Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Door

I am taking a creative writing class.  Our assignment was to choose a picture/photo and describe the details of the image and then write a narrative inspired by it.  I chose a painting by Ivan Albright entitled "That Which  I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)".  I saw it for the first time, years ago on display in the Modern Art wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.  It is an amazing piece of art that has stuck with me for over ten years now.  Check it out if you are in Chicago.

First glance:  There is a tall wooden door, which hangs a funeral wreath.  An old woman’s hand can be seen holding onto the frame of the door.

An old woman’s hand.
A delicate lace handkerchief
Gnarled knuckles with oval well-manicured nails
The hand holds a sprig of tiny buds
Her sleeve reveals the fine needlework on the lace edging.
There is a fleshiness to her hands.
The ring finger has an intricate gold ring with floral engravings that looks like an heirloom
A dark wood paneled door.
The door has engraved woodwork that has nicks and scratches.
The knob is bronze that has engravings on it. 
There is a wreath on the door with a pink tattered ribbon that has begun to fray.
The flowers are dying and starting to droop and darken.
The pink roses are fainting down and withering.
The white lilies are darkening and drooping downward.
The sprig that the woman holds is from the wreath.
The door is tall and the frame is solid wood.
The frame has engravings all around it. Intricate patterns.
On the cement in front of the door, there are some fallen roses from the wreath.
A wire on a nail hangs the wreath.

This door is very old.  This wreath is very old.  This woman’s hand is very old.

They told her it was time to go.  The old woman nodded, her eyes glistening, as she understood that this time when she left, she would not be coming back.
            “You can’t live in this house all by yourself,” they told her.  “It’s too big for one person.”
            All the voices of reason descended upon her like daggers.  She knew it to be true.  She did.  She understood what all her children, now sensible men and women, explained to her.  Her mind was not feeble.  But still she wanted to stay.  Just a few more moments.  She didn’t understand why they had to rush everything.  She breathed in the old house.  Everywhere her eyes went, conjured memories that came to her like ghosts.  She wanted everything to freeze.
            Only one week ago, he was alive.  He sat right there in the worn sofa across from her and smiled as he smoked his pipe.  She could still smell the earthy tobacco in the upholstery.  She remembered smiling back at that man she had married sixty-two years ago and still feeling such a deep love for him.   And in that moment, a panic seized her by the throat.  She knew that their time was coming to an end.  This life they had made for themselves was losing momentum and that thought, that realization that one day she would not be able to look into that man’s eyes devastated her.  She looked at him trying to etch every detail of his face into her mind.
            “Nora, where did you go?” he asked as his head gently cocked to the side.
            He always knew when she fell into her dark places and he always knew how to pull her out.  Who would know to pull her out now?  She looked at her children going around the rooms assessing what was to be kept and what was to be donated or sold.  
            She spent her entire life filling every room.  No item was there without reason.  Every rug carefully chosen, every vase placed with precision and every picture mounted with a discerning eye.  She loved this house.  She loved the life she helped to create here.  Her shaking hand reached out for the teacup on the small table next to her.  She needed both hands to steady the now warm liquid.  She had added some brandy to her tea to help calm her nerves and winced as she felt it burn down her throat.  She didn’t’ care for the taste but she liked how it made her feel.
            “I haven’t even finished my tea,” she bartered as she took the tiniest sip.  Out of the corner of her eye she saw her youngest son look at his watch. 

Friday, September 3, 2010

Dog Park Day Afternoon

Living in a city without a car, I tend to have to kill time as I go from one job/appointment to another.  One day I opted to sit on a bench in a nearby dog park and read.  As I opened my book, I found myself distracted by all of the activity going on around me.  There were so many different dynamics between humans and dogs alike.  I put my book down and started taking notes.  Some of what  I overheard became lines of dialogue in this little summertime story.

