The Waitress and the Hooded Man

by Paul Briggs

 

"Oh, God, they're making that stuff again," said Amy Lang to no one in particular as she looked toward the back of the huge kitchen, where handfuls of freshly peeled garlic cloves were going into a blender along with heavy cream and white wine. "I got a date tonight, and that smell is gonna be in my hair, it's gonna be in my clothes, I'm gonna need a shower…"

"Do what I do," came a voice behind her.

Amy turned around. Sandra Symcox was loading up a tray with cups of coffee.

"Just call him up and say, 'I'm gonna smell like a whole bunch of garlic tonight — I hope that won't be a problem.' I can almost guarantee you it won't."

Whaaah? thought Amy. She looked at Sandy's too-clever face, searching for some twitch in the corners of the mouth, some twinkle in the eye, some sign that she was kidding as she surely had to be. There wasn't one.

"I mean, it's not like it's fish guts or raw sewage or something," Sandy continued, still apparently serious.

Just for a moment, Amy tried to imagine herself saying something like what Sandy had suggested. The image just wouldn't form. Shaking her head a little, Amy collected a basket of bread rolls and left the kitchen of Celebrazione.

When she'd first found herself working alongside Sandy, she'd thought that the other girl's brains would make her a little hard to relate to. As it turned out, that was the least of it. In high school — which they were both only two months out of — Amy had been one of those girls who weren't very popular and desperately wanted to be, while Sandy had been one of those girls who were even less popular and didn't give a rat's ass.

On the way back from delivering the rolls, Amy spotted a group of four coming in. One of them was just a couple of years older than she was, tall, and kind of cute. Another was maybe forty, with a salt-and-pepper beard. The third was a big woman wearing a frayed plaid pantsuit that made her look like an abandoned sofa.

The fourth was… strange. He was wearing a hooded navy sweatshirt that was many sizes too big for him. His fingertips just barely stuck out of the sleeve ends, and his face was completely hidden. This was a really weird way to dress in the middle of July.

And now Trish was seating them at one of Amy's tables.

*          *          *

David had to roll up the sleeves of his sweatshirt even to see his hands, but he didn't mind doing it. He liked looking at his hands. He still couldn't really remember the accident, but apparently it had happened so quickly he hadn't even had time to throw up his arms to shield his head. His hands were still wonderfully whole and strong, with no damage to them beyond a few old scars and calluses picked up over the years from honest work. There were burns on his arms, but not where he could see them right now.

His nose had been broken, and the skin of it half burned off, but whichever part of it did the actual smelling still worked fine. Whenever the door to the kitchen opened, the aromas of simmering tomato sauce, baking bread, wine, sharp cheese, garlic and fennel drifted into the dining area, along with the distinctive fragrance of rosemary. Yes, this was a good place to still be able to smell.

And he could still see (although getting by without depth perception was trickier than he would have thought) still hear, still taste and still touch. His limbs were whole, his spine was okay and, despite what had happened to his head, his brain hadn't been damaged at all — which, when he thought about it, was something of a miracle. In fact, for a guy who'd stopped a large chunk of falling burning house with his face, he was actually doing great. Focusing on all the things he could still do, and everything he still had, was as good a way as any to keep from going crazy in here.

In here. Yes, the giant (and very hot) sweatshirt was already starting to seem like his own private space, cutting him off from the rest of the world. Now that was irony for you. He'd wanted to go out to a nice restaurant because he couldn't stand being cooped up in that house any longer with only Rhea and the cat for company. And here he was, out in public, with Rhea and his friend Nate and Nate's son Chris… and he was as isolated as ever.

Well, it was time to stop thinking about his own problems — the waitress had come. She was a short girl, maybe seventeen, with braces and curly brown hair. Her nametag read AMY, and she was reciting the specials.

"Our soup of the day is cold zucchini and leek," she said, "and our ravioli platter tonight is a medley of… cheese with anchovy paste, crab imperial, cheese with Vidalia onion puree, ground Portobello mushroom and… um…" Amy bit her lip for a moment, trying to remember. "Cheese with spinach." She handed out menus.

