“Did you see that couple at table thirteen?”
“No, what about them?” Kyle asked.
“So the dude is sitting there with his wife. They just finished dinner and he orders a brownie with coffee, right, and I ask him if he wants ice cream with it. He says yeah, so I bring out this beautiful brownie with the most perfect scoop of vanilla you ever saw next to it, all covered in fudge, you know?”
“Yeah Lou, I know how to make the brownie. What’s your point?”
“So I bring him this perfect brownie and guess what he does? He grabs the bottle of ketchup and turns it over, he straight dumps it on the brownie.”
“Why the fuck did he do that?”
“Oh, that isn’t the end of it. Him and his wife pick up a pair of spoons and eat the whole thing, ice cream and all. I almost puked right on the table. I had to come back here and tell someone.”
“Oh my god. That’s disgusting! Were they normal looking?”
“Yeah, that’s the fuck of it,” Lou replied. “They kinda reminded me of my aunt and uncle before they went and desecrated my favorite dessert.”
“That’s hilarious. You should tell Sue.”
“Dude, I’m telling everybody. Anyway, I have to go run their ticket. Check them out if you walk by.”
Lou stepped out of the kitchen leaving Kyle to pour the sauces for his table’s appetizers. He tapped the jug of blue cheese dressing gently against the counter in order to work the chunks free before filling the ramekins. When the cooks popped the platter of fried meats, vegetables and cheeses into the heated window, he had to change the paper liner before he could bring it out. People didn’t want to see the puddle of grease their food was cooked in.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” he asked upon laying the platter in the center of the table?”
“We’re fine,” the woman said, without looking up from her phone.
“All right, your entrées should be out in just a moment.”
He headed back to the host stand where Sue was doodling along the margins of the wait-list. He peeked over her shoulder to see her putting the final flourish on what appeared to be an octopus violating a monkey with its tentacles. The monkey’s eyes and mouth were wide with shock, though Kyle supposed he would be pretty startled too.
“That’s beautiful,” he said, making Sue jump.
“Jesus, don’t sneak up on people!”
“I wasn’t sneaking. You just weren’t paying attention.”
“Well it’s slow and I’m bored. Hosting sucks. I’m all alone up here.”
“Jeff will probably send you home soon.”
“That sucks too. I need money.”
“Should have thought of that before you decided to be an art major.”
“Oh, ho ho, you’re hilarious,” she scoffed but she was smiling. It was that adorable kind of smile where the very edge of her bottom lip was clamped between her teeth. Kyle shifted and looked down at his feet. He knew he was supposed to say something here, but couldn’t think what.
“Yeah, I’ve been told that.”
The doors flew open and a flurry of January snow came with it. An old man dressed in a long coat came shambling through. He shook himself on the mat and a dusting of snow slaked off his shoulders. He looked around the room, a coy grin partially hidden by an unkempt white beard, then his steel-blue eyes fell on Kyle and he froze.
“Hello sir, just you tonight?” Sue asked but the man barley registered that she spoke. He just stood there, hands pressed against his coat where he had been brushing away the powder. He frowned.
“Sir?” Sue repeated.
He jumped, the same way she did a minute before, and then glared at her as if she’d just interrupted something very important.
“Oh yes,” he said taking off his coat. “Just me tonight.”
“Follow me,” she said, leading him off to the right. Kyle watched in annoyance as she sat the old man in his section. When she walked back, she pulled a face and said, “that’s what you get, sucker.”
Kyle went back to the kitchen to check on food, and then checked all of his other tables before going to the old man. He knew that wasn’t professional, but he didn’t like the way the man was looking at him.
“Hello,” he finally said, when he couldn’t put it off any longer. “How are you doing tonight?”
“The best I’ve been in a while actually.”
“Well that’s good to hear, can I start you off with something to drink?”
“A lager?” the old man asked. “You still have beer here right?”
“Yes sir, I’ll grab you one right away.”
“Fantastic! I haven’t had a lager in twenty years. That’s worth the trip alone.”
Kyle wanted to ask where the old man had been that he couldn’t get lager but he didn’t ask. He found it was better not to engage the eccentric customers. Get in, ask what they need and walk away. If you didn’t some people would sit there and chat your ear off while other people’s food got cold in the kitchen. Kyle went to the tap and poured the lager. The bartender was out back smoking and so no one would care if he did it himself.
He dropped it off at the old man’s table, jotted down a quick order for fish and chips, and then went about checking on his other customers. He could feel the man’s steely eyes on him as he did this though. As soon as he could get away, he went back into the kitchen. Why was this old man getting under his skin? Why couldn’t he shake this feeling about him?
“The fuck you doing back here?” Lou asked, carrying in an armload of dishes. “I had to cash out one of your tables. They said to tell the manager you were shit. What’s going on?”
“Sorry. Dude in my section is freaking me out.”
“Why? Did he eat a ketchup brownie too?”
“No he just keeps looking at me weird.”
