Roberta looked like Rita Hayworth in her heyday, that is if Rita Hayworth ever wore a White Castle uniform and a hair net, which Roberta did for forty hours every week. She happened to be at work the day that Jasper Jenkins came in at about noon and sat at the counter where Roberta was serving that day, and without even looking at her, gave his order of six hamburgers, fries and a large Coke.
It was Friday and it was the busiest day of the week and Roberta might not have really paid any attention to Jasper at all had he not started choking on a French fry that got caught in his throat and required Roberta to quickly come from behind the counter and perform the Heimlich Maneuver on him, which he was fortunate that she did as it saved his life. He wanted to repay Roberta somehow and asked her if she would allow him to buy her dinner that evening, which she accepted seeing how she had no other plans and found Jasper a likeable person despite his looks.
Seven o’clock found Jasper at Roberta’s door with a small bouquet of violets and baby’s breath in his hand which he gave to Roberta as soon as she opened her door.
“What a nicely understated floral arrangement,” she said, wondering why he had not brought her a dozen roses.
She put the flowers in a vase that usually sat empty on a shelf in her kitchen, then ran water into the vase and put the vase with the flowers on the coffee table. Beside it was a ceramic figure of a black panther with a front right paw raised upward and claws extended and an open mouth full of sharp fangs appearing as if it were about to claw and devour something.
Still wearing a robe over her undergarments she told Jasper to have a seat, excused herself and went into her bedroom and put on her only expensive clingy black dress which she had purchased for just such occasions, which given Roberta’s looks happened frequently despite her place of employment.
Jasper was a courteous and gentlemanly person when it came to the opposite sex and he opened the car door for Roberta before she got in at her house and when she got out at the restaurant. From the one place to the other he didn’t say much. He told Roberta that he worked selling car parts, had never been married despite his age, 42, and that he enjoyed tractor pulls and stock car races which he attended every Sunday. For vacations he went down to Somerset, Kentucky where his elderly parents still lived and spent time there making whatever repairs needed to be done on their house and fishing for catfish at a stocked pond near them.
Roberta admitted that at age 34 she too had never married and had no family to visit, even if she could afford to do so, which she couldn’t. She told Jasper that on Saturdays she had a routine that she longed to share with someone, but didn’t state what the routine was, and on Sundays she went to an afternoon movie and spent the remainder of the day doing her nails, hair and generally resting up for the week ahead.
At the restaurant, a nondescript little place downtown that served a wide range of pedestrian tastes, Jasper had breaded veal cutlets and Roberta ordered a large Caesar salad and a glass of their house red wine.
“What a wonderful fruity flavor this wine has,” she said with a high pitched giggle, knowing it was an inferior wine but willing to forgive and forget.
It was an agreeable evening, although it was punctuated by long periods of them silently eating. Just before Jasper watched her enter her house he agreed to go along with Roberta on Saturday, still not knowing where he was going, but felt obliged to be accommodating without being inquisitive. After all she had saved his life.
Once inside her house Roberta replayed the evening in her head as she sat on her sofa and looked at the flowers in the vase. Jasper’s bald head, fish-like eyes, portly body, skin the color of Pepto Bismol and his Kentucky accent were all strikes against him. He wasn’t very interesting or talkative but she thought those things could be improved over time. What she was most certain of was that she could fall in love with Jasper Jenkins if he would change and it was with that thought in her head that she later crawled into her bed and drifted off to sleep looking forward to a wonderful Saturday.
As far as Roberta was concerned she could not have been greeted with more perfect weather Saturday morning when she stepped out of her house at 10 AM and stood waiting on her front stoop for Jasper to arrive. Dressed in jeans and a crisp blue blouse she looked much younger than her age and as the breeze played with her long hair she was the picture of vitality. When Jasper pulled up to the curb she didn’t wait for him to get out and open the door for her. She ran to the car, threw open the door and jumped into the passenger seat, threw her arms about Jasper’s neck and kissed him on the cheek, then greeted him with an exuberant good morning.
“A morning made for Keats,” she chimed happily into his ear.
Somewhat astounded by her, Jasper returned the greeting in a less enthusiastic fashion, but in a way befitting how one should greet someone who saved your life the day before. Roberta then told him their destination, the Cincinnati Art Museum.
