THE APPLE OF HIS EYE

Waiting tables and the eye of the storm

by CRISTOFER GROSS

The boy, legs dangling, made his wooden restaurant chair seem an impossibly large throne, while beside him, in a rumbling sleep, the very large man made his seat appear small and fragile.

There was a half-empty cup of coffee in front of the slumbering adult, and a few coins of change on a tray beside it.

In front of the boy was a small plate where a slice of pie had once stood. He now was mashing the butt of his fork into the few remaining crumbs, then raising it over his upturned mouth and shaking them loose.

A waitress, not old and not young, knew that the longer she ignored them and let them sit there, the longer they could stay out of the swirling snowstorm that had brushed over Baltimore.

She also knew this meant delaying another paying customer, which she desperately needed. Yet something about the boy – the way he seemed to understand that his vulnerability served as protection for the man – gave him an air of maturity.

The waitress watched them over her order pad as she listened to an old couple engage in their nightly debate over what to eat. After signaling they were ready to order they had asked to hear the specials again, then huddled together to weigh the respective merits of chicken fried steak amd pan-seared trout. She was familiar with the performance and knew she did not have to listen. They worked their way through the benefits of each, the option of sharing, then thought about something on the regular menu that they hadn't tried, and then agreed to, again, "avoid the fats, deny the flavor." With a sigh of resignation, the wife said we’ll split the chef salad and each have a vanilla milk shake. Thank you, dear.

Until she heard Thank you, dear, the waitress had been watching the boy to see how he looked at the man. Even a fleeting glance, a fraction of a peek, she felt would reveal the nature of their relationship. The eyes carry so much, she thought as the couple negotiated before her. A droplet of eye contact could condense volumes of meaning about the relationship between these strangers. Understanding. Love. Fear. Indifference. Were they father and son? Unrelated? A kidnapper and his strange, consenting ward? Was the boy concerned for the older fellow? Was he ill, dying, so tired he couldn’t stay awake – not that the diner's diluted coffee could perk anyone up. Were they there to meet someone who was late?

But he never looked over. He revealed no emotion towards the man. Maybe it was just that he was tired of their plight, of finding new restaurants in which to have a treat before going out and eating whatever they could scrounge. Although they weren’t dirty or disheveled, there was a lived in feeling about their clothes and their silence was that of those who spend every moment of every day together.

"Thank you, dear."

There it was. She looked down at her pad, wrote “chef, splt; van. shakes.” And went to the kitchen to place the order.

When she returned to the dining room it was to take orders of hamburgers and fries tp a happy young family in another section, setting three plates onto place mats covered with their crayon drawings of clowns flying kites. When she turned around, the man and boy were gone. She quickly moved to their table, where through the large diner window she saw their dark forms walking into the blowing snow. Above them in the distance, a glowing red circle indicated a traffic light. And as the swirling white enveloped them, without either a word or look between them, the red glow turned green as the boy slipped his tiny gloved hand into the man’s freezing bare fist.