Carl held the front door for Donna, as was his custom, because it was the way he was raised. Donna responded with the slightest hint of a curtsy because she thought Carl’s manners were so cute and old-fashioned. Although she wasn’t raised with good manners necessarily, she sure did appreciate them. When she came to Babel three years ago, settling in after college, she noticed that manners meant a lot in these parts. She often thought that her success in moving up to be a manager at the shoe store Well-Heeled was due to her passion for shoes, her innate fashion sense and her photographic memory of the inventory, but she made note that politeness at all times was a smart policy. Didn’t matter if it was the boss, the stock boy or the grouchiest customer (which was usually Mrs. Eleanor Crabtree, as her name implied), Donna made a point of winning over people with her well-mannered smile.
Finding a similar politeness in Carl tickled Donna. She was so relieved to see that he had good people skills despite being the head of a call center out at the corporate park about an hour south of Babel. Okay, that wasn’t being fair to Carl, his department or call center people in general. ‘What I meant was,’ Donna thought to herself, ‘I like this boy.’
This was their fourth date in as many weeks, but it was the first time Carl had brought Donna to Tongues Saloon. It was his usual hangout, and he liked the owner. Carl thought Tongue was a good guy, and funny. (His real name was Tom, but he never used that). Tongue was missing the tip of his tongue – that alone made Carl laugh – and he always had a funny made-up story about how he lost it.
Carl had wrestled with taking Donna to what he considered “his spot” out of fear that if the new relationship didn’t work out, well, sharing the Saloon in the future might be a problem.
But tonight, on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, he decided to bring his date to his spot after a movie, so they could get a couple of drinks, something to eat, and catch a little bit of the game. Carl wasn’t big on going to the movies, he was more of a sports guy, and would rather spend the night in front of the TV watching any kind of game.
A recent epiphany – his mother reminded him that he’d be turning 30 in November and that he still wasn’t married – convinced him that maybe he needed to change his attitude about what made for a good time on a date.
Once inside the Saloon, Carl directed Donna towards an empty table in the main bar area. It may have looked like a random choice to Donna, but Carl was precise in his selection, as well as which chairs they should sit in. He hoped to surreptitiously keep an eye on the two televisions behind the bar that were broadcasting different games. But the jig was up when Donna switched seats, saying, “Oh, let me sit next to you so I can watch the games, too.”
At first he was embarrassed, but Carl quickly realized that sharing an interest in sports could be a good thing.
“So, what did you think of the movie?” Donna said.
This was not the kind of conversation Carl liked to have. “It was alright.”
“Alright? Just alright? You didn’t love it? I mean, I loved it. And if you didn’t, that’s okay. I was just hoping that you liked it some. I’m sorry you didn’t like it.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it. I thought it was alright.” Carl smiled at Donna.
“Okay. But saying you thought it was alright is just a polite way of saying you didn’t like it.”
“No, it’s not. It’s saying that it was alright. Not great, but not bad either.”
“Interesting. If I thought something was not great but not bad either, I’d say that that something is good. Don’t you think?” Donna leaned in towards Carl.
“Good is alright.”
“Exactly. So you liked the movie.” Donna leaned back with a smile.
“What didn’t you like about the movie?”
“I just said I liked the movie.”
“I know. But, here’s the thing. I loved the movie.”
“That’s good. I’m happy you loved the movie.” Carl graciously gave Donna another smile.
“Do you want to know why I loved the movie?”
“Yes. I liked the movie enough, but I’d like to hear why you loved the movie.”
Donna looked at Carl, wondering if he was poking fun at her. Coming from another man, Carl’s sentence might have been sarcastic and perhaps even mean. But not from Carl, he’s too polite. Donna didn’t give it another moment’s thought; she was too eager to talk about the movie. “It was so romantic.”
“Funny how romantic comedies will do that,” Carl said smiling. Concerned that Donna didn’t smile back, he offered, “That was a joke.”
“I know. I was just thinking about how you look like him.”
“The guy in the movie.”
“I don’t look like…”
“No. Silly. I meant the guy who played the best friend, the guy who loses the girl because he’s too obsessed with his music career.”
“Oh yeah. Yeah? You think I look like that guy?”
“Don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I’ve been called worse.”
“Ha! Like being called a movie star is a bad thing. What worse have you been called?”
Carl looked over at the bar and caught the eye of the waitress. She had just given a big order to Tongue, who always tended bar. She smiled and headed right over.
“Hi folks, how are you tonight? I’m Marilu.”
Carl gave her an appreciative smile. Since this was his hangout, he obviously knew Marilu, and she knew him. But she didn’t know Carl’s date, so she played it safe. She liked Carl – he was polite and never hit on her, which was refreshing. For all she knew, the woman with him could be a sister or a co-worker or a whatever. Didn’t matter to her, Marilu just didn’t want to assume anything.
“Hi there. Can we see a menu, please?” asked Carl.
“Sure thing.” Marilu reached into her back pocket for two menus. The food selection at Tongues was pretty limited. “Do you know what you’d like to drink?”
