By Ian Mark
The older of the two women seated at table nine did her best to get the waiter’s attention. She raised a pale hand and performed her version of the “check-please” gesture. The younger woman continued talking about everything wrong with their generation, oblivious to her companion’s politely frantic movements.
The waiter, a tall black man at the end of a double shift, made eye contact with the woman and nodded. He stopped at table eight, which was a short staircase away from table nine, and collected the check from its holder.
“Finally,” said the woman, cutting off her friend mid-sentence. “The service in this place was supposed to be ‘heavenly’”.
“Is that what the review said?” Her dining partner slid the last bit of apple pie into her mouth. She tucked a loose strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
“What can I help you with?” The waiter appeared at table nine, opposite a railing and directly in front of a large window. The now-obscured view had also underwhelmed the two women.
“I mean, the way we treat these kids, these unpaid internships are basically slavery, if you think about it,” the younger woman said through her pie, continuing her previous line of thought. She swallowed deeply to punctuate her assertion. Her elbow knocked the almost-empty wine-glass over as she leaned back. The waiter righted the glass before more than a few drops could spill.
“I’m so sorry,” said the older woman. She shot a look at her younger counterpart, who shrugged.
“No real harm,” she pointed out, indicating the red tablecloth.
“It’s fine,” said the waiter. His brow furrowed. “What did you need?” He patted the spot where the glass had spilled with a dishrag he kept in his back pocket, his face blank.
“The check, please,” said the older woman. She repeated her gesture under the table.
“Of course, ma’am. How was the pie?” He glanced at the older woman’s barely-touched slice.
“Delicious,” said the younger woman. The waiter smiled, but his eyes were dull. He started to leave. “We’re celebrating an anniversary,” she added. He hesitated.
“Congratulations.” He turned once more to go. He wore a rumpled white Oxford shirt with a clip-on black bow tie. A loose button in his black trousers would soon need to be sewn back on.
“Aren’t you going to ask us what it’s for?” The older woman said. The waiter stopped again. A drop of red wine had fallen on his right shoe.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, I assumed it was for your wedding. You make a beautiful couple.”
The corners of the younger woman’s mouth turned up as the older woman blushed.
“I’ll get that check for you,” the waiter said when she did not respond.
“I told you, we’re not as uncommon as you like to think,” the younger woman said. The laugh lines in her face deepened. The older woman watched the waiter walk away. He deftly plucked table eight’s check from his pocket as he went, his long dark fingers smoothing it out as he checked the tip line.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” the older woman said.
“Of course I’m right,” the younger wife said, grinning.
“This whole thing just hasn’t been what I expected.”
“How was your pie?”
“It was… how’d you like it?”
“I thought it was great. You didn’t?”
The women sat in silence.
“Get this whenever you two are ready.” The waiter dropped the check on the table and was gone before either lady could respond. His shift was over in fifteen minutes. He touched his front left pocket for the familiar bulge of a cigarette pack.
“Thank you,” the younger wife called after him. She laughed. “You or me?”
“I’ll get it,” her partner said, unsmiling.
“Okay, don’t stiff him, he was nice.” She rose to leave. Her keys jangled as she fetched them from her purse. The older woman gripped the pen and bent over the table. Her wife paused.
Now standing next to her lover, she leaned down and in and whispered. “I had a very nice time. Seriously.”
The older woman signed the check as her wife walked towards the exit. “The first year is always the hardest,” she said aloud. She glanced towards the front door in time to see her wife leave. She dug through her purse for her cash, picked the pen back up, and scribbled a note beneath Grant’s grim portrait.
Twenty minutes later, the busboys had cleared table nine and the only evidence of the couple’s former presence was a few spots of burgundy on the maroon tablecloth. The hostess tapped her foot impatiently, a new party right behind her. The waiter grabbed the check holder and ignored the glares the hostess sent his way.
The waiter exhaled the first hit of his first cigarette. He leaned back against the wall, standing in the alley between the restaurant and the discotheque.
Already feeling the calming effects of his fix, the waiter examined the fifty dollar bill; his last table had left him a substantial tip. He turned the bill over in his hands. Scrawled along the bottom it read, “Really sorry about slavery comment. She didn’t mean it.”
The waiter took a long drag off his cigarette.
He pulled his lighter back out and ignited it. Keeping Grant’s smug face pointed up at him, he lowered the bill towards the flame, its flickering edges drawing closer and closer—
The service entrance banged open. The owner poked his head out. The waiter put out the lighter and lowered his arms.
“Your wife called, wanted to know when you’d be home.”
“Oh. Thanks. She say anything else?”
“Your son’s sick again.”
“Okay, thank you.”
“I don’t want this to happen again, Clarence. You need to get your phone working.”
“I will, sir, I promise.” The owner went back inside.
The waiter looked at the lighter and the bill, each in one hand. He stuffed both in his pockets. He flicked his half-smoked cigarette onto the dirty ground, then went home to his family.