Wedding Soup Confession
woman at the table next to mine is engaged. Her diamond ring sits like a skinny
promise, waiting to be fattened with another band. Her friend - maid of
honor? - sits with her back to me. The bride-to-be is drinking some
cloudy white drink, getting girl-drink-drunk. The back is drinking an
amber colored draft.
Over by the specials board sits a bunny-cute couple and their single male friend. They are trying to fix him up with another single friend. His placement at the table splits the couple. Above her head, Italian Wedding Soup is written in pink chalk.
On the other side of the dining room, behind the bar, is the woman who took my husband.
Wedding Soup Tuesday is not usually this busy, but tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and it is always difficult to predict business around the holidays. While the unexpected diners, parties, dates, and merry-makers seat themselves, they often obscure my view of the bar.
There are bar tables where I could sit – high, round perches within reach of the bar and bartender. That old man, Fritz, sits alone today as every day at the bar table closest to the front window, drinking Finlandia martinis, rocks, one olive.
She and her polite, eager smile are talking to a couple of regulars: Carl and Jane. They are alcoholics. They come in every day and sit for hours, until Jane is sloppy drunk - so drunk no one ever notices whether Carl is drunk or not. It looks like she drinks Old Fashioneds. He drinks Scotch and milk. Repulsive. Carl would be a lecher if Jane did not keep him on a short leash. She will slur, loudly and red-faced, into his ear whenever he seems too attentive to a waitress, another customer, the bartender.
I don't know where my husband used to sit when he came in for happy hour. He'd have a snack and a glass of wine while traffic died down. He hates traffic - has always been absolutely spineless about any tension or conflict. Like traffic.
I drink bottled beer. Like Fritz, I prefer a vodka martini, but she would have to prepare it. The servers get their own bottled beer. I tip very well, partly so no one minds my time here, partly because the server gets it all. They must share tips with the bartender if she prepares the drinks.
On the rare occasion a server asks me about my writing - a much more polite query than "why are you here every day?" - I explain that I plan to set my next novel in a restaurant. I always ask them - well, the three times it's come up - to please keep it to themselves, as a self-conscious wait staff would make for poor research. It's working.
At first she seemed uncomfortable about my writing. I'd catch her eye, then scribble madly. It was exhilarating, like her paralyzed panic the first time I walked into the restaurant. I hadn't been sure if she would recognize me. Maybe she'd seen picture. Maybe she'd been inside my house.
Whatever it was, she did recognize me. I sat here, in this chair on this side of the dining room, a straight line from the taps at the center of the bar. She used to spend most of her time hunched behind the taps, sometimes peering between them in my direction.
It seems she has yet to tell anybody about me. I wondered if she would. I wondered on that first visit if she would wait until closing time and explain the situation to the manager. I wondered if I would be refused service when I returned. But no.
Maybe she's too embarrassed to explain. Maybe she did tell, but her manager deemed me harmless.
There was one tattooed young waitress who seemed suspicious at first. She asked more questions than most and I thought perhaps she’d been sent to gather intel by the bartender. But Tori - an aspiring writer – offered to give me tour of the “back of the house.” She noted but misunderstood the excitement in my eyes at the offer. It was watching the bartender’s reaction as I was given the guided tour that I was after, but to be honest, the look around the kitchen did indeed inspire.
The bathroom is beyond the specials board, parallel to the bat-winged kitchen entrance. I often decide to use the restroom exactly when she moves toward the kitchen. She quickens her step, even now. She used to get flustered, stall, hesitate between racing me and turning around, her rosy complexion paling. She's much smoother now, but she’ll never risk a meeting, not there, within ear-shot of her co-workers.
In the restroom, as I latch the stall and unbuckle my belt, I remember again that I am now the reason women squat above the bowl, or lay a protective tissue paper barrier between themselves and the communal seat. The symptoms, the doctor's embarrassed diagnosis - this is how I found out about the bartender. Nice. It is this ugly, compromising reminder - combined with the bittersweet rush of stalking her toward the bat-winged doors - that makes my vigil tolerable. Necessary, even.
I have been here every day for five weeks. The restaurant is closed on Mondays, but it receives deliveries. Barry, the prematurely balding assistant manager, comes in Mondays wearing jeans and an Old Navy sweatshirt, carrying a clipboard and cradling a cigarette as he sips at a steaming mug.
Every door is propped open, even this time of year, to air the place out, to clear out the stink of bleaches and cleaners, trash cans and ash trays, the stale beer smell and the faint people odor of a building so continually inhabited. He makes camp at the four-top nearest the front wait station - nearest the pot he's just brewed. His coat hangs on the chair, his ashtray fills. Schedules and schedule requests, weekly and daily sales totals, liquor tracking, even sometimes his wallet and keychain sit patiently on the table.
He's only here for a few hours, signing for deliveries, stocking the items, and making notes throughout the mountain of papers on the table. Frozen goods, other perishables, dry goods - everything except fish comes in on Monday.
Most of the stock is dropped off in back of the building, behind the kitchen door, off the alley where the servers go to smoke during their shifts. Barry gets to the frozen and refrigerated items quickly. Dry goods - like peanut oil, for instance - he allows, to stack up out back until his day here winds to a close.
It wasn’t until the fourth Monday that peanut oil arrived. I don’t think I fully understood my purpose until that moment. Barry was surprised to find that the crate had been tampered with, but the driver was long gone. I suppose it’s a risk you run when you leave all those deliveries unguarded.
The walk-in cooler is out there. It’s is divided into two parts. From Grandview Hardware's parking lot across the street beyond the dumpster, the cooler is easy to study. During working hours and most Monday mornings the door is frequently propped open, murky plastic strips hanging from ceiling to floor giving the entrance a second barrier. Well beyond the crates and produce is a second door to the freezer piled with boxes of meat, pre-made desserts, and the meatballs for the Wedding Soup.
I remember when my husband started bringing home their soup every Tuesday. He’d order a whole quart to go and eat all of it. He’d savor every meatball, closing his eyes – why? To avoid distraction while he chewed?
I prefer clam chowder, but I never eat the soup here.
My husband used to tell me the food here was decent - some of it really good. Naturally, we never dined here together. He mentioned her only once. He’d ordered the shrimp and scallop cakes, hold the chopped nuts. She served him but stopped him just before his first bite.
"You're not allergic, are you? There's peanut oil in the recipe."
A life saver. His hero.
He needs a hero. Someone to care for him. He's that type of man - who walks through life oblivious, assuming his mother or subsequent mother-substitute is taking care of everything. It was his mother who trained me to use the epi-needle, to inject it into the thigh with enough force to ensure the life-saving drug entered his bloodstream before his throat closed completely. What a wretched, gruesome thing to watch, let alone endure, if you didn't know how to counteract the allergen. Poison, really.
His mother isn't interested in meeting the bartender. She's pretending the whole thing will blow over. I wonder who will train the bartender on the epi-needle's finer points?
He has yet to come in to the restaurant since our split. Maybe he sees her often enough now and doesn't have to visit. Has she told him about my vigil?
She skates out of here as soon as possible after her shift, a bottle of wine under one arm, Wedding Soup to go container in hand every Tuesday. She never lingers to socialize. I flatter myself, but she's probably as eager to get home as she is to get away from me. Celebrating still, I suppose. That early flush of love. Oh, I remember the blossom of new love.
Right now she's collecting her tips, gathering her apron, the book she brought in case it was slow - Tuesdays usually are - and quart of soup.
She says goodbye to Fritz and is off to her grey Civic, 806-RVD, parked in the Grandview Hardware parking lot.
Merry Christmas to me.