“I’ll have a draft. Donna, do you know what you’d like?”
“How ‘bout a good ol’ gin and tonic?”
“How ’bout it! Sounds good ol’ to me.” Marilu winked at Donna.
“Lots of lime.” Donna mashed her lips together as if imagining the tart taste already.
“That’s how I like it, too. I’ll be back with your drinks in just a minute, then see if you’d like to eat anything.”
Once Marilu was out of earshot, Donna said, “She’s nice. Very friendly. And polite.”
“Yep. I’ve seen her in here before, but I never remember her name.”
“Did she ever say you look like a movie star or does she call you something worse?” Donna laughed and Carl joined in. As he glanced away, at the games no doubt, Donna looked over and assessed Marilu, who was leaning on the bar watching as Tongue filled a pitcher of beer and a carafe of white wine. Donna quipped, mostly to herself, “I bet she’s a five. And a half.”
Carl heard her, but wasn’t sure how to respond. There was no way he was going to get involved in a conversation with a woman about rating another woman – it could be a trap disguised as an innocent remark, inside a “fishing for a compliment” ruse. Plus he had no idea what kind of scale Donna was using or whether a 5½ was good or bad or just alright. He played it safe with a distracted, “Hunh?”
Donna looked at him, almost sympathetically. How could he be expected to know? “Her shoe size.”
“That mean she has big feet?” Because of Donna’s blank, silent stare, Carl added, “No, I guess not. You really know your shoes, don’cha? Must be hard to leave work at work, when everywhere you look you see shoes. Even watching the game.” Carl pointed a thumb towards the TV, thinking, ‘Maybe we can talk sports now.’
Donna smiled, “But it’s my passion. I just love it. I don’t care if it’s sneakers or stilettos, pumps or cleats, if it goes on your feet, I’m interested.”
Carl got an interesting idea, and slowly leaned over to Donna, putting his face very close to hers. She didn’t know if he was going to kiss her or scare her. At the very last moment, he diverted his face towards her ear. He whispered, “How do you feel about… socks?”
Donna burst out laughing and Carl joined in with a big smile, proud that he gave her such a belly laugh.
In return she gave him a weak punch on the arm, “Oh Carl, I thought you were going to bite me or something. That’s too funny. Socks. You kidder.”
Carl leaned back feeling quite full of himself, “You know, I stole that move from the guy in the movie.”
“Remember when the guy – you know, the guy you claim I look like, the loser friend – when he goes up to the blonde with the… you know, the one who took off her… before she jumped. Anyway the guy goes in to kiss her, well that’s what she thinks, right? And instead he says to her, in that bad fake accent…” Carl deepened his voice and came out with an oddly European tone… ‘I used to pay for the sex and violence.’”
Donna again hit him with a blank, silent stare, and he moved his arm away expecting to be hit by another punch as well. “What?” asked Carl defensively.
“That’s not what he said. He said, ‘I used to play alto sax and violin.”
“No way,” Carl said, getting a little red in the face.
“Trust me. Way.”
Carl noodled this over, realizing pretty quickly that he must be wrong. What Donna heard made a lot more sense, considering the guy in the movie was a musician trying to recover the talents he had abandoned in order to travel the world seeking the meaning of life.
“Okay, I’ll buy that. My bad, as they say.”
Donna smiled away his foolishness. “So, what did you think of the movie?”
Carl felt squeamish, thinking, ‘Really? Didn’t I already lose this game?’
Marilu was suddenly at their table, placing down their drinks: a frothy cold beer and a gin and tonic with lots of lime. “Sorry for the delay, folks. That big table over there, they’re a thirsty bunch. Oh, by the way, Tongue…” Marilu looked at Donna, “He’s the bartender.” She looked back at Carl, “Tongue wanted me to say, ‘First round’s on him, Mr. Fever.’ That’s exactly what he wanted me to say.”
She smiled and walked away. Carl stared at her ass as she walked away — not out of any kind of lechery – he just didn’t know where else to look, because he sure didn’t want to look at Donna. He could feel Donna staring at him. He could sense her mouth slightly agape, her head tilting just a smidge, as she tried to digest what she just heard.
Carl took a deep breath. He had known this moment would come. In fact, he’d been planning it. Maybe not for tonight. But he knew he’d get there. He sure hoped to. Since their first date he knew that if he was going to get anywhere with Donna, where he did want to get to, he’d have to face up to this moment. And thinking about it now, wouldn’t it be better to have the conversation in a bar than in the bedroom, where, if things went south, it would be horribly awkward? At least here, sitting in Tongues, it seemed safer.
Emboldened by this logic and a fair dose of hope, Carl picked up his beer and offered a salute towards Donna, “Cheers.”
“Cheers to you, Mr. Fever.” Donna smiled. “Looks like maybe you have a secret. Anything you’d like to get off your chest?”
“Funny you should say that.”
