Day 22 in my novel-in-a-month effort:

Chapter 21: First Date

No person or persons, company or corporation, shall introduce into any State or Territory of the United States or the District of Columbia from any other State or Territory of the United States or the District of Columbia, or sell in the District of Columbia or in any Territory any dairy or food products which shall be falsely labeled or branded as to the State or Territory in which they are made, produced, or grown, or cause or procure the same to be done by others.

—Title 21, United States Code, Food and Drugs, Adulterated or Misbranded Food or Drugs, Introduction into, or sale in, State or Territory or District of Columbia of dairy or food products falsely labeled or branded

The four of them walked, sometimes together, mostly apart, gazing at the art on display. The show’s theme was art work created out of recycled materials, which led to some odd reactions and even laughters of recognition.

Sarah’s favorite work was a coffee table constructed out of used oil filters. Because the filters had been removed from a variety of cars and trucks, the table appeared unstable, even though it sat rock solid on the concrete floor. The diversity of company names and labels on the sides made the work intriguing, even if the aura of greasiness that hovered over it made people unwilling to get too close.

Sam was more taken by a business suit – leave it to a man, Sarah thought – constructed out of newspapers. More specifically, they were all newspaper stories about the “roundups” of undocumented immigrants the local county sheriff had been conducting for the past few years. His campaign against illegal immigration had made national headlines, which means the artist was able to stitch together pages from the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and other papers around the country. Sam especially laughed that the suit’s vest was bright and colorful, completely manufactured out of pages from the Travel section of newspapers, all touting the wonders of Mexico.

It was right about then that the couple realized that they had not seen their daughters in a few minutes. In the span of time between “I’m sure they’re nearby” and “We should call the police,” they heard a crash, loud enough to be heard over the pulsing beat of “Hoof and Mouth,” the band currently playing.

Instantly, like all parents in the room, they knew that their kids were the source of the crash.

Unlike the other parents, Sam and Sarah were correct.

They raced toward the sound. Until a few moments ago, the largest piece in the art show had sat stolidly in the center of the gallery. From its broad base, it had reached up to a height of almost 20 feet. It had been playing a variety of songs and movies out of its embedded speakers and video feeds. It had been topped by a multi tiered wedding cake, crowned by a rooster. And, most striking, it had been constructed almost entirely out of toilet paper rolls, stripped of their paper.

From a distance, Sarah and Sam could see that the space in the center of the gallery now appeared empty. Fighting their way through the crowd, though, they saw that the work had broken into numerous pieces, and the formerly vertical art work was now largely horizontal.

“Olive, Mia, are you OK?” shouted Sarah, over Hoof and Mouth, who decided to play through what they thought was performance art.

Sam began to toss toilet paper rolls aside, thinking the worst. But then, rising from the disaster, he saw four figures emerge like zombies from the grave. They were children, and they were laughing.

“We’re OK, dad,” said Mia. “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to do it.”

“Yeah, mom, really,” said Olive. “This thing was pretty tippy, and when Mia and I were looking at it, a guy on a unicycle bumped into us, and we fell. Claire and S.D. tried to catch us, but we all ended up falling.”

“Wow,” laughed a girl about Mia’s height, also standing amidst the wreckage, “this thing came down like a house of cards.”

To say that Sam and Sarah were shocked and disoriented would be an understatement. But before they could ask any questions, two things happened.

The first thing is that the gallery owner appeared, visibly distraught. Though she was understanding, and pleased that none of the girls was hurt, she made it pretty clear that someone – her eyes lingering on Sarah and Sam – someone was going to purchase an art work tonight.

The other thing that happened was that another couple emerged from the crowd, looking just as shocked and chagrined as Sam and Sarah, the new owners of “Totally Tubular Waste / Mixed Media, Audio, Video, Toilet Paper Tubes, 2009.” Sam, seeing their panic and exhaustion, pegged them right away as the parents of the other children.

