It was Wednesday and snowing, the first significant snow of the season. Flakes were piling up on the sidewalk, fluffy stuff that resembled stretched out cotton balls over a nativity scene. The city looked pretty but smelled like a bowl of dog food. I flexed my fingers, which were starting to get stiff from the cold, and made a mental note to find my damned gloves.
A girl walked past me wearing one of those weird animal head hats. You know the ones where they kind of stretch into a scarf that you can put your hands into? Well, this particular girl wore a panda head on top of her own. She gave me a suggestive grin and tiny wave with a panda paw.
I smiled back but she was at least five years too young to have anything interesting to say. I was about five years too old to not care about such things.
I put my hands in my coat pockets and found my damned gloves.
Mental note retracted.
I pulled the gloves out of my pockets and a few cable ties fell to the ground. Weird. When was the last time I wore this thing? I put the ties back into my coat and figured that it must have been when I hung my grandma’s Christmas lights last year.
I wondered for a moment if she ever got those things down. Oh well. They were going to be back in season soon enough.
My leg vibrated, and I hoped it was my phone. Three missed calls, two new voicemails. The first call was some number I didn’t know from Apopka, Florida. They didn’t leave a message. The second was from some 800 number; they left me a message about “my credit card” not specifying which one, and told my voicemail to push “5”. My voicemail did not comply.
The oldest call and message was from Alexis. Shit, I missed her again. I listened:
“Hey Chris, it’s me again. Listen, we have to talk. I’m going to be around for another half hour or so if you get the message soon enough, but then we’re all meeting for drinks with the guys from Hybrid. I think I’m staying an extra day. And, uh, that’s all I guess. Oh, it is nine o’ clock, so that’s about eight your time. That’s it then. Umm… bye. ”
I texted back:
“Sorry to have missed your call. Again. Turning the ringer on full blast. Call whenever you want.”
“We have to talk”? Shit. What did that mean? Well, at least pandas still wanted to fuck me, and they don’t even like to fuck other pandas.
I walked into the restaurant five minutes later and was immediately taken aback by the number of people at the podium. A half dozen twenty-somethings blocked the entryway. What were they doing out at this ungodly hour? It was almost 9:30 at night.
Probably grad students.
Each one wore a backpack, ranging in size from the large to the very large. “They must be a study group,” I distinctly remember thinking. In a way, I was right.
Ned, the manager, arrived with a stack of menus. “Maleva, six,” he said as he passed off his pile to the shortest member of the group. I guessed that made her Maleva. She wore bright colors but had the air of a recovering Goth. Maybe it was her black hair.
Maleva saw me staring at her and gave me a wink. Her eyes were pale and blue.
Ned pointed with his left hand and said, “You can take that big, round table.” Ned was always more of a pointer than a leader. The group made their way back towards the table, allowing Ned to notice me.
“Christopher,” he said to me, seeming uncomfortable. “You see that Bears game?” The thought of football seemed to relax him.
“I give up, man. Football season is dead to me. Only a couple of months till baseball, right?”
I tilted my head and asked him how the prospect of another season’s worth of the Chicago Cubs could be something to look forward to. He didn’t have a good answer for that thing.
“Just one?” he asked me, remembering that he was on the clock.
“Naw, I’m meeting some folk, a tall, skinny yuppie and a little hipster.”
“Second booth on the left. “
I passed a series of three small tables. A blonde waitress whose name I can never remember was rolling silverware into napkins on the first one. She paused to chug one of those foul smelling energy drinks. The second one was empty. A woman was crawling underneath the last small table. She was holding the cord to a laptop and, finding no outlet, made grunts of frustration and entitlement. It made me smile, probably because I’m an asshole.
Continuing towards my table, I passed Maleva party of six. Their bags were piled into a mountain in the middle of the big, round table. Their menus were still stacked together, resting just in front of Maleva. I looked her up and down. She was sexy in a mean and crazy sort of way. She smelled like a date to the junior prom, like a sugar cookie.
I was distracted enough that my shoulder knocked a stranger’s coat off its hook. I caught it and hung it back up, barely breaking stride.
