Brian looked uncertainly from the waitress to the menu, baffled by protocol.
He could feel Kim’s eyes boring into him. Her eyes are what snared him in the first place, dark and vivid, big brown whirlpools that wouldn’t look out of place on a doe about to be hit by a truck. Something pushed behind them, like faulty telekinesis. They always wanted him to do something, but she kept her face slack, her wide, soft lips relaxed into an indecipherable line.
Her father had similarly wide lips, though probably less soft. At present, they were pressed into a tight, grimacing line. His eyes bulged from their sunken sockets, a single pulsing vein the only breakage in his unbelievably angry baldness.
Brian had a vague understanding of what was at stake, but this was a deeply complicated issue. Kim had mentioned three times that her father would insist on picking up the check, which put Brian in an even more delicate position. He had to order something impressive, something that would cause this man, who had the build and bearing of a villainous luchador, to respect him. A man’s order at a restaurant said a lot about him, but Brian couldn’t justify ordering one of the outrageously overpriced steaks. He didn’t want to seem like he was taking advantage of Mr. Walden’s generosity. What if he wasn’t able to finish it? At the same time, he couldn’t order a salad. The man across the table from him, quietly grinding his molars, obviously ate upwards of three pounds of meat a day. If I order a salad, he may slap me on principle.
As the sweat formed on his palms, he realized that he would have to shake Mr. Walden’s hand again after the meal. Would his palms dry in time? A salad-eating, clammy-handed 130-pound priss, that’s just what he wants for a son-in-law. Distantly, it occurred to Brian that Mr. Walden had likely had bowel movements that outweighed him.
The waitress was a redhead with prominent cheekbones, blue eyes, and an inexpert smear of red lipstick. Her customer service smile was beginning to falter.
“You gonna order, son?” Mr. Walden asked.
“I! Yes. I’ll have the… Rodeo… Burger.”
“All right,” the waitress said, forcing an obviously false hint of Southern drawl to match the steakhouse’s faux-Tex Mex motif, “Fries er baked potato?”
He hadn’t considered that. Baked potato would be classier, but class couldn’t be too great of a factor if The Roadside Grill had been Mr. Walden’s choice. Who eats a baked potato with a burger, though? He might think I’m one of those health nuts, he thought. He glanced at the mountainous man again and realized that unless Mr. Walden was genetically disposed to being some kind of fucking gladiator, he was definitely one of those health nuts, so he might respect the baked potato choice. But who eats a baked potato with a burger? Those go with steak. I should’ve ordered a steak.
“Fries, please,” he said, then mentally chided himself for what he perceived as a remarkably weak “please”.
“Okay. And you, darlin’?”
“That sounds good,” Kim said, “Same thing, please. And could I get cheese on the fries?”
Not only did he eat like the man’s sprightly daughter, she had out-manned him on the fixings. This was a disaster.
“And you, sir?”
“Yeah, gimme a porterhouse, medium-rare, mushrooms and onions. Baked potato.”
“All right, I’ll have that right out for ya,” the redhead waitress said, sashaying toward the back. Brian took unintentional notice of how hard she was working her hips. It was difficult not to, in those little red skirts, but he caught himself and forced his eyes back to his placemat, which showed a topographical map of Texas, for some reason. Kim’s own lascivious leanings were pretty flexible, so she didn’t mind when he glanced at other girls – which was fortunate, as that was an adolescent holdover Brian found he couldn’t quite grow out of – but he didn’t want Mr. Walden to see him ogling some waitress’s ass right in front of his daughter. It might be interpreted as disrespectful.
“Aight,” Mr. Walden said, “So what do you do, boy?”
Boy. That’s not good.
“I’m working on a graphic novel, right now,” Brian said.
Mr. Walden’s bulbous eyes sank back beneath their lids. He looked to Kim, a hint of furrowed brow sprouting in the bald sea of his head.
“Brian’s a cartoonist, Daddy.”
“Nah, for a living.”
“That’s his job, Daddy.”
The gaze he fixed on Brian did not share the gentle suggestiveness of his daughter’s. Her eyes were a cool hand pressed into the small of the back; his was a wrecking ball to the sternum. Also, the wrecking ball was on fire.
“They pay you to make cartoons?”
“Yessir. Well, I mean, graphic novels.”
“The hell is a graphic novel?”
Kim’s head swiveled toward her father, eyebrows raised. He responded with the same expression of unimpressed ambivalence that had proven so effective in knotting Brian’s internal organs.
“I-i-it’s like… it’s sort of like a comic book, only longer.”
