Two men eat:
baskets of artisan bread and herbed butter with napkins on lap to catch the debris and pints of dark, well-crafted beer to make the chewed pieces suitably wet to slide down their throats; petite mason jars of sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, and olives, all brined and syruped — prepared, smoked and aged (in-house) and served with tiny cutlery; bartendress slim and affable and quick, sharp in a pre-med-student way, refilling water and repeatedly checking to see if they’re “okay” as if they, for some reason, wouldn’t be, while not ever ceasing movement akin to a perpetual motion machine or a Tai-Chi sensei; heavily salted soups; palm- sized copper pots of red wine-marinated escargot which is mouthwateringly pungent and cooked until rendered delicate and supple, but with just the slightest hint of crunch, the discovery upon which both men silently nod in approval, mouths full and busy with tearing, grinding; anticipating the main courses; lights beyond or below merely dim, almost after-hours cathedral- esque or den of thieves-esque, reinforced by the fact that most of the actual illumination comes from an army of white votive candles which float noiselessly in hemispheres of ultra-thin glass below the faces of people laughing and beaming and otherwise demuring in their diaphanous mantles and tight-fitting, one-button suits.
Their laughter is thick like the demi-glace on the pork chops and grilled brussel sprouts, their eyes sparkling like champagne, their words sweet and well-formed like the bundt cakes swimming in creme anglaise.
They speak, less a conversation than two simultaneous monologues, the men confident and grinning at their own wit. Two men, seemingly, whom it is impossible to get the attention of and even less likely to impress.
Phones/supercomputers buzz, beep, make other noises. The men consecutively excuse themselves to the bathroom, but never talk about what they’ve done in there. The bartender has no savings but earns $50/ hour, and has chosen the right jeans for the job. Green and brown bottles pass hands and some of the corks pop; others just slide out as easily as the images of football players from the silent plasma screen above the shelves of single malt scotch.
There are no children present, although children would certainly enjoy the cannolis stuffed with chocolate chip custard, the flutes of gelato and neon sorbet, the tiramisu brownies topped with Japanese tapioca and ground nutmeg.
Some of the people are still “working,” some just “out,” some a little of both, and in many ways it doesn’t seem to matter. Questions and jokes are being funneled through the conversation. The men’s ties are solid, muted, the younger man’s loosened, the top button of his dress shirt undone and revealing a triangle of bluish-peach chest.
All other voices are loud, irregular, ecstatic, but theirs are hushed with facial gestures being louder than the words themselves. They’ve moved on to two thick glasses of correctly-pronounced tequila, blanco and well-rested, opened up with a few drops of water and being swirled slightly although that will not affect the taste.
A woman joins them, not sitting, but standing between and behind and having to raise her voice to order a Barbera when the bartender is close enough to notice her. Her dress is well-cut but modestly so, evocative if only because of its wearer who stands with relaxed grace in what should be called an empowered pose. She and the two men converse for a few minutes and the woman comments on her wine, says something neither cynical nor identifiably naive, a statement such as the two men dislike. She tries to recover, but she’s already outed herself; she becomes supremely pissed-off, shouts several unfriendly remarks, pours off the remainder of her Californian red into the soil of a potted orchid, and exits into the winter’s cold.
The older man’s eyes twinkle as he toys with a cigar as if he has a good mind to light it and the telephone/supercomputers continue to buzz and make other noises, flickering personally selected images to signal various ways in which the people should be interacting with the devices.
The two men do not speak for close to ten minutes, but quietly sip their drinks. The younger man lifts a hand, signaling for the bill.
“I’ve got it.”
“Your money’s no good here.”
“I’ll be damned if it isn’t.”
“I said put it away,” and the older man slams his American Express into the check presenter, making a cutting motion across his throat, signaling that the charade is complete and the lights get even dimmer.
“Don’t thank me, thank this lovely woman,” and he points to the bartendress who smiles but says nothing, having perfected the smile that deflects conversation completely, as she muddles sage and bourbon and sugar while listening to another guest tell a joke. It’s the one about the cat continually getting stepped on (which everybody has heard before, as this particular guest loves to reiterate the joke, even when one person who has not heard the joke is present, forcing all others to have to hear it again), how it keeps screeching louder each time it’s hit like meooow, meooOW, meeOOORRt, but it won’t stop landing underfoot of its owner, etc., and each time the owner tries to dodge the animal, to walk in a different direction, the cat seems to have also chosen that direction to avoid being stepped on, and the stepping/screeching continues until one of the neighbors (the ancient, blue-haired, curmudgeonly type who’s always quick to file noise complaints) calls the police, and the police show up at the apartment, and after ringing the doorbell and hearing endless screaming as of an animal being burned alive from within the residence for several minutes, the door opens to show a man, the owner, crying and otherwise babbling about the cat and how he’d had no evil intentions, but it was an example of absolute enthalpic synchronicity, and pointing down toward the beast which is, by this point, nothing more than a bloody mess of fur and whose lights are clearly on the way to going out, twitching, the punchline being how they arrest the man because neither of the police officers had taken physics in high school.
Two women emit the sort of polite laugh that’s perfunctory and always on hand, although it’s possible that not even one person has been actually listening, except the older gentleman with the solid, muted tie who legitimately laughs, gives a nice bellow, shakes his index finger, saying, “That’s so true. Cats — always under your feet!”