Caroline grabbed Antonio Banderas’ leash and attached it to his collar.  He had been such a good boy, not making any accidents on her new apartment floor.  She had learned to reward such behavior with a treat, so she fed him a Buddy Bone and thought he would enjoy a romp outside.  There wouldn’t be too many nice summer days left before autumn descended for a few moments and winter bulldozed in for an interminable amount of time.
            She got to the elevator and pressed the down arrow and waited.  Antonio Banderas was a rescue dog.  They weren’t sure exactly what breed of dog he was.  Maybe terrier with some corgi and maybe even some beagle.  Caroline didn’t care.  He was smallish and wiry and with those chocolate malt ball eyes, she was sold.  She took him home that day and it was the best relationship she ever had with another living thing.  He was loyal and loving and kind and a good listener and seemingly incapable of lying.   This last point was a real bonus.
            Caroline bought him when she moved into her new condo.  It was a big step.  Her heart palpitated when she signed on all of the dotted lines.   It was a commitment, one that she would be paying off for a long time.  But her promotion at work helped solidify her decision.   She was only thirty-two and she was already an account executive at the office interior design agency.   Her student loan was paid off from the work she did for the Peace Corps, which consisted of three years spent in Ghana working on clean water systems.   She came home with a financial clean slate, landed a great job, moved up meticulously, and bought a condo and then a dog. 
            Her mother anticipated that a husband was the next logical step.  In most twenty-something heterosexual female cases it was, but Caroline found it difficult to explain to her mother that a husband, a mate for life, wasn’t something you check off a to-do list.  She had never been able to settle.  There had been guys who showed interest but she wasn’t interested in them and on the flip side of that coin, the guys she thought were really interesting never stuck around.  Her mother had hope though.
            “Caroline, I just heard that Reneé is seeing someone,” her mother left on a phone message.
            Caroline doesn’t know anyone named Reneé.  Neither does her mom.  Her mother was referring to Reneé Zelwegger.  Reneé Zelwegger started dating a young Hollywood alpha male and was name-dropping her as someone for Caroline to compare her life’s progress.  Caroline loved how her mother prefaced information like this with “I heard,” as if she was running in their circles rather than admitting that she was scouring the tabloid rag in the grocery checkout line.  She didn’t know which was worse, being compared to untouchable starlets who lived outrageously and insultingly different lives than she did or to the girls she did know who seemed to be marrying left and right to her mother’s frustration.   Caroline was certain that her mother had already started planning her wedding.  The groom would be a mere detail.
            She had to give her mother credit though when it came to Antonio Banderas.  Caroline had been having a difficult time getting used to living alone in such a large complex.  Her condo was really, really quiet.  This wasn’t an apartment building with thin rotting walls that allowed you to hear your neighbors’ most private moments.  In her last apartment, Caroline had to live vicariously through her upstairs neighbor’s sexual proclivities.  She had heard enough, “oh God’s,” “I’m going to come,” “Right there” and her favorite, “On my face! On my face!” to last her a lifetime.
            So when the quiet descended upon her like a pillow covering her face, Caroline panicked.  Her mother did not.  She arrived the next day and took Caroline to the rescue pound and introduced her daughter to the new love of her life.  Antonio Banderas.  Caroline liked how the name rolled of her tongue.  It was fun to say and in a weird way it just fit.  Her mother didn’t like it as much.  “What would Melanie say?” she asked with complete sincerity.
            Caroline shrugged and bit her tongue from spitting out that she didn’t care what some plastic Hollywood actress thought of her dog’s name.  But why ruin a perfectly good day, so she kissed her mother on the tip of her nose instead.
            “Now you have someone to take to that dog park across the street so you can meet some new people,” she said as Caroline took a deep breath and counted to ten silently.
            Ding.  The elevator spat them out onto the marble floored lobby.  Antonio always slipped on the floor as he scurried his four little legs over the cold slick surface.  His tail wagged with excitement to go outside and feel the sun shine on his fur.  This was his favorite part of the day.  The smells alone drove him to distraction.  Once out the door he instinctively veered to the right, past the fire hydrant and towards the patch of squared off grass but he felt an abrupt tug.  The lady was pulling him away from the route.  She was guiding him to a place he had never been.
            Just then a breeze filtered a scent into the air that made Antonio Banderas get very excited.  He smelled his own.
            Honk.  Caroline had to hold on tight to the leash as her dog tried to dart into traffic.  She could tell that he picked up on the other dog’s scents in the park.  Once the light changed, she relented and let herself be pulled to the big green open pasture of grass that lay before them.  She looked out and saw all the people mingling with the other dog owners while the four-legged friends mostly ran free.  There were Labs sprinting around, Chihuahuas prancing about, Retrievers bounding on and at least twenty other canine varieties on display.   It really was lovely verging on idyllic.  Everyone looked so nice and friendly, young and professional.  The dogs emanated that too.  The unblemished blue sky that enveloped it all made it seem like a moving painting.  Or a pharmaceutical commercial after the medication has proven to be effective.
            Snap.  I’m free!  I’m free!  The grass!  The trees!  Oops, I should probably mark that.  Who’s that?  Hey!  Hey you with the red hair!  I want to run with you!  Wait up!   No.  No.  Don’t wait up.  Let me catch you.  Another tree!  Mark it.  Where’d he go?  Hey, you big fella!  I like your smell.  Is this place amazing or what!?  I never saw anything like this!  These trees just keeping popping out of nowhere!  Got it!  Lost him.  I just want to roll around in all of this grass.  Oh God that feels good.  Ooooh.  Right there on the back.  That sun is tickling my belly!  Whoa.  Who are you?  Whoa there, little missy, them there’s the privates and all.  We hardly know each other.  Wow, you are forward, aren’t you?  Go ahead, I’ll let you sniff up in there.  I would like to compliment you on your collar.  Very pretty.  Okay, my turn to sniff.  Turn it around.  There we go.  Very nice.  Very nice.  Ow!
            “Back off Bea, bitch!” yelled a feminine yet masculine voice.
            Caroline was trying to catch her breath as she jogged over to get her dog and put him back on his leash.
            “Whoa!  I got.  I got,” she said holding the leather strap out towards her dog to calm the guy down who looked like he was going to back hand Antonio Banderas across the snout.
            “You gotta get that mongrel on a leash!  I cannot have Bea having babies, not with that,” he said as he picked up his perfectly pruned pooch.
            “He got away.  I’m sorry.  But to be honest it looked like your dog was the one who jumped mine,” she said trying to break the tension.
            “Oh please, your dog was so getting ready to stick it in her,” he said petting the flyaway white fur on top of its head.  “You’re just lucky I was able to stop him.  I would’ve sued your ass for doggie rape.”
            Caroline looked at the man waiting for him to say he was joking, but it was becoming very clear to her that he wasn’t.
            “Well, again I’m sorry.  This is our first time out here and I didn’t mean for him to get loose.  But your dog was running around too, so lets just say we were both at fault.”
            “My cockabichon is never at fault” he said with a smug look on his very pretty face.
            “Your cocka-what?” she asked.
            “Ugh.  Cock-a-bichon.  Bea is a pure bread.”
            “Congratulations.  You must be very proud.  I’m Caroline and this is Antonio Banderas.  He’s a mixed breed,” she said in a whisper cupping her hands to her mouth feigning embarrassment.  She then thrust her hand out towards him.
            The man glared at her extended hand as if it had dog shit on it.
            “Doug!” said a voice attempting to intervene.  “There you are.  Running after Bea again?”  A good-looking man had jogged up and patted Doug on the back and extended his hand out to Caroline.  “Hi, I’m Ken, this is Doug.  Doug, Bea is out of control, my friend.  Did she try to hump your dog too?”
            “Bea doesn’t hump,” Doug said as he sniffed his nose up to avoid looking at either one of them, “she’s a lady.”
            “She’s a canine sexual predator,” Ken said to Doug then turning to Caroline,            “How dare you,” Doug gasped.  “Take that back, “ he said pulling Bea closer to his chest.
            “Doug, I can’t take back what is truth,” Ken said as he patted Doug on the back.
            “Well you should talk, “ Doug said and flicked his head back as if he had a long mane of hair and walked away swaying his hips in defiance.
            Caroline and Ken looked on in silence as the statuesque Doug trailed off towards the far end of the park.  Ken smiled at Caroline and touched the brim of his Sox baseball hat and gently bowed his head to her.
            “So you met Doug,” he said as he clapped his hands toward an alert white dog whose head responding immediately to its sound as if it contained a honing device.  The dog ran directly to his master and sat next to Ken’s leg and look at the new additions in front of him.  His snout sniffed the air, though his body remained unmoved.  Antonio Banderas pranced up to the larger dog and sniffed all around. 
“Gorgeous dog.  What kind is he?” Caroline asked.
            “First of all, he’s a she.  Second, she is a Kishu Ken,” he said smiling at her not once breaking eye contact.  Both he and his dog were staring directly at her, making Caroline blush.  She didn’t like being the center of attention at least not simultaneously from a man and his dog.  “And third, her name is Barbie.”
            Caroline laughed out loud.  “Clever,” she said.   “Ken and Barbie.”