"Our house wine is a nice dry Verdicchio" — she pronounced this with great deliberation, vair… dee… kee… yo — "would anybody like to try it?" Ruth ordered a glass. David wouldn't have minded trying it, although he usually drank beer. But lately he couldn't have either one — alcohol didn't mix with his medications.

It got easier after she left. Nate filled him in on what had been happening with some of his friends while he was cooped up in the house. Although David's injuries made it harder for him to speak, and talking to someone without letting them see your face felt weird, it was a great relief to have an actual conversation with someone other than Rhea. And just when he was getting thirsty, Amy came back with four glasses and a pitcher of water.

And now came the tricky part. The flaps of grafted-on skin that the surgeons had stretched over his front teeth might look like lips (from a distance, in a very bad light) but they didn't have the right muscle attachments to do the work of lips. Not only did this put limits on David's conversation (he couldn't use the letters B, M, P or W at all, and some of the others sounded funny when he said them), it made eating and drinking a lot trickier. To stop the water from leaking out of his mouth, he had to keep his head tilted back until it went down his throat. As he did this, his hood fell back, exposing what remained of his face to public view.

Chris, who was sitting across from him, looked away, even though he must have been given some kind of warning. Two tables away, Amy, refilling someone else's glasses, caught a glimpse of him and shut her eyes.

"When's the next operation?" said Nate in deliberately casual tones.

"Octo'er," said David, pulling the hood back into place. Meanwhile, several customers were shouting angrily because Amy had kept her eyes shut while pouring out water, and had poured it all over the table. She sprinted off, babbling "Imsosorryimsosorryimsosorrylemmegetsomepapertowelsimsosorry…"

"It was supposed to be in September," said Rhea angrily. "The doctors probably had an important golf tournament or something."

"Um…" began Chris.

"Yeah?" said David.

"Is there… do they have any… masks or something… just until then?"

At this, Nate and Rhea both looked like they were about to tell him off, but David motioned for them to be quiet.

"Yeah," he said. "I could 'air a 'ask. Hile I' at it, I could 'air a… cloak and carry a sword and hang around the o'era house singing 'yoooooosic of the niiiiight.' I' trying to 'ee a half'ay nor'al 'erson here."

"Sorry," said Chris, staring at the table.

The hell of it was, he had the feeling that when all the operations were done, he was going to have to give up and wear some kind of mask out in public. No matter how much they did for him, he'd still wind up with a face that would scare children. That would still be better than now, when his face scared grownups. Two tables away, Amy was cleaning up the spilled water, still blurting out apologies.

*          *          *

The last of the ice water was mopped up. Amy left hurriedly, clutching two handfuls of wet paper towels. She could feel the angry stares of those customers boring holes in her back. Some of the water had gotten on their trousers. And as soon as she got to the kitchen, she remembered that she'd left the pitcher of ice water on their table. Going back to get it would be very embarrassing.

But she thought she could handle that much. What she couldn't handle was going back to that other table. It was her job, it wasn't his fault, but there was no way she could face that poor man again. Face… she didn't even want to think the word right now. After stuffing the towels into the kitchen trash, she stood a moment near the entrance, trying to collect herself.

"You all right?"

Amy turned around. It was Sandy. Suddenly, Amy got an idea.

"Sandy?" she said. "Can I ask you a… really, really… really big favor?"

*          *          *

Ruth had just stepped into the ladies' room when the waitress returned with a basket of rolls, a bottle of olive oil and four little plates.

But it was the wrong waitress. The new girl was skinnier and maybe an inch taller, with thick glasses that made her look like a very young schoolmarm. A silvery ash-blond ponytail fell to the small of her back. Her nametag read SANDY.

"Are you ready to order?"

"Um," said Nate, "what happened to… the other girl?"

"Amy? This was her table, but I beat her up and took it away from her."

Nate snorted. "One member of our party isn't here," he said.

"All right, I'll come back in a minute."

"'Ait," said David. "I got a… kestion." He leaned forward, looked at Sandy and pulled his hood back.

Sandy's expression didn't exactly change, but her face took on a fixed aspect, as if she were trying very hard not to react to what she was seeing. Since her self-control didn't extend to the capillaries in her skin, she also went a couple of shades paler. David couldn't blame her — he knew too well what she was seeing.

