Part one. Geno.
I like brown. Make everything brown for me. No matter how you decorate a restaurant, a one-tone color scheme simplifies your decisions. And if you say you don’t prefer things the easy way, then I’m saying you’re a liar and possibly a cheat down to your bone marrow as well. Brown’s the easy way, I tell you. And I know exactly how easy it is. The hard part’s seeing the light, but once you’re on track, the rest follows like pulling a train. My changeover to brown started when Charlene presented me with that pair of paintings all in sepia tones. Scenes of Palermo.
“Good heavens, woman,” I said. “I swear you beat hell out of a good idea, don’t you, when you set your mind to it.” She sniffed and hung the paintings there on the wall at the back of the main dining room.
“Now,” she said. “Match that.”
So I did. A challenge arouses me, so long as I know it leads from clutter to simplicity. Yes, Charlene. From now on it’s brown. If it’s brown, it’s for me.
What amazed me more than anything else, though, was how perfect it was, this match up of Geno and brown. When I woke up the next morning, this brown thing was playing around inside my head the way a tune will get stuck there, you know, and repeat itself over and over until you think you’ll go nuts. The difference was, brown was no nuisance. No indeed—a blessing, a godsend it was. Yeah, I even wondered how on earth Charlene could have guessed. She’s got a powerful version of that woman’s intuition thing, is what I figured.
That very morning, I walked into the T.G. & Y. when they opened and bought two dozen brown-and-tan checkered tablecloths. That’ll fix her, I thought. I unwrapped each one myself and inspected them individually for flaws.
“No flaws,” I announced to Charlene.
She stuck her pencil behind her ear and shook out the cloths as I handed them to her. She wrinkled her nose at the odor that gushed forth each time I slid one out of its plastic wrapper, but I pointed out to her that these tablecloths were made of the finest Korean oilcloth. Surely nobody would complain about the scent of quality. She shrugged and gave me this look that said “Yeah? Just wait.” But I was right. No customer ever once said a thing about the aroma of those cloths. Quality will out, I always say.
While I unwrapped another, Charlene spread out a cloth and came back and stood beside me. She was my sweet thing in those days. And let me tell you, among all her features, I liked her arms the most, if you can imagine that. But it’s easy to understand if I tell you why. While it is true that her thighs were soft as biscuit dough and quivered deliciously when I squeezed and kissed, it was her arms alone that she allowed to get any sun. And sunning brought out the glorious freckles.
“Charlene,” I’d say, licking her biceps. “These freckles, they’re like a million tiny chocolate drops.” I kissed the backs of her spotted hands like they were finest French pastry. Even the cigarette stains on her plump fingers turned me on with their rich, dark amber hue and scents of forbidden pleasures.
“Charlene,” I called out when she flopped down another cloth. “Wouldn’t it be something if we could have some new dresses for you and the other girls?”
“Why, of course.”
Next thing I knew, she waltzed in the place one afternoon with six dresses on coat hangers. All of them hot-coffee brown with caffay-oh-lay tan piping on the pockets and sleeves. She had spelled out each girl’s name with a thread of a pale rooftile terra cotta. Mamma mia, that Charlene had the eye.
“This should help with the sale,” she said when she hung them on the rack behind the cash register. She folded her arms and gave me this look that I could only read to mean “Let’s get a move on. I’ve waited long enough, don’t you think?”
“Be patient,” I kept telling her. “You have no idea how hard it is to sell a place like this. Jeezus Effin Christ, Charlene! What makes you think anybody wants to buy a business? Nobody buys a business, folks just start their own.”
So Charlene would give me this Yeah, right look, but she kept on doing whatever I said do anyway. Sometimes, even when I didn’t tell her to, she’d come to work with a new brown something. In view of my non-aggressive little scoldings, I think you would call this behavior Ingratiating.
“Oh, that’s nice, Charlene,” I’d say, trying to make her feel better. What else could I say? In my experience, if you ever cross anybody who thinks they’re doing you a favor, then you’ve got a mess on your hands. So Charlene I didn’t cross, at least not right to her face.
Things went on kinda tense-and-polite like this for a while. Then one day Charlene almost gave up, just like I had planned. It was the day we had my wife’s brother in to lay the new floor tiles. Real gems those tiles were. The deep maroon brown had that beautiful sheen of the most expensive Florsheim cordovan-leather oxfords. Best part was, I picked them up dirt cheap at that new fire sale store on Port Sulphur Road that Charlene told me about. Monte’s Salvage Paradise it’s called. I met that Monte Raimondo at a Lion’s Club luncheon and he’s a go-getter. To my amusement, had good words for brown, which is the color of smoke stains from the fire-damaged goods he gets at insurance sales.
Charlene stood at the kitchen door smoking cigs. I kept saying to her “Charlene, now why don’t you go on home. We won’t open again until tomorrow.” But no matter what I said or how nicely, she just stood there. Smoking cigarettes. Drinking coffee. I tell the girls they can have all the coffee they want, see, and they do take me up on it. Charlene was frowning bad enough to spoil the Half-and-Half.
“Well,” I laughed to cheer her up. “I guess we don’t have to worry so much about coffee stains on the floor now, do we?” Charlene didn’t look up and didn’t smile. So I left my wife’s brother there on his hands and knees, and beckoned her into the office for privacy.
As soon as the door was shut, I nuzzled her ear where there was a nice dark walnut-colored mole I loved. “Aw, honey,” I said. Be nice to Geno. “You know it’s all going to work out just fine, even if we don’t get a buyer.”
She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no, but I’ll give her this much, from that moment on, she didn’t utter another word about selling Geno’s Place or about our plans to take the money and move to Apalachicola. What was she going to say? Whose idea was this about selling and moving anyway?
Part two, Charlene, will appear soon, so stay tuned.
Photograph by DC Young, a Leica M3 image taken in 1987 and printed with a cheap enlarger in the hotel room in New Orleans where we were living at the time.