            “What’s this little guy’s name,” Ken asked as he scratched Antonio behind the ears.
            “Antonio Banderas.”
            “That is hilarious,” Ken said standing up.  “Are you really into him or something?”
            “Are you really into Barbie?” Caroline retorted trying not to smile.
            “Touché,” he responded and smiled sheepishly, “I like that.  I think its fair to tell you that someone once told me that I reminded them of a younger Antonio Banderas.”
            “I think its fair that I tell you that I didn’t name my dog that because I think Antonio Banderas is a particularly good looking guy.  I just liked how his name rolled off my tongue,” she said.
            “Touché again.  How do you think Ken rolls off your tongue?” he asked.
            Caroline felt her face blush.  She never blushes.  No one has ever made her blush, not in this way.  She looked down and smiled and saw their two dogs now playing with each other.  A warm feeling swept through her.
            Wow! You’re really really clean!  But you still smell all dog.  I like that.   I hate when dogs smell like humans.  Ruins it for me.  Boy you run fast!  Those legs are long, let me tell you!  Me, I just got these little ones but I’m not complaining.  No sir.  Now that I have a good home and get food, I mean really good food; I am on top of the world.  That lady over there.  I’d do anything for her.  You bet I would.  She saved me you know.  No lie.  She picked me out of all the other mutts and took me home with her.  I thought I won the lottery.  My old owner let me tell you, was not a nice person.  Kept me outside.  Even in winter, don’t you know.  Hey am I talking too much?  I can do that.  Let me know.  I can shut up.  I can, truly.  I just have to focus on that.  Hey!  A butterfly!
            “We should get together for coffee some time.  I can buy you an official “welcome to the neighborhood” cup of something caffeinated.  What do you say?” he asked as his fingers grazed her sleeve.  Caroline smiled.
            “Ken!” shrieked a loud female voice from behind them. 
            Everyone froze, dogs and humans, as they watched a bottle blonde in an all-too-tight hot pink Juicy Couture sweat suit bounce towards them. 
            “I have been texting you!  Turn your phone on.  Daddy called and he’s taking us to dinner in, like, fifteen minutes.  Ew.  All I smell is dog,” she said as she looked suspiciously at Caroline.
            Caroline gaped at the woman.  She had to gently shake her head to snap herself back and hide the fascination of the toy in front of her.  “Are you Ken’s sister?” she asked holding out her hand.
            “I’m his wife,” she spurted, “Who are you?”
            “Ashlynne, honey, this is Caroline.  She just moved into the neighborhood,” Ken said awkwardly putting his arm around his wife, while not once taking his eyes off Caroline.
            Ashlynne looked at Caroline and with dead eyes said, “Welcome.”
            They all stood there in silence while the dogs pranced around at their feet.
            “Well, it was really nice meeting you Ken and Ashley,” Caroline said as she beckoned over Antonio Banderas.
            “I’m sorry?” Caroline asked.
            “My name is Ashlynne.  You said Ashley.  It’s not.  It’s Ashlynne,” she said as she twisted her left-handed rings so that the diamonds caught the sunlight and beamed them into Caroline’s eyes as if to burn away any thoughts of her husband from her mind. 
            Caroline, wanting to get away from their saccharine smiles, finally got the leash on Antonio Banderas and waved, not bothering to look at either of them.  She hated that.  Now she felt stupid and naive.  He was flirting with her.  She may not have a ton of experience but she knew when someone was turning it on and he had it on full blast.   She didn’t care that he was married, but she hated that he was married and didn’t wear a ring and was openly coming on to her and worst of all that she had fallen for it.  For one moment, she saw their dog’s playing together in their fenced-in backyard behind their house in the suburbs with the two of them sitting on lawn chairs drinking gin and tonics and discussing each other’s work day.  In the five minutes that she talked to him she had mapped out their entire future that truth be told was more her mom’s fantasy than hers.
            She was the one who didn’t care about all that marriage-y stuff.  Wasn’t she?  Or maybe underneath her sensible shoes and muted toned wardrobe there was a hot pink bubble waiting to be let out.  No.  She was not Ashley-Anne, or whatever her name was.  Far from it.  God maybe she was lonelier than she thought.  It had been over six months since she slept with someone and that was only to break up the eight-month drought before that.   Caroline shook her head as if answering her own question.   She refused to be with someone just because she was lonely. 
            As if reading her thoughts, Antonio Banderas barked.  Caroline smiled down at her new best friend and took off into a run so that they both could shake the odd dust off. 
            I love you!  I love running!  I love running with you!  I wish every day was like this!  So many new friends and hold up!  Tree.  Mark it with me.  Let’s go!
            Antonio pulled her arm and off they were again across the green carpet that undulated with the slight breeze that whipped through their hair.  God, Caroline thought, this really did feel like a commercial.  Finally winded, Caroline plopped down on the ground and wrestled with Antonio Banderas and scratched his belly.  Caroline outstretched her arms and lay down on the ground to soak up the last summer drops of warmth.  Her skin was like a sponge, trying to store away the heat for the upcoming colder months that were soon going to follow.  She closed her eyes and let herself sink into the cool earth.
            Just then a weight pounded on her stomach.  It made her lurch upward and cry out, not so much out of pain but out of surprise.  She saw a lithe grey dog run away off into the distance.  Antonio ran after him.
            “Bocce!” yelled a voice coming up on Caroline quickly.  “Are you alright?  I tried to stop him but he just got away.”
            Caroline dusted herself off as a man’s hand reached out as an offering to her.  In one movement he pulled her up onto her feet.   He was strong.  “Thank you,” she said, still slightly shaken.
            “My dog saw yours and started running for him and off they went,” he said as he flashed the whitest teeth Caroline had ever seen. 
            She was hypnotized by the sheer gleam of his perfect, perfect teeth.  These were movie star teeth.  Teeth that could advertise toothpaste.  She felt compelled to ask him what brand he used but stopped herself.  He was still wearing his work clothes, though he was now holding his tie and his sleeves were rolled up revealing very defined forearms.  God, what was happening to her?
            “That’s okay.  I needed to get up anyway,” she smiled as she brushed grass off of her behind.
            “I like to take him out for run before I head out to the gym.  Today I load up on cards, you know, running, elliptical and I am trying to make a kick boxing class.  I love Thursdays!  I usually try to mix it up, you know, weights and strength training but nothing gets me off like pumping up my heart rate.  It’s the best high I ever had, you know?” he said nodding to her expecting her to reciprocate, which she instinctively did.
            Her head nodded in motion to his though he was speaking a strange and foreign language to her.  She felt like she should turn around to see if he was talking to someone else.  Caroline wasn’t visibly out of shape but she was never confused with those girls, well, those girls who worked hard to look like Ashlynne.  She lacked that gene that made her get up and go to the gym.  She didn’t belong to that world.  It made her feel nervous.  Just like this guy did. 
            “I don’t go to the gym,” she admitted still nodding.
            “Oh you’ve got to come down to The Pump.  It’s the gym I belong to and it is awesome.  I can hook you up with my personal trainer, Goran, who will change your life.  I promise.   Look I gotta go catch that class but if you ever want me to show you around the gym, I will do it.  Here’s my card.  Call me,” he said as he handed her a card and winked all at the same time.  It was suck a clean and smooth transaction that Caroline had no other choice but to hold out her hand and accept the card and the wink.
            “Thanks,” she said bewildered looking at Luca’s business card.   He hadn’t told her his name.  Luca Ferragano.  He was a broker for a large firm downtown.  It seemed as thought he was doing well for himself.  She flicked the edges of the cards between her fingernails as she looked at this model of masculinity before her.  He was a true alpha-dog.   Caroline was fascinated if nothing else.
            “Bocce!” Luca yelled across the park to an unresponsive dog.  “Bocce!  Bocce!  Get over here!  Get over here right now!”  Luca ran after his weimaraner and the dog thinking its owner was playing darted in the other direction.  “Bocce!  I’m not kidding.  Get over here right now!”  His face was red now and the large vein on his forehead was popping out.  Everyone in the park was now looking at this man failing to gain control of his dog.
            “Bocce!  Over here now or I’m going to beat the shit out of you!”  Luca screamed as he finally caught his dog and slammed the leash around his neck.  He yanked it so hard the dog yelped.
            Caroline looked down, embarrassed that she had even talked to him.  He reminded her of one of those mothers who hits her kids in the supermarket, but instead of Caroline intervening to stop it, she just ignored it. 
            She looked down and threw the business card on the ground as if it was burning her hands.  She didn’t want anything of that guy remotely near her.  That was called dodging a bullet.  Just then the sweetest thing came into her view.  Antonio Banderas.  He was happily running towards her.  She bent down and scooped the little guys up into her arms and gave him a little squeeze.  This fur ball was enough for her right now.
            Ah, yeah, there’s the lady!  Let’s go home!  I could go for a big bowl of meaty treats.  Dinner!  You’re the best! Wait!  You just past that tree.  You didn’t stop!  Don’t worry.  I’ll get it tomorrow! 
            His tiny tail wagged back and forth.  He was happy.  She walked them both across the street, into the lobby and pressed the up button and waited.  Ding.   She loved Antonio Banderas.  The dog.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Billboard

