Marley’s west Phoenix, lower-middle-class upbringing did not prepare her for a place like this. Muenster, or Dick, as he insisted she call him, had told her on the phone the place he’d chosen for her twenty-fourth birthday dinner was ‘special’ and for her to dress accordingly. So, ‘dress’ she did, by breaking the bank on a new outfit—a cobalt blue, crepe silk tunic number and a new pair of killer heels with matching purse. But when Dick had pulled off Central Avenue into the parking lot of a windowless, pink brick building with a giant, roof-mounted 1950s-era neon sign that spelled out D-U-R-A-N-T-S, Marley had begun to doubt Dick’s taste in restaurants. When he led her through the building’s back door, instead of the front entrance, and into a cramped, bustling kitchen, she was certain his idea of ‘special’ was a far cry from her own. It wasn’t until they made their way from the steamy kitchen and into the dining room that Marley understood what, indeed, was special about this particular steakhouse.
It was like stepping back into a bygone era. Tufted red leather booths. Red flocked wallpaper. Red floral carpeting. An iconic and expansive backlit bar and all-male wait staff dressed in starched white coats, red vests, and black tuxedo ties. Dim and windowless, the smoke-hazed dining room’s soft incandescent lighting cast a romantic, golden shimmer upon the red flocked walls, creating a moody atmosphere befitting illicit romance, shadowy characters, and dark intrigue. Marley half expected to see Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack hanging out at the bar, or Marilyn Monroe and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio making out in a candle-lit booth.
A server escorted Marley and Dick to a cozy corner booth of their own, one which Dick had reserved for the occasion. With a flourish, the server handed them embossed menus, while another server conjured a bountiful bread bowl and an iced relish tray of assorted veggies.
“May I start you off with something from the bar?” asked the waiter.
“A double Cutty Sark, neat,” said Dick. “And she’ll have a glass of your house red.”
The server bowed and hurried off toward the dining room’s bar.
“How did you know I prefer red wine?”
“Wild guess,” said Dick, giving her a cheeky wink as he plucked a scallion from the relish tray and shoved it into his mouth. “Did I get it right?” he asked.
Dick looked pleased with himself. He held up the relish tray to Marley, as an offering: “Here, try some of the veggies. The stuffed celery is delicious.”
Marley gave the celery a fleeting thought, imagining herself fighting to bite through its tough fibrous stalk, then opted for a pitted black olive instead, the one choice on the tray with the lowest risk of an eating disaster.
“Have you ever been here before?” Dick asked.
“No,” replied Marley. “I’d never heard of the place until tonight.”
Dick raised an eyebrow. “Never? And you were born and raised in Phoenix?”
Marley was beginning to feel like a country bumpkin due to her lack of experience. “No, never. Sorry.”
“I can’t believe you’ve never heard of Durant’s. This place is a Phoenix institution—a guy named Jack Durant opened it in 1950. Rumor has it he worked for syndicate boss Bugsy Siegel at the Flamingo Hotel on the Vegas Strip until Bugsy was murdered by a rival gangster. Some say Jack Durant’s still got connections with the mob.”
“Why would anyone want to eat at a place with such a sordid past?” asked Marley, as she scanned the dining room for potential suspects. One table, in particular, caught her eye: a long table of a dozen or so noisy diners, all smoking like chimneys and talking over one another, and all well on their way to getting smashed.
“Why?” replied Dick, who’d finished off the relish tray and was now digging into the bread bowl. “The food, that’s why. Would you like some bread? It’s authentic sourdough.”
“What’s that stuff on top of it?”
“Carmelized onions. Here, try a piece.”
Marley hated onions. She took a nibble of the bread and set it down on her bread plate…or what she guessed was her bread plate. The table’s formal place settings were a bit overwhelming. So many different forks, spoons, and knives…she wasn’t sure when to use what and hoped she could avoid embarrassment by following Dick’s lead.
“Besides the food, you never know who you’ll see here. It’s a favorite place for a lot of Phoenix’s movers and shakers.”
“Like who?” asked Marley, but before Dick could answer, the waiter returned with their drinks.
“Are we ready to order?” the waiter asked Dick.
As Marley reached to open her menu, Dick handed his menu over to the waiter. “Yes, we’re ready,” he told the waiter. “I’ll have the liver and onions, with the baked potato and the house salad with Ranch.”