As the crowd disbursed and the gallery owner returned Sarah’s credit card, the two couples stepped toward each other over the recycled materials.

“Hi, my name is Sam, and this is Sarah. Good to meet you.”

The young, attractive couple appeared relieved that something besides blame was coming their way, and they both smiled.

“Hi, I’m Ben Davenport. This is my wife Sabrina.”

As easily as Mia and Olive had joined forces that evening, the four adults relaxed into each others’ company. They laughed at the misfortune, were relieved that their children escaped injury, and marveled that toilet paper had become art. Sabrina offered to buy half of the scuplture – because it would have been easy to shovel up half from the floor – but Sarah declined, saying she had a special place in mind for it at work.

“So those are your kids?” Sarah asked.

“Yes,” said Sabrina. “S.D. only goes by initials, but she’s named after her grandfather. And Claire – “

“Claire is named after a school in the University of Wisconsin system,” interrupted Ben proudly. “We always thought it was the prettiest name. I mean, what were we going to call her – Oshkosh?”

“How about – Madison?” Sam mused.

Ben looked stunned.

“I hadn’t thought of Madison,” he said, his voice trailing off.

“But Claire is really pretty too,” said Sarah, shooting Sam an annoyed look, which he took to be proprietary and, therefore, very alluring.

S.D. poked her head into their circle.

“I call her ‘Ewww Claire’ after the school’s name,” she said, laughing and running off.

“S.D., it’s Eau Claire,” said Ben. But he and Sabrina were smiling.

As the adults sat cross legged on the floor, they watched their four kids interact. Olive and Claire, both thirteen, and Mia and S.D., both eight, spoke with each other as they sat in their own circle. The adults were pleased to see that the older girls didn’t exclude the younger. And the younger girls even appeared to be the jokesters in the circle, keeping all four rolling on the floor, which was littered with disintegrating art.

“Do you come out for First Fridays much?” asked Sarah.

“Pretty often,” responded Sabrina. “It’s easy, because we live acros the street.” She pointed out the plate glass windows toward a building. At first glance, Sarah took it to be a commercial storefront. But then she could see that there was a home behind it.

The kids must have been at about the same place in their conversation, because Mia and Olive shouted out in a rehearsed sentence, “Mom and Dad, we want to live in a house on this street too.”

Without pausing, Sam called back, “Maybe we will someday, girls.”

Then, trying to hide his panic, he tried again.

“I mean, someday, Mia, we might – you never know – I mean – you and me – “

Sarah tried not to laugh at Sam’s juggling act.

“First date?” Sabrina asked.

“Yes,” said Sam, miserable.

“But not last,” said Sarah, squeezing Sam’s hand. His spirits soared again.

Turning back to Sabrina, Sarah asked, “Did somebody park in front of your house?”

Sabrina paused, and said, “No, that is Jeeves, the World’s Largest VW Bus.” Her face was a pattern of conflicting emotions.

Ben’s face was less conflicted.

“Pretty cool, isn’t it? I did the steel work, and others worked on other parts. We’ll have to show it to you.”

“It is cool,” said Sam. Initially, he had thought that the truck was another structure, not a vehicle. “It must be remarkable to drive.”

“It is,” said Ben.

“That thing should be on display,” said Sam. “Now THAT is a work of art.”

Sam couldn’t take his eyes off it. How cool would it be to have created that, and to park it in your yard. Sam started to think about what kind of dollar offer he could make for something that was so one of a kind, for something that kicked ass so totally.

Sabrina saw the calculations behind Sam’s eyes.

“No need to think about it, Sam,” she said. “Despite my best efforts at persuasion, the beast is not for sale.” Her eyes closed as she finished her sentence.

“That’s right,” agreed Ben. “She’s a keeper.”

“I can see why,” said Sam. Two minutes before, he had no idea that on this earth there was a Volkwagen bus as large as a house. Now, he was surprised to find himself sad that he could never possess it. First Fridays could be an emotional outing.

