The International Writers Magazine: A Waiter's Nightmare -
in three parts - Fiction
"Hello, is John there please?"
"David, you remember David dont you? Your voice is incredibly
The phone falls
dead in my hand and I stare out the window at the tree branches. Is
Ruben drunk, or does he remember how I used to roughhouse with him when
he was a child by dragging him across the floor? Is it confusion, or
is it spite? Back then, I effectively used his big mop of brown curls
to sweep the dust from its eroded wax. I would take his feet in both
hands, and, making a sound like a truck, swish him to and fro, and his
face would light up, all giggles, and I remember most how his belly
would throb with laughter because his back was compressed hard against
the floor. Hes been drinking lately, a habit he picked up while
his elder brother was in Spain. My mother just thinks he misses his
brother, although I remember how his brother, John, drank at his age
as well. Maybe the trend runs in his family, or maybe the trend runs
in their house specifically that flat-roofed brown building at
the edge of 51st or maybe its a part of Oakland that a
hunk of youth cant find much good, but for a good drink in the
cold night air.
But now Johns back. And perhaps hes disgusted by the disarray
his house has become in his departure. But I dont think so. I
dont think he was shocked when he walked in through his fathers
basement door to look on his old and dank, but homey room again. He
knew what hed left behind when he forsook his stomping grounds,
like a mockingbird loosed from its cage. And, in turn, he knew how its
atmosphere would eat at his little brother in the meantime. Was he selfish
to leave, then? This place had eaten him out too long, longer than itd
eaten me, and he needed a way out, just as I did, and he found his refuge
in a sunnier place, just as I. Can there be anything selfish about wanting
a reprieve from this type of pain, from the type of pain that flourishes
in ignorances shadow?
The other day I saw him walking along, a short man now, beside his gargantuan
little brother. Once a much taller man, Rubens reflection towered
over Johns slight blob in the broad green windows of the Rockridge
Public Library. Yet, by the way they walked, it was clear who was the
elder and wiser brother, and who was the young pup. John motioned his
hands didactically, and I imagined at the time that he was detailing
his trip, going over those little eccentric frivolities and those momentous
lessons learned that always carry with a person returning from a lengthy
stay in another land. He was speaking the volume of the conversation,
and Ruben seemed content to listen. Spain mustve affected my old
friend John very much my best friend, knew him since I was three
and yet I didnt call out to him from the other side of
the road. I just watched and listened. I think I wanted to see what
they were like when they didnt know me. I wanted them to talk
the way they always talked between themselves when I was never around.
To them, I was in Davis. To them, I was invisible. To them, my presence
had long since vanished, like a happy and hauntless ghost.
They moved slowly up the avenue together, their figures intermixing
with the bustling waitresses busing tables around the curb outside Phillipos.
I hastened after them, and, because I was paying little attention to
the sidewalk in front of me, almost bumped into an old man working at
his walker. Across the street, in the cold air under the red awning,
John and Ruben moved between the contrails of spaghetti steam. Watching
John move deftly ahead through the crowd evoked another image in my
mind. I remembered that hed once worked there, and that hed
once worn a tight black apron too, just as the other waiters, and underneath,
a white dress shirt, and that hed also bused tables with rolled
up sleeves and a modest smile. Struggling with my memory and body, fumbling
with my feet to follow the brothers and with my synapses to recollect
the elder looking stuffy in his uniform I scrambled up
the street watching, rapt. Yes, and once once, now that I remember
it correctly John had been the victim of flirtation. An older
woman had spoken him sentences with double meanings.
It had been his modest smile, the way he let his lips flicker slightly
alight and his eyes to lower under their long black eyelashes, the way
he kept himself reserved at all times, the way his bodyd been
molded in bedrock at birth, the way he was impassive, and yet friendly.
