Hush Money(4)

By: T. E. Woods

She turned her back to the empty entry and scanned her creation for the hundredth time that day. Twenty-six tables spaced across hand-scraped hickory floors. Each covered in white linen and surrounded by four chairs.

We must have sat in at least sixty before we settled on these. The chairs were birch. Steamed to fit a human’s bottom with engineered Swedish precision. Curved to support the small of a diner’s back. Every centimeter designed to encourage patrons to linger in the Hush Money experience. Well, if no one shows, the crew and I can commiserate in comfort.

Overhead, pendant lights of champagne-colored glass cast a soft glow. Epic paintings, each large enough to hold its own against the wide expanse and high ceiling, lined the walls. Sydney had insisted only Wisconsin artists be represented. Her designer had originally balked at the idea, but no one could deny the end result. The entire room radiated an urban elegance flavored with midwestern comfort.

Sydney crossed to the bar, where a dozen men and women stood in quiet readiness. She’d hired most of them away from the best restaurants in town. Two had relocated from Chicago when word got out that Hush Money was hiring the best and paying top dollar to get them. She tried to look confident as she smiled, greeted each by name, and urged them to have a great evening.

“There’s only one opening night,” she told them. “Let’s leave our guests eager for their next experience here, but let’s make sure we’re having fun, too.”

Sydney locked eyes with the woman standing at the end of the line of servers. This woman wasn’t dressed in the crisp white shirt and black trousers that were Hush Money’s uniform. Instead she wore a floor-length satin skirt. Gunmetal gray, matching her hair, which today, like every day of her adult life, was styled in a chignon at the nape of her neck. A pale pink blouse, long-sleeved and lace, picked up the natural rose in her cheeks. Her blue eyes signaled warm comfort as she tilted her head to the left, urging Sydney to follow her to the office.

“Do you remember your first boy-girl party?” the woman asked once they were alone. “It was your twelfth birthday. Your father wasn’t so keen on having boys in the house.” Sydney’s mother chuckled. “He would have kept you a little girl forever if he could. Do you remember that party, Sydney?”

“Are you distracting me, Mom? Or are you trying to make me cry because Dad isn’t here?”

Nancy Richardson’s smile softened. “Your father would have loved to see this. You, all grown up. Fancy lady about town. But things are what they are, darling. I’m talking about back then. We said you could invite twelve kids.”

“One for each year. I remember. It was the first time I was happy my birthday fell during the summer. That way I didn’t have to explain to some of my classmates why they weren’t invited.”

Nancy nodded. “Eight girls, four boys. I don’t know how your father came up with that ratio, but he said if he had to accept a mixer, he was damned sure he wanted those boys to feel outnumbered.”

“Not like they could have gotten away with anything.”

“You got that right! Your dad made damned sure every boy in the neighborhood knew you were Joe Richardson’s girl. Cop’s kid. Anyone who messed with you was sure to get a fast ride in the back of a squad car.”

“Try to imagine how eager boys were to date me.”

“Your father counted on that. But think back. Party was supposed to start at six o’clock. You worked all day stringing up lights on the patio. Checking if the Cokes in the cooler had enough ice. Badgering me every five minutes about the sloppy joes and chips. Do you remember tearing up a few minutes before six?”

Her mother was right. She had been worried no one would show. She had been convinced her social life was over before it even began. She’d be the laughingstock of Velma Hamilton Middle School.

Nancy reached out and pulled her daughter into an embrace. Sydney inhaled the familiar rose-water scent. One spritz, Sydney. The only person who smells a lady’s perfume is the person hugging her.

“Your birthday party was a smash hit. And tonight’s gonna be the night of your life, Sydney. I promise you that.”