Crumbs From the Corner: Adventures in Woolgathering

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Table For Three

"Strange how a teapot can represent at the same time the comforts of solitude and the pleasures of company."
-Zen quote

I was twenty and working my weekend job as a waitress in a city restaurant. It was late and it was quiet and the dining room was empty. I was cleaning a table shortly after ten thirty when three people walked in. I briefly glanced up at them: a couple that appeared to be in their fifties, and a much younger lady. A family, I thought quickly as I hurried to finish what I had been working on. I showed them to a corner table and scurried off to fetch menus. When I returned, the younger lady was not with them so I left three menus, presuming that she had dashed to the restroom.
I waited a few minutes before bringing them some water and they acknowledged their readiness to order. I pulled out my pen and paper and noted down what they requested. They ordered two meals. It is not uncommon for patrons to share a plate so I thought nothing of that; but just in case I had missed an item I thought I had better verify.
"Will the other person be having anything?"
"No, it's just us, tonight," the man said with politeness.
I hesitated. Often, too, patrons slipped away discreetly when they calculated that they could not afford the high price of a dinner. I had never, though, seen one member of a party leave while the other two remained. As a token of goodwill I had many times assisted embarrassed customers to escape without awkwardness- they had confided their problem to me and, not wishing to upset the remainder of the staff had asked me to loudly point them in the direction of the restroom and pretend calmly that they would be coming back. I was always happy to do so and feign confusion afterward at the abandoned menus.
Now I was puzzled. Like a dog with a bone I refused to let go.
"Is she coming back or will you go ahead and eat without her?"
"Is who coming back?"
"Your companion. Is she staying?"
"Is who staying?"
Round and round we went. I must clarify that I did this to avoid confusion because too many times diners ordered one thing and then claimed something else; I wanted to hear them say that the girl had left.
"The person that was with you. Did she change her mind?"
The conversation was drawing blank looks from both the man and the woman. The scene was an odd one: I was the crazy waitress and all they wanted was a meal.
I pointed to the three menus. "That's why I left three menus."
"It's only the two of us. Could we just have our order, please?"
I was irked. I decided to say not another word about it and swept up the menus and firmly marched away. I was livid.
I returned moments later with fresh bread and water for the well-dressed couple. They said a curt 'thank you' and I moved quickly away from their table.
Five minutes later, to my surprise, they beckoned me to come over to them.
The first thing I noticed was that the gentleman was paler than a few minutes previously. His wife was faring no better. They were genuinely upset. I wondered if I might be in a spot of bother for arguing with them.
The man said that he had something to tell me, but his wife prodded him and shook her head. She did not want him to tell me. I could not have known what was coming but the next words made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand up like faint tiny soldiers in preparation for a battle they could not fathom.
The woman interrupted and, despite her initial assertion that I ought not to be told, launched into the reason that they now both shook in front of me.
"We go out to restaurants a lot, every weekend in fact," the woman trembled. "We’ve gone out every weekend for years and years. Our daughter is out with friends, at a party tonight. It is the very first time ever that she has not come out with us. Ever. We’re missing her very much tonight. We have been thinking of her all evening."
I can still hear vividly the exact words as they smacked, one by one, into my chest.
The room wobbled a little and then righted itself.
I did not know at all what to say to them. My mouth opened but I knew nothing sensible could come out of it.
Apparently my insistence had frightened them very much. The man and woman were most astonished at my stubbornness and absolute certainty that they had not been alone. After all, I had practically stamped my feet and demanded they admit that there was indeed a third person with them.
I could only repeat to the couple that I had observed them with a girl who I had reasonably assumed to be their daughter. We all fell silent. There was not much left to be said or done and I struggled to carry on with the remainder of my shift while my mind was further from my work than was suitable.

The couple ate their meal when it was placed in front of them but I doubt very much that they tasted any of it. I shall never forget that in the middle of their muted meal the gentleman all of a sudden stood up and stepped briskly out to the lobby to place a telephone call.
They did not stay for dessert.
I never saw them again.
Goodness knows what it all meant. I would prefer to think that the daughter, while having a wonderful evening with friends, was still in company with her parents thanks to an incomprehensibly strong bond.
Oh yes, the waitress is always right.


Beth said...

I have goose bumps!

Phyllis Hunt McGowan said...

I still get chills- it was years ago and I never forgot it. Scared me silly it did, because I couldn't ever explain it.

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