Helen paused in mid-sip when she noted Andy sliding her debit card through the register a second time. The machine beeped and he stared at the panel. Whatever the display indicated, he didn’t bother swiping again. Instead he plucked a pen from a neighboring canister and while he jotted on their receipt, Helen swallowed her mouthful of unsweetened ice tea and set her glass aside.
“Are you ready to go?”
Slouched in her chair, Wendy kept gazing over the wrought-iron fence and its pansy-housing flower boxes. Pedestrians swooped along the tree-lined sidewalk and beyond them, the traffic slugged by, bumper to bumper, but Wendy seemed to peer beyond the lunchtime crowds and into nothingness.
In the passing seconds, the ice in Helen’s glass clinked and she sensed Andy’s approach.
“Sure,” she whispered.
Helen rolled her eyes, and then stiffened when Andy’s shadow fell across their table and its dirtied dishes. Looking up, she smiled. His atypical frown when he offered their receipt, however, made her lips droop and the BLT on rye settling in her stomach to flip.
“Is everything okay?”
Andy cleared the worry from his square features and laid down the bill, pressing his fingers onto the spongy cover.
“Fine,” he said in a hushed baritone. “You two take care.”
He strode away, his departing steps and the brush of his charcoal slacks gathering Wendy from her perusal of empty air. She tilted her head and sighed.
“Do you think he has a girlfriend?”
Helen stiffened in her seat. “What do you mean?”
With a shrug, Wendy snagged the straw plunged into her lemon water and drained the glass while Andy vanished inside.
“And you’re on the rebound.” Collecting the billfold, Helen worked the pen from the seam and opened the cover.
“You have to get back on the horse, or the bicycle or whatever right?”
Wendy’s sarcasm slid off of Helen’s shoulders and her spiked nerves dissipated while she looked at their receipt. Her gut clenched viewing the bright red circle around her debit card number and the accompanying line through the digits half hidden by the plastic card. Below, the words: “Just go – A” caused sweat to spout on her palms. Snapping the cover closed, Helen smothered the folder beneath her palm, but her downcast gaze poured through her flesh and the leather; the sharpie and ink in Andy’s hand staining her sight.
“….it, don’t I?”
Wendy’s question blended with Helen’s pounding heart, the honking horns and the surrounding banter of other conversations.
She jumped when Wendy touched her hand. Collecting the bill to the front of her peach tank top, Helen bit her lip tasting the mustard from her sandwich’s dressing and her lip gloss underneath.
Wendy tightened her grip and faint lines marred her pristine brow. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” said Helen. She placed the folder on the other side of her breadcrumb dotted plate. “I…I’m just not sure I have any cash for a tip.”
“I sure don’t.” Wendy settled back and rattled her glass, melting the last of the ice.
“I didn’t think so,” said Helen.
Scooping her purse from the terracotta tiles, she dug for her wallet. She winced as she found the empty slots her credit cards had once strained, the plastic now sliced and diced and filling her apartment’s trash like swept up confetti. Digging further, she searched for the emergency twenty tucked between her photographs and business cards until she remembered her last rejection.
“The taxi,” she whispered.
Wendy slurped through her straw. “We don’t need a cab.”
“I know,” said Helen.
She waved away her errant words, and sought a gulp of tea to wet her throat. The straw gurgled at the base of her glass and she came up dry.
“If you know, then what are you so worried about?” Wendy snatched the folder before Helen could free herself of her drink or her wallet. “It can’t be that big a tip.”
When she opened the folder, the debit card and marked receipt slipped onto the table. Cringing, Helen reached over and plucked the plastic card while Wendy’s mouth fell open.
“Yeah,” said Helen.
“I didn’t think you were so bad off.”
“Four months will eat at your savings,” said Helen, sliding the debit card away.
“You should have said something.”
“I thought I had it covered. Anyway, you said it was an emergency.”
“Dumping Ryan is not an emergency.” Wendy closed the folder and waggled the leather case before planting it on the table with a thump. “This is an emergency.”