Marley was frantically scanning the menu, trying to figure out what to order. But there were no prices on the menu and she didn’t want to unwittingly order the most expensive dish and give Dick the impression she was high maintenance. She was still scanning the menu when she heard Dick say, “And she’ll have the slow-roasted prime rib, medium rare, also with the baked potato and house salad.”
“And which dressing would the young lady like on her salad?” asked the waiter, addressing Dick who, in turn, looked to Marley, who’d just swilled a mouthful of her wine.
Swallowing hard, Marley set down her wine glass and sputtered, “Oh, um…blue cheese?”
“Will Roquefort do?” asked the waiter.
Marley hesitated. What the hell was rowkfert? She felt the eyes of both the waiter and Dick bearing down on her, awaiting her answer.
“Yes,” she bravely ventured. “Rowk…um, yes, that would be lovely.”
Dick threw back his Scotch then ran his tongue over his mustache so as not to miss a drop. He held up his glass to the waiter. “Another double, please.”
“Of course, sir,” said the waiter as he collected their menus.
“And a wine list, too,” Dick added.
When the server had gone, Marley asked Dick, “What, again, did you order for me?”
“The slow-roasted prime rib. It’s the house specialty. Trust me, you’ll love it.”
Marley nodded, acquiescing to Dick’s superior knowledge of such things. But, medium rare? Marley was not a huge fan of red meat and when she did eat it, she preferred that it be cooked thoroughly. Nothing turned her stomach faster than the sight of blood oozing from her food.
“Is it possible for them to cook the meat well done?”
Dick scoffed. “No self-respecting chef would agree to overcook an expensive cut of prime rib—that would ruin it.”
“Oh,” said Marley. She suddenly felt like Eliza Doolittle, the uncouth Cockney flower girl in My Fair Lady. Her nerves and insecurity were now getting the better of her, causing her to obsess over what faux pas she would surely commit next. Use the wrong fork? Slurp her wine? Choke on the bloody Prime Rib? She could feel herself shrinking, as had Wonderland’s Alice after she sipped the ‘Drink Me’ potion. Was it possible, she wondered, to shrink to a size so small as to disappear altogether, before she had a chance to humiliate herself any further? Marley snatched up her wine glass—her ‘Drink Me’ potion—and downed another mouthful.
Sensing her insecurity, Dick couldn’t help but bask in his relative worldliness; still, his face showed a hint of pity for her. He reached over and wrapped a reassuring hand around hers.
Surprised by the warmth and tenderness of Dick’s fingers as they caressed her own, Marley felt herself growing bigger again, her confidence restored by his consoling touch. She reached for her wine with her free hand, took a slug of liquid courage, then silently bade her tentative fingers to return Dick’s digital caresses.
Encouraged by her receptivity, Dick leaned in and lightly kissed her with lips tasting of Scotch. As their lips parted, their waiter, along with a second server, arrived with their dinner salads. The second server, a pimply-faced boy of no more than sixteen, held a cloth-covered tray upon which sat two chilled salad forks. He made an offering of the forks to the pair as the first waiter stood ceremoniously by. Dick took a fork in hand and waited for Marley to do the same. Following his lead, Marley withdrew the second fork, which promptly slipped from her fingers and fell to the floor where it took an unfortunate bounce that sent it flying under their cloth-draped table. In reflex, the young server fell to his knees and dove beneath the table to fetch it.
“Oh, no! I’m so sorry!” said a crimson-faced Marley to the young server, whose head and shoulders were now fully under the table as he searched for the fork.
“No worries—Oww!,” he replied, bumping his head on the table as he scrambled back to his feet. “I’ll get you another one.”
Across the table, Dick was chuckling at her, amused by her social awkwardness. “Don’t worry about it,” he told her. “I’m sure you’re not the first customer here to drop a fork.”
The head waiter, still standing by, softly cleared his throat to draw Dick’s attention.
“Have you decided upon a wine selection, sir?”
Dick pointed to an entry on the wine list as he handed it to the waiter.
“Excellent selection. I’ll be right back with your wine.”
The young server was soon back, discreetly slipping another chilled fork onto the table for Marley. Before she could thank him, or drop it again, he was gone.