Chicago has been really hot and humid this summer.  At times, I would say unbearably so.  During a long commute without A/C, I saw a billboard on the side of a building and I couldn't get the idyllic thing out of my mind.  So that's where I got the idea for this summer tale.

The traffic wasn’t moving.  Not even an inch.  Gus closed his eyes to block out the incessant blaring of horns.  He wondered what those people, pressing their palms down over and over on the center of their steering wheels thought they were doing.  It sure as hell wasn’t helping the traffic move any faster.  It was only making all the trapped souls in their motorized tin cans feel even more irritated. He felt his heart speed up with anxiety.  His 1996 Chevy Malibu was boxed in tight surrounded by trucks so his view was beyond obstructed.  Patience, he told himself, just breathe in and then breathe out.  With his air conditioner on the fritz that was all he could do without losing his mind.
            It was when he felt edgy that he knew he had to really focus on something concrete.  Like breathing.  Moments like these only increased his urge to smoke, but he quit that.  He could really go for a deep pull off of a Camel unfiltered.  Just one long inhale to feel that friendly burn.  He closed his eyes again and tried to calm his mind.  He knew what would come next if he was craving a smoke.  He would start to crave a drink.  One ice cube and then the beautiful brown liquid that would make it all go away.  And it did make it all go away.  His job.  His home.  His wife.  This kind of thinking wasn’t helping at all.
            Gus wanted to scream.  He wanted to tell the other cars to get the fuck out of the way.  But his windows were down so he couldn’t.  At least not without attracting a lot of attention.  He pressed the buttons on his radio until he found some sort of music.  He wasn’t in the mood for the over-produced morning radio shows.  They all sounded like the assholes he hated in college.  The guys who would streak across campus and press their genitals on the female dorm windows.  Those guys.
            One of the morning shows was offering up tickets to see Hall and Oates for the 105th caller.  Gus almost called.  His ex loved Hall and Oates.  On one of their first dates, she had their Bigger Than The Both of Us album playing all night long.  Though they were never his favorite, Hall and Oates always reminded Gus of her.  Of Peggy.  The radio was now playing “Method of Modern Love” to kick off the flurry of calls they were going to get.  Gus turned off the radio.
            The truck in front of his popsicle blue car inched forward a few feet.  For the first time in almost ten minutes he could see the sky.  A slice of it anyway.  Gus gently pressed down on the gas and matched the distance and found himself staring at a huge billboard on the side of a building.  It was a picture of a couple laughing while sitting in their individual kayaks on the most perfectly blue water beside a steep cliff that had the greenest pine trees along the top.  It was such an unexpected site.  It made Gus’ heart flutter, but not from anxiety.  He hadn’t recognized that feeling at first.  It had been so long, but there it was.  He was moved.  He felt a deep desire stir inside his chest.  They looked so happy, those pretty people who were pretending to know and like the other.
            He couldn’t tell what it was advertising.  Gus strained to keep the billboard in site but the trucks moved in and took with it his view.  It was gone.  Just like that his brief moment of hope had turned into something black and resentful.  Who the hell lived like that anyway?  False hopes they tried to sell you.  This could be you, but it really never can.  It was all a sick joke.  Gus caught his reflection in the rearview mirror and was shocked to see the bitter and haggard man in front of him.  His life was right here and nothing was going to change that.
            He turned the radio back on and REM’s “Everybody Hurts” was playing.  Gus laughed and turned it off immediately.  A light flashed on his dashboard.  Shit, Gus said to himself.  The tank was below the big E.  He knew he should have gotten gas before he began his commute but he didn’t think that he would hit this kind of traffic.   He loathed playing this game with his gas tank.  Could he make it to work without sputtering out of gas?  He lost that game more times than he could count.  His wife.  Stop.  Back it up.  His ex-wife would always harp on him for letting it get too low.  Looking back he could see that it wasn’t harping but actually just good solid advice from someone who actually gave a shit.  At the time, though, he resented her for trying to make him grow-up.  He’d show her.  And he did. 
            He showed her every time he chose to go to the Lighthouse bar and sat silently downing bourbon next to Larry the pox-faced out of work janitor rather than go home.  And with that he lost his job as a day trader and then their home and then her.  Ah, Peggy.  He now lived in a one-room studio above a Chinese take-out.  It was a far cry from the four bedroom, two-story, 3400 square foot home that he and Peggy shared.  She had hoped they would grow into that home.  Fill it with children and memories.  Gus instead filled it with isolation and emotional cruelty.  He took responsibility for his actions.  It was part of his rehab.  But it was too late.  The damage was too great.  God he missed her.
            He turned the radio back on, in time to hear that Buck Rhodes won the tickets.  Buck, Gus said to himself.   Figures.  Gus looked around for any sign of a gas station.  He hated this area of the city.  Everything was closed and abandoned.  A modern day ghost town.  He saw an old sign for an Aamco but it was a relic from another time, its windows soaped over to hide the emptiness.  Gus was sweating now.  He knew this car well enough to know he had little time to find fuel.  His mother gave him this car after he got out of his 90-day treatment center.  New Beginnings it was called.  His mother was the only person who visited him.  It didn’t surprise him really, but it resonated how alone he was. 
            New beginnings indeed.  He was well beyond the beginning at this point.  He had been sober for 5 years and counting.  Always counting.   He felt the outline of his coin in his left pocket of his pants.  It was his talisman.  His car jerked forward.  Come on, Gus yelled to no one.  He put on his blinker to try to get it to the side of the road but no one was letting him merge.  He honked and felt his car sputter to a resounding halt.  He put his jellybean colored car in neutral and eased it over to more blaring horns until it rested on the side of the highway.  Great.
            Gus got out of his car and was nearly hit by a shiny new Audi that swerved towards him to miss a pothole.  The driver chose to miss the pothole over me, he thought to himself as his middle finger instinctively went up in the air.  He stood by his car and looked both ways trying to remember where the closest gas station was in this area.  No one stops anymore, Gus muttered not even bothering to flag someone down.  He wished he had renewed his AAA membership but that was one of the things he had to let go.  That and cable.  Oh and cigarettes and alcohol. 
            His hand went to his pocket to pull out his cell phone but it wasn’t there.  He left it on his bedside table again.  He ran out the apartment so fast that he forgot to do the double check on things like having his phone and turning off the coffee pot.  He took a deep breath and started walking from whence he came.  The sun was already pressing down hard on the day even though it was not even ten o’clock.  His bald spot seemed to be taking the brunt of the angry rays.
            He walked past a homeless man who asked for some money.  Gus was never good at lying so he dug into his pockets but only had some loose change.  He handed it to the man wearing too many layers for the hot day and gave the guy a smile apologizing it wasn’t more.  The toothless man looked at the coins and dug through them.
            “I don’t want no pennies,” he said.