They sipped their drinks and eyed each other patiently. Donna was feeling curious but also guarded. She was very happy with how her relationship with Carl had been progressing. She worried that something was about to change that.
Carl wanted to feel he had nothing to lose, but the reality was that he stood to lose Donna. However, he had no choice. There wasn’t much you could do when the truth was written in indelible ink on your skin.
“So I guess you’re curious about why Tongue calls me Mr. Fever.”
“I’m curious why he’d call you anything other than Carl.”
“Well, I’ve been coming here long enough that we’re friendly, I guess. Not really buddies, but he’s a good guy.”
“What do you call him?”
Carl looked at her, wondering if she was trying to trap him. “Tongue. I call him Tongue, everyone does.” He leaned in to speak confidentially. “His real name is Thomas. But no one calls him Tom or Tommy. Just Tongue.” He hoped that sharing this apparent secret would keep Donna friendly.
She sipped her gin and tonic and the limes made her squint. “So, should I call you Mr. Fever?”
Carl jumped in. “Okay, here’s the story. Full disclosure. You’d find out sooner or later, and I was hoping you’d find out soon, just not necessarily like this. I have a tattoo on my chest.”
Donna’s eyes widened slightly. “A tattoo of what?”
“Nothing. Just words.”
“What’s it say?”
“Carlton Fever,” Donna repeated it slowly to make sure she heard it right. “Who’s that?”
“So it just says Carlton Fever in big letters across your chest?”
“No, actually it’s pretty small, and it’s just over my heart.”
Donna smiled, but she hid it from Carl by taking a longer sip of her drink.
Carl took the cue and hit his beer as well, wondering how this was going over with Donna.
“Can I see it?”
“Of course you can. But not right now, if you don’t mind. Unless you want me stripping off my shirt in the middle of the Saloon like I’m a Chippendale’s dancer.”
Donna laughed. “Well, I don’t know. Do you have what it takes to be a stripper?”
Carl laughed nervously, and leaned in again to share another confidence, “All men think so, but not many of us do, do we?”
Donna threw her head back and laughed louder, “I think you’re right.” Carl realized she must be picturing something, or someone, to make her laugh that loud.
When she stopped, she got serious and asked, politely, “So what’s the story behind ‘Carlton Fever’?”
With a final gulp, Carl finished his pint. “Well, Carlton’s my full name, right?”
“Okay, I didn’t know that. But I like it.”
“And, once upon a time, I had a girlfriend. Okay, so she was more than a girlfriend. We lived together, and we were together all the time, and we were going to get married, I mean we were going to get engaged.” The words raced out of Carl who had become suddenly quite nervous. “That was the plan anyway, get engaged, get married, the whole thing. She was like my whole life at the time. She meant everything.”
Donna interrupted him. “Just say ‘girlfriend.’ It’s better that way.” She was patient because she knew this was important and she didn’t want Carl to be nervous.
“Right. Girlfriend is better.”
“What was her name?” asked Donna, politely.
Carl hesitated. He knew from experience, once you named something out loud, you gave it power. “Eve.”
“Eve.” Donna repeated it to show Carl that she understood. “And so?”
“So I got a tattoo.”
“I’m sorry. Connect the dots for me.”
“The tattoo I got, over my heart said ‘Carl and Eve.’”
Again, Donna repeated his words, “‘Carl and Eve.’”
“Yeah, but not the word ‘and.’ It was the letter N. Carl ‘n’ Eve. Like rock ‘n’ roll.”
“Anyway, things didn’t work out with Eve. Obviously. She’s out of my life. Long time. Almost two years now.” Carl looked at Donna. She didn’t seem upset, but she clearly wasn’t working it all out in her head. Carl would have to spell it out, literally.
“So last year, I went back to the tattoo parlor and had them fix my tattoo. All the guy could come up with was to make ‘Carl N’ into ‘Carlton’ by squeezing in the T and O. I’ll admit that it doesn’t look too good. Then he just added an F and an R to turn ‘Eve’ into ‘Fever.’ So now I got ‘Carlton Fever’ on my chest.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m not proud of it, I’m not happy with it. But that’s the truth.”
Donna finished her drink. “Let’s get another round, okay? But no snacks.”
With tremendous relief, Carl looked for Marilu. She caught his eye as she was walking between tables putting down coasters. She called over to them, “Two more of the same?”
Donna answered, “Please,” as Carl called back with an emphatic “Yes!”
They sat in silence until Marilu placed the fresh drinks in front of them.
Donna raised her glass, “Here’s to you, Mr. Fever. Thank you for sharing your story. I appreciate you being open and honest with me.”
They clinked glasses and drank.
Donna leaned in to speak confidentially. “Carl, I’d like to show you my tattoo. Later on. If you’d like.”
Carl’s eyes widened like saucers. “I’d like that, I’d like that a lot, Donna.” He sat back and smiled, then leaned in again to conspire. “I always hoped I could share having a tattoo with, you know, my, my… what? I guess you’re more than a date, right?”
“Say, girlfriend, Carl. It’s better.”