The chair’s bamboo legs slide across the thin carpet. Henry pushes his thick, rose-tinted spectacles up his nose and lays a hand across his groaning abdomen. A slim, dark-haired waiter emerges through the Staff Only door and begins collecting Henry’s plates. A silver badge embossed with black letters spelling TIMOTHY hangs above the pocket of his white, crisply ironed shirt. “I hope you enjoyed your first As Much As You Like Meal, sir. P-please come again.”
Henry gives him a perfunctory nod and dons a tweed jacket and hat to brave the cold. He slips his hardcover into a side pocket. He moves through the potted waxy plants that have shielded the non-smokers from the fruity blue smoke of his cigar—his legitimate cigar—and strides past the three glass food domes, framed by brass tubes, to the exit door.
The sky is clear and star-packed. Henry walks along the footpath that snakes along the front of the restaurant to the carpark. Its huge glass face flanks the walk like an open mint-green mouth. Henry looks in at the relaxed, pastel interior and hears the softened, ambient sounds of chatter and dining music float through the pane. “As much as you like,” Henry says, as if the words don’t quite make sense. Even on leaving the place looks enticing. He walks to his car, exhaling a mixture of cigar smoke and frost.
The mid-morning sun beats onto the glass entry door, and Henry sees a reflection of his freshly shaven face. The heavy door scrapes as he pushes it open, marking the terracotta tile on a well-established neat black arc. He steps into the empty corridor lined with blackboard menus. At the end is the cash register and the waxen faced waitperson. Henry removes his hat, and glances perfunctorily over the menu. A slight swinging motion catches the corner of his eye. Below the menu, a small wooden sign, hung by two brass hooks swinging in the breath of outside air. He bends down to it, squinting, and holds it delicately in one hand. It reads:
FOLKS DAY! TODAY!
His face becomes pasted with the look of someone who has smelt something foul. Henry removes the little sign from its hooks. Mentally, he tries to locate a place for it among one of many pockets but the object is too large. He imagines kicking it so the nasty little sign scrapes across the tiles and into oblivion.
“I’ll take the As Much As You Like Deal. Smoking section.”
He takes a seat in the smoking corner, marked by a row of plants. The restaurant is empty, lending it an extra spaciousness. He smiles, contented. The waiter from last night approaches.
“Hi! My name is Timothy. I’ll be your waiter. Have you dined here before, sir? “
The glass domes housing the first courses cast a sallow glare over Henry’s face. He smiles, bowl poised, and ladles precisely one serve of steaming, thick, pumpkin soup, and then sprinkles on a light tong-ful of crusty croutons. They slip under the orange surface and rise again.
Onto his plate he heaps a pile of hot fettuccine, pouring a rich pool of Napolitana sauce on top with a heated silver spoon. The soup rests in the nook of his elbow, the fettuccine further down his forearm. With the third plate Henry arranges his main course. An array of mango, kiwi fruit, rock and honeydew melon pieces emit sweet, ripe, flesh smells. Each slice cut from the original fruit with sharp, neat incisions, making the peaks of the wedges, too, look tantalisingly sharp. “Sharp and sweet.”
Henry perfectly accommodates the most amount of food onto the plate in the most attractive manner possible. He considers it with a pause of satisfaction, contemplating the menu’s inferior Serving Suggestion.
He inhales abruptly. All his courses so far are balanced precariously along one tweed sleeve. His pupils dilate. It is time.
The third dome, the dessert dome, rushes to him by several feet, although the rest of the restaurant remains unchanged. Tiny jets squirt saliva under his tongue. He moves toward it, as if magnetically drawn.
Seated on his bamboo chair, on the thin green vinyl cushion, Henry looks momentarily past the splendour of colours laid out before him, and peers down into the window of the fast food chain beginning its day’s operations next door. A line of identical cash registers activate simultaneously, and the first automated patron in each long queue approaches.