            Gus stopped and nodded.  He went to the guy’s hand and took all the change back and stuck it in his pocket and walked away.
            “Hey, I’ll take those quarters and shit,” the man yelled at Gus who didn’t look back.  He had to bite his tongue from telling him, “Beggars can’t be choosers.”  
            He walked down the road until he spotted a gas station on the left-hand side.  A ding announced Gus’ arrival into the gas station’s convenient store.  He was distracted by the varieties of junk food that surrounded him.  He skipped breakfast so his stomach growled at the Plexiglas display of donuts.  Then he saw the hotdogs rolling along the metal rods turning and turning.  He wondered what would be better for him.
            “Can I help you, man,” said a young voice from behind the protective glass.
            “Oh, yeah,” Gus said snapping him back into why he was there.  “I ran out of gas a few miles east and I need to buy some to fill her back up.” 
            “The container is $5.99 plus tax and then whatever you fill it up with,” the young man said sucking up the last chokes of his slurpee. 
            Gus found an empty pump and filled the container to a comfortable carrying level, pulled a chocolate iced donut from the case, paid the attendant and headed back toward his car.  The heat was rising off of the asphalt in relentless waves.  He hadn’t even made it to the corner and sweat was dripping down the tip of his nose into his mouth.  Salty, he thought, licking it off his lip.  He kept his head down and focused on the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other.  His mind felt like it was beginning to warp, like an LP exposed to too much heat.  The flutter in his chest caused a bit of an alarm.  He knew he wasn’t in the best shape but to be panting this soon on his way was embarrassing.  People die when it gets too hot like this, Gus thought.  During a heat wave one summer, Gus remembered walking down the street surrounded by the smell of death from folks dying in their apartments and rotting away with only their rotting smell left behind.
            After forty-five minutes of straight walking, Gus could finally see the hint of his car.  It was still far enough away but Gus thought he could see some movement around the four-door sedan.   After a few minutes it seemed like his car was slowly getting further away.  “A mirage,“ Gus said to no one as he blinked his eyes to refocus what he was seeing.  Then it all fell into place.  He was watching his car get towed away.
            ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” Gus yelled out to the truck that was much too far away to hear, also forgetting that the truck probably had A/C and it’s window’s were rolled up.  He tried to run but gas slopped over the lip onto his pants.  Now he had no car and he reeked of gasoline.  He reached for his phone again and was once again reminding of leaving it at home. He kicked the air, which caused him to lose his balance and almost fall into the oncoming traffic.  Gus stopped his tantrum and sat down on the curb.   He had to take a second.  Gus took a bit of the donut.  It was beyond stale and the dough turned to dust in his mouth.  His mouth couldn’t produce enough saliva to even encourage normal swallowing so he spit it out.  He felt like he was going to either pass out or vomit.  Whichever came first, he thought.
            Going back to the gas station seemed to be the best idea Gus had.  He could get some water, some more food, clean up and cool off.  He picked up the gas and started the long walk back.  He took his shirt off and wrapped it around his head and rolled up his pant legs.  He could only imagine what he looked like and that made him laugh out loud.  He had reached yet another low in his life.  Gus tried not to think too much about that.  It would only lead to some seriously dangerous thinking.  He needed to just make it to the gas station.  He could see it in the distance.    His panic subsided a little as his body recognized a near end to this exhaustion.   He was in the home stretch.
            As Gus crossed the intersection, a car making an illegal turn came inches from hitting him.  Gus, without thought threw the gas container at the oblivious car and hit the trunk.  He didn’t think he would actually hit the car.  He didn’t actually think.  It was a response.  A knee-jerk response.  The car that took the impact of Gus’ gas can stopped suddenly.   Three large men came out of it and walked towards Gus.
            “You throw somethin’ at my car asshole?” asked the driver who was holding some kind of rod that he beat threateningly in the palm of his hand. 
            They were coming after him, Gus realized and out of shear panic he ran.  He ran and screamed like a little boy waving his hands in the air.  He looked like a crazy person with his shirt still tied to his head and his pant legs rolled all askew, but he kept running.  He felt like he did in 8th grade when Logan Kaylor, who he ratted on for smoking in the bathroom, chased Gus.  Logan beat the shit out of him.  He could feel the three goons behind him.  They yelled and one of the ogres threw a rock at his head.  What the fuck, Gus thought.  He knew he didn’t have the stamina to keep going.           
            Gus ducked into a side street and turned around to assess what his options were.  A dead end.  Perfect, he cried out.  Then over his shoulder he saw a steel ladder.  He yanked it down and began to climb.  Just one rung at a time, he told himself, and don’t look down.  As soon as he thought that, though, his eyes immediately looked down at the three men who stood below him laughing and taunting him.  He didn’t care.  Gus kept climbing.  His hand finally reached a landing and he pulled himself up.  He was at the top.  He spun around and his face was up against a woman’s hand.  He looked up and realized he was in front of that billboard.  When he turned around he saw just how high he was.
             Gus estimated that he was at least 30 feet high.  His feet edged out to the front of the platform.  He couldn’t go down.  They were waiting for him.  How did he end up here?  He shook his head and tried to think.  There was only one way out and that was down.  He felt a peace come over him.  He knew if he tried to continue that this was going to be his life.  Endless days of living with the repercussions of his actions.  Endless days of trying to fix what he broke.  Endless, endless days.  Gus was tired.  He really tried to make it right but there were too many days like this.  Well, not exactly like this one but his life had become like a distant friend.  He didn’t know it anymore and felt awkward being around it. 
            “Get your faggot ass down here, “ yelled the smallest of the three.
            Gus smiled at the three men.  He was done.  No more fighting.  He stood there and for the first time all day a slight breeze whispered across his face.  He closed his eyes and enjoyed the cool air that seemed to kiss his forehead.  He outstretched his arms out as if he were on a platform diving board and raised himself onto his tiptoes.   He was ready.  His body, slightly off balance, wavered and he fell.
            Gus fell, not forward like he planned, but backwards and the next thing he felt was the cool rush of water all around him.  His arms flailed to help pull him above the surface.  His legs instinctively began to tread the cool delicious water as his head spun around to see where he was.  An empty kayak was beside him and the sweetest sound was coming from behind him.  It was a woman’s laughter.  But it wasn’t just any woman.  It was Peggy. 
            Gus looked up at her and started laughing too.  He laughed because he saw the cliffs to his right with the greenest pine trees.   Peggy reached out her oar to him to help him into his kayak.  He pulled himself in and with his hands paddled back to her.  He didn’t know if this was a dream or not but Gus wasn’t about to question it.  He smiled back at the radiant laughing Peggy.  Gus grabbed his oar out of the water and felt his left pocket.  His coin was still there.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Table 23

