By the time I arrived at our city’s finest restaurant, Le Fagiano d’Ottone, known to some as The Brass Pheasant, it was already as crowded and as bustling as opening night at the circus.
Of course, Pierre Gagnon, the proprietor and head chef, would bristle at any comparison of his fine restaurant to a circus. After all, this was where the well-heeled came to rub elbows through the Merino wool of their dinner jackets. It’s a wonder the entire place didn’t go up nightly in a spectacular blaze of static electricity.
“Ah, Mr. Callington!” said Thomas, the restaurant’s impeccably dressed and even more impeccably mannered host. “It’s so wonderful to see you.”
“And you as well, Thomas,” I said, unfurling the as-of-yet unrubbed elbow to clasp his extended hand with mine for a firm, manly handshake. Two pumps only. More than that borders on the Bohemian. After all, Le Fagiano d’Ottone is not an opium den. It is a hub of bonne nourriture, or, as we Americans often say, haute cuisine. It is also a hub of haute couture, le vie haute, and a few other haute things that have slipped my mind at the moment.
“Mrs. Callington is already seated,” said Thomas, smiling toothily as we released hands. “She arrived not ten minutes ago.”
A sharp snap of his fingers caused there to appear suddenly from the ether a young man in a black suit, white shirt, and patent leather shoes. Even though I had seen this particular conjuring trick here before, it never fails to amaze and astound me. I often wonder what would happen if Thomas were listening to a lively tune in his head and began snapping his fingers to the beat of the song. No doubt young men in suits would appear at a rate of one a second until the song was over and the place was stacked up to the rafters in black-suited chaps ready to show you to your table.
Tonight, however, there was just the one black-suited chap, and after a polished and polite “This way, Sir”, he led me through the sumptuous landscape of white linen tablecloths, gleaming silverware, sparkling crystal glasses, sheening porcelain china, and well-dressed patrons. He deposited me in my usual corner table where I found Alexis already seated and sipping something from a fluted glass. My heart did a quick little two-step, for she is my luscious little Amaryllis, the light of my life, my darling wife, and the woman I was looking at lo those many years ago when Cupid ran my heart through with his arrow at 20 paces.
She was particularly lovely this evening in her passion-red dress and savagely casual ponytail (which she knows always drives me to distraction) tied in a white ribbon. I was also momentarily distracted by the alabaster of her bared shoulders, but marshaled myself admirably and took my seat after bending to peck her affectionately on the cheek. After all, this is Le Fagiano d’Ottone, not Sodom. One must show decorum, bared shoulder or no.
“Good evening, my exquisite little lotus blossom,” I said, gazing at her warmly. “You look particularly ravishing tonight.”
She smiled, and though obviously pleased at the effect she’d had on me, she wagged her finger at me admonishingly. “No, no,” she said warningly, though her voice was practically giggling. “You’ll have to control yourself, Mister. We don’t want to be bounced out of Pierre’s on charges of indecency.”
I reached over to take her hand and we rested our elbows on the linen tablecloth while our eyes met and we made goo-goo eyes at each other for a moment, reminiscent of the way we used to gaze at each other when we were dating.
“Pierre be damned,” I said recklessly, not unlike Captain Farragut exclaimed while lashed to the rigging of USS Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay. “If I wish to gaze at my bride with something approaching warmth, then I am willing to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged Pierre.”
At that moment, a somber chap wearing tails, a starched dicky, and a black bow tie that was cinched around his neck as tight as a radiator hose clamp, appeared suddenly in our midst and caused me to jump in mid woo. Pierre must send his staff to special schools in India to acquire these siddhis they seem to perform so effortlessly, materializing and dematerializing at the drop of a hat.
“May I get you a drink, Sir?” asked the chap in a voice usually reserved for delivering eulogies.
“Er, um, yes. What is my blushing bride having?”
“Champagne, sir” said the somber sommelier before Alexis could respond.
