But he said it wasn’t right for me to take advantage of him. Then I suggested half. I think I might pay back half.”
Susan took the earrings off and put them on the counter. “Get whatever you can for these,” she said.
“You said you really liked them.”
“Not so much. Get what you can, and then come up with the rest. Pay him back the full amount.”
“With what? Susan, I won’t get what I paid for the earrings. I have another tuition payment due next month. We can’t afford this.”
“We’ll make do. It’s like the man said. You didn’t earn that money.”
Ed bit his lip. “I guess.”
“I’d feel differently,” Susan said, “if you’d given him the right advice.”