While You Wait by Taylor Koekkoek:
Carl adjusts his crotch then readjusts it and pulls at the sleeves of his sweater. A dough-chested waitress approaches, pulling a notepad and pen from a large pocket in her apron dotted with pins and iron-on patches.
“Sorry.” Carl chuckles. “Swear I’m not jerkin myself off under here.” He laughs again and looks about the room.
“Oh. I didn’t think—”
“Just that I haven’t worn slacks for—well for a hell of a long time. Not used to ‘em. Even put on a sweater. How do I look?” Carl holds his arms out and draws a wide grin, which immediately begins to fail, giving away to nervous half laughs.
“You look real handsome, hun. Can I—”
Carl laughs more, now loud and bellowing. “Thank you. Here I was all worried of lookin’ like a fuggin' fool. Sorry, pardon my language, ma’am.”
“It’s all right. Are you waiting for someone or should I get your order started?”
“Oh no. My son’ll be here any minute.” He said he’d be here at—” Carl holds is wrist watch up to his face. “Well, he’ll be here any minute.”
“Sure thing, hun. Can I— ”
“It’s been a long while. He and I—well it’s been a long while.”
The waitress smiles and nods and looks about the room. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Yeah. What you got on draft?”
“We have a Budweiser, Guinness, a—”
“Whatever’s fine. And for him, get him a regular Coke. A large’n.”
“We only got one size. Free refills though.”
“No, second thought, how ‘bout a Dr. Pepper.”
“If you’d like, I could wait and bring him a soda when he gets here. Make sure it doesn’t go flat.”
“Nah, just bring one now. He’ll be here any minute. In fact—” Carl half stands from his seat to watch car lights roll by the window then pass and disappear. “Ah, not him. Well all the same, he’ll be here any minute.”
The waitress walks away, ass waggling as she goes. Carl only half notices. He checks and checks again the hands of his watch and taps his doorknob fingertips gracelessly against the table edge. He nods and smiles to the couple in the adjacent booth who don’t look away from their half-eaten meals.
The waitress returns with a beer and a Dr. Pepper. Carl says thank you.
“You’re welcome.” She looks to the doorway and the empty hostess podium. “I’ll check back on you in a few.”
“That’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t need a sitter,” he says half to himself.
Carl watches, first discreetly then less so, the couple beside him picking at their food self-consciously. They look up to see Carl grinning widely, his crow’s feet carving deeply like dry riverbed.
“He never was any good with time.” Carl chuckles and thumbs his gut like a drum. The couple looks back to their food, nodding and pursing their lips. “His mother used to say, she’d say: that boy runs on island time.” A single laugh. “Island time.” He takes a sip of his beer and wipes a moustache of froth off on his sleeve. “That bitch.”
“Hi, hun. Can—”
“Christ.” Carl holds his hands up to his chest and laughs. “Surprised me.”
“Sorry, sug. Can I—”
“It’s all right. Just feelin’ a bit jumpy. Jumpy sort of day.”
“Yes. Can I get you an appetizer while you wait?”
Carl looks at his watch. “Sure. What the hell?” He readjusts his crotch. “How ‘bout the loaded potato skins. What comes on those?”
“Cheese, bacon, sour—”
“Yeah, one of those. And how about another beer?”
Carl stretches his arms above his head, then, sensing they don’t belong there, he brings them down quickly and pulls at the hem of his sweater. After a few minutes the waitress returns with a thick plate of potato skins and another glass of beer.
“Could I get some ranch dressing with this?”
“There’s some there in that dish.”
“Sure hope I didn’t tell him the wrong day by mistake. Wouldn’t that be just my luck?”
“I’m sure he’s coming, hun.”
“Yeah, I know. He’s just no good with time. But you forgive your kids the little things, isn’t that right?”
“Still, sure isn’t all that respectful, is it?”
“Well, I don’t—”
“Specially when you haven’t seen your old man in so long.” Carl takes a drink. “Suppose that much is my fault though. You have any kids?”
“One little girl.”
“She just turned five.”
“Those are the years. That’s for sure. That age they don’t even know what a grudge is, much less how to hold one.”
“She’s my angel.”