I started waiting tables to make some extra money this summer.  This is the third time I have done this in my life and while I don't mind it, I am constantly surprised at people's behavior and common human decency when they go out.  Though most of this is fictional there are many snippets of dialogue that were taken from actual exchanges that I have encountered.  So as I would tell my tables...enjoy.

Audrey was told when she clocked in that she would be in “smoking fireplace”.  That was the section in the restaurant that once had been the smoking section back when places of dining permitted smokers to puff away while they ate.   And it was also by the non-working fireplace.   She was happy to at least be inside on the sweltering 95-degree day as opposed to the back patio area, which just housed some wooden picnic tables and a cement fountain that never worked and smelled of mildew.  The air conditioning was definitely a perk.    As Audrey tied her black apron around her waist a Frank Sinatra song hummed throughout the restaurant.  She had memorized the restaurant’s Rat Pack playlist during her first week of work and now on her third week she was already losing her mind with its repetition.   
            She took the job waiting tables because it offered her a mindless way to make some money.  That seemed appealing at the time.  She had made the mistake before to take on temp office work, thinking that would be a great way to pay the bills while she worked on her graphic novel.  But every temporary assignment she took always evolved into a full-time position that came with the title of full time corporate administrative puppet.    And with that title came no time in which she could pursue what she wanted to do, which was sit in her dark quiet room with her black ink pen and her sketch book and delve into her world of ghosts and the underworld in which they live.  So she quit.  No more nine to five.
            Two days later she interviewed and was offered a job on the spot at Nino’s, a local Italian restaurant in the strip mall.  It was owned by the father, run by the son and oversaw by the wife/mother.  It was a testament to why families should not go into business together.  Tempers flared, voices screamed and cooking utensils flew around the hot box of a kitchen.  That’s why Audrey opted to pass her time standing by the bar.
            Phillip the young, tight tee shirt wearing, tattooed bartender was a nephew of the owners.  He too kept to himself and in that, Audrey and he found a common ground.  A peaceful and silent common ground by the bar. 
            “Barb wants you to take table 23,” Phillip told Audrey as he polished the wine glass.
            “That’s in “smoking piano”. Jeff has that section tonight,” Audrey said as she tore at her cuticle.
            “Oh, Jeff called off,” Phillip said picking away at some crusty bits that remained on the outside of the glass.  “The fucking dishwasher sucks.”
            “That job sucks,” said Audrey as she weakly defended the quiet Mexican man who was newer than she was.
            “Not Eusabio.  The machine.  It’s ancient and Dominick is too cheap to buy a new one.”
            “Is he sick?” Audrey asked.
            “No.  Jeff.  Why’d he call in?”
            “Oh.  I don’t know.  Barb answered and she never tells me shit so I don’t ask.”
            “Great,” Audrey said as she pulled out her pen, “that means I’m here until close.”
            “Welcome to my world,” smiled Phillip still picking off stuck bits of food from the glass.
            Audrey looked at her reflection in the sepia tinted mirror and gave herself a once over and shrugged at herself as she ventured to table 23.  It was a four-top that sat in front of a huge portrait of the owner, Dominick and his wife Barb.  Audrey found it grotesque.  Barb was wearing a low-cut black evening gown and stood behind Dominick who sat in a throne-like chair, his fat stomach bulging over his belt, not allowing him to close his legs.  All Audrey could look at was his crotch and her sagging cleavage.  Enjoy your meal, she thought to herself.
            Audrey gave a wink to Miguel who had just filled their water glasses and dropped off the fresh, warm bread, which she knew to be previously frozen then thawed and now slightly warmed bread.  Everything in the restaurant was previously frozen.  It wasn’t that Dominick and his son Luca couldn’t cook, they could.  It was that they were told by Barb that it would be more cost effective if they made huge batches of everything, froze it in one of the three freezers and just thawed it out and tossed it in the microwave.  It was a strip mall after all, what more did people want?
            Not much, Audrey answered to herself as she took a deep breath and advanced on the family of four.   The daughters were pushed up against the dingy wallpapered wall, with their backs to the owner’s (un) likeness.  The mom was sitting with her head down listening intently as one of the girls read the menu to her in a high nasally voice.  The dad was still adjusting into the too small chair, or rather the normal sized chair that was too small for this too large man.  Audrey had a bad feeling about them already.
            “Hi.  I just wanted to stop by and tell you about our specials this evening,” she said as believable as possible.  The specials had been over two weeks old and there was nothing special about them except the obscene amount they charged for the bullshit dishes.  Loads of creamy sauces to hide the lack of freshness.
            Everyone but the mother looked up at her.  They stared at Audrey with bored expectation in their faces.  They weren’t going to order the specials and they didn’t want to hear about the specials but they were going to let her tell them all about them in complete disinterest.  Audrey smiled.  No one reciprocated.
            “Okay then, the fish of the day is a baked salmon topped with diced tomatoes, green peppers and mushrooms and sautéed in white wine, garlic and olive oil and served over a bed of fettuccini or no, it’s a linguini, spinach.   Um, the next special we have tonight,” she continued as the father rolled his eyes and yawned with his large mouth uncovered, “is pasta with…chicken.”
            She made the executive decision that they didn’t deserve to hear any more about the chicken special and she sure as hell wasn’t going to mention the pork chop or veal dishes.  She nodded and turned to leave.
            “Hey, wait!” said a female voice at the table.  Audrey turned around blank faced.  “Are your steaks good?”
            “Danica, don’t ask that.  What’s she going to say? ‘No the steaks suck balls?’” said another female at the table.
            “I wasn’t talking to you, mom, I was talking to her,” and the nasally voiced girl, who was clearly the youngest of the daughters looked directly at Audrey and continued talking holding her hand, palm up, in front of her mother’s face as if to fend off any more interruptions.  “So.  Are your steaks good?  I mean really good.  Because if I am going to eat red meat it better be really, really good.  So is it good?”
            Now all the faces at the table looked up at Audrey who was stunned at the brazenness of what was clearly no more than a twelve-year-old girl.
            “A lot of people order them,” Audrey said.
            “See, mom, “ the young mouth said taking her hand down from in front of her mother’s face, “she didn’t say they were good.”  She looked back to Audrey and said, “Thank you, we’ll need a few minutes,” and looked back down at the menu. 
            Audrey tried once more to remove herself from table 23 and turned.
            “Hey, wait,” said the father who was still adjusting in his seat, “we’re going to want wine for the table.  Give us a carafe of the house Chianti.  Four glasses.”
            “Great, I’ll just need to see some ID, “ Audrey said.
            “You need to see my ID?!” said the father, immediately insulted.
            “Un, no, sir.  I’ll just need it for the two young ladies,” she said nodding to the perfectly French-manicured tweens.
            “I told you they would ask for it dad,” said the other daughter who seemed to be sending the longest text message in the world.
            The father leaned unsuccessfully towards Audrey in mock confidentiality and winked at her.  “Come on, they’re with us.  It’s not like they’re going to be driving.”
            Audrey pulled away, avoiding the sourness that came out of his mouth and pointed to the sign behind the bar that read, “We Card,” and shrugged.
            The father snapped up and said too loudly, “Well, girls you can’t say your dear ole dad didn’t try,” and without looking at Audrey said, “Go get the wine.”
            Audrey’s feet remained frozen and she felt her mouth gape open in awe.  Slowly she walked to the bar and ordered the wine from Phillip.
            “She can’t be more than twelve,” he said eyeing the family, “and the other is no more than fifteen.”
            “I know, “ Audrey said, masking her bewildered face from the four-top.  “I’m going to kill Jeff when I see him next.  I don’t want to go back over there.  I think there is something rotting in the father’s stomach.  His breath smells like a sewer…that vomited.”
            “Good luck,” he said and placed the wine-filled carafe and two wine glasses in front of her.  Bits of crusty food debris were on the glasses.  He winked.  She smiled.

            Inside the kitchen, Mexican music blared as the line cooks, food runners and bussers yelled at one another in their native tongue.  From the outside it looked and sounded like complete chaos but internally it was an intricate dance.  A culinary Pasodoble.  Beyond all the noise, there stood a quiet man looking up at the only window in the fluorescent-lit kitchen.  This was Eusabio.  He had moved to America only three months ago and landed this job through a cousin of a cousin’s friend.  They asked if he had any dishwashing experience and he nodded his head, like his cousin had instructed him to do, even though he had no idea to what he was agreeing.  He spoke no English.  Nada.
            His eyes were fixed upon the clouds that were floating by through the dingy pane of glass.  Images of his home in Mexico and his mother and sisters floated in his mind.  He hadn’t wanted to come to this country but they needed him to do this.  They needed him to send them money so they could keep their house and continue to keep all of them together.  Eusabio’s father passed only six months earlier.  A heart attack took the fifty-five year old man as he walked down the stairs of his home.  Eusabio had heard the large man fall down the stairs and was the one who found him.  He knew immediately that he was dead but put a pillow under his head and held his hand until the doctor arrived.  Eusabio was thankful that his mother was at the store with his sisters.  They shouldn’t see this, he thought to himself, as his father’s bodily fluids started to excrete.
            So thrust into the big city to work in the bowels of an Italian kitchen was to be his fate.  He wasn’t a schooled man; in fact, some in his town had referred to him as a simple boy.  And he was.  He preferred the world in his head to the one in front of him and often got lost in his own thoughts.
            “Eusabio!” yelled a voice that snapped the 32 year-old back into reality.  “Get to work.  We are backing up on dishes already and we just started dinner.  Faster.  Faster.”
            This exchange was spoken in Spanish so Eusabio understood, nodded and loaded up the next round of plates.  He pushed them into the Horcon Ecolux 1290 dishwasher and pushed the red button.  Not the green button.  Or was it the green button and not the red.  Red usually meant stop, so probably the green.  He pressed the green and the steel window opened like a mouth ready to swallow the ceramic discs.  Gently he closed the hatch and the red light turned on.  Eusabio panicked.  Did he do something wrong.  The machine made a horrible noise.  He looked around but no one seemed to notice.
            The hatch was locked.  Eusabio waited it out.  It was taking a long time for the dishes to clean, he thought.  Does it usually take this long?  Should I ask someone?  Should I press the red button?  The machine belted out another loud screech and Eusabio pushed the red button.  The machine stopped.  The silence of the machine silenced the rest of the kitchen.  Oh shit.  Mierda.
            “What the fuck happened to the dishwasher?” yelled Miguel running over to Eusabio.  “What did you do?”
            “I pushed the red button.”
            “I told you NOT to push that button.  The one thing I told you not to do,” Miguel screamed.  “Go to the sinks.  You’ll have to wash by hand.”
            “Maybe if we press the green button, it will turn back on,” he suggested.
            “Yeah, I guess that might work if this machine wasn’t a hundred fucking years old.  Just get to the sinks and wash the damn dishes.  Go!”
            Eusabio could feel the blood rush to his cheeks and wanted to cry.  He promised his mother he wouldn’t cry.  Other people wouldn’t understand his softness she told him.  She let him cry and would hold him to her as she stroked his hair and sang softly in his ear.  His mother was far away.  He was alone.  He would wash the dishes.

