Benoit still had the key, my key, in his pocket. My inclination was to ask for it, since, as a hired person, he was to have given it to me when he delivered the car. But, of course, the dinner thing altered the fee-for-service nature of the relationship. Even if we were normal friends, or normal dating people, he would most certainly drive. At that moment, I didn’t know what we were, or weren’t, so I let it alone. He hadn’t flirted. I had seen plenty of boys flirt, by then. But he wasn’t just a guy who dropped off a car, either. We walked down the path toward the lot, my key secure in Benoit’s trouser pocket.
“Is this a military base?” he asked.
It was a good question. At seven each morning, the flyboys left in a starched white parade, fully regaled in aviator sunglasses, cap and what I came to call the Air Force smirk. It was a pleasing sight, actually, a treat for both the voyeur and the patriot, two personas with which I had little rapport up until then. Boys, as I knew them, didn’t join the military and pilot planes. They forgot to get their hair cut. And they went to law school. These guys were something different.
In the evening, they returned home to the apartment complex, as neat and efficient as they were twelve hours earlier. Twenty thousand airmen worked at the base, which was just a few miles down the beach road. A number of the officers were my neighbors in the garden apartments on Edgewater Gulf Drive, a charmless complex with orderly plantings and a swimming pool in the center yard.
“No, they just live here,” I said.
“Ah, very nice,” said Benoit. “I parked just to the left…there she is.”
“Oui, the Cutlass. Hop in.”
Benoit unlocked the passenger door for me and I eased in to the maroon velour. In seconds, he appeared next to me behind the wheel. Mom had stashed a philodendron on the floor in the back, and several shopping bags of canned goods and health and beauty products on the seat. Benoit hadn’t left a crumb or a wrapper or a cup. It looked as if he had vacuumed.
“It’s very clean,” I said.
“Yes, and big and soft. We don’t have cars like this in Paris,” he said, “with the velvet.”
“Americans like this sort of thing. Sofas on wheels.”
Benoit flipped the ignition and pulled out of the lot. For a skinny guy in an ascot, he was a speedy driver. During my first week in Biloxi, I was assigned to cover the head of the Dixie Mafia, who had been arrested on racketeering charges. I directed Benoit to a restaurant I passed on the way to the courthouse each day, along the beach road. It had a patio, and white tablecloths. I had heard about something called etouffe, a Cajun dish, with shrimp. I hadn’t tried it yet, despite Biloxi’s reputation as the Shrimp Capital of the U.S.A. You can’t eat etouffe by yourself. I had the feeling that the restaurant on the beach road would have it on its menu. Benoit presented an opportunity.