A short story published in zaum, The Literary Review of
Sonoma State University, Spring 1997, Issue #1.
He comes almost every day, a dejected body, with a bowed head, ambling slowly to the back of the restaurant. He will sit patiently and wait for one of the servers to greet him. Occasionally he pops his head around the serving station in search of a particular server. Behind the station, the young waitresses smile at him as they tug at their pantyhose, while the rare male server nods his head and continues to prepare a salad. After checking in, a familiar face will soon appear at his table. This evening it is Susie, yesterday it was Remie. Instead of the large perfected smile Susie shows the rest of the customers, she smiles at this man with a weary half smile. Ned’s head rises and his brown eyes shine as he realizes Susie’s smile is for him only.
After all Susie is one of the prettier ones, the type of girl who on the street wouldn’t even spare Ned a glance. Her strawberry blond hair is pulled back into a French braid, with little curly wisps trying to creep out. Her lipstick is a pale pink and her complexion is tan and clear, save for the crumb of food on her red cheek. Susie lets out a long sigh as she bends a lanky leg to rest on the booth across from Ned. It has been a long night and Ned is her only customer right now. The back of the restaurant is quiet and empty, she would have forgotten Ned if he had not looked behind the counter to say Hi. No menu rests on Ned’s table and the overhead lighting is dim. Instead of reciting her perfected speech of specials and greetings Susie asks Ned how he is doing.
“Oh not so good, bankrupt again. But how are you doing?” Ned answers, a smile crinkling his expansive forehead with thought.
“Not really good either. You want anything, some coffee or something?”
“Coffee would be nice. Why wasn’t your day so good?”
Susie quickly lifts her leg and glides off, promising Ned she’ll tell him about her day when she returns with his coffee. A minute later though, as Susie returns with the hot coffee, a large party is seated in her section. The coffee spills slightly as Susie turns slightly and strides toward the noise. The promise of cash and the ability to pay her rent draws her and Susie forgets to check on Ned back in his dark corner. At a few minutes before eleven, his coffee cup long having been empty, he decides to go. Over an hour ago, after Susie got the big table, Ned could have gotten himself more coffee, after all he knows where it is. He didn’t though, instead he sat silently waiting.
Ned passes Susie on the way out, her curt bye tells him she must have forgotten about her promise, the story will have to wait for another night.
“No, I’m German,” Dedra says as she casually reaches across Ned to refill the sugar container.
“You’re not English then?” Ned asks, the mole on his forehead moving upwards as his skin wrinkles.
“No, I’m mostly German with a little French and other stuff.” Dedra balances his empty plates on her arms as she half turns to go.
“You’re English?” Ned questions, his soft brown eyes display that he is unaware that he has already asked this question.
“Yeah, I’m English.” Dedra smiles as she saunters away, two plates delicately balanced on her chubby arms.
“Hey, Ned, how ‘ya doing tonight?” Remie asks as she walks past.
“Well…” Ned begins, but Remie has already passed by and is now serving hot soup to a young couple on table four.
Ned shuffles toward the back of the restaurant, his head bowed toward the ground.
“Hey Ned,” Susie says as she whisks by him, three salads balanced on her arms.
“Hi,” Ned answers as he continues to walk toward the back of the restaurant. Ned sits at the back table, his arms resting on the slick surface, his head looking at the empty seat across from him.
“Sorry it took so long. I was kind of busy,” Susie says as she looks down at Ned, her pale eyes darting around the noisy restaurant.
“Oh that’s all right,” Ned says as he attempts to catch Susie’s flighty glance. “You know my car broke down again … It’s so hard to get around without a car, everyone just expects you to own one … And waiting for the bus, that’s really hard…”
“Yeah, I know. Did you want anything tonight?” Susie asks as she fiddles with her pen.
“Just some coffee. Oh , and some extra sugar,” Ned says as Susie turns to go, “Oh, and a Diet Coke if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.”
Susie sets down the drinks and slips the bill to the corner of the table. “Thanks,” she utters as she backs up.
Ned looks toward the bill and then toward Susie, “It’s so hard to meet people you know, everyone is already in couples.”
“Weren’t you ever married?” Susie asks, her thinly etched eyebrows rising in wonder.
“No, and it’s so hard to meet people, there are no groups you know just for single people.” Ned pauses as he stirs his coffee, “I mean for single people who want to meet people but who don’t want to…you know draw attention to it or anything.”
“There are lots of church groups, and stuff like that,” Susie says as she pushes a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“That’s true, that’s true.”
“What about the rest of your family,” Susie asks as she glances toward her other tables.
“Oh, they’ve all got their own families. You know, busy with the kids and all that. Grandkids…Holidays are rough you know, everyone’s got a place to go, no-one really notices…”
“Oh, hang in there Ned,” Susie says as she places a neatly manicured hand on Ned’s hunched shoulder. Ned sits motionless, his mouth silent, his head almost touching the table. Susie lifts her hand and reaches into her apron, “I better get back to my other tables,” she says as she pulls out her pen, backs up, and turns around.
Her calves stiff and tight, her shoulders drooping, and her mouth dry, Susie yawns as she walks toward Tim’s car.
“How was tonight?” Tim asks as he moves to unlock her door.
“Oh, all right,” Susie answers as she steps toward the car door. Susie drops into the car, a smile passing over her lips, as she turns her head back on the old man in the parking lot behind them. For once, the familiar figure in the parking lot is not shuffling his feet. His usually hunched shoulders are only slightly bent as he veers back and forth, weaving his way between the few parked cars. His head is raised toward the dark sky and his arms are outstretched at his sides, balancing him as he veers.
Ned coasts through the parking lot, for the first time he is flying.
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