“Like that Japanese crap them little girls are always readin’? What they call it, Magma?”
“It’s manga, Daddy,” Kim helpfully put in, voice at dead level.
“You write magmas, boy?”
“No sir. No, you’re supposed to read manga backwards and obviously that market is dominated by Japanese artists. What I write is s-sort of like stories, like novels, only with illustrations.”
“Brian’s very talented.”
There’s no saving this, Brian realized with despair. He thinks I’m an asshole. He thinks I’m an asshole who writes Japanese comic books for little girls, and his daughter eats tougher food than me.
“They’re… kind of picturebooks.”
“How’s that pay?”
“Brian just got a royalty check last week,” Kim said. “5 figures.”
An unmistakably condescending smirk spread over Mr. Walden’s face.
“No shit, Daddy,” Kim said with an edge creeping into her voice.
“How often do those roll in?”
Brian could not tell this man the truth. The checks only came when the publishers picked up something he wrote, which was an incredibly rare occurrence even for established, successful graphic novelists. He was just starting out, virtually unheard of, unless you happened to follow Squid-Ninja’s website from its inception. It was a miracle that Mirrorz decided to pick it up, and the first and only royalty check for $10,000 was the most money he’d ever had in his life.
“This food is taking forever,” Kim said. “Brian, will you come out with me for a smoke?”
“S-sure,” Brian said, and veritably scrabbled up from his seat. Mr. Walden began fiddling with a smartphone that cost more than Brian’s car.
Outside, the rain was picking up, giving the parking lot lights a particularly dismal shine that complemented Brian’s internal death march.
“This is a disaster,” he said, leaning against the brick wall.
“It’s not that bad,” Kim said, as though he couldn’t tell she was lying through her teeth. She fished a pair of menthol Pall Malls from the crinkled pack.
“It’s so bad. It’s nuclear winter in there. It’s my own private holocaust.”
“Don’t be all dramatic. He’s just trying to figure you out, babe.”
“‘Picturebooks’? Really, though?”
“Daddy’s not much of a reader.”
They lit their cigarettes. Brian sucked deep of cheap paper and government surplus tobacco, as if nicotine somehow calmed shame.
“He thinks I’m an asshole.”
“Are you kidding? He totally does. I would! How do I fix this? What do I talk about? What does he do?”
“Breathe, baby,” she said, blowing a smoke ring through her pillowy lips. “Investments. Just, go on in there. Ask him what he does. People love to talk about themselves.”
“I don’t know anything about investments.”
“So then just… let him talk? Don’t freak out about it. Go on in there and say some words. Take charge of the conversation, champ. He’ll like you.”
“You are absolutely patronizing me,” he said flatly.
“No!” she said, sides of her mouth crinkling upward. “Never! You are… you are all that is man.”
“Why must you be such a bitch now? In my hour of need?” he said, deflating into the wall and loosing a plume of bluish smoke.
“You love it,” she said, suddenly pressing her body against his. Their lips touched and the patronization wasn’t so bad. It was entirely forgotten when her free hand slid down and cupped the front of his slacks.
“That you’re such a bitch?”
“That I’m such a bitch in public all the time.”
She looked up at the moth-heavy light above them, slid her tongue across her lips, then added, “How big do you think the bathrooms are?”
“Enough witchery,” he said, although his hands travelled to her ass of their own volition. “I’m trying to make an impression here. Banging his daughter in a steakhouse bathroom is not how that’s done.”
She gave another taunting squeeze and stepped back, finishing the rest of her cigarette in one drag. “You feeling all confident again? You ready to knock ’em dead?”
“My goal is to not be dead by the end of the night.”
She flicked the butt and nodded. “Not a bad goal, all things considered.”
They returned to the table. The food had arrived, and Mr. Walden was hard at work annihilating a steak the size of a small child.
“So, Mr. Walden,” Brian said, sitting down to his comparatively paltry rodeo burger, “What do you do for a living?”
He grunted “investments” without looking up. Brian looked to Kim, who raised her eyebrows and nodded.
“What… kind of investments? What in?”
“All kinds,” he said through a mouthful of steak. “If it’s needed, I get it there, and quick. Timing’s of the essence, you know.”
“Sure,” Brian responded, not knowing in any way. “Any particular specialties?”
“Mmhmm,” he said, finally lifting his eyes. “If you can sit on it or lay on it, odds are I had a part in it. Wouldn’t surprise me if one of my companies put this table together. Well, might a little bit. Cheap fake oak tops, my guys wouldn’t deal in that.”