Henry chuckles down at them, thinking of their noise, their greasy square-inch hamburgers, the squabbling children, and frightful music, and then gazes languidly at the tranquillity and ambiance of his own surroundings. The classical music seems to pick up a notch. Grace over, he begins to eat, and relishes every mouthful.
Two thirty-seven. Outside in the noon sun, a white minibus rolls over the carpark’s warming asphalt, making a light squeal of tyres as it comes to a handbrake stop. It is emblazoned with a cowboy hat and red letters that spell The Folks Community Bus. The engine switches off and the sliding side door peels back, and a dozen senior citizens, clutching handbags and cardigans, scramble out, and swarm up the steps and into the entry corridor. After some genial arguments they huddle around the domes, where the food is immaculately laid out in stainless steel tubs, except for one scoop already carved from each.
Henry, chin jutting out, peers through the separation in the leaves. The corner of his bottom lip curls up. “Swarm, buzzards, and then fly away.” He smiles, mockingly. “The temps. No sustenance.”
He pulls out his hardcover novel. Men Under Water. Short stories by Ralph Lombreglia. He places the bookmark neatly behind the fold of the dustjacket.
Henry shifts his weight from one buttock to the other, crossing his legs. His back is stiff, and his legs as leaden and unfeeling as the bamboo. Men Under Water. Short stories by Ralph Lombreglia…
The lunch plates and soup-encrusted bowl are piled on the edge of the table. The sickly sweet residue in his icecream bowl wafts relentlessly into both nasal cavities. In the corner of his eye, mango peel and melon skins grin at him, marred by a succession of small neat teeth marks.
Men Under Water. Short stories by Ralph Lombreglia… He tries to read, but glances up sharply from the line of tall plants. “Will somebody collect my refuse?!”
The mid-afternoon sun begins its silent penetration through the restaurant’s glass face. Harsh yellow bands stripe the carpet, tables and chairs. Only the domes remain untouched. Outside, magpies swoop upon a cluster of schoolkids running across four lanes of freeway to pad the fast food queues next door.
Four forty-eight. The restaurant is quiet and deserted. Henry is reading a book. He is shuffling. He has changed positions three times, sitting in each of the four chairs once. Clockwise. He looks up from his book and exhales a long deep breath. His hawkish eyes are hardened. The classical music station becomes interrupted with successions of static, until an abrasive youth announcer’s voice is channelled along the airways and blares into the room.
“Yoohoo!” a screech from behind the Staff Only door.
Henry gets up out of his chair. “This has gone too far.” He walks on his cramping, terse legs to the Staff Only door. He pauses for a moment, and with a huff, raps sharply.
He raps again.
Nobody opens the door or says come in. He walks around to the entry corridor where the register is displayed.
“I’d like to speak to the manager please,” he says to Timothy’s acned, intimidated face.
“Yes, sir. I’ll get her.” Timothy and a brunette re-emerge. Her hair is pegged up in a neat bun. How attractive she must look with her hair down, he thinks.
“I’d like to register a complaint,” says Henry.
“Oh, right. Well, what’s the matter?” she asks.
“I am reading,” Henry replies, trying to retain his composure. “There are only certain types of music that can provide a suitable backdrop, and none of them resemble the cacophony you are tuning this room into now by way of those sets.” He points to the unassuming black circles in the ceiling, covered with thin mesh netting.
“There. And there. My table is located directly under one of those speakers. See! There. And one over there. I know where all of them are. I could map them out for you and teach you something—”
“That’s not necessary, sir,” she interrupts coldly. “I’m aware of where the speakers are. Do you want to change tables?”
“ I do not wish to change tables. I wish you to change the station!”
“Okay, sir,” the woman says, in one long, slow movement of her head. “We weren’t aware that there was anyone in the restaurant.”
“Obviously. I heard one of your employees express considerable joy over that fact.”