“I know, I love telling that joke.”
“Damn fine joke.”
“Thank you so much,” and the joke-teller stands up, making his way to the bathroom to do whatever unspeakable things it is that people do in bathrooms. The chef emerges from the kitchen in uniform and begins approaching the tables, making sure that everybody is having a nice time, enjoying his/her rosemary port lamb confit, and to field compliments of his restaurant’s recently being favorably reviewed in such and such magazine, recommending wine pairings, etc. He’s generally making his way around the perimeter until he arrives at the bar and begins shaking hands and entering into a hushed conversation with the city councilman who is present, and they take turns talking and smiling. The chef fiddles with a thermometer in his breast pocket.
The television program has changed to a college basketball game, and alma maters are brought up, voices increase in volume, especially in the bar area, and intensify by bouncing off the shiny bottles of liquor and polished stemware, which is why the chef and the bartendress and the rejoining joke- teller and the two men are the last to hear and/or see the woman seated near the entrance to the restaurant vomiting onto her halfeaten pork chop — the type of advanced emesis that is sudden and paralyzing as when the body needs to evacuate all recent input on the double. Her dinner guest does the sort of thing that one does in that moment: backs away from the table politely.
Silence is suspended; the woman’s retching is audible in all corners of the restaurant. It is a very wet kind of vomit. The two men at the bar sip their tequilas, and the joke-teller makes a weird twitchy motion. The vomiter is eventually joined by many others — well-over half of the guests begin vomiting their tempura shrimp and broccoli rabe satay, their foie gras burgers and pickled red onions, etc., onto the floor and tabletops, into their water glasses — emptying themselves of everything: caprese salads with oak aged balsamic vinegar (the chunks of mozzarella coming up whole), rum cakes with caramel sauce mixed in with the apple-cranberry sausage; pita points with basil chiffonade, pooling, puddling around the feet of the guests, an unstoppable torrent of regurgitation and convulsion.
The manager grimaces, stays still as if to become invisible, but Chef only rolls his eyes. He sees that the city councilman is not emetic, and continues their conversation, but in a lower voice.
A reproduction of a famous Flemish painting hangs below a cork sign that reads Moules Frites in hand painted calligraphy, and below the facsimile a woman ejects dijon artichoke crabmeat salad onto the floor. Most of the people have vomited, but not the bartendress nor the two men, nor the joke-teller. After a few minutes all the nonsense has sort of stopped, and everything is relatively silent except for someone’s telephone/supercomputer buzzing or beeping to the tune of ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”
The bar is coated in second-hand jambalaya which drips over into the ice bins.
The joke-teller uses his left thumb to absently spin his wedding band as a siren is heard from outside. “La Grange” stops. The main entrance to the restaurant allows in several workers in white and blue uniforms who disperse themselves amidst the people who are tired in the way that only people who have just blown chunks for several sustained minutes can be tired — i.e., drained.
They come equipped with mops and buckets of the conventional variety; squeegees, shammies, etc., and begin sopping the nastiness up, and a man with a handheld two-way radio gives directions and writes notes on a white and blue squared piece of paper which pleasantly matches the men’s coveralls. Chef smiles, sees things all being put into their right places. The manager goes into the back and raises the volume on the speakers, and some sort of polyrhythmic world music overtakes the restaurant.
“I love this music,” the joke-teller says as he pokes at the ice cubes in his drink with a pair of straws
The uniformed men are fastidious, expert. They clear layers of reversed meals from all surfaces, going at the thicker stuff with a shopvac, all while without looking up or directly into any of the customers’ faces. They crisscross the restaurant floor in a strange pattern, but it all makes sense after a while. Bits of chicken breast panini with cilantro mayonnaise and micro arugula are swept away, extricated from pant legs and coat sleeves. All traces of premasticated gorgonzola steak tartare disappear. The bartendress uses her down time to search for gum in her purse as one of the men mops up the bar area.
The man in the suit places the cigar he’d been toying with in his breast pocket, and downs the rest of his tequila as the last of the workers exits the building, everything having been more or less restored to its pre-vomit condition. Eventually conversations rise up again, and the bartender resumes drink-making: cappuccino martinis with ground cinnamon, a few cordials on the rocks, a glass of Chenin Blanc — light drinks — until she’s generally back in the swing of things. Chef walks over to a potential restaurant reviewer’s table and asks how she’s enjoyed her meal. She smiles and says it was excellent, dabbing at her chin with a silver linen napkin. He offers her a complimentary glass of wine or beer, her preference, but she declines based on her having to drive, but thanks anyway.
The joke-teller asks to take a “peek” at a menu as per his “feeling a bit peckish,” and he is handed one.
“Another round?” the younger man in the suit asks his colleague/friend.
“I certainly can’t get drunk tonight.”
“Not with that attitude, you can’t.”
“Another round,” the bartender echos, brings the tequila down from the top shelf, as the city councilman heads toward the bathroom, likely with the intention of perpetrating some disgusting, animalistic activity. The joke-teller seems to be beginning another joke, but the bartender taps a finger against her closed lips, i.e., skip it.
Joe Trinkle lives in Philadelphia. His writing has previously appeared in Pear Noir!, Atticus Review, New Fraktur Arts Journal, among other places.