Caught by the thought, stopped by the impulse to reminisce, I brought
myself to a halt in front of the old Rockridge Barbershop, and rested
my back against the cool windowpane. Drifting off, listening to my hair
brush against the glass, I fell, right there, in the middle of the timid
Oakland nightlife, into dreams
John, gliding through moving bodies, raising his arms and shifting his
shoulders, works his way through a mob of noisy tables, customers, waiters
and waitresses. Silently, he comes to a rest in front of her table and
places her fettuccini in front of her. When he returns, loaded with
a tray of beverages, instead of allowing him to place her wine on the
tablecloth, she reaches out and takes it from his hand, grazing his
"Thats alright darling, Ill take it from here."
John, never knowing what to do in these kinds of situations, walks off
to serve another group, perhaps hoping that the wine, and the slight
caress, will be enough. But enough, with wine in her belly and with
the night siphoning the crowd away, thinner and thinner? Enough, when
the frigid night only gets lonelier as the wee hours pass and the pale
moon becomes a skeletal man? Everyone knows that food is only a filler,
and not a satisfier. As the streets hollow of their liquid pedestrians,
and as the tables under the red awning in front of Phillipos empty,
as the waiters and waitresses clear the lingering silverware and dirty
plates, the wineglasses and the coke bottles, shell be left waiting,
the sole occupant of the remaining table, dawdling her fork in her uneaten
Fettuccini, for John but not really for John for somebody
to take the place of the shadow person shes been missing in her
John looks over at her out of the corner of his eye, traying dishes
and collecting tips in his apron. He is riveted for a moment, noticing
her eyes fastened on his behind. One of the waitresses is chatting it
up with the manager, who stands coolly with one arm resting against
the doorway to the kitchen. All of the tables are cleared but for the
womans, and three waiters hover around the manager and the talky
waitress. They seem about ready to divvy out tips. From the kitchen
window steam and splashing drift.
In a rare move, John scuffs his heel against the ground. The situation
is conspiring against him. The woman is waiting beside her empty wineglass,
still fiddling with her Alfredo. Her glass is pierced by fragments of
stardust and her fork glitters in her hand, and her hair, fringed with
gray at her temples, shivers under the moons luster. She rests
her elbows daintily on the magic white tablecloth, and her face, tilted,
is like the dark side of the moon. John continues to stare at her nervously,
across the scattered wicker tables and chairs, and what quickens his
pulse is the glimmer he makes out of her two eyes, fixated on his, like
opals hidden dimly away in a faraway glass case in some museum somewhere.
She reeks of age, and she scents his youth, but catches whiff not a
trace of naivety.
Johns been thoroughly disillusioned. Since he was thirteen his
fatherd go out at night with women, leaving him with Ruben to
care for. His father, his creator, acted as his guardian until he hit
puberty, but now acts as his foil, leaving John to play guardian to
the child he had by a different mother. So John buses tables and washes
dishes, trudges through the cold in a t-shirt up the block to Safeway
for his, and his brothers food. He studies at a community college
downtown, and buys his books with his tips. Yet, nevertheless, the womans
persistence frightens him. The customer is always right and he is always
wrong. His forehead breaks out in sweat. Altercations are squandered
jobs. An unfriendly report to the manager is a ticket to beating the
sidewalk looking for "Help Wanted" signs.
Johns heart pounds. His black leather shoes scrape the concrete.
Behind him the waitress continues to chatter, as if she were an imp
sitting atop his head, chittering into his earlobes. He gains an inhuman
sensitivity to the world as he cowers closer to the last table. The
glittering silverware is blinding. Her stirring fork is a screeching
piece of chalk. Her breaths are flaying hurricane winds. Even her hair
takes on a life, like Medusas snakes, whisking into curls, as
a breeze cooks Johns arms hot-cold. Mist blowing from the kitchen
window pads the back of his neck, droplet by droplet, and he shudders,
his shoulders trembling and his lips tightening, his eyes focusing upon
every instant a crystalline clarity. The seconds are picture framed.
