People would come in, look at stuff, buy arts, and then leave. Sometimes they would just come in and ask to use the bathroom (No! We are a block from Bourbon Street, get your drunk ass back to the bar!). Occasionally, someone would walk in and try to chat me up. Most of those were somewhat unbalanced or homeless or both, but it went with the territory.
Summertimes can be slow in New Orleans. Any distraction is usually welcome.
On a particularly hot day one July, an older gentleman walked in to the gallery. He was probably in his 70's, but looked 80 or maybe a little bit older. He carried a fancy walking cane and had a lift in one shoe.
He was dressed in a suit that made me think he must be sweltering, but he seemed unconcerned and strangely un-sweaty.
I sat behind the desk, taking a few minutes to read a book after I finished dusting the frames and vacuuming the carpet.
"Well hello," he said as he walked in.
I put my book down and gave him a nice, friendly, customer service smile. "Hello," I said.
"I'm not interested in buying anything," he said, cutting me off.
I raised my eyebrows. Then get the fuck out of the store? Customer service is not something that comes easily to me, especially when it's face to face. I tried to keep my expression customer-service neutral: vague, interested, pleasant, but I was annoyed.
"I walk by here almost every day, and you're always in here reading," he said with an ingratiating smile, "I always see you reading..."
"Oh," I said, glancing down at my book. Why was he watching me?
"My question is... what are you reading that's so interesting?"
I picked up my book and handed it to him. He didn't look like a stalker. He was just another face in the Quarter. After a while, everyone who frequents the French Quarter starts to recognize everyone else.
"The Lives of the Caesars," he read. "Are you in school?"
"No," I said, "I just like the Romans."
He opened the book and flipped through. "'Quicker than boiled asparagus' was one of his favorite phrases," he read.
I nodded. Augustus was one of my heroes.
The man handed me back my book. "My name is George*," he said. *Not his real name.
"Leauxra," I said, extending my hand. He shook it, then took it in both hands and patted it in a fatherly way.
"Well," he said, "I better be off. I'm going to brunch over at Brennan's. I'll be seeing you."
I said goodbye, and he continued his walk down the street.
George stopped in several times over the coming weeks, always around mid-day, and always when no one else was around. I noticed when he walked by, too... sometimes in a hurry, but always sending a friendly wave at me.
It broke up the tedium.
When he came in, he would ask what I was reading, or tell me a funny story about New Orleans in the "old days". He was never in the gallery for more than a minute or two, and never overstayed his welcome. I got the impression that he was bored and lonely.
By the time he asked me out, I had spoken to him probably 20 or 30 times. He said, "You know, I'm always going somewhere when I go by here... It would be nice if we could actually have a conversation. Would you be at all interested in having dinner with me some time?"
I have a feeling my eyebrows tried to push their way into my hair, and he said something like, "Just, to, you know, talk. I would like to hear more about what you're reading."
"Hm," I replied.
"Well," he said, "Think about it."
He left with a wink. He asked me to dinner again about a week later, and I said OK. He seemed harmless enough, and I was between paychecks. I could use some sushi.
I didn't know where the sushi place was, but I had ordered take out from there a few times, so we were going to meet in an area I was familiar with and walk together.
I locked up the gallery after work that evening, and went to the agreed upon location. George was standing there, waiting.
"Well hello there," he said with a smile. I smiled back. I was hungry as I hadn't had anything to eat since breakfast. I was down to pasta and condiments at my house, and I was looking forward to a change.
"I was thinking," he said, "Why don't we just go to my place and order delivery?"
"I live right here," he said, pointing his cane to an apartment entrance between two store fronts in a historic building.
"I... guess that would be OK," I said.
"Sushi Blah-blah* closes at seven, and I don't want to have to hurry," he said. *Not the real name of the restaurant.
I shrugged. "That should be fine," I said.
I followed him in through the locked door, making sure I wouldn't need a key to exit. He clumped up the stairs in front of me, and I followed. I didn't particularly care to be going to a stranger's house, but as I watched him teeter up the stairs and grunt with the effort of it, I realized that he really wouldn't pose much of a threat to me. I could always leave if he turned out to be a weirdo.
Unless he had a gun. Then I would just be fucked.
He opened his apartment door, and held it for me. I walked in, looking around. I had always wondered what the inside of these apartments looked like, and I was slightly disappointed.
The floors were beautiful polished wood, and there was a ton of space. The ceilings were high, and there were windows all over the place, but it was decorated like they wanted it to look middle America. There was no feeling of New Orleans to it at all. It felt more like suburbia. The walls were light blue, the picture molding flat and plain, the furniture a nicer version of what I could buy at Target, the art on the wall bland, dull, and only a step or two above framed Thomas Kinkaid prints.
He took my coat. I noted the closet where he put it, and followed him as he offered to show me around.
The place was bigger than my original impression, small rooms leading to hallways leading to larger rooms. It was obviously two or three smaller apartments renovated to be one large space.
The windows looked directly across a small alleyway and in to the next apartment over. George said I shouldn't stand in the window because the neighbors might see.
"See what?" I asked.
"Well," he said, "You. My wife is out of town most of the time, but she gets jealous."
I shrugged and stepped away. He offered me a drink.
"Sure," I said, and George showed me a six pack of club soda in little bottles sitting out at room temperature, a small bottle of expensive gin and one of cheap vodka, but didn't try to make me a drink. I poured a club soda and vodka into a plastic Solo cup, and offered to pour him one. "Oh no," he said, "I can't drink."
