“Hi, table for one, please?”
The hostess looked up from her phone, startled. She could be new, Mark had never seen her before.
“Oh!” She stood up straight. “Yeah, sorry. Uh, this way, I guess.”
She led Mark to the dining room and pointed to a table. A small one, tucked away in the corner of the otherwise empty room.
“Thanks.” Mark sat and gave the menu a quick scan just to make sure nothing had changed. The hostess retreated, her face aglow in the white light of a phone.
Roman emerged from the double swinging doors of the kitchen, frowning. He checked his watch and wandered to the hostess stand, scratching the back of his head. “Nothing?”
They turned together as the hostess gestured to the single occupied table. A smile sprang onto Roman’s face.
“Aha, my friend!” Roman waved to Mark. To the hostess, he said, not quiet enough to keep Mark from hearing it, “There is no reason to put anyone in that corner if the room is available.”
“I thought you wanted to keep the main tables open for larger parties?” The hostess looked concerned.
“Yes,” Roman said at a normal volume again, “but not my friend Mark. He sits anywhere.” He approached Mark’s table and gestured to the open dining room. “Anywhere you would like to sit.”
Mark didn’t mind a corner table. This one sat out of the way and had good lighting. He got up anyway and moved to a round table with four chairs, selected at random.
“Water with lemon, yes?” Roman swept three of the waiting glasses from the table.
“That would be great, thank you.”
“I will return shortly, with some bread.” The kitchen doors flapped shut behind Roman.
The hostess was watching Mark, so he pulled a book from his jacket pocket and pretended to read it. It was a thin mystery paperback he kept for emergencies, and he’d read it nearly a dozen times now. Mostly he just skimmed it, just to have something to focus on. He only realized he had actually started reading it again when a basket of bread dropped onto the table and startled him back into the real world.
“Thank you,” he said by reflex, looking up. A tall woman with jet black curls stood near Mark, staring at him. Imelda, co-owner of the Local Street Bistro with her husband, Roman. Her face held no expression whatsoever.
“Uh.” Mark picked up the menu and pointed to the appetizer section. “The stuffed mushrooms look good.”
“You have had the stuffed mushrooms before.”
“Oh yeah. Right. They are good. I think I’d like those?”
Imelda didn’t blink. She said, “Why do you come in?”
“Imelda! My love!” Roman hurried toward the table, eyes wide. A strained smile was plastered on his face.
“It’s time that he knew,” Imelda said as Roman gently persuaded her back into the kitchen. Some minutes later he returned, alone, wringing his hands.
Mark made a show of scrutinizing the menu and not paying attention to the owners and whatever they were talking about. Just doing my own thing, his actions said. I didn’t even notice them walk away. Oh, did Roman reappear? What a pleasant surprise, I hadn’t realized.
Mark said, “The stuffed mushrooms look good.”
“I would like to apologize,” Roman said.
“Oh, uh, that’s fine. For what? Never mind. It’s nothing.”
“This place has been very hard on her, the restaurant. There have been so many late hours.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I come by to help whenever I can, ha-ha.”
Roman smiled again. “Yes, thank you. You were one of our very first customers.”
“Well, you guys do a great job. I hope business picks up soon.”
“We are OK, thank you. Business is good, we are just tired.”
Mark did not glance around at the empty tables. “That’s good.”
“Anyway.” Roman waved the conversation aside. “Stuffed mushrooms to start?”
The service and the food were good, no polite lies there. Mark had come at least once every other week since Local Street Bistro opened its door two years prior. Most of that was because of the food. The rest was because he liked Roman, who never rushed him and let him sit and read while he ate, and because it was two blocks from Mark’s apartment.
Roman asked his usual refrain before clearing away the plates. “Dessert?”
A flicker of movement from the kitchen caught Mark’s eye. Imelda, staring at him through a crack in the door.
Roman noticed and gave her a quick head shake. The kitchen door eased close.
“Yes on dessert?”
“Uh, nothing today, thanks.”
Roman paused, and sighed. He said, “I do appreciate you coming so much. You are a good friend to us.”
“Thanks. I’m not sure…everyone agrees with you?”