His steps could be digitized and analyzed by a microphone, on a low
The moment, he thinks, the moment is coming. I can see it clearly
now. Shes raising her face to meet mine. Her hands are on her
dishes. She fingers her wineglass coquettishly. She picks up her fork,
laden with a few strands of pasta, and draws the noodles like fluid
up a straw into her mouth, tossing them with her tongue, conspicuously
savoring something so bland and cold that it becomes impossible to ignore
the connection between the mind and the taste buds. She is disgustingly!
tasting something else! The moment is coming, and his chest tightens
under his apron, and Ill have to say something to her, something.
"Okay, had a good meal? Did you know we close in about five minutes?
Um, we close in like, five minutes, but, I hope youll be so good
as to try us out again." No, what are you thinking? "Try us
out"? What are you thinking? What can I say? The moment is here.
"Hey, um, have you had a good meal? You know" John interrupts
himself to look away from her eyes because theyre pressing him
uncomfortably. "You know, were going to be closing in like
yeah, were going to have to close up. Could
you, um, you know, well, were going to be closing soon, so it
would be very helpful if you could, you know if you havent
already finished you know, maybe
"Darling, are you trying to tell me to finish my food and get out?"
"Well, I mean, I hope youll come back again to try us out.
I dont mean anything personal by it, but weve got to close
now, and Ive got to take your dishes. Heres your check.
Please, if you could finish things and call me when youre ready
to pay, within like five minutes
"Do you know what tonight was?"
"I was just asking you if you knew what tonight was?"
"What do you mean?"
"Tonight was my birthday."
John pauses to think for a moment, his arms folded against his apron,
and then solemnly responds with, "I hope youve had a good
She looks down at her empty glass and half-eaten pasta, and smiles,
"I wish I could say it was. Look at me look at this mess
does this look like a happy birthday celebration to you?"
She leans over her decaying meal and coughs, and coughs, and then her
coughs begin to sound like hacking laughs, until they become laughs,
hacking cough laughs, whooping cough cackles. She whoops and wine spews
from her teeth, casting purple grapelets on the magic white tablecloth.
"I wish I could say it was. I wish I could say it was so much."
She laughs again and grinds her fork into the plate. "I wish I
could say someone had sung me a song. I wish I could say someone had
Happy Birthdayd me in bed tonight. It was my birthday at seven
in the evening, on October twenty third, nineteen fifty-five. I was
a little baby, just like you babe. And you think youre so far
off? You think your youth is eternal? Look at me. Ive been with
boys like you, and Im hideous now? I can see it in your face.
You think so dont you? Sing for me babe. Smile for me."
John doesnt smile. But he hesitates. He cant find the words.
The moment has passed and now shes doing what you knew shed
do and you cant find the words to get her to stop. What? What?
What? What? What the fuck?
"Hey," she calls out to the back of the room. "Did you
all know its my birthday tonight?"
One of the waiters, in the dusk at the back of the restaurant, claps
"I want this young man here to sing me Happy Birthday!"
"You got it," calls the manager. "John, give the young
lady a serenade so we can close up, huh?"
What the fuck? What the fuck? John never sings.
Demure, rigid by nature, sometimes I wondered whether or not he could
sing, or if he were just too embarrassed. Either way, the man has never
sung a clear note in his life, has never carried a word too long, afraid
it might be confused with singing. He speaks in clear, short bursts
of low harmonics. His husky words always end with a deadening hum.
It is very cold out. The wind burns his ears, but his arms rest warmly
against his breast. He seems unable to respond, or maybe he doesnt
feel like responding. Anxiety and then hate twitch his face into
different expressions. Chagrin and pensive thought pass like travelers
across his features, pictures of his little brother and of frosted box-meals
and frozen pizzas, snapshots of cheap twenty-four packs of discount
Safeway Select soda.
