Walter, the waiter, had brought to the table Curtailer’s Tripes à la Niçoise and the ‘meat sandwich’ requested by Smones, which consisted of sliced leg of lamb, medium rare, on a large, puffy croissant, dressed with mint chutney. And the beer – he had dispatched one of the kitchen serfs to the tavern around the corner, to purchase several bottles of beer and bring them back to Le Cirque, where he had uncapped and poured one into a tall chilled glass.
The icy glass, beaded with moisture, now rested on the table in front of Smones.
Curtailer had barely taken his first mouthful of the succulent tripe, which was quite delicious, having simmered for eight hours in a sauce of wine, tomatoes and herbs, when Smones, smiling broadly, reached into an inner pocket of his fishing vest and pulled out a small, nasty-looking pistol, which he laid on the table beside his plate with an ominous ‘thunk’.
Curtailer froze, focusing his complete attention on the gun.
“What the hell is that?” he demanded.
“What does it look like, you twit?” replied Smones happily. “It’s a semi-automatic pistol. In fact, it’s a German Walther PP, vintage 1944, loaded with seven rounds of 32-caliber hollow points.”
“Are you crazy?” hissed Curtailer? “This is New York City. You can’t carry a gun around.” Curtailer pronounced the word ‘gun’ with special emphasis, as though it belonged to a foreign language.
“Actually, you can carry a gun around, if you have a city license. But even without the license…. Hey, this is New York, buddy, a man can do what he wants.”
Curtailer seriously wondered whether annoying persons such as Smones should be allowed to breed or, for that matter, to exist at all.
Just then, his cellphone rang. It was considered gauche, très gauche, to allow one’s cellphone to disturb the placid atmosphere of Le Cirque or any of the other venues which he frequented, so Curtailer had programmed his ringtone as a sultry woman’s voice quietly intoning “Geoffrey. Oh, Geoffrey.” Almost as though there were an actual woman sitting at, or under, their table, involved in their conversation.
“I have to get this,” he said, between clenched teeth.
He punched buttons on the phone and held it to his ear. But before any communication could transpire, Smones lifted the pistol off the table and aimed it at him, wiggling the forefinger of his other hand back and forth.
“Uh-uh-uh,” he warned.
Curtailer drew the phone away from his ear slowly and carefully, and lowered it into his lap.
“What are you doing?” he whispered. “Are you mad?”
“You know, buddy, this whole thing with mobile telephones has gone too far. I mean, here we are, enjoying a quiet luncheon at one of the world’s finest restaurants, and you have to take a phone call? Why, that’s downright annoying. About as annoying as this…”
And Smones tilted the muzzle of the pistol up toward the ceiling and pulled the trigger. There was a sharp crack, unmistakably the sound of a gunshot, and all conversation in the restaurant ceased. Heads swiveled in their direction. Walter, who had sensed difficulty and begun approaching the table, stopped suddenly and backed away.
Smones lowered the pistol and pointed it once again at Curtailer.
“Lucky you. Your ancestors cleverly escaped on the nice safe Mayflower and avoided annihilation by the Nazis.”
Curtailer noted that Smones pronounced the word as ‘Nah-zee’, much in the way Winston Churchill had, rather than ‘Knot-see’, as most Americans do. Another one of his stupid, irritating affectations. And why did Smones insist on conflating the seventeenth century migration of Curtailer’s family to the New World with twentieth century European politics — was it just a continuation of the attempt to bait him with an insinuation of Jewishness?
“Yeah,” continued Smones, “some Kraut lieutenant or captain probably carried this little sweetheart around, just hoping he’d get a chance to pop off one of your cousins.” Smones snickered. “Didn’t know they’d already shipped out a coupla’ hundred years ago.”
Curtailer, with his back against the upholstered banquette, could see across the dining room, in which other patrons were quietly pushing back their chairs and creeping toward the entrance where the M’aître d’, at his station, was hunched over, speaking into a telephone, casting anxious glances in the direction of their table.
Curtailer’s initial anxiety at the sight of the pistol had given way to extreme irritation and hostility. Smones’ erratic behavior was not a great surprise, but there was something about the ongoing infantile taunting and sophomoric references to his ancestors that set Curtailer’s teeth on edge. Enough was enough.
“Pull it together, Mitchell,” he said coldly. “You’re making a fool of yourself. It was just this sort of childish behavior that convinced Jewel to leave you.”
At the mention of Jewel, there was a subtle change in Smones, his feigned jollity shifting to something darker, perhaps determination or gratification, as though this were the turn of events for which he had actually been aiming.
“Ah, Jewel,” he said. “Glad you mentioned her.”
With his free hand, he reached into one of the many pockets of his fisherman’s vest, fumbling for a moment with the velcro which held the flap in place, then pulled out a sheet of paper which had been folded into a small rectangle. He flicked the paper back and forth several times, shaking it open, and tossed it on the table between them.
Curtailer gave it an annoyed glance. The paper had obviously been re-folded many times, until the edges were tattered and crumpled. There were a few stains, maybe coffee, grease… Then he recognized the handwriting. It was his own. He leaned forward and read the salutation: ‘Dearest Jewel’.
Curtailer suddenly felt cold and afraid. Smones was watching him carefully, a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes. ‘Gotcha, bastard,’ he thought.
“You and Jewel. Who could’ve imagined. A prissy little creampuff like you.”
Creampuff! That did it. Fear turned to anger. Curtailer considered lunging across the table and stabbing Smones with his sterling silver fork. He prided himself on his fitness. He played squash twice a week, had studied martial arts and self-defense.
“Do you really think,” sneered Curtailer, “women care about how many fish you’ve caught? How many tequila shooters you can drink? It was your own boorish behavior that drove her away. I had little to do with it. If anything, ours was a brief, transitional affair.”
“Oh, you had plenty to do with it. You introduced her to that bug, Myron.”
“How was I to know she’d run off with him?” Curtailer laughed coldly. “Maybe he’s just a better writer than you are…”
Smones leveled the pistol at Curtailer and pulled the trigger. Once. Twice.
Curtailer felt the impact, like being stabbed or poked in the chest. He looked down and saw two spots of blood on the front of his otherwise clean white cotton dress shirt. As though observing from a distance, he noted that the report of the pistol was louder when it was aimed at him than when it had been fired at the ceiling.
“You wanted a story? How do you like your story now, you…” And Smones called Curtailer a vulgar word which referred to a particular part of the female anatomy, a word commonly used in Britain as an insult, but frowned upon in the United States.
[TO BE CONTINUED]