Ch. 19 – What Happened Last Time (5)

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Jump to the Prelude

Back home, Zach’s family hadn’t been incredibly rich, but also, it hadn’t been dishearteningly poor. As in, his father and his six brothers and sisters hadn’t had to miss meals. No matter how dreary the porridge tasted, they did have enough servings of that dreariness for everyone.

Nevertheless, Zach’s lack of food intake since yesterday was first-hand experience enough to allow him to say this: no one, absolutely no one could blame the hungry man who lost all sense of propriety and began drooling uncontrollably at the proximity and prospect of food.

Now, don’t misunderstand. Zach didn’t drool uncontrollably. But he had enough imagination and humility to realize that he could have, had the hunger lasted just a day longer. He was also very aware that even people who hadn’t starved for a day or more were very likely to drool upon entering The Underwater Grille unless they were being very careful. Because, the Grille, unlike the Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom that was The Underwater Palace, represented a single heartwarming ideal: fulfillment.

First, the fulfillment of the stomach, through the food that was nowhere to be seen as yet, but manifested its presence through the rich smell of garlic, onions, and patiently-cooking stew.

Second, the fulfillment of the soul, through the warmth that hung in the air, courtesy of the kitchen. Zach could see the flames of the oven and stove fires every time the kitchen doors swung open and a waiter, in preparation for this evening, carried out jars full of drinking water for each of the dozens of square tables.

Utensils and plates clinked softly as the waiters set those tables. The ceiling lamps here radiated much softer lights than the ridiculously bright chandeliers back at the Palace. The small ivory candles, placed between the plates, matched the colors of the tablecloths. As yet, the candles were unlit, but they’d be lit soon, when the guests started pouring in—and pour in they would. Zach was sure of this. The amount of smell that filled the restaurant for prep work; the number of tables; the number of waiters—every clue told him so. Many, many people with good taste—gustatorily-speaking and socially-speaking—had, so far, concluded that this restaurant was a gem.

Since Mr. Shevlin had been able to realize the very ideal of fulfillment through this restaurant, Zach was also certain that the man had fully intended to make a Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom out of the Palace. It hadn’t been an accident, the out-of-place-seeming materials, the flowers, the over-the-top decorations. Everything back at the Palace had been intentional, as was the case here at the Grille.

The Grille, a place for fulfillment through laughter and friendship; the Palace, a place for indulgence without shame. Two ways to satisfy two different desires.

The waiters glanced at Zach curiously. Most of them wore black vests over white shirts. But one waiter was dressed in a full black suit and a bowtie. This seemed to be the headwaiter. He approached Zach.

“Good afternoon, sir,” the headwaiter said, perfectly courteous, perfectly rigid. “We’re not open yet, but if you’re looking to make a reservation, I’d be glad to help you with that.”

“Hello,” Zach said. “Mr. Shevlin sent me here, from across the street, The Underwater Palace. He told me to speak to Mrs. Shevlin for a meal?”

“Oh.”

The headwaiter’s eyes flashed slyly. He relaxed noticeably, giving Zach a nod, then a grin—one that implied that they, he and Zach, knew of things that others didn’t know of. They were on the same boat—one that not many people got to board.

“Right this way,” the headwaiter said.

He led Zach to the deep end of the Grille. As they passed by the kitchen, the mouthwatering aroma of stew thickened, then weakened, to be replaced by the smells of incense and scented candles. They weren’t unpleasant smells, no. But their strength caused a headache. Zach grimaced. The headwaiter glanced back and nodded. Yes, the headwaiter agreed, whatever was the origin of these smells, it didn’t belong here.

Then Zach noticed a faint sobbing. How odd. A person sobbing at a public, high-end restaurant like this, in broad daylight? That sobbing didn’t belong here either.

The headwaiter and Zach turned around a corner, into a den. No door, no wall separated the den from the main area. Nevertheless, the den gave off a sense of privacy, even secrecy. A shrine of sorts. There was only a single table in its deep end. No ceiling lamp illuminated it from above. No white cloth covered the table. And on it, there were no fresh water jars, no utensils, no plates.

There was no space for such things, and no need. The table was filled with candles of various heights, which all stuck to its surface due to the wax drippings. Any remaining space was filled with little statues of the Virgin Mary, Buddha, and others whom Zach didn’t recognize. But he assumed that the unknown figures represented deities of some sort, because the one person who sat by the table had put her hands together in deep prayer.

