Volume 21, Number 4


J. Thomas Cross

Everything else might have been fine if he hadn’t kept smiling at me like that. Maybe if he spoke more than that one time, but he didn't. He only smiled. He replicated the smile exactly each time. He started by flicking his head up. Then his mouth would spread across his face, stretching his lips across his teeth without showing them. The result gave him a long, unnatural crease across his face from ear to ear. You know how, in real smiles, the eyes will crinkle? His eyes crinkled, but not in a real way. It's as if that contrived grin forced his cheeks to balloon up, which in turn forced his eyes into a squint. He smiled like this all the time. All the time.

Right out of college I couldn't seem to get a job anywhere, so I took one as a server at Italiano's; you know, to pay the bills until I found something real. Luis, the manager, walked me through a tour of the kitchen. Efraìn stood at his station, spraying a pot with a pressure hose. He saw me, flicked his head and smiled. He didn’t stop spraying. He kept looking at me, smiling while Luis gave me a tour.

I flicked my head in return, without a smile. It’s easy to say, "Oh, he was only being friendly," but he wasn’t. No one understands this. That smile wasn’t warm. It had menace about it. That smile was his way of mocking you.

I admit, he did nothing outright to me. Everything was subversive. It only appeared to be nothing. I couldn't say, "Stop doing that," because he didn't do anything except smile. But he did do something, and we both knew it. Efraìn did not miss an opportunity to do his silent, subversive Nothing. I asked another server, Becky, "Who is that skinny dishwasher?"

Becky pronounced his name Eff-rye-een, which I had to assume was correct, because no one else said his name, not once. Becky grinned when I mentioned Eff-rye-een. She told me he was a sweetheart and always gave her hugs.

She didn't know his age. He might have been sixteen, or maybe in his mid-twenties. He didn’t move with a teenager's awkwardness, but he had a teenager’s build: not a boy, not a man, a body that hasn’t yet figured out what shape it is. He had no facial hair, and he wore a hat, hiding his hair. He wore the same Italiano’s shirt, dark pants and dishwasher’s apron.

Our contact was minimal, which shows how much of an impact he made. Anyone who works in a restaurant will tell you of the unspoken, palpable-yet-intangible divide between servers and the kitchen staff. An uneasy truce exists between the two camps. Despite our common struggles—which included cranky customers, the laughable pay rate and a tyrannical employer—the two don't mingle.

Efraìn and his damned smile crossed a boundary between us. He crossed it often, not too far, just toeing the line enough to taunt the enemy. His smile had a tone, a mocking tone. He mocked me with his smile. The smile itself mocked me. It wasn't just false; he wanted me to know his smile was false. It was a smile that said, "I know something you don’t." It was a smile that said, "I’m laughing at you." It was a smile that said, "I’m better than you."

He conveyed all this with just a smile. He wasn’t being friendly. His eyes twinkled with the same mockery, like I had my fly open and he wasn’t going to tell me. He had the power because he knew, and I did not. I was a fool, and Efraìn laughs at fools. He smiles at fools.

* * *

Look, I wanted to do my job well. I needed to do my job well, since my income was solely reliant on the inconsistent generosity of the general public. But early on I discovered my distaste for the public and the job, a feeling cemented by two self-involved yuppie couples and their hellacious children, a young boy and girl for each couple, one Friday night.

I christened customers with private nicknames involving conspicuous physical attributes for my own amusement. These four shared all the same attributes, to the point of confusion. I later learned one name: Jerry. For clarity, I'll call them Jerry and Mrs. Jerry, dining out this evening with Not-Jerry and Mrs. Not-Jerry. None were older than 35 or so. They considered themselves successful and important and dressed to prove it. Careful attention was paid to clothing, makeup and hairstyle choices. Joined with an aloof, bored attitude, everything worked together to inform everyone else they don’t find you very interesting at all. This really means you have no value, thus not worth the time and effort.

Jerry and Not-Jerry amused themselves battling in a verbal bigger-dick contest, their voices carefully pitched above the normal restaurant chatter, loud and vivacious, to let others know, "Yes, we are handsome and fun!" The women chatted in quieter tones, making snide comments about other women they knew or the people around them. They participated in a more passive-aggressive form of the competition between the husbands, one that required no chest-thumping but instead the marvelous ability to thread criticism into a compliment weaved with a delicate smile.