At the museum Jasper easily found a parking spot and as the two climbed the stairs to the entrance, Roberta could hardly contain her excitement that they would be seeing an exhibition by Henri Matisse along with works from the museum’s permanent collection, which Roberta declared in no uncertain terms that he had to see them all since this was his first time there.
At Roberta’s insistence they began with the rooms with the Egyptian art. Among all the pieces they spent time looking at was the bronze Kneeling Horus, the granite Relief of Ptolemy II Philadelphos, and the bronze Feline with the rock crystal eyes which Roberta seemed particularly taken with, comparing the piece on her coffee table to it. Roberta had, from frequent visits before this one, an extensive knowledge of every item, which she related in detail. Jasper said very little until they reached the mummy case that was painted linen and gesso over wood, causing Jasper to remark that he knew the smothered feeling the guy inside must feel; a remark that went unheard or was ignored by Roberta.
In the rooms containing the Greek and Roman art, Jasper sat on a bench and tried to be as attentive as possible as Roberta extolled the artistic virtues of a Greek painted and incised Terra-cotta jar with black-figure Amphora, noting the interesting clothes of the figures and the way their movements were depicted. Jasper said it was just a jar with handles, not much different than any other jar, except for the Black people painted on it. Roberta attempted to persuade Jasper to see the simple beauty in it but gave up when she realized it was a lost cause. By the time they had seen a marble cow, with a card beside it labeling it Heifer, Jasper was prepared to leave the museum, but said nothing as Roberta took his hand and led him into rooms of ancient Near Eastern art, Islamic art, Indian Art, and several other rooms of art from different geographical regions and time periods.
Once they entered the rooms with paintings, Jasper seemed a bit more comfortable, as these were pictures that didn’t need explaining, or so he thought. But Roberta went on undeterred in her role as docent to Jasper, explaining why Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Undergrowth with Two Figures was so indicative of his style, pointing out both the black outlines of the tree trunks and the almost frenzied way the undergrowth had been painted with so many individual small brush strokes.
She was particularly enthralled by a painting by Thomas Gainsborough, Portrait of Mrs. Philip Thickenesse. Jasper said it was no more than a woman in a fancy dress holding some instrument that looked like a cross between a guitar and a banjo, but to Roberta was a reflection of Mrs. Thickenesse’s inner beauty and need for expression.
They went from room to room, Roberta’s voice heard above those around her. A painting by Grant Wood, a French commode, an earthenware horse, or a dress from Paris made in 1875, all were equally thrilling to Roberta.
Room after room of various pieces of art, painting after painting, and one sculpture more physically revealing than the next, they walked, Roberta grasping Jasper’s hand and leading him on. By the time they reached the Matisse exhibit and Roberta seemed in near delirious hysteria over some things hanging from the ceiling, Matisse’s cut outs, Jasper insisted that he had to get something to eat and that he had had enough. Roberta decided that he must still be a bit exhausted from having a French fry dislodged from his throat the day before. After all, near death experiences can be physically and emotionally draining. But she was determined to revive him.
To take advantage of the sunshine and wonderful fragrances of Eden Park, Roberta insisted that they walk from the museum to Mt. Adams where she claimed there was a perfect little deli where she had often gone on Saturdays when alone, and would enjoy nothing more than being able to take Jasper there. Continuing to be polite, Jasper consented to the plan, and retrieving his hand from Roberta’s grasp and sticking it in his pocket he walked what seemed like miles, but was much shorter, from the museum and out of the park. They walked down a sidewalk bordered by the park on one side and by homes on the other that had been renovated and had the look of upscale properties with fresh paint of tasteful but varying colors, nicely tended lawns and wooden plaques on the porch railings that gave the name of the occupants or some clever name affixed to the property itself, usually beginning with the words The House Of or ending in the word Manor, as in The House of Joe or Joe’s Manor. Once they entered a more residential area, Jasper commented that it all looked a bit too unreal, like a set in an old Disney movie. When Roberta told him she was taking him to a gourmet delicatessen his stomach rumbled unhappily and loudly.
Entering the deli Jasper seemed pleased to be welcomed by the smell of cut meats. Walking behind Roberta he looked hungrily through the glass of the deli case admiring the thick logs of bologna, liverwurst and salami. At the second case he not only saw things he had never seen before but prices on little cards held up by small metal pitchfork-like skewers that added to the sweat beneath his shirt. Roberta was chirping happily about all the things she had wanted to try but never had before this, and how nice it was of him to buy her lunch. As she selected one thing after another, Jasper didn’t object, after all this was the woman who had saved his life.