“That was me, actually, I apologise.” She hesitates. Her eyes narrow somewhat. “Didn’t you arrive hours ago?”
“Yes,” Henry says with forced dignity, jutting his chin toward a speaker, rapaciously perched black crow. “At 11 this morning. And I intend to eat As Much As I Like so I’ll be in the smoking corner, reading, until I am appetised for my evening meal.”
He senses that manageress is about to argue. “And another thing,” he interjects,” those bloody bamboo chairs are totally unsuitable for the duration of my visit. You can’t rest your back properly because there is no backrest. My legs feel heavy, stiff; those damned chair legs.”
“They haven’t been designed for lengthy visits,” she states.
“Forty-five minutes I was here and already I was uncomfortable. I’m going to write that on the comments card, you know. That the chairs are completely useless.”
Henry turns, his back to the bemused manageress and embarrassed waiter, and smiles.
“Deceptive marketing…” he mutters under his breath for extra effect. He shuffles past the entree dome and plants his tweed hat over his balding, itchy pate.
Before he gets past the brass-bound construct, the manageress calls out.
“The Folks bus has left, sir. You didn’t happen to have a nap by any chance and not realise, did you?” she asks, her allure ever-diminishing.
“The Folks bus!” he cries, incredulous. “I am no member of that party of bickering old fools. I take offence!”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says. But in her blue retina he reads a subtle mocking.
MEN UNDER WATER. SHORT STORIES BY RALPH LOMBREGLIA. He turns a page that swims with words, creases it down, and rushes to scan the text.
At five o’clock a foursome wearing tennis whites arrive in the entry corridor and begin perusing the blackboard menu. Henry peers through the gap in the plants to watch them. A slim blonde of about thirty-five looks sharply toward the smoking section, waving her hand aggravatedly as if to move away smoke. She loudly informs the others that “…somebody’s been smoking a rotten cigar.” They give a collective sigh of dismay.
“It smells like a Hamlet. My father used to smoke them, and God, do they stink.” Henry decides not to let the poor group suffer with the dead smoke smell of his last cigar, so he luxuriously slides another Hamlet from its silky packet, and lights up.
“Ha ha,” He realises, a little startled, that he must go to the domes now before the group clutters them up. He gets up, leaving his cigar smouldering in the glass ashtray.
Entree. Two choices of soup, pumpkin again. Stick with what you know. One serve. Croutons. Pasta. Fettuccine. They haven’t changed it over yet. It doesn’t steam and slip through the tongs, it sticks to them. Rubbery. He tastes a strand from the messy squiggles heaped on his plate. This time it has the semblance and taste of elastic bands.
Napolitana sauce. Tepid. Watery now. Why?! “Is this the same food?” Henry asks an empty space a few feet from him. “You..” he shoots a poisoned look at the Staff Only door, searching for an insult. “… plebeians.”
Mains; fetid mango. He sniffs a melon and concludes – sour. Improportionate slices. A pea rests on the best looking chunk. With two fingers he flicks it off as if it were a cockroach. It scuttles away. Potato skins. Sodden. A pool of milky fluid rests at the bottom of the coleslaw. One serve. Slop.
Dessert. He approaches the appropriate dome, balancing his courses. It is grim so far, but he will compensate. “I will remove the whole tub of chocky mousse and take it to my table. I am going to eat As Much As I Like.”
He corners the dome, anticipation rising in the pit of his stomach once again. The tub is slowly revealed. A soft indentation from a finger protrudes through the gluggy, wet sludge, or, what is left of it.
“Those bloody invalids,” he says, fuming.
“Damn it, I’ll have icecream. All of it.” He pulls on the firm lever. He waits. “Come on,” mutters Henry impatiently through barred teeth. He looks up to take note of the machine’s inferior brand name. A white piece of paper, sticky taped on each corner spells OUT OF ORDER, and in little letters underneath; we apologise for any disappointment- management. He knees the machine in its probable groin and strides back to his table. His cigar is a grey column of ash. Henry lifts the butt for the last drag, and it crumbles, and falls over his jacket. He places the soup bowl to his lips, and begins to slurp the tepid ooze as noisily as he can.