The kids were all elementary age, old enough to entertain themselves, which was necessary because their parents paid them no mind. You've seen this before. Three of the kids discovered the joy of mashing bread into the carpet under the table. The fourth drew on his kid's menu with crayons. Then he threw the crayons to the floor, stomping on them while holding himself off the edge of his chair with his hands. He followed that up with standing on his seat, using his mother to steady himself as he climbed over the back of the chair and jumped to the floor. He bounced off the wall on the way down. After slapping his sister across the head ("Ow, stop!") he prowled around the table as a dinosaur, complete with roaring.

"Son, stop that," Not-Jerry said, suddenly exasperated and annoyed that the child would interrupt his conversation. Not-Jerry turned back to Jerry, just as quickly forgetting his son again. The boy didn't hear it, or ignored him and continued his blood-curdling quest for new types of screeching.

I stood there, searching for a polite way to interrupt and introduce myself and get this order started. They ignored me until I cleared my throat and they all turned to glare at me.

"Hi!" I said. "What can I get you folks to drink?"

Both women lazily looked away in a synchronized, programmed movement. No one made eye contact as I took drink orders.

On a night when the restaurant gets slammed, the kitchen gets backed up, and on this night, orders took forty minutes to an hour. No one wants delays, but when they happen, people don't hesitate to tell you how much they don't appreciate that you're keeping them hungry.

And these yuppies … While I spoke to another table, Jerry snapped his fingers at me from across the room. I nodded and held up a single, polite finger, to say, "I see you, and I will be there in one moment." He dropped his hand on the table and then held both palms up, still looking at me. His brow pointed into an angry V and his mouth fell ajar, astounded that I did not drop what I was doing with these other people to answer to him right then. He raised his hand and snapped for me again. Not-Jerry stood beside the table, hands on his hips, glowering at my disobedience.

Since I could not vocalize, I did not appreciate being snapped at, I took my time returning. I said, "Yes, sir?" as if the jerk hadn't called me over like a master to his manservant. Not-Jerry wore his jacket, pretending to ignore me as I spoke.

"We’ve waited for our food for over forty-five minutes."

So had everyone else, but I did not say that to Jerry. "I’m sorry, sir. I will go check on that right now. Everything’s backed up. I’ll see if I can get them to rush it out for you."

At the expo line, Luis hunched over a mass of tickets. "Hey, Luis, table ninety-three­—" But that was all I could say.

"Shut up, willya? I know we’re backed up." He didn't look at me, either.

I eyeballed the tickets spread out on the counter, trying to recognize mine and see where it was in the order.

"What the fuck are you doing standing here? Go do your fucking job!"

I returned to find them all standing, wearing jackets and scowls. Jerry said, "We’ve waited too long. I’m not going to wait any more, and I don’t think I should pay for any of this." He pointed at the empty wine and highball glasses.

"I’m sorry, sir," I said, fighting the panic rising inside my throat. "It’ll only be another moment. I just saw your ticket. It’ll be any second now."

"No, we’re not waiting. I own a restaurant, kid. I know how this works."

Then Luis appeared behind me, silent like a cat. "Hey, Jerry, what’s happening?" God, they knew each other!

Not-Jerry extended a hand but didn’t say anything; Luis didn’t bother to introduce himself and said to Jerry, "What’s the problem?"

"We’ve been waiting a while now, and we’ve got the kids. We need to go. I’ll pay for the drinks." How generous of him.

"Are you kidding? No, I’ve got you covered. I’m sorry you had to wait so long. I had no idea. Your server should have said something to me," he said, standing no farther from me than they were to each other.

"Well, we hardly ever saw him ourselves."

"He’s new, I’m sorry. You should’ve said hi. I would’ve gotten you someone good."

"Don’t worry about it, Luis, he’s fine." Jerry turned to me. "It’s okay, kid. You’ll get the hang of this." The yuppies walked away without saying anything else.

Luis waved with a smile, but once they turned away his smile dropped. He exhaled through his nose like a bull, nostrils flaring in my face, a finger wagging, right in front of my other tables. "Their food is up. Right now. You just cost me over a hundred dollars in food and drinks, and you didn’t do anything to keep them happy. I didn’t know about it. How can I fix it if I don’t know about it?"

