4 April 2019
Polly took a wide berth on her way out of the restroom and crashed into the sound of a payphone ringing. The real deal. A ferocious, tiny hammer bouncing between metal bells. Not a digital facsimile through a speaker but an honest-to-god, quarters only, electromechanical payphone.
This place was one of those neighborhood institutions with tables sporting red-domed tealights on checkered tablecloths and, apparently, working payphones. She brought the receiver to her ear and slipped a timid “hello” down the line.
Somebody somewhere said something. Polly nodded and walked out of the restaurant.
Back at the table, Mark was experiencing time dilatation. His phone was still in the car. The car was now her car because Polly took the car, and so it was her phone, too, and not his. With neither a phone nor a wristwatch nor a car, Mark began reading the ingredients on sugar packets.
Cane sugar, anti-caking agent, and natural colors.
A phantom loomed behind Mark. It asked if he was ready for the bill.
“I guess. Whatever.”
The waiter returned to find Mark with half-open eyes fixed on the wisps of candlelight dancing on the table.
“Hey,” the waiter offered kindly. “Sorry it didn’t work out.”
“With your date, I mean. I’m sorry she left you with the check.”
Mark was clueless. He raised his head to regard the waiter– as if to thank him for the news– then jolted like a varmint to look toward the hall where Polly had disappeared. And, finally, Mark turned his head back toward the window. The car was gone.
And all of the natural colors drained from Mark’s face. The waiter moved like an old western gunslinger to unholster his dish rag. This wasn’t unusual. Customers frequently needed rags to catch tears and even more often, vomit. Service industry employees can always point you to the nearest rag.
“That’s my w-w-wife.”
The customer became unintelligible. Phonics disappeared under sobbing and bawling and leaking snot and coughed-up nibblets of chewed spaghetti. It was restaurant policy to move the customer out of the dining area in the event of a catastrophic meltdown, so the waiter took Mark’s hand and lead him like a small boy back to the kitchen.
The back staff all rolled their eyes and groaned at the mess of a human being laid bare before them, red and wet and heaving like a cut of beef dropped onto a sizzling hot pan. They considered cooking the man to make him useful. But the waiter dragged Mark on through to the back of the kitchen.
“You need to do these dishes,” the waiter barked. “You need to stand up straight and do these dishes.”
“Wwwwwwww,” Mark burbled in response.
The waiter took his rag– sopping with Mark’s sadness juices– and pushed it into the customer’s hands.
“You need to wring out that towel and pour on some soap and clean these fucking dishes right now.”
Shaking hands twisted the rag out into the sink as the waiter stood still with arms crossed, his face wrenched in disgust. Several child-sized stacks of plates and bowls were watching Mark, too. Everyone was so disappointed in him.
Mark took a plate from the top of the stacks and moved it under the faucet. The waiter called him an idiot and Mark hacked out a few dry sobs.
After a few moments of exaggerated scrubbing and rinsing, the white ceramic sparkled and glimmered. Mark could see the waiter’s expression change. The scorn had given way to total and utter indifference.
“That’s really acceptable work.”
Mark replied, “I’m slowly getting better.”