Right This Way

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We tried not to groan when we saw him walk up to the door. “Great, just what we need,” Danielle managed to mutter under her breath before he came inside. Her face broke into what I easily recognized as a painfully fake smile as she asked him, “Hello, how many?” Like she didn’t already know the answer.

Normally we loved the regulars. I guess it was just nice when we were doing a boring, pointless job like hostessing at a burger restaurant to see familiar faces that always seemed happy to see us.

But this guy was another story. He came in once a week without fail, sometimes twice, and always alone. Who would want to eat with him anyway? He never smiled, and didn’t even look like he wanted to be there at all.
It was a Friday and the insane dinner rush had just begun. The phone was ringing constantly, we were short staffed because a server had called in sick, and we were only a couple empty tables away from having to put incoming parties on a wait list. And now Danielle and I had the lovely job of finding somewhere for this man to sit.
“Just one,” he answered Danielle’s question, as always.
Danielle handed me the menu and it was my turn to put on my happy hostess face. “You can follow me right this way.”
I brought him to a two-seater at the back of the restaurant. But before I could even set the menus down, he started shaking his head.
“No, no, no. Can’t I sit somewhere with a little more room?” He was frowning slightly, as if I should have known to bring a man dining alone to a booth that seats four.
We had a rule that if a customer asked to sit somewhere else, they could. Even if that meant double-seating one server and skipping another’s turn, causing that person to miss out on tips. “I’m sorry. I’ll take you right this way.” I led him to a larger booth a couple of feet away.
He was even quicker this time. He saw where I was heading and started shaking his head again. “Don’t you have somewhere quieter?” He nodded at the booth next to the empty one, which was seating a family of five. Three little kids, ranging in age probably from four to ten, were talking loudly. The youngest had just spilled her chocolate milk and was whining that she wanted a new one. “I really don’t want to listen to this.”
I’m sorry, but if the sound of children bothers you that much, you should avoid the restaurants that give out little packages of crayons with the menus. But of course, I had to just smile and apologize once again, and lead him to the only other empty table in the restaurant (which was also a four-seater). “Enjoy your meal,” I said. He didn’t respond.
After I left him sitting at his table, I saw Lynn staring daggers at me from the drink station. I had put him in her section of tables. “Sorry,” I mouthed to her, shrugging. She shook her head in annoyance.
Back up at the hostess stand, Danielle had the wait-list clipboard out and was starting to take down the names of people who came in. The phone rang and she went to answer it, shoving the clipboard at me so I could take over.
Sarah, party of five, Dave, party of six, Ethan, party of six….I wasn’t aware of how much time passed; it was all a blur of menus, phone calls, and controlling my impatience with customers who were angry about the twenty minute wait to get a table. “I’m sorry,” I kept repeating with forced politeness. “We don’t take reservations, it’s just first come, first serve seating.”
Lynn hurried by carrying two empty glasses. “You should have heard all the changes he asked for when he ordered,” she hissed. “Why doesn’t he just open his own restaurant and serve whatever he wants?” I didn’t have to ask her who she was talking about.
“Trust me, I know. Your table was the third one I sat him at before he was happy.”
Lynn rolled her eyes. “I would have rather been skipped. I would have made the same amount of money from an empty table, with less of the work.” She rushed away as a new crowd of people came through the door.
A few minutes later, the loner guy came up to the front of the restaurant. “Has anyone seen a cell phone?” He asked us. “A black phone?”
We looked at each other and shook our heads. “No, I’m sorry,” Danielle answered as she pushed a button to call the next party on the list.
He didn’t move. “That’s it? You’re not going to try and look for it?”
“I’m sorry sir, no one has turned in a phone. Of course we’ll let you know if anyone--”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Okay, fine,” he said wearily before walking back to his booth.
“Maybe he lost it in that huge booth of his,” Danielle muttered sarcastically.
She finally granted me a reprieve when she took over the wait list, and then it was my turn to answer the phone for the hundredth time that night. “Hi, thank you for calling Johnny’s at the Rockville Town Center, home of the happy burger, this is Anna speaking how may I help you?”
Yeah, that’s how we had to answer the phone. Someone a corporate must have had such a laugh making this stuff up.