"Luis, I tried to tell you!"

"Shut up. I didn’t know about it. Now you’ve cost me money and embarrassed me." He walked away, and I could feel the anxious, prying eyes of the customers who watched the exchange. They said nothing about it when I turned around to help them. I kept my voice cheery, but I could not mask my own embarrassment.

The next night, Saturday, my section was comprised of two tables instead of four. Becky said, "Oh, you must have made Luis mad. You're being punished." She smiled, having seen it before many times. I did not smile. I thought of my rent.

Luis grabbed me later and said, "How’dya like your section?"

"Why’d you do that?" I said, but I already knew.

"You cost me money, I cost you money," he said. "I don’t forget anything." He tapped his temple, walking away.

"So this is my punishment, then?" I yelled out to him. I didn't know what else to say.

He didn’t turn around as he shouted, "You cost me money, I cost you money!"

The sound of the pressure hose startled me. Efraìn watched the whole thing in silence. He stared at me.

I stared back, waiting.

He flicked his head up and smiled that godawful smile.

* * *

Luis had a thing for wine sales. They made him money. Every night in the huddle, he ordered the troops to push wine. He’d talk about other stuff, specials, ingredients, whatever, but he always mentioned wine. "You have to push the wine," he said. "Push the wine." He slapped the chart behind him, the one that kept track of our wine sales. He updated it nightly. "Know your wines, know your labels. Ask them what they like, suggest a wine, and more importantly, don’t take no for an answer." The same words, every night.

He let us go, waving us away. I followed the herd until a finger landed on my chest. "What’re you gonna do tonight?"

"Sell wine?"

"Don’t answer me with a question. Sell the wine, or don't bother showing up tomorrow."

I pushed the wine at my first table. "No, thank you, not tonight," the husband said, nodding politely.

But I had my marching orders. "If you don’t want a full bottle, we also serve it by the glass or decanter. That gives both of you the opportunity to try a different wine."

"No, thank you, we’re not interested in the wine."

I braced myself and said, "Are you sure?"

The man dropped his menu onto the table and stared up at me over his glasses. "I’m sure." He picked the menu back up, shaking his head.

This table set the tone for the night, despite my clearly exceptional sales technique. Sure, some tables ordered wine, but because they already wanted it and not because I influenced them. My wine sales remained average.

Luis stopped me later, near the end of my shift. "How much wine have you sold tonight?"

I pulled out my book and read, "One bottle, six glasses and one decanter."

He held his hand up to my face and crooked his finger at me to follow him. We marched into the kitchen, Luis hunched over in his grouchy way. He stopped in front of Efraìn, who stopped to watch. Luis didn't notice or didn't care. I noticed, and when I looked at Efraìn—to make it clear he was eavesdropping—his face grew that awful smile. His cheeks were glued in that position while I looked at him.

"Why aren’t you selling wine?" Luis said.

"I am selling wine, I told you. Look, right here, I sold a bottle and a decanter—"

He waved his hand in my face. "I could sell that without trying and so could everyone else out there. You’re not trying. I told you to push it, and this is all you bring me?"

"I have pushed it!" I said, my anxiety fueled by that eerie feeling of Efraìn’s gaze to my left. "I’ve asked every table!"

"You don't ask if they want wine. You sell it," he barked, matching my tone.

"They don’t all want wine!"

"Then make them want it!" he screamed at me. "I don’t care whether they want it or not! When they sit at your table, they better suddenly decide they do want it, because that’s your job. You sell wine, then your ticket goes up, your tip goes up, and more importantly, I make money. You got it? Show me you’re worth what I pay you and why I bother keeping you on. Sell the fucking wine." He punctuated it by jabbing his finger in my chest, then shoving me with a stiff shoulder as he walked away, pushing me into the wall. "Jesus fucking Christ," he said, shaking his head as he turned the corner.

Efraìn smiled at me again.

"What, dude?" I said, arms outstretched. "Seriously, you don’t have something better to do?"

Efraìn didn’t respond. I don't even know if he understood me. He just stood there, smiling at me, and I hated him as much as I hated Luis.

