I remember a man, slicked-back hair, wire-rimmed glasses. He wore ironed blue button-down shirts with white collars and cuffs and a pink tie, pressed slacks, shining black shoes. He often carried a briefcase and he always kept his hand on his mother’s elbow, gently guiding her into her seat at their usual table in my section for their usual Thursday night dinner.
They ordered the same drinks — Bacardi with cranberry and pineapple, heavier on the pineapple, shaken until chilled, in an up glass for him, Absolut and tonic for her — and the same food, nearly always. I learned I should wait until the man had drunk his first drink before taking their order. Both mother and son took their time eating, absorbed in conversation and each other’s company. After enough weeks, when I began to say, “Lovely to see you again,” and mean it, they asked me about myself, where I went to school, how I ended up out here. On weeks they did not come, I worried.
One night I found myself by the door next to the man while he waited for his mother to exit the restroom. He revealed that his father had died in the fall and his mother had begun to deteriorate. He told me his parents had moved out here from the city permanently after they retired, but now with his father gone and his mother’s mental state not doing so well, he thought he and his wife would have to sell the house and bring his mother to the city to live with them.
I thought it was sweet and sad and his words made me think, for a moment, there by the door, about a future where I might have to make choices and sacrifices like this man, where I might go to a restaurant every week with my mother, holding her frail arm in mine as I lead her to our regular table.
After the food is eaten and the white plates gleam brightly on the tables, the puddles of moisture around the half-empty water glasses forming damp circles on the table cloth. After the conversation has died down. After the bitter coffee, empty packets of sweetener — the white, the blue, the pink, and the yellow.
After you’ve wiped your mouth and thrown down your napkin, after you’ve paid the bill, pushed back your chair, groaning softly at your fullness. After you’ve left the restaurant, only the waiters remain, sweeping crumbs into our cupped hands, wiping down the tables, placing polished silverware onto starched white cloth.
After you go, there is another and another. You are repeated too many times to count over the course of a night, a weekend, a month. In the heat of the summer one shift blurs into the next, a stream of repeated motion: now I scoop the ice, now I pour the soda, now I write down the order, now I pick up the plate.
After the last guest is gone, we put up the chairs, empty the coffees, turn off the ice machine. We return everything to its place, wrap condiments and citrus and sauces in thin films of plastic. We take the salts and peppers off the tables, we place the rollups in their bin, we take down racks of glasses and put them onto shelves in straight lines.
After you’ve eased your mother into the passenger seat and gently shut the door, driven to your cedar-shingled house on a quiet street, helped her up the front steps and through the front door — the hinges squeak and you think tomorrow you’ll WD-40 them for her — the waiters remain, counting the money, dividing it up according to percentages and hours worked. After you’ve placed a glass of water on your bedside table and switched off the light, we sit down for the first time in eight hours. We sigh and feel the tiredness seep up through our feet and into our legs.
Sometimes in the night, we are startled away by a singular thought, “I forgot to bring Table 8 a side of mustard.” Sometimes we dream about work, about having a full section and no hands, about taking an order but not being able to write. Nightmarish things.
After July comes August. A year’s worth of sweat in 31 days. The stifling, still month holds us in its hot mouth. The exhale won’t come until September.
The man and his mother have not been to the restaurant in a long time. I like to think they’re in air-conditioned rooms. I like to think the man guides his mother gently to a different table in a different city where a different waitress takes their order, smiles at them, treats them kindly.
After they’re gone, after August is over, I remain. Through the fall and winter and into another season, here I am.