            Audrey walked up to table 23 with the carafe of wine and two glasses.  She wanted to get this table turned quickly.  Usually she didn’t care if people sat in her section all night but this table had some bad energy.  As she poured the wine she heard the father tell the daughter sitting next to him, “I’ll let you help me drink mine,” and then he winked pushing the glass closer to her.  Audrey remained stone-faced.  The other daughter was still reading the menu to the mother who looked up at Audrey and said, “I forgot my damn glasses.”  The daughter however didn’t stop listing off the food selections but plowed ahead in a monotonous nasal voice.
            “Are you ready to order or do you need a few more moments?” Audrey asked.
            “Mom, do you know or do you want me to keep going on?” asked the twelve-year-old whose phone was vibrating.  “Hold on,” she said as she checked her pink bedazzled phone. 
            Audrey stood there as the four of them talked over the other trying to come to a consensus of whether they were ready or not until the father finally said, “I don’t want her to go away ‘cause who knows when she’ll be back and I’m hungry.”  Audrey was upwind of the sour mouth again and so she adjusted away from the large man.
            “I’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs,” he said as he thrust the cumbersome menu in Audrey’s face, knocking her off balance.  “And I’ll have a side of that grilled asparagus but I want the appetizer version with the cheese and tell them not to burn it.  Last time they burnt the shit out of it.”
            “Can you tell me the specials again,” said the vision-impaired mother.
            Audrey rattled them off one more time for the mostly disinterested audience though the mother seemed to be hanging on every word as if she was tasting the words as Audrey spoke them.
            “Oh, they all sound so good,” she said with her eyes closed, obviously putting a lot of thought into this decision.  “Oh I just had fish for lunch and the cream in the chicken might be too rich.  Oh God, I guess…”
            “Order you dinner already, “ barked the dad.
            “Mom!  Order something!  We’re hungry!” said the young girl still texting to who might have been her sister sitting next to her.
            “Alright already.  I’m sorry.  I will just have the spaghetti and meatballs I guess,” she decided and pushed her menu towards Audrey’s general direction and dove back into the bread.
            Audrey stood there waiting for one of the girls to pipe in their order but both were engrossed in their phones.  “And what can I get for you?” she asked to the general area of where they were sitting hoping to spur one of them on to speak.
            “Put those down and order,” the dad said as he pulled the phone away from the youngest.
            “Okay!  God!” blared the twelve-year-old. “I want the spaghetti and meatballs, but I don’t want spaghetti.  I want capellini and I want the sauce on the side.  Oh and I want the meatballs with the sauce, not on the pasta.  Do you have that?”
            “Plain spaghetti,” Audrey started.
            “No.  Capellini!”
            “Capellini, I meant, and sauce and meatballs on the side.  Next?” she asked ready to get the hell away from these rotten people.
            “Wait,” said the young girl snapping her fingers at Audrey.
Audrey stood there waiting.  And waiting.  The young girl stared at the menu dragging her fingernail up and down the large menu skimming it one last time.   Finally, after what felt to Audrey like five minutes, the twelve-year-old declared, “I changed my mind.  I want spaghetti.”
            Jotting down the change on her pad of paper, Audrey moved her attention to the other sister.  How the light was hitting her hair, Audrey could see all of the highlights this girl had in her thick mane of hair.  She was what People magazine would call dirty dusty beach blonde, probably inspired by some character on “The Hills”.  It was perfectly blown-dry and carefully draped over her right shoulder like a curtain.
            The older daughter didn’t look up and mumbled something at Audrey that she couldn’t decipher.  “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” Audrey said gently.
            The girl laid the phone down and looked coolly at Audrey and said very slowly, “I. Will. Have. The. Same.”  She then picked up her phone as her head tilted back down and to the side so to readjust the hair.
            Audrey couldn’t stop herself, “I’m sorry, do mean the same as your sister with the sauce on the side or the same as just spaghetti and meatballs?”
            The girl once again didn’t look up from her phone and mumbled something into the air that Audrey couldn’t understand.
            “I’m sorry, I am having a hard time hearing you.”
The girl looked up directly at Audrey and yelled, “Spaghetti and meatballs!”
Everyone in the restaurant turned and stared. 
The girl smirked went back to her phone as the rest of her family continued to sop their bread in the cheese soaked oil.
            “Great,” Audrey said and was forced to reach across the table to retrieve the menus that neither girl could hand to her.  Her reach almost caused the carafe to tip over which made the father snap his head in her direction and dismiss her with his hand.  Walking away, out of the corner of her eye she saw the older daughter take a drink of the wine.

