Thursday, May 31, 2012

Short Story: "Table For Three"

I know, I know. Another bleak short story. Sorry to be a gloomy Gus, but I just write what comes to me. Sometimes it's pleasant. Most of the time it isn't. If you have a twisted sense of humor like I do, maybe you'll enjoy it. If you don't, then at least try to endure it. I think you'll find there's an interesting twist in the end....

The old man tottered forward to the hostess station, looked up at the pretty young lady standing behind the counter, and grinned broadly.

"Yes, sir? How many in your party today?" she asked, returning the smile, albeit an insincere, plastered-on version of his.

"Table for three," the man stated, and nodded in agreement with himself. He looked behind him at nothing in particular, and nodded again.

"Okie doke," the young lady replied. She looked down at her table chart, circled a spot with her marker, and grabbed three menus before returning the man's gaze again. "Right this way, sir."

"Thank you, my dear," said the old man, doffing his hat and shaking a few lingering raindrops onto the polished floor below.

The pretty young lady extended her arm toward an open booth like a game-show beauty, and said, "Here you go, sir. When the rest of your party arrives, what name will they give so that I can direct them to your table?"

The old man sat down on the aisle side at the back of the booth and placed his hat on the table. "The rest of my party?" He looked befuddled.

"Well, yes, sir. You did say you wanted a table for three, right? And there's just you so far...." The young lady smiled politely.

"Of course, of course," replied the old man, nodding to himself. "You can't see them, can you? I forget that some people can't. Pity."

The pretty young lady looked quizzically at the vacant space beside the man and at the empty seats across from him at the booth. "Can't see who, sir?"

"This is Millicent," he gestured to the space beside himself. "And this is Karen." His outstretched hand pointed to the center of the booth across the table. "My ex-wives," he smiled sheepishly.

The young lady stared, somewhat amused but mostly saddened for the delusional old man. She pursed her lips as though to speak, but seemed to be at a loss for words. She simply nodded, and quickly walked away toward the safety of the hostess station.

The old man settled back in the booth and tried unsuccessfully to put his arm around the invisible "Millicent" just moments before his server approached the table.

"Good afternoon, sir. My name is Will, and I'll be taking care of you today. Can I get you something to drink?" The young man appeared to be college-aged, and was much more well-groomed than most "kids" these days, the old man thought.

"Why, yes, young man. I'll have a Diet Coke, and the lady will have –" The old man pointed toward the invisible "Karen," paused a moment, and continued. "A decaf coffee, black. And Millicent, dear, what will you have?" Again, the old man paused and looked at the blank space beside him before continuing. "Millicent will also have a Diet Coke."

With that, the old man nodded to himself and smiled up at the awestruck server. Will stood there for a second, unsure how to proceed, before slowly nodding his head and heading toward the kitchen.

A minute later, Will returned with the two sodas and black coffee that the old man had requested. The young man knew he was dealing with a loony, but he couldn't afford not to get good tips – not tonight. The rent was due tomorrow and Will barely had enough to cover it, much less any extra with which to buy food.

"Here you go, sir. Are you three ready to order?"

"You can see them?" replied the old man curiously, and grinned again. "That's wonderful!"

Playing along, Will stated, "Of course, sir. Now, let's start with you – what would you like?"

"I'll have the baked lasagna," said the old man cheerily, "Light on the cheese topping, if you please. Makes me constipated."

"I understand perfectly, sir," Will replied, scribbling down the crazy old man's order. "And for the ladies?" Will looked at the empty space across from the man, as though he actually expected to hear the voice of the unseen lady.

The old man looked across from him, cupped his ear as though to hear better, then looked back up at Will. "Karen will have the grilled sirloin. Medium well, with the baked potato and steamed vegetables."

"Wonderful choice, ma'am," said Will cheerily, trying desperately to keep the sarcasm from his voice. This old man better leave a fat tip for all he's putting me through, Will thought. "And for you, miss?" Will looked intently at the empty seat adjacent to the old man.

"Yes," said the old man, after briefly turning his head in her direction then back at Will. "Millicent will have the half-rack of ribs – with the spicy dry rub – with French fries and baked apples." The old man gathered the three menus and handed them to Will.

Will was surprised to see that the coffee mug across from the old man now sat half-empty. He had just brought the coffee to the table, and the mug had been full only seconds earlier as Will was staring at the empty seat to take the "lady's" order. Will shook his head in disbelief, feigned a smile at the old man, and turned back toward the kitchen.