Without making eye contact, Roman leaned forward. In a lowered voice he said, “Imelda, she thinks you are bad luck, is all. Pay it no mind.”
The kitchen door opened again, a fraction of a fraction of an inch.
“It’s just…” Roman grimaced. He appeared to be in pain. “Whenever you are here, no one else is.”
A sharp crack of the hostess’s gum echoed in the silent dining room.
Mark drank a sip of water from his freshly filled glass and took a moment to wipe his lips dry.
“But, of course, that’s not my fault. I don’t really see very many people in here often at all.”
Roman nodded aggressively. “Of course, of course. There are slow nights. It’s only that the slow nights are always when you are here. You see? This is not,” he hastened to add, “anything for which I blame you.”
“Wait.” Mark traced his finger along the edge of his plate. “Do you think that I’m driving people away?”
“No! It is simply an odd coincidence.” Roman picked up the empty plate and hustled it into the kitchen.
Mark sat for a while, skimming the open book in front of him.
Friday evenings were for relaxing. Preferably at home. Mark’s Netflix queue was growing and his lazy Friday night ritual of falling asleep on the couch with a show playing on the TV was one he typically started looking forward to every week around Tuesday or so.
The bar in front of Mark was called Suds and Spuds, which sounded to Mark like the name of a laundromat, and it was not his couch and almost certainly didn’t have Netflix. Mark checked his phone: 6:42 PM on a Friday. That seemed like a reasonable time to be hitting the dinner or drinking rush.
The interior of the bar was decorated like a mountain cabin for some reason, and of the maybe thirty tables and booths, Mark counted four with any customers. Another couple sat at the bar in the middle of the room, watching a football game.
A bartender shouted at Mark to sit anywhere he wanted. Mark opted for a booth and straightened the condiments basket until a cheerful woman with red and black hair brought him a laminated menu and informed Mark that her name was Sky with no “e,” as though he would have spelled it that way.
“Beer,” she said, not as a question.
“OK, yeah, something local, please.” Mark didn’t really know beer. It seemed like a safe response.
When Sky came back with an enormous sweating glass of something the color of pale straw, she asked, “Have you been in before?”
Mark shook his head. “First time.”
“Great! Welcome, welcome. What brings you in?”
“Oh, not much, I just heard this was a popular place.”
Sky laughed. “Usually. I don’t know what the heck is going on tonight.”
“Typically more crowded than this?”
“Never seen a Friday night this slow before. Would you like a few minutes to look over the menu? We’re famous for our five cheese macaroni, hint, hint.”
The macaroni was in fact very good but Mark only ate a couple bites.
“Can I get a hotdog with onions and ketchup? And a large Coke, please.”
“You got it.” The man behind the counter slapped the hotdog and onions into a bun and spun the result inside a foil wrapper in a quick, practiced motion while a giant cup filled with Coke. “Ketchup and mustard are around the side, here. That’s sixteen even, please.”
Mark pulled twenty dollars from his wallet and placed it on the counter as the drink topped and the stream shut itself off. As the man capped it with a lid and opened the cash register, Mark said, in a forced casual way, “Seems kind of slow today.”
It was Mark’s first professional baseball game. He had no basis for comparison. Still, assumptions could be made.
“You ain’t kidding.” The man held out a small crumple of bills.
“Why do you suppose that is?” Mark opened the foil and squirted a healthy glob of ketchup mostly onto the hotdog and only a little onto his shoe.
“Man, I wish I knew.” Resting his hairy forearms on the counter, the man leaned out and scanned what he could see of the stadium. The game had just entered the third inning.
The man said, “It’s a nice day. I don’t get it.” He jerked a thumb at a glass case of pretzels. “You want of one on the house?”
“Uh, sure? Thanks.” Mark rewrapped his hotdog and moved it to the crook of his arm to free up a hand.
“Well, they’re just going to go to waste drying out under that lamp. There’s no one here to buy any today.”
Mark said, “Oh, yeah. Sorry about that.”
The man handed over a large pretzel coated with parmesan. “Not your fault. Careful, it’s hot.”
“Ha, right, of course.” The pretzel was dry and hard, and the cheese burned Mark’s tongue.
“Sorry I almost ruined your business,” Mark muttered. He wiped his palms on his jeans. He’d been standing across the street from Local Street Bistro for a while now.