I walked past mismatched tables and chairs that looked like they had come from a dozen different restaurants before I found Paul, the tall skinny yuppie, right where Ned said he’d be. He was facing away from the entrance, studying today’s specials. His short brown hair had been receding since he was eighteen, causing his widow’s peak to point at his nose more forcefully every day. I slid onto the bench opposite him before he noticed me. Paul was wearing a maroon polo shirt over a grey, long-sleeved t-shirt. Something about the way Paul dressed always made me want to punch him in the face. I was never sure why. After two beats Paul looked up, nodded hello, and put his head back down in order to examine his pizza options.
“Greg in the bathroom?”
“Yup,” he replied.
“Did he mention how his uncle made one of these tables yet?”
“Which uncle? The carpenter?”
“No, Paul, the quadriplegic Vietnam vet.”
He paused. “Oh, probably not.”
A waitress passed by our table, saw that we were still less than three, and kept walking. I didn’t know her; she was probably new. She looked over the salt shakers on a couple of tables in a vain attempt to look busy. Finally, she grabbed a bottle of ketchup off of the table of an Indian man preoccupied with pictures of poorly designed cakes on the large screen of his tiny computer. The laptop had one of those rubbery cellular antennas poking out its right side, the kind of aerial that looks like a spider leg.
When he thought nobody was looking, the Indian man swapped windows to display photographs of women wearing corsets over snow leopards costumes. At least, they were probably women. There was no way of being certain. I imagined that this was the sort of thing to which mascots from professional sports teams pleasured themselves.
I stared at my menu for a little under a minute before putting it down in disgust saying, “I don’t even know why I look at this thing.” I glanced back over to Maleva’s table. The blond waitress stopped rolling silverware long enough to offer them coffee. No one said yes. Maleva sat between two men with faux hawks. They were athletic types, about 6 feet tall, and looked to be twins. Directly across from Maleva was a freckled girl with red hair in large curls that brushed her shoulders. She didn’t appear to be wearing any makeup and had those invisible ginger eyelashes.
On that girl’s left was a large, brown-haired man who wore dark-rimmed, hipster glasses that clashed with his football player physique. To the right of the ginger girl was an average sized guy who looked like the ringmaster of one of those creepy European circuses.
Their table sat just below a railing. The restaurant had a second floor (or was it a mezzanine?) which contained a dozen more tables and a manager’s office. That section looked closed tonight. The only person up there was a skinny waitress who was eating take-out from another restaurant. She kept her hair in a low bun that kind of made her look like Olive Oyl. Her name was Amanda; she was my favorite waitress because she always kept me from seeing the bottom of my coffee cup.
I surveyed every table in the restaurant, examining everything but why Alexis needed to talk to me. The wedding was still six months from now, uncomfortably close and uncomfortably far away. The Indian guy was still nervously looking at porn. Maleva had folded her napkin into a Robin Hood hat. In the back corner of the restaurant, an old man was eating a scoop of light brown ice cream. The people in the booth behind me were yelling whispers at each other.
Why couldn’t she have “wanted” to talk to me? Why did she “need” to?
“My wife won’t replace the toilet paper.” Paul declared this thing as though it weighed heavily upon him.
My snooping interrupted and having nothing better to do, I responded. “What? Does she use a lot and not go to buy more.”
“Oh, so she uses the last square and leaves you with nothing but a cardboard tube to wipe your ass.” I hate it when people do that thing. My Aunt Rose must buy the world’s shortest rolls of toilet paper.
At this point I was out of ideas. Squinting my eyes and tilting my head seemed to be the most economical way to say, “then what are you talking about?”
Paul had to hold back his anger to clarify things. “She won’t put the new roll of toilet paper on the toilet paper holder. She’ll just set the roll sideways on top of that weird smooshy bar thing. She won’t, like, put it through, you know? It’s all, like, precariously teetering on that little bar.”
“The smooshy bar?”
“It’s just a roll of toilet paper,” I said, stating the obvious.
“Don’t take her side, Chris.” Paul stroked his chin like a super-villain. “I got back at her though. Every time she does that, I put the toilet paper in backwards.”
A pause, another squint, another head tilt.
“Underhand instead of overhand.”
“Paul, I think you just talked me out of marriage.”
