Slip Sliding Away: A Local Establishment and Its Discontents

In the ordinary scheme of things, there was not much about the place I can complain of. No warm beer was served to me. No unpalatable food was presented. I can’t fault the service because there wasn’t any. And I have absolutely nothing derogatory to say about either the variety of available food items or their prices, since I was spared as much as a glance at a menu.

It began as a quiet, peaceful visit. I was allowed all the time I needed to sit at a table of my very own, utterly undisturbed. Such precious solitude is rare in most establishments of that kind during business hours.

I had chosen a small table situated just outside a constantly swinging door through which a great many alleged servers passed a great many times. I felt sure they would see me there, and they did. I looked at them; they looked at me. Not a word was wasted between us.

I saw a number of them so many times that I began to feel as if we were already on familiar terms—beneficiaries of a kind of spontaneous, silent camaraderie. I even began to warm to the multitude of tattoos imprinted haphazardly on the mottled arms and ample legs of my new friends. “There goes the one with the baggy shorts and sort-of-matching—what? Dragons? Tigers? Oil rigs?—tattooed on her calves.”

Perhaps they were waiting for me to make the first contact. After all, I might well have been in error in assuming that my presence at a table in an establishment that advertises the service of food and drink would imply that I was there in the hope of being served food or drink.

In the seventeenth century John Donne wrote that “no man is an island.” I was, four hundred years later, beginning to doubt his assertion.

Speculations such as these entertained me for twenty minutes or so, when my long reverie was interrupted by one of the alleged servers who called out, “Be right with you!” as she breezed past. Surely this was progress! I had not been waiting in vain.

Alas, after another long interval went by, I began to entertain doubts. Not being familiar with the customs of that particular establishment, I had taken her promise to be right with me to mean she would be right with me.

Had I, half-starved and utterly without hydration, only imagined the breezy “Be right with you”? But, no: I was sure of it. She had said it; and I had no reason to doubt her sincerity.

In the fullness of time, her renewed absence caused me to begin worrying about her. What might have happened? Should I call for the manager? Search the parking lot? Alert the emergency services?

Suddenly she appeared at my table with pad in hand. “What can I get you?”

I was startled but relieved. Relieved but wary. Wary and therefore suspicious.

What I thought was: “What can you get me, you frisky minx? Don’t tempt me with your suggestive inquiries! Don’t stand so close smelling like stale food! I may be delirious from hunger and thirst, but I still know when I’m being toyed with!”

That’s what I thought. What I said was, “If I told you I wanted something, would you have to go inside to get it?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Then never mind. I couldn’t bear to have you go missing again.”

A shadow of alarm crossed her face. She took two steps back and in a flash went missing again.

I began to feel uneasy in the extreme. What cooler heads might consider a persecution complex was rapidly forming. What if the lack of food and drink and service had been deliberate stratagems to drive me—specifically me—away? What if the riot of tattoos was intended to make me queasy and thwart my appetite? Why me?

Clearly, I was delusional, but still…

More or less simultaneously, someone somewhere in the grim entrails of the restaurant made a decision: the ersatz patrons of the place would like some music played through the innumerable speakers clustered over our heads. Those patrons would like it to be shrill and irritating music. And they would like it to be LOUD.

The volume was reminiscent of nothing so much as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” a dystopian short story in which loud music is used expressly to disrupt any attempts at thought. The hackneyed phrase, “I can’t hear myself think!” came to mind, before even that banality was shredded by the noise.

I fled at last.

Was the cruel racket part of the conspiracy? Those fiends! Starvation and dehydration and neglect I could withstand beyond the endurance of lesser men. But that appalling cacophony was the one brutal assault on the senses that I cannot abide for more than a minute. How did the vicious bastards know?

I have not returned to that monstrous and savage place. And I never will.