“I didn’t think it was true, but I am bad luck. I’m cursed or something.” A group of six people brushed past Mark and entered the restaurant. It bustled in there. A few people stood waiting for a table to open up.
He said to no one, “I’m sorry. Thanks for being nice to me anyway.”
In the end, it was the crowd that made him walk away. If there were that many people, didn’t that mean he wasn’t actually going to go in?
Almost no one went to the grocery store early in the afternoon. Mark had seen that to be the case even before he went in. None of that was his fault. But it make for a double surprise when he turned into the frozen foods aisle and nearly collided with Imelda.
She stood with a pint of ice cream in each hand, glaring at them.
Mark stopped short and said, “Oh, uh. Sorry.”
Imelda turned the ice cream containers towards him. “Which is better?”
“Sorry about everything. What?”
“Mint chocolate chip, or vanilla?” Imelda alternated the two pints, thrusting each into Mark’s face.
“Well, no one actually likes vanilla, so…”
“I like vanilla very much.”
“Right. OK. Mint chocolate chip, though.”
Imelda put the vanilla back in the freezer and gave Mark a curt nod. “Very well, mint chocolate chip it is. Come by next Tuesday.”
Mark stopped trying to turn his cart around. “Tuesday? What do you mean?”
“Next Tuesday. The Tuesday of next week, you understand? Come to the restaurant for dinner. Around 7 PM.”
“OK. But, wait, no. I have to tell you, you were right about me being unlucky. I don’t know what it is, but it’s real.
“I know it is,” Imelda said. “That’s why you should come by on Tuesday around 7 PM.”
She set the pint of mint chocolate chip in her basket and gave Mark a look from the corner of her narrowed eyes. “I prefer vanilla. You better be right about this flavor.”
Around half of the tables were empty, maybe a little less. It was the most crowded he had ever seen Local Street during dinner. Conversation filled the dining room, loud and cheerful, but not so loud Mark had to raise his voice to speak to the hostess.
“Hi, table for one, please.”
She didn’t give any indication that she recognized Mark. Which was understandable, that had been months prior. And she had seen plenty of faces enter in the meantime, by the looks of it.
“Just the one,” Mark said. He followed her to a table near the kitchen.
She dropped him off with a menu and headed back to her station to greet a couple ready for another table. It was 7:19 p.m..
Roman burst from the kitchen and whirled by with a plate of something that smelled delicious as it flew past Mark’s table. Was it a relief or a disappointment that he didn’t even say hi? Mark couldn’t be sure. Possibly both. He looked at the menu, rereading descriptions he’d read a hundred times before.
“My friend!” Roman materialized at Mark’s table. “It has been too long. I haven’t seen you in here in two months, yes?”
It had been more than three months since Mark’s previous visit. “Something like that, yeah.”
“It is good to see you again. One moment, please.” Someone was gesturing from a large table of ten people, across the room. Roman hustled over and bent down to listen to them, then straightened up, laughing. The whole table joined in, enjoying whatever joke had been told.
There was no reason to feel jealous. Not when Mark hadn’t even been in to eat in months. That would have been a silly way to feel.
His chicken Marsala came out in minutes, perfectly warm, perfectly juicy.
So, Roman and Imelda and their crew could keep up with a larger crowd. There wasn’t a rushed panicking feel to the evening. They weren’t acting as though they were unaccustomed to the number of diners. If anything, they appeared to be in their element. Roman smiled and schmoozed his way through the room every few minutes, dropping off dishes, refilling drinks, even pushing in a woman’s chair when he spotted her returning from the restroom.
OK, great, they were doing well. He wasn’t ruining their business. Not tonight, anyway. But why not tonight?
Imelda didn’t pause long enough for him to ask.
By 8:12 PM the chicken was gone, and his glass was empty. Roman appeared with an apologetic smile.
“My friend, I’m sorry we didn’t have more time to catch up. Would you care for any dessert?”
“Oh, thanks, but I should probably get going.” Mark took out his wallet to make clear his readiness to pay, but Roman was distracted. Imelda waved him over to the kitchen door and whispered something to Roman. They both looked at the large party, now at the loud chatty portion of their dinner.
