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table of contents — stories

The Postmodern Restaurant

In fair, warm weather, the Postmodern Restaurant was laid out under huge trees, at night lit by hanging yellow lamps from below, and extending up into the illimitable darkness above. Tables were arranged under the trees, rather elegant white tables, with tablecloths and carefully arranged silver. Waiters in dark suits and white aprons hastened to and fro.

Gina had heard about the restaurant, which was a thing among the hipper, younger, better-off people, and she thought she knew some of the people who were involved in setting it up, so she encouraged her boyfriend Gary to take her there. Which of course he did.

Gary was considerably older than Gina, 40s versus 20s when they took up with each other several years back. He was a sort of successful failed architect; he never got to actually design and build anything, he lacked the political skills, but he knew about the business and the arts in general and had some money and was something of a quiet bon vivant — exactly the kind of person his company wanted as a second or third in command to stand in for the boss without trying to take over. He was in good shape, and not too damaged by past relationships and excesses. He also knew how to please Gina not only in bed but in the kitchen as well; so even though he was somewhat past his sell-by date, as some would say, Gina thought he was a good deal, especially when she compared her luck with that of many of her friends. And he didn't want her to move in and wash his socks, which was important to her, since she wasn't ready to become her mother yet, as she put it. Gina, smart, lithe, good-looking, with a nice little apartment to herself and a job that wasn't too awful, had a good life and intended to keep it for a while.

So Gary and Gina drove up to the restaurant one evening. It was out in the country at the end of a long driveway, and the restaurant in general was not hard to find, spread out and lit up as it was, but its organization was not easy to determine. There were a lot of cars parked on the grass at one end of the lit area, so that seemed to be the parking lot. There was no visible maitre-d', no sign saying 'Please wait to be seated,' no obvious distinction between front and back, inside and out.

'I think we just go find a table on our own,' said Gina, and they found one unoccupied and sat there. They sat there for a long time unnoticed, and after some waiting-for-the-waiter chit-chat, Gary went so far as to suggest that, to avoid participating in famine, they move on to some other place; nothing seemed to be happening. But Gina stopped an apparent waiter sort passing by, who agreed to get someone to come over.

Not long after, a young man dressed as a waiter slouched up, greeted them pleasantly, identified himself as 'Philip', and asked what he could do for them.

'I suppose we could look at a menu,' growled Gary softly.

'Now, why didn't I think of that?' asked Philip brightly, and went off. After a few minutes he returned with two large folded placards, on which many colors and images swirled with writing in white superimposed. It was hard to read in the uncertain light. The entries were odd; for instance, a brand of sparkling water was presented as a main course, grass as another. A third promised Wheaties.

'I don't really understand the menu,' said Gary. 'It seems that everything listed is a wisecrack.'

'That's what they do,' said Gina knowingly. 'Then they bring you whatever they want. It's breaking away from traditional restaurant practice, disrupting the dominant paradigm, whatever.' She shrugged charmingly; she was in on the joke.

Gary, although he had a sharp way of looking at things and talking about them, usually went along with Gina's ideas with earnest, doglike good humor.

'All right,' said Gary earnestly, 'so they should just bring us something, without an order.'

'But ordering something is part of the ritual,' said Gina.

Philip had wandered back, and he and Gina discussed varieties of vintage bottled water. Instead of reading something from the menu, Gary made something up — something to do with acorns and Coca-Cola. He was going to be game.

'I'm sorry, that's not on the menu,' said Philip.

Gary took a pen out of his pocket and wrote it on one of the menus. 'Now it is,' he said, handing the menus to Philip.

Philip went off. 'I guess you fixed his wagon,' said Gina, not fully approving.

'We'll find out,' said Gary. 'Maybe they'll bring me a boiled shoe. Then who will the winner be?'

'You're as wise an ass as they are,' said Gina, smiling to show she meant no harm. They sat quietly for awhile. Then Gina stirred. 'I see some people I know,' she said. 'I'm just going to go over and say hello.' There was indeed a gathering at the other end of the restaurant space, maybe a dozen people, making loud joyful partyish noises. Gary started to get up. 'No, stay here, I'll just be a minute,' said Gina. Gary gazed upon her as she walked over in her flowing summer dress and joined the group, which swallowed her up.

It was a long minute. While Gary was waiting, Philip came along, and deposited a single dish of what looked like galub jamun at the table, and went off. Something odd, like poppy seed or pepper, had been sprinkled on it. Gary did not find the food appealing and went into a sort of trance as he did occasionally — a deliberate practice of letting time and place wash over him, of dreaming while awake, of letting the world come to him.

After quite awhile he came out of his trance and looked over at the noisy group. Gina was not visible. He got up and walked over toward them but before reaching their tables he could see that she wasn't there. Feeling somewhat put out, he began wandering randomly among the tables. Eventually, at another margin of the space, he discovered her in conversation with a waiter type, a tall, good-looking young man. She was seated at a table, her dress pulled back to expose a remarkable length of shapely leg, propped on another chair, so that the waiter could examine her foot.

'Oh, there you are,' said Gina. 'I was wondering when you were going to show up,' she added, as if Gary were late for a date. 'I injured my foot somehow, and Leonard Cohen here helped me walk.' The waiter did look rather like the early Leonard Cohen.

He had been squatting near her foot, perhaps actually examining it as well as enjoying the view, and now he stood up and stepped back with a little bow and an open-palmed gesture of deference, as if he were motioning Gary through a door. Gary mastered his resentment, squatted down to look at the foot, and noted a small laceration. He too stood up. 'Can you walk on it?' he asked.

'What are you going to do, carry me?' said Gina. She seemed a bit tipsy, and a fine mist of perspiration could be seen on her forehead. Meanwhile the waiter, although he had not explicitly left the area, was slowly easing away.

Gary sat down. 'Our waiter eventually brought something that looked like galub jamun. I thought you might like to know,' he said.

'Did you eat it?' asked Gina.

'No,' said Gary.

'Well, don't complain if you're hungry later,' said Gina.