“Welcome to Poncho’s. How many today?” the hostess said.
“Two,” Ash said.
The hostess yanked two menus from the podium and glanced at Ivy’s outfit–a leather bodice showcasing her canyon cleavage–before she turned around.
“Did you see that? Did you see the way she looked at me?” Ivy whispered.
“Yeah, well, you dress that way, you’re going to get looks. It’s not like we’re at Beefy Queen.”
“That doesn’t give her permission to give me a look. You should say something to her.”
“What am I going to say? Stop looking at us? Avert your eyes, ye peasants?”
“You should have said something, that’s all.” She crossed her arms as the hostess set silverware on the table.
“Can we just drop this?” Ash said through gritted teeth.
“There you go,” the hostess said. Ash and Ivy slid into the naugahyde cushions. “Your server tonight will be Stacy. Enjoy your meal,” she chirped.
Ivy picked up the specials. “I want something good, but not greasy or fatty.” She picked at a sprig of sprayed hair snagged in her venus flytrap lashes. “Oh, I’d really like that pepperjack cheeseburger, but I’d have to punish myself later.”
“You might as well splurge,” Ash said as he opened his menu. “It’s not like we’ll be at a nice restaurant again for a long time.”
“Nice restaurant? You think this is a nice restaurant?”
“It’s as nice as I can afford. It’s better than french fries and burgers.”
“Really? Cause I see plenty of french fries and burgers on the menu.”
Ash dropped the menu. “Fine, it’s not a nice restaurant. Get the damn pepperjack cheeseburger, if you want. I don’t care.”
“I don’t think ‘nice restaurants’ have the basketball game on in the corner,” she said.
Ash flapped his menu open so he didn’t have to look at her. She was lucky he was taking her anywhere. As far as he knew, it was the nicest place he’d ever been.
“I’m going to the bathroom. If the waitress comes back, order me a margarita.”
“Do I look twenty-one to you? I can’t order that.”
“Fine, just get whatever.” She squeaked along the leather, and walked to a dark corner.
Ash caught the sight of a fajita platter set ablaze before being served. Elegant, clean, blue flames peaked softly, with light orange on top. Like a fine dessert.
A girl appeared holding a notepad. “Hi, my name is Stacy, I’ll be your server tonight,” she said. “Are we still waiting for someone?”
We are waiting for no one, Ash thought. “She’s in the bathroom. But she wants a…” he paused, “Can you make a virgin margarita?”
“Sure.” She wrote it down. “And for you?”
“And I’ll have a Coke.”
“Okay,” she peeped. “I’ll come back with those in just a second.”
Ash watched the table ahead of him–a family of four. Someone was talking about school. Someone wanted to learn about their son’s day. How he finger-painted or did fractions, or whatever kids that age did.
Was that where he was going with Ivy? He couldn’t see her raising kids. Neglecting them maybe, but not raising them. Ivy was no mother, and he didn’t want her to be.
He could only see their silhouettes, but he knew everyone was smiling, happy to be out as a family.
Ivy slid back in. “Phew, stinks in there.”
“Thanks, thanks for sharing.”
“I’m just telling you.” She returned to her menu. “There’s nothing but carbs and fat on this menu. Jeez, this is some place you picked.”
“I’m taking you out somewhere. Like I promised. I asked you where you wanted to go, and you said you didn’t care. It’s not like I know the city that well.”
“Yeah, yeah, your memory. So why don’t you go to the hospital or something. Or the cops.”
“Feh, I know the kind of help the cops give. Firsthand. And the hospital…” he shrugged. “Maybe I’ll go there eventually. When I have time.”
“Mmm,” she said. “What kind of person do you think you were?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got some other girlfriend somewhere.” Ash laughed.
“Tch,” she snorted.
The waitress came back and set their drinks on branded napkins. “Are you guys ready to order?”
Ash prompted Ivy with her eyes. “Are you ready?”
“Um…” she looked at her menu. “You go first.”
If she had one minute or a hundred, she would still be scrambling for a decision. Ash handed up his menu. “I’ll have the Wet Burrito Trio.”
Ivy started giggling. “I think I gave someone the Wet Burrito once.”
Ash flushed red. His eyes widened, and his jaw clenched.