She purchased a small wicker basket and in it went sliced prosciutto, slices of cold black truffle pizza, and mancehgo cheese. From the bakery section she added artisan bread with sun dried tomatoes and a selection of petit fours. She looked over the racks of wine and selected a $42 bottle of a Willamette Valley 2002 Pinot Noir and two plastic cups and a corkscrew. At the cash register the clerk put napkins, paper plates and plastic utensils into the basket. Jasper’s face betrayed his shock when the cash register rang up the price of $94.00 and handed the cashier his Visa card, the only credit card he had other than his Sears card. With the basket hung over one arm, Roberta left the deli without looking back to see the paleness of Jasper’s pink complexion. She led him several blocks to a bridge that overlooked the Ohio River and there atop the concrete railing she laid out the feast.
“We shall dine like we are on the Champs d’elysse,” she warbled.
As Roberta ate, sipped the wine and stared down at the winding river she felt gloriously happy. She felt that finally the lonely excursions to the museum and to the deli for less expensive fare had finally paid off. If Jasper wasn’t much of a conversationalist, he was indeed a good listener, seeming to never tire of all the things she had wanted to say but never found a man worth saying them to, or for some reason one willing to stick around to listen to them.
In Jasper, she thought, she had found someone who she could show all the better things in life and be a teacher and possibly a muse, bringing out in him whatever latent talents that she thought must be deeply buried within him. When the food was gone and she drank the last drops of wine, she was satiated and a bit tipsy. On the way back to the car she steadied herself on Jasper’s arm, delighting in the romance of it, but a bit disappointed in the lack of hard muscles beneath the sleeves of his shirt.
“Your arms are so adequately male,” she said as she squeezed his flabby bicep.
Riding back to her house with the picnic basket in her lap Roberta leaned against Jasper’s shoulder and told him how much she would like to spend an afternoon with him at the modern art museum or seeing a play together or possibly catching a Fellini or Bergman film festival at the university. Jasper said nothing.
At Roberta’s house he opened the car door for her and at her door declined an invitation to come in and relax. He said he would call her again as he left her standing in her open doorway. He had turned the corner a block away before Roberta realized she hadn’t given him her telephone number and she didn’t have his, a simple mistake easily made by a man who recently almost died.
Not deterred in her growing estimation of him by this, Roberta closed the door and went straight away to her phone book and flipped through the white pages looking for his name. It wasn’t listed. She then spent an hour calling auto parts stores in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in attempt to locate which one he worked at, but was unable to do so. As the evening wore on as she became more desperate to find a way to reach him, her emotions soared to new highs and she was certain that she had fallen in love with Jasper Jenkins.
Roberta sat on her sofa with the open picnic basket sitting on the coffee table in front of her as she nibbled on the remaining slices of manchego, bread and petit fours. She felt terribly sad and alone, certain that Jasper was the one man out of all she had ever met who could fulfill her desire to make a man into the type of man she would most like to have as a husband. Certainly Jasper would require a great deal of tutoring on the finer points of culture she admitted, but as she had decided about most men she went on dates with, all that Jasper needed was exposure to the right woman. As she stuffed the last petit four into her mouth, she knew that she was that woman. She had, after all, not saved his life for nothing.
The night dragged on and Roberta tossed and turned in her bed thinking about Jasper, how his clumsiness, lack of intellectual curiosity and unrefined tastes were maddeningly charming. She imagined how he would look once he was put on a diet, had been a regular at a gym and became toned and possibly even athletic. She was certain that over time his Kentucky accent would be lost to a more sophisticated way of talking. At sunrise, after lying in her twisted sheets feverish with love for Jasper, she got up from her bed and called in to where she worked to see if they needed any additional help for the day shift.
At White Castle she poured coffee, served the burgers and accepted the unwanted attentions of men who she had no interest in. The only man on her mind was Jasper, and she knew that one day he would walk through the door, sit at the counter, and from then on they would never be apart. As certain as she had been the one to save his life she knew this to be her future. She decided until that day came that Jaspar returned, serving burgers at White Castle’s was as important an endeavor as painting a masterpiece to be hung in a museum.