“Eventually though,” Carl holds a finger out pointing blindly to an empty corner of the room, “eventually they get older and you make one mistake and they don’t ever forgive you for it. Like you’re the cause of all the world’s pain an’ sufferin’.”
“Adults can be like that too.”
“And then it’s like he’s doing me some huge fuggin’ favor—meetin’ me here. Maybe he ought to work for my affection just once. Wouldn’t that be somethin’? Always was an entitled shit.”
“Can I get you another appetizer?”
“For the longest time I didn’t think he was mine. Certainly wouldn’t have put that much past my wife.” Carl finishes the last of his beer and sets it down noisily. The waitress looks down at her notepad where she is drawing dots in no particular pattern. “But the kid even looks like me, unfortunately for him.” Carl laughs.
“I could bring you some mozzarella sticks.”
“And now, Christ sake, my son’s off wanting to be a gay stripper. You believe that? A gay stripper. Christ sake.”
“I should really—”
“Only he can’t be a stripper because he takes after his old man.” Carl watches the waitress closely who only opens her mouth and closes it, looking down and then back to the kitchen. “Means he’s and ugly sonovabitch with a little pecker is what that means. No club’ll let him up on their stage.” He bellows out a percussive hoot. “Not sure what’s worse: being a gay stripper or wishing you could be one. Suppose there isn’t much use in wondering that.”
“I should probably check in with the kitchen.”
“Sure. Sure.” Carl takes up his menu and jabs his finger at it. “Then just get me some onion rings.”
The waitress walks away, leaving Carl to do his best at keeping occupied, looking over the photos and posters hung from the walls and all the specs and lines in the ceiling that, if seen just so, make up faces and sail boats and things like that. Though there are still quiet conversations in the last corners of the restaurant, most the customers have left their checks and tips and their dirty napkins. The bus boy begins working the tables against the far wall and laughter comes through from the kitchen with the clinking of dishes. Carl sits in the middle of the room with a half drank beer and a flat Dr. Pepper and soon the waitress is setting down a short tower of onion rings in front of him.
“This one’s on the house,” she says.
“Thanks, but if it’s all the same I’d prefer to pay for it.”
The waitress smiles and hooks her thumb into her apron strap. “I insist.”
“No, I insist. I appreciate it an’ all but I don’t need your goddamned pity.”
Carl goes on but trails off when he notices the waitress has left and walked back to the kitchen where Carl pretends he doesn’t see her lean in and whisper to a male waiter with a long neck punctuated by an adam’s apple that bobs and shivers as he speaks and swallows. She hands him her notepad before disappearing behind the corner. Carl looks back to his collapsed tower of onion rings. Mumbling quietly, he pulls a slippery onion center from its batter shell and drops it at the corner of his plate and pops the gold-batter half ring in his mouth.
The new waiter approaches Carl’s table, not looking at him until he has to, and he says, “Can I get you your check, sir?”
“What happened to my waitress?”
“I needed her to begin writing up tomorrow’s specials. Just routine business. Would you like your check?” The waitress emerges from the corner holding a new notepad and pulls a stool up to the dry-erase board across the way.
Carl shrugs. “I was getting’ fuggin’ tired of her anyway. Maybe I’ll get some peace an’ quiet now she’s not pestering me anymore.”
“Can I get you your check?”
Carl slaps his hand down on the table. “Christ sake. No. I’m—” He exhales and lowers his voice. “I’m meeting someone.”
“It’s getting late, sir.”
“You closed yet?”
“Then please, won’t you get me another beer and let me alone? Look: I’ll just sit here quiet like and drink my beer and if he don’t come by the time I’m done drinkin’, then I’ll give up on him. All right?”
The waiter is quiet. He crosses his arms, uncrosses them and looks about before going back to the kitchen and returning with one more beer and letting Carl alone.
Carl drinks and pauses and looks at his watch and drinks again. He watches the waitress on top of the stool and listens to the strokes of the dry-erase pen. He watches carefully at first, as though she might turn around, but she doesn’t. Her elbow dances and stops dancing as she looks down at her clipboard before continuing.
