East on St James
by Rick Beck
Editor: Jerry W.
When people cooperate, there is no limit to what they can accomplish. Take an attorney, Dury, newly retired, and a chef and vagabond, Keith, and put them together..., well you'll see what they come up with.
As unlikely as it seems, this meeting takes place over a tuna sandwich on a bench in a North Charleston park.
It's all it takes for a beautiful friendship to begin.
Dury is straight. Keith isn't. Keith is HIV+. Dury isn't. This has little to do with the story, but it's where we start.
Dury has spent his life practicing law in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. He is a well-to-do successful attorney. Keith doesn't think in terms of being successful. He likes to cook. As long as he can cook, he's happy. Happiness is good.
Keith learned the tricks of his trade on the road. His longest lasting job was as chef for a New Orleans restuarant. He went from prep crew to chef, being taught by a master.
What you have when you put Dury and Keith together is chemistry, and just maybe, a little bit of magic.
Dury Lane always took his lunch on the square adjacent to the law offices where he'd been a founding partner for thirty-two years. There was a bench under a tree that shaded it from the noonday sun.
Old habits being hard to break, Dury finds himself at Leo's Deli, Books, and Cosmetics for a tuna on a roll, half pickle, and potato sticks, since Leo's opened seven years earlier. Dury was certain it was the best tuna he'd eaten.
Since retiring, two days a week, on Monday and Thursday, Dury stops at his offices to check for messages and mail. Once he talks to his former secretary, Dury goes into Leo's for his sandwich. Leo would have it waiting on the counter for him, after Dury waved as he walked past Leo's window on his way to his offices.
Dury takes the bag with whatever drink he decides on, and after exchanging pleasantries with Leo, he heads for his bench on the square for a relaxing lunch and some North Charleston fresh air.
His suit was charcoal today with a matching vest. This was Dury's look as a lawyer. He was known as a buttoned down no-nonsense litigator. He almost always had on a white shirt with dark thin pinstripes and a tie with a dash of color. The tie always matched the pinstripes in his shirt and the color of his socks.
Dury was a conservative man. He contemplated his decisions carefully and planned his life accordingly. The death of his wife ten years before, changed everything. Dury went ahead with his retirement in spite of not having a plan for life without his wife.
He'd never gotten around to changing the plans he and Beverly had made together. This wasn't like Dury at all. His life was about taking care of every detail. Even after his final day at work, his alarm clock rang the following morning. He was half dressed before he realized he had nowhere to go, and looking at the empty bed, no one to go there with.
He wanted the change that was coming after retirement. He wasn't sure what form his future would take, but he was sure he'd practiced law for long enough. It's what he was good at and would figure into his future. His life as a 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. attorney was over.
Dury was in no hurry. He hadn't decided on a replacement plan. He was still married to his wife. He'd let work get him through the long days after her death. Even as work kept his mind off his empty house, he'd come to regret all the time he'd missed with Beverly, while practicing law.
Dury sat down on the bench, smoothed out his napkin, placed the wrapped sandwich on the napkin beside him. He knew by the feel of it, he'd waste half, after carefully rewrapping it to place it in the refrigerator at home with the others that would be thrown away in time by his maid.
He wasn't a wasteful man. He intended to eat the half he didn't eat for lunch, but he almost never did. Fresh the tuna had a heavenly taste. After a day in the fridge, whatever it was about the tuna that he loved, it was lost.
His coffee was still steaming and he sipped it carefully, while watching people pass through the park to go toward the shops. Dury noticed a somewhat younger man sitting on the grass, leaning against a small tree with his eyes closed. He was clean looking but pale. Dury walked past that tree on the way to his bench. The man had come to rest there after he came from Leo's, or did he simply not notice him?
Dury wasn't prone to noticing people in the park. Few people sat on the benches. The best parking was a block off the square. The park was an easy route to the shops and offices on three sides of the square.
With time on his hands and no place to go, he was curious about the man in tan slacks and a similar color short sleeve shirt. The man looked rather thin but he didn't look unkempt or like a homeless person might look.
Dury was thin, thinner now than he had been in years, but he'd lost interest in food. Not much appealed to him in the way of food. Dury was thin but the other man was skinny, he decided after giving it thought.
He was pale, thinner than thin, and he leaned as if he'd gone as far as he could go. Dury looked at his sandwich and remembered two halves of last week's sandwiches were still in the fridge at home.
"Waste not, want not," he said softly.
Dury wasn't a man who solicited conversation from strangers. He wasn't one to waste food either. The solution was obvious. He'd invite the leaning man to share his lunch. He'd feel better about himself for doing it and in fifteen minutes they'd go their separate ways.
"Excuse me," Dury said from a respectful distance. "I couldn't help but notice you. I don't usually talk to strangers. Too many complications in speaking to strangers," he explained in an attorney's voice.
