From force of habit Dayna began her shift by fussing with the plastic bins of lemon wedges, lime wedges, olives, and maraschino cherries. She squared off the small, warped cutting board and made sure the paring knife was placed precisely and diagonally across it. With a deft twist of her fist she fanned the stack of cocktail napkins so that they could be easily plucked one at a time. She idly stirred the glass bristling with the miniature red plastic cocktail straws and deemed it full enough to not need refilling. Ditto the shot glass with the toothpicks.
She looked up when a group of four men breezed in. They were tall and rangy and seemed to know the place, because without hesitating they made their way down the narrow passage between the bar stools and the single row of tables lining the exterior wall. They ducked through the narrow door to the back room. She heard the scrape of chairs and the rumble of their voices as they settled themselves.
She slid her order pad and a pen into her belt. She arranged glasses of water and napkin-wrapped cutlery on a tray, which she poised on the raised palm of one hand. She plucked menus from the stack next to the citrus bins, lifted the hinged section of the staging bar, and closed it again behind her, all in one fluid movement. As she crossed the few steps to the back room, she predicted, just to test her memory of how sound moved through the space, that the men had chosen Table Three.
She passed through the door under the antique sign that read ladies and gents sitting roomand – bingo – she saw the men on the left-hand side of the room at the table next to the window crowded against the back wall. Table Three. Her feat was hardly extraordinary. There were only nine tables in the tiny room, and she had had a partial view of several of them from her vantage point behind the bar She caught the eye of Sarah who was working the back room, to let her know she was setting up the newcomers’ table. She crossed the space and greeted the men as she set the water and cutlery before them She handed each a menu.
She was about to leave them to their deliberations when one of the men asked, “You new here?”
She shook her head and said pleasantly, “No, not new.” She turned to leave again but hadn’t gone a half step before he challenged,
She turned back and looked down at the man who had draped his arm over the back of his chair so that he could look up at her She glanced around the table. Their faces were a little blurry. If she had had the money, she would have reordered her contact lenses. She was sorry that she had left her glasses behind the bar. Nevertheless, she was close enough to the man speaking to her to determine that he was youngish – probably not much older than her twenty-six. Call him early thirties, tops.
She smiled faintly. “Yeah, I’m sure,” she said, her manner still pleasant.
“Then we’re ready to order,” he said, without so much as a glance at the menu.
She took out her pad and clicked her pen.
“We’re having the usual,” he said.
So this was the game. Did it have to be in the first five minutes back on the job? She raised her brows and circled her glance once again around the table. Damn, she would have liked to be wearing her glasses. “Everyone, then?” she asked. “The usual?”
Three heads nodded.
“And to drink, I’m guessing it’s –”
“Right,” she said, with another faint smile. She put the pad and pen back in her belt and collected their menus. “I’ll get that order right in.” She left them and went straight to the kitchen, maneuvering around the bustle and the stainless steel workstations.
She found a trusty busboy. “Hector, my darling,” she said, putting a friendly arm around his shoulders. “Could you sweep around Table Two and then tell me if you know what the men at Table Three usually order? If you know their food orders, return to the kitchen and tell Maria. Then come to the bar and let me know what to serve them to drink. Hold on to your cleaning props, and don’t look at them again when you pass through the back room.”
Hector nodded. While he retrieved a broom and dustpan from a corner, Dayna returned to the front room and the bar where several customers had bellied up. They obliged her by actually telling her what they wanted to eat and drink. She got their drinks going and handed their food orders to Tina, her best friend in the world, who was working the front room tables.
A few minutes later, Hector returned with the good news, bad news. The good news was that Maria knew the foursome’s food orders and Hector knew their drink orders. The bad news was that they were the band that had played five nights at the café the week before. They were back now for their second week.
“They’re the what?” she asked, hoping she had misheard.
Hector shrugged, as if he had no desire to belabor the point.
She sighed and made a mental note to find out what this needless expense was costing. She had returned to town with an inkling of financial problems troubling the café. Although her meeting with the accountant wasn’t for another week, she decided it would be prudent to prepare for it. With another sigh, she foresaw her day shift followed by a long night shift deep in the accounts.
In an undertone she said, “Please tell me their meals haven’t been comped this whole time.”
Hector shrugged again, this time as if in genuine ignorance.
“Well, if they have been, they aren’t anymore,” she said with the first real smile she had cracked since stepping into her old role. “Thanks, Hector.”
“No problem,” he said and got back to work.
She drew the beer and went to Table Three. She made sure to set the glasses in front of them with a light touch. Before she left, she assured them that their food would be right out. She returned to preside over the bar and picked up some tables to give Tina a hand until she judged the moment – to the exact minute – when Maria would have the plates ready. Maria had had the presence of mind to check on the seating arrangement of Table Three. Thus, as Dayna was stacking the dishes on the hot pads lining her left arm, Maria was able to tell her who was to get the fish and chips, the burger, the salmon sandwich, and the veggie burger. Dayna served the order without a hitch and, with no hint of triumph, invited them to enjoy their meal. She returned to the front room without a backward glance. When the time was right, she sent Sarah to present them with their bill and to settle up.
Not too many minutes after that, the men emerged from the back room and filed past her. The one in front – who did all of the talking, apparently – waved cheerfully and said, “See you tonight, sweetheart!” She was not sure (because she would be damned if she would put her glasses on now), but she thought he winked at her. The next two also waved and smiled at her. The fourth one paused.
There was just enough room between the two customers seated at the bar in front of her for the fourth man to lean forward and put his forearms on the wooden lip of the old polished plank. “Rick isn’t a complete jerk,” he said. “At least, not all of the time.”
She lifted a skeptical brow, but she wasn’t going to reject the apology outright. “Good to know,” she said. He was close enough in her visual field for her to see that he was not bad-looking. “And you’re –” she paused infinitesimally “– the veggie burger?”
He shook his head. “Salmon sandwich.” He pointed to his band mates. “Rick is the fish and chips. Josh is the plain burger. Nick is the veggie burger.” He smiled and pushed himself away from the bar.
Okay, he had a nice voice and an attractive smile, but that didn’t mean she would ask him his name. Nor was she going to make a point of finding out what it was.
“See you tonight,” he said.
She shook her head. “My shift will be over by then.”
“Another time, then,” he said and moved on in order to catch up with the threesome waiting for him at the front door.
She didn’t bother telling him that although she might not see them later this evening, she was sure to hear them. Just this morning she had moved back into her old bedroom in the apartment on the floor above the café.