When Will returned a few minutes later with the food, he was less surprised to find that both soda glasses and the coffee mug had been drained entirely. "Somebody's thirsty," Will teased the old man.

"Yes, we've been out and about all afternoon. Tends to dry us old folks out a bit," the old man said.

"I hear ya," replied Will, and set the first of the three plates down on the table. "Okay, we've got the half-rack of ribs with fries and apples." The old man slid the plate across to where "Millicent" sat. "Then we've got the baked lasagna." Will put the plate down in front of the man. "And the grilled sirloin, baked potato, and steamed veggies." He took the plate from Will and set it down in front of "Karen."

"Thank you, young man," the old man smiled.

"Of course, sir. Will you be needing anything else right now?" Will inquired.

The old man glanced over at "Millicent" and then at "Karen" before answering. "Karen would like some Heinz 57, if you please."

"Certainly, sir," Will answered, and dashed off to the kitchen. When he returned with the Heinz 57, Will was shocked to see that "Karen's" steak had been cut into bite-size pieces, the baked potato dressed with butter, sour cream, salt, and pepper, and half the steamed veggies had disappeared, apparently eaten.

Will set the Heinz 57 down beside the plate and glanced over at "Millicent's" plate. Half of the half-rack had already been broken apart, and two slurped-clean rib bones lay on a napkin beside the plate. Someone had made a dent in the French fries and apples as well. Meanwhile, the old man sat deliberately forking through his plate of lasagna. seemingly savoring each bite. "Did everything turn out  alright, sir?"

The old man looked up from his food, apparently not having noticed Will approach. "Oh yes, everything's quite wonderful. Karen said the steak was cooked perfectly. Her compliments to the chef."

Will stood dumbfounded. "I will certainly tell the chef," he stammered, and walked back to the kitchen.

As Will made the rounds of his other tables, he periodically glanced at the old man's table and now found it perfectly logical that each plate was gradually getting emptier and emptier by the minute.

The old man was rail-thin and very frail-looking. By all appearances, one would hardly expect him to finish one meal, much less three. But that had to be the explanation for it. Nothing else made sense.

A few minutes later, Will stopped at the table of the old man and his imaginary "ladies" one last time. "How was everything, sir? Ladies?"

The old man swiveled his head toward "Millicent," then back to "Karen," then looked up at Will. "Everything was just fine. Thank you, young man."

"Certainly, sir," Will smiled insincerely. "Will this be all on one check today?" He felt stupid for even asking the question.

"No, sir. It'll be three separate ones, if you please." The old man looked questioningly at Will's blank stare. "Is that a problem, young man?"

"Of course not, sir," replied Will, awakened from his stupor. "I'll be right back with those checks."

When Will returned to the table with the checks, the old man stood and pulled him aside. "Listen, young fella," the old man said. "I know what you're thinking, right? How ungentlemanly of a gent I must be, taking my two best gals out to dinner and making them pay for their own meals." He paused for Will to reply.

Will acquiesced with a curt answer: "Yes, sir, that's exactly what I was wondering."

"Well," continued the old man. "It's not that I wouldn't be willing to pay. It's that they won't let me. Seems Millicent and Karen are a little miffed at me these days."

"Really, sir?" Will was fascinated at the man's story, despite himself. "Why is that?"

"Well, young man, it seems that womenfolk don't take too kindly to being killed," answered the old man, matter-of-factly.

"Killed, sir?"

"That's right," said the old man. "You see, I am responsible for both of their deaths. Millicent there – I stabbed her eighteen times one morning when she was about to get into the shower. She hadn't done anything particularly offensive. I had just gotten tired of looking at her."

Will gulped deeply and simply nodded, as the old man continued.

"And Karen over there – well, I strangled her to death. One afternoon when I got home from work, she had the nerve to tell me that she didn't like my tie, and – well – I just couldn't help myself." The old man patted Will on the back reassuringly. "But you don't need to hear all this. You're a young man. You've got plenty of time to learn the ways of the world."

"Yes, sir," Will stammered. "I guess you're right." He looked briefly into the old man's eyes – which seemed much colder now – before looking away nervously. "Here are the checks, sir."

The old man took the checks from Will and returned to the table. As he walked away, Will glanced back over his shoulder and saw the man placing the checks in front of his unseen ladies.

Walking directly to the time clock, Will punched his card, removed his apron, and headed out the back door. He didn't care about the tip, or even his job anymore.

Will had learned plenty about "the ways of the world" in the past few minutes, and he didn't intend to learn anything else today.

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