As Dury spoke the young man hardly moved his head as he opened his eyes to look toward the voice. He had sad eyes that were likely more vivid once upon a time. His eyes were complete with dark circles. Dury could see he hadn't been well.
"I've got this tuna sandwich over on my bench. I get them from Leo's. On the corner there," he pointed out Leo's. "They're really good, but way too large. I hate wasting food in times like these. I don't suppose you'd like half a tuna fish sandwich on an absolutely fabulous roll? I could bring it to you or you can come over and join me on the bench."
The last part of the comment just slipped out. Dury hadn't planned to invite him to eat with him, but he had.
The man stood as if he'd been asleep for a long time. Dury led the way to the bench with the sandwich. The visitor sat first. Dury sat with the tuna sandwich between them.
"I'm Dury Lane. I used to work in the offices beside Leo's. I'm retired now but I still come in for my sandwich a couple of times a week."
"I'm Keith. You say you're retired? You look too young to be retired. You must have done quite well for yourself."
"I've been an attorney for thirty-five years," Dury said as he unwrapped the sandwich on the napkin.
"You look like a business man out to lunch," Keith said.
"Yes, out to lunch would be a good summation these days," Dury said, amused with his self deprecation. "That brick building on the corner beside Leo's, Black, Bostic, & Lane, Attorneys at Law. Lane has left the building. Can't stay away. I guess it'll soon say Black & Bostic and that'll convince me."
"An attorney? Yes, I can see that. A lawyer. You look like a lawyer should look," Keith said.
"I've taken my lunch on this bench every day at noon for years. Weather permitting, of course, and if I wasn't tied up in court. I got up this morning with no idea what the hell I was going to do, and here I am."
"Must be nice, having a routine," Keith said, thinking about it.
"What do you do?" Dury asked.
"Me? Nothing. I was a chef at an Italian restaurant for… lord, well over ten years. It changed hands. They wanted to cut my wages. I told them to keep their wages. I hadn't spent all those years learning my craft to give away my talent. That was a few years ago. I've lost track of time. I should have taken the cut in pay. It's better than nothing. Didn't seem so then. I was insulted. I'd work for half those wages now. I've worked for less."
"Do you still cook?" Dury asked.
"No, I don't get a chance to cook much. I managed the Bed & Bath at the corner of Broad and Water Street, but they folded when times got bad. It was a good gig because it came with a room. I was a short order cook at a breakfast shop in Charleston for a while. I've been a short order cook all over town."
"Sounds like you've been around," Dury said.
"I got sick. I had no health insurance. Liver works about half the way it should. No one wants a guy who looks like death warmed over working on their food. I don't blame them. I'm not good for the appetite."
"Your looks should have nothing to do with your employment."
"I passed out one day looking for a job. I was in the hospital until," Keith glanced at his watch, "An hour and forty minutes ago. I needed to get out of there. I wanted to breathe some fresh air. Now you know everything about me and here I am. "
Dury picked up his half of the sandwich, seeing Keith was in serious need of nourishment.
"Go ahead. Fresh air and tuna fish, nothing like it."
"I really wasn't hungry when I came over. I just wanted to talk to someone, but that looks nice. Smells good."
Keith took the other half Dury left for him. His fingers were delicate and thin. His hand shook as he moved the sandwich to his mouth and stopped as he inhaled the aroma before taking a tiny bite.
"That is delicious," Keith said softly, holding his meal with both hands.
"I drove into town just for this sandwich. They're really good." Dury said, biting into it to prove it.
"I haven't eaten anything in so long, tuna is nice. I made a wicked tuna fish sandwich at Morey's deli, Wilson, North Carolina. People came from across town to get one of my deluxe sandwiches. I worked there before New Orleans. I served it on thick fresh baked rye bread."
"Italian is your specialty?" Dury asked.
Keith moved so carefully it looked as though he was afraid of breaking something. He didn't respond right away.
"I cooked in a diner, two or three small family type restaurants in North Carolina before going to Ciprianno's. Their chef trained me for Italian. He left and I proved to know enough to replace him, but the answer is no, I cook all kinds of food."
"I don't recall going to that restaurant. Name isn't familiar," Dury said.
"It's in New Orleans. I don't know what it's called now. Probably somebody's Italian Restaurant. That's if it's still there. I didn't like the way the new owners treated me."
"How'd you end up in New Orleans? Are you from Louisiana?"
"No, I'm from North Carolina originally. I learned something about being a cook there. When I was in my early twenties, I decide to see the country. New Orleans is where my money ran out."
"That would be a good reason to look for a job," Dury said.
"I was just at the corner of the French Quarter. I didn't know it then, but the look of it appealed to me. I found the alley behind a restaurant that looked interesting and I went to inspect the quality of their…. This won't sound very appetizing to a man like you. I went to check to see if there was anything I could salvage for a meal in the dumpster."
