The Waiter Show
He looked to be in his mid-to-late twenties, tall and tanned, with an athletic build and thick, blond hair that could survive a wind tunnel. His smile beamed down at us, and his large, blue eyes twinkled.
“Hi there, folks. How are you this very pleasant evening?”
“Fine, thanks,” I murmured, as Carolyn, across the table, did the same.
“Well, that’s terrific!” He made it sound like the greatest news he’d ever heard. “Can I get you folks something to drink before I acquaint you with our specials?”
I ordered a Chivas on the rocks, and Carolyn asked for some ginger ale.
“Excellent!” he enthused. “Be right back to start you off.” With that, he turned and was gone.
I glanced over at Carolyn, who was not looking at me. She seemed preoccupied with making minor adjustments to the positioning of the silverware. There was an awkward moment. Then: “I’m glad you could make it, Don. I wanted to talk to you.”
She’d said as much to me on the phone last night but little more. It had been several weeks since we’d last spoken, since we’d stopped seeing each other after having gone together for almost a year. The breakup was amicable, as these things go, both of us feeling the relationship wasn’t cutting it for a variety of reasons. Some were my fault, some hers, but it was clear that the time had come to move on.
“It’s always good to see you,” I said to her now, and waited.
She still wasn’t looking at me. Her lips were pursed, and she’d shifted her attention from the silverware to the rim of her water glass, which she was circling with her index finger. Another long, awkward moment passed. “The thing is, Don…”
“Here we are! A Chivas for you, sir…” In one smooth motion, he glided cocktail napkin and drink from his tray and placed them in front of me. “…and for you, ma’am, a glass of our finest, oak-aged, cold-brewed ale of ginger.” He flashed her another smile that she answered with a brief, tentative one that flickered across her face and then vanished.
He gazed at us in proprietary satisfaction. “And now, I’ll bet you’re dying to hear our specials.”
“I think we might need a few minutes…” I began, but Carolyn said, “No, no, go ahead.”
She looked up at him brightly, with earnest attention. This was one thing I grew to dislike about her, her way of feigning interest. When we were with my friends, she’d act like she was fascinated by every word they said, and then tell me later how dull she found them. “You’re so much more interesting than they are,” she’d say, as if it were something I should be proud of, rather than an insult to my friends.
I was thinking about that as the waiter launched into his soliloquy of culinary creations. Italian and French words flowed from him like the Tiber and the Seine. Antipasto di mare, blanc de volaille, pollo ripieno alla Romagnola, every detail of their preparation described with flourishes of the hands and vocal crescendos. I watched Carolyn’s eyes as she followed it. Even though I could never love the person behind them, they were still beautiful.
He concluded the specials, bowing his head slightly as if taking a modest curtain call, and looked at us for approval.
“Great,” I said.
“Fabulous,” he one-upped me. “Do you have any questions?” We had none. “All right then, I’ll leave you to the menu and to making your selections.” He turned smartly on his heel and disappeared around a large group of people who were sitting down at the next table. The place was rapidly filling up.
I looked expectantly at Carolyn, who was once more playing with the silverware. “I may as well just come right out with it,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
“I’m sorry!” It was the waiter again. “Before, when I said ‘antipasto di mare,’ I’m afraid I was ill-informed. We seem to be out of that, but our chef has substituted a wonderful crab meat Remick.” This was a concoction involving crab meat, bacon, mustard, and several other ingredients, described at excruciating length.
I wasn’t entirely surprised by her news, although it still kicked me in the groin. My mind always goes to worst-case scenarios, and the timing and mysterious nature of her call had sent it directly there. But I’d told myself it could be a lot of things, even that she wanted us to get back together, which would have been its own problem. The waiter, with many more apologies, finally left.
“God!” I blurted out, and then said the worst possible words a man can utter. “Are you sure it’s me?”
She gave me the ugliest look I’d ever seen on her. “I was completely faithful during our relationship,” she said icily, “and I haven’t slept with anyone since. So, yes, I’m sure.”
“But we took precautions,” I said lamely.
“Well, you know what they say…” She gave one of her ironic chuckles, another mannerism that used to get on my nerves. “It’s never one hundred percent. So I guess we beat the odds.”
I said nothing. I hadn’t yet touched my drink. Now, I saw it sitting there, picked it up and drained it, which gave me some courage to speak.
“What do you want to do about it?” I managed.
“Haven’t decided yet?” He was back. I never seemed to notice him coming. He’d just appear, like a hologram. “I see you’ve finished your Chivas, sir. Can I get you another one, or something else?”
“No, I’m okay for now.”
“You sure?” He turned to Carolyn. “How’re you doing on that ginger ale? Can I get you a fresh one?”
“No thanks,” she said softly.