* * *

I'm not proud of this next part, but it's important.

I was not drunk. I was buzzed, yes, but I was not drunk. I did consume, prior to coming to work, three vodka-and-tonics. That may sound like a lot to you, but I drank like a pro. Three was nothing. Italiano's taught me how to handle my liquor.

Look, Italiano’s ate away at my soul. I spent six nights a week at work, on my feet in eight-hour shifts, plus Sunday afternoons and any semblance of an outside life slipped away. My life revolved around Italiano’s. It consumed me. When I wasn't asleep or trying to unwind enough to fall asleep, I was at work. I didn't have normal hours like a normal person, much less any time to find something else. I couldn't quit and try to find something; I often didn't make enough to pay my increasing bills. My savings vanished. I lived off ramen and any leftover food I could sneak out at the end of my shift (taking it home was not allowed as Luis considered it stealing, but he had no qualms about throwing it away). I couldn’t go out to unwind because I had no spare time and no spare money.

After earning that all-important college degree, having been fed for years the promise of the positive change it will bring your life, I was wasting away in a legal form of capitalistic indentured servitude. Yeah, I was a little uptight.

Drinking—a pastime I could barely afford to do from home—became that escape so many others before me have discovered. I would drink after work, but on this particular night, the thought of going into that place to be berated by Luis and be treated as less-than-human by the general public was too much. I needed to take the edge off. The booze made it tolerable and I could detach into a dreamlike world.

So the booze wasn't the cause. I know for sure. In fact, much to my disappointment, most of my buzz had worn off. If it hadn't, I might have been okay.

No, it was the Old Hag. She was old, old and bitchy—the kind of old that’s angry when things don't work as her small worldview dictates it should, or maybe just angry at the world for being different from the way she likes it. She sat in the booth with a quiet couple, nicer than her but not enough to balance out her barking bitchiness.

The Old Hag asked me what I liked and I recommended the special, a dish I enjoyed before I was sick of all things Italiano. She took my suggestion, and proceeded to run me ragged. My other tables suffered because she monopolized my attention, which then made the other tables upset. Once the Old Hag’s food finally arrived, she stopped talking to me, which I considered a good sign. I walked by often, slow enough to grab me if they needed me without interrupting their conversation.

After twenty minutes, she waved me down. "Thanks for asking how it tasted," she said.

"I’m sorry?"

She pushed the bowl of pasta away, whipping her hand back as if it were dirty to touch. The porcelain slid to the edge of the table and almost fell off. "I said thanks for asking me how my dinner was. It was terrible. I couldn’t eat a bite of it." She turned her head away from me, chin up, to let me know I was a bad dog, bad dog, and I did wrong by her.

"I’m sorry, ma’am," I said, trying so hard to paint my voice with real concern and remorse: yes, I was a bad dog for not reading her mind. "I walked by to make sure everything was okay. No one said anything, and had I known I would have corrected it."

"But you didn’t bother to ask." She still refused to look at me.

"I’m so sorry." What else do you say?

"How’s that going to fix the problem?"

That statement threw me, and I looked to the couple with the Old Hag for support. They just ate, slowly, staring off into space, unaware of the crisis brewing at the table. "What can I do to fix it?"

She turned to me, her mouth open and eyes wide with surprise. "Well, if you’re going to give me attitude.…" She turned to the couple and shook her head, aghast. "I’m sick of hearing your excuses. I want your manager."

But Luis’s radar went off long before she asked for him. He arrived as I was turning. He moved in close, his hot breath filling my nose. "Get the fuck out of here," he whispered and turned to the Old Hag, all smiles and charm. "Ma’am, I’m Luis, the general manager here. What seems to be the problem?"

She glared at me instead.

Luis turned and said, "Go."

So I went. In the kitchen, I kicked a drawer and the silverware inside clinked around. I played out scenarios in my mind where I went back out there and poured her terrible dinner all over her head as I told that fucking old bitch where she could shove that bowl. Each little fantasy grew increasingly violent as my rage grew. All were impractical, unrealistic expressions of my hatred for everything around me, all channeled into this one woman, this symbol of all the broken promises and bullshit I had to swallow. It would be the most satisfying way to get fired, by tearing down this woman with her own cruelty. She treated me like a slave boy, and she would pay for it. Treat me with respect, you awful, selfish bag of shit, I would scream! Treat me like a fucking human being! All of you customers, thinking I’m your little telepathic circus monkey, here to take care of all your needs so you don’t have to lift a finger, God forbid! Shall I cut it up and feed it to you, too?

