Early evening on a Friday, wine and cheese time at the inn where we checked in only an hour ago, and we’re seated just outside the door to the serving area, wrought-iron table and chairs on the edge of a courtyard, a fountain babbling within earshot. We’re armed with glasses of local wine, mine a red blend called Raving Lunatic and Lionel’s a Syrah called Intimate Betrayer, well into our second pours thanks to the generosity of the inn’s pourer, Legend, a young man with a shadow beard and an advanced wine vocabulary. We’re minding our own business, as Lionel likes to say, when a tall woman, mid-forties, I estimate, swings the door open. She steps outside and sets her glass of white wine down on our table. She’s shivering.
“That air conditioning went all the way through me in there,” she says, rubbing her bare arms vigorously with her large hands. “My boyfriend’s inside talking wine with Legend, and I think he’s forgotten I’m with him.” She waits for us to say something, and after a few seconds she takes the initiative herself. “Where are you folks from?”
Lionel is big on boundaries and has a hard time activating his throat when a stranger asks where he’s from, so I answer for us. I notice his eyes shifting from her wine glass to her. She seems self-conscious about her hair, long and light brown, her hand sliding down the side of her face to keep it away from her eye.
“My name is Cynthia,” she says. “We come here every couple of months for a getaway. Is this your first time here?”
I tell her our names and that we’ve stayed at the inn once before and enjoyed it, and I ask her where she’s from. She replies that she lives an hour north of the inn though she’s originally from out of state, and as soon as I ask what brought her here she grabs the chair nearest to her, yanks it back with a scrape, and sits. She puts an elbow on the table, picks up her wine, and tells us the story of her career as a salesperson for chemical products. She knew nothing about chemistry or her company’s line of merchandise, but her training taught her the answer to every question any customer would ask.
Lionel leans back, trying to tune her out. He has an aversion to salespeople and fears being rude to them. He sometimes says he feels their voices roiling his intestines. He already wants to get well clear of Cynthia, and it will be up to me, I know, to extricate us.
Cynthia reaches the end of her professional biography without drawing a response from us, other than an occasional nod from me. Again she pauses, I suppose expecting us to reciprocate with tales of what we’ve done to make a living. We say nothing, and Cynthia takes a look through the window at her boyfriend, who’s still conversing with Legend. In a way I wish he’d stop so that Legend could refill our glasses, which we’d like even more since Cynthia arrived, but if he does stop talking he’s liable to join us. Cynthia confides that she and her boyfriend have been together nine years. She lets slip an eye roll, and I decide not to mention that Lionel and I were together eight years before we got married. She tells us where they’re having dinner and asks where we’re going. I say we have a table reserved at a place on Victoria Street. She’s never eaten there, she says, and a silence hangs in the air, perhaps because she hopes I’ll suggest they come with us. She then says she co-chairs a charitable fundraiser that’s coming up in the fall, and she invites us to attend. Lionel glances through the window to see if the boyfriend is on his way to us. Cynthia reaches toward me and grips my wrist. Her hand is strong and it hurts.
“I’d be happy for you two to come visit me,” she says. “I’ve got a big house. It’s a wonderful event, dinner and dancing, and there’d be no obligation to contribute. We keep it very low key.”
I imagine us in our room, conducting what Lionel refers to as the postmortem. We’ll dissect Cynthia for the rest of the evening, discussing the wrist grab and the implications of everything she’s said. Lionel makes a distinction between pushers and stretchers, and I can guess how he’ll categorize Cynthia.
“It’s sound like a good cause,” I reply as she releases me.
Cynthia may have expected us to show more interest or to suggest she come visit us, and Lionel will express relief later that I didn’t. He checks the window again and stirs. He’s giving me a cue.
“We’d better get going, Lionel.”
He nods, putting his napkin on the table just a little too eagerly.
Cynthia seems surprised to be losing us. She thumbs her hair from her eye and offers us both a handshake as we all rise.
“We’re headed home tomorrow. I’ll leave my business card at the front desk for you. I hope you’ll stay in touch.”
We smile and then walk across the courtyard toward our room. Lionel has trouble getting the electronic eye to read the keycard, but eventually we get inside and close the door.
We sigh and groan, especially Lionel, before starting the postmortem. Lionel says that when we’re ready to leave he’ll take a peek out to see if she’s gone, though, he adds, we could run into her in the elevator down or in the parking garage.
“She seemed lonely,” I say. “Do you think we’re being unfair to her? She could be a good person. Why else would she do the fundraiser?”
“She’s a salesperson.”
“They can be decent people.”
“They have mixed motives.”
“Doesn’t everyone? You don’t know her, so you can’t know her true intentions.”
“Do you want to go out there and invite her to visit us or take a trip to her fundraiser?”
“No, but she might still be sitting there, her nine-year boyfriend talking to Legend, who may wish he could get free of him.”
“Maybe the boyfriend will invite Legend over for a visit. Stretchers won’t let people go.”
We hear a knock on our door. Our room has a sliding glass door opening onto a patio that leads to a back way out of the inn. Lionel wants to use it, and I say we can’t be sure it’s her. We’re both whispering. I start toward the front door to look out the peephole, pointing at my eyes so Lionel will know what I’m doing. He waves me away from it, as if pulling me toward him, but I keep going, imagining Cynthia’s eyeball staring back at me. Lionel hides his face in his hands.
Glen Pourciau’s first collection of stories won the 2008 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His second story collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books in early 2017. His stories have been published in New World Writing, AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, Little Star, New England Review, Paris Review, and others.