The left side of his face (his left, Sandy's right) was the bad side. One green eye, fortunately whole and functioning, peeked out from a mess of burn scars. The skin grafts on his chin and cheek, much lighter than the rest of his skin (his brother Barry, who had donated the skin, didn't get out in the sun much) gave him the look of a patchwork doll. Of his rebuilt nose and lips, all that could be said was that they were more or less the right shape.

The right side of his face was the horrible side. Not only was the eye on that side gone, but some of the facial bones — specifically the cheekbone, orbital bone and part of the upper jaw — had been crushed beyond repair. That whole side of his face, from brow to jawline, was now simply a concavity lined with scar tissue, big enough to hold half a grapefruit. The next operation — the one that had been delayed until fall — was supposed to give him some titanium implants, so that his face would at least be completely face-shaped again.

"Is this gonna 'e a… issue?" He was about to say "problem," but that word had too many of the wrong consonants. One of the things he was still learning was to think his way through a sentence before he brought it out.

Sandy took a deep breath, then leaned over the table and put her face within a few inches of his — so close that David felt himself leaning back.

"No," she said firmly.

"I… don't think he meant that as a challenge exactly," said Nate, a little taken aback.

Sandy stood up straight again, but she didn't look away. Instead, she studied David's face as if it were a complicated puzzle.

"If you're looking for something bite-size, I recommend the ravioli platter," she finally said. "It's a bit much for one, but you can always share it or take some home."

*          *          *

Amy huddled in a corner. The manager, Mr. McCarty, was apologizing personally to the table where she'd spilled the water. He wasn't known for sympathy. This was going to be so bad. If she was lucky, she might get out of it with nothing worse than public humiliation.

And here he came. Amy shut her eyes and looked down. Her face was already turning red.

"Ms. Lang?"

Amy nodded, biting her lip.

"Look at me."

She opened her eyes and raised them to his face, biting her lip harder.

"I was all ready to start shouting at you," he said, "and then I got a little glimpse of that man's face out of the corner of my eye… Just don't let it happen again."

"No, sir!" she blurted out, suddenly feeling forty pounds lighter.

"Now, don't you have work to do?"

*          *          *

David stabbed one of the ravioli with his fork, dunked it into one of the red sauces and put it in the side of his mouth that had two whole jaws. It was full of melted cheese and anchovy paste. He would have been happier if the cheese had stood alone here, but… when you got right down to it, food was food. The months he'd spent eating through a straw had taught him not to be too picky.

Meanwhile, Sandy was setting the linguini with house mussels down in front of Ruth. The house mussels were a marvelously simple dish — smoked mussels soaked in olive oil with rosemary, garlic and sea salt. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance, there's garlic, that's for vampires," said Sandy.

Ruth looked at her blankly.

"It's just something I like to say when I serve this stuff."

"Oh. Okay."

David took in another ravioli. The crab imperial was best, no doubt about it — the recipe seemed to include a touch of Old Bay and crab mustard, and the crabmeat came in satisfying chunks. The simple pleasure of good food… one more thing he could still count on.

*          *          *

At the door to the kitchen, Amy bumped into Sandy again. She was coming out with a mildly irritated look on her face and, strangely, a tea saucer in her hand with two meatballs on it, sitting in a tiny puddle of marinara sauce.

"What the hell?" said Amy, looking at the meatballs.

Sandy smiled. "You know that creepy busboy who keeps trying to hit on you?" she said. "I finally sorted him out."

"Um… seriously."

"Okay, the truth is, a couple of feral children in that wedding party in the back room got into a meatball fight, and now they're whining because they've run out of meatballs and want more, and their parents are giving in. So what I'm going to do is give them one each, tell them we're almost out of meatballs and these are the last two we have, and let them decide what to do with them."

"Cool," said Amy. She wished she could have thought of something like that. "By the way, thanks for filling in for me at that one table."

"No problem."

"That poor guy."

"I know."

"Do you think he's upset because I didn't… I mean because of how I…" Amy stopped, because Sandy was already giving her that look that said you just said something reeeeeeally stupid. This look was one of Sandy's house specialties.

