The Man at Table Five
A version of this story was published in The Sun Magazine. It was taken from an as yet unpublished novel, Like a Little God.
I was working at Fanny’s Cafe in Newport. I worked the breakfast shift. I came in early and made the coffee. I served eggs and sausage, pancakes and waffles. I had to walk up to people, ask and answer questions, look them in the eye, be friendly and relaxed. I remembered the regulars and what they liked: coffee black or with cream, eggs over easy or hard, wheat toast or white. Maybe they liked the table by the window or no ice in their water. They wanted quick service or they wanted to linger, they wanted peace and quiet, or they were lonely and wanted conversation. I had to be a good sport, laugh at their jokes, sympathize with their small problems and smile. I was used to speaking my mind, saying fuck or goddamn it, saying go get it yourself, do I look like your maid. I wasn’t used to being careful.
I was a foreigner. I was like somebody who knew customs from reading about them in a guidebook. I couldn’t do anything without first telling myself to do it. I had to tell myself how to talk and how to move and what to do with my face and my hands.
I worked for a woman named Fanny Nutt. Everybody told me not to work there, the lady is just like her name, and they were right. Some people are crazy and you can tell because they stand on corners talking to themselves, but others become your boss. My first day of work, a man complained. He had ordered the Captain’s Platter. A little of everything: scallops, fish, crab, oysters. It costs over $20. When he finished, he came up to pay. He said to Fanny, “Aren’t you going to ask me how I liked my food?”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. That is some of the worst food I ever ate.”
And she said, “No it isn’t.” She said, “It’s the best. You’re just too stupid to realize it.”
Fanny was a hater. If her horizons had been larger, she would have hated the federal government or Mexicans or Arabs, but Fanny had a small, narrow life and her hate was confined to those around her. The suppliers. The fish man, the meat man, the pop man, the produce driver, the salesmen. She hated the customers and, most of all, she hated us.
She hired girls who had something wrong with them, and then she’d find it. She’d get you drunk after your shift and you’d talk. She was disarming in a way you didn’t expect in a woman. You’d tell her your secrets, and she’d save them for later, to turn against you. Fanny Nutt threw a pan across the kitchen if you made a mistake. If she heard a customer complain, she’d tear off her apron, slam it on the counter, and rush to the floor. Go back to California, where you belong! Her first husband was from California -- she knew what they were like.
I learned fast. I could think of many things at once and I remembered everything. Even now, years later, I can run into somebody and remember them: table nine, roast beef sandwich, French fries, slaw, diet coke, no ice. What a waste of memory. I didn’t need to write my orders down, but I did. Otherwise the customers got nervous. They figured anybody with a memory that could hold six or eight full dinner orders, along with substitutions and fussy directions, would not have a job as a waitress. More to the point, I wrote to keep the other girls from thinking I was a show-off. Waiting tables is competitive. You go into a restaurant and you think it’s just someone bringing your food, but no. The girls watch each other all the time, to see who’s getting the best tables and who’s getting the biggest tips.
Gays were the best. Everyone tried for the gays. People from the east coast were better tippers than Oregonians. 10% is unheard of out east. Old people were stuck in 1960 when they figured their tip, and French people didn’t tip at all. We watched to see who got who and who got what. Not just because we needed the money, but because every table was a vote: we like you 10%, 15%, 20%. It was like American Idol every night.
Even so, we looked out for each other. Girls came and went at Fanny’s, but three of us managed to stick it out: me, Marcella, whose son had died, and Jennifer. The three of us were friends, in a way. We went to bat for each other. There was Josue in the kitchen, too. He was the dishwasher, but he spoke almost no English, so Fanny left him alone.
Fanny had a shit list. We took turns being on it. It was completely arbitrary, which was the brilliant thing about the shit list. One minute you were Fanny’s pet. Why can’t the rest of you girls be more like Ralph? I’m going to make Ralph the manager. Now there is someone with his head on his shoulders. Next thing you knew, it was, I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with Ralph.
It was the first nice day of spring, the first sunny day in months, when Fanny fired Ralph, the waiter with bad teeth, because –let’s face it-- men just couldn’t do the job like women. After Ralph, we were one big happy family for a couple of weeks, and then Fanny moved to Marcella. Her dead son didn’t protect her. Her food sat in the window too long. Weren’t her tables always the ones that had problems?
“No, Fanny,” I said. “It’s all the tables.”
“You’re just being nice. She thinks because of her son, she can take advantage.”
The afternoon Marcella got fired, Joe came in. He sat in my section, Table 5, a small one by the front door. You could hear Fanny’s voice all the way across the room, telling Marcella to get out. “....and if you think the sympathy card is going to work with me---!”
It was the middle of lunch hour. The place was full. Every table needed something. Menus closed, fingers tapping. Meanwhile, people crowded into the lobby, waiting to get in and have a bad experience. People shouted at me. They called out names of condiments. They waved their hands and clicked their fingers. It hardly occurred to anyone that they could walk out the door.
Fanny had followed Marcella out of the kitchen, shaking a metal spatula. “You think I don’t know who’s taking my pork loins? You’re lucky I don’t call the cops!”
“What are you looking at?” Fanny shouted at a Canadian in Bermuda shorts. She turned her eyes from table to table.