"You know, I dont really have a good voice. When it comes
to singing, I think that, one of the others, maybe, one of them can
help you better. You know, Im just not really cut out for that
kind of thing"
"Comon John. We all wanna hear you sing!" cries another waiter,
one whos worked with John for a long time, and a peal of laughter
from the back ensues. The lady at the table looks up expectantly, waiting
for her song.
As if inspired by the houses cooperation, she becomes spunky,
and commands John, waggling her head, "My names Joan, darling,
Joan. And smile for me when yer singin. I want to see those
cute little lips smile."
She begins tapping her plate with her fork. The table is set, thinks
Gears grind. Pianos rise on pulleys. Work is being done. Men are heaving
sandbags up into piles by the side of a rising river. Scientists are
grinding their teeth in front of computer stations plotting the unexpectedly
deviating trajectories of ballistic missiles, altered by an unforeseen
wind. A harpist is dragging his harp along a dirt path to the concert
hall. A lion is leaping through a flaming hoop. A horse is galloping
nose-to-nose with other horses. A train is forever hitch-backed to its
cars, steaming down the rails, crying for pity. A rock-climbers
muscles are groaning on a cliff edge somewhere. And, zooming like a
telescope, flying in from afar, teleporting into Johns brain-vault,
shrinking to microscopic proportions, spider-like neurons are squirming
in his head, hand-in-hand, flailing their tails, corresponding with
electrical impulses, working to make him move, tearing themselves apart
and re-uniting in a new brain chemistry that will allow him to conquer
his shyness, that will allow him to break free from his impassive, stony,
cross-armed stance in order to subjugate himself to the ever-present
exigencies of the working world.
John becomes like one of those wind-up monkeys. Wide-eyed, you could
imagine him smashing a pair of cymbals together and marching stiffly
in a soldiers uniform. But his lips are disappointingly rigid.
His face reflects the nature of a plastic man. He is unemotional as
he sings the joyless hymn he was commanded to drone from his uncompromising
"Haaaa-py Birrrr-th-day tooo yoouu. Haaaa-py Birrrr-th-day toooo
yoouu. Haaaaaaaa-py Birrrrrrrr-th-day dear"
"You arent smiling dear. You arent smiling."
John stops and the restaurant darkens again. A caterpillar crawls across
his lips. An earwig runs the length of his body, up his pant-leg and
underneath his shirt, wriggling over his bony ribs, up his neck and,
flying past his cheek, darts into his ear. He is possessed. His soul
is not his own. He is Anthony Burgess Clockwork Orange. He is
Alex, my droogs, my droogs. He is enslaved, my droogs, my droogs. He
is a puppet of merciless existence. He is a tool of the sadness of life,
of the Human Condition. He is hard-pressed by the moment. He is a marble
statue, and hes been asked, politely but firmly, to move his finger.
And were all marble statues, and were all asked by life,
every day, to politely move our fingers. Move your finger John.
"No, you know, Im not going to smile and sing for you. Im
not your puppet or anything. I know, youre sad and all, but
you know, weve all got our own sadness
you want a smile,
youre going to have to find someone who wants to smile for you
you cant force it. You cant force happiness like
that or anything
Everyone at the back of the restaurant mustve decided the spectacle
wasnt worth their interest, because the two of them are given
the solitude to speak, undisturbed, on the curb.
"Youre not going to finish my song?"
Its my birthday. Im forty-nine."
Her face is caught in a trap. Its flesh is enfolded in a dilemma. Her
mouth squeezes shut and her lips purse. She fondles her bag in her hands,
and seems torn between two different decisions. She hesitates, lifts
to get up, and slumps back into her seat. Her eyes are pleading and
her mouth opens in a begging gape. Her teeth, rusted yellow, click together
as her mouth moves through soundless syllables, and she licks the crusted
sauce from her upper lip with her smokers tongue. There are two
emotions clawing at her an internal tug of war. In one instant,
her eyes fill with exceeding compassion and commiseration, her muscles
slacken, and her shoulders fall, her jaw comes to a rest, and her fingers
release, her body oozes free of tension, and a miserable light enters
her bearing. And then, sparked by some clash of internal warfare, with
a convulsive flash, her features ignite, her face becomes fiery and
her eyebrows straighten like the jagged spines of porcupines, her grip
tightens, her nails dig into the bags leather, and her eyes redden.