“Look,” he says to her back. “I didn’t mean to offend you or nothing. Just that I don’t need any sympathy is all. So, you know, sorry. I just—” Carl pauses. The waitress only keeps moving her knobby elbows, and the same squeaking noise comes falling from the whiteboard. “Aw, forget it then.” He raises his glass and eyes the beer line, which is still just above halfway, then sets it back down. “Maybe I wouldn’t have come either,” He says. “I mean if I were him. It’s just—well your kids are supposed to be better than you, ain’t they? I know I’m not the most understanding sonovabitch, but—“ Carl sighs and rotates the glass in his hand and watches the amber liquid roll. “No. I figure I probably wouldn’t have come neither.”
The squeaking strokes pause momentarily and then begin again. There are no voices anymore, none except for the shrill and wordless cries of her pen. The bus boy begins putting chairs up on top of tables. Clinking dishes from the kitchen slowly stop clinking. The restaurant falls asleep.
“Want to hear a true story? Cross my heart, true as the Lord’s word,” Carl says.
“I should get this done.”
“Sure. Sure.” Carl watches her quietly then looks over the empty room. He takes a small sip of beer. “Well I was comin’ home from in town, where I used to work. I’d get on the bus at 82nd and Ferry, by the Area 69 porno shop. You know the place?”
“I must’ve been late because the bus was pulling away when I was still on the other side of the street. I wave my hands and holler but it takes off and leaves me there lookin’ like a fuggin’ fool. Then I look to the bus stop and I see this old feller asleep, with his arms folded round a newspaper and his cap pulled down over his eyes. I go and stand by this old guy and we’re quiet for a time but bein’ so quiet makes me feel antsy, specially when I’ve just made a fool of myself. So I say to him, where you headed? He don’t say nothin’ back and I figure the old fool’s fallen asleep and missed his bus too. I say again, hey. Still he says nothin’ to me so I tap his shoulder and he doesn’t move. I feel funny, talkin’ and pokin’ this quiet old feller, but now I’m concerned and shit for the guy. I take up the bill of his cap to see his face and the feller’s dead. Eye’s all open. Mouth too.”
The waitress turns away from the board and looks at Carl who quickly looks back to his glass, which is closer to empty than he remembered it.
“And that ain’t even the worst of it. Worst is: I take the newspaper from his arms. It’s two days old. Fuggin’ swear to god.”
“Yeah. Well, mostly, ‘scept didn’t happen to me. Just heard of it. Stories ain’t worth shit to some people if it didn’t happen truly to yourself. Story’s a story though, whether it’s me who found that poor dead fool or if it were someone else. Story’s the same, ‘scept for my part in it, and my part’s never mattered in anything else so I figure it don’t make any difference here neither.”
She goes back to her notepad and the dry-erase board. The bus boy puts up the chairs at the table to Carl’s left and pauses and then puts the chairs up at the table to his other side and then pauses again. Nodding to Carl’s glass, he says, “Are you finished with that?”
“This?” He looks it over carefully. “Not quite.”
The bus boy exhales and scratches a mole at his temple and looks at the waitress before walking back to the kitchen with a tupperware bin. Carl watches him go and puts his middle finger down on the coaster beneath his glass and moves it a quarter clockwise and back and a quarter again.
“Last time I saw my wife, you know what she said to me?”
The waitress doesn’t look back.
“She said you had you’re whole life to avoid this. And I said, avoid what? Dying alone, she said.” He pauses, running his thumb over his knuckles. “She said I had my whole life to avoid dying alone and, well, here I am.” Carl chuckles sadly. “Ah, oh well. Lot of people die alone.”
The waitress turns around and picks up the stool at her side and says, “A lot do. Plenty don’t. I’m going to get your check.”
Carl nods and stops tapping his fingers and stops adjusting his crotch and holds still and quiet as something newly dead, waiting for the waitress to return with his check. She sets it down softly between his hands, along with two peppermint candies and a pen.
“If my boy shows up here after I’ve gone would you tell him that I waited and—Well would you just tell him I was here?”
“I’ll tell him.”
Carl signs his name and leaves his glass part full and goes off into the night like the ghost of a lost child.
Taylor Koekkoek's work has appeared in Fogged, Clarity, Forge Journal, andThe Avalon Literary Review, among others.