I decided to do a little experiment today to rattle myself out of the writer’s block: Write a story in under an hour, subject matter and quality be damned. So I did. And here’s the result. It’s about, oh I don’t know. The little spiders in our brains. This may become a regular feature. We shall see. Anyway, it’s short, so there’s that. Let me know what you think, here or in an email.
You know what they’re laughing about, you’re not stupid. You see them giggling over at the corner table, all packed together so cozy, dressed in their perfectly buttoned clothes, drinking mimosas, brunching on Belgian waffles and poached eggs, taking small nibbles except when they think nobody’s looking, then shoving it down so quick you wonder if they’ll choke on it.
And wouldn’t that be a laugh? Wouldn’t that be a giggle? If one of them choked on a waffle or a scone?
You clear the Number 22 table as fast as you can, but not too fast. Don’t clear them too fast or you’ll make a mistake. You have to stay focused, don’t get nervous, or else you’ll break something. Just like a few minutes ago, dropping that juice pitcher, still half-filled with juice – why are people wasteful, leaving so much juice? – and it crashed to the floor, splattering glass and fresh-squeezed OJ all over the place.
And then you. Slipping on the juice as you panicked to clean the mess up. Twisting. Flailing about, spinning around trying to get your balance, before landing ass first on the floor.
Then the laughter from the corner table. Nobody else in the restaurant laughed. Or, maybe they did and you just didn’t notice. But the corner table laughed – that, you did notice. They laughed immediately, and loudly. One clapped, giving you applause.
Back in the kitchen the assistant manager told you, “You’ll want to be more careful, champ.”
“I accidentally slipped,” you answered, not knowing what else to say.
“Shit happens. Change into a new uniform, then back to work.”
And so you changed your uniform and went back to work. The Number 22 table needed to be cleared. Half-full plates of eggs and salmon, cured meats and Hollandaise sauce, English muffins and fresh avocado. A few Bloody Mary glasses, drained dry. Rich coffee in expensive cups. Fine dining. People eat well here.
How long will they laugh, that corner table? Was it really that funny? Maybe it’s the mimosas, tickling the funny bone. Alcohol makes people laugh, then makes people mean, then makes them cry. Just like Mom. One minute chuckling over how you didn’t button your shirt the right way; the next minute telling you to learn how to button a goddamn shirt, you’re almost a teenager, it ain’t that hard – if your goddamn no-good Daddy was around maybe he could teach you how, but come to think of it he was always stupid, too. Then apologizing and crying, saying, Honey, it ain’t your fault.
It’s a good job, most of the time. Bussing tables. It’s hard work but good work. We have a two-minute turnaround. Clear the table, then help put on the new tablecloth and lay out the dishes, glasses and silverware. You have to be very fast and focused. A dirty table becomes a clean, welcoming table in two minutes. Think about that. Pretty good, right?
You wonder if the people at that corner table could turn a table over in two minutes. It’s not just about clearing it off. It’s how you clear it off, how you arrange things on the tray so it all fits together the right way, making sure glasses don’t make noise and nothing gets broken. And then setting the new table – making sure the silverware is lined up correctly, and the plates and glasses are positioned just so. The flower vase needs to be centered – absolutely centered in the middle of the table – otherwise it doesn’t present the right effect.
This is the key to fine dining. Presenting the right effect.
But mistakes happen, just like any job. Just like a plumber not turning the right valve, or a police officer gunning down the wrong guy. Or accidentally knocking over a half-filled pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice, then slipping on it. Try going through any job without making a mistake.
You wonder what kinds of jobs those people at the corner table have. Probably something in business clothes, an office job that pays well. If you ever see one of them at their jobs, and you see them slip on something and fall down, you’ll laugh at them, you better know you will. But then again, maybe not. You need to be better than that.
“Be better than them,” the school counselor told you, you don’t know how many times. “Rise above it. They’re just showing their insecurity. That’s all teasing and practical jokes are – insecurities. You can only control you. You can’t control them.”
You walk over to the corner table and stop and stare. They look at you, pretty faces on the men and the women. Dressed well. Neatly groomed. All the buttons perfectly buttoned.
“Bussing tables is hard work,” you tell them, not knowing what else to say.
“Apparently so,” one man jokes, and they all laugh except one, a woman.
“Okay Jim, enough,” she says. Then turns to me.
“Sorry, guess we’re having a little too much fun here,” she says. “A little goofy, you know how it is. We didn’t really mean to laugh like that.”
Your assistant manager walks up and gently tugs you by the arm. He looks at the table.
“Everybody good on food and drinks here?” he asks them.
They nod yes. Jim smirks. He starts to say something and the woman gently elbows him.
“Excellent, let us know if you need anything,” your assistant manager says.
He eases you away from the table and leads you back to the kitchen.
“Try not talking to the customers,” he says. “You know that.”
“They were laughing at me.”
“So, let them laugh. Who gives a shit as long as they keep ordering and the cash register keeps going ka-ching, ka-ching? Assholes spend money, too. Don’t let people bother you, they’re not worth it. That’s my free advice for the day. Help Amy with the water service.”
“I need to use the men’s room.”
“Sure, but snappy, then back at it, champ. And wash those hands.”
You head to the employee men’s room and go straight to an empty stall. You close the stall door behind you. You slam your fist against the wall, then hold your face in your hands. You can feel your eyes moisten up. Bussing tables is hard work, there’s a lot going on.
Back out in the dining room, Amy has already started the water service. You give her a hand, being careful to focus, not be nervous, not break anything.