Dick picked up the linen napkin before him and tucked it into his collar. “Dig in,” he said then stabbed at his salad and hoisted a forkful of iceberg lettuce dripping in Ranch dressing. Marley picked up her fork and speared a wedge of lettuce, only to have Dick grab the folded linen napkin next to her plate. He shook it out and laid it across her lap, allowing his hand to linger on her thigh before retracting it.
Marley’s many faux pas were racking up faster than she could count them. In a barely audible voice, she thanked Dick for reminding her to use her napkin before taking a bite of her salad. But the wedge of lettuce dangling on her uplifted fork was far too big to fit in her mouth without risking yet another embarrassing incident. Marley smacked it back down on her plate and attempted to break it into smaller bites with her fork.
“I think you’ll find it easier to cut with your knife,” suggested Dick.
For the umpteenth time since arriving at the restaurant, Marley blushed, then sheepishly picked up her dinner knife. After cutting the wedge into several manageable pieces, she finally took her first bite of salad…as Dick was finishing his.
“How’s the Roquefort?” he asked.
Marley swallowed, careful not to talk with her mouth full. “It’s good. It tastes a little like blue cheese dressing.”
Dick found this enormously funny. Marley was clueless as to why.
“That’s because it is blue cheese,” he said, laughing at her. “It’s called ‘Roquefort’ after the region of France where it’s made.”
Marley forced herself to laugh along with him, hoping to mask the hot humiliation simmering beneath. But Dick’s laughter was making it hard for her to suppress the mounting embarrassment which was, by now, palpable.
“It tastes a little like blue cheese,” Dick repeated, imitating her in a lampooning falsetto and laughing so hard he choked on the swig of Scotch he’d just gulped.
So now he was mocking her. She was just about to crawl under the table when their waiter appeared, brandishing a bottle of Woodbridge Merlot, the cheapest offering on the wine list (unbeknownst to Marley), which he presented for Dick’s inspection. Dick nodded. The waiter set down two fresh wine goblets then magically produced a corkscrew and effortlessly removed the cork, which he then handed to Dick. Dick rolled the cork around in his thick fingers, then placed it on the table. Again, Dick nodded, prompting the waiter to pour a splash of the ruby-hued liquid into Dick’s wine glass. Dick picked it up by the stem, swirled it a time or two, then took a sip. He nodded again at the waiter who then carefully poured the wine before setting down the bottle, its base wrapped in fine, woven linen. Done, the waiter bowed and retreated, the entire performance completed without uttering a single word.
Throughout the show, Marley watched as if she were a mere spectator. While this was supposed to be her birthday celebration, her night, it felt as though Dick, not Marley, was the center of attention, and she, just a peripheral observer who was all but invisible to their server and other wait staff, save for the poor kid who had to crawl under their table after her fork. A weighty feeling of insignificance began to push down upon her, threatening to damn this special occasion to eternal hell. Determined not to let anything ruin this night, Marley pushed back against the weight and forced her attention back to her salad. She lowered her dinner knife onto a plump cherry tomato and prepared to saw it in half when a panicked Dick reached out to stop her.
Too late. The dull blade of her dinner knife had already pressed into the little round bastard, creating just enough pressure to burst it open, spewing its juicy red guts all over the front of Marley’s new dress.
Marley stared down at the carnage dripping down her dress, then up at Dick. He didn’t laugh at her, not openly, but his eyes were dancing like the Radio City Rockettes as he handed her his napkin to clean her dress. Raising his hand, Dick snapped his fingers in quick succession, hailing their waiter.
“Yes, sir?” asked the waiter.
Dick gave a little snicker of apology and nodded at Marley, busy mopping up the mess on her dress. “Some extra napkins, please.”
The waiter’s eyes grew large as he eyed Marley’s dress. “Of course. Right away, sir.”
Marley finished wiping her dress as best she could then pushed aside her salad plate.
“You’re not going to finish that?” asked Dick.
“No,” she said, her appetite waning after the cherry tomato disaster.
“Not even the cucumbers?” Dick eyed the two large slices of cucumber Marley had pushed off to the side of her plate in an attempt to avoid them and the sexual joke they secretly represented.
“Cucumbers aren’t my favorite,” she said with a wry little smile, alluding to that which was her favorite…her hairbrush.