“Ah, you’ve got a starer,” he said knowingly. “I get those sometimes. Weirdos come in that just like to watch you work and you’re like, hey bro, I’m not a piece of meat.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Well suck it up. We work with the public. That means we work with the freaks. Just the way it is.”
With a deep breath, Kyle grabbed the oval dish covered in fried cod and potato and walked back out onto the restaurant floor. The old man was still watching him like he was the only person in the room. The beer glass was empty except for a thin film of white suds at the bottom.
“Another drink for you sir?” Kyle asked as he set the greasy plate on the table.
“Please, and do me a favor, stop calling me sir. Seeing you like this is weird enough.”
“Seeing me like this? What are you talking about?”
“You know, seeing you here, working away.”
“You must be thinking of someone else. I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Hmmm,” he said looking thoughtfully at his plate. “You’re not entirely wrong. I suppose I’ve met you, but you haven’t really met me, have you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Kyle replied, “but I don’t think I can serve you any more alcohol tonight.”
“Boo,” the old man pouted. “I don’t remember you being this much of a buzz kill.”
“That’s because we’ve never met,” Kyle repeated, walking away. He went to the nearest terminal to print off the old man’s bill. He knew he could get in trouble. There was a routine. He was supposed to wait till his customers were finished eating and offer them boxes and dessert but something about the old man’s stare made his scalp itch. Kyle decided that if it came down to it, he’d rather get in trouble. He turned around with the ticket in hand to find the old man standing right behind him, his steel-blue eyes leering from beneath bushels of tangled eyebrow.
“You never used to be rude,” he said in a low growl. “Not that I remember, anyway. Maybe it’s like they say, maybe we only remember the best of people. You were my hero once.”
“I don’t know you!” Kyle shouted. The other people in the restaurant were staring now but he didn’t care. He was sick of this. Sick of being polite to weirdos and people who treated him like dirt. “Please, just go enjoy your food. I’ll find a different server for you to close out with.”
The old man smiled. His wrinkled lips spread wide to reveal a dangerous looking row of teeth.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” he said, his voice sounded more gravely than ever. “Listen, I’m sorry if I startled you. I just came to give you some advice. You should quit your job. You don’t have a lot of years left. Don’t spend them here. Spend it with that girl instead. She seemed nice. Money’s on the table. Keep the change.”
With that, the old man shambled off toward the door. Kyle breathed a sigh of relief. The old man was obviously insane but then, why did everything he said feel so true? He could have sword that there were tears in the old mans eyes just before he turned away. The whole ordeal was entirely too strange.
He went back to the table to clean away the untouched plate and found, tucked behind the napkin dispenser, more money than he’d ever seen in his life. The stack of hundred dollar bills was so tall that it nearly peeked over the top. Kyle leapt up and looked around but the old man was long gone. He ran up to the door and asked Sue if she’d seem him.
“He left a minute ago. It was actually kind of funny. He said you wanted to ask me out and that I should say yes when you do. Were you talking to him about me?”
“What? No. It’s really weird. He didn’t even eat his food but he just left me a ton of money.”
“Ah, well you’re welcome then.”
“I sat him in your section, remember? I’m always doing nice things like that.”
Completely bewildered, Kyle went back to the table. He was worried what would happen if he reported the money. He thought maybe they wouldn’t let him keep it. So, as discreetly as possible, he filled his apron pockets with cash until it looked like he was carrying around a pair of bricks.
He thought about finishing his shift, going around taking orders and scrubbing tables as if he weren’t carrying tens of thousands of dollars in his pockets. He wondered how far he should go, should he come back tomorrow, give two weeks notice?
No, he thought. He walked into the back room, took off the apron and jammed it in his backpack. Then he went back to the kitchen.
“Hey Lou,” he said.
His friend looked up from a plate of food he was setting on his tray.
“What’s up?” Lou asked.
“I’m going home, give you a hundred bucks to take over my section.”
“Uh, sure? Did you talk to the boss?”
“Not yet,” Kyle replied. “I’m quitting though.”
Kyle slipped Lou one of the hundreds and then quit before walking out of the restaurant. The manager was surprised but not as surprised as he was to be actually doing it. It felt like a dream, or rather, like the kind of thing you fantasize about in that tired hour before you actually fall asleep. The walk home was one of the best of his life. The air smelled cleaner, even the cold was refreshing.
His face burned as he stepped through the door. His mood dropped a little when he saw that his mother had fallen again. He dropped his bag and wrestled her back into her chair. Things got better again when he showed he the money. First they laughed together, then they cried, then they laughed again. His mother insisted that it was an angel come to answer her prayers but Kyle wondered whether angels were quite so fond of lager.
All the noise woke up his little brother Joey. The little boy came stumbling out of the back room in his mismatched Jetsons and Flintstones pajamas, rubbing the sleep from his steely blue eyes.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Nothing Joey,” Kyle said. “Go back to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.