It’s 10:30 in the morning. The restaurant isn’t open yet but the line already stretches around the block. I sigh deeply as I tie the apron around my waist and get ready for the rush.
Tony, our manager calls us all over the bar where he goes over the Veteran’s Day deal – the one day of the year we offer free meals to those who raised their hand and swore an oath to protect our country from enemies both foreign and domestic.
The front door opens and the swarm of hungry patrons fills the lobby and within minutes every table, booth, and barstool is occupied. I go to my first table, a group of elderly men with leather jackets embroidered with a variety of unit insignias and black Afghanistan Veteran trucker caps look over the single page specials menu.
“Good morning and welcome,” I stretch a smile across my face. “My name’s Rebecca, how can I help you all today?”
The men give me their orders and pair them with a pint of beer or soda. I thank them for their service and head back to the kitchen to place the orders with the kitchen before heading back to the floor to greet my next table.
Sitting in the booth are four young men with eager, youthful smiles. Their heads are shaved and their uniforms have no patches on the sleeves. I know there aren’t any active duty posts around here and these kids appear too young to be recruiters. These have to be new recruits, fresh out of their initial entry training and eager to use their new status to get a free meal.
I look back at my first table and see the older men quietly enjoying each other’s company, their eyes look heavy from the burdens they carry. Seeing the juxtaposition between the two generations makes me wonder why these kids deserve the same treatment as the others – the ones who’ve lived in the trenches and held their fellow warriors in their arms as they’ve passed.
But I shake that notion out of my head. After all, every veteran started where these kids are today – with a sense of immortality and determination to conquer the world’s evil. Who am I to say who deserves the status of veteran? For all I know, some of these kids may not be here next year to enjoy this service; they may be deployed halfway around the world living on a small outpost in the Korengal Valley or worse, dead.
They order their meals and pair them with glasses of water. I write down their orders with the same smile I give my other guests but I know what this order means for me, I’ve seen it year after year – with the free meal and the complimentary glass of water the bill will equal exactly zero dollars and the tip percentage will reflect that. But I manage to hide my disappointment from them.
My third table has a few older gentleman; their hair is long and matted, their faces dark with dirt, and their old fatigues are tattered from years of continuous use without being changed. I want to gag at their abusive stench but I swallow the feeling and do my best not to breath out of my nose. I’ve seen these men lingering around the back of the restaurant before, waiting for the end of shift to rummage through the garbage to see what may have been discarded.
The sight of these men breaks my heart. I can only imagine what horrific events they’ve lived through, what terrible things they’ve had to do to survive – only to come home and find their country abandoning them.
I know I won’t be seeing a penny from these gentlemen but in this circumstance, I don’t mind. These men deserve more than what they’ve been given. If it were up to me, this business would do a better job of making sure men and women like this didn’t have to wade through our scraps just to survive. I know Tony won’t allow me to slip them some extra food, but we’ll be so busy, he won’t even know.
For hours, I run around from table-to-table taking orders and filling drinks. It’s just like any other day except today the rush never stops. From the moment we open to the moment we close, every one of these seats will be occupied. This would normally be a restaurant and waitresses’ dream, but I can’t believe the restaurant is actually making any money off these deals. I know I’m not.
I help one more table – a family of four – before stepping out to the alley for a fifteen-minute break. Michael is out there as well, huddling behind the dumpster trying to stay out of the blistering wind. A cigarette shakes in his mouth as his arms and legs tremble.
“Hey, you mind if I steal one from you?”
He looks at me with a glare of confusion. “Didn’t you quit smoking, like, six months ago?”
“Oh shut up,” I roll my eyes. “You know today doesn’t count.”
“Oof, off to a bad start?”
I take a long drag from the cigarette. The nicotine fills my lungs, filling them with much-needed warmth. I hold it in for a moment, I can feel my nerves calming down. Then I exhale. “I’ve served sixteen tables so far. Each with at least a party of three and I’ve made about thirty-two dollars in tips. How about you?”
He can’t help but let out a chuckle. I know he understands the frustration I’m feeling; we’ve been working at this restaurant together for about three years. Every year is the same. “I just finished with a party of sixteen and I was left with a whopping fifteen dollars and forty-eight cents to show for it.”
My eyes go wide. “You’re kidding me?”
“I wish I was,” he takes another long drag. “I know I shouldn’t feel ungrateful today. Lord knows we’re lucky to enjoy the freedoms we have, but goddamn it, today is one of the worst days to work, I swear.”
I nod silently. I know how he feels. Hell, I feel it, too.
After one last drag on the cigarette, I drop it to the ground and snuff it out with the bottom of my shoe. I don’t want to go back in, but I need this paycheck – regardless of how lousy it is.
I do a quick sweep of my tables to make sure everyone has everything they need. My face is sore from keeping this smile etched onto my face, but I carry on until I come to a new table.
The booth is in the far corner of the restaurant, back near the bathrooms. A single man sits there looking at the menu – a second sits on the table across from him. He’s wearing jeans, a black hooded sweatshirt, and a tan ball cap with an American flag velcroed to its front. As I approach him, I see his chin and cheeks are covered in stubble and a long scar divides the side of his face.
“Are we waiting on someone else?” I ask.
He looks up at me. One eye, closest to the scar, appears emotionless and made of glass. The other looks red and tired. The puffy dark circles under his eyes accent the look of exhaustion. “No,” he says plainly.
