Waiting on Alexandre Dumas
By William Davis
26 June 2006
I hate January nights at Rosie's, which is the restaurant where I bus tables. Santa Fe empties out in the winter, and that means that January is our deadest month. Less money, but then less sidework—which meant I was almost done cutting bread in the kitchen. I was trying to distract myself from the cooks' conversation about women they had had relations with when Jan called over the intercom to ask me to come up to the hostess desk. As I left, Luis said, "I only bought pussy that one time, bro. She was beautiful but she was all tore up," and Eddie replied, "Juarez, huh?"
I found Jan holding the phone and wearing a hopeless expression that made me want to bite her.
"You speak French, right?" she asked.
"Oui," I said, and tried to look unencouraging.
"I think he's speaking French to me," said Jan. "But I don't really know. Do you think you could try talking to him?"
"Bien sur," I said, and took the phone from her. "Good day, sir? Yes, I understand French a little." Apparently enough to communicate. "Yes, sir. I believe that to be excellent fortune for the two of us." The voice on the other end projected so well that I was holding the phone a foot away from my ear. "Yes, sir. Two people at seven o'clock this evening. Your pardon? Ah, a table dark and suitable for conversation. That is not difficult. Rosie's? The restaurant, sir, has the name of its founder. Yes, sir, she has died. Yes, sir, we have excellent wine. Yes, sir, several are French. Excellent. Until seven this evening, then, sir." I hung up the phone, took Jan's pencil from her, and marked the reservation in the book.
"You shouldn't take reservations without asking me," said Jan. "What did he want?" I pointed to the book. "A table for two at seven? That's the busiest time of night."
"Jan," I said, "it's the middle of January. 'The busiest time of night' means we have one other deuce then. We'll be lucky to do thirty covers tonight."
"All right, but if things get busy I'm not responsible. You're the one who took that reservation."
"I shall in all my best obey you, madam." I started to go.
"Dumb-as?" she asked, staring at the reservation book.
"Dumas," I said without turning around. "Comma, Alexandre."
In the kitchen Luis's story had ended, to everyone's relief, and the radio was playing Queen, which I loathe, but it's music you can cut bread to. Three loaves later I considered the reservations book and decided I was done. I went to go find my waiter, Rico. He was in the service bar with a coffee cup in his hand. I peered over his shoulder into the cup.
"You take what you can get in January," he said. "We're going to be dead in here tonight. Do you want to start a fire?"
"Hell yes. But you probably mean in the fireplace."
He sipped from the cup and raised his eyebrows. "It's going to be a long night."
I loaded the fireplace with wood and newspaper and candle ends (my personal fire-starting secret) and got the whole thing roaring. I watched it long enough to make sure that the chimney was drawing well enough to prevent the room from filling up with smoke. People are always asking to sit next to a fireplace. They usually get mad when they can't see their date across the table.
"Good fire," said Rico.
"Goddammit," I said, nearly jumping headlong into the fireplace.
"Please don't sneak up on me like that."
"It's just about time to start this business we call show. You want to maybe clean off your skirt?"
"That's why it's black, you know."
"Our first reservation isn't until six thirty and it's snowing. So I'm going to sit in the bar with Helen. Will you watch the floor?"
He looked at the fire. "Did you remember to save today's crossword?"
"I think I just incinerated it."
"Ah, well. I'll make my own fun."
Jan poked her head around the corner. "We're open," she said brightly. Rico vanished into the bar.
After standing sentinel over the floor for half an hour I made Jan promise to tell me if we got a table and went back to the service bar myself.
"Can I get a drink?" I asked.
"Aren't you underage?" asked Rico.
"Go fuck yourself."
"Well, you don't cuss like you're underage," said Helen. "Go get a coffee cup. Jan's been cracking down."
"Do you want the kitten I got for Christmas?" I asked Helen.
"I'm allergic. You should ask Luis. He loves animals."
"I think I'll save that for a last resort."
"He's got a heart of gold, you know."
I considered Juarez. "Nevertheless."
One half a coffee cup full of vodka later, Jan found me and said, "You have a table. You're really supposed to watch the floor yourself." Then, "Why are you standing like that?"
"I'm the steadfast tin soldier."
Having no reply, she turned on her heel ("sixteen years of ballet") and walked out. I grabbed a basket of bread from the kitchen and went to meet our guests.
"Water with lemon," said the bald man in table twenty-one, without looking up from the menu. The woman held up two fingers. As I walked away I heard him say to her, "Can you believe these prices?" When I returned to the table with two water glasses festooned with lemon slices the woman wordlessly handed me a fork. I stared at her.
