“—You really think so?” The tall skinny man with the sunglasses laughs in a distinctly mocking tone after I tell him that I think The Beatles are ‘kind of bland’.
It is my first day waiting tables here and I already screwed up by offending one of the customers, and since my boss is at the counter five yards away, I’m probably back on the street this evening.
The skinny man lowers his sunglasses and looks directly at me, while I still balance the damn strawberry cakes and steaming black coffee on my tray, but now with noticeable trembling.
He then turns to the small Asian woman who is also seated at the table, all in black. She is looking away from us, a knotted fist under her chin, looking like she is either very tired of the man—or of me.
Now, for a 20-something from the country who has been hustling for ages to get somewhere in life—at least somewhere with a steady paycheck – my nerves get the better of me. It has only been two weeks since I was fired from the last place because I was too slow and ‘had an attitude’.
“Did you ‘ear that?” the man asks the woman in his peculiar nasal accent. “I ask her what she thinks of The Beatles and she says ‘bland’.”
The woman shakes her head, then fixes me with a penetrating stare. “You can put the coffee down now, dear.”
“W-why, yes. Of course.” By some miracle, I get both the cake and coffee onto their table without spilling anything. “I am sorry if you happen to like … The Beatles.”
The man grins. “Not anymore.”
The woman shakes her head. “Can we please—”
I almost bow and retreat quickly. On my way a couple by the wall with all the movie star pictures call out to me. They ordered soup – where is it? They quickly go back to talking excitedly like they had had a revelation, and the man fondles his wedding ring and nods at the woman with knowing eyes. I hate him already.
And before I can get to the lovebirds, I have to serve an elderly, very querulous man who insists that a piece of pastry contains chocolate when it does not. It takes me a while to sort that out and it doesn’t make me shake any less when I come up to the counter for the next order. I fumble with the tray while Mr. Beck watches me and I am sure he has been doing it all the time. Then as I am finally ready to take the two damn bowls of tomato soup Mr. Beck puts his hand down on my tray.
“Getting to meet some of our regulars?” His voice is deep, inscrutable.
I glance nervously back toward the chocolate man, who is seated near the window where you can watch people buzzing by in the humid Village afternoon—all, it seems, with more control and direction over their lives than me.
“You fixed that one fine,” Mr. Beck says. “But you’re not out of the woods yet.”
He nods toward the skinny man and the dark Asian woman, and his eyes narrow.
I freeze. “I think I made him angry. Or the woman. Or both of them.”
The couple is huddled away in an alcove on the far side of the counter. In front of the counter and all the way up to the street door, there are only a few other patrons who seem likewise stuck in their own worlds, as if each shining brown table was a mini-universe all of its own. The chocolate man seems especially happy with the pastry that is the exact same type as he had dismissed 10 minutes earlier.
Mr. Beck kept staring at me.
I lowered my voice. “When I came over this guy kept looking at me like he was expecting me to say something, and then I got jittery and so when he asked me … it just flew out. I’m sorry.”
“Have you ever seen The Beatles, Miss Sawyer?”
“What they look like. On TV? In the papers?”
“Once or twice. I think.”
Mr. Beck frowns. “What planet are you from, girl?”
I bite my lip to stay calm. “Please, I want the job—”
“Sure, you do.” He leans over the counter and a heavy hand finds my shoulder. “And now I believe you when you say you grew up on that Mormon farm and then ran away to India.”
It feels as if my cheeks are on fire. “I—I should never talk about anything except business to customers ever again. Never.”
A tight smile crosses Mr. Beck’s lips. “No, I think you should talk like a normal human being, not a mannequin.”
“Just serve that damn tomato soup
I swallow my own breath when I hear the nasal accent again. The tall man is standing behind me. He pushes up his sunglasses to rest in his mangy hair. Then he fumbles for something in his pocket and pulls out a 20-dollar bill and presses it into my hand. “I almost forgot to leave a tip.”
I stare at the bill.
“Keep it,” the man says quickly. “I appreciate honesty.”
“And peace and quiet.” Mr. Beck sighs. “Pity such things are only possible for so long.”
“What’s your name, luv?” asks the man.
I tell him.
“That is a lucky name,” he says enigmatically. “And you are a real hero—well, a heroine. You say what you think. I like that.”
“He likes it too much, sometimes.” The small Asian woman has come up, like a shadow, behind the man. “Especially if it is him saying what he thinks. It will get him into trouble.”
The man smiles faintly now but keeps looking at me. “I hope you’ll serve us some more cake and coffee another day, Deborah.”
“Certainly, Mr. —”
“Boogie. Dr. Winston O’Boogie.”
“You are a doctor? How … nice.” I struggle to keep smiling as if the surname sounded like anything but a doctor’s.
“Yes, I’m a doctor. Kind of.”
“So you, er, have patients?” I go red again. That sounded incredibly stupid.
But the man keeps smiling politely. “They come and go. I’m sort of on an extended leave of absence right now, though.”
The woman takes the man by the arm. “Come.”
“Well,” he nods at me for a final time. “I guess we have to be absent.”
When they have gone, I glance over at their table. At least they have eaten their cakes. Another guest yells after me to bring the soup and I bring it over like it’s a bomb I trying to get rid of.
When I come back again to the counter Mr. Beck is still there. I look down but he waves dismissively at me. “Snap out of it, Miss Sawyer. You made a new friend, I am sure of it. I am also sure you should listen to something other than that hippie yoga music of yours.”
“Oh, like what?”
He hesitates briefly, glancing at the empty cake table. “Never mind,” he then says with finality. “The friend part is the most important. Friends come back—again and again.”
Connected story: “Nancy Culpepper” in Nancy Culpepper: Stories by Bobbie Ann Mason (2007)