JOSEPH MICHAEL IRAGGI
When the afternoon moseyed onto the here and now, the sun swiped the trees out front of the maroon canvas awnings and spackled the interior of the restaurant. Evening and night promised a full house with meandering pools of guests--businessmen to romantic couplets. But now, the place was empty except for a couple of busboys and a smartly dressed manager. Pine cleaner and disinfectant wafted up from the marble flooring into a mix of paprika, basil, and curry emanating from the prep station. Chopping blended with a chorus of Spanish love ballads in a harmonious lull that resounded through the kitchen and out into the dining area. Derek darted in the back door as he buttoned his white oxford shirt, neatly tucked into his creased black slacks.
“Hola carnales. Que tal?”
All the heads in the kitchen glanced up to greet the young server as he zipped to the computer terminal just beside the line to punch in on time as he always was, with his sharp features, inviting eyes, and admiring frame. The lines of his body formed a perfect template for a designer to clothe. Derek joined the busboys in evenly draping the tablecloths over every table, positioning each in an exact symmetrical format so as to display uniformity throughout. He methodically set up the restaurant—imparting its perfection as an example of his identity.
After checking with the manager to see about any large parties that might be needed to make room for, he returned to his squadron of busboys who were already placing stainless silverware on the table where unlit candles and condiments sat in the center. It was beginning to look like a stage ready for a show and he needed one. He needed a little variety act to interrupt the lengthy, tedious infomercial that his life of service had become. Every detail and duty inspired sparse electrical charge in his mind as he completed each task each day. Napkins folded into origami art, wine and water glasses gleamed, table wedges positioned to keep them from shifting, and then to wrap his tie around his neck and polish his appearance before the opening commenced. Was this what it was like to be a soldier or an accountant? The same simple process every day became so plain that he questioned whether it was really a process or just natural behavior. It seemed like he just knew what to do without even a thought as to how he knew it. There was the training, but that was more of an initiation than a lesson.
No one entered the place at 4:30. It usually stayed empty for a handful of minutes or so after opening—the first people in went straight to the bar for happy hour almost always. That was his time to meditate on the specials, creating a unique and intriguing language that would envelope the desires of his clientele and lead to many sales. He took pride in selling more specials than the other servers. Top sales were not an option, but instead a definition of him as a server. After all, in this locale he was not a person. He was a series of numbers; total sales, PPA, beverage, and tip percentage. Analyzing a waiter was the same as analyzing a stock option. Numbers were more relevant than logos. They were all adorned in the same uniform so as to neutralize any sense of individuality. The position of his hands on the plates, his swift but exact movements between closely placed tables, and the cadence of his voice distinguished him from the others. Little nuances and speckles of innate knowledge provided his personality in this location.
His primary goal was monetary, but the adoration of his customers came in a close second. Derek wanted to be liked, esteemed really. Nothing about these goals was automatic, and he couldn’t count on perpetual victory, but he did aspire to a high percentage of overall success. Derek had his own numbers and they were even more critical than those the manager wielded. His numbers gauged abilities that the restaurant had no interest in, although he was more than certain they were essential components of his overall exemplification as the crème de le crème. He printed up a small questionnaire at home the size of a bookmark, which he placed alongside every bill in the check presenters he handed out at the end of each meal—a personalized evaluation. The manager never got his hands on them, although rumors leaked amongst the staff. He took pride in keeping this information confidential. Only a select group of his peers were allowed any atom of insight into what they contained—an inside joke of sorts.
Derek stationed himself near the front doors to greet anyone that might trickle in, legs slightly bent, arms folded behind his back, shoulders up, chin balanced. He saw himself as an ambassador to the institution where each person that crossed the threshold would be instantly roped into his hospitable grasp. He could stand at that position for nearly an hour, while other opening servers would check their phones or chat with the cooks. Not Derek. His purpose was commercial and in his eyes everyone was watching.