"Don't flatter yourself," said Sandy. "He's not upset on account of anything you did, he's upset because half his damn face is gone."

"Oh… when you put it that way, I guess…"

"You'll have to excuse me now — my balls are getting cold."

*          *          *

Nate was already putting on his coat. David was feeling a little overstuffed — he'd finished the whole platter by himself. He pulled the hood forward until his face was shadowed again and stepped away from the table. A few feet away, Sandy was refilling the water glasses at another table.

She looked up at them. Her eyes moved from Nate's face to David's, and any sign that there was any difference between the two didn't show up on her own face. Seized by an impulse he didn't understand at all, David scooped her up in his arms — she couldn't have weighed even a hundred pounds — and embraced her.

He regretted doing this immediately, for two reasons. The first was that Sandy wasn't built for comfort at all — the flesh under her clothes and skin felt like little cords of steel and sheets of piano wire, as if you'd need a jackhammer to give her a massage. The second was that he'd accidentally pressed her nose and chin into the cavity of his own face.

He set her down. She looked, understandably, very surprised. As did everybody else. In the restaurant.

"Sorry," he muttered. Ruth took him by the arm and gently led him out.

He wished he knew what had come over him at that moment. He knew nothing about that girl, and she hadn't been anything more to him than a competent waitress. His wife, on the other hand, loved him and was standing by him, and his friends were making a point of visiting him… fairly often. But that was just it — they were people who were already close to him. He didn't take them for granted, but it wasn't a complete surprise to him that they were on his side.

To meet a total stranger and be treated without pity or horror, with nothing but professionalism… it was the sort of thing you took for granted, like having an entire face and being able to pronounce the word "problem." Maybe there was something wrong with her, maybe she was a sociopath who couldn't feel pity or much of anything else… but she'd made him feel, briefly, human again.

*          *          *

Like everyone else, Amy had stopped what she was doing when the hooded man picked Sandy up and hugged her. While the man was walking out the door, Sandy looked around the room at the people still staring at her.

"Don't anybody else try that," she said. "You won't get away with it." With that, she went back to work.

So did Amy, picking up a five-dollar bill from one of her tables. So far, the evening's patrons had been none too generous. Two tables hadn't bothered to tip at all, and at the table where she'd spilled the water, there was one penny, right where she couldn't miss it. Well, okay, she had that coming.

And then she looked at the table where the hooded man had sat. There was a pair of twenties sitting there. She found herself approaching the table, just sort of speculating… she needed the money… but so did Sandy… technically, this was her table… but Sandy had done all the work… but Amy really hadn't gotten much in the way of tips tonight.

There was a little cough behind her.

Amy spun around. Sandy was standing close behind her, her expression neutral except for a glint in her pale eyes like the flash of a knife-blade in a dark alley. (Amy steered clear of dark alleys and had never seen a knife flash anywhere outside a kitchen, but that was still the first image that popped into her mind, along with the question If I started running now, could I make it to the exit in time?)

"I was just… um…" (Just what? Admiring the rugged good looks of Andrew Jackson?) "Okay, I'm busted," she finally said, and fled to the kitchen.

A little later, Sandy met her in the kitchen. She was holding out a $20 bill.

"Here," she said. "You can have this."

Amy shook her head.

"Really, it's okay."

"No… I couldn't."

"Suit yourself." Sandy put it back in her pocket. "I gotta get back to work."

"Wait," said Amy, lowering her voice. "I just have to ask… did it really not bother you at all? Looking at his face?"

"It wasn't the high point of the evening," she said. "I just reminded myself I wasn't the one who had to wear it. That sort of put my problems into perspective."

As she left for work that evening, painfully aware of the garlicky smell that clung to her skin and hair, Amy was very glad that her skinny friend had been on hand that evening. Still, she thought, it would be nice to think that some time later tonight, when there was nothing else that needed doing, Sandy would take just a moment to run to the bathroom and throw up. Or collapse on the floor in a fit of the shakes. Or just burst out sobbing. Or have a good shriek.

Just to prove she was human.

 

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