Six: twelve. Timothy emerges through the Staff Only door. The young man’s eyes appear tired, his face is red and drawn and he moves slightly hunched as if from age. Henry spies him as he steps through the gap between the plants, furtive as a deer. “How was your meal, sir?” he asks and begins to stack crockery on his rolled shirtsleeve, avoiding eye contact.
“Less than satisfactory,” Henry replies.
“Oh,” Timothy pauses. “I’m sorry,” He looks down at the plates and their coloured stains. He can smell the lingering pangs of the youth’s underarms.
“Wait here one moment,” Timothy says, and disappears between the potted trees. Henry waits, preparing another wretched, but satisfying confrontation with the icy manageress. He looks around. The entry corridor is filling up now. An expression of dismay passes over Henry’s face at the thought of sharing company with lots of hungry, stupid folk and their cretinous children.
He shifts his weight from one buttock to the other. “Well… come on, boy” he says uneasily. Timothy emerges from the plants again, into the secluded section.
“Here you are, sir,” he says, presenting a small, plain pillow in trembling hands. “I know the chairs are very uncomfortable. They are 45 minute chairs in fact.” He hesitates. He still avoids eye contact, staring instead at the back of Henry’s chair.
Then he leans forward to adjust the pillow. “No one else has ever stayed the whole day before. It’s not expected.” Timothy repositions it to fill the bamboo gaps.
“But you’re perfectly entitled to stay and eat As Much As You Like, sir, and I hope this makes you a little more comfortable.”
Timothy’s face colours and he quickly picks up the remaining cutlery and glances at the title of the book on the table. “I don’t read much. I should.” He lifts Henry’s ice-cream dish and moves away.
Henry looks fixedly through the glass plate window that exposes the street on one wide stretch. A spectre of nakedness flicks across his eye. Outside, as stars begin peering through the red sunset, a woman is sitting on a bench, drawing a 1950s car parked under a plane tree. He stares at her, unblinking.
He twitches. One of those tiny, spasmodic motions, the ones that others have to strain to see, erupts and like a heavy, random pulse, begins beating in his eyelid. Henry lifts his hat from the seat of a chair, puts it on with focused deliberation. The woman is colouring with quick, neat, pencil strokes. He picks up his novel and slides it into his tweed pocket. He stands.
For a moment it is as if he is vertiginous, dizzying from an extraordinary height. Then he regains composure, and walks through the gap in the potted tree line, past the noisy tables, past befuddled waiters and waitresses stressed at the onslaught of diners, to the clear door.
But here Henry pauses. He turns his head in the direction of the Staff Only door. He thinks through his plan, breathing uneasily, and then moves toward the door like an obsolete automaton.
Henry pushes the door open just a crack, his heart welling up almost to his mouth. “Hello?” he calls in, and the sound echoes and bounces as if down a long dark duct in a spaceship.
“Hello,” manageress. Henry opens the door another inch and sees her seated at the far end of the room, a sandwich and a generic brand juice in front of her.
“Everything okay?” she asks, hesitantly.
“Yes,” Henry slowly pats down the front of his jacket. “Thank you.” He tries to smile but succeeds only in inverting his lips, and embarrassed, Henry makes his retreat.
He reaches the clear exit door again. He pushes it. The door doesn’t budge. Henry takes a frightened breath. He gives another gentle shove, again to no avail. He heaves himself upon it. No easy swinging motion, no scrape along the terracotta tile. He shoves it.
Then he sees the white letters – PULL. So he does. As the door swings inwards, a hand-sized autumn leaf lifts up, swirls in the gust of twilight and floats down. Henry steps back outside again, under the pink fingers of sunset and enveloped in the breeze.