Where You're Always Right
by Peter Vaeth
Chris was still in bed, pressing the sore spots around his throat. The alarm had gone off twenty minutes before and his bladder was begging. He imagined being found in a puddle of his own piss with a strangle-marked neck.
He got up and went to the bathroom. After he flushed, standing in front of the vanity mirror, he forced himself to look. It wasn't as bad as he'd feared--he'd imagined a thick collar of black-and-blue--but still worse than last time. There were red splotches with yellow-blue centers where Kelly's thumbs had been; thin red tails around the neck where her nails had slid, underlining the existing scabs.
After a quick shower he pulled on black slacks and a white shirt, zippered up his black faux-leather tie, not too tight. Good thing that he was playing The Waiter today. The collar at least hid the blooming bruises, though not the scabs from the first time. Not that anyone had asked or said anything about those. But that didn't mean they hadn't noticed. A scratched up neck might just be one of those things that people would rather not know about.
He stepped over a pile of towels towards the window. He peaked between slats at the alley below his bedroom, the sun reflecting off broken glass in an open dumpster. A trio of shirtless boys sped by on their bicycles, riding hard after each other. He thought about calling Kelly at work before he left, but he didn't want to seem needy.
Mr. Kotcher sprang up out of sleep hacking. He threw a hand up and caught a splotch of phlegm in his palm. He wiped it on the bed sheet; wiped again to make sure.
He went to the bathroom and opened the medicine chest and took out the Cloraseptic spray. He saw the sunscreen on the shelf above. He knew right then, even as he reminded himself, that he would forget to put the sunscreen on his head before he left for Where You're Always Right. He pictured himself walking in the hot afternoon, realizing that he forgot to put on sunscreen, and then remembering how he had reminded himself and predicted he would forget. This is what it was like. He could predict his lapses, see them coming hours, sometimes days away, but do nothing to stop them. He studied his baldhead in the mirror, tracing the freckles from the other times he forgot. Marla used to say they were kisses from the sun.
After a slow shower, he dressed in gray slacks and a white short-sleeve shirt with periwinkle stripes. The slacks were tight, even after he loosened his belt a notch, and he felt where the elastic of his boxers was already imprinting red valleys below his paunch. He opened the bedroom drapes onto the patchy back lawn. A bee landed on the window. He wondered if Marla was looking down on him.
Her tongue ran slowly across her teeth. "I don't think I'd like to be choked, Chris," she said, looking down at her plate, poking at her food.
"Not you. Me," he said. "You could do the choking."
"Really babe, can't we enjoy our dinner."
"I think I'm right about this, Marla," he said. "I just don't see how getting another doctor's opinion would hurt."
A car horn blared. Someone yelled. The sun was directly overhead and its brightness had him squinting, blurring the crowd around him into smudges of color as he walked down Fifth. He was sweating beneath his collar. Last night, if she hadn't had her hands on his throat, he would have screamed that he loved her as he came.
He coughed as he stepped from the bus to the curb. He knocked shoulders with someone next to him. It always seemed more humid in the city. He blotted his head with a handkerchief and realized that he forgot to put on the sunscreen, as predicted. He looked forward to one day being able to just forget without realizing it.
Where You're Always Right was wedged between a cellular phone shop and a thrift store. A logo of a bowing butler painted on its window.
The receptionist said, "Welcome to Where You're Always Right. What can we do for you today?"
"I have a one o'clock appointment."
"Uhh-kay, let's see... Mr. Kotcher. Oh. Good to see you again."
He looked over his shoulder at the empty chairs and the oval table strewn with magazines.
"And what would you like today Mr. Kotcher?"
"Fly In My Soup."
"Uhh-kay, great," she continued, clicking her keyboard. "We'll get ya allllll set up here... Any food preference?"
"Eye-talian it is... Uhh-kay--"
An electronic bell sounded behind them. A lanky dark-haired kid in a shirt and tie waved without looking and hurried through the metal door behind the receptionist's desk.
"And would you like real food today, Mr. Kotcher?" the receptionist said.
He sat in the dressing room chair, looking at the scabs on his neck. He tried covering them up with some compound, but the powder got in between the plates of the scabs and made it look like there were beetles under his skin.
Chris usually worked One-Hour Photo or Bring Me Your Manager but he had traded shifts with Dale so he could go out with Kelly last night. This was his first time with Fly In My Soup. He lit a smoke and picked up his script.
