The day starts off badly. Just as I am about to pull onto the highway to drive to work I hear the “thunk thunk” of a flat tire.
I still have enough tire pressure to drive the five blocks back to my house. I get out the jack, slap on the donut spare, and creep down to the discount tire store.
Everyone, it seems, has a flat tire today. The line is long. I’m late for work. The workman promises he will fix it as soon as he can.
I drink bad coffee and watch Oprah on the waiting room TV. She is giving away IPods, spa vacations, and HDTV’s to a screaming bunch of deserving teachers as part of her “Favorite Things” bonanza.
That just depresses the shit out of me. Ever since my girlfriend left money has been tight. If I have to get a new tire and miss a night’s work I could be out $300 bucks. I think of my penury. I think about all the Christmas gifts I won’t be buying this year. The clock ticks. I should have been at work already. A yawning darkness overtakes me.
I catch a break. The tire only needs a $20 patch. The workman bumps me up to the head of the line and I’m out the door. I race to work.
I hit rush hour traffic and slow to a crawl. By the time I get to the bistro I’m two hours late.
I walk in angrily pulling up my tie. Fluvio grins at me saying “I have a lovely table waiting for you.”
“Oh shit.” I exclaim.
“The lady is a bitch. Have fun.” he chuckles. This is what I get for being late.
I pass by my new table on the way to the kitchen. It’s a couple with a toddler and an infant. They look upset.
I get the specials from the sous chef and head over to the table. Louis, another waiter, shakes his head and sighs, “Better you than me my friend.” This is going to be fun.
The husband is too busy typing on his Blackberry to look up. He simply says, “Get me Chianti.”
The wife, a Prada clad Ilsa the Executivitrix She-Wolf, glares at me.
“My son is allergic to everything,” she says pointing to her three year old, “What do you have that he can eat?” Just then her toddler starts playing the drums on the table with his utensils.
Over the clamor I ask what her son is allergic too.
She-Wolf launches into an exhaustive list.
“Madam I’m sure we can make something,” I say.
Her infant squirms in her arms. She lifts him to her breast, pulls a flap on her blouse, and pops out her tit. The baby clamps onto her nipple and starts suckling. Being a male of the species my eyes are drawn to her bosom. Hey, I have no problem with a woman breastfeeding in public. I just don’t see an aureole at the table everyday.
Realizing my faux pas I look back up at the mother. She looks annoyed. This is getting better and better.
“Well you better get my son’s food right because I don’t want to end up in the ER tonight,” she says prissily.
It’s been a bad day. My blood boils. “That’s it bitch,” I think to myself. I reach back into my quiver of waiter insults, putdowns, and expressions, select the appropriate arrow, set the smartass remark on the bowstring of by tongue, and start to draw it back.
Suddenly, there is a flash of light and a roaring wind. The fabric of space and time is rent asunder. Surrounded by an effluence of seraphic fire, the Angel of My Better Nature appears unto the world of Man. He looks pissed
“Waiter stay thy tongue.” he commands.
“What do you want?” I reply shocked.
“Look at that woman.” he thunders. “Where have you seen her before?
The angel has stopped time. Everything is frozen – captured in a moment. I see a knife, glinting strangely in the light; halfway through it’s plummet to the floor. The toddler has just knocked over his glass. Droplets of water hang still in the air like diamonds.
I look at the woman nursing her child.
“Look at her,” my celestial visitor repeats. “What do you see?”
Images flicker through my eyes like the pages in an art history text book: Da Vinci’s Madonna, the Icon of Vladimir, the picture that hung in my Catholic grade school library, the manger at my Mom’s house.
“The Madonna and Child. The Nativity.” I respond weakly.
The seraph sighs, “Are you going to act like that innkeeper in Bethlehem? Are you going to deny her shelter from the coldness of the world?”
“But…..” I start to say that Mary and Joseph weren’t swilling Chianti and driving a BMW but think the better of it.
“Be careful waiter,” the angel warns reading my thoughts, “That innkeeper from Bethlehem is still scrubbing the toilets up here.”
I am silent. Still looking at She-Wolf I see something behind her eyes that wasn’t there before.
The angel’s allusion to Bethlehem begins to make sense. Despite her bluster and arrogance, She-Wolf is a young mother who brought her child into an uncertain and sometimes cold world. She too fears the Herodic tyrannies of existence. Like all humanity she seeks shelter from the storm. I think of my own personal flight into Egypt – my own darkness. She-Wolf ceases being customer. She becomes a fellow traveler in this crazy beautiful world.
The angel prods gently. “Will you cast this woman into the coldness of your words? Is there no room in the inn of your heart?”
I shake my head in surrender. “You win.”
“Waiter sometimes you think you’re a real bad ass – but you’re not. Try being nice. It’s Christmas for Christ’s Sake.”
I look at the angel. His countenance gently caressed by tendrils of heavenly flame, he is smiling at me.
“I understand now.” I say.
He nods his head and says, “Have a good life waiter. I’ll see you on the flip side.”
In the twinkling of an eye he vanishes.
Time and space return to the bistro. Like a film suddenly speeded up, time snaps back into place. Voices clamor, the knife clatters to the ground, the water splatters on the floor, and the infant removes his mouth from his mother’s breast and begins to cry.
At that moment it is the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.
“Hello?” She-Wolf says curtly, “Can you make something he can eat or not?”
A beatific smile breaks out on my face. “Madam I will take good care of you. Don’t worry.”
Something of the angel’s grace still must be hanging in the air. The woman softens a bit. “Thank you,’ she says quietly.
I go to the kitchen and verbally place the table’s order – carefully explaining the toddler’s allergies.
Truth be told She-Wolf’s table was a real pain in the ass. The kids screamed. The husband ignored his wife while thumbing his Blackberry. She looked at him longingly with sadness. I kept the happy smile glued to my face. It wasn’t easy.
Check paid they get up to leave. The husband goes to get the car. As the wife waits at the front door with her children I walk over to wish her a nice evening.
Her armor cracks. Her eyes brimming with tears she says. “Thank you for being so kind to us. I know we’re difficult.”
“No problem Madam.”
“You are a very nice man.”
“It’s been a pleasure serving you. Come back soon.” I say.
The car arrives. She bundles up her children and heads out into the cold.
I pick up the checkbook and look inside. The tip is thirty percent.
My shift ends. As I walk to my car I think about my heavenly apparition. Sometimes being a hard ass isn’t always the best way to go. I am in the hospitality business after all. Besides – I don’t want to be scrubbing toilets for all eternity.
I pass by a storefront church. The congregation inside is making a joyful noise. Just then, through the windows, I hear the preacher’s voice proclaim ecstatically,
“A light came into the world. A light the darkness could not overpower!”
I smile. How right he is.
We are, all of us, that light struggling against the dark. It has always been. It will always be.
I get in my car. A church bell rings. The wind whistles past my ears. Listening closely I can almost hear the beating of an angel’s wings.
I go home.