in Short Stories

Complimentary Table Bread

by Ryan Nelson
Illustrations by Ben Chlapek

“God damnit!” Bill said under his breath without looking up.

“Oh, now what?” Carol said.

“I just signed the guest copy receipt. They always put the stupid thing on top. They do it on purpose.”

“Oh that’s ridiculous,” Carol told him. She emptied another packet of sugar into what was left of her last tea. “No one would do something like that on purpose. Besides, it doesn’t matter which one you sign.”

“The hell it doesn’t,” Bill said. “Without proof of what I authorized my card for, they can charge whatever they want.” Bill adjusted in his seat.

“I’m sure that’s not how it works,” Carol told him. “Don’t you need one for your records anyway?”

“Fine,” he said. Bill stuffed the receipt into his front jeans pocket, then twisted around to face the window looking out to the parking lot. With a little dance of the neck he managed to glimpse a red compact pickup truck. A brand new mattress sat in the back, its excess overhung some parking lot shrubbery on the passenger side. Their waiter spotted Bill’s contortion and stopped at their booth. He was a boyish young man with striking dark eyes.

“Are you sure there’s nothing else I can get you?” the waiter asked warmly. He paused while Carol shook her head, giving her tea another sip. “No,” she managed, after a swallow.

“Well, if you do come back for the Lamb Mountain Lava Cake, sit in my section again and I’ll make sure they add the Cherry Avalanche,” he said, making a tiny flourish with his hand. “That’s not on the menu anymore.”

“Oh, thank you! We will!” vibed Carol.

“Uh-huh. Alright, thanks,” Bill said, tilting his head up just enough to peer at their waiter over his glasses.

Well, then. Have a wonderful night you two,” their waiter said. He turned to walk away.

“—oh, and hey,” he said, spinning back toward them, “Enjoy that new DreamSlumber Mattress.” He landed a smile on Carol. “I hear they’re fantastic.”

“We plan on it,” Bill said with a look on his face. Carol kicked him under the table.

As soon as their waiter left, Bill scrawled on the tip line, did some rudimentary math and signed his name on the merchant copy receipt. “Lets go,” he said.

Bill and Carol Cavanaugh slid out of their booth at David Lamb’s Prime Steakhouse and headed to the exit. Bill grabbed a handful of mints and a toothpick from the hostess station. Two young hostesses stood by.

“Thank you,” they said in unison. “Come see us again!” Bill grubbed past the two without response. He unwrapped the toothpick and stuck it in his mouth.

“Thank you!” Carol said. Bill just barely held the door for Carol as she followed him through the exit.

“Lets just get this thing home,” Bill said loudly. He gave his taught belly a quick pat over his royal blue golf shirt. It was cut from a high-tech synthetic textile designed to breathe while wicking away moisture. Though he wasn’t an athlete, Bill did have a weakness for multi-paged clothing tags.

“Ohhf,” he groaned, as they approached the red pickup truck. “I’m stuffed. Whatyathink, hun?” Bill knew that DreamSlumber was going to feel good tonight.

Illustration by Ben Chlapek

Carol walked around the mattress, a king-sized, and emerged between two bushes. They both climbed into the cab. Bill started the truck.

“Don’t you just love that waiter?” Carol asked.

“Which one? Ours!?” he said, leaning in at her with a jolt of effort. He repositioned himself and put it in reverse.

“Yes, ours.” Carol said, checking herself in the mirror. “Maybe if you weren’t so jerky all the time, your back wouldn’t be shot,” she added.

“Wouldn’t you say that he was a little nosey?” Bill asked. “What was with him prying into our business?“ 
”He was just being personable,” Carol said as Bill executed a left turn out of the parking lot, “What was he supposed to talk about, with you checking on the truck every five minutes?”

“I wouldn’t have to do that if they just seated us somewhere with a good view of the parking lot,” he told her.

“We’ve had that waiter before haven’t we? I think his name is Scott,” Carol said, trailing off. “How old do you think he is?”

“Oh, late twenties probably,” Bill said, shifting his weight confidently. “Older than college age. He could be in his thirties — we don’t know. Why?”

“No reason,” she said. “He’s nice enough and seems half-way intelligent. I just wonder why he’d be working there.”

“The kid probably doesn’t have much ambition, that’s all. Guy his age should be cultivating a career, not sweating tables. Not exactly a resume builder.” Bill answered.

“Well, maybe he’s in school,” she said.

“Majoring in what, the four-hour commute?” Bill said, chuckling to himself.

“He could be going to community college,” Carol said. Bill hated community colleges.

“What, SCC?” Bill laughed. “Certificates are for kids. A man should have his degree,” Bill said, nodding toward her side of the cab.

“Maybe he does have a degree,” Carol said. “I read a thing in Parade that said kids coming out of college aren’t able to find jobs anymore.”

