“First table of the night, how are you feeling?”
I breathe a laugh, a little startled by his appearance.
“Most of the time, I feel like the first table really sets the overall feeling for the night, you know? If the first table is good, the whole night is. If not, it usually just gets worse. Bleh all night,” he continues.
“It was alright. Pretty good, I guess but the tip was a little under I think. You finished already?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty fast. My sisters and I used to have races to clean the tables, timed and everything. I’d always win against Jules, even though she’s the oldest! Elena and Eva would win against me but it wasn’t really fair because they’d clean it together. They used to never do anything separately though, so I couldn’t have gotten them to do it fair. They used to wear the same thing all the time too.”
“Don’t the twins still wear pretty much the same thing though?”
“Yeah but now they get mad at each other when they come out of their rooms and they’re wearing the same thing. It’s funny. Neither will go back to change so they just yell at each other and then wear the same thing out of stubbornness.”
“Your dad’s calling me over,” I say, noticing Mr. Fernandez’s broad hand flapping at me through the kitchen doors.
I leave Matty to take drink orders. I refill some chip baskets and get some more margaritas while I’m at it. I’ve worked here for less than a month but it doesn’t feel like that. It’s a great job, in that I’m finally not being paid under the table and less than minimum wage. Restaurants really do take advantage of kids.
Working at a family restaurant is pretty nice too, a lot different from the other places I’ve worked. It’s cozy here and sometimes I feel like I’m on a sitcom because of their weird dynamics. Plus, in a really cheesy way, I feel like part of their family. Especially now that I’ve been working with Matty. The kid talks a whole lot but I don’t mind. I have too much silence.
I go back into the kitchen.
“Your furthest table is almost done right?” Matty asks. It is so I nod. I walk past him and reach out to ruffle his hair. He ducks and sticks his tongue out at me.
“Stop looking out the kitchen window, you’ll look creepy.”
“I don’t,” he pouts.
“Yeah, you do,” I say with a mock pout. I stack the plates I need up my arm. Matty grabs the door for me and then follows me out to bus the other table.
I trip right in front of the table I’m serving. In slow motion, I see the oven-hot plate spill a whole dripping burrito onto a little girl.
The restaurant erupts.
“What is wrong with you? Oh my God!” The woman and I rush over to the wailing little girl. The woman pushes me, “Get your incompetent hands away from my daughter!”
My apologies are drowned out by Mr. Fernandez’s fervent acts of contrition. Mr. Fernandez motions for me to go away. I try my best not to sprint, feeling the eyes of everyone in the restaurant.
I go straight out the back door and sit on the steps. I can still hear the girl crying out here. That might be my imagination though.
“Hey,” Matty says quietly, shutting the door behind him. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just give me a minute,” I say, wiping my eyes furiously. I can’t get my heart to stop racing and my cheeks burn.
“I guess I was wrong about the first table being good thing. People are too unpredictable, you know.” He pauses for a second. “If you’re having a panic attack, I’m sure Dad would let you go home.”
“I’ll be right back,” Matty says.
I take some deep breaths. Matty comes right back, Mr. Fernandez following a minute later.
“Hey, kid, that lady was crazy. It’s no big deal and you’re not fired or anything but I think it’d be best if you took the night off. It’s Tuesday anyway, so we’re fine on staff. Don’t worry about it,” Mr. Fernandez says, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Thanks so much,” I say, not bothering to put up a fight, figuring Matty must’ve told him I’d been freaking out.
He smiles and goes back in. Relief fills my lungs.
“Matty, you’re a life saver.”
“Nah, he would’ve done it anyway,” Matty smiles.
“Yeah, your dad’s a great guy.”
Matty turns away and looks up at the sky. “Do you want me to walk you home?”
I only live five minutes away biking, about fifteen walking.
“No, that’s okay. I’m fine now,” I smile.
Matty turns directly to me and catches my eyes, latching my gaze for a moment. Blinking and looking away, he says off-handedly, “Well, since I was only bussing your tables, I don’t have anything to do now and no one else is at home.”
“Uh, well I guess. Your dad’s fine with you walking alone at night though? It’s almost eleven now.”
“I do it all the time, I’m not that young,” He says, “I’ll go ask him though.” He gets up and I follow him to grab my bag. When I come out again, he’s already there.
“That was quick.”
“Dad said it was very gentlemanly of me to walk you home,” he says with a goofy smile. I smile back and we leave, walking towards my house with my bike between us. He talks for ten straight minutes, animatedly talking about some comic he’s reading. He says that I would like it.
“Hey, could you wait a second? I’ve gotta tie my shoe,” he says, bending down quickly. He ties it, then double knots it. Then he unties the other one, then reties it. Then he unties it again, shaking his head. He takes a ridiculously long time.
“Jeez kid, know how to tie your shoes?”
“Seriously?” I ask, as he goes after the first shoe again, pulling out the knot then starting to relace his shoe.
“My feet need maximum comfort. You don’t understand,” he says, stopping to look at me.
“I swear,” I tut as I start walking again.
“Don’t--!” He says, too loud. I turn around startled.
Tires screech behind me and Matty’s eyes reflect blinding lights. An ugly truck careens over the crosswalk, blowing through a red light.
“Jesus Christ,” I say, turning around to see its tail lights. “That guy must’ve been crazy drunk.”
“Yeah,” Matty says, a little out of breath. He stands up. “Anyway, what I was saying about the main villain…”
We reach my house. Matty gives me a quick hug, barely wrapping his arms around me before he lets go. My heart warms anyway.
“Have a good night!” He says, bouncing off my porch. He waves both hands and smiles big. His big eyes flash in the street lights and my voice catches for a moment.
“See you at work, Matty,” I say, waving back. He smiles, then turns away. I watch him walk away. I go inside and fall asleep quickly, feeling strangely lucky.
I make it through my day job painlessly and go to the restaurant with only slight apprehension. The lady I spilled on wasn’t a regular customer, so the worst she can really do is leave a bad Yelp review.
My first table is pretty good, but Matty isn’t there for me to tell him. I’d been planning on testing his first-table hypothesis, even though the first run-through was a fail.
“Where’s Matty?” I ask Mr. Fernandez.
He looks startled. “What? Did someone mention him to you?”
“Ah, well,” he says slowly. “Matty is my son, um ‘was’, I guess. But I don’t really like to say that. He picks up a framed picture that sat on the host desk. I’d noticed it before.
It’s a picture of their family. Eva and Elena are preteens in this picture. They’re seventeen now. I know what Mr. Fernandez will say. He points at Matty, “He died about six years ago, when he was twelve. He was hit by a drunk driver. He’d be a little younger than you are now.”
“Oh, uh, I’m so sorry,” I say. I cough into my elbow. He nods at me. “Um, I’ll be getting back to work now.”
“First table of the night, how are you feeling?”