“Okay, well, what can I get for you today?”
He scans the menu. “Is the salmon fresh?”
“Yes, sir. The fish came straight from Mayflower Fish Market this morning.”
He nods and continues to examine our offerings. “All right. Could I please get the salmon with your garlic green beans and red roasted potatoes?”
I scribble down the order in shorthand, a skill I’ve mastered over the years. “Anything to drink?”
“Just water, thanks.” He hands me the menu.
Okay, another completely free meal, fantastic. I take the menu and with the most genuine smile I can muster, I thank him for his service and retreat back to the kitchen.
The day rolls on. As soon as a table empties, it’s striped, washed, and reset just in time for the hostess to set a new round of guests. This ebb and flow continues for hours but one thing remains constant. The man in the corner booth.
He’s finished his meal but he continues to sit, staring at the empty seat across from him. I’ve approached him several times to ask if I can help him with any other items from the menu, but the only thing he asks for is more water.
I let him be and focus my efforts on other tables where I might be able to scratch out a halfway decent tip when all is said and done.
More hours pass. We’ve reached a calm before the next storm – the dip in service between lunch and dinner. Normally, this is a nice long break where most of our staff can sit down and take a breather, but not today. Instead, we’re helping the busboys clear and clean table, we’re washing dishes in the back, and we’re helping restock the bar.
We’re down to a few tables of guests and five or six Marines at the bar still celebrating the Corps’ birthday the day before.
Tony comes up to me. His eyes are distant and his voice is soft. “What’s going on with table fourteen?”
I look to the corner booth where the man in the sweatshirt sits. “He’s just hanging out.”
Tony lets out a long sigh. “He’s been there for hours. Has he been ordering food or drinks? Every time I look over there he’s just staring at nothing.”
“Well, no, not really,” I say. “He ordered a meal earlier but has just been sitting there since.”
“Loitering,” he snaps back, his voice filling with an aggressive overtone. “The word you’re looking for is loitering. If he’s not going to order anything else, he needs to go. We’re about to get the dinner rush and we’re going to need all the tables. Understand?”
I silently nod. This is one of the hardest parts of my job but I know Tony is right. I go to his table and slide the check in front of him – totaling the massive sum of $0.00. “You’re all set, hun. Thanks for coming in and thank you for your service.”
He looks up at me. I swear his eyes are more bloodshot now than they were before. He offers me a warm smile and nods without saying a word. I manage to reciprocate the smile as I walk away and join Joanna behind the bar to help clean glasses.
Around five o’clock the next wave of customers begins to pour inside. I look to the corner booth and see the man still sitting there. Then I see Tony; he doesn’t look happy.
With a heavy sigh, I walk over to the table. “Excuse me, sir?”
He looks at me like I’ve startled him.
“I’m really sorry, but our dinner rush is about to begin and if you’re not going to order any more food, I’m going to have to ask you to leave; we’re going to need the table.”
He doesn’t answer for a minute. I can feel my stomach twisting into a knot. Is there something wrong with him? Should I go get help?
I’m about to say something again when he finally speaks. “My wife and I have a tradition of coming here every year for Veteran’s Day,” he says. “We met in bootcamp and I took her here on our first date. We were young privates at the time and couldn’t really afford anywhere nice, so I thought ‘why not a free meal down at one of my favorite restaurants?’”
His face becomes flushed as he tells the story; I can see a spark of life in his eyes now. “That’s a really nice story, sir.”
“She was supposed to come home from her deployment yesterday,” he continues. “I was going to bring her here to celebrate.”
My heart sinks. “Oh no, was her flight delayed or was she extended?” I’d heard a lot of stories from service members over the years of loved ones having to stay downrange longer than they originally anticipated. I can’t imagine being away from my significant others for that long – sometimes for more than a year. It has to be detrimental to their family, especially if they have children.
The color drains from his face and his eyes drift down as he hears my question. “Uh …” he coughs. “Umm, no. She was actually killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul three weeks ago.”
I don’t notice my jaw drop. I remember hearing about the attack on the news; I think nine people were killed – the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in months. What am I supposed to say to that? “Oh-oh my God, I’m so sorry!”
He lets out a half chuckle. “Don’t be. There’s no way you could’ve known. Here.” He hands me the leather check folder as he stands up to leave. “Sorry I’ve taken up so much of your time.”
I open the folder; after hearing his story, I don’t want his money – if he even left me any – and find a $100 bill tucked neatly into the fold.
“Um, excuse me, sir?” The man turned around; his hands shoved into his sweatshirt pockets. “Did you need change?” I cringe at the statement. I don’t care about his change, I want to give it back to him.
“No, that’s for you.”
I’m confused. “But you didn’t owe anything and even if you did, this is way more than you should’ve given me.”
The corner of his lip curls up. “Nonsense. You deserve it.”
“But, why?” I don’t understand the question or why I asked it, but I can’t take it back. I don’t want him to answer but he takes a step forward nevertheless.
“It’s to say thank you,” he said, to which my face makes some questionable expressions of uncertainty. “Thank you for working hard and being a living example of why this country is worth defending; thank you for your support of our troops; and most importantly, thank you for the kind service you gave me today.”
The preceding short story was a stream of consciousness exercise. It has not been edited for content or grammar.