Christmas Dinner at The Pleasant Peasant
The front of the Pleasant Peasant was small – a plate glass window and glass door, darkened by heavy curtains and discreet lettering. But when we walked in, I felt wrapped in cheerful warmth. The room, narrow and occupied with a long bar running down the right and banquettes along the right, with white linen-covered tables in the center, was both larger than I’d been led to believe and crowded with the most promising looking people I’d yet to encounter in this self-conscious city.
No one was fat. No one had a bad haircut. No one was caught up in Christmas. This was where the escapees had come for their own celebration.
Kevin waved to a good-looking man at the bar, motioned to a table near the front and led me to it. “I’m going to put Hazel in the office,” he said, scooping up the dog in his arms.
Alone, I wiggled my toes, enjoying the warmth return. I wasn’t really dressed for the chilly walk, but I wouldn’t have changed a minute of the last hour. I glanced at my stainless steel Seiko, a graduation present from my sister I would wear for the next 30 years. I’d been off the Arborgate property for two hours! And now we would eat and talk. I would be out for an evening! I felt like a little girl escaping the castle. Now that was an odd way to describe an unexpected pleasure, wasn’t it?
Kevin returned before I could pursue this thought too far.
“You look like a little girl on a treat,” he said.
“I was just thinking I hadn’t been off the property like this since I got the job. It’s fun.”
“You’re in the real Atlanta now,” he said. And I believed him. This was where I belonged, I thought. A waiter in black pants, blue shirt and a very clean white apron girdled around his narrow hips, brought wine and a menu written out in tiny letters on a small chalkboard he propped before us. He recited the entire menu without once looking at his chalkboard. Kevin ordered two French onion soups. Judith recommended this dish. It was popular in New York that year as well and stores were selling soup bowls for it (along with quiche and cheesecake pans.) Those were the foods of 1976.
“That might fill you up. We’ll order another course if it doesn’t.”
“And you’ll want to save room for dessert,” said the waiter, whose name, he’d announced, was David.
Moments later he was back with the wine and a basket of assorted breads and rolls that included a tiny cinnamon bun, a slice of date nut bread, an Italian breadstick and mini-baguette. The butter was soft and had been whipped with honey. This evening would be my first, but by no means my last, experience with trendy Atlanta restaurants and although my tastes would out pace this restaurant eventually, The Pleasant Peasant would prove to be the one to create my standards.
When our meal was set before us, it proved to be everything Judith had promised.
“My boss’s husband works here,” I said. If Kevin was a regular, and I could see by the nods and waves of the servers and some of the customers that he was, he would know Michael. He did. He even looked around as if Michael might be working tonight. “I think he’s got Nick with him tonight,” I said and wondered why I sounded less sure than I was. “I saw them leave Arborgate together Thursday morning.”
“Where’s Judith?” He reached for the last cinnamon roll, asking, with a lift of his eyebrows if I wanted it. I wanted him to have it and shook my head no. He unrolled it bite by bite, as if it was dessert.
“Big Canoe,” I said, as if the unfamiliar words rolled off my lips every weekend.
“What does that mean?”
“That’s where the smart money’s going. Big Canoe and Lake Hartwell.”
“Have you been?”
He shook his head, popping the last bit of bun into his mouth. He licked his fingers, too. He ate his meal here as if he’d been sitting in his own kitchen, but cleanly. Easily. He had excellent manners but he still ate the way he wanted. No self-conscious mannerisms. Unlike me.
“Big Canoe is for white guys.”
“You’re a white guy.”
He shook his head. “Not the same animal.”
He laughed. “You could say that.” He smiled at me, tilting his head a little, as if wondering, in the nicest way, what to do with a girl like me. Men have been looking at me like this since I graduated college. It was a look I rather enjoyed, as it seemed to come from the pages of a romantic novel. My novel, or rather, my romance. The next gesture should be a gentle headshake, followed by an embrace. I blushed, reminding myself that I was sitting opposite a divorced widower, as it were. And one who might be responsible for his estranged wife’s death.
“My money, such as it is, is right here in Midtown.”
The onion soup was satisfyingly loaded with Swiss cheese and dark rich broth and though Kevin offered to split an entrée (“Trout’s great”) I demurred. My subscription to MS magazine notwithstanding, the perpetual princess within assumed Kevin would pick up the tab for this dinner. Still, I couldn’t be sure this would be the case and I was, by then, well launched on a credit history it would take some two decades to re-write. In fact, I had skipped from New York owing most of a college load, an American Express balance and about two months to Consolidated Edison. If I could have afforded regret, I would have been sorry.
Our waiter returned with the same little blackboard.
He flipped it over and recited a list of desserts, all of which seemed to consist of variations on pecan, chocolate and glaze. Kevin waved it away with a laugh. “You know what I want. Bring Nora the same. And two coffees.” The waiter laughed and pranced off.
“I love this place,” I said, suddenly. It was true.
“And you always will,” he said, raising his glass in a toast.
Dessert was hot apple and walnut pie smothered under a thick crust of crumble. A scoop of cinnamon ice cream nestled alongside. It was hearty and huge. I ate every bite before sitting back against the banquette with a groan. We were sipping coffee when Michael Byrd edged his way among the diners and stopped before Kevin. I don’t believe he recognized or even saw me.
When Kevin introduced us, I was prepared to be treated as a stranger, but Michael surprised me with a warm smile. “You work with Judith!” he cried. “I just left her wondering how you had handled the crisis all by yourself. It looks like you were fine.”
At this news I felt myself flinch. I should be at the complex. The men laughed. “It’s Christmas!”
“Relax,” said Michael. “Even Judith takes a day off once in a while and you’ve been through a lot.” He glanced at Kevin then, including him in his sympathetic look.
“But she wasn’t supposed to be back until tomorrow night.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think the weekend turned out so well.”
I thought he seemed awfully lighthearted about his ex-wife’s attempts to date again, but Judith did say they would always be friends. Michael didn’t seem to know about Kevin’s connection to Arborgate, and before either of us could tell him, he took off, distracted by friends at another table. When we left he was ensconced at the bar, chatting with a pair of elderly men.
We rescued Hazel from the kitchen and set off. The temperature had dropped again, which moved us along. At my car, Kevin waited as I unlocked the door and settled myself.
“Thanks for coming by,” he said. “You helped.”
As I maneuvered the large car along narrow 5th Street and turned north, I wondered. I had been dangerously nosy and lonely and too upset to know what my motives had been for driving into Abigail’s life. It had turned out well whatever my reasons. As I sped along the empty streets, past Pershing Point and Piedmont Hospital, the decrepit Brookwood Hotel, slowing down to make Biscayne Drive’s sharp left, I wondered what would happen with Kevin. I wanted to know him. I had to know him. The key to my future, at least the personal part, was not in Buckhead or along Buford Highway, but in the leafy streets of Midtown.