I only noticed the man when he stood up to leave.
I didn’t see the green of any dollar bills on the man’s table, and I briefly wondered if he’d chosen to stiff me my tip. Sure, I hadn’t provided great service, but it was a lazy Thursday, right in the middle of a mid-day lull. I was just glad to be off my feet, knowing that the dinner rush was right around the corner.
A moment later, however, I remembered picking up the fake-leather check holder from the man’s table a few minutes earlier. He had paid by credit card, hadn’t he? One of those AmEx cards, the ones with the shiny blue square in the middle.
I remembered that the shiny sticker on the card had been worn nearly away. Guy must keep it in his wallet next to something rough. It had run through the little machine by our cash register with no problems, though.
I stood up, moving into the aisle to pass the man and clear his table. Tommy was supposed to be bussing the dishes, but I knew that he was out back, taking his “smoke” break. We all knew the truth about the kid, but no one said anything. What would be the use?
The man didn’t look up as I passed him. He had red hair, almost orange, a set of tight curls that covered his head. He wore a suit, but the clothing looked worn and slightly ill-fitting. Like his AmEx card, I thought. Professional at one point, but ground down by the repetitive stress of life.
As I drew close to the table, I saw the man’s plate. He’d enjoyed the meal, at least. He had ordered a reuben, I remembered. The dark brown crusts of the rye bread were still on the plate, along with a neat little pile of sauerkraut. Guy must have scraped it off.
The fake leather billfold that held the check was lying open across the middle of the table. I reached down for it, but my hand paused.
On the back of the receipt, using the blue Bic without a cap that I’d dropped off, the man had written a note. His handwriting was messy, a loose scrawl, and I had to pick up the slip of paper and hold it up closer to my face. My reading glasses were still back behind the counter.
“Out of diner number one hundred and four, this is the sixty-seventh where I’ve ordered this sandwich,” I read off, squinting. “I’d call it mediocre, a little below the average. For a better example, try Sampino’s out on the west coast.”
Beneath this strange note, there was a scrawl that was totally illegible – it looked like the man’s signature. Sure enough, when i flipped the paper back over, it matched his signature on the line.
I don’t know what made me do it. Maybe I had reached the breaking point, had snapped, lost it after too many years of food service. I don’t know why.
But a moment later, I had spun around and was running towards the entrance of the restaurant, my lungs struggling to suck in air. At least I was wearing flats, so I didn’t trip and fall on my face – but I must have looked a sight to behold, my apron strings flapping behind me.
I burst out the front door into the parking lot, spinning around. The man, a few steps away, had paused beside his dark green, faded Toyota Camry, glancing up at me. I locked eyes with him and hurried over.
“Why?” I asked him, the word coming out in a breathless pant.
“Why what? I don’t understand,” the man said, finally looking up and at me. His eyes were green.
“Why do you go to so many places, if you just order the same thing?” I asked, the words pouring out of my mouth without any conscious intervention from my brain. “Why not try something new? Why this, over and over?”
The man looked back at me. Despite my heaving, heavy breathing, he didn’t seem bothered by this middle-aged waitress charging after him. “Why do you do the same thing over and over?” he asked mildly, tilting his head slightly to one side.
I opened my mouth hotly, but I was out of words. For several seconds, the two of us just looked at each other, one of us panting and out of breath from a reckless sprint, the other one curiously calm.
“When will you be back?” I don’t know why I cared, but I suddenly needed to know.
The man shrugged. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
“Meatball,” I told him. “Try that sub. It’s better.”
The man nodded, and for just a moment, I thought I saw the slightest hint of a smile flicker across his face. “I’ll do that,” he replied.
I stood there, watching him drive away, out of our parking lot.
Sometimes, it’s the little, most mundane moments that we remember above all others.