He had a way of psyching himself up for each shift by imagining different combinations of circumstances that were about to transpire. Derek envisioned the rising tide of customers that would begin to spill in the restaurant, each with his/her own expectations of the dining experience. Suggesting cocktails to fit the mood, cuisine to captivate the palate, and wine pairings to complete the circle, Derek would take care of his people. Regardless of the fact he is double-sat twice in ten minutes, he would remain calm. He would dispense courtesy and composure alongside his provisions. Derek expected these things from himself more than any one person he was serving did.
Eyes open, but mind far away, he simmered in his effusive machinations until the front door opened and revealed the setting sun’s gaze with a wave of brisk air. Five heeled-women entered with make-up on their faces telling the story of a long day’s work. After ushering the women to their table with menus and a wine list, another couple sets of patrons sauntered in, ready to dine and hungry from no lunch. Ten covers—no problem. Derek was a dancer and the waltz had begun.
“Bottled, flat,” he motioned low with an extended arm towards the five-top and the three so that he was sure not to overtly point. The bus boys marched in line to their directives.
Derek controlled the time, the temperature—master of this ecosystem. He paced the series of events as he bobbed from table to table with an urgent yet nonchalant gait. Smiles and suggestions stimulated requests and orders. Then to the terminal where he commenced the race to make martinis, gimlets, calamari, and mussels before the satisfaction brought its end. He never rushed or panicked no matter how deep he was in. The guests’ conversations were never broken by service. His fingers tiptoed against the computer terminal in a precise hurry. Mistakes were not an option. Everyone was accommodated within a moment’s notice. Thirteen specials were plated before seven o’clock.
During a lull in the movement, he checked his PPA to find it was forty cents shy of fifty dollars a person. This news shot a turbo booster directly into his engine and after a few sips of water he was back on the floor offering dessert and cappuccinos to his five-top who raved about the grilled mahi mahi served over saffron rice, topped with a mango cayenne demi glace. The women loved him and the men too. Somehow, he convinced all five women to order the flourless chocolate cake and a twelve-dollar tawny port for each one. The teeth in his closed mouth chattered like a cash register computing. Instantly, his mind went black and his emotions fizzled. Everything was running efficiently, every guest pleased, but he was suddenly struck with inexplicable inner turmoil. He felt stuck—he felt no joy for the moment. Boredom entered his mind as a single word and became the dominant entity in his consciousness. What was happening? He ran to the mirrored walls near the front of the restaurant to check his countenance—teeth pearly, skin dry, lips moist enough—he appeared fine. But, he couldn’t be, not feeling so dull.
Confounded but undeterred, he made a round of his tables, everyone content for the moment except for a few empty wine glasses, which he promptly refilled. Should he take five and gather his gumption? After escorting the tawny port from the bar to the ladies who already had the appropriate cutlery for their desserts, he made a dash for the outdoors. The new night air offered a replenishing repose. The cacophony within dispersed into the humdrum of cicadas and cheeps from skyward. Even the sound of his shined black cap toes reverberated off the asphalt outside. A deep inhalation—he let his focus blur and attempted to reboot his prior vigor. Another deep breath only led to further uncertainty. Everything was fine, but it wasn’t.
Back inside, he brought his first table the check, slipping in the personalized response form as he did each and every time. Maybe their replies would ignite his flame. More tables were in and more services to be provided. He continued to automatically respond to the needs and wants of his guests with the accuracy and meter of iambic pentameter.
Ricardo, the portly bearded busboy with a Cheshire smile, handed him the ladies’ check in the waiter station for his perusal. The contents wasn’t exactly disheartening, but definitely not invigorating. Cash money, twenty-five percent gratuity, but not one mark on his form, no inkling of the thoughts these women had about the revue they just participated in. With a shrug and sigh, he pocketed the money and replaced the form behind his scribble pad.
Table twenty-three provided refuge for two slimy suit types and a buxom ingénue with cherry lips and excess eyeliner. They had too many questions and not enough orders. Obviously out of place, these men were trying to stake claim on the glitzy bimbo and she didn’t know any different. She was pretty, but ruined it with her failed attempts at self-improvement.
“I don’t see any white zin on the wine list,” she said.
“We only have one by the glass,” Derek replied without remorse.