A magma lady. That was what that praying person looked like. Never before had Zach looked at a person and thought of magma, a word from Greek, meaning “thick ointment.” Zach had read about it in an issue of the National Geographic. This praying woman reminded him of that. She was a first in that way. She was also a first in that she sparked fear, disgust, and pity all at the same time.

Fear, because of that “magma” aspect, and her sheer size. It seemed as if she’d just exploded from a volcano. Now, she was in the process of melting down the volcano-mountain, with the crown of her head as the mountaintop and the ends of her long pink dress as the ground level.

Which, of course, didn’t make sense. She couldn’t both be the magma and the mountain. In fact, she couldn’t be either magma or mountain; she was a person. And yet, the initial association struck Zach to such an extent that he couldn’t shake off the image of an ever-exploding, ever-melting-down huge mountain-magma…

…which led to disgust. The main reason the woman looked like she was melting was that she was weeping like a child. But not “like a child” in a good way. Childish, not childlike.

But of course, when you see a person sobbing, the predominant emotion is pity. Especially when that person sobs so vehemently that her flabby shoulders shake and the candlelights in front of her shiver on the brink of going off.

Hence, fear, disgust, and pity—triggered by one person.

“Mrs. Shevlin,” the headwaiter said coldly.

The woman stopped sobbing and looked up.

This was Mr. Shevlin’s wife? Zach must have looked startled, because the headwaiter grinned.

“Mr. Shevlin sent this young man from across the street,” the headwaiter said, very slowly, very loudly—condescendingly, as if he doubted that Mrs. Shevlin could understand him if he spoke any softer or faster. “He said to serve him a meal, as in food. He wanted him to speak to you about it. What should I do?”

“What…?” Mrs. Shevlin said.

She still looked startled. She’d never in her dreams imagined that someone could address her while she was so busy sobbing and praying. As if expecting an explanation, she looked at Zach.

Zach hurriedly stood straight and smiled. At least someone here had to behave like a proper grown-up. Obviously, judging by Mrs. Shevlin’s behavior and appearance as well as the headwaiter’s conversation method with her, she was a bit slow. That didn’t mean that Zach couldn’t be nice to her.

“Mrs. Shevlin, glad to make your acquaintance,” Zach said, not as slowly as the headwaiter had spoken, but clearly enough.

He reached for the cap on his head—but the thing wasn’t there. He’d left it somewhere. Where?

“My name is Zacharias Steele,” he said, rubbing his hand on his shabby suit for the lack of anything else to do with it. “Nice to meet you. Very nice to meet you.”

Mrs. Shevlin stared at Zach with big teary eyes and said, “Hello, Mr. Steele.”

They shook hands. Nora Shevlin’s hand was nearly as huge as Gus Shevlin’s, a lot wetter, and a lot flabbier. And if a strong handshake showed a person’s character, as Mr. Shevlin believed, then Zach had to conclude that Mrs. Shevlin had none.

“I’m sorry I disturbed you while you were praying,” Zach said. “Mr. Shevlin did send me, but I don’t want to bother you, really.”

“No, no,” Nora Shevlin said, and stood up.

Or, more like, crawled up—like a magical reverse magma flow. It was a miracle that a person so massive from fat, rather than muscle, had the strength to get up at all. In fact, it was a miracle that she’d walked across the street earlier, to knock on the empty bookstore’s sliding door-wall.

“If Gus said to give you food, we give you food,” Nora Shevlin said.

She spoke slowly, like a slightly crazy person with her head in the clouds. She gestured at the headwaiter—a wave of sorts, a movement that had no clear meaning except for the shifting of responsibility.

The headwaiter seemed accustomed to both the wave and the steps that needed to be taken afterward. He gave Nora Shevlin a deep bow, perfectly courteous, but too theatrical, like his extra-slow, extra-loud way of talking to her.

To Zach, the headwaiter said, “This way,” and walked off without waiting to see that Zach was following him.

Zach hesitated between Mrs. Shevlin and the headwaiter.

“Go on,” Mrs. Shevlin said. She faintly smiled. “Nobody needs me anyway.”

Zach didn’t know what to say to this. Awkwardly, he nodded, then followed the headwaiter. Behind him, he heard an unmistakable thump as Nora Shevlin slumped back down on her seat.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” the headwaiter said, as soon as they’d walked around the corner, to the main area.

“What is?” Zach asked, stopping mid-inhale. The comparatively fresh air here finally allowed him to breathe.

“That that woman is Mr. Shevlin’s wife.”