Remember! Our Fly In My Soup Customers are here to live out the Ideal Dining Experience and receive Satisfaction they haven't been able to find elsewhere. They expect wait-staff to respond to their every dining need with a Slight Bow and a Smile. Remember you are The Waiter and they are the Customer and they are Always Right!
And they are Always Fucking Pathetic, he thought. Two months working there and he still couldn't wrap his head around what brought people to Where You're Always Right. Sure there were the occasional corporate spies, tape recorders bulging obviously from shirt pockets, trying to discover if the secret of Successful Customer Interactions could be found in the Phrase Logic of pretend martyrs working for 12 bucks an hour in a renovated dentist's office. But what of the others, the Average Citizens that came in to Demand Satisfaction for their imaginary late photos and out-of-stock sale items. Or worse those that didn't even want the interaction, Outpatients they called them. Signing up for You Crashed My System or Let Me Talk To An American! just to have someone say "We will fix this for you" on the phone or on email. What mutant strands of loneliness and need were spreading out there?
He put down the script and took a last look at himself in the mirror. He pulled up his collar, carefully.
Mr. Kotcher used to think their restaurant room was a pretty good simulation: woodsy interior paneling; framed black-and-whites of famous Italian Americans; yellowing menus dotted with sauce stains; cigarette burn holes in the checkered table cloths. But he had been there enough times now that all he noticed was what wasn't there: a hostess, the smell of food cooking, hustling busboys, clinking silverware. He was the only one in the room and it smelled faintly of cleaning crew ammonia. He wondered if the bottles of olive oil on the other tables were even filled with anything.
He decided that this would be his last time. Then he remembered that he told himself that last time, too.
He recognized the waiter coming towards him as the skinny kid he saw rush through the lobby. He pretended to read the menu. He'd already told the receptionist what he wanted, but he would tell the waiter, too.
Chris pretended to take the man's order. Instead of rigatoni with sausage and marina he wrote down, "Fake conflict resolved, with a side of superiority."
He smiled and bowed slightly, walked back out through the swinging door, then down the hallway and out the back door into the alley. He rested his order pad and tray on the dumpster and lit a smoke, waiting for the delivery guy from Rossini's.
Mr. Kotcher had only taken one bite when he said, "Excuse me. Waiter?"
Chris turned around and came back and said, "What seems to be the problem?" The script has said he should say, "How can I help you?" because it was less likely to sound dismissive or annoyed.
"This sauce..." Mr. Kotcher said, pausing to lick his lips. "Not enough salt."
Chris squinted as he picked up the plate, holding it before him as he pretended to examine it from all angles. Then he speared a couple of sauce-covered rigatonis and stuffed them in his mouth.
Mr. Kotcher was befuddled. This kid with the scabby neck was making it up as we went along.
"Mmm..." Chris tried another forkful. "Sir, I apologize. Of course--you're right. This sauce is in great need of more salt. I will return with a saltier-sauced dish for you, pronto." He smiled, bowed slightly again, and turned to leave.
"Excuse me?" Mr. Kotcher said. This was not the service he had paid for and come to expect.
Chris returned to the table back in character, posture straight, palm holding the plate shoulder high. "Yessir?"
"I was terribly hungry. Now I have to wait for my food again..." his voice trailed off.
"Yes...sir?" Chris was befuddled. This old bugger with the red forehead was ad-libbing back at him.
"Well," Mr. Kotcher said, clearing his throat. "I just...considering my time and inconvenience..."
Had a real problem now developed or was it all still part of the act? Chris knew he was supposed to give the customer What They Want, but if he allowed this coot part of the meal for free, would he expect a real freebie or just an imaginary one? He felt the dampness of his collar against his neck.
"Of course, sir," Chris said, mustering a thin smile and a deferring nod. "We would be happy to offer the bottle of wine, compliments of the house. For your trouble."
"Well then," Mr. Kotcher said. He reached for his wineglass and took a sip. It felt warm and good on his throat.
Chris lingered a moment, trying to think if he had enough in his wallet to pay for the meal, in case he told the coot to fuck off. Mr. Kotcher stared back at Chris, trying to think of the haughtiest way he could tell the little punk to hurry up and fetch his food.
But they both just swallowed and went on with their show.
About the author:
Peter Vaeth lives and writes in Chicago. His stories can also be read in Pindeldyboz Vol. 4 and All Hands On, the best-of anthology from The 2nd Hand.