I furrowed my brow thoughtfully. I’m not much for champagne, especially before the first course has even been tossed on the grill. However, when in Rome, one must be open to adventure. Besides, it is Valentine’s Day! What better day to throw caution to the wind?
“I’ll have the same then,” I said. “In fact, bring the bottle.”
The grim sommelier cleared his throat quietly, but pointedly, much like the soothsayer did preparatory to giving Caesar a heads-up on the Ides of March. He then said simply, “It is Maison du Jus Pétillant, Sir.”
I visibly started. Apparently, my delightful little Dahlia had succumbed to a very popular television show from Europe that was all the rage on public television at the moment. I have never seen the show, but apparently, the effete and beautiful members of the upper-crust who are featured in the show drank the stuff by the washtub full.
I met the chap’s eye and conveyed to him my appreciation for the warning.
“Ah,” I noted astutely. “Well. There you have it then. The ol’ Maison du Jus Pétillant, eh?”
I laughed nervously and gave a quick, wary glance at my beautiful little Chrysanthemum to see if she were paying attention. She was looking at me bemused with one raised eyebrow as if curious to see how this would play out. I glanced back at the grim sommelier. “Have you, by any chance, a jug or two of Piper-Heidsieck?”
A flicker of a relieved smile caused the merest movement in the chap’s pursed lips. “Of course, Sir.”
“We’ll have a bottle of that then. If it’s good enough for Marie Antoinette, then it is good enough for us.”
“Very good, sir.”
“Who knows? We may even have cake later.”
“As you wish, sir,” he murmured somberly as he shimmered off.
“Where were we?” I asked of Alexis, clasping her hand anew and staring into her sparkling green eyes.
“You’re such a snob,” she said, laughing in her delightful way.
“Snob?” I asked, cut to the quick by my very own helpmeet. I was pained and my face probably showed it.
“Oh, not in everything,” she said soothingly, squeezing my hand. “Just in alcohol.”
“Oh, that’s all right then,” I said, smiling.
My smile faded a bit.
“And literature. And music. And food.”
“Okay, okay,” I said, attempting to bring an end to her libelous litany. “I get the picture. I am a snob of the highest order.”
“But in a nice way,” she said, smiling. “It is only because you appreciate the finer things.”
“Then I suppose my biggest area of snobbery must be you. For you are the finest thing this earth has to offer.”
She smiled coquettishly and pulled her hand out of mine. “If you’re going to talk nonsense, then perhaps we should just not talk.”
I would have rebutted, but at that moment, the Champagne chap materialized again bearing a bottle of Piper-Heidsieck. He decanted a beakerful of the effervescent stuff and disappeared respectfully, leaving the bottle in the ice bucket. I took a tentative sip.
“Ah!” I said. “Nectar of the gods.”
“And I suppose my champagne is absolute swill since it was featured on a show on public television.”
“Not at all. It is a quite serviceable champagne. It would do at, say, a picnic, or a barn raising. But … well …” I grinned and raised my glass in a toast. “There’s no denying that it is rather popular at the moment.”
“And popular is bad?” she asked, clinging her glass against mine.
I shrugged noncommittally and took a sip of champagne.
“As I recall,” she continued after her own sip, “You were quite popular in college.”
“What are you saying?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m just saying that just because something’s popular, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t good.”
“Touché,” I said, raising my glass again before downing its contents. “And to develop your thesis more fully,” I said, pouring us both another glass of the heavenly effervescence, “You were so popular that I originally thought you were a pep rally being held on the commons.”
“A pep rally?”
“Yes. I saw a throng of young men jostling and posturing and cheering and thought they were trying to whip up enthusiasm for our game against Yale. As it happened, however, they were just all trying to gain your attention.”
She giggled at what she felt was the absurdity of my description. “And were you a part of that throng?” she asked archly.
“I was the one with the megaphone and the banner,” I said.
“Ohhhh,” she said. “That was you! I had no idea.”
“Yes, I know. It took me the better part of my sophomore year to get you to recognize my existence.”
“Maybe I was just playing hard to get.”