Mr. Walden shot Brian a skeptical look and returned to his steak. Brian looked to Kim and mouthed “what”, but she was busy dousing her cheese fries in enough pepper to choke a Clydesdale.
“Damn, girl,” Mr. Walden said, “Don’t you wanna taste food?”
“I wanna taste pepper, Daddy.”
He grunted. “Guess you’re on the right track.”
Brian made an attempt at his rodeo burger. It was one of those showy bar-food burgers that leaked grease and condiment-fluid all over the checkered paper underneath and guaranteed that your fries wound up soggy. It was a herculean effort to fit his mouth around it, but this was no time to waffle.
“So when’s the wedding?”
Brian started to choke. He got himself under control, and it was only life-threatening for a few seconds, but it was terribly embarrassing. Mr. Walden found that pretty amusing.
“We haven’t really talked about it yet,” Kim said. “We were thinking maybe June?”
“June!” Mr. Walden said, glancing at his watch. “It’s March! What in the Hell’re you waiting for?”
“We just want to be sure.”
“You’re already full’a babies, ain’t’cha?”
“Daddy. I am not ‘full of babies’. But yes, you know we’re pregnant.”
“So what the Hell you waiting for? You want everybody to know the kid’s a bastard?”
Brian was only partially thankful he was not the fainting type.
“He won’t be a ‘bastard’, Daddy.”
“Do you know the definition of bastard, girl? ‘Conceived out of wedlock’. You gotta get the eyes of the Lord involved in this!”
She shut her eyes, took a deep breath, and muttered, “Yes, Daddy.”
“How ’bout you, sharpshooter? You ain’t said anything for a while.”
“What? I- oh. I, I-”
“Yeah, you. Why won’t you marry my little girl?”
“I will! I want to!” The adrenaline was pounding through Brian’s head like a drum. “I love your little- I love Kim, Mr. Walden. More than anything. I can’t wait to marry her.”
“I can tell,” he said with a disconcertingly wry grin. “So what’s the hold up?”
“I... we need to make arrangements, sir. Book a venue, send invitations, and-”
“Tell ya what,” he said through his last bite of steak, “How about I take care of all that bullshit and you lovebirds just tie the knot before anybody gets suspicious of that bundle of joy my baby girl’s gonna shoot out in December?”
“That’s… incredibly generous of you, sir.”
“I’m an incredibly generous man.”
He looked at Kim, who nodded as enthusiastically as she thought she could get away with, then back to Mr. Walden. “When were you thinking?”
“Sunday? As in… when? This Sunday?”
“She ain’t gettin’ any less pregnant.”
Brian’s mouth worked for a moment without any words coming out.
“I’ll take care of everything, boy. You just show up and make the right noises. Sound good?”
“I-I… sure! Definitely! Thank you!”
“Yeah, don’t mention it.”
Mr. Walden leaned back and lifted one of his banana-bunch hands at the waitress. “Hey, check, please?”
She sauntered over and dropped off the paper, which had scarcely touched the cheap imitation oak before Mr. Walden picked it up. He looked it over with a smirk, then reached into his pocket to produce not a wallet, not a checkbook or a card, but what Brian initially took to be a small green telescope. It was not a small green telescope. It was a massive gold-clipped bankroll, of the variety that typically only crop up in movies about Las Vegas. He excavated one of the fifties and left a comparably smug Ulysses S. Grant in the middle of the table, then rose to his full and monolithic height.
Kim’s mouth had pinched up into that near-smile, the closest to actual happiness she ever portrayed outside of the bedroom. He grinned like an idiot for the both of them.
“Commere girl,” Mr. Walden said, sweeping Kim up like a tiny, bony rag-doll.
“Thank you so much Daddy,” she murmured.
“Sure, sure,” he put her down and turned to find Brian thrusting his sweaty palm out at chest level, which was around navel-level for Mr. Walden.
“This really means a lot to us, Mr. Walden.”
“It’s fine son, it’s fine. Call me Rick.”
He grabbed Brian’s hand and shook it, then yanked him into an odd half-hug with disconcerting ease.
“Th-thanks, Rick?” he said, thoroughly put off.
“You break her heart,” Mr. Walden whispered, reeking of onions and whiskey, “I’ll break your fucking back. You’ll never walk again.”
He clenched his hand then, entirely too hard, and Brian heard all his knuckles pop.
Mr. Walden withdrew, shot a smile to Kim, and started for the door, calling over his shoulder, “You kids rest up, now. Big day coming.”
“Well,” Kim said, “That went pretty well.”
Brian made a high-pitched noise.