Novels and Short Stories

by John F. Dillon

Karl's Wife

by John F. Dillon

They were a comedy of opposites. Kate was tall and statuesque with a hint of devil may care in her deep violet eyes. Karl was short, stout and stoic. She was the only child of an affluent couple that doted on their daughter. He, the son of a hard working German shopkeeper and a stern housewife that instilled her eight children in a philosophy steeped in theological virtues.

Kate developed an early passion in the arts and found an avenue of expressing her emotions by applying watercolors to canvas. Following graduation from the University of San Francisco's Academy of Arts, she quickly established herself as an accomplished watercolorist.

Karl's interest was the culinary arts. A strong sense of determination drove numerous hours of letter writing and mailing applications. His efforts eventually resulted in a scholarship to the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, New York.

Even their temperaments were at variance. Kate was a thinker, examining all possibilities and driving Karl to distraction before making a decision. Karl was a man of action whose quick reactions sometime caused unpredictable consequences.

It was a mutual interest in music that brought about their meeting at a jazz festival in upstate New York and the beginning of a life long relationship. It was during their short courtship when they began to dream about jointly operating a chic French restaurant with the interior decorated with Kate's paintings. The vision inched toward reality when a tragic auto accident claimed the lives of Kate's parents.

The property, purchased from her inheritance was a single story building overlooking Manhasset Bay on Long Island's North Shore, supplied the impetus for renovating the dwelling to attract customers to their dream restaurant.

Expenses exceeded expectations. The cost of labor and material skyrocketed. Winters, when frigid north winds churned unimpeded over the icy waters of Long Island Sound and descended upon the islands shore, compelled the use of expensive brick and insulated glass to insure comfortable diners. This alone reduced the monies allocated by half and hastened the depletion the inheritance and savings before renovations were three-quarters accomplished.

Karl quit his day job and dismissed most of the labor force, replacing them with his own efforts. Working exhausting days that stretched into the late evenings they were close to completion when two upscale restaurants opened nearby. One specialized in Italian cuisine and the other French.  A reassessment of their financial considerations made clear that any chance for success in another restaurant was doomed and the idea of operating a chic French restaurant had to be abandoned.

Still, they refused to totally relinquish their dream. Despite diminishing odds and another reassessment of their financial considerations, they decided to change from an elegant French restaurant to an inexpensive, yet unique eatery that specialized in South Carolina Barbecue.

In defiance of the many jibs, sneers and outright insults from those that questioned the sanity of anyone daring to establish a barbecue restaurant in their upscale neighborhood, renovations were eventually completed and Kate and Karl's Char Hut opened for business. It operated with a staff of two. Karl was manager, buyer, cook and bookkeeper. Kate worked as greeter, server and cashier.

Opening day (in fact opening week) was a severe disappointment. Then, to add to their dilemma, winter arrived the following week with a blistering vengeance that subjected the distinctive restaurant with the magnificent view, to frosty arctic gusts that entered Manhasset Bay and stilled traffic on the waterfront. All but the most hardy ventured to the bay front and the brick structure with insulated windows went without customers. It appeared the naysayers were correct. Karl had little choice but to close the restaurant during the months of January and February.

It was a difficult time  for both. Sleep came only after an exhaustive night of tossing and turning through premonitions of financial ruin. To avoid concerning the other with their individual fear, speech became limited.

One night, Karl dreamt of the long forgotten courtship conversation with Kate. During breakfast he talked about his dream and reminded Kate about displaying her watercolors along the restaurant walls. She was delighted and when he suggested implementing the dream and possibility supplementing their income by pricing and selling the displayed works.

Kate immediately exclaimed, "Why not? They're only  accumulating dust in storage

And with that, they began to plan.  Although the dread of financial ruin was never far from their thoughts, they once again shared excitement in dreams.

When they reopened in March it quickly became routine for customers, most not realizing they were addressing the artist, to become so engrossed in the paintings to miss their initial call for table seating. On many evenings, the sale of the watercolors exceeded the income from the food. People kept coming. An overabundance of customers forced Kate to choose between responding to the mounting questions about her artwork and serving the tables. Karl resolved the matter by hiring two young students from Stony brook University to work as food servers.

Following two years of uncertainty, of enduring long hours of hard work, avoiding bill collectors and waking in the middle of the night, came the realization they were addressing new faces that accompanied familiar customers. They had established a following. Once empty tables were now filled with demanding customers. Soon favorable newspaper reviews confirmed the restaurant had become an unqualified success.

The cold winds of winter arrived early in the fourth year. Frigid temperatures spread inland and quickly inhibited holiday shopping. The restaurant was forced to close before the holiday season. It was a prudent decision. Sporadic blasts of icy air from the North accompanied increasingly falling temperatures that arrived in the wake of the fierce winter weekend before Christmas. Temperatures plummeted under the cloudless days that followed.  Ice crystals  formed along the shoreline. Shoppers postponed leaving the warmth of their homes and venturing into the freezing outdoors until the last possible moment.