“It better be good or I’m sending it back.”
A smile and he was back in motion. At each stop on his journey to each table, his voice projected firmly forward and danced off the adjacent walls, clear and concise. Just as the restaurant’s density diffused, a four-top of businessmen sat down in his section. From deep in the inner recesses of his diaphragm all the way up and out his throat, a smile erupted. These men provided the perfect opportunity to showcase his salesmanship—add intrigue to his unremarkable evening so far. A couple of Cuba Libres and a white zinfandel for the amateurs on twenty-three-- then he was off with an unimpressive entrée order to greet his wealthy gentlemen. Derek had an uncanny ability to pinpoint the income bracket of his clientele using a five-second visual body scan. It helped him to be in nose shot so he could also get a whiff of their pocketbook. All the other servers wanted Derek’s take on their tables, but his services didn’t come without a price.
On approaching the gentlemen, Derek hung back some yards away to surmise his new guests. Commercial couture clothing accented by twenty thousand dollar timepieces, graying highlights, perfect teeth, and handsome faces---all four men. Considering that it was nearly nine o’clock at night, the business for these men had concluded and they were looking to lavish. Derek signaled Ricardo to offer them bottled water with a flash of his palm.
Upon Ricardo’s departure, Derek floated in for his initial greeting, cordial but unerringly professional. After pointing out the wine list, he offered cocktails. The man with the most understated attire gazed at Derek with the roots of a smile that blossomed into a toothy grin.
“We desperately need some scotch, sir,” he said. “What kind of scotch do you have?
Derek felt his stomach warming, tingles fluttered up the back of his neck. Enthusiasm permeated his mind.
“What kind of night is tonight?”
The man paused to catch Derek’s eyes, big brown islands of glow. He glanced around the table at the gentlemen.
“Tonight is an exceptional night,” he replied.
“We have some exceptional scotch. Might I recommend the Jura Vintage 1973 Single Highland Malt?”
“Four of those, please,” he said as he extended his hand out to Derek. “I prefer Jack to sir, for future reference.
Then the invasive smile returned, momentarily stunning Derek in his steps.
“I’ll be back shortly with those, Jack.”
The four scotches already set the bill at nearly three hundred dollars. Derek could feel Jack’s smile as he slid off to ring in the drinks and have the manager retrieve the bottle from its locked cabinet within the reserve wine vault. He didn’t know what to make of it. Was the guy on drugs or was he just having a good day? He went to the back to grab four crystal buckets from the glassware cabinet, while trying to understand the man’s overly ebullient reaction to him. He was smiling at Derek not his fellow diners. This was the most peculiar particular and it confounded him as he shined each glass to a perfect sheen. The manager filled them using a jigger.
“Do top those off,” Derek let out audibly as he approached.
The manager, Brian Worthington, drab and negative in energy, glared at him for a series of moments and then splashed each glass with an extra dash.
Back at the table, Derek elaborated on the specials and promised to return shortly for their orders.
“Exactly what I was thinking,” Jack said.
There was that smile again—that affectionate perusal. Derek decided to accept it as a pleasantry—moving on to his remaining customers to finish off his night.
Table twenty-three was served entrees—three rib eyes, medium well, charred. Three a la carte side dishes were set down round the edges. Derek poured the wine the greasier man had ordered—not the bottom but nothing special either. He served dessert to two other four-tops and prepared checks, each with their personalized form to complete. The entire span he kept count of the minutes he was allowing his gentlemen to stew in their single malts.
Derek scanned his section for inquisitive looks. That woman caked in make-up wore a most unappealing expression as she raised her finger for his attention. He swaggered over to her side and bent down.
“I asked for this well done,” she said.
“We can throw it on the grill longer if you like,” Derek replied.
“I want a fresh one.”
She pushed her plate away like a spoiled toddler. Derek averted his gaze and caught Jack eavesdropping on the situation. He breathed in and smiled.
“I’ll bring you another one,” he said.