“I’ll call Alexis and take all the blame.” Paul said this thing doing whatever the adult man version of giggling is. Oh wait, there isn’t an adult man version of giggling.
I decided it time for a change in direction. “What are you getting?”
“Get what you want, man,” he said, ignoring my question. “It’s on me.”
“Why?” It’s in my nature to be suspicious of generosity.
“I’m taking Greg out. Lift his spirits a bit, you know?”
“Why?” It’s in my nature to distrust altruism.
“He broke up with Improv Girl,” Paul explained.
“So, we’re celebrating this thing?” I didn’t like Improv Girl.
“No, we are not celebrating,” Greg corrected. Apparently, Greg was back from the bathroom. He wore a size large Detroit Lions sweatshirt over his size small Detroit body. It was though Greg’s wardrobe was patiently waiting for him to hit one last growth spurt and double in size. He had dyed his hair black since I’d last seen him. It gave him the impression of trying too hard. Actually, it was the superfluous, yellow-lensed glasses that gave that impression.
But the hair didn’t help.
I explained my position. “Greg, you wouldn’t have broken up with Improv Girl without good reason, and such a good reason demands celebrating.”
Greg had moved into the spot across from me, sliding Paul against the wall. “I proposed. I told her that I was willing to follow her anywhere and support her in any way. She said she wasn’t ready to be anybody’s wife. So I -”
“It sounds like you’re ready to be somebody’s wife.” I interrupted.
“Fuck you. And her name is Maria, not Improv Girl.”
Greg was full of corrections that night. It wasn’t one of his more endearing attributes.
“Her name is Maria, the Improv Girl,” Paul said, giving her full name.
Greg slow burned, glared, and did other things of that sort. I broke eye contact, taking the opportunity to glance at Maleva. There was something white and fluffy in her bag, like a rug or a blanket. The big guy at that table pulled something out of his pack. It was shaped like a laptop, only half the size. It looked to be metal, except for the four plastic spikes that extended from it. I assumed them to be antennas or possibly microphones.
Were they pod-casting? Obnoxious. The ringmaster loudly announced that he missed the twentieth century. Already, I hated that guy. I bet he had an iPod full of French torch songs and J-pop.
Greg studied his menu briefly, and threw it on top of mine. Paul was still perusing every aspect of his own menu, explaining that he wanted to get the least healthy food combination that he could manage. He had his cholesterol checked this morning, and a reverse de-tox was something of a tradition for him.
The restaurant seemed calmer, quieter than usual. I could still hear the couple sitting behind me; it sounded like they were breaking up. She spoke in cold, expository tones while he half-responded in sad sentence fragments.
“Let’s not talk about Maria tonight,” Greg decided. Never wanting to talk about Maria, I had no problem. “Christopher, take your coat off.”
I didn‘t realize that I was still wearing my coat, but to take it off now would be to give in to Greg.
Greg exhaled sharply. He squirmed in the silence for a good minute. “So, what were you guys talking about before I got back?”
I told him, “toilet paper.”
He gave a sideways glance to Paul who confirmed this thing. Greg replied, “Huh. The bathrooms in here are very nice. They redid everything. But the toilet paper in the stall, it’s hanging on this giant Ghost Rider sized chain. Super ghetto.” I guess Greg figured he had something to add to this conversation.
Not being able to resist a hornet’s nest, and wanting to talk about toilet paper even less than Maria, I decided to poke at Greg some more. “So, how’d you break up with her? That is to say, how did you solve a problem like Maria?”
Greg didn’t think that was funny, so I kept going. “It’s for the best, Greg. You’re in grad school for social work.”
“It’s actually called-”
“It is one of the few fields where you make less money with more school. You’re dedicating your life to a noble cause. Add Improv Girl to that equation and you’ve achieved the status of pauper.”
Paul concurred. “Yeah. She’s spends money like a drunken tailor.”
“Sailor,” Greg corrected.
“Whatever,” Paul continued. “Who spends over a hundred bucks on a pair of jeans?” I knew that the answer to this rhetorical question: every girl I’ve ever dated. They all had at least one pair.
Over Greg’s protests Paul added, “And how many cars has she junked?”
“That is totally unfair! She was only a driver in two of the accidents. She was a passenger in the other two.”