“What do you want from me? Look! Just look at them—” She waved her hand to include, not only Marcella, standing by the door with her pocketbook over her arm, but also me, in my black skirt and white cotton blouse.
I leaned towards Table 7. A nice little family. “Ranch, Thousand Island or vinaigrette.”
“Thieves! Prostitutes! Addicts! Women who shoot their husbands!” Fanny pointed at me. “I got her from a group home in Portland.”
Which wasn’t exactly true. I’d been living on my own for almost three months by then. I beg your pardon.
“Soup of the day is clam chowder,” I whispered.
They slunk in their seats, trying to hide, averting their eyes. “This is what I get and this is what you get and you’d better just be happy about it.” Fanny turned and ran back into the kitchen.
I went to Marcella, who was standing by the door. Wesley had gone out crabbing in the Alsea Bay and drowned. He was sixteen. He was all she’d had, which is something you can hear and think you understand, but probably don’t. I took her pocketbook. “Fuck her,” I said. I set Marcella’s pocketbook behind the counter and, giving her my notepad, pointed to my family of four.
Three women had seated themselves at table 6, ignoring the “Wait to Be Seated” sign. Six hands waved in the air. “We are waiting! Miss! Miss!” After letting them stew for a while, I finally went to their table, leaned forward and described the choices. Clam puffs. French bread with brie. Turkey fricassee or chicken burritos. We had Lake Superior whitefish. They didn’t seem to notice everyone was calling for me. They didn’t notice me looking around, holding up a finger-- not the one I wanted to hold up but the one that said, just a minute, I’ll be right there. They wanted to know what kind of fish was white fish. Was it like cod? Oily? Flaky? Fishy? They yearned for fettuccine. Never mind! They’d just have coffee: a double decaf latte, a double shot half skinny and an Americano. They were in a hurry, they told me. I didn’t think so. I went to Table 5.
The man didn’t say anything at first. Maybe he wasn’t convinced I was actually taking his order, without my pad and pencil.
“I’ll remember what you tell me,” I said.
“I thought that waitress just got fired,” he said.
Marcella was carrying a tray loaded with fish and chips and beers.
“Didn’t she get fired?”
He had used up his quota of remarks unrelated to his dinner selection, but still he would not stop. “Was that the manager?”
“Fanny? She’s the owner, mister.” If I’d had a pencil I would have tapped it to remind him, I haven’t got all day.
He started laughing. People act like they’ve got a right to think something is funny, when they don’t know anything about it. I remembered Wesley coming around after school sometimes. He liked Chuck Norris jokes.
Hey, Mavis, if paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper, what beats all three? Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris. Fuck, yeah.
I said the fish stew was good, and he said that’d be fine.
I always had bad luck with guys. They all had something wrong with them, something messed up, complicated and dark. Once I had gone for a drive with the boy who delivered our fish, but he tried to run over dogs, so I wouldn’t see him again. My last date had been with a customer from Waldport. We went out with another couple. The boys sat in the front and I sat in the back with the other girl, which was fine, because it turned out they were the kind of boys who thought it was funny to try to pee on each other while they drove. And then there were the mean ones.
The man at five was finishing his fish stew when the door opened and a family from India came in, sitting at the table where the fussy ladies had been. A mother and father, two children and a grandmother. Dots were painted in the middle of the women’s foreheads. The kids gripped little plastic super hero toys.
A skinny blond gal came and sat at table 1, by the kitchen. She had a book, but she didn’t get a chance to read, because a man, sitting alone at the next table, began to talk to her. Most people know when you want to be left alone, but he wanted to tell her about his last trip to Portland and how he stayed in the Governor’s Motel and the cheapest thing on the breakfast menu was $10 and there were two women at the next table in the restaurant, must have been sisters, and they had their four kids with them, two a piece, and he said breakfast was expensive, even if you split the meals, it’s not like I Hop and not as fast as I Hop, either, or Denny’s, and on and on until I was tempted to go over and tell him to shut the fuck up. He looked like a child molester to me, like one of my foster fathers. He wore white athletic shoes -- old lady’s shoes— and a short- sleeved plaid shirt. His dentures made a wet, clicking noise when he talked. I imagined them at night, sitting in a glass by his bed. He was staying in a motel on Nye Beach. He told the woman how expensive the motel was. He said, “Look at those Indians, they always travel in packs.” When I told the girl the specials, he said chicken burritos didn’t sound too good, but maybe the Mexicans would eat it.
The blond girl stiffened up and began to shake. Her eyes rolled back in her head, her body flew backward and her head banged on the floor one, two, three. The man who’d had such a big interest in her a minute ago slid out of his seat, walked out the front door and disappeared. The man on 5 jumped up and eased her away from the chair, holding her head gently, while the Indian man put his hands on her legs. Nobody said anything. It was something you shouldn’t watch, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Then it was over. Trudy and Josue in the kitchen didn’t even know it happened. The men helped her back into her chair.
“It’s okay. It’s okay,” the man from Table 5 said, when she began to come to herself. I brought a glass of water. One of the children began to cry. The girl took a drink. She had just wanted to eat her lunch and read her book. Something had gone wrong in her brain and she had fallen to the floor and it had only lasted one minute, but in that minute I understood that the man on five was not a dog-killing man, not mean or strange in some unimaginable way, and when he came in again the next day, I sat him in my section even though it wasn’t my turn.