"It's dirty," said the man. "She needs a new fork." I wondered if his wife was mute. I snitched a fork from the table behind me and placed it to the woman's left, then made a run for the bar. I caught Rico mid-sip.
"Do you want to go meet your elderly tightwads on twenty-one? I bet that they split an entree."
"Amateur night," said Rico. "Let's go see if they can pronounce 'enchilada.'"
"At least they'll die soon."
"Thank you, my little ray of sunshine." Rico walked out to meet his ten-percent fate.
"Refill?" asked Helen, already filling my coffee cup.
"Why not? I can still stand on one leg without falling over."
"You know what the definition of an alcoholic is?" asked Rico, back in record time.
"Someone who drinks as much as you do but you don't like him," chorused Helen and I.
He looked up from entering the order into the computer. "Long night."
"Old joke," I said, and left the bar to wander the restaurant and avoid our lone table.
I ended up at the hostess stand, where Jan was smiling and flapping her hand like a spastic penguin. Before her was a huge black-and-white black man. I mean, he was black, racially, but he seemed to be colorless, like an old black-and-white movie. He was tall, maybe six-two or -three, and he was big: he filled the entrance. He was also talking hoarsely and loudly to Jan in French, with the same projection in person as he had had on the phone. My drama teacher would have killed for that voice. Behind him was a short, curly-haired brunette wearing less than the January weather called for.
"Monsieur," I began. He looked just like the picture on the inside cover of my copy of The Three Musketeers.
He turned to me with a tremendous smile, and I skipped back involuntarily. It wasn't that I was frightened. There was just so much presence there. I felt like he needed more room than our building would allow.
We established that this was Rosie's, that he was M. Dumas, that his table dark and private was indeed available, that I would be serving him tonight, although his chief server would be Rico, that Rico was not of Spanish descent but a New York Jew who had been in Santa Fe too long, the age of Rosie's (sixty years), the history of the building (a three hundred year old Spanish barracks), that adobe was a fashion of construction using morsels of mud, and that I would now take him to his table. Jan smiled and flapped; M. Dumas's date shivered. After showing them to their table I went back up front.
"Did you notice his color?" asked Jan.
"That is a remarkably racist thing to say," I replied, and regretted it when it looked like she was going to cry.
"I didn't mean . . ."
"I know. I'm sorry. I was joking. It was probably a trick of the light in here. Damn fluorescents. Jan, do you want a kitten?"
"My apartment doesn't allow pets. Sorry."
Rico stuck his head around the corner. "I need you. Table thirteen . . ."
"Only speaks French. I'm coming."
"Also, the Clampetts on twenty-one are just about finished with their half an enchilada each. Would you, could you do the dessert dance for me? I don't think they'll get anything. But they might want more water with lemon."
"At least they didn't use the sugar packets to make lemonade."
"Only because she stuffed them in her purse."
I hooted. "You're joking!"
"Nope. All gone." He looked at me. "I haven't heard you laugh since you've been here."
"I'd better stop drinking on the job, then. Good evening, monsieur." (This last to M. Dumas.)
With my translations of Rico's lies about the food ("Oh, yes, we use only the highest grade of beef for our tournedos bearnaise"), we explained the menu to M. and his companion. He ordered for them both, three entrees total, including the mendaciously sold tournedos ("Very rare, only given a moment's glimpse at the fire, then whisked away." "Yes, monsieur. Rico, TB blue.") and the most expensive of the three French wines on our list. Rico left to put their order in, and I bowed myself to visit table twenty-one. I stopped by the computer to print out the check for them before asking if they wanted dessert. As I had suspected, the bald man merely grunted, "Check." I left it beside him.
Back at the bar, I found Rico dusting off the wine bottle for thirteen. "Where'd you learn French?" he asked.
"In school. Words, words, words."
Before Rico could inquire further Jan came into the bar. "I've just seated you two four-tops," she said.
"Calloo callay," I said.
"I've got this bottle to open," said Rico. "Are you even old enough to take someone a drink should they need it?"
"And what is up with thirteen? Is that guy really not in Technicolor like the rest of us?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said.
"Maybe he's from Kansas," said Helen.
I grabbed two baskets of bread—the first rule is, give them something to eat—and went to see what the night had brought us. Table seventeen was a matched set of teenagers on dates. The alpha male there told me that they all wanted Diet Cokes, and asked if we offered free refills (yes, cheapskate). I brought them their aspartame-and-waters and went to the next table over. Three businessmen, one businesswoman looking eager to please. The men got dry martinis with various name vodkas; the woman got sweet vermouth on the rocks. Groundhog Day has doomed more people to that foul drink than is meet and right.
After these frantic motions and a break for liquid refreshment I caught Rico in the kitchen cussing out Luis, who was pretending not to speak English.