“You played it well. You deserved an Olympic gold medal.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better,” she said coquettishly, “I noticed you instantly. But a girl can’t just recognize a boy instantly. There is protocol. Diplomacy. Decorum.”
“I wasn’t a country seeking acceptance into the United Nations,” I said, refilling our glasses. “I was just a long-suffering fan worshiping you from afar.”
“Not so ‘afar’,” she said, winking at me over her champagne flute. “You were quite the nuisance. All of those accidental meetings you plotted and schemed so diabolically. It seemed every time I turned a corner I stepped on your feet.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “You were quite clumsy back then.”
“Or your feet were lurking around every corner.”
“Just coincidence. You just always happened to be where I was.”
“Or vice versa.”
“Or,” I said, raising my glass to hers and winking at her mischievously, “As you say, vice versa.”
We stared deeply into each other’s’ eyes for several moments and were beginning to lean towards each other slowly and I am pretty sure there was a kiss in my future, but another swallow-tailed and bow-tied apparition appeared beside the table without the usual tell-tale puff of smoke, interrupting what was fated to be a real barn-burner of a kiss.
I nearly said, “Blast!” but restrained myself for, after all, it was Valentine’s Day. Also, one does not simply use gutter language within the hallowed walls of Le Fagiano d’Ottone. It is quite frowned upon by Monsieur Gagnon and his minions.
“I just wished to inform you, Sir … Madam … that your order will be arriving momentarily. May I prepare your table?”
“But we haven’t ordered yet,” said my bewildered little Begonia.
I spoke up in order to solve the mystery. “I took the liberty of placing our order when I made our reservations a month ago,” I said by way of explanation.
“A month ago?” she asked, shocked. Her shock was probably due to the fact that I am not known for being able to plan things in advance.
“If I’d waited another millisecond later,” I said, “We would not have been able to get our table. This very table we are sitting at right now.” I rapped upon the linen tablecloth to drive home my point.
“How did you know what I would want to order?”
“Because you ordered it once before. The pheasant Normandy with Belle de Fontenay potatoes and a splash of apple brandy.”
Her eyes glistened. “Oh, Darling! You remembered!”
“Of course, I remembered. It was what you had on our first date.”
“Actually, it was our second date. We had pizza on our first date at the Yale game.”
My brow furrowed. “Are you saying you would rather have pizza? I’m not sure Pierre’s would allow such a thing in his restaurant.”
“No, silly! The pheasant is perfect. I’m just surprised you remembered.”
“My memory may not be perfect,” I said modestly, “But once in a while it squirrels away a little tidbit of information for a rainy day. Or a Valentine’s Day.”
Then I looked up at the waiter. “Yes, Garcon. Our table is your table. Do what you must.”
There was another finger snap and a small army of tuxedoed young men materialized and arranged silverware, glassware, dinnerware, and linens with a military-like precision. I’m not entirely sure that one or two of them didn’t repel from the ceiling like special operatives. It was almost like watching master prestidigitators and I half expected someone to produce a rabbit from a hat or a bouquet of flowers from a sleeve, but they produced nothing but the aforementioned tableware and then departed as quickly and as quietly as they had appeared.
“Your meal will be here momentarily, Sir … Madam,” said the waiter, and then he, too, shimmered away like a mirage.
“What just happened?” asked Alexis, her eyes wide.
Though a bit bewildered myself, I managed to say, “What just happened was the sort of floor show one sees in a restaurant that was recently the recipient of a Michelin Star.”
Alexis slid her petite hand across the now-cluttered table top and found my hand. She laced her fingers in mine and I looked up at her to see that her beautiful green eyes were glassy and infinite.
“Oh, Darling,” she gushed. “This is all so beautiful. And unexpected! I had no idea when you asked me to meet you here.”
“Have I ever forgotten a Valentine’s Day before, my gorgeous little orchid?”
“Once or twice,” she smiled.
“But there were extenuating circumstances,” I said.
“Come here, you,” she said in a soft voice, leaning towards me.