"Dumpster diving?" Dury thought it was called.
"Exactly! Jan, the head chef, was standing at the back door scrapping his lunch into the dumpster. I didn't see him until I was looking into the dumpster. He yelled, 'Hey.' Scared the hell out of me. 'I didn't see you,' I said. 'I was just checking to see what kind of food you served.' He laughed at me."
"Looking in the dumpster gave you away," Dury said.
"Every time. He wanted to know if I was hungry and I told him I'd spent all my money getting there and didn't have enough money for lunch.
"There was a European lilt to his coarse voice. You can tell a lot about people from how they address you. He was a bit gruff but not insulting. He told me to come into the kitchen and he'd see what he could give me to eat."
"That was Ciprianno's?"
"Yes it was. I told him I was a cook. He was from Italy. He'd cooked in France, where he trained to be a chef, and Spain, Italy too. He asked me if I wanted a job. I told him I was out to see the country. He told me there was no place like New Orleans, and if I took the job he'd train me. I wasn't a fool. I couldn't turn that offer down. I could travel any time. Training under a chef wasn't going to happen again. I took the job and Jan taught me how to cook every dish he prepared at Ciprianno's."
"That was a lucky break for you," Dury said, fascinated by Keith's story.
"I slept in the storage room and showered at Jan's apartment a few blocks away, and on his days off, I was the head chef at Ciprianno's. The owners weren't going to call me that, but no one knew it wasn't Jan preparing their meal."
Keith ate around his comments. By the time he got the job half his half of the sandwich was gone. He chewed carefully before speaking.
"Sorry. You say hello and I give you my life story. I haven't had anyone to talk to in weeks. No one but doctors and nurses and I didn't have anything to say."
"It's quite a story. I am enjoying hearing about you. Here we're two strangers in a park. Nine times out of ten we pass each other without a word," Dury said.
"You're a passionate young man. If I owned a restaurant, I'd hire you," Dury said, using his handkerchief to blot at the corner of his mouth.
"I'd take it. I'm probably too weak to work for long. I've never been this sick before."
"So you ended up being the head chef?"
"Jan, the head chef, quit two years later, but I spent those two years watching him cook. It was all inside my head. It's hard to keep notes while you're cooking. I have a good memory. I was made temporary chef, until they could find a real chef. After a year, I figured I was the head chef. Not bad for a boy who learned everything from experienced cooks."
"Ah, but you did go to school. You had the best education money can buy. Experience is the best teacher," Dury said.
"All my jobs were like that. Even when I cooked in the corner diner, someone taught me what I needed to know to be good at it. I'd go from dish washer to busing tables and in a couple of weeks I'd be cooking."
"I never learned to cook. No time. Work, work, work. In college I lived on pizza and burgers, same as everyone else. It's a wonder I haven't stroked out."
"This is quite good," Keith said, taking several bites as his appetite became activated.
Dury noticed Keith had brightened. His color wasn't quite as pale. His hands still shook as he ate. He took tiny bites, smiling each time he tasted the sweetness of the tuna. He wiped his mouth several times before taking more bites.
"I don't feel much like a pickle. Want to risk it?" Dury asked. "They're nicely seasoned but not overwhelming."
"Oh, my, guaranteed to upset any stomach. Yes, it would be perfect if not smart. No telling when I might get a chance to eat a crunchy pickle again. I'll take my chances. You're a thoughtful man, sharing your lunch. You shouldn't give me more. I don't need more. This is wonderful."
"Potato sticks are good and fresh. Go ahead. This is much more than I ever eat. I usually end up wasting it. I saw you sitting there," Dury said, tapering off.
"I'm very dry. I dare not try potato sticks. Tempting fate at this late date is not a good idea. First thing resembling real food I've had in weeks."
"Have some of my coffee, then. It only has cream but Leo grinds his own beans and takes care with where he gets them. That's if you aren't contagious. Wouldn't do for me to catch what you have," Dury said, chuckling to himself as he handed the cup to Keith.
"No, thank you. I have AIDS. My liver difficulties are related to that. Not passed to someone easily, but I wouldn't want to make you uncomfortable. You'd do well to drink it yourself, but it's kind of you to offer. I wouldn't have eaten had you not shared your sandwich."
Dury remained silent for a few minutes. He absently drank from the coffee cup. Dury was no stranger to AIDS. Hearing it brought up on a park bench near his offices gave him pause.
His eyes studied the gentle honest young man, who brought AIDS up close and personal once again.
He had many memories of how AIDS had touched his life. Dury was an attorney who regarded facts as his best friend. When AIDS had been made part of his life before, he'd read everything on the subject he was able to find.
A chance meeting on a park bench brought AIDS back into his life, if only for a few minutes. Life was full of abrupt turns and sudden changes.
The interesting story Keith had told him had just taken such a turn.
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