“I— I wouldn’t know.”

“You wouldn’t? Just look at her. Listen to her.” The headwaiter shook his head. “She does it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Watching and listening. All day long. Right back there, she sits and watches. Listens. And she prays when she’s not doing either, hoping that something will happen, something to tell Mr. Shevlin, so she has an excuse to walk across the street. Like earlier, with the mechanic. She positively cried in excitement because the mechanic demanded to speak to her. Didn’t he go there?”

“He did.”

“And he did what Mr. Shevlin wanted him to do?”

“I think so.”

The headwaiter snorted. “Of course he did. That prick. Thought he could boss around Mr. Shevlin, ey? Idiot. Of course with that idiot, I was glad that Mrs. Shevlin remembered every single detail he said, and relayed it to Mr. Shevlin right away. That’s one use that woman has.” He laughed dryly. “Repeating what’s been said. Sees too much, hears too much. No wonder he wants to get rid of her.”

Now, that was shocking.

“I don’t understand,” Zach said. “Mr. Shevlin seemed—a little impatient with her, but isn’t that because he worries about her? In her… with her… her state.”

“ ‘Her state,’ ” the headwaiter said indignantly. “She brought her state onto herself. Can’t deal with the risks that her husband is taking. Well then, she should have kept out of things, shouldn’t she have? Instead, she sat around here, watched and listened to everything. That’s why Mr. Shevlin has her sit in that den now. So she doesn’t watch and listen to the wrong things; so I can keep an eye on her, sort of hidden from the guests. But of course everyone knows that she’s in that state. Did you see those tiny figures? She’s real superstitious, you know.”

“Superstitious about what?”

“That something bad will happen to her husband. She prays for his safety, is what she’s praying about all the time. As if her prayer can accomplish anything. But that’s what happens when you marry using money. Her father had a lot of money, you see? Well, not a lot, but more than Mr. Shevlin could ever dream of, back then. Though of course, he’s multiplying that tenfold, hundredfold now, so his father-in-law doesn’t complain.”

Out of fear, disgust, and pity, pity won. Zach stopped. The headwaiter also stopped, clueless.

“I don’t think we should be talking about her like this,” Zach said, “or Mr. Shevlin, for that matter. It seemed that Mr. Shevlin very much disliked anyone who mistreated his wife. Like, he wanted to protect her.”

The headwaiter stared at Zach—then he began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” Zach said, blushing.

“Mr. Shevlin dislikes when anyone touches what’s his,” the headwaiter said. “He doesn’t want to protect her or anyone else; he wants to protect himself. His reputation. His vision, which he always talks about.”

Now, Zach wasn’t sure if this headwaiter respected Mr. Shevlin greatly, or if he despised that man. Maybe both. The headwaiter also seemed to respect himself and despise himself in equal measures for working for Mr. Shevlin.

“If he told you that he cares about you,” the headwaiter said, “that he respects you, or something along those lines, interpret it this way: he cares about you for what you can do for him, and he respects you because you’re useful to him. And if the opportunity arises to get rid of his wife without being blamed for it, he will do it. But God forbid someone else has the audacity to think that they can touch what’s Gus Shevlin’s!”

Chuckling, the headwaiter kept walking toward the front of the restaurant. Once again, he seemed to not care whether Zach followed him or not.

“Nothing wrong with that, of course,” the headwaiter said, loud enough for Zach to hear—and possibly Mrs. Shevlin too. “Men like him win. Men like him get what they want. And people like us, who work for him, depend on him to be the man he is. That doesn’t mean that I play along with every one of his charades, including, but not limited to, his ‘respect’ for his wife.”

Zach did not follow the headwaiter. The crude words didn’t anger Zach, no, not yet. He was simply—astounded.

The headwaiter finally noticed that he was walking alone and stopped.

“Oh, come on,” the headwaiter said. “If he invited you to eat here, he likes you. It’s good for you, good for him. What’s the problem?”

“That you’re insulting his wife behind his back,” Zach said plainly. “And that you’re insulting her in front of her. She probably heard everything.”

“Oh, is that why you’re acting all righteous?”

The headwaiter actually seemed to have meant that as a compliment, because he slyly grinned.

“And what if I am?” Zach said, now anger creeping up on him.

The sly grin vanished from the headwaiter’s face.

