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An Excerpt of "Nutritional Value" in Hurricanes & Swan Songs: A Strange Anthology

by Lisa Lamb

"Shoes" by Grace Rachow

Alice was nervous. Pulling into a parking space outside the restaurant where she’d agreed to meet him, she saw on the glowing dashboard clock that she was a full fifteen minutes early. Should she go in and get herself a steadying drink? Should she drive around listening to NPR until the appointed time? Or should she just go home and pretend that she had forgotten the meeting altogether?

If she did that, she could heat up some soup, drink a glass of Sauvignon blanc, and watch an episode of Masterpiece Theatre with her pants unbuttoned instead of making polite chitchat with a relative stranger. Doubtless he’d be affronted and wouldn’t bother trying to reschedule, a notion so appealing that Alice very nearly put the car into reverse there and then. But she didn’t. She was not the sort to stand a person up; she’d been raised with better manners. Also she was more than a little afraid of what her daughter would say.

She could already hear Clara’s exasperated voice castigating her for her cowardice and lack of gumption. Clara was very keen on self-improvement, particularly as it pertained to her mother, and rarely tired of suggesting the myriad ways in which it might be achieved. Alice suspected that Clara’s motives were more about restoring her mother to a state where she could be comfortably ignored than any real understanding of what might increase her overall happiness. Nonetheless, Alice was grateful for the attention. Tiresome though it was to listen to her only child’s earnest badgering, she preferred it to the sound of the telephone not ringing at all.

Clara’s latest obsession for her mother was Internet dating. At first Alice had flatly refused even to countenance the idea, but after several months of being cajoled and harangued by Clara, it had just seemed easier to let herself be signed up for “Senior Mingle” than to continue her resistance. The name alone filled Alice with a sort of scornful despair, conjuring up as it did images of bewildered pensioners playing festively inappropriate parlour games. Oh well, she reasoned; she didn’t actually have to use the site. Surely she would gain some respite merely as a result of her capitulation?

This proved a miscalculation, however, as Clara immediately turned her attention to pestering her mother with suggestions for specific potential matches. It hadn’t occurred to Alice that Clara might also be able to search the profiles of available men, and while Alice was absolutely certain that none of them could possibly be of any interest, Clara was equally assured that almost any of them would do.

“What about this guy?” she’d say, pointing to the profile of some beaming, bald-headed hopeful. “Or this one?”

If Alice demurred, and she always did, Clara would castigate her for being preemptively judgmental.

“Really, Mom! Don’t be so picky! At this rate you’ll never find a new love!”

But Alice didn’t want a new love. She had been perfectly content with the old one until he’d selfishly expired of cancer at the ridiculous age of fifty-eight. It had been two years since Jim had died, and Alice was still exhausted from nursing him through a long and brutal decline. She’d been in her late forties when he’d received the diagnosis, and she’d still had her youthful figure and a glossy dark bob. By the time he’d finally slipped away, his body shriveled and his mind ravaged by morphine and disease, Alice had put on all the weight he’d lost and her hair was as steely as her heart. She no longer felt a part of the functioning, emotional world and honestly didn’t think she could manage a relationship any more intimate or demanding than the one she had with the cat. Even that was a little tiring, with its litter box and fussy, changeable palate. But Clara was adamant and eventually Alice agreed to contact the least offensive looking of the prospective candidates.

Alice had not been on many dates in her life, and certainly none in the current century. She’d married Jim straight out of college in 1980; a trajectory more in keeping with her parents’ generation than her own. But young Alice had not been interested in going to discos, backpacking around Europe, or hooking up with gel-haired Lotharios. An unpleasant, if hazy, experience at a frat party her freshman year complete with copious vomiting and a shameful stain on her underwear had cemented her desire for lifelong security and stability. All Alice had wanted after that was for everything to be normal. Safe.

She’d switched majors from pre-med to English lit., giving up her girlhood dream to be a flying doctor with Doctors Without Borders, and accepted first an invitation to dinner, and subsequently one for marriage from kind, plodding, unassuming, reliable Jim. Not a small part of her affection for her husband was the implied promise that she’d never have to get “out there” again. Alice was fully prepared to swap excitement and imagination for steadfast affection and the knowledge that he’d never let her down.

Yet he had. Here she was, all alone with nobody to clean the gutters, take out the trash, or warm her feet against on chilly nights. There was no one to nod and not really listen while she told him she was thinking of getting her hair cut short, or about that nice young man who’d held the door for her at the library which was so rare in this day and age, didn’t he think? Jim had never been much of a talker, but since he was gone, the silence in the house had a solemn, almost hostile quality that was notably different from the comfortable, receptive quiet of his presence. Not that this made Alice any keener to meet someone new. She managed her loneliness by keeping the radio on at all times and talking to the cat who, truth be told, was just as disinterested in her day as Jim had been but had less compunction about walking out on her mid-sentence. Slightly less, anyway.

Alice looked at the clock again. She’d been dithering for ten minutes and was now only five minutes early. Deciding it was too late to back out now, she resolved to pretend a stomachache after the first drink and that way she could truthfully tell Clara she’d met the prospective suitor, and still spend most of the evening at home. Clara was bound to phone twenty minutes in to check up on her anyway. It was getting hard to tell who was the parent these days.

Pushing open the door of the restaurant, Alice was greeted by the hostess, a heavily made-up, mature woman in jeweled, plastic spectacles, black slacks, and a white shirt.

“Can I help you, hon?”

Suppressing irritation at the diminutive term of familiarity, Alice gave her a frosty smile and said she was meeting someone.

“Do you have a reservation, hon?”

Alice didn’t know. She certainly had not made a reservation—wasn’t that the man’s job? She realized she’d forgotten to ask her date whether they’d be at a table or at the bar. Or even how she’d recognize him. All she could remember from his profile was that his hair was grey and he’d been smiling. Which, as she scanned the room, was a description that fit almost every male present. In fact everyone in the entire establishment, staff included, appeared to be well over sixty, which put Alice at the very youngest end of the demographic. Could it be that dating in the second half of life was actually just like eating at a retirement home? Unbearable. Alice decided instantly to leave.

Turning quickly toward the door, she yanked it open as hard as she could and immediately bumped into a gentleman who had been trying to open it from the other side.

“I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t see you there.”

“No, no, it’s my fault. I was in a rush,” she apologized, eyes on the door as she attempted to sidle around him. It was imperative to make as swift and unobtrusive an exit as possible before her date spotted her.

“Say, you’re not Alice, are you?”

Too late. Alice’s heart sank, then lifted for a wild second as she considered simply lying and running away. But her upbringing pipped her impulse to the post.

“Oh. Yes. Hello,” she said, stupidly.

“Well, hello there!” he enthused. “John Elliot. Good to meet you in the flesh. You know,” he chuckled, “for a moment there I thought you were trying to stand me up!”

....How do John Elliot and Alice fare on their date? You'll have to read for yourself! Hurricanes & Swan Songs is available.

Lisa Lamb was born and raised in the UK, where she had her first career as a pop star. She has written multiple global hit songs (published by Warner Chappell) and worked as a copywriter for a big branding agency. She has also owned her own audio branding business, published a nonfiction book on stellar nucleosynthesis, and is currently teaching K-6 music in a Santa Barbara public elementary school.

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