Some woman named Becky was calling. She said she was a nurse at St. Joe’s, which is the hospital just a few buildings away from the restaurant.
“I’m sorry, what can I do for you?” I asked, pressing my ear harder against the phone and trying to ignore the servers that had just burst into song a few tables away for a little boy’s birthday.
“I’m looking for William Baker, is he there? I know he always grabs dinner over there after he visits.”
“I’m sorry, I really don’t know many of our customers by name,” I said to her, thinking that she should obviously know this, and why didn’t she just call this William guy’s cell phone?
As if she read my mind, she said, “Oh of course, it’s just, I can’t call his cell phone, he left it here. At St. Joe’s. That’s why I’m calling; he forgot it in his daughter’s room. I wanted to make sure he got it before he drove all the way back home. He’s pretty tall, dark hair, wears a dark green jacket? I know he goes to your restaurant all the time. By himself, I think.”
My gaze fell on our Dreaded Customer, who was sitting straight ahead. Dark hair, green jacket folded up next to him. It was weird associating him with an actual name. I stared for too long.
“Hello? Anna? Anna, are you there?”
“Sorry, yes. You said he left his phone at the hospital?”
“Yes, just let him know Becky called, he knows me, and his phone will be right where he left it, on the nightstand.”
I nodded, then realized that she couldn’t see me. “Okay, I’ll tell him.”
I hung up and found myself staring at him again. He was just sitting there, eating a burger. I don’t know how I never realized how lonely that looked. A restaurant packed with people, noise coming from every direction, and there was this middle-aged man sitting by himself, staring at the pictures on the wall opposite him. I always wondered bitterly why he came here so often when he didn’t seem to enjoy it, but it made sense now. Our restaurant was the closest one to that hospital. I wondered why his daughter was there. He has been a regular here since I started this job at the beginning of my junior year, and that was almost a year ago. What could have happened to her? And why was he always alone? Didn’t he have a wife? A friend, at least? And I realized that as lonely as eating by himself in a restaurant must be, it was probably better than eating by himself in an empty house.
“Anna!” Danielle’s exasperated voice broke into my thoughts. “Here, take them to table twenty two.”
After leading a family of five to their table, I still couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Baker. All the times we sighed when we saw him walking in, all the times we rolled our eyes when he complained to his server that his burger wasn’t cooked enough, we never considered that maybe he had a good reason for being so unhappy all the time. I walked up to his table.
“Mr. Baker? Um, Becky called, from St. Joe’s? She said you left your phone there, on your daughter’s nightstand.”
He just looked at me for a minute. “Oh, ok. Good.” Silence. Then I felt awkward. What if he didn’t want me to know about his daughter? Did he think I was being nosy?
I was about to just walk away, but before I even realized what I was doing, I sat down across from him. “So, do you think you’re going to get dessert?”
Now he looked, understandably, even more confused. “No.” A pause. Then, “I just have to get going. I have to get my phone now.”
I pulled the small dessert menu from behind the bottle of ketchup. “Well, I’m thinking of getting dessert when I’m done with my shift. I can’t decide what I want though.”
He still looked at me strangely, but actually looked at the menu, considering. “That lava cake thing always looks good.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ve always wanted to try that. Thanks!” I slid out of the booth, and walked over to Lynn, who was ringing up Mr. Baker’s check. “Give the guy at forty-one the lava cake. I’ll pay you for it.” She frowned and opened her mouth to protest, but I stopped her. “Don’t ask why. Just do it, please? And put it in a to-go box, he wants to leave.”
“Whatever,” Lynn said as she put the order in.
I walked by an aisle with a Cheerio spill from whatever kid that had been sitting at the nearby table a minute ago, and had to spend the next ten minutes cleaning it up. When I went back up to the hostess stand, things had started to die down a bit. No one was waiting for tables anymore, and Danielle was folding kid’s menus. I slumped down on one of the benches, exhausted. Danielle looked up and said, “Oh yeah, that guy left that and told me to give it to you.” She gestured to half of a piece of lava cake on a paper plate sitting on the stand. “He said now you wouldn’t have to wait until your shift was done. It was so weird. He’s always alone, and now he’s handing out pieces of cake to random teenage girls? It’s kind of creepy don’t you think?”
I laughed. “He’s actually not that bad,” I said. And this time, my smile was genuine.





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