            At the bar, Phillip was in the middle of a conversation with “the ladies.”  Two local women always spent their Saturday night at Nino’s saddled up to the bar.  The older one had a slightly longer version of what was called the Dorothy Hamill hairdo.  She wore bright pink elastic waisted pants that were pulled up just that little bit too high which made them flood at the bottom.  Her cardigan was buttoned to the top button and her shoes were the sensible white-laced orthopedic variety.  A devastatingly real-life spinster. 
Her lady friend was more of the curiosity and it wasn’t just because she was a little person.  She came in with a too large tee shirt that looked like it hadn’t been washed in weeks and short pants that you couldn’t quite see because the shirt was so long.  Unlike her clean-coiffed friend, her hair looked like it was dipped into a fryer and then dried in a blender.  It was a mess and so dry it probably could crack in half like a piece of uncooked capellini, no spaghetti.  She never smiled and spoke too loudly and because her one eye was lazy no on could tell who was supposed to be her target.  Phillip took most of the brunt but he always won her over by the end of the night or by the end of the gin and tonics.
Phillip liked to test different conspiracy theories on them and they licked it up.  They were hungry for the attention and they fought for his.  UFO’s, government cover-ups and the dreaded 2012.  Audrey bit her tongue when she overheard these discussions.  2012 to her was the next Y2K.  Nothing was going to happen.  But the ladies came in armed and ready to bounce their own paranoid thoughts off of Phillip in hopes of winning him over.  No one knew if the two of them were friends or lovers or lesbians who were only friends or just a-sexual human beings who forgot that part existed.
A loud crash came from the kitchen.  Everyone’s head turned in the general direction of the loud din.  The smaller of the two ladies almost fell off her barstool.  Audrey walked toward the kitchen and peered in the window to see what was happening.
Eusabio was on all fours picking up the pieces of glass that used to be Nino’s stemware. He tripped on the uneven mats that covered the greasy floor.  Audrey had tripped over the same mats countless times but she never had to carry a tub overflowing with fragile glasses so high it obscured your vision.  Eusabio’s face was bright red and Dominick stood over him yelling at him while Miguel translated the yelling with more yelling, only in a different language.
Audrey backed away from the kitchen swinging door and went back to her safe place, hidden from view from her table.  She could see them but they couldn’t see her.  She saw both girls now sipping from their parents’ glass.  Audrey didn’t give a shit if they drank the entire carafe but they were so entitled and the dad was such a blowhard that it got under her skin.  She hated when she let people like that bother her.  And who knows maybe they were really nice and…no, she said to herself, they were assholes.  Some people just were.
Audrey didn’t notice the vertically challenged woman at the bar go to the restroom but did see that a man had moved in and was talking the other woman’s ear off.  His voice droned on about the stock market.  The bowl-cut woman sat there, her head down, politely not saying a word allowing this new, foreign, brash male energy to continue.  Audrey had seen him in the bar before.  He was a regular as well but he usually came in with “the guys”.  Tonight it looked like he was alone and very drunk.   He was that sloppy drunk, that drunk when your eye’s are half-way closed and your words are impossibly slurred and your voice is too loud and your breath is a hot furnace of decomposing alcohol and stomach lining.  He looked like a college professor with his throwback horned rimmed glasses and his pleated khaki pants and his boring button-down blue shirt.  A drunk and lecherous college professor.  Audrey had some experience with those herself so she continued to watch.
The little lady sauntered back up to the bar but went unnoticed by the man who continued on his diatribe.  She stood there looking up at him with a look of sheer fury.  He was standing around her seat making it impossible for her to sit down.  And not only was he in her space, he didn’t even see her to notice his grave mistake.  Audrey couldn’t take her eyes off of what was happening.  She knew that the man in his drunken state didn’t have all his senses about him and even if he did, she was, well, really, really small.  Less than four feet small and she was in his blind spot.
Phillip detected the situation that was brewing so he went over to the gentleman and asked him to move over so the little lady could sit back down in her seat.  The drunk man looked around and once again missed seeing the small woman who was now drunk herself.  The most interesting person in all of this, Audrey thought, was the taller one, who never said a word.  She kept her head politely down as if shying away from someone who was getting ready to hit her.  The little lady finally pulled on the guy’s pants and told him to move.  The man stumbled away and apologized as he watched the little woman climb back up on her stool.  It was like watching a child climb onto a jungle gym as she used the stool next to it to hoist her self to one level and then counter that so she was back on her own stool.  She had done that maneuver more than once. 
When she was situated, the man leaned towards her and held out his hand.  She scowled at the hand before her and turned to her lady friend and said, “Who the hell is this?” 
The man once again offered his hand to her and slurred, “My name is Michael.”  He was hoping for a truce or at least another ear for his opinions on the recession.
The little lady with her brows furrowed and a look of disdain on her face turned away from the man yet again and asked, “Who the hell is this asshole?!”
Audrey laughed out loud.  All eyes at the bar were now on her and she smiled, bowed her head down and walked back into full view of her table.  Bad move.  Once they saw her they all held up an empty glass or carafe or breadbasket and beckoned her over with their various hand gestures.  There was snapping, clapping, waving and palms facing upward as the fingers snapped downward as if summoning a dog.  As they all rattled on about wanted more wine and free refills and some of that fresh warm bread, Audrey silently gathered all the empties and walked away leaving them with a vague hint of a smile.  She was no longer capable of feigning any kind of interest in these people. 
Audrey walked back into the kitchen to dump the glasses in the busser’s tub.  It was already on the way to the dishwasher so she walked the glasses back herself.  Everything looked like it was going smoother for Eusabio.  He looked up at her and smiled.  She smiled back.  And then what happened next happened so fast that even now Audrey thinks back and wonders if it even happened at all.
Luca, the chef/son, called over to Eusabio and told him to grab a tray of cooked pasta from the table by him and to bring it over.  The kitchen was busy and all heads were down in their sauté pans and grills and fryers.  No one was paying attention to Eusabio who only had to bring the aluminum tray of pre-cooked spaghetti to the guys in the next room, but the mats were uneven.  The mats were uneven and the tray was flimsy and it bent when Eusabio tripped and the pasta fell into the second sink, the sink filled with water and sanitizer #2.  Eusabio looked at me horrified.  He would be fired.  So Audrey without words ran to the sink and they both, thinking the same thing pulled the pasta out of the water, threw it into a nearby colander and rinsed it.  And rinsed it.  And rinsed it.  They could not smell any cleaner on the pasta.   They looked at one another and Audrey took the pan from Eusabio and took it to Luca.
Luca dumped the spaghetti in the boiling water for a few seconds to warm it up and then threw it on the plates, ladled sauce over the pasta (except for the one that didn’t want sauce on it) and finally placed the meatballs on top of the steaming mound of noodles.  The four orders of spaghetti and meatballs were up, they were ready to be taken to table 23.  Miguel grabbed the entrees, put spoons on the plates and took them out to the four-top.  Audrey looked over her shoulder at Eusabio and gently smiled and nodded, sealing their pact and walked to the table.  She offered each of them freshly grated Parmesan cheese, brought them their drinks, and smiled as she told them to enjoy their meal.  She genuinely smiled and turned around and hid.
She stared at the table as each of them took that first bite of their meal.  They all chewed and chewed and then swallowed.  In Audrey’s mind she could only imagine them each grasping at their throats and choking as blood spurted out of their now burned and raw esophagi from the dish sanitizer.  She would lose her job, hell, she would go to jail for manslaughter.  Her life was over.   She looked up at the kitchen swinging door window and there was Eusabio’s face looking at the table as well and she guessed thinking the same thing that she was.
Those first few bites were agonizing to watch.  Audrey was sweating and Eusabio’s face was ashen.  They couldn’t take their eyes off of table 23.  By the third and fourth bites, Audrey noticed only one thing.  They were laughing and talking and seeming to be enjoying their meals.  No one was face down in his or her plate.  No one was bleeding from his or her eyes.  They were okay.  They were more than okay.  They cleaned their plates.  Audrey laughed to herself in disbelief and looked up at the kitchen door window.  Eusabio was gone.  She was sure he was summoned back to the scene of the crime to disinfect some more plates.
She gathered their dishes and took them into the kitchen, straight back to Eusabio and placed them on the counter next to the sink.  He smiled and bowed his head to her in understanding and in thanks.  She walked back out to the table and dropped off the check.  The dad pulled out a wad of cash and stuffed a few large bills inside the check folder and told Audrey to keep the change.  As the family got up to leave the younger daughter put her hand into her father’s hand and looked like the twelve-year old that she was. 
“Who the hell were those assholes?” asked the small miserable woman sucking down her forth gin and tonic.  Phillip shrugged while he continued to wipe down the bar.
“I think I want to go now,” said the taller lady as she stood up and waited for her friend, lover, or other to finish her drink.  She just stood there not saying a word staring at the glass until the woman slurped it down.
It was the first time Audrey heard her speak more than her drink order.  She reminded Audrey of a schoolmarm zombie, a walking dead old maid with limited verbal skills.  She would have to sketch that out so she could include her into her family of morbid curiosities in her graphic novel.  Maybe this job wasn’t so useless.  It seemed all the people who came into this strip mall restaurant were some sort of demon or monster, grotesque and mutilated, if not physically then emotionally and/or psychologically.
After watching the ladies leave she walked back to the computer to close the tab for table 23.  She counted the large bills and after recounting, it seemed that the father had left her a 40% tip.  No one had ever left her that kind of tip.  Not in this kind of place.   If they were lovely people maybe she would have thought their monetary gesture was kind but she didn’t detect kindness.  There was something vulgar about it.    But she was done with table 23.  With that Audrey walked into the kitchen and walked back to the Horcon Ecolux 1290 and handed the entire gratuity to Eusabio.  He smiled at Audrey, shyly took the wad of cash and put it in his pocket.  The next day Eusabio put the money in an envelope and mailed it to his mother.