They sputter with the fires of hell billowing in the indignant furnace
of her mind.
She is at saddened peace with the world furious at its injustice!
soothed by the calm acceptance of its suffering unyielding
in her undying persistence to mold it to her whims! calmly resting
in the gutter, weeping, and yet almost content battering the
walls with her fists, shattering the windowpanes with her shrieks, bursting
through the walls of the worlds burning warehouse! relaxing
in an underground grotto, entirely starving and naked, but happy to
be alive on the runway, dissatisfied with the extravagant gown
she is wearing, dissatisfied with the life she lives, betrayed by fate!
lying in the middle of the road with her eyes closed, tailpipes
battering her face, as she waits for the end to come, for a wheel, and
then oblivion standing in the middle of the road, she towers
tall as an iron golem, crushing cars in wind-mill chops, hefting the
heavy handle of her massive sledgehammer, wheeling her arms, obliterating
windshields, a berserker trembling in a grisly storm, scraps of metal
colliding in the air dance in a fragmentary mist of hailing glass and
Insanely, she moves forward on her elbows, dipping her face into his,
grinning, "But, of course, you know, I could have you fired for
John continues to stand still with his arms crossed. He is not a person
to be threatened.
"Im not singing your song for you lady. Not even if you give
me a hundred dollar tip. Youre gonna have to find someone else
to smile for you, because Im not gonna do it."
"Whats up? John, you finished singing to the lady?"
"Manger! He didnt sing the song as I requested!"
"She wanted me to smile, and I didnt feel like smiling. Do
I have to smile?"
"Whats wrong with a little smile John? We all know how you
love to smile!" laughs the same waiter, the one whos known
him for a long time.
"You know, I dont have to take this shit."
"And are you listening to his language manager? Whats
your name by the way"
"Daniel. Call me Dan. Dont worry, Johnll be going home
with no tips tanight."
"Thank you, Daniel, Im Joan, and, by the way, I just happen
to manage the Blockbuster on Piedmont Avenue, and, if I were in charge
here, I wouldnt be satisfied with anything so moderate."
"I appreciate it, but I can manage things well enough myself, thanks."
"Yes, yes, and I wouldnt be having anyone come into my place
telling me what to do either. But in this economy lets
face it hired help is always at the door ready to work. Whats
he do, more than busing tables and washing dishes? Hes just a
pair of hands, right? A pair of hands and a dirty mouth."
The little man sitting on the clock begins playing with the knobs. He
moves time backward, and the colors flutter, and Joans face turns
livid, blue, livid, blue, livid, blue. The moon-sprinkles on her hair
swirl, fly down to her glass, swim in the wine as she spits sip after
sip back into the cup, and they jitterbug on the glazed chicken as it
pours from her mouth, falling back upon the prongs of her fork, piece
of breast after strand of leg after bit of wing. She is eating in reverse
order. She is vomiting her meal cleanly back into its primordial state,
as the room fills again, and the steaming plates of ravioli suffuse
the atmosphere with fog.
Cackling, taken by a maniacal urge, the little man reverses the order
of events again, and pasta surges into mouths, vortexes vacuum out the
fog, forks and spoons fly from tables, plates and bowls sail like flying
saucers across the room into the sink in the kitchen at the back of
the restaurant. The party empties and the atmosphere deadens. And the
moon livens the wicker tables like tombstones at a midnight séance.
Johns mouth opens and shuts spasmodically. Blue, livid, blue,
livid, blue, livid, her face grows livid and she says the sentence that
will foreordain his firing. The chatty waitress heads into the kitchen
to talk with the boys washing dishes, and two of the waiters break off
the ends of a couple of beers, and, clinking, down them in two swigs.