Roman nodded and returned to Mark’s table.
“Would you like to meet some other friends of the restaurant?”
Mark blinked. “What?”
Roman tilted his head toward the loud cheerful group and said, “Please.”
He led Mark to the table, where a group of well-dressed people cheered Roman’s arrival in a way that suggested the two wine bottles on the table were not the first to be emptied that evening.
“There he is!” One of the men reached over and slapped Roman on the shoulder.
“Still doing well over here? Thinking about dessert?” Roman gave the man a return pat on the arm.
Everyone agreed they were doing well, or better.
“Always happy to hear so. This is my friend, Mark.”
Mark felt blood rush to his face as a group of strangers said hello.
“He was one of our very first customers when we opened two years ago.” Mark gave a pained laugh and a nod of acknowledgment.
Roman gestured to a younger woman at the opposite end of the table. He said, “You were also original customers, yes? Or close enough.”
“You know it. We can’t stay away.” The woman raised an empty wine glass and gave the air near Roman a pretend cheers clink.
To Mark, Roman said, “They are having a work dinner. Everyone here feels this is the best place to meet, if I may brag.”
Everyone cheered again. Apparently, this wasn’t going to stop on its own. Mark said, “Well, it was very nice to meet you all.”
A man scooted his chair back and stood up, directly in the path of Mark’s attempted exit before he had a chance to move. The man grabbed Mark’s arm, a little more firmly than Mark would have preferred, and insisted he sit.
“Oh, thank you!” Mark tried to catch Roman’s eye. “I couldn’t take your seat, though.”
“I was on my way out,” the man said.
Before Mark could protest, another man stood.
“Yeah, we’ve got to go,” he said. “Have a seat, Mark! Work is paying for drinks tonight. Sit next to Naomi, she’s handling the bill.” That prompted fresh cheers around the table.
Mark sat in the newly emptied chair, still warm from another man’s buttocks, next to the woman, Naomi, who held an empty wine glass. She gave him another cheers, which he returned with a water glass someone left on the table.
“Would anyone like anything else?” Roman asked the group. “Dessert?”
Everyone gave their polite no’s. Mark stared at the table top and wondered how he was going to escape.
“Thinking of escaping?”
Panicked, Mark wondered for a moment if he had spoken his question out loud. The woman on his left smiled. A purple tinge stained her lips.
Mark said, “Ha. No.”
“I’m Penny,” Penny said. She extended her hand.
“Mark,” Mark said, shaking it.
Penny snorted. “So I heard. You’re a regular too, huh? Kind of an unusual night. It’s sort of nice not being completely packed for once.”
“Huh.” Mark caught himself about to take a sip of water from someone’s abandoned glass and shoved it away. “It’s typically not very crowded when I come.”
“Weird. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this empty before. What days do you come?”
“Usually it’s Wednesdays. I have a schedule where I have to work late every other Thursday, which means I start late and get to sleep in those days, and so Wednesday I can…” Mark waved his hands around the restaurant.
“Explains it, right there.” Penny pointed a finger at Mark’s face. “I’m a weekend goer outer, myself. Other than today, I mean. Freaking job, making tonight the night our sales team fly in. I mean, a departmental outing on a Tuesday?” She gave a sloppy raspberry to the schedule. “At least Imelda was nice enough to keep a spot open for our team. I asked her last week.”
From the corner of his eye, he could see Roman and Imelda standing near the kitchen. They were watching him. Roman whispered to his wife and then winked at Mark.
Alarmed, Mark turned away and watched Penny give one of the empty wine bottles a shake and a frown. He said, “Can I ask something?”
Penny nodded, swirling nothing in her wine glass.
“Is it usually crowded, wherever you go?”
After a moment of intense thought, Penny said, “Interesting question. Crowded how?”
Imelda was suddenly at the table side, refilling water glasses. She gave Mark a clean one.
“Fridays and Saturdays,” she said to Mark, tipping her head in Penny’s direction.
“Got it,” Mark said. “And, thanks.”
Imelda offered a tiny nod. She returned to the kitchen as Roman replaced her at the table side.
“So!” Roman clapped his hands together. “Everyone for dessert?”