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The International Writers Magazine
: A Waiter's Nightmare - in three parts - Fiction

Ice Cream
David Tavernier

"Hello, is John there please?"
"Who this?"
"David, you remember David don’t you? Your voice is incredibly different Ruben."

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. He’s 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 it’s a part of Oakland that a hunk of youth can’t find much good, but for a good drink in the cold night air.

But now John’s back. And perhaps he’s disgusted by the disarray his house has become in his departure. But I don’t think so. I don’t think he was shocked when he walked in through his father’s basement door to look on his old and dank, but homey room again. He knew what he’d 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 it’d 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 ignorance’s shadow?

The other day I saw him walking along, a short man now, beside his gargantuan little brother. Once a much taller man, Ruben’s reflection towered over John’s 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 must’ve affected my old friend John very much – my best friend, knew him since I was three – and yet I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 Phillipo’s. 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 he’d once worked there, and that he’d once worn a tight black apron too, just as the other waiters, and underneath, a white dress shirt, and that he’d 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 body’d 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 fingers.
"That’s alright darling, I’ll 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 Phillipo’s empty, as the waiters and waitresses clear the lingering silverware and dirty plates, the wineglasses and the coke bottles, she’ll 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 she’s been missing in her mind.

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 woman’s, 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 moon’s 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.

John’s been thoroughly disillusioned. Since he was thirteen his father’d 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 brother’s food. He studies at a community college downtown, and buys his books with his tips. Yet, nevertheless, the woman’s 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.

John’s 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 Medusa’s snakes, whisking into curls, as a breeze cooks John’s 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 decibel scale.

The moment, he thinks, the moment is coming. I can see it clearly now. She’s 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 I’ll 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 you’ll 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 they’re pressing him uncomfortably. "You know, we’re going to be closing in like… five minutes… yeah, we’re going to have to close up. Could you, um, you know, well, we’re going to be closing soon, so it would be very helpful if you could, you know – if you haven’t already finished – you know, maybe…"
"Darling, are you trying to tell me to finish my food and get out?"
"Well, I mean, I hope you’ll come back again to try us out. I don’t mean anything personal by it, but we’ve got to close now, and I’ve got to take your dishes. Here’s your check. Please, if you could finish things and call me when you’re ready to pay, within like five minutes… thanks."
"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 you’ve had a good birthday."
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 Birthday’d 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 you’re so far off? You think your youth is eternal? Look at me. I’ve been with boys like you, and I’m hideous now? I can see it in your face. You think so don’t you? Sing for me babe. Smile for me."
John doesn’t smile. But he hesitates. He can’t find the words. The moment has passed and now she’s doing what you knew she’d do and you can’t 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 it’s my birthday tonight?"
One of the waiters, in the dusk at the back of the restaurant, claps his hands.
"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 doesn’t 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 don’t 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, I’m just not really cut out for that kind of thing—"
"Comon John. We all wanna hear you sing!" cries another waiter, one who’s 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 house’s cooperation, she becomes spunky, and commands John, waggling her head, "My name’s 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 John.

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-climber’s muscles are groaning on a cliff edge somewhere. And, zooming like a telescope, flying in from afar, teleporting into John’s 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 soldier’s 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 vocal chords.
"Haaaa-py Birrrr-th-day tooo yoouu. Haaaa-py Birrrr-th-day toooo yoouu. Haaaaaaaa-py Birrrrrrrr-th-day dear—"
"You aren’t smiling dear. You aren’t 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 he’s been asked, politely but firmly, to move his finger. And we’re all marble statues, and we’re all asked by life, every day, to politely move our fingers. Move your finger John.
"No, you know, I’m not going to smile and sing for you. I’m not your puppet or anything. I know, you’re sad and all, but… you know, we’ve all got our own sadness… you want a smile, you’re going to have to find someone who wants to smile for you – you can’t force it. You can’t force happiness like that or anything…"
Everyone at the back of the restaurant must’ve decided the spectacle wasn’t worth their interest, because the two of them are given the solitude to speak, undisturbed, on the curb.
"You’re not going to finish my song?"
It’s my birthday. I’m forty-nine."
"I’m twenty-one."

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 smoker’s 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 bag’s 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 world’s 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 tumbling plastic!

Insanely, she moves forward on her elbows, dipping her face into his, grinning, "But, of course, you know, I could have you fired for this."
John continues to stand still with his arms crossed. He is not a person to be threatened.
"I’m not singing your song for you lady. Not even if you give me a hundred dollar tip. You’re gonna have to find someone else to smile for you, because I’m not gonna do it."
"What’s up? John, you finished singing to the lady?"
"Manger! He didn’t sing the song as I requested!"
"She wanted me to smile, and I didn’t feel like smiling. Do I have to smile?"
"What’s wrong with a little smile John? We all know how you love to smile!" laughs the same waiter, the one who’s known him for a long time.
"You know, I don’t have to take this shit."
"And are you listening to his language manager? – What’s your name by the way—"
"Daniel. Call me Dan. Don’t worry, John’ll be going home with no tips ta’night."
"Thank you, Daniel, I’m Joan, and, by the way, I just happen to manage the Blockbuster on Piedmont Avenue, and, if I were in charge here, I wouldn’t be satisfied with anything so moderate."
"I appreciate it, but I can manage things well enough myself, thanks."
"Yes, yes, and I wouldn’t be having anyone come into my place telling me what to do either. But in this economy – let’s face it – hired help is always at the door ready to work. What’s he do, more than busing tables and washing dishes? He’s 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 Joan’s 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. John’s 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 manager’s 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 doesn’t resume.
Time is still halted because no one in the room knows what to say in response to Joan’s charges – "A pair of hands and a dirty mouth."
"Is that all I’m good for?" asks John coolly. "You’re gonna let her say that shit – you’re gonna let her say that shit – you’re gonna let her say that shit – you’re gonna let her say that shit—" his voice became an echo in my head as I lifted it from the glass. "You’re gonna really let her say that shit – yer’ gonna let’er 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 I’d 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 hadn’t 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 memory’s 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 we’d assemble pyramids out of. There’s no difference between the two – past and faraway past. Memories are images, ambient sounds, smells and voices. They’re 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 I’d played with were manufactured by some corporation in New York specializing in the distribution of children’s 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 builder’s.
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



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