"I need those goddam appetizers," he shouted. Then, in Spanish, "Give me my fucking food, you hummingbird."
"I think you mean 'cocksucker,' not 'hummingbird,'" I said.
"Fucking piece of shit," said Rico.
"Que?" said Luis, just to piss him off.
"Motherfucker!" said Rico, and ran off. I shrugged.
"You want to take the apps?" asked Eddie, bringing them up.
"I live to serve."
The apps went to the teens, who had chosen them as their entrees: the ladies, for their (stick-insect-like) figures, the gentlemen for their parents' credit reports. Rico's temper was mending after the businessfolk had all ordered steaks. Luis was back to talking to himself for amusement, mostly about his new puppy: "And he sleeps with me, bro, and when I wake up he licks my face and I can tell that he loves me even though I'm a bad dude. I mean, you know, I'm a sinner just like everybody, I mean, we're all sinners, but my puppy? he just loves me and doesn't care."
Rico and I stopped by table thirteen. The wine had given M. Dumas some color—literally, he was sepia—and he was chatting at volume with his companion. "So who is this guy?" asked Rico as we tucked around the corner where we could watch them unobtrusively.
"My guess is that he's the ghost of a nineteenth-century author."
"There is more on Heaven and Earth, asshole, than is dreamt of in your philosophy," I said. "The Three Musketeers? Twenty Years After? The Count of Monte Cristo?"
"That's the author?"
"Did you notice that he's sort of tinted now?"
"So why come to Rosie's? I mean, ten years ago, sure, but these days? Strictly riding on reputation. Our escargot comes from a big blue-and-white can marked SNAILS."
"Maybe the reviews in Hell are a little slow."
"Huh," said Rico. "I didn't know you got time off for good behavior in Hell."
"Read the Refrigerium of Prudentius," I said. "Apparently you get a nice date, too."
"Not my type," said Rico, ignoring the rest of my comment.
I shrugged. "Not mine, either."
"Why did you leave school?" asked Rico.
"I stopped eating. They asked me to go someplace else to die."
"And now you work in a restaurant."
"And now I work in a restaurant. Where the ghost of Alexandre Dumas is groping his presumably ghostly date. Alas, poor ghost."
"Has he even stopped talking since he's been here?"
"Not that I've heard."
"I wonder how he got out," said Rico. He was clearly imagining something along the lines of Doom: a rocket launcher, a chainsaw, and a bad attitude.
"Well, he did a lot of occult stuff before he died. Maybe he made a deal with the devil. Ooh, nice technique." M. Dumas had just managed to slip a hand into his date's top, while talking about the wine. He had known the family who owned the vineyard, and was telling his date how he had improved the wine by means of an ingenious planting schedule, and how, in their gratitude, they had named the next vintage—"the finest yet tasted"—after him. His date was squirming agreeably.
"I bet the food's up."
In the kitchen, Eddie and Luis were disco-dancing behind the line.
"Macho macho man," sang Luis.
"I'm too old for this," said Rico. We grabbed the food and ran.
M. Dumas declared everything to be of the highest perfection. The tournedos seemed to revitalize him, and he gained enough color to seem perfectly normal, at least with regard to hue. He and his date began eating with Gallic expressions of delight.
"I'm too old for this job," said Rico, back in the bar.
"You said that already."
"I mean it. I should be making films. I don't need this nonsense."
"True for you. So what are you going to do?"
"When you get out. What, my young apprentice, are your plans for the future?"
"I hadn't really thought about it." Rico refilled his coffee cup. "I mean, this is all right for now. I'm making okay money, and the work's not bad. To wait tables, or not to wait tables, what's the difference?"
Rico took a sip. "You should go back to school."
"That's not what the Dean said."
"You should," he insisted. "Become a professor, write some books about that Refrigerator of Whosit, come back here with your friends so you can show them where you worked before you got famous. Tip well, or I'll talk to the papers about your drinking problem. You're just killing time here."
"Could be worse."
"Could be better."
"Whatever. Where's the steaks for the suits?"
"Damn!" said Rico, and ran for the kitchen. I grabbed my cup and held it out to Helen.
"Rico's right," she said, giving me the last of a bottle I knew for a fact had been emptied entirely by employees. "You should go back to school."
"I should get back on the floor," I said, and fled. I gave a quick sweep of the tables. The teenagers had gobbled and run; the businesspeople were discussing incomprehensible financial matters over their steaks. I found Rico standing at thirteen, helplessly pretending to understand.
"He wants to hear about dessert," I said. "And apparently is sharing a brief history of French theatre." I explained the desserts to M. Dumas as best I could, leaving off such as exceeded my powers of translation. I told Rico the order and we headed back to the bar. Helen was dancing.
