Passages

I stood at the hostess stand and one of my regulars, The Wife, walked in with a man who resembled her husband– same handlebar mustache, same slightly wild, side-combed hair, only they were sandy-colored instead of gray.

“Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever,” I greeted with a big smile.

She smiled too. “Have you met my son?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.” He and I shook hands then we walked towards a booth in my section. “Where’s your husband? Parking the car?” The words tumbled chirpily out of my mouth, even as I suddenly sensed what was next.

“He passed away a couple months ago.” She sounded calm.

My chest collapsed. My eyes stung. Death’s hooded presence was looking over my shoulder again, his scythe hollowing out my heart. I was still reeling from the recent loss of my cat. The Wife’s loss of a lifetime love, whose union was represented in their middle-aged son, and his loss of his father seemed incomprehensibly painful. All I could manage was, “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, recognizing compassion in my moistened eyes.

As they settled into booth, I asked, “Would you like your extra-hot decaf?”

“No,” she said with a tiny shake of her head, “I’ll just have water.” She’d never just had water before.

I looked at The Son. “I’ll have water too,” he said.

“He looks just like him,” I said to The Wife.

She puffed up proudly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes. I almost thought it was him when you walked in.” I was happy to make her happy. But, as I walked away, I looked back to see her sparkle had dulled like lead, and her ash-colored hair hooded her crestfallen face.

When they were finished, he approached me at the server stand with the bill book open, exact change for the bill on one side and a $5 bill–a generous tip–on the other. His father paid with the same style. I thanked him.

He stared at the front of the restaurant, a wall of windows and a door leading into the patio. The parking lot blacktop glistened darkly under the midafternoon sun. “He passed suddenly. A bleeding ulcer. I had lunch with him the day before. The next day he was gone. We argued at lunch. I didn’t get to say I’m sorry. I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The words were stated blankly, numbly, as if they were said before and often, but the repetition hadn’t eased their poignancy. Then he looked at me. “Life changes. It always changes. We can’t fight the changes.”

My mind floated to my cat. She was put to sleep in my lap by a home pet doctor’s needle. I had to fight the rising force in me to jump up and rip the needle out of the gentle hand, whose owner was invited into my home to do exactly what he was doing, to scream out, “Stop! Stop! You can’t murder my cat! I won’t let you! Please stop!” Instead, my scream stuck in my throat in a bilious lump. My hands caressed my kitty as they had for all her 18 years, while tears dripped off my chin in steady rhythm. She was ill and had suffered enough. Any alternative was more suffering and little hope for much else.

Her surviving litter sister took it better. We all spent the morning huddled in bed, their purrs a continuous hum. As her sister ceased breathing, she moved restlessly about. The body was laid to rest in a cat bed to be picked up later by the crematorium. She sniffed her sister softly, then licked her gently, like goodbye kisses. She laid down to share the bed, as if she was still alive to snuggle, until the body became cold and stiff. She got to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye. I got to say I’m sorry.

No, we can’t fight the changes.

I said, “He will always be with you. He is with everything now.” I hugged him spontaneously, though I’d only just met him, then hugged his mother, who joined us at that moment. We said no more and they turned to walk slowly out of the restaurant.

Me and My Sweet Survivor

Advertisements

Analyzing Mr. Pig Man

“I took Mr. Pig Man’s order since you weren’t there. He’s in your station. I’ll put it in the computer and transfer it to you,” said Perfectionist Server. He’s tall and thin, and his uniform shirt is always dry cleaned, starched and pressed.

“Oh my god! You keep him. I don’t want him,” said Theatrical Server. Her short, dyed-black hair was side-parted and combed diagonally across her forehead, then tucked behind her ear.

“Sorry. I don’t need his dollar.” Perfectionist Server was talking about the tip expected to be left by Mr. Pig Man.

She stamped her foot and shook her hands in the air. “Oh, God! I can’t stand waiting on him! He’s so rude!”

Mr. Pig Man, a regular at The Pie Shoppe, earned his moniker for a variety of reasons. His face resembled a pig, sans snout, with a sallow complexion, beady eyes, and sparse, greasy hair. His belt hid beneath a protruding pot-belly. He ate like a pig, both in quantity and quality, shoveling copious amounts of food into his mouth with sloppy gusto. His ordering was abrupt and squealing, like someone making demands but who was uncertain he’d receive compliance.

As Theatrical Server waited on him, she repeatedly refilled his iced tea. She microwaved his big bowl of potato cheese soup and full rack of BBQ ribs “very hot.” Corn bread sprayed from his mouth as he called for more napkins. Every time he got up to refill his plate at the salad bar, he adjusted his ill-fitting clothes pushed aside by his corpulence, hiking up his pants and pulling down his shirt. His over-loaded salad plates were cloaked with ranch dressing like a snow-capped Mount Everest. He mowed down ribs and fries like they were blades of grass. When he finished eating, the table looked like a toddler made merry there.

When he was ready to leave, Mr. Pig Man sought out Perfectionist Server in the server aisle and gave him the bill book with some cash. “Here’s your money. Keep the change, buddy,” he said in a jovial tone I’d never heard before, waving his hand as he walked away.

“Why did he pay you when Theatrical Server waited on him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Cuz I took the order?” he suggested.

We both looked at the cash. There was $30 left for a $28.18 bill. His tip was a dollar and some coins. Theatrical Server approached.

“Here’s your money from Mr. Pig Man,” said Perfectionist Server.

I started wiping the pie area counter of crumbs and smears of fruit and whipped cream. “Funny, I never heard him talk like that before, sounding so friendly. I wonder if he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Maybe he’s afraid of women. Or shy. I feel sorry for him. He’s probably never been laid.”

“Never been laid? I don’t think sex factors in,” retorted Perfectionist Server, who was organizing the glasses and pulling empty racks to take to the dishwasher. “I mean, fuck sex. I don’t think he’s ever had someone’s arms around him. Think about it. He’s what? Late 40s, early 50s? It’s possible he’s never been held. I’m talking by someone who’s not his mother or sister or something. And maybe not them either.”

Theatrical Server, who was loitering, holding up her money from Mr. Pig Man, looked fascinated and serious. “Well, what about his defense mechanisms? If you put it out there like he does, it’s what he’s gonna get back. You can’t walk around being unpleasant all the time and expect people to hug you. How we act attracts what we get.”

I said, “I don’t think he’s aware of how defensive he is. It could be unconscious behavior.”

Perfectionist Server replied, “Yeah. He was probably raised by people like all the parents we see here all the time, where their kids can run around how they please, drinking soda after soda, screeching, and getting ignored, while their parents sit on their smart phones, texting.”

Theatrical Server moved closer to Perfectionist Server, enthusiastically chewing on the discussion. “That’s so true! These parents don’t get that what they’re doing is creating another Mr. Pig Man. I think it’s sad.”

At that point, we all dispersed from the server aisle to check on our tables. Mr. Pig Man was forgotten.