“Take your time, folks, enjoy.” He gave us a wink and melted away into the growing hubbub. This was a popular East Side eatery, and Carolyn had been lucky to get a reservation.
“Why don’t we look at the menus and order,” I suggested, opening mine and starting to glance through it. “Maybe we can get rid of him,” I muttered.
“What!?” she exclaimed, aghast.
“Huh?” I said, looking up in confusion. Then I realized. “I meant the waiter.”
There was another awkward moment. “Oh,” she said, reddening. Then she opened her menu, hiding her face.
I looked back at mine, the words swimming before me. I’d just gotten the answer to my question, all right. Now what the hell was I going to do?
“So, I guess you want to have it,” I said at last.
She put down her menu. “I know this is a shock to you, Don; it was a shock to me.” She was looking me in the eyes now, for the first time. “I thought about it a lot before I called you. I’ve always said I was pro-choice, and I still am, but only for other people, not for me. I don’t want to destroy this baby.”
“But it isn’t a baby,” I objected. “It’s only an aggregate of cells. It’s got no feelings or…” I let it trail off because I could tell by her expression it was useless. I was saying nothing she hadn’t heard before, and she didn’t agree with it. Or if she did, it didn’t matter. “Oh man, this is awful,” I said.
I stared at the menu again, eyes unseeing. What did she expect from me, a proposal of marriage? I cringed at the thought. Or 21 years of child support? I was barely scraping by as it was on a junior account executive’s salary.
But at least my life was my own, or so I’d believed an hour ago. “Okay,” I said cautiously, “you thought about it before you called me. So what are you thinking now?”
“How’s it going there, folks? Still thinking?”
I realized I had to do something about this guy, or he was going to bug us every two minutes until we ordered. “Do you have any shrimp cocktail?” I asked him.
“Do we ever. The best Gulf Coast jumbo—”
“Fine,” I said, “and a sirloin steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and any vegetable you’ve got. And another Chivas.” I thrust the menu back at him.
“Very good,” he said, taking it from me and smiling as if I’d been perfectly affable. “And you, ma’am?”
“I guess I’ll have a Caesar salad with chicken.”
“Would that be Cajun style, barbecue, spicy garlic, lemon, or roasted?” Jesus Christ, I thought.
“Superb. I’ll be right back with your Chivas, sir.”
“So?” I said to Carolyn as soon as he’d gone. “Talk fast; he’ll be back any second.”
“He’s just the waiter,” she said with a touch of annoyance.
“No, he’s not, he’s the goddamn star of the table! The featured act, the main attraction. With a captive audience!”
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing. Now will you just tell me what the hell it is you’re thinking?”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Sorry,” I said more calmly. “Now, you were saying…”
“I thought about it before I called you, but it wasn’t about keeping the baby; I always knew I would. It was just whether or not I should tell you. Finally, I decided it wouldn’t be fair to you if I didn’t.”
“Thanks heaps,” I said, bitterly thinking how much happier my life would have been in blessed ignorance.
“You don’t have to take that attitude,” she said sharply, her mouth becoming tight and her eyes narrowing. Some men think women are cute when they get angry. Not me. Carolyn always looked like a rodent at moments like this.
“What’s the difference what attitude I take?” My voice was starting to rise again. “You seem to have everything figured out already.”
“Not at all!” Now she was getting louder too. “If we can’t discuss this like reasonable people—”
“Reasonable? What’s so reasonable about you blindsiding me with—”
“Chivas Regal!” he sang out. Again, I never saw him coming. We both went silent as he placed the drink in front of me, his smile as radiant as ever. “Another ginger ale for you, ma’am?”
Amazingly, in the midst of her anger, she could still smile back at him. “No, thank you,” she said.
“Enjoy. Your shrimp cocktail will be right out, sir. Would you like the Caesar along with it, ma’am, or do you want to wait for the entree?”
“I’ll have it whenever it’s ready,” she said pleasantly.
“Marvelous.” He turned away and was gone.
“So what were your plans,” I resumed, “aside from telling me about it?”
She gave me a long, hostile look. “I can get maternity leave at work,” she said evenly. “I also might be able to swing working at home for awhile. And my mom will help out.”
Her mom. The whole time we went together, I’d never heard her refer to her parents as anything other than my goddamn mother and my goddamn father. “Really?” I said. “I thought you hated her. Didn’t you once tell me she was the most destructive parent you’d ever seen? That she made your brother an alcoholic?” Maybe it was the Chivas working on an empty stomach, but I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to make her feel ridiculous. “It seems to me you haven’t thought this through at all, Carolyn. This could be a huge mist—”
“One Gulf Coast jumbo shrimp cocktail, as promised,” he announced, swooping in on us and deftly depositing it in front of me. “And the Caesar with chicken. You did want that roasted, didn’t you ma’am?” She nodded.
