By September of 1987 Charles Dingleman had become the sort of person who muttered obscenities when the supermarket line moved too slowly. He complained so often about so many little things that people in his law firm rolled their eyes and his young second wife said that he had become tiresome. Charlie, as everyone called him, had not been the same since he'd lost his seat in Congress three years before. He could still be charming, especially when he wore his wide smile and sincere stare, and he liked to tell clients that serving six years as the servant of a half-million Pennsylvanians was his proudest accomplishment. But no one quite believed him, perhaps because Charlie could not entirely conceal the loathing he felt for the tens of thousands of people who'd voted against him, and he never seemed comfortable talking about that time of his life.
The truth was that the people of Pennsylvania had turned on Charlie, and they had their reasons: a public divorce, which not only left him feeling sorry at the way everything had turned out but ashamed of himself. "I just kept stepping into it," he liked to say, but then he somehow did it again.
Just that week he'd managed to offend one of the associates, a dark-haired thirty-year-old named Judith Grust, who had been on the Law Review at Harvard and was often at the office past midnight, working much harder than Charlie ever would. On an impulse that Charlie thought was genuine (twice she'd smiled at him in the corridor), he'd invited Judith to lunch to discuss a mineral rights case that she'd helped him to prepare, producing a brief so intelligent and so detailed that he found it hard to follow. It was a lawsuit of very little interest to Charlie, and he found himself trying to change the subject whenever Judith brought it up.
They'd walked over to a K Street restaurant called Jean Valjean, where Charlie had ordered a rare strip steak and Judith a shrimp salad. During a friendly lull between courses, while Judith was describing a car she intended to buy, a Camry, and Charlie interrupted her to bring up the fate of Robert Bork, who had decided to fight on for confirmation to the Supreme Court, Judith noticed that Charlie was studying an underdressed woman at a nearby table. The woman reminded Charlie of Virginia Mayo, whom he had recently seen in a film on channel five with, he believed, Farley Granger and Broderick Crawford. They had been held hostage by mobsters in a Cleveland luncheonette.
"Every man in this place is staring," Judith said when she saw where Charlie was looking.
"With damn good reason," he replied, attempting his most winning smile, much like the one that Crawford had attempted with Mayo. "I know it's pathetic."
But as Charlie uttered these words, he saw how Judith's lips appeared to stiffen and how a sort of transparent mask altered her face. As he tried to repair the last sentence, he understood that he ought to shut up, that she was not going to be sympathetic to his somewhat rambling explication: that such sights were merely an innocent pleasure. Of course he had every right to say what he felt, and he kept talking until he noticed that Judith's expression was still changing; there was something in it now -- a darkening -- he could not understand. Then the atmosphere became, if anything, worse: when Charlie hurriedly returned to the subject of the lawsuit and expressed his view that the doctrine of laches applied to mineral claims on the property in question, adding only that the issues were hopelessly tiresome, he made the very bad guess that, on that topic at least, she would commiserate.
A waiter came by to fill their water glasses, and by the time he'd left with his icy pitcher, Judith Grust's brown eyes looked opaque and small. "I don't know why you're telling me this," she said. "If you're burned out and bored by our work, that's a problem between you and the partners. I don't know why you thought I'd be interested in what turns a middle-aged man on. The truth is I find that kind of staring at women deeply offensive." She paused and added softly, "I'm sorry if I sound as if I'm lecturing you."
Charlie looked at his luncheon companion, and although his appetite had fled, he nibbled on a warm roll he'd already broken into two, then three and four pieces. Was she kidding? He searched her expression, hoping to find a trace of self-mockery. He found nothing of the sort. He tried to remember something witty that Broderick Crawford had said to Virginia Mayo: that if he were a dog and she were a steak, he wouldn't care, or something to that effect; and Virginia Mayo had said that he was a dog, mangy and dumb and flea-bitten, and then Crawford and Mayo had laughed together in the way that friends in mortal danger laugh.
"All I can say in my defense," Charlie said, as if he were seeking her vote, "is that I meant no harm in what I said. I was just being a guy. I mean, what are we coming to if we can't be honest about that?"
His apology, like heavy food, sank in his stomach.
"I just like women," he went on, producing what he believed was his most charming expression, far better than Broderick Crawford's best.
"It's been my experience," Judith Grust replied, her voice a little gentler, "that many men who talk about liking women are those most prone to committing violence against women. I hope you don't take this personally; I'm not suggesting that you're a violent person. But it's what I believe."
Their food arrived, and Judith seemed to stare with disapproval at Charlie's steaming plate of steak with béarnaise sauce and potatoes. Charlie forced out a new smile, as if to add a dash of gaiety to their table. "Got to lose some weight," he said, patting his stomach, and in the silence that followed, he glanced once more at the woman nearby who had set the whole thing off. A thin film of perspiration was visible, a dewy coating on pale cleavage. Charlie widened his eyes and, in a jumpy gesture, looked at his watch.
"My gosh!" he said. "I have an appointment back at the office in ten minutes. How could I possibly have allowed such a scheduling botch? Forgive me!" Overcome with regret, he waved for the check, brandishing his amber American Express card. Moments later he stood and bowed slightly, in almost military fashion.
That should have been enough, Charlie thought later, but he felt rattled by Judith Grust's contemptuous look, and as he completed his bow, he felt a powerful urge to try to heal the mysterious wound that he'd inflicted. As he bent his head to apologize again, he sniffed strong perfume and noticed pale fuzz on her cheeks. He felt foolish just standing there and deployed his absolutely vintage grin.
"You know," he whispered, "I worry that if I were a mangy dog and you were roast beef, I wouldn't care," realizing even as the words came out that perhaps he had gotten something terribly wrong, that the joke had been mangled irreparably. Virginia Mayo would not have enjoyed this repartee -- not at all -- and Broderick Crawford would never have said such a thing. What on earth was he thinking? "I was trying to make a stupid joke, and it came out all wrong," Charlie said hurriedly, but Judith Grust's brown eyes had become black ice, as if she were another hostile Pennsylvania voter ready to do him in.
Copyright © 2004 by Jeffrey Frank