With her plate in tow, Derek returned to the line. He snickered to himself at this woman’s foolish ignorance. She wanted a new steak cooked more well done than the previous steak. What kind of sense did that make? She will get the same steak and she will like it. How is she even going to know the difference?
“Mas tiempo, por favor,” Derek said to the line cook as he handed him the plate.
“Cinco minutos,” the chef spoke back.
Again in front of the gentlemen, Derek requested a food order.
“We’d appreciate it if you’d lead us in the right direction, Derek. We’re all in the mood for whatever’s coming to us.”
Laughter gurgled from every portion of the group.
“Pair some wine in also, please. I want to keep my palate wet.”
Derek bowed his head to Jack and marched off to concoct their menu—giddy and determined. Different scenarios developed in his mind, he devised plans with a formula for fanatic appreciation. He couldn’t stand to disappoint, but it tended to happen on occasion. While tapping in the order, wine labels shot through his head, a white first. Time to take the steak back to the fake. She grated at him, but he deflected her ineptitude as he did any of the other side effects of a night’s shift. He placed the new dish in front of her. She displayed her fluorescent teeth—no more complaints.
After a trip to the bar, Derek returned to the gentlemen with a Stag’s Leap Sauvignon Blanc. He opened it, provided a taste, and drained the bottled into four of the taller white wine glasses. Moments later the runner set down a micro spinach salad with Bermuda onion, diced heirloom tomato, feta, and a candied bacon vinaigrette. He checked for the gentlemen’s approval. Engrossed in conversation, he assumed things were kosher.
In an economized force of motion, he dashed to the computer terminal to fire the entrees and print a check for his trio of bumpkins. The entire night hinged on the satisfaction of his final table—the manager cut him a half hour ago. This table seemed a sure bet, but the final payment was far off still. Mid salad, he swung back by the four gentlemen to make sure everything was in place.
“How is everything tasting?”
Everyone nodded, but Jack had quit smiling. He stared behind Derek’s eyes with his mouth barely slit. He continued to look in Derek’s direction for more than a moment, but he seemed intent on something else.
“Everything’s fine,” Jack said.
Derek skirted off, confounded at his host’s new attitude. Was the salad too moist? Had the spinach already wilted? The freshness of the various forms of micro leaves tended to pass much faster than the average-sized specimens. He labored over an appropriate red to bring with the main course—something significant. He decided to throw a curveball, give them something that would surprise them. Off to the bar to grab his bottle, the 2009 Kosta Browne Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, he felt vibrations on his back. He approached Jack and presented the bottle.
“I’ve never had this,” Jack said as he inspected the label.
Derek surgically removed the foil, then the cork, and poured the host a taste, who swirled the bit of translucent magenta nectar in his glass before splashing the inside of his mouth. As the taste buds relayed electrical charges to his brain, the substantial smile returned.
“Unbelievably fantastic,” Jack said. “I’m astonished really.”
Derek poured out the bottle and started to go, red flushing into his cheeks. Raspberries and hibiscus emanated from the exposed vintage all around the table.
“We’ll take another bottle,” Jack said.
“I’ll return directly.”
On his way to ring in the second bottle, the food runner nudged his side.
“Four-top on twenty-seven is up,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” Derek replied.
The moment he stared those four sea bass in their empty eyes he caught himself. Why did he care that Jack smiled? What was he trying to accomplish besides providing customer satisfaction? He never let himself get emotionally invested in things he could not control. Emotions were out of that realm—he was no wizard. Food wasn’t that serious, but with this table he was more so than any before. He couldn’t decide why, so he resigned to his first notions. He would do what he always did and he would feel good about it, regardless of the outcome.
Katherine walked up to the line to provide support. Flaxen hair, simple classic style, minimal makeup, contoured long limbs, proportioned and pleasantly angular face—she was the most attractive female on staff.
“I’m going to twenty-seven,” Derek said.
She had perfect hands, long fingers, healthy natural nails and skin so smooth. Her smile eased everyone into any situation. She couldn’t help but draw attention and Derek wanted her to do just that. She would be the control group. The second she dispensed her smile as she set down the plates, every gentleman looked her way, except for Jack. He was glaring down at the whole sea bass with its empty eyes.