"Macho macho man," she sang.
"The hell," I said. "Not you too."
"I feel like we should call somebody," said Rico. "I mean, we've got a ghost."
"Who you gonna call?" said Helen, and giggled.
"Do you mean like Paranormal Investigations, or like a priest?" I asked.
"I don't know. But we should tell somebody."
"Why? Why not let the guy enjoy a night out without bugging him? It's not like he's haunting the place. He just came in for dinner. Just let him drink his wine and eat his food and molest that escort. We don't need to pry into his personal life. Afterlife. Whatever."
"Fine, fine, good, good," said Rico. "I just hope nineteenth-century ghosts tip well."
"He's a classy guy," I said. "I'm sure he'll hook us up. We could walk with two bucks apiece!"
"You only get twenty-five percent of the take."
"Yeah, but I'm counting on a little 'thanks for the translation' side-tip."
"These slow nights are murder," said Helen.
"What do you suppose he does the rest of the time. In Hell, or wherever?" asked Rico.
"Probably waits tables," I said.
"Yeah," said Rico. "Hell is probably like a work dream. You know, where you've just gotten six tables, and you can't get to them fast enough, and the food keeps disappearing, and then you realize that you aren't wearing pants. At least we get to go home at the end of the night."
"Desserts are up," I said.
After dessert, and port, and espresso, M. Dumas handed me a black credit card which was icy cold to the touch. I took it back to Rico in the bar, where Helen and I discussed the possibility of destroying the kitchen radio before more disco was inflicted.
"Well, it went through," said Rico, after running the card. "Our new motto can be 'Rosie's: We take credit cards from Hell.'"
"What was the damage, anyway?"
"Two hundred and seventy. Not too shabby."
"And we got through the night without anything catching on fire."
Rico reached out and rapped the bar door twice. "Yet."
"Hey, Rico, do you want a kitten?"
"Hell no. A cat's like a boyfriend that won't go down."
I went up front to see if Jan would let us close and found her wishing M. Dumas and date a good night.
"Good night, monsieur," I said. Alexandre Dumas turned to me with a great smile, and told me how much he had enjoyed everything. Now was my chance to ask for his autograph, except that Rosie's had a policy about bothering celebrities. "I am very glad to hear that, monsieur."
He put a hand on my shoulder. It was warm and heavy and strong. Gracefully he leaned down and kissed me on the forehead, then whispered in my ear. Even his hoarse, wine-scented whisper could be heard in the next room. He stood up, turned about with a genial wave to Jan, and left with the brunette clinging unsteadily to his arm.
"Well!" said Jan. "What was that all about?"
"He said that even in Hell one has choices," I said. I rubbed my forehead. The kiss had been pretty slobbery. "And that he will tell Rosie that the service was excellent."
"I hate it when people pretend to know her," said Jan. "I mean, she's dead. Like he can tell her anything. Why are you crying?"
"I don't know," I said, but I did. I had just been told that the consummation devoutly to be wished was not an option. Sleep without dreams was all I wanted. But even in Hell—and I was still Catholic enough to know where I was going if I could get someone to take care of my kitten—there are choices. Hopeful, I suppose, from some other point of view. I thought about my job here at Rosie's, where the jokes were worn by long use into a familiar liturgy, where I needed to make no decisions beyond the confines of a single night's work, where I suffered only the slings and arrows of outrageous customers. "It's been . . . a very long night."
"Shall we close up shop, then?"
"You're the hostess, cupcake." I wiped my nose on my sleeve, then looked around guiltily for watching customers.
"Everybody's gone," said Jan. I went to find Rico.
Rico was clearing table thirteen. "That's my job," I said.
"So it is. You okay?"
"Luis said that if you wanted he would take your cat."
"'Sokay. I think I'm going to keep her. How'd we do?"
"For a slow night? Still kinda lousy. The suits screwed me over. I heard one of them say, 'You don't tip on drinks.' Like they magically appear on the table."
"What about thirteen?"
He open the book. "Eighty on two-seventy. Very nice."
I thought about Alexandre Dumas: how when he was alive, he'd kept his cash in a fount like holy water, to be dipped into whenever his fancy struck. A man from whom generosity overflowed. "Classy guy."
"You know, if you want to get out of here, I can finish up."
"Do I really look that bad?"
"I'm not stupid enough to answer that. Yes, you look like somebody stole your car, your shoes, and your wedding dress. Go home."
"Thanks, Rico." I patted his shoulder and turned to go.
"See you tomorrow?" he called after me.
"Yes," I said. "I suppose you will."