Bill gassed the engine. “You read a thing. Maybe he has ten degrees,” Bill said. “The point is, he’s not ambitious. You’ve gotta make your own opportunities. No one’s going to hand it to you.”

Bill checked the mirrors. “Hey, how’re we looking on your side?” He asked.

Carol leaned toward her side mirror. “Still back there,” she said, without interest. They drove on in silence for several miles.

“You know, I’ll bet he could be an actor. Don’t you think he could be an actor?” Carol said.

“How the hell should I know if he’s an actor?” Bill snapped back, nearly swallowing his toothpick.

“He’s just so friendly. And funny,” Carol said as Bill slowed to stop at a red light. “Plus he’s good with kids. Aren’t actors good with kids?”

He gave it some gas just before the light turned green again. “How hard can it be? He’s a man that brings you food and can’t ground you,” Bill said. “He’s not exactly cracking the Bible Code.”

“I’ll bet he makes decent tips, though, with those balloon animals,” Carol said.

“Ha! What, that dog he did for those brats across from us?” Bill said snorting. “You’d think the kid never saw a poodle.”

“The little boy was in a wheelchair,” Carol squealed.

“I don’t know. They were all sitting down,” he said. Bill signaled and headed into the interstate.

“Well, I think it’s great that he gives a little something extra to families,” Carol said.

“You know he’s just hamming it up for tips, right? I’m not paying for a variety show. This isn’t Branson. Besides, the guy’s probably a psycho. Who walks around carrying balloons all the time?“

“What do you think someone would make there?“ Carol asked.

“Oh, he makes plenty,” he said, snorting. “With tips? He probably cleans house. You said it yourself — he’s great with kids. Waiting tables is a way fine way for someone unskilled to make some cash.”

“We can’t all be junk mail moguls,” Carol said. Bill shot her a glance, veering the truck slightly. He hated it when she called it junk mail.

Carol heard a noise as he found his way back to the lane. “Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Hear what? I didn’t hear anything,” Bill said.

“I heard a creaking from the back,” she said.

“It’s probably Don’s toolkit clanging around back there. He told me he was going to move it out of there before we picked it up,” Bill said, annoyed.

“It wasn’t a clanging. It was more of a creaking,” she said.

He kept on driving. “Probably the suspension,” he said, finally.

“Oohf,” he groaned. “My back again.” Bill cracked his window slightly and shoved his toothpick outside.

“You really didn’t need to help load the mattress. You know you shouldn’t be lifting,” Carol said. “I thought that’s why we were getting it delivered.”

“Yeah, I was going to. But $150?” he said smuggly.

“You were going to,” she said. “Is that why we borrowed a pickup truck to go mattress shopping?”

“I told you, if you’re going to talk down the delivery fee, they need to know that you’ve got options,” he assured her. “A man needs leverage. They’re not hitting me with hidden fees.”

“What’s hidden?” she said, “They were going to send two guys over to set the whole thing up for us.”

Bill shut up. They drove on for a few more miles, before exiting to an old state highway.

“Before I forget,” Carol said unapologetically. “I transferred some money out of joint checking. Mimi needed some help this month.” Bill nearly swerved into shoulder. “Mimi!” he howled violently, “You told me we were through with this!”

Bill mangaged the vehicle back within the lines. “Mimi wasn’t even at Dale’s funeral!” he added.

“Yes, Bill,” Carol shot back. “I know she wasn’t at Dale’s funeral. It’s not like she could exactly pick up and leave with the kids. They barely get by. She can’t plan for the future, let alone travel. Besides, did Mimi ever meet Dale?”

“Well if she’s not making enough, she should find a new job,” Bill snarled. “If she can’t find work she should move! Believe me, she’s paying us back this time. I’ll call her up myself.“

The two rode in silence for several minutes. Bill rounded a corner. The road began to wind through thick trees on both sides.

“Can we hurry up?” Carol asked. “I have to pee.”

“How many iced teas did you have?,” Bill growled, “Eleven? Why didn’t you just go at the restaurant?”

“I’m so glad you’re keeping track!” she snapped back, flailing her arms.

“Bill, what’d we tip our waiter tonight?” Carol asked.

“Huh?” Bill said.

He drove on, changing lanes to pass a slow-moving station wagon, re-entered the right lane after a blink and a half.

“What did we tip our waiter?” she asked again.

“—What does it matter what I tipped,” Bill said, focused on the road. The truck’s tires squealed around a corner.

“What did we tip?” She asked, louder this time.

“Does it matter? We paid for our meal, all right?” he snapped back, passing another car.

“Bill,” she said again.

“Your tilapia was cold and I ordered my steak rare,” Bill said. “That was medium rare.”