Two days before the holiday, with still no change in the weather, the populace reluctantly began to leave the comfort of their homes for the shops along Manhasset's Miracle Mile. Bored with the refuge from the cold. Kate became one of the holiday shoppers.

Bundled in heavy coats, colorful mittens, with hats pulled to their eyes, the hurried masses lowered their heads and shuffled forward. Porcelain faces with red cheeks and blistering noses passed remnants of previous snowfalls that lay shoveled against storefronts and piled into blacken mounds that hid curbstones. Storefronts flaunted suspended red and blue colored balls and baubles intermingled with strings of sliver and gold garland. Hidden speakers trumpeted songs of the season while twinkling clusters of yellow, red, blue and green plastic branches of tinseled Pine and Fir Trees vied for customers. Shoppers, clutching ever-increasing assortments wrapped in gaily-decorative paper, struggled through chaotic curls of swirling snow while displaying scant notice of the colorful distractions.

Preoccupied with anticipation, Kate Erickson gave cursory acknowledgement to her surroundings as she marched pass the full figure dressed in the Red Santa Costume. She passed the suspended black kettle manned by the blue uniformed Salvation Army Volunteers and pushed through the huge revolving glass entrance doors reflecting nights ever-changing street scenes. Eventually, she settled in an overwhelming fragrance of pine needles in the vestibule of the Bonwit Teller Department Store.

Kate blinked at the sudden brightness of the stores interior. The sudden rise in temperate caused her face to flush into a bright red. She took a deep breath and removed her mittens while stomping accumulation from her boots. Stuffing the mittens deep into her coat pockets, she lifted her brimmed cloth hat, and took another deep breath as she brushed the hat against her side before regulating it along with the gloves in her pockets.

A salesman approached as Kate loosened buttons of her cloth coat. "May I be of assistance?" the young man asked.

"No thank you," Kate replied. "I'm just going up to formal wear."

The young man stepped aside and Kate proceeded to the bank of elevators in the rear of the store. A uniformed female elevator operator complete with a tiny, tinsel covered cap above a beehive hairdo greeted the arrival of each passenger as they entered.

With the words, "Going up. Please step to the rear." the elevator operator ushered in the approaching assemblage.

The door slowly closed and a gentle tug prefaced the elevators assent to the second floor. The attendant recited the floors contents as the elevator tenderly pulled to a stop. She repeated the contents while shoppers departed to another display of colors and carols. A few entered. Please step to the rear, the operator directed and again, the elevator door closed. Another slight shudder and the caged passengers began the assent to the next floor. The scene repeated whenever the elevator started or slowed to a stop. Some shoppers left and still others entered. Passengers surged to the door while Kate remained clutching her pocketbook in the rear. When the elevator reached the top floor the passengers had thinned to two, Kate and an older, well dressed gentleman.

When the operator announced, "Top floor. ...Gowns, Dresses, perfumes and outerwear," Kate waited for the man to move then followed him through the open door. She continued walking while refusing the enticement of sample perfumes on top of the glass display counters. She slowed to run a brightly colored silk scarf between her fingers. At last, she moved beyond a glass partition to the stores exclusive area. Men lounged on sectional sofas sipping complementary cocktails inside an area populated with mannequins in elegant coats and gowns while tall thin models with long necks displayed selected garments. The models looked surprisingly alike tall and elegant with small expansive ornaments about ivory necks. Hairstyles ranging in color from platinum to flaming red and unfathomable black were cut relatively short to allow the display of expensive ear trinkets.

She cast a cursory glance at the models before halting before a mannequin outfitted in a sleeveless, backless indigo gown. Kate's face reflected a sigh of relief when she came upon a mannequin wearing the same backless gown she had seen a few weeks earlier. At that time, she asked to try the gown in the dressing room. It wasn't until viewing herself before full size mirrors, did she inquire about the price. It was more than she was prepare to spend and she decided to dismiss the gown from her thoughts.

An invitation to a formal New Years Eve party caused the image of the indigo gown to resurface.  She considered the contents in her closet and checked newspaper advertisements. None could compete with the vision of the gown on the mannequin.  She could not fault Karl for not approving of such an extravagant purchase so she never asked. Eventually, she convinced herself to shop for a cheaper gown. 

She had left the warm apartment to search in the many shops.  Instead,  she went straight to Bonwit Teller.  She told herself another visit might find the gown less desirable. "Just to see. I'm not going to buy."

Standing before the full length mirror, Kate's long fingers lowered slowly from her bodice to her hips in a slow circular motion. Although assured how her perfectly proportioned figure appeared in the form-hugging design that fell to a point just about the floor, she could not resist smiling at the salesgirls declaration of, "Perfect! A perfect fit! Just look how it brings out the deep violet of your eyes and highlights your dark hair.

"No! No!" Katie told herself. "I am not going to buy it." But it was a weak denial as she struggled in internal debate. She turned slowly before the mirror her fingers continually caressing. Her inner argument finally concluded with her telling the salesgirl, "I'll take it.... Please."