They sat in silence. But that state never lasts long when there are children present. Within a few minutes, calls of “What are we going to do now?” and “We’re hungry” were shared with the adults. In short order, the new friends decided to visit the tiny restaurant next door.

The Chill Out Café was a bright, pie shaped eatery that adjoined the gallery. It contained about eight tables, and the group grabbed two of them. They quickly ordered some Calcutta wraps and tabbouleh and chipotle hummus wraps. The girls also asked for the red curried noodles and veggies and a Panini with brie and pears. They ordered ginger lemonade all around.

“This is perfect,” said Sam. “Just recently, Mia’s developed an aversion to gluten, so it’s good to find a place that indicates what has wheat.”

“Olive too,” said Sarah, “though for her it’s lactose more than gluten.”

They looked over toward their food intolerant children. Sam and Sarah still marveled at how well their kids were getting along. And Claire and S.D. made the group complete.

“You know, Ben,” said Sam, still thinking about the VW. That bus – “

“Jeeves,” reminded Ben.

“Yes, Jeeves. I was just thinking he would be really cool to take to Burning Man.”

“Burning Man?” said Sarah. “I’ve always thought it would be cool to go there, at least once.”

Sam was surprised, and Ben continued.

“I had never thought of that. But now that you mention it, it’s a great idea.”

As their food arrived, they heard a “bang” and a cry of pain. Instinctively, the adults looked toward their kids, whose activities had led to art deconstruction earlier in the evening. But it wasn’t the girls.

Instead, a man sitting at a two top against the wall was bent over, holding his head in his hands – and beginning to holler. The scene appeared tragic, with red liquid sprayed on his table and the wall and floor surrounding him. Only the overturned bowl revealed that it was gazpacho, not blood, that decorated the space.

“I’m going to own this place,” the man yelled. “You guys are in big trouble!”

Fellow diners crowded around, offering sympathy. They soon determined that a small framed picture, propped into a window space above rather than nailed to the wall, had tumbled through space following one too many slams of the restaurant door. The frame’s corner had grazed the diner’s head, causing a lot of shock but very little injury.

The owner came out and spoke with the man, who insisted he be given his meal free. The owner readily agreed, and people drifted back to their tables.

“You know who that is, don’t you?” Sarah asked Sam quietly.

“No, not really,” replied Sam, not needing to be inconspicuous in his stare, as the entire restaurant had been watching the scene develop.

“That’s Alan Spinkter, the Speaker of the House,” said Sarah. “And our firm’s client.”

“What a horse’s ass,” said Sam. “I mean – it’s unfortunate he had a picture fall on his head.”

“Yeah, unfortunate for us,” said Sarah, “if he realizes his law firm is sitting in the restaurant where he suffered such a grievous blow.” She could hardly get out the last words with a straight face.

“But that’s easy,” said Sam. “We’re witnesses – we couldn’t take this matter, even if we were silly enough to want to.”

“True,” said Sarah, “but I don’t want to have to explain that to him. Let’s hope he doesn’t notice us.”

All seemed well, until –

“Sarah Fujii, I presume,” announced Spinkter, standing suddenly at her elbow.

“Oh, hello, Speaker Spinkter,” she replied, hoping she sounded like she had just noticed him. “What are you doing out tonight?”

“The gazpacho,” he said. “That soup is about the best thing you can put into your body. Or ONTO your body, I guess.” Much to Sarah’s surprise, he was laughing.

“Yeah, I noticed the, um, mishap. Are you OK?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” he said. “It’s just second nature for me to yell ‘Lawsuit,’ I guess. All my years with Harvey Shinblock, I assume.”

Sarah smiled, not knowing where this was going.

“Do you mind if I pull up a chair?” asked Spinkter, dragging one closer without waiting for a response.

Sarah quickly introduced everyone at the table. After some small talk in which he also marveled at the VW monster outside – men and their vehicles, Sarah and Sabrina thought – Spinkter turned toward Sarah and lowered his voice.

