by Amanda Pampuro
If you’ve ever flown through Detroit, you might have passed by the restaurant. Maybe you even ate there, at the steakhouse where Jean Démon mopped floors for a week under the alias John.
Beyond the plate glass windows, four lanes of moving sidewalk stretched like highway between plane gates and cell-phone charging stations. Under surgical lamps, poor people ate with their food on their knees and took turns falling asleep upright. In pajamas and in business suits, lone travelers wandered from the neck-pillow kiosk to the bookstore, where the latest pyramid-stacked bestseller slowly sold out.
Jean lined his pockets with the small coins experienced servers turned their noses on. This little drum beat against the burlap-topped table, as he wiped crumbs from the corners. He played the part, moving from table to table without a glance at any of the sunsets on the walls. Jean worked well in the air of artificial evening, but he never grew accustomed to the country tunes. He worried the music would remain with him throughout his days but singing along was part of the gig. The soundtrack of whiskey and women followed him into the kitchen where he scrapped congealed ketchup out of saucers.
“John, we need to talk,” Ronda’s full figure loomed over the wash station. Somewhere beneath the day manager’s mask of deep fry grease and foundation, her face was covered in freckles. Jean saw that Ronda was slowly being poisoned by place, like a daisy planted on the divide between highway lanes, but there was no way to breach the topic without risking his cover. According to his job application, John O’dom was just a high school dropout with two years experience in dishwashing and an eight-month stint in newspaper production.
Ronda didn’t know jack about Jean or any of his books and she had no way of knowing that two of the most dangerous criminals in the county were breaking bread at Table 8.
After all, who would suspect that the president of the world’s largest manufacturer of surveillance equipment would hold her meetings in the middle of the airport? No doubt, the only place the director of the TSA felt safe was inside the fortresses he had built, but still… The only thing Jean knew for sure, standing over a trash bin overflowing with half-chewed hamburger, was that nobody came here for the food.
With billions of domestic flights made each year, the Travel Security Administration screened upwards of 1.2 million individuals each day. Awarded with an annual budget of $7.39 billion and laws loose enough to detain any one person for any number of reasons for an unspecified amount of time, the airport’s private army had virtually unchecked power over bodies in transit.
Not only was there little the average citizen could do about it, there was little the average citizen knew. The TSA brought the all-seeing panopticon into the digital age with the grace and beauty of Miss America herself. Every oily patch of skin and upper lip hair was concealed behind so much glitter and patriotism, only someone with something to hide would object to being screened.
“John,” the day manager waved her hand through the air. “Have you been memorizing the menu?”
“Have you been memorizing the menu?” she paused to allow the significance of the question to sink in. “When I hired you, I said we needed people who are willing to do a little bit of everything round here. And that if I tell you to do something, I don’t need you to tell me, ‘that’s not my job.’ Like I don’t know what your job is. Your job is my job too. We all pitch in around here, so you’re going to have to memorize the menu, even if you’re not taking orders just yet. Do you remember having this conversation?”
“Well, how come the couple at Table 8 seems to think their meal came with soup? They told me you said it did.”
You didn’t have to be a social scientist to know that the couple at Table 8 wasn’t really a “couple.” In place of eyes, Edith Calvo had glossy, dispassionate lenses. She had no need for her own patented polygraph machine, which only replicated for others the sensation she felt when she shook someone else’s hand.
Jean knew she would expect Gadget Jones to lie about his allotted budget, simply because it was what men did. Edith ordered exactly what he ordered and waited to take a bite until after Gadget was near finished. A plump man with pumpkin pink cheeks, Gadget glowed with the red-hot embers of his own conviction. All day long he stoked this fire with gospel and anecdotal evidence, looking upon the poor lost souls of the airport with paternal pity.
When Gadget told Edith he wanted to see it set up all across the country, X-rays and pat downs in every school and shopping mall, Jean knew he wasn’t just buttering her bread for a bulk discount. As strongly as he believed his prayers were heard, this man seemed to believe this was the only one way to keep the peace.
As if Ms. Calvo’s monopoly and Gadget’s whittling away at the Bill of Rights weren’t bad enough, they didn’t even bother to keep their voices down.
Jean never allowed himself to imagine he would be read by millions but like anyone who writes, he wanted to be known and recognized for his hard work. When the first edition of Code Word Willpower sold out and his publisher rushed to prepare a second edition, he felt only relief. His cynical bone had thought people were only interested in chasing the chef who vanished, but as it turned out, people were still interested in hearing the truth.
“They just asked. Doesn’t the Steak Slab Seven come with a side of soup?”
“Only during dinner! Read the menu, John. It says so right there. Only. During. Dinner. You shouldn’t even be talking to customers just yet, let alone taking orders.”
“They just started ordering from me, and the other servers looked busy…”
“I decide when the house gets too busy. Now, I’m sorry but that’s going to have to come out of your pay.”
“Two soups. If we went around giving soup to everybody that asked, we’d be out of business,” Ronda took a deep breath, as though reminding herself she was explaining colors to a blind person.
“What about the table?”
“What about the table! Well, you already gave them their soup and their drinks. It wouldn’t do to change the server now. But, since you’re already on salary as a busboy, it wouldn’t be fair to let you keep the tips, now would it?”
“No… I guess not.”
“John, if you are serious about committing yourself to this job, and memorize the menu just like we talked about, then we’ll revisit this in a few weeks. How do you think I got here? I wasn’t always manager. I started out bussing tables, just like you.”
Copyright © 2018. Two Soups for Table Eight by Amanda Pampuro