The salesgirl concurred.

Kate could not resist slipping the palms of her hands against her hips as she walked about the dressing room. She made a final viewing before undressing and handing the dress to the salesgirl. Even the knowledge of a sure protest from her husband did not demur the certainty of her decision.

While she walked behind the salesgirl to the checkout area, her brain raced from one devious scheme to another in a rapid series of entry, consideration, and rejection. An idea initially dismissed as foolish resurfaced. "It might work," she told herself and reconsidered. When they reached the counter, she was assured that the concocted plan could be instigated.

Kate was the only customer at the check-out counter.

The salesgirl handed the gown to one of the girls then stood watching while the gown was folded and gently set in a large rectangular box. After closing the box, the salesgirl covered it in shimming red paper.  Kate chose a thick bright white ribbon with a large bow to bridle the package before reaching into her pocketbook and removing her wallet.

"I'd like to put it on this on a credit card." she told the girl.

"Of course," the girl replied, her voice mixing to the sound of a Christmas Carol as she accepted the card. "And, will that be all for today?"

"Ah.... No. When you're finished, Id like to see your coats please...fur coats.

When the transaction was completed, the salesgirl left the counter area and escorted Kate to a section of the floor where three models continually pranced in an exaggerated dance while modeling coats made from an assortment of animal skins.

Kate watched for a few minutes before selecting a full-length mink.

The salesgirls at the check-out counter expressed their approval with a series of O's and Ahs.

"I have just the box for this," the salesgirl started while gingerly placing the coat on the counter.

"Its not necessary. Just put it the same type of box as the dress," Kate instructed. "And if you don't mind putting one of those carrying handles on each one for me."

The salesgirl hesitated, and then grinned. Yes, of course." Once the coat was placed in another rectangular box the salesgirl asked. "And the ribbon?"

"No... No need for a ribbon,"  Kate replied.  "Just wrap it in a nice green holiday paper. And, Id like to put that on another credit card....a Master Card."

The salesgirl smiled and responded with another, "Yes, of course."

With a box in each hand and her pocketbook swinging from her shoulder, Kate became so preoccupied with the final implementation of her plan; she scarcely noticed the elevator ride to the main floor. However, upon venturing outdoors, the harsh wind forced reality and she had to reenter the store to readjust her clothing.

The bus ride home was extremely uncomfortable. The cold reddened her nose and forced tears. It entered her mittens and was numbing the fingertips by the time she entered the small apartment.

Karl had arrived before her and had begun dinner. "Shopping?" he asked when he saw her packages.

Kate stomped her feet and was slapping her clad hands. She uttered a low, "Brrr." before responding. "Something to wear to the New Years Party. Would you like me to model it for you?"

"Sure, but let's eat first. Its ready."

Once they completed dinner Kate insisted on modeling her purchases before tending to the cleaning."

Karl sat at the living room couch and waited while his wife dressed in the bedroom. His mouth widened into a wide smile of acceptance when she entered.

Kate circled, twirling to display all the attributes of dress.

Karl asked about the price.

Kate matter-of-factly told him the cost

"How much?" he asked in disbelief.

Kate repeated the figure.

Karl smiled incredulously. "Say again?"

Although the restaurant had been an unqualified success, memories of the years of hardship overshadowed the accomplishment. He asked her to repeat the sum a few more times.

Each time, Kate repeated the sum without emotion.

There was a moment of complete silence. Karl's reaction remained one of confusion as the realization that his wife was not teasing began to register.

Kate seized the moment. Before Karl could say anything she exclaimed, "Oh! And look at this!" she said reached for the second package.

Karl attention shifted to his wife's movements. He sat dumbstruck as she opened the package and extracted the coat. His eyes widened. His mouth opened and he began to sputter incoherently as she draped the coat about her shoulders.

"And! And! AND!! WHATTA THAT COST!!!"

Again, without a display of emotion, Kate told him the price adding, "I put it on a card."

Karl's face turned crimson with rage. He jumped to his feet. "Are you crazy?" he screamed. "That's going back!  NOW! Gimme that card!!!"

Kate moved back, feigned disbelief then reached into her pocketbook and, without a word, gingerly handed Karl the Master Card.

Karl interrupted his stuffing the coat back into the rectangular box to snatch the card from his wifes hand. Returning to his task he eventually closed the lid and lifted the box under his armpit only to lean it against the wall while he put on a coat and hat. The door slammed noisily behind him when he left.

Kate absentmindedly hummed one of the days lingering Christmas Carols while she completed cleaning up from dinner. She was sitting on the couch reading, when Karl returned.

The door closed gently behind him.

Kate waited while Karl removed his hat and coat. He placed them in the closet and entered the living room, finally settling in one of the cushioned chairs. He turned to his wife and sheepishly lowered his head.

"Look....  I'm sorry for acting like that. It's just...."

"Everything go okay?" she asked.

"Yeah...ah.... Sure."

"They took it back okay?"

Karl repeated the weak response. "Yeah...sure.... They just.... They just giggled."

The End.

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