I have, once again, launched myself into the maelstrom of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. This time, my prompt was:
Location: An Expensive Steak-house
Object: A Bottle of Water
And I wrote this:
TABLE FOR NONE
Synopsis: On his first day on the job, a maitre d’ finds that he is rapidly coming to despise his fellow man. It is up to Gerald (maitre d’, retired) to show him how to cope.
“Table for three, please. One human and two dogs.”
“But- they’re very well-behaved. Flossie, stop eating the gentleman and show him your back-flip.”
“Table for none.”
“For one, sir?”
“No table. Tables have a natural hierarchy- a head, a foot, a-”
“We do have round tables.”
“That isn’t good enough. It isn’t progressive. The aura of the power structure clings to Table in all its forms. The very Platonic Ideal of Table has been corrupted. The rot is buried deep in the wood.”
“Our tables are made of steel and synthetic fibers.”
“But the aura of wood…”
“The Senator wishes to dine here.”
“Sounds great. Table for three?”
“Yes. And clear the building. He’s not a popular man, just now. Besides, we can’t have him mingling.”
“I would like a waiter who is receptive to the Good News. Someone I can teach.”
“Are you suggesting that you want a Christian waiter? Because-”
“No, that would be no good at all! What I’d really fancy is a good, convinced Neo-Pagan.”
“I must have all-vegan food.”
“This is a steak-house, sir.”
“You mean you don’t have a vegan option? Oppressor! Slayer of animals! Come, Lulu Belle, we shall take our custom elsewhere.”
It was my first day on the job as maitre d’ at Bøf, and I already hated my species. I hadn’t, yesterday. I’d really liked humanity yesterday, when I’d been a simple waiter.
I dialed Gerald’s number. Gerald had been maitre d’ yesterday. Today, he was retired.
“I hate people,” I whispered into my phone, glancing furtively around the opulent antechamber to make sure it was still empty.
“Yeah, that’ll happen. Use it. It trains your face to the correct expression for a maitre d’. Soon, you’ll look just like me.”
“I think I’ll just quit.”
“Don’t do that. You need the money.”
“I’ll quit and live in the woods, subsisting on leaves or something.”
“Many leaves are poisonous.”
“Good.” I spoke feelingly.
“Look, don’t quit. I’ll be there in five minutes, give or take. I have a couple of tricks they didn’t cover in the training.”
In five minutes, when Gerald arrived, I was just about at my limit. A party of three old women had come in and asked for the smoking section. I’m a smoker myself, and I had sympathy, but they knew, and I knew, and I knew that they knew, and so on, ad infinitum, that the smoking ban had been in force statewide for three years now. They didn’t want a table; they wanted an argument.
What they got was Gerald. He waddled in majestically in full maitre d’ kit: tuxedo, white shirtfront, tails, etc. I’d opted for the other allowable look, the black turtleneck. I now saw this was a mistake. Gerald had Presence.
“Ladies,” he said, in a voice of ice. “What seems to be the trouble?”
“We asked for the smoking section,” said the one whose blue eyes were horribly magnified by her glasses.
“And he just stood there, staring at us,” said the one who, for reasons of her own, was wearing a helmet.
“Turning red,” said the one with the bangles.
“Shaking,” said Blue-Eyes.
“Not speaking,” said Helmet.
“Scowling,” said Bangles.
“Ah,” said Gerald. He was behind the podium now, radiating power. “Do you have a reservation?”
They admitted they did not. Gerald was pained.
“Then I’m afraid,” he said, “that we won’t be able to seat you tonight. Next time, call ahead for a reservation, and make sure you ask for the smoking section.”
They promised him that they would. Beaming benevolently, Gerald watched them go. Then he turned to me. “Problem is,” he said, “no-one really gets what a maitre d’ is for. This leads to confusion, which leads to hostility.”
“And what am I for? I don’t actually know.”
Gerald smiled. “Good. You don’t know because you aren’t really for anything, or, rather, because your purpose is something inexpressible. To survive, you must become something. Not everything to everyone, mind! A specific thing for each specific person. And if the people are unbearable, your purpose must be to stand between them and the inside of Bøf. They must not pass.” He removed a small green bottle of Perrier water from a pocket and placed it upon the podium. “This is your most vital prop,” he said. “If you need a second to decide who you are, you take a sip. Buys time.”
“You sprang for Perrier?”
“So must you,” he said gravely. “Anything else would be déclassé.”
A couple entered. “Table for two,” he said.
“Table for three,” she said. “Belle’s coming.”
“Table for two,” he said. “If Belle comes, I go.”
“Table for four,” she said. “Belle’s bringing Justin. I forgot.”
“Table for ten,” he said. “If Justin’s coming, I’ll have to ask the guys. Otherwise, I’ll probably kill someone.”
“Table for twelve,” she said, rather wildly. “The Beasles. The neighbors. They must come.”
I realized that Gerald had vanished. I hadn’t seen him go, but he’d gone. Had he left the building?
“They must not pass,” came the whisper. It came from the floor. Gerald had tucked himself neatly out of sight behind the podium, and now sat, squatting like an especially dignified frog, at my feet. I wondered how often he’d done it before.
“Table for sixteen,” the man was saying. “The Beasles didn’t do right by the Joneses, and they’ve been waiting for an opportunity to discuss things.”
I sipped my Perrier, and suddenly I had a plan. I smiled benevolently.
“Very good,” I said. “But we require that for parties of this size all charges must go on one credit card, logged at time of reservation. This simplifies the ordering of shared platters, and eliminates argument about platters that become shared. Now, if I could just have-”
“Impossible!” She cried.
“Outrageous!” He cried.
“We’re going!” They cried. And they were gone, and all was silence, save for the noise of Gerald’s slow and stately applause.