Paul sheepishly responded with a valid point. “She hit a funeral procession, Greg.”
Greg boldly responded with a less valid point. “They went through the fucking red light!”
Those two fought for a bit. I shied away from the argument I had started and hung back to do some more people watching. The Indian guy found an error screen on his web browser now, and started cursing under his breath. The break-up going on behind me was stalled and I could hear the couple chewing. I had expected a big scene from them. Actually, I was kind of hoping for a big scene from them. Ginger and the twins had disappeared from Maleva’s table. I don’t think they went to the bathroom; at least, I didn’t see them walk past me.
The waitress came to our table and asked, “You guys decide yet?” I’m sure that sounded polite in her head. I required infinite coffee or the closest real world equivalent. Greg ordered a pecan pie, while Paul requested a bottle opener and a pizza that approached some sort of pork related critical mass. The waitress asked us in what order we’d like our stuff to come out, and seemed genuinely angered by our indifference to food timing. When she stacked our menus, I saw that her nails were painted with a shade of mint green that looked just like my uncle’s old Thunderbird.
Paul grabbed two bottles of 312 from under the table, and set one in front of Greg and one in front of himself.
“Shit, Paul, what else you got under there?” I was genuinely curious.
“A baseball bat,” he answered. “You still a teetotaler?”
“Yup,” I answered. “Straight-edge means that I’m better than you.”
“More for us then,” Greg countered.
“You really have a baseball bat under there?” I asked Paul.
“I bought it for his kid,” answered Greg.
“You bought a baseball bat for a two year old girl?” I asked Greg.
“She watches all the games with me,” answered Paul.
“It’s signed by that really tall guy. Volstagg or something.”
“Greg, if you paid extra money for a bat that says Volstagg on it, you’re an idiot,” I informed him.
Greg pulled out his cellular phone. “I’m checking my messages,” he said, inexplicably narrating his actions.
Paul flatly stated, “She didn’t call you, Greg.” Paul was never very consistent in his attempts to be nice.
Greg held up his phone impotently and continued his odd narration. “No signal.” I checked my phone, and found that I didn’t have a signal either. I normally got reception here. Shit, Alexis is probably calling me right now. Well, If I wasn’t in trouble before…
Paul offered his phone to Greg.
“You’ve got no signal, Paul.”
“No. I just texted my wife while you were in the bathroom.”
“Well, you have no signal now.”
“Let me check,” Paul commanded, as though he had a different way to check his reception. “Huh, it’s probably just the snow, you know?”
“Or they built a Faraday cage around the restaurant sometime in the last five minutes,” I said, providing supplemental options. I’m often helpful like that. Continuing this helpful trend, I offered Greg an option. “Maybe you should find a different archetype to date. You’ve already done all the crazies and theatre types. Maybe you should get a girl like Paul.”
“I don’t want to date anybody like Paul.”
“I am both tall and thin,” boasted Paul.
I clarified. “No, I mean like Paul’s wife.”
Paul snapped, “My wife is not an archetype!”
That was surprisingly defensive. Perhaps the archetype Paul was thinking of was “hooker with a heart of gold.” I explained my meaning, “No, your wife is the busty Jewess archetype.”
“Damn” was all Greg had to say.
“That’s fucking rude, Chris.”
“I was paying her a compliment!”
The waitress brought Paul his bottle opener, and me a cup of what could loosely be described as coffee. Its smell made my stomach cramp. I still drank it. Addiction is a bitch. Paul opened the beers for Greg and himself and thanked the waitress more than was necessary.
I was about halfway done with my cup of thick brown coffee-ish liquid when the ringmaster decided to stand on his table. Maleva and the big guy cleared off the bags and the podcast thing, then took a few steps away from him.
“Welcome to our festival, the feast of Khrwahtolwin!” The ringmaster projected this thing like an overzealous highschooler in a production of Godspell. “Everything you will do for the rest of your life, you shall do tonight!”
I thought that an odd thing to say. That was until the ginger girl came smashing through the railing, down onto the table with Ned tumbling underneath her. The force of this crash caused ringmaster to be catapulted into the air. He twisted like a cat, and managed to land on his feet. He screamed, “Goddamnit, Evelyn!”