A couple of years ago we hired a waiter, whom I will call Carl, who arrived with impeccable references. A Swiss citizen, Carl had worked in some of the finest establishments all over the world. An older man, in his fifties, he knew everything there was to know about waiting tables. He could rattle off wine vintages, discuss the finer points of French and Russian service, spoke three languages, could debone a filet of sole and prepare flambé tableside. The man knew his shit.
Erudite and able to converse about a wide range of topics, I found he was a pleasure to talk to: a welcome change from the coarser discourse usually found in the back of the house. Yet there was a sadness that clung to him like tobacco smoke. Divorced, childless, living alone in a small apartment in a downscale neighborhood, he had the air of a man who accepted that his moment in life had come and gone.
As we walked to our cars one night at the end of a long shift I noticed we were wearing the same exact beige jackets, smoking the same exact cigarettes, and doing the exact same job. I looked at this guy, twenty years my senior, and wondered if I was going to end up exactly like him. I felt I was in a bad Star Trek episode catching a glimpse of my future self in some sort of time machine. The question was could I, like Captain Kirk, change the future? The thought disturbed me. I went home.
Then one day Carl had a problem with a table. Two nasty old biddies, festooned in gaudy jewelry and even uglier hats, were eating lunch and were unhappy with their meal. Carl went over to resolve the problem but they bitched and sent the food back. As he turned away, plates in hand, the nastier of the two, mistaking his Swiss accent for a German one, hissed, “He’s a Nazi dear I just know it.” Carl turned around and archly replied, “There is no need to be rude madam!” and strode away.
Two days later the owner got a letter from the aforementioned biddies demanding Carl be fired. The owner laughed and told him not to worry about it. Carl was, however, shaken. I bought him a drink at the end of the shift but he seemed to be in a fog.
The next day, Friday, I was surprised to see Carl had failed to arrive for his shift. I called his home but no answer. The following day he didn’t report for work either. Maybe he quit. Maybe he was on a drunken bender. On Sunday evening the owner, who had a sense something was amiss, called the cops. They found Carl. He had been dead in his apartment for two days. Heart attack.
The owner, in typical Italian bride at every wedding / corpse at every funeral fashion, freaked the fuck out. While I was at a table was about to regale another table of overfed aging yuppies about the specials, he grabbed my arm and whispered in my ear, “Carl is dead man. He’s fucking deaaaaaad!” The news barely had time to register when I looked down at the impatient upturned faces waiting to hear what culinary delights awaited them. Dead. Carl is dead. In one shocking moment my fears of ending up like him took on a new urgency and I was insensate. I described the specials on autopilot while my mind tried to process the news. After I finished a shrewish woman asked me to repeat the specials – again. I asked her to excuse me, that I had just heard a colleague of mine had died and I needed to compose myself. Without missing a beat the bitch said, “Ok, but is that striped bass fried or grilled? The withering stare I gave her, coupled with my abrupt departure from the table killed any chance of a tip from those assholes but I didn’t care. The rest of the night was like serving food in a funeral parlor. After shift the entire wait staff got stinking drunk.
There was no wake to go to. No funeral to attend. Carl was cremated the next day and his ashes FedExed to his gray haired old mother in Switzerland. It was as if he never existed.
Time, however, marched on and the jokes, of course, soon followed.
“This place will fucking kill you.”
“Better tell the customers it wasn’t the food.”
“The only way you can get a Saturday night shift in this dump is if someone dies.”
“Can I have his wine opener?” Where did he stash all his pens?”
“Some people will do anything to get out of working Saturday night.”
“Carl’s ghost did it.” – used to excuse every imaginable fuck up.
I told the owner he should write a letter to Carl’s old Nazi hunting bitches stating that:
“At our restaurant we take customer suggestions very seriously. You will no doubt be gratified to hear that the waiter in question no longer works for us, He is dead. I hope this resolves the matter to your satisfaction. You dumb cunt.”
Yet, after all the jokes and mythologizing, I was unable to shake the preternatural sense that I had seen a glimpse of my possible future. The nagging question that faced Captain Kirk still faces me. Can I change it?
Too you Carl. Votre’ Sante.