I leaned towards her as requested. Her beautiful, limpid eyes began to close slowly the nearer I got to her. There most definitely was a kiss in my future!
“Your food, Sir. Madam,” came the voce profonda, not unlike someone making an announcement from within a burning bush.
“Blast!” I said, though I tried to keep it quiet.
“I beg your pardon, Sir?” asked the garcon, his left eyebrow raised precisely one millimeter as if to say, “I could not possibly have heard what I think I just heard.” I started to respond, “Oh, you heard me just fine, Buster.” But one does not say such things at Le Fagiano d’Ottone, for the punishment is eternal banishment from the premises. Besides, I would not ruin my Darling Little Daffodil’s Valentine’s Day dinner for all the world.
“I said ‘excellent’!” I said, smiling, though my teeth were clenched and my expression may have actually been more like the grimace of the recipient of a botched root canal. “Scatter the victuals as you see fit, Garcon.”
There was another one of those infernal snaps which were by now making me flinch a little every time I heard one, for every time there was a snap, we were set upon by a small army of tuxedoed automatons who performed their duties with all of the precision and spectacle of a gastronomic Cirque de Soliel.
This time they were gone in just under 50 seconds flat, setting a new land-speed record for tuxedo-based sports. They left in their wake a table full of little dishes and bowls that steamed and sizzled. A petite pheasant was set afire by monsieur Garcon as he touched the tip of his long steel lighter to the apple brandy in a subdued flourish before he bowed slightly at the waist and departed.
“They are certainly efficient,” said my gobsmacked Alexis as we watched the flames of her pheasant flare and flicker beautifully in the subdued light of the restaurant. “I don’t ever remember them being this way before.”
“They received their Michelin Star last year,” I said, flourishing my napkin briefly and arranging it in my lap just so. “They have upped their game … and their prices … accordingly.”
She looked around at the full restaurant, noisy with the sounds of conversation, the clanging of silverware, the tingling of glassware, and the gurgling of vintage wines being poured.
“If they’ve raised their prices,” she said, “It doesn’t seem to have hurt their business any.”
“Well,” I said, reaching over to put my hand on hers, “Some things are worth any price.”
She smiled and her eyes became even more radiant, a thing I would not have thought possible.
“You still owe me a kiss,” she said softly.
“I’m afraid to lean in for it,” I said. “We are liable to be besieged by waiters asking to clear the table.”
“I’m willing to risk it if you are,” she said, smiling that little smile of hers that first captivated my heart way back in the halcyon days of college.
I took a quick glance around. There seemed to be no tuxedoed interlopers in the offing, champing at their collective bits to swoop in and interrupt yet another kiss.
It was now or never!
I leaned in quickly before the minions could arrive. Our lips touched … so softly at first … then a little harder. I squeezed her hand a little harder with mine and felt hers respond by wrapping itself around the edge of my hand. Her perfume enveloped us in a serene and private garden. Her silken hair tickled my skin and electrified every cell of my body and had each of them howling for her like a wolf at a winter moon.
I broke the kiss reluctantly and we just gazed into each other’s eyes, our faces inches apart.
“I believe your pheasant’s flame has gone out,” I said gruffly, trying to martial my emotions.
“But ours hasn’t,” she said, and though her voice was soft, her eyes were ablaze.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, my Darling,” I whispered.
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart,” she whispered back.
We kissed again. And then she whispered against my lips, “Sweetheart?”
“Do you think Pierre would ban us from the restaurant forever if you asked him to put all this food into a doggie bag for us so we could go home?”
I pulled back and grinned at her.
“It would be totally worth complete and utter banishment.”
I snapped my fingers for the Garcon.
Story is Copyright ©2019 by Biff Sock Pow
The title and characters “Alistair and Alexis” are copyright © 2019 by Biff Sock Pow
All characters, character names, fictional place names, fictional products, and fictional companies and organizations used in the “Alistair and Alexis” stories are copyright © 2019 by Biff Sock Pow