Madeleine Kleppinger challenges readers to experience life through stories that inspire more adventurous living, personal growth and meaningful service of others.

Reservations

Reservations

In the corner booth at Rose Marie’s, near the front window, I eat spaghetti and meatballs every Thursday night. The restaurant is five blocks east from my apartment and on the right side of the street. I have eaten here so routinely, now when I come in for dinner, an aromatic, heaping pile of steamy, drenched noodles with fist sized meatballs waits for me, six pm sharp. The waitress holds off pouring my single glass of house Merlot until I sit down. She offers her customary greeting. I turn the book tucked under my arm out for her to see and she feigns interest. We have this little exchange every week even though she will never read the book, and neither will I.

I bring the book as a prop for the game I play with myself. When I hold the book at the perfect angle no one in the entire restaurant notices me studying them. The fun I invent for myself is to sit and plot the unfortunate ends of everyone in the restaurant.

Clue, it has always been my favorite game. Mother insisted I play with my cousins when they came to our house, but they did not like my rules and lost interest quickly. Creating the murder plot was the best part and I could rearrange the clue cards in hundreds of different scenarios. The best stories, that tripped everyone up, were when someone had an unfortunate accident, but all the other characters believed it was a murder and turned on each other.

Oh yes, see the man who walked through the door just now for the takeout order?

The tall, well groomed, falsely confident men are the first to cast blame. Because they want everyone to know how intelligent they are. They love having all the answers. But, in his haste to find a killer, he would never look at the cold, hard facts. It would be nearly impossible for a character like that to tell the difference between a murder and a death.

Agh, gross, they are almost audible.

The lustful couple sharing their meal by way of licked fingers, across the dining room. Love is a wonderful catalytic element for a great story. When things go wrong, she will blubber and plead to manipulate him. If she doesn’t get her way she will question his worth as a man in plain sight for everyone to observe. But in the end, when the plot thickens, they will turn on one another.

I never understood why people thought Italian food was romantic. The aromas are heavy and roasted garlic burns the breath for hours after dinner. Sauces drip from the food. And red wine leaves a horrible purple stain on your lips and teeth. Eating spaghetti is the least attractive state you could be in, beside dying.

Oh jeez, they are already bickering. Predictable.

The more interesting characters in the restaurant are sitting at the closest booth. See how the woman is dressed in tidy, outdated jeans and a v neck blouse. Well the shaggy haired man is her son. about twelve sits in the booth with her.

I just know.

And he called her mom earlier.

Mothers and sons lend so much depth to a story. We could go with the Bates mother-son relationship, but the damaging and manipulative mother is overdone. I haven’t pulled out a vengeful son plot in a long time. A bitter son returns to bait his mother back into a toxic relationship so he can end her.

This son doesn’t fit the profile though. He is too meek and despite the disheveled look, his hair has product in it, so he cares about appearances. Maybe he isn’t committed to his mother at all but needs his inheritance. A man acting out self-preservation.

We need to get on with the story, no one likes a final death scene over cold meatballs. What do you say to a murder of passion?

Our murderer does not come tonight to kill someone, rather he needs something and is pushed to desperate measures. What should we choose as the murder weapon? A gun? No brute force, like fists!

Hang on a minute, I think our killer just walked in the door. This is getting juicy. Tonight our killer is a woman. I don’t get these stories very often. Okay so she is desperate. She walked into the restaurant without a purse. Who goes to a restaurant without even pretending they have money?

Her hair hangs around her face and her heavy frame appears to weigh more than her actual poundage. She carries her body like it is a burden. She is walking right back behind the bar to the back like she knows the staff. Wow, it sounds heated back there.

Anyways, I have enough. Time to plot my story. How does the burdened woman kill the son and split up the lovers? How do all these people get in the same story?

               SLAM

What was that? By the faces in the dining room, I must not be the only one surprised. The son bolts upright shielding his mother. The couple are silent, their feud defused and forgotten. I close my book. The sound wave seems to be settling around the restaurant the way sand sifts to the bottom of the river after a boot tromps through it. I feel embarrassed by how I ducked my head at the sound but seeing the concern maybe I shouldn’t be.

“Lou, what have you done?” An alarmed male voice rings out from behind the kitchen door.

“Call an ambulance.” A higher pitched voice commands.

The diners are all looking around wildly. The older woman sees me. I can tell she is alarmed by never having noticed me before. If she had not seen me just now, then I could have snuck out of the restaurant before the ambulance and police arrive. I do not want to get stuck here tonight.

“That woman has plagued my son for years. She will not get help any longer from my family. Lou, you need to go now.” A deep baritone cements me and everyone else in place. Phones are left untouched. My dinner is getting cold, but I don’t dare lift my fork. A whining screen door opens and slams at the back of the building.

I hear scuffling in the kitchen accompanied by small murmurs. I listen in to try and weasel out any information but a radio is turned loud to muffle the conversation.

I contemplate another escape but as my eyes are looking at the route out, a monument sized man swings open the heavy kitchen door. His silver hair glistens from fresh water being coursed through the strands. He must have splashed his furrowed face with cool water because his complexion is pink and flushed. He does not appear the least bit agitated however his eyes are saddened.

In the crook of his arm he carries a breadbasket with steaming, broken halves of a loaf. In his right hand he clenches a dusty Chianti bottle and a corkscrew hooked by his pinky. He rests these things on the bar and sets to work pulling tables and chairs into a single formation. I cannot imagine what this guy is up to, but I don’t like it. He knows the number of how many chairs he needs without looking up. I do a quick count confirming my dread, there is one for me. The man knows I am here.

He walks to the door and pulls a key from his pocket. The cut metal tool is miniaturized in his bearish hands. A slight click of the latch sends muscles twitches through my body. My legs itch. I order every muscle in my body to not reach for the glass of wine. Any excuse to release this agonizing tension from sitting stock still in the silence.

This guy must be the owner of the restaurant. Now he is