“Whew,” he said, making a pantomime of wiping imaginary sweat off his brow, “I thought you might have, but at the last minute I couldn’t remember if you’d said barbecue. I was just about to put it in that way, when I thought, no, it was definitely roasted. And it’s a good thing because—”
“Excuse me,” I broke in, “but, with all due respect, I’m sure The Amazing Adventures of Caesar and Chicken is a riveting saga, but we’re sort of in the middle of something here.”
There was dead silence. “Certainly, sir,” he said. “I understand. No problem at all.” He nodded deferentially. “Just let me know if you need anything. Bon appetit.” He nodded again, and took his leave.
“They ought to do away with waiters altogether,” I said. “There should be laptops at every table, and we’d just order—”
“That was horrible!” She was looking at me like I’d just taken out a gun and shot him. “You have absolutely no consideration for other people at all. That man has a terrible job, but you don’t care about that, do you? He’s probably some struggling actor who faces rejection every day, and then comes to work in a place like this, where he has to smile and scrape and bend over backward for arrogant jerks like you. This is a major reason, incidentally, why it never worked out between us. Your monstrous ego, your insufferable self-centeredness.”
I felt myself turning crimson. The tops of my ears were simmering. I looked away from her, down at my shrimp cocktail, the pieces hanging over the side of the bowl, tails intact, like dead, taloned fingers reaching out of a crypt. I had to get away from this table or I’d lose it. “Excuse me,” I said in a tight voice, as I pushed my chair away. “I need to use the restroom for a minute.”
My mind reeling, I made my way through the restaurant toward the men’s room sign. It led me down a short hallway, past a pay phone that was unoccupied, and so, thank God, was the bathroom. Plunging through the door, I headed straight for the sink and turned on the cold water full blast.
I splashed it onto my face and took several long, deep breaths. All right, I thought, I’m not going to let her get me. I’ll struggle through this dinner somehow, and tell her I need time to think. She took her own sweet time, didn’t she? I could do the same. Nothing had to be decided now. I took several more deep breaths and began to feel a little better.
As I came out of the men’s room, I saw someone talking on the phone a few feet down the hall. It was the waiter. His back was to me, but I could hear what he was saying.
“It must be another side effect of the chemo, honey; is it really bad?” He turned now, so that I saw him in profile as he leaned heavily against the wall. His eyes went to the ceiling, and his face held utter devastation. The pain I saw etched on that face took my breath away. I knew, with a stabbing certainty, that the person he was talking to was dying.
He turned again and put his head against the wall, slowly and silently beating his fist on it. “My shift is up in another hour, honey,” he said, in a voice that belied the anguish. “I’ll be right home. I love you.” He gently hung up the receiver, and then moved out into the dining area.
I stood there, shaken. Carolyn had been right about me. I had callously disregarded this person like he was nobody, and who was I? A schmuck who flies into a snit if his conversation is interrupted. I had it all backward. I was letting every petty, stupid little thing become more important to me than the one most crucial of all: life. And how fragile it is. The final act for any of us could be as near as the next routine physical. It’s all we have, and it can be taken away so easily.
I don’t remember crossing the restaurant, only finding myself sitting across the table from Carolyn, saying I was sorry. Saying I’d been a complete asshole, and I was going to put aside one hundred dollars a month in a trust fund for our child. When I earned more, I’d contribute more. I told her I was there for her, and I’d be as present or as absent as she wanted me to be. That I was willing to take my share of responsibility.
Tears in her eyes, she reached across the table and took my hand. “That’s wonderful, Don.”
I devoured the shrimp cocktail, and then proceeded to have the most incredible steak dinner I’d ever eaten. We talked about movies, books, even sports. We laughed a lot. Every so often, the waiter would appear, as intrepidly upbeat as ever. Once, he popped in to ask us how we were doing just as I was getting to the punch line of a joke I was telling. I didn’t mind. I wondered if I ever would again. I had nothing but admiration for this man, and the way he was living through his ordeal. We had coffee and dessert, and at the end of it, I insisted on paying the check, which I did. I left him an obscenely huge tip.
* * *
Terry McBride stuck his head into the kitchen to see if that veal Oscar for table 12 was ready. He spied his friend Bob Flanders, who was loading a chicken piccatta onto his tray, and couldn’t help slipping in the old needle.
“Hey, man,” he said, playfully swatting at him with a dish towel, “have you got no shame at all? I saw you on the phone. You were trying to get a bigger tip, doing that ‘girlfriend with cancer’ routine again, weren’t you.”
Bob Flanders hefted the tray onto his shoulder. “I keep telling you, Terry, I’m not a waiter,” he said. “I’m an actor, a damn good one. And I deserve to get paid for it.”