Dick reached over with his fork and harpooned the cucumber slices, which he popped into his mouth. “I love cucumbers,” he said, talking with his mouth full.
Marley watched him in amusement as he crunched and gnashed the cucumber in his mouth—for once, she was the one laughing, albeit inwardly, and the joke was on him.
Her moment of relish ended, however, with the arrival of a small army of wait staff who cleared the table of their salad course, and the head waiter who delivered their main entrees and topped off their wine glasses. A noxious odor wafting up from Dick’s plate hit Marley full in the face, and she was instantly reminded of when her mother would fry up liver in a big wrought iron skillet, releasing a nauseating stench that permeated the entire house, the miasma lingering in the air for hours afterward. As Dick dug into his onion-smothered liver, Marley sank her nose into her wine goblet, breathing in the wine’s fruity bouquet to rid her nostrils of the liver’s stench. She sat like that for a good several minutes, alternating between sipping and sniffing her wine, until her glass was empty. When she finally set the glass back down, she realized Dick was staring at her, looking mildly baffled.
“More wine?” he asked, with a note of sarcasm.
Marley leaped at the offer. “Yes!”
Dick refilled her glass, then eyed her curiously as she snatched it up and again sank her nose into it.
“You might want to have some food with your wine,” he teased. Tapping a finger on the steak knife lying among the other utensils in her place setting, he pointed out, as he winked: “This one’s for cutting your meat; it’s also quite effective on cherry tomatoes.”
“Ha-ha,” countered Marley, who then picked up the steak knife and cut off a piece of her prime rib. Blood. Oozing red. She could almost hear the cow screaming, but she doubled down and forced herself to eat it. Between the stink of Dick’s liver and the repugnant taste of the raw flesh, Marley found herself swilling her wine between every bite, signaling Dick for a refill with each emptying of her glass. It wasn’t long before the wine began to work its magic; with its alcoholic effect, combined with the ethereal glow of the lighting, her senses grew blurred and dreamy: The noxious smell, the repugnant taste, the long list of her faux pas—all began to evaporate into thin air. Even the drunken outbursts of the table of twelve—the Dirty Dozen, as Marley had silently nicknamed them—began to fade into the background. It was her birthday, dammit, and she wasn’t going to let a few social stumbles and a table of hammered rowdies disrupt it.
As Dick poured the last of the wine into her goblet, Marley observed that he was looking better and better by the glassful, despite the ill-fitting leisure suit he wore, cut from a cheap bolt of spongy blue polyester, or the clownish wide-collared orange shirt he paired with it. She had to remind herself, it wasn’t his clothes she was interested in, but what was under them. It had been a frustrating and agonizingly long week since he’d rebuffed her ‘free and easy dessert’ offer of the previous Friday night, so she had every expectation that tonight was going to be the night, and that expectation was now flaming apparent in her wine-glazed eyes.
Dick, now that he’d finished his food and had returned his attention to Marley, was also feeling the alcohol’s magic, the effects of which made it easier for him to forgive and forget all her many mishaps of the night (entertaining, though, they were). Any disdain or condescension he’d been feeling towards Marley was soon displaced by considerations of his cock. Lust flooded his veins and, now, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Drawn by the flame in her eyes, like a moth to the fire, Dick impulsively leaned into her and took his reward: A deep, air-sucking French kiss that literally took Marley’s breath away. When they broke apart, Marley gasped for air. The momentary lack of oxygen, combined with the alcohol, made her head woozy and her muscles weak. She’d never been kissed like that before and she wasn’t entirely sure if that was a good thing.
As Marley fought to catch her breath, their waiter and his helper army of fellow white-coats returned to clear the table.
“Would you like a doggy bag, sir?” the waiter asked Dick, gesturing to Marley’s half-eaten meal.”
After the white-coats left, Dick scooted closer to Marley and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “You’re not much of an eater, are you?”
“It was a lot of food,” she replied.
“I hope you saved room for dessert.”
Marley patted her stomach. “I couldn’t eat another bite,” she said…just as the waiter returned with a monstrous platter of strawberry shortcake—alternating layers of cake and berries stacked four tiers high, covered with a mountain of whipped cream, and sprinkled with chocolate chips. The pimple-faced kid, too, had returned to slip each of them a fresh fork.