“I didn’t think you would try to scare me, Derek,” he said.
“I’m always looking to shock my diners. The tomato garlic ginger broth inside is delicious. The fish has been scored and falls right off the bone.”
Derek held Jack’s glance as he picked up his cutlery and prepared a bite to taste the tender fish. Derek bowed his head and darted back to the kitchen to make sure everything was out on the tables. Katherine stood on the line next to the tickets.
“That guy likes you,” she said.
“You know which one,” she said.
She garnished two plates in the window with fresh cilantro, and walked off to deliver them. Derek tried to keep himself from giggling. He was beginning to think he was crazy before, but Katherine had confirmed his suspicions. This was a rare event, not that it had never happened before. It’s bound to happen when one interacts with as many people as one does in this particular environment. After grabbing the second bottle from the bar, he returned to the table to check on the status of the gentlemen’s meals.
“Is everything prepared well?”
Everyone looked up with mouths full of seafood and nodded their hands in approval while Derek uncorked the wine.
“Shockingly well,” Jack said. “I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite like it.”
Derek refilled the empty glasses and left to finish his side work. Jack was being unusually nice to him. He was certain that Jack liked him, he just didn’t know how much. But even if Jack was interested, it didn’t make any difference because it was strictly against company policy to make any advances toward the guests—grounds for termination. He sat in the empty section of the restaurant, creasing and folding napkins until they looked like little compartments to sheath the cutlery. As the time ticked away until he would leave, he dreaded his circumstances. He knew he couldn’t let such a moment pass by without action, but it was exceedingly risky. He had to be careful or his lucrative employment would be nothing more than a memory.
Table twenty-seven looked to be clear of their entrees, alerting Derek to bring dessert menus and proffer a nightcap. Everyone at the table was quiet, drawing heavy breaths as their food digested. Jack was the first to notice Derek’s presence. He blinked at him quickly, drawing his attention. Derek utilized every bit of energy in his mind to transmute his thoughts and feelings through his look into Jack. Their eyes kept prodding each other for information as to what exactly the other had in mind, searching and selecting with each subtle dash of the pupil. When the three other gentlemen at the table noticed what was going on, Derek began to speak.
“The chocolate soufflé is fantastic,” he said. “If you’d like something more exotic, I’d recommend the mango crème brulee.”
Jack saw that his dinner guests were waiting for his response and nervously handled the menu, trying to locate the after-dinner drinks. Derek was aware of his every move and didn’t care if anyone else was either. He was feeling more brazen than usual.
“Do you like cognac?”
“I do if everyone else does,” Jack said.
“Bring cognac--quality of course. And we’ll take one of each dessert.”
Derek breezed off to the terminal. He punched in four servings of the Louis XIII variety along with the two desserts. He printed the check and examined it, just above fifteen hundred dollars. All the intangibles from his night so far intermingled, creating a light fuzzy feeling in his temples. He couldn’t hide his smile. Everything was going better than he could have expected, but he still didn’t know what to do about Jack. That was all that mattered to him and he didn’t even understand why. Jack’s thoughts, Jack’s desires; Derek needed to execute in this one instance and his margin of error was next to none. The time left in this dining experience was expiring like the sand in an hourglass. His window of opportunity swung towards the closed position. What exactly did he want from Jack? What did Jack want from him? Now was the time to sort out every detail—now he would control the trajectory.
At the bar, snifters snuggled together at the server well as Derek walked up to corral them onto his cocktail tray. Heel, toe, heel, toe, in a lined path back towards the gentlemen, Derek’s forehead shimmered faintly with mental perspiration from the plethora of intentions that bombarded his mind state with every step he took.
The drinks sat in front of each gentleman before he was aware of any one individual. He had spaced out into some kind of yogic meditation mode, but now everything came into focus. He could see Jack, the way his cheekbones drew a symmetrical portrait using his eye brows as a valance to enshrine his gorgeous, addictive eyes—those eyes said more in one look than most people could say in a whole sermon. That glare was a tractor beam for Derek and now he knew that he must see more of ole Jack. Jack had posture. Jack had panache. Jack had every bit of everything that Derek wanted. But, how was he going to get Jack?
