Editor’s note: “Regulars” won second place in our Show Us Your Short-Shorts Editors’ Prize contest.
I never thought I’d meet her. Nothing more than a voice, her story was a fluid myth. Waitstaff theorized that she was one of us. Someone taking a joke too far. Senior management suggested I stop answering the phone. Perhaps she was delusional, maybe dangerous.
The call arrived at 2 p.m. on Thursday. Clockwork. Two bussers looked at the phone and turned the other way. “Kids,” I said, and picked up.
The familiar voice said, “I’d like to make a reservation for two. The booth nearest the bar, farthest from the bathrooms.”
“Good choice. That’s my favorite booth,” I said. It was the booth where I rolled silverware afternoons, counted the money evenings. “What’s the name?”
“The Watsons. We’ll be in for steak and peanut butter pie.” She said the same thing every week.
Her voice was measured, an alto; she was likely in her forties, maybe early fifties. I imagined her in a suit jacket—a suit jacket with jeans, a suit jacket with slacks, a suit jacket with a flowy skirt and V-neck tee. Her hair a deep chestnut, and her skin smooth but overly tight.
“We’ll be there—” she started.
“—at 6 p.m.?” I asked.
She hesitated, as though realizing something, but said, “Yes. Thank you.” She hung up, and I cleared my throat to jolt the bussers who were standing around, looking down at their respective devices.
“Why does she take those reservations?” someone whispered.
“You never know, that’s why,” I said, loudly. “Let’s dress these tables.”
I added the final tally mark. Twenty-two. We had taken her 6 p.m. reservation every week for twenty-two weeks. We always held the table fifteen minutes before giving it to someone who was waiting.
“We have macarons now, not peanut butter pie,” Melanie, the assistant manager, called out from the kitchen.
I was running late Friday, thanks to a fight with Reed. A pulse-pounding argument over dumb shit. I’d said hurtful things because I couldn’t articulate what I felt. She spent every other minute updating social media, and I missed her. The real her. But instead of saying so, I just muttered a bunch of curse words about lack of appreciation. I didn’t have the words.
The team was doing nothing when I arrived, and someone had spilled marinara on the bar, but Melanie assured me that the new macarons and espresso cocktail were a hit.
Reed’s Instagram updated around 5:45 p.m., while I was filling in for the hostess, and upon seeing the curves of her face reduced to a down-angled selfie, I couldn’t help myself. “#narcissist,” I wrote. I’d read that most people check their phones a hundred times a day. I felt the magnetic pull immediately after putting it in my pocket and cringed at the hypocrisy.
“I’m taking a break,” I said, pointing at a busser.
“But I don’t know how to—”
“Figure it out.”
Outside, in a light drizzle, I took gentle drags on a vape pen. A familiar voice sounded behind me.
“Excuse me,” the voice said. A woman in her fifties, probably never in anything fancier than the jean jacket and tank that she was wearing, smiled; the same vape pen model I had peeked out from her breast pocket. “Can I hit that? Mine’s dead.”
No one was around to see, to hear. I looked back at the front door, making out a disoriented looking busser. “Mine’s not tobacco.”
Her hair was short and wavy, a mixture of silver and gray; long bangs fell in front of her eye when she moved her head. “I have a reservation, but I don’t think I can come in,” she said. Her eye contact was intense. “I usually don’t get this far.” I took in her soft brown eyes and bare lips, her awkward stance. She was shifting too much, her right hand balled up in a half-fist.
“Just me,” she said, a story encapsulated in those two words.
Over the loudspeaker, which was barely audible in the parking lot, I could hear her reservation being called. “Watsons, party of two. Your table is ready.”
Mrs. Watson moved a few steps closer and examined me. I could see nothing beyond her gaze. All the stories I’d made up about her dissolved. “You held my table? I should at least come in then.”
I could see her eyelids flutter, the same way my mother’s did when she’d step onto an aircraft white-knuckling her luggage. “I’ll get dessert to go. I’ll wait at the bar,” she said. I matched her hesitant steps toward the restaurant.
“You don’t want the table?” I asked, feeling the barrage of text messages in my pocket, hearing the team whispering unprofessionally as I opened the door.
Mrs. Watson’s voice, unmistakably one I’d heard dozens of times, was melodic, an embrace. “You must be a romantic, holding it all that time.” She reached for my forearm. “We were regulars for years.” She looked around as though she were returning home after a long time away. “Have dessert with me?”
I slid onto the wine-colored cushion at exactly 6 p.m., a booth never occupied this time on a Friday, and I asked the lead waitress to get us an order of macarons. “I’m taking a break,” I said, when I saw Melanie standing there a little too long, mouth agape. Mrs. Watson covered my cold hand with hers.
“Thank you,” she said. “I missed this place. It actually feels good to be here again, to be in the world.”
Reed called me later that evening to say she loved me. I told her we could talk, but only in person. “I’m sick of only seeing your persona,” I told her, finally finding the words. “I need us to share something more.”
“You’re such a romantic,” she said.
The calls to the restaurant stopped after that day, but I continued to hold the table. I’d have an order of macarons ready every Friday. That is, until the menu changed.
Jen Knox is the author of a new collection of short fiction, The Glass City, which won the Prize Americana for Prose and is now available from Hollywood Books International. More of her short stories can be found in The Best Small Fictions 2017, Chicago Tribune, Juked, Literary Orphans, Room Magazine, The Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly, and The Saturday Evening Post. Jen is a writing coach and an academic program manager at Ohio State University. www.jenknox.com
The Flexible Persona was founded in 2013. We are an independent home for emerging and established writers and poets.