I don't know how much of this I said out loud. Maybe none, but I'm not sure. Efraìn leaned on a broom, one of his dishwasher buddies standing next to him. They were the audience to my one-man show, and they enjoyed themselves. My silent nemesis turned to his friend and said something in Spanish, pointing at me, and his friend bellowed with laughter, also pointing at me. That was the only time I heard Efraìn’s voice, ever. Without laughing, he looked at me and flicked his head.

Then, Efraìn smiled at me.

I couldn’t think after that. Enraged he would make a joke at my expense, I crossed the floor between us, cocked back my fist, and hit him below the eye, throwing my entire body weight behind the blow.

Efraìn dropped, still conscious but dazed. His buddy didn’t move, shocked. I hurled myself on top of Efraìn and rained punches onto his body until I could right myself, straddling his stomach. "You think it’s funny?" I screamed at him. I aimed for any part of him I thought I could hurt. Spittle arced out of my mouth as I shouted, "You think you’re better than me, always smiling like that? Huh? You think you’re better than me! Well, you’re not! You’re not!" I grabbed a baking pan from the shelf beside me and whaled him with it, not just on his head but his body and the arms he held up to protect himself. "You’re just a fucking dishwasher! You’re nobody! You’re just some wetback illegal who can’t even speak English! And you think you’re better than me? You’re nobody! I’m better than you, got it? Got it?!?"

And I hit him until Luis nailed me in the face with a scorching hot bread pan, knocking me off Efraìn. In the few, stunned seconds after that, I saw the blood streaming from Efraìn’s nose and mouth. He was awake and didn’t appear badly hurt, despite my viciousness. I think, in my blind rage, I didn’t land any good blows. All this I thought before Luis’s boot connected with my gut. I coughed, gasped for air and curled into a fetal position, clutching my throbbing belly.

Luis grabbed the collar of my starched white shirt and dragged me across the greasy kitchen floor. He kicked open the back door and threw me out. I rolled on the concrete and stopped by a green dumpster. I remember thinking it was an odd color for a dumpster.

Luis spit on me and slammed the door shut.

I coughed and picked myself up, covered in garbage and grease and blood. I realized some of that blood was mine—the bread pan broke my nose.

* * *

Thinking on it later, Efraìn was probably illegal, and that’s why Luis didn’t call the cops. That, and Luis hit me, so I could make a case for assault as well. Regardless, the whole thing went away. I didn’t go to the restaurant. I didn’t list it on any résumés, and I pushed away all of the misery I experienced there. I told my parents about it, and they were stunned and then furious. I moved in with them, just for a little while, until I could get back on my feet. I eased myself back into adult life. I saw a therapist twice a week. I quit drinking and went to AA, and I haven't had a drop since that night. I just knew if I got a real job, all this despair would wash away and I would be happy.

My dad made a few phone calls and got me a job at an ad agency. It wasn't bad. I still got paid by the hour, though, not much over minimum wage. And a good part of my time was spent running errands or getting food. You know, gopher work. Often I was asked to clean up the little kitchenette area in the break room. It may sound a lot like waiting tables, but it's not. I was happy in my new job. Nobody ever snapped at me to get my attention. Well, actually my boss snapped all the time, but that's just his personality, and it wasn't the same.

It was not the same at all. I was happy.

I got a real job, and it made me happy.

So, almost a full year later, after I got away scot-free, the office sent me to get breakfast tacos at Ruby's. I put in my order and waited, watching the those employees scurry around. I sighed, thankful I didn’t have that job anymore.

Then I did a double take because the guy cooking eggs, a scrawny little Latino kid with no facial hair, looked up. The horror of recognition washed over me. I don't remember coiling, or springing over the counter, or burning my arm on the skillet as I tackled him to the floor. All I remember was the high-pitched ping of my mind snapping, like a guitar string popping out of the bridge.

All because Efraìn smiled at me.