“It’s not.” Helen forced an easy smile but it failed to appease the arches of Wendy’s raised brows.
“You should have told me.”
“While you’re going through your third break up in as many months?”
“It’s not like there’s not going to be another one.” Wendy collected her handbag from beside her chair’s legs. Unfastening the latch, she retrieved her turquoise wallet and fanned the folds.
“I thought you were broke.”
Wendy snorted. “There’s always credit.”
“You’re kidding,” said Wendy, stuffing her card into the folder’s crease.
“What are you going to do?”
Chagrinned, Helen peered over the fence and flowers at the rush of ties and power suits. “Keep applying. Keep hoping.”
“Maybe learn to ask for a little help?”
Wendy made a point of setting the folder on the table’s edge. Following her wave, Helen caught Andy’s eye from where he hovered in the former garage door’s threshold. Her cheeks warmed and she retreated to her plate and a count of the crumbs.
“I’ll figure something out.”
“Helen.” Wendy took her hand and squeezed again, her manicured nails pinching. “You’ve got friends, family. Hell, even the waiter wanted to give you a break. You’ve helped us all over the years, now it’s time for us to return the favor.”
“Sure,” she whispered.
Wendy sat back in her chair, the whicker crinkling. “You can be so goddamn stubborn sometimes.”
Looking up, Helen couldn’t help but laugh when she spied Wendy grinning through the feigned hurt. Andy’s shadow draping her once more, however, doused her sudden lightheartedness.
“Is something the matter?”
Wendy aimed her beaming smile at his concern. “That was very sweet of you.”
“I ah….” Andy smoothed the wrinkles out of his mint-green polo. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course.” She inched the folder toward him, her card evident.
Collecting the bill, Andy bobbed his head and headed back to the register.
“Thanks, Wendy,” said Helen.
“I think we’re a little old for running out on the tab.”
“Just a little.”
“Anyway,” said Wendy, twirling a russet tendril between her fingers, “it gives me an opening.”
“To be the good girl. You know he’s going to remember this.”
Helen folded her arms. “You never stop do you?”
“I wouldn’t be much of a predator if I didn’t keep my eye out.”
“I wish I had your stamina.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
Wendy ratcheted up her smile again when Andy returned.
“Thanks,” she said, a husky thread to her voice.
“No problem,” said Andy, laying down the folder. Helen felt her cheeks flush again when he turned her way, his grin flashing. “You two have a good day.”
“It’s gotten better already,” said Helen.
“I’m glad.” Andy drummed the table’s lip and then weaved off, beckoned by a snapping pair of fingers.
“So much for that,” whispered Wendy.
“Never mind.” Taking the folder, she opened the cover and with a soft swish, signed her name. Helen tipped forward when she swiveled the folder and kept writing.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving a number.”
“You know, a telephone number.”
Spurred by a sudden bolt of adrenaline, Helen slung her purse’s strap over her bared shoulder. “Good thing I’m not coming back here for a while.”
“Well, maybe next time he can actually pick up the tab.”
“Maybe by then I’ll be employed.”
“And I’ll be engaged.” With an acerbic laugh, Wendy tossed the pen onto the table and flipped closed the cover. “I think you’ll have better luck with both of those than I will.”
“No offense, but I hope so.”
“None taken. But at least until then, learn to bow that stiff little neck of yours.”
Helen hung her head like a puppet on loosed strings.
“Very funny.” Wendy rose and clutched her bag. “Come on, we’ve got phones to hover by.”
“And email to check,” said Helen, leading through the patio of diners. She found her sway competing with Wendy’s hips and on their way to the exit she waved a farewell to Andy who scooted into the kitchen, a tray of dishes in hand.
“My money’s on your phone,” said Wendy.
The hint in her voice froze Helen with her hand on the door’s knob. “Wait a second. Whose number did you leave?”
Wendy’s grin turned wicked. “The right one of course.”