The managers face, drowsing, startles to life, and he speaks mutely
across the room, different emotions quickly rising and falling from
his mouth and in his eyes. One of the waiters at the side-bar tilts
his bottle, and, pointing toward John across the restaurant, laughs
mockingly, shouting underwater. And then the lady at the table, still
livid, says something that pauses the scene. The little man in his checkered
suit and tie, sitting on the clock, pushes a small red button, and time
resumes but time doesnt resume.
Time is still halted because no one in the room knows what to say in
response to Joans charges "A pair of hands and a dirty
"Is that all Im good for?" asks John coolly. "Youre
gonna let her say that shit youre gonna let her say that
shit youre gonna let her say that shit youre
gonna let her say that shit" his voice became an echo in
my head as I lifted it from the glass. "Youre gonna really
let her say that shit yer gonna leter say that ..."
I stood there for a while, looking at the cars and their reflections
passing in the wavering puddles. Raindrops disrupted their otherwise
perfectly moving mirror images. The man whose crutch Id shaken
was gone, and so was John, and so was Ruben. I remember him as a little
boy. But now, tall as a basketball star, he just hung up on me moments
ago, as if I hadnt brought him into my house and treated him like
a friend for countless nights. Like a tortoise sticking his head out
of his shell into another shell, I come out of memories within memories.
I shake my head, and look at the tree branches outside the broad windowpane
overlooking Manila Avenue in front of my house.
Raindrops are dripping from the leaves and berries, and it is nighttime.
The click of the phone is closer to my ears than the sound of John getting
fired by his boss after failing to perform his humiliating duty for
an older lady who knew better than to torment him. But the memory is
closer to my mind. John was fired. He told me the story a long time
ago, over a glass of milk, in the middle of the night. I lay on a dirty
couch bundled in blankets, and he sat beside me on a chair, and we watched
some old movie together starring Clint Eastwood half paying
attention and half mocking the corny flick.
That was a long time ago, but the memorys remoteness means nothing.
The remoteness is meaningless. Time has been scrambled. The little man
in his checkered suit above the clock has taken over my head, so that
yesterday could seem remote, and the smell of lasagna floating over
from the kitchens in my pre-school before lunchtime could transport
me there to pre-school, to the monkey bars, to the tricycles
and to the large, red cardboard blocks shaped like bricks wed
assemble pyramids out of. Theres no difference between the two
past and faraway past. Memories are images, ambient sounds, smells
and voices. Theyre observations, and they can be interpreted and
re-interpreted, questioned and answered thousands of times over the
course of a life. Did I know that the red brick blocks Id played
with were manufactured by some corporation in New York specializing
in the distribution of childrens play toys? Of course not, but
now I do, so I can demean my youth if I wish. I can dismiss my childhood,
if I so choose, as the result of some company having a greater market
share than another. Yet, watching my own hands move over the blocks
and place them, one by one, in a square, and then, one by one, in another
smaller square, block after block, square upon square, until I finally
reached the top and one block was all that was needed to complete my
master structure, I can re-experience the first moments of my life,
the complete oblivion to any task but the builders.
The checkered man reverses Time and I can live in a smaller oblivion.
Everyone has experienced something, at some point in time, that made
him say, "I feel like I was living in a box." Maybe a suburbanite
moves to New York, maybe a technophobe hooks up to the internet. Maybe
a teenager discovers his sexual organs, maybe a young adult discovers
his intellect again after partying for seven straight years, maybe a
soldier discovers Gandhi. Part of the Human Condition is living inside
of boxes. Tip over a box and hit the nail on the head strike
epiphany, gain euphoria and jubilation with each successive novelty.
Walk into a garden and plant a rose become a gardener, and wonder
how you ever lived away from the soil when you were born a natural green-thumb.
© David Tavernier December 2004
See also Zwolf
-the wonder dog
all rights reserved