“Yes, and?” she shot back, “That wasn’t even his fault! They brought you a new one didn’t they? Quick, too. Plus he brought you extra bread for free,” she said, raising her voice.

“He’s the face of the establishment,” Bill said. “Who else am I supposed to hold at fault?”

It was getting darker now, and Bill flipped on the headlights.

“And table bread is supposed to be free!” he declared.

They hit a bump while zooming past a school. Carol heard the creaky sound again, this time punctuated by a dull hollow thud.

“You didn’t answer my question, Bill,” Carol said, looking at him.

“How are everyone’s personal finances my problem all of the sudden?” Bill said. “It’s not my fault your sister can’t find full-time work.”

They passed a fire station and a super market. Spiral sliced half ham was on special for $1.88 a pound.

“I didn’t leave him anything,” he said, finally.

“You didn’t leave anything?” Carol shrieked. “Oh great, so now I can’t go to Lamb’s. You know I eat there with Cher and Casey. Thanks a lot, jackass.”

They turned onto a narrower two-lane road that pitched slowly downhill. Their headlights illuminated the back of an RV driving in the distance below.

“This is just like you,” she said. “Make a young kid run around waiting on you hand and foot, working his ass off during rush hour, and not for a dime!”

“Hey — he’s not that young,” Bill said, huffing. “And if he needs the cash so bad, why is he working a job that won’t pay him a steady wage?”

“I can’t believe you,” Carol muttered.

“It’s not my problem the restaurant industry takes advantage of its work force.” Bill said. “If they want rights, they can unionize. “Until then, if they reserve the right to keep me waiting an hour for a cold New York strip,” he said, laughing to himself, “Yeah, you better believe I reserve the right to pay sticker price.” Bill hated unions.

“Oh, it was twenty minutes,” Carol returned. “Probably less.” Carol checked herself in the vanity mirror.

I hope you come back for some l cake,” Bill said, sarcastically.

“He’s just good with people,” Carol said. “What? You want someone to throw a baked potato on the table and not even make eye contact?”

“Is the potato still hot?” Bill asked, letting out a “heh.” He was happy he had worn his moisture-wicking shirt today.

“You know what?“ Bill said, clearing a set of railroad tracks, I’ll bet he is an actor. After catching the performance he put on back there.”

“What are you talking about?” Carol said, calmly.

“He wasn’t flirting with you?” Bill said, shooting her a wide-eyed glance.

“No! He wasn’t flirting with me,” she said. Her voice spiked into her upper register.

“Ooh, ho-ho — he was flirting alright,” Bill fired back. They rounded a tight corner.

“Oh like you don’t flirt with every bimbo waitress in town. I know what you and Rick are up to Holly’s on ten cent wing night,” she said. “It’s pathetic.”

“Should we go back? Should we go back and see where Swayze is performing next? He’s probably gay, you know,” Bill snarled.

Bill turned on his brights. The thick trees cast shadows under the moonlight.

Illustration by Ben Chlapek

“I don’t want you in that bed tonight,” Carol said.

“Oh, come on,” Bill said. “My back is killing me, Carol. I’ll be as stiff as a board tomorrow if I sleep on the pull-out!” Bill was beginning to sweat.

“Good,” Carol said.

“Come on, Carol,” Bill whined, “Of course I tipped. I was just being funny.”

“Yeah, sure,” Carol said, rolling her eyes.

“I swear,” Bill said. “I was just kidding around. Come on, Carol. Not this again.” Bill shifted his belly out just enough to rummage around in his right jeans pocket with a couple of fingers. A hard candy emerged.

“Want a mint?” he asked.

Carol took the candy without looking at him.

Bill reached back into his pocket and perked up. “Oh, wait!” he said, “Of course I tipped. I was just pulling your chain.”

“Here. I tipped twelve bucks,” he said, producing a crumpled piece of paper and some more candies. “See?” Bill fumbled with a candy wrapper and the steering wheel with one hand and handed the receipt to Carol with the other.

“Fine,” Carol answered. “Can we just get home?”

They neared the slow-moving RV in front of them, which was riding wide and low. It was old and tan and displayed an outline of the United States on the back. Decals of states filled in most of the midwest, with one branch leading to Florida.

Bill and Carol were now tailing behind RV by just a few yards, blocking their entire view. “Come on, would you believe this joker?” Bill said. Bill backed off a bit to get a better view of the oncoming lane. Aside from the RV filling the entire lane, they had the road to themselves. Bill signaled and changed lanes.

“Yechk, thin-nam-mon!” Bill yelled. He shot the hard candy out the window of the moving vehicle with force. Flooring it, the truck lunged forward.

Carol turned to look out her window at the reflection in the side mirror. The moon hung low between the receding trees, illuminating their new DreamSlumber bed.

She popped the hard candy in her mouth and watched.