"Oh," I said.
"Well, maybe a little," he said with a wink.
I wandered away while he poured himself some booze. When were we going to eat?
As I entered what turned out to be a library, he said, "You should see something." He reached down and opened a small case and picked up what appeared to be a small ivory statue, and handed it to me.
I looked down at it. It was an ivory statue. Of two people fucking. Graphically.
"Um," I said, "Neat." I handed it back. George then launched into a detailed story about collecting these little figurines from all over the world, which were actually counterweights for money pouches in Japan before pockets. I nodded, trying to look interested, but mostly annoyed that I was out of booze already. He handed me several more sexy statues, and I tried to pretend I gave a shit.
It had finally occurred to me that George was probably expecting "payment" for dinner. I sighed, and looked towards the closet where my coat was. Should I just leave, or... Damn, I really wanted some sushi, though. Dinner last night had consisted of stale bow-tie pasta, some questionably old capers and olive oil that I'd pan fried. I was getting down to the last of the stores, and I really couldn't come up with a meal to make out of mustard, stale oatmeal, and several varieties of hot sauce.
I realized that George was asking me a question. "I'm sorry," I said, "What did you say?"
He laughed, but I could tell he was pissed that I wasn't paying attention. "I said, should we order dinner?"
"Oh," I said, "That would be good. I'm starving." I smiled. Finally.
We walked back into the dining area, and he handed me a menu. "Pick whatever you want."
"What about you?"
"Oh," he said, "I'm getting one of the dinners."
"OK," I said, and had to really try to keep from rolling my eyes. Why the hell would he agree to sushi if he didn't care for it? He could have suggested something else.
I circled three rolls... enough for dinner and leftovers tomorrow. I was getting annoyed with the whole situation, and I was bored. I had planned to tell him about a book I was reading as it had some amusing anecdotes I thought he might appreciate, but he was completely uninterested, constantly steering the conversation back to stories about wild parties and loose women.
I had had to stop myself from ordering the most expensive sushi rolls I could find on the menu out of pure spite. I managed to choose things I actually liked instead of being an ass.
I sat down at the table while he talked on the phone, and stared at my empty glass. I should have skipped the club soda and gone straight for the booze. It was obvious George was not going to offer a refill.
After he ordered and sat across from me at the table, launching into a ribald story about something that happened back in the 60's. I tried to pretend to be interested, and laughed politely at his story. I imagined him seducing young impressionable and highly sheltered debutantes in previous decades. His stories may have titillated me when I was eleven years old or so, but I had discovered the internet early and was raised by HBO. There was nothing new here.
"Mind if I fill up my drink?" I asked.
"Oh, pardon me," he said, "Help yourself."
I stood up and walked to where the booze was and topped off my drink. I only filled the glass halfway with vodka, despite the temptation to just drink it straight and make the evening less painful. As I turned around, George was standing less than a foot behind me and leaned in for a kiss.
I stepped back, knocking the six pack of club soda off the small counter top with a loud thunk.
"Give us a kiss!" he whispered, leaning in. I turned my head, and he managed to give me a sloppy kiss on my cheek, and I managed to spill half my drink on his arm. Did he really just say that?
I realized he wasn't backing off a moment later. His arms were pushing me in to the window, and I was tempted to kick him in the 'nads. Instead, I bent quickly under his arms, easily breaking his grip, and picked up the fallen soda. I took a step away. "Oh good," I said, "It didn't break open." I think I did a good job pretending I hadn't noticed his aggressive pass at me.
He blinked at me several times, and I walked back into the kitchen. I heard him come after.
I was just deciding that I was going to leave without my damn food when the doorbell rang.
"I'll get it," he said, making his clumpy way to the door and down the stairs.
I sat at the table staring at my reflection in the window, realizing that the neighbors could definitely see everything that was happening in the apartment, and that I was being a total dickwad. I had no intention of giving George what he wanted, and was using him for sushi. I should go. I should stop embarrassing him and me. I should tell him that I wasn't going to sleep with him.
But I didn't leave. And I didn't say anything.
I was going to get my damned sushi.
George came clumping back, and he asked if I needed silverware.
"Chopsticks are fine," I said, snapping the disposable wooden ones in half and rubbing the tips together to smooth out any splinters.
We ate in nice uncomfortable silence. I offered some to him and watched as he made a disgusted face at it. Shrugging, I ate a bit more in silence, downing my drink.
"Well," I said, shutting the cover on the take out box, "I better get going. Early day tomorrow." We had been eating for maybe five minutes.
I stood up and started walking towards the closet that contained my coat.
"Wait," he said, following, "You... I... " he looked around. "At least let me drive you home."
"Hmm," I said. "I'll walk."
He beat me to the door and insisted helping me with my coat.
"It was nice," I said. I didn't even try to be convincing.
I walked out the door and down the stairs, George following a few paces behind. When we got to the bottom he said, "You know, I have three scars."
I turned to look at him.
"I have an appendix scar, some shrapnel in my leg, and a vasectomy."
I felt my face freeze. I had no response for that. Really? He faltered under my gaze. I didn't even try to pretend that I gave a shit.
I opened my mouth, "Neat," I said.
His shoulders slumped as he deflated, and I walked out the door, my box of sushi clutched tightly in my arms. I didn't look back.