“Believe me,” he said, “I’m not doing anything behind Mr. Shevlin’s back. He knows. And as to her, she prefers that everything happens in front of her, so she doesn’t miss anything, so she’ll have things to say to Mr. Shevlin, no matter how trivial, no matter how insulting to herself or her husband.”

Zach slowly shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll eat here.”

The headwaiter snorted. “Will you not work for him either?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“So you’ll work for him but you won’t respect him for who he is.”

“I don’t think you have much respect for him either. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”

Zach marched past the headwaiter, to the door.

“Suit yourself,” the headwaiter muttered.

Zach needed the job, for now. Besides, Mr. Shevlin had been kind to Zach, and who was to say that the headwaiter was trustworthy? It was his words against Zach’s experience, and the experience told Zach that Mr. Shevlin couldn’t be such a bad man. Get rid of his wife—what did that even mean? Get rid of, how?

“Wait!” Nora Shevlin said.

Zach whirled around. The headwaiter whirled around too.

Mrs. Shevlin had brought the reek of incense and scented candles with her. The long, fluttering pink dress seemed to exist for the sole purpose of spreading that reek. But what made Zach back away in panic wasn’t the smell or the pink dress. It was the sheer, overwhelming mass of Nora Shevlin herself, the magma lady, who stormed toward him at an amazing speed.

“You can’t go,” she said, out of breath.

“Mrs. Shevlin, another time,” Zach said, groping for the door handle behind him.

The headwaiter laughed. Mrs. Shevlin caught Zach by his arms. With unexpected agility, she changed course and pulled him away from the door. Zach dropped the briefcase.

“No, Mrs. Shevlin, please,” Zach said.

He clasped her hands and pushed them off. But she simply grabbed him again.

The headwaiter laughed harder. In fact, all his underlings were laughing with him at this point. Their laughter rebounded against the glass water jars and silver utensils, and multiplied a hundredfold, shrill and ugly.

But she didn’t seem to notice. “If Gus said you get food, you get food,” she kept repeating.

One couldn’t argue with an insane woman. One couldn’t ask these cruel waiters for help. Zach really didn’t want to stay here. A place of fulfillment? Ha! He snorted at his own foolishness even as he felt like crying because of Mrs. Shevlin’s unwavering desire to feed him.

This place was far from a house of fulfillment. Something was very wrong here. These laughing waiters were mean and abnormal. Nora Shevlin’s strangely heightened yet disrespected status among them was odd too. Worse yet, for everyone but Zach, this type of situation seemed to form part of a routine. He had to leave.

“Mrs. Shevlin!” Zach finally yelled.

He clasped her arm and pushed it away so hard that she tottered, failed to recover her balance, and fell. Her pink dress took a while to settle around her, and the reek of her shrine even longer.

None of the waiters helped her. They only laughed harder.

“I am very sorry, I am so sorry, Mrs. Shevlin,” Zach said.

Out of fear that she might make another attempt at making him eat at the Grille, Zach stumbled out of the restaurant as fast as possible. He didn’t even pick up the briefcase.

Outside, the cold winter air made him shiver. The thickness of the exhaust gas had only been exacerbated compared to earlier. But the rawness of the New York City streets was much preferable to the fake warmth of the Grille. A hundred times more desirable.

An emerald-colored car pulled over in front of Zach. All its windows stood open.

A chauffeur dressed in a stern uniform sat at the wheel. He was a lanky fellow around Zach’s age. Zach didn’t know him, yet he seemed annoyed by Zach already. Hands remaining on the wheel, the lanky chauffeur nodded at the back seat. Someone wants to talk to you, he seemed to mean.

A young female voice said from there, “Get in.”

“What?” Zach said.

An index finger, gloved in white, emerged and pointed at the Grille. Zach turned around. The restaurant door was just opening. Before Zach could consciously recognize who the person running out of the restaurant was, he noticed the pink mass—which he associated with danger by now. He faced the car, his one and only out from this messy situation.

The back seat door of the emerald car opened. The woman who’d spoken to him sat in the deep end. He couldn’t see her face, but he could see one gloved hand of hers. That hand patted the empty seat.

Zach jumped in.

“Not that car!” Mrs. Shevlin said, finally having squeezed through the restaurant door. “Not that one!”

In broad daylight, Nora Shevlin was even more terrifying. Hidden in the shrine of The Underwater Grille, there’d been at least some weird magical air around her. Now, under the sun, she looked exposed, vulnerable, and infantile out of proportion.

Zach slammed the door shut. The car drove off, leaving Nora Shevlin weeping and the waiters laughing.

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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