“Dessert will be out shortly,” Derek said.
Jack looked up at Derek when he was the only one paying attention.
“I’ve been waiting for something sweet all night.”
Derek took seven steps away from the gentlemen, back to a column, long arms gathered along his side, hands against his thighs. He waited to strike. He knew that he had to take some sort of chance, but he never had in a professional situation such as this. He stood still—his feet didn’t even tap the ground while he waited for an idea to direct his upcoming actions.
Then Jack rose from his chair. He made no eye contact with Derek. Instead he searched the corners of the establishment. After locating his destination, he slalomed through chairs and tables to the back end. Derek knew where he was going.
Once he saw Jack disappear behind the door, he stealthily trekked against the walls toward the back and into the men’s room. Florescent light amplified the stainless steel fixtures against the antiqued terra cotta finish that covered the walls. Jack aimed himself at the urinal. He didn’t turn when the door opened, but he seemed to know who was there.
“I won’t bite,” Jack said.
Derek had never done anything like this before, not at work, not anywhere, but he couldn’t stop himself from approaching the urinal, and unzipping his pants.
He freed himself up, but couldn’t start the flow. He noticed Jack look down at him. There was that damn smile. He heard a small stream, but even with waterfalls pouring into his mind, he couldn’t go. He couldn’t pee. Then Jack reached over and put his hand on Derek’s. He breathed in and out it came.
“Everyone needs a little encouragement sometimes.”
Derek couldn’t help but smile, but he still hadn’t made eye contact. Neither man had. Both men continued to pee, smiling, excited, a tad frightened. Both men finished at the same time, buttoned up, strolled to the sink and washed their hands, finally staring each other down in the mirror.
“Do I still have to pay the bill?”
“Do I still get a tip?”
Jack stamped Derek with that smile of his and went out. Derek stood there for a minute trying to figure out what had just happened. Was it sexual? Was it courtesy? What was it? Most importantly, he wanted to know what it would become. He had never been attracted to anyone as much as he was attracted to Jack at that very moment—no man, no woman.
By the time Derek made it out of there, dessert had been served, cognac was near empty and all the gentlemen appeared ready to exit. Derek printed the bill, perched it next to his personalized questionnaire, and presented it to Jack.
“Thank you gentlemen. It was a pleasure.”
He bowed his head and left to check that his side work had been completed. The line was replenished with pasta spoons, steak knives, mussel forks, extra plates and bowls. Napkins were folded. Silver was polished. He only had the condiments on the gentlemen’s table left to refill.
The all-seeing eye of Derek looked to table twenty-seven and he was astonished to find it empty. The gentlemen had vanished. Jack was gone. He scurried over to retrieve the check. When he opened it, he bypassed the stack of crisp hundred dollar bills and went straight to the questionnaire. He read it once. He read it again. He quickly ran to the terminal, printed out his checkout, and gathered his receipts for the evening. His brain was firing commands to different portions of his body as if he were in battle, warring against time. He moved to find the manager, looking first to his office.
The manager wasn’t there. When he didn’t find him at the bar, he looked again to his note from Jack. It read, “MEET ME IN THE PARKING LOT IN TEN MINUTES. DON’T BE LATE.” A low and rising groan hurdled over his tongue and out his mouth so that the remaining guests in the restaurant all turned to look at him.
“Fuck it,” Derek said.
He spotted Katherine, handed her his checkout and a handful of cash.
“I need you to take care of this for me,” he said.
She smirked and shook her head.
“Get out of here already.”
When he arrived in the parking lot, he spotted Jack standing next to an E500 Mercedes.
“You thought I was leaving?”
“I pride myself on being on time,” Derek said.
“Somehow, I knew that. But I would have waited.”
“I couldn’t wait,” Derek replied.
Jack got in the car and fired the ignition.
“Hop in,” he said.
Before Derek was all the way in the car, they were gone and only Jack knew where they were going.