“This Dedrick of yours – is he all right?”

Sarah’s red flags went up.

“Why, of course, I saw him just today, and he’s – all right.”

“No, no, I don’t mean is he injured. Although I did hear about the boat crash.”

Sarah and Sam – who could overhear – were startled, and showed it.

Spinkter continued.

“I keep close tabs on the media. I happen to know an Arizona Republic reporter was present at the lake, and he even got some pictures.”

They turned ashen.

“It’ll be in tomorrow’s print edition, I’m sure,” Spinkter said. “And it’s online right now.”

He held up his PDA, letting them read the headline and lede:

 

DEAD DUCK

An unauthorized race between two boats on Tempe Town Lake yielded extensive damage to a boat and the dock after one of the boats crashed. The boat was piloted by well heeled lawyer and former state Supreme Court Justice Claude Dedrick, who is the managing partner at Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine, Phoenix. Dedrick’s Mercedes Benz was also reportedly destroyed in the accident.

Check in later for updates, including possible criminal charges. …

 

Spinkter continued talking, but Sarah and Sam kept seeing the words “Dead Duck” and “criminal charges.” Their firm – their livelihood – had been reduced to a humorous sound bite. That could only mean bad things.

“Soooo,” Spinkter said, trying to regain her attention. “What I want to know is, is Dedrick all there, or is he a few elements short of a charge? You know: ‘All damages, no standing’?”

Sarah didn’t know what to say, so she fiddled with the straw in her ginger lemonade.

“Well,” he continued, “I know you’re going to be loyal to your colleague, but I need to know whether to go forward against the Governor with this guy, or whether to find somebody else. I need to know if he’s what ‘right’ looks like.”

Sarah wasn’t getting into the middle of that.

“So tell Tom Paine I need to get together with him. Feel free to tell him my concerns. He’ll be able to tell me if the firm is completely behind me in this lawsuit.”

He stood up to go.

“Nice boots, by the way,” he said. “If I were a younger man …”

His slam of the door was strong enough to make another picture tremble, and the owner quickly climbed on a chair to remove them all from their delicate perches.

“Work stuff?” asked Ben.

“Yes, work stuff,” replied Sarah. The exchange had deeply troubled her. She had her own case beginning in earnest in the next week; she didn’t want to have to think about another lawyer’s unhappy client – maybe unhappy enough to dismiss the law firm.

When the group finished their meal, Ben and Sabrina said they were heading home, but they all promised to get together again.

The four First Friday survivors – Sarah, Sam, Olive and Mia – began walking south, toward their cars. Sam agreed he’d return to retrieve the toilet paper art work, but he wanted to walk alongside Sarah Fujii once more that evening.

They drew to a stop in front of Chez Nous Cocktail Lounge. Its had recently shut its doors forever – even bars were affected by the economic downturn. The evening had wound down.

“You were really bothered by that,” said Sam, “weren’t you?”

She knew what he spoke about.

“Sure. I decide to join a firm, and it becomes a public joke only months later? Yikes.”

“Well, you should look at the bright side,” he said.

“Oh, and what is that?” Sarah asked.

“At least Dedrick refused to put your name in the firm’s title.”

Sarah had been close to crying, but now she broke out laughing.

“What a pisser you are,” she laughed through her tears.

“Ouch. Mind the mouth, counselor.”

“Oh, I will, counselor. I will.”

And with that, Sarah turned toward Sam, looked him in the eyes, and kissed him full on the lips.

Olive and Mia, skipping ahead, were informed by their children’s radar that something disgusting was occurring in their vicinity. They spun around and, together, said “Ewwww.”

Sam chuckled.

“Well, as long as we can hear the kids whine, I guess we know they’re safe.”

And so, in front of the former Chez Nous Cocktail Lounge, before the assembled smiling faces of the homeless, the prostitutes, Olive and Mia, Sam kissed Sarah back – more than once.

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