“Enjoy,” said the head waiter as he set the dessert down in front of them. Then, for the first time of the night, he looked directly at Marley and spoke to her: “Happy birthday, compliments of Durant’s.”
Marley felt suddenly visible…and special. “Thank you,” she said to the waiter, giving him a smile of gratitude—not so much for the dessert, but for the long-overdue acknowledgment.
But her moment of visibility was short-lived. The waiter’s eyes darted back to Dick. “Can I get you anything else, sir? Sherry or port, perhaps?”
Dick thought a moment, then answered: “Two brandy Alexanders.”
“Very good, sir. Coming right up.”
As the waiter turned heel to leave, a cacophonous roar of laughter arose from the Dirty Dozen, startling everyone in the dining room. Dick scowled at the disruption and turned to scrutinize the group, but his look of disdain instantly gave way to one of surprise.
“What is it?” Marley asked, as she, too, looked at the group, not seeing whatever it was that Dick saw.
“We have some local celebrities here tonight.” One by one, Dick pointed out the table’s more notable occupants:
“That man on the end with the long sideburns, he’s the city manager. The bald one with the pipe is on the city council. And that guy,” said Dick, lowering his voice, “the man in the three-piece navy suit—”
Marley sized up the man in Dick’s crosshairs, a handsome, clean-cut preppy type, much younger than most of his tablemates.
“—That’s Matt Clamenté, Phoenix’s golden boy, the youngest ever elected president of the Fire Fighters’ Association. He just negotiated one of the biggest labor contracts for the largest civil service union in the state. He’s every fireman’s hero…and he’s a pervert.”
Marley shot Dick a look of disbelief.
“It’s true. I got a call about a year ago of a 647V—a suspicious person in a vehicle– over near Roosevelt Elementary, and who do you think it was? Clamenté, who looked like he was jerking himself off in his car as the kids were playing in the schoolyard across the street. So I approached him, kind of snuck up from behind. You should have seen his face when he saw me—I thought he was going to shit his pants. And here’s the weirdest part: In his backseat, he had a bunch of Halloween masks, the kind that would appeal to little kids—Cinderella, Batman, Porky Pig, like that. So I asked him what the hell he was up to and he claimed he’d pulled off the road to take a piss; said he’d used one of the empty pop cans in his car. I didn’t buy a word of it, and he had no explanation for the Halloween masks—I mean, it was February, for crap’s sake. I was about to take him in for a one-roll until he handed me his license and I saw who he was. It all looked and smelled hinky, but I didn’t actually see him expose himself.” Dick shook his head. “I didn’t have anything to charge him with, so I had no choice but to let him go.”
Dick’s tale of scandal was halted by another outburst by the Dirty Dozen, this time from the sole female among them, a wrinkled gray-haired woman wearing oversized round glasses:
“He’s a goddamned peanut farmer!” she shouted, loud enough for everyone to take notice.
The sycophantic men surrounding her at the table, all laughing without restraint, tried to shush her.
“Shush, yourself!” she yelled back at them. Clearly plastered, she let rip with an unfettered stream of obscenities:
“To fucking hell with all of you! You know it’s goddamn true! Jimmy Carter’s nothing but a shit-kicking, commie-loving peanut farmer! My boy Ronnie’s gonna whip his goddamned liberal ass next November, and he’s going to make America goddamn great again! He will, goddammit!”
The entire dining room was by now staring at the Dirty Dozen as the woman, now fully out of control, continued to holler a blue streak. Two of her companions, including the dapper-but-perverse union president, rushed to lift and carry the shit-spewing drunk out of the restaurant.
Marley watched, wide-eyed, while Dick finished off the strawberry shortcake, surprisingly unfazed by the drunken spectacle.
“It’s a good thing they’re getting her out of here,” said Marley. “It was just a matter of time before the restaurant eighty-sixed her.”
Dick squeezed her hand and laughed before gulping down the last of his brandy Alexander. “Not much chance of that happening,” he said, licking the brandy and cream from his mustache.
“Why not?” asked Marley.
Dick hailed the waiter for the check, then looked to the foul-mouthed, falling-down-drunk being carried out through the restaurant’s front entrance…
“Because,” he said, “That’s the mayor.”