“Sorry, sorry. Um…” she turned back to her menu. “Give me the… hee, hee, hee, hee.” She collapsed back into hysterics. “Sorry, just give me, like a salad or something.” She handed the menu back, flashing her bleached smile.
“Like… a garden salad?” the waitress said.
“What kind of dressing?”
“Whatever. Ranch or something.”
“Okay, I’ll be right back with your orders.” The waitress left.
“You just wanted a salad?” Ash asked. “You wanted to go out to a fancy restaurant and all you got was a salad?”
“Hey, don’t judge me. You know how hard it is to keep this body in shape? I mean, that’s what I’m selling every day.” Ivy sipped her drink and made a face. “Eugh, this margarita is weak. This place sucks, the drinks suck.”
“Can’t you just enjoy something for once? I’m trying to show you a good time, and you have to be all bitchy about it-“
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, are you calling me a bitch?” She dashed her head side to side.
God, this was like playing handball against the curtains. “Just forget it. If you want another drink, go to the bar and ask for one.”
“You should be getting me a drink.”
“You should be shutting up.”
Ash waited for the inevitable comeback, but Ivy only looked away. He felt unsatisfied, like leaving a movie before it ended. Maybe starting fresh would help.
“We had our first patrol today.” She didn’t say anything. “It went pretty well.”
“Did you arrest anyone?”
“No, but we stopped an attempted carjacking. Chased the guy off, but didn’t catch him.”
“Mm-hm. Probably not a lot of crimes during the day.”
“No, there aren’t. But the guys aren’t ready for a night patrol yet. I need to do more research and get their confidence up. A little more practice and we should be good. I think they did a lot better without Ivan to harass them.”
“What are you going to do about money?”
“Yeah, you got to get paid somehow.”
“I’m working on that,” Ash said. “There’s some money in the cash box, and I can pawn off some of the stuff that we don’t need anymore.”
“That’s your plan? What happens when you don’t have anything left to pawn?”
“Jeez, I’ve only been in charge for a day.”
“I hope you don’t expect me to pay for this meal.”
“Did I say anything about paying for the meal? I’m taking you out tonight.”
“I’m just saying a lot of guys expected me to pay for them because I make good money.”
Ash raised his eyebrows. “A lot of guys?”
“Hey, I’m just saying I’m not gonna be your sugar momma.”
“I never asked you to be. I’m glad you make good money. I’m not going to take any of it.”
Ivy unfurled her silverware and put her napkin on her lap. “God, it’s cold in here.”
“Maybe you should have worn a warmer outfit.”
“Well, I didn’t know we were going to an restaurant in an igloo.”
“Did you think we were going to dine in an volcano? You’ve got so much skin revealed-” Ash stopped, knowing it was going to provoke another fight.
She put her hand on her hip. “So, what? You think my outfit is slutty?”
“Oh, Christ, Ivy-“
“No, no, no. I asked you before, and you said ‘no’.”
“I said ‘no’ so I could get you out the door. I was waiting for half an hour.”
“If you thought this was slutty, why didn’t you tell me?”
“You’re a stripper. Slutty is your business.”
“I’m not a stripper now. Do you see me squeezing that pillar with my legs? Do you see me throwing my bra into the crowd?”
“You’re wearing a bra under that?”
She slumped back. “God, you’re such a baby.”
Ash pointed at her. “You’re the one yelling. You’re the one acting like a spoiled brat. Now shut up and behave.” Ash felt like a reactor reaching critical mass.
“Here we go.” Stacy arrived with a fiesta-ware platter of three medium-sized burritos, drizzled with red sauce. After the standard disclaimer that the plate was very hot, she said to Ivy, “And the salad for you.”
“Excuse me.” Ivy held up her margarita. “This drink tastes like it has no alcohol in it.”
“Er, you ordered a virgin, right?” the waitress said.
“Oh, I did? Did I?” Ivy tilted her head at Ash. “Now you’re telling me what I can and can’t have?”
“I’m telling you what I can order. You go to the bathroom, and expect someone my age to order an alcoholic drink? I don’t even have ID to check.”
An African-American man in a white-collared shirt and black tie stood at the table. He looked respectable, authoritative, and earned Ash’s dislike immediately. “Is there a problem here?”
Ash and Ivy looked up at him like children caught doing something wrong.
“No,” Ash said in the deepest voice he could muster.
“Is everything all right with your food? Drinks?” He placed his hands on the table and leaned in. Ash felt ten years younger.
“Yes,” Ash said.
“All right, good. I heard some raised voices from this table. I just wanted to make sure there wasn’t a problem.”
“There’s no problem,” Ash said.
“All right, enjoy your meals.” He walked back into the kitchen.
“Fuckwad,” Ash muttered as he fingered the knife inside the napkin roll.
“You could have gotten us kicked out,” Ivy said.
“Me? Me?! You’re the one yelling.”
“Cause you’re the one who keeps fucking up.”
“Y- You- Errrgh,” Ash gripped the table and bolted up. If he stayed there longer he’d do something regrettable. “I’ll be right back.”
“I hope you’re coming back with a better drink.”
Ash clenched his fist as he walked towards the back, looking for restrooms. He found a door sigiled by a white man in a blue triangle and pushed it open.
It was quiet. No one else was in at the moment. He let out a long emphatic breath, as the chilled, ammonia-soaked air hit him.
Splashing water on his face from the sink did little to alleviate the warmth in his cheeks. He felt like an awkward little boy–embarrassed and inadequate.
God, what was he doing here? Why did he ever think this would work? He wanted to take a normal girl on a normal date like a normal boy would. And his kindness was being thrown in his face. Ivy, the Knights, his own messed-up life–everything was always chaos and stress.
He wanted to burn someone.
No, no, that wasn’t good, get that thought out. Nobody had done anything to deserve that. He cupped his hands under the running water, and took a drink. Cool magical water ran down his throat like a fire hose.
Just when the stillness was starting to calm him, a man with a cell phone on his ear exploded through the door.
“Are you sure?… yeah, no kidding… Yeah, did I tell you Jason got in trouble at school again?” He crossed the room and leaned against the back wall.
Ash stared at his own eyes in the mirror, concentrating on his coal-black pupils.
“I tell ya, it’s kids today… No, I didn’t grow up with YouTube TV. Kids being jackasses… yeah, I love the skateboarding ones, punks get their balls smacked on a railing. I don’t know. But, yeah, Jason got an F on this paper on the War of 1812… Yeah, who gives a fuck about the War of 1812…”
The tinny squealing on the other end was so loud that Ash could almost make it out. The man’s hearing must have been ruined. Too much YouTube TV.
“The teacher makes him do the stupidest shit. Well, why don’t they teach something they’re gonna use in the real world. When the fuck have I ever needed to know about the War of 1812? When I was in school, this kind of shit didn’t happen to me… Look where I am now, and all I did was screw around. And I got C’s and stuff.”
Ash stood still, absorbing the ignorance, letting the hatred build. The hatred felt like power.
“It’s bullshit. So why should Jason have to go through that? Fuckin’ teachers. They think they know how to raise my child. Hang on.”
The man cupped the mouthpiece. “Excuse me,” he said to Ash, “Do you like eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? If you’re done, you should leave.” He dropped his hand, “Sorry, what was that-“
Ash snapped his hand at him, never turning his gaze away from the mirror.
The man didn’t react right away. Maybe he thought a light flashed somewhere. Once he realized it was his hand ablaze, he dropped his cell phone. It shattered on the tile.
Jumping up and down like a clown, he patted himself out with his free hand. Funny how when a person fell into a panic he failed to see basic logic anymore. The simple cause and effect. The mistakes that led to consequences. Ash broadened the fire up his arm, like spreading peanut butter over toast.
With his yelps echoing against the acoustic tiles, Ash left. The girlish bawling spilled out, alerting a nearby waitress. She stood straight and glanced between him and the bathroom. Would she recognize him later? And when would the smoke alarms go off?
He speed-walked back and grabbed Ivy’s arm in mid-bite.
“Come on, time to go,” Ash said.
“Time to go. Let’s go.” He tugged at her.
“What’s going on? Did something happ-” She saw the alarm in his face. “Oh, hell, no, you didn’t.”
“I didn’t have a choice. Let’s go.”
“Didn’t have a choice? Jesus, Ash-“
“Talk later, move now. I’ll make it up to you, I swear. Just get off your ass and move.” He pulled her out of the booth.
“I fucking hope so.” The napkin fell off her lap as Ash dragged her towards the exit.
As they passed the booth, the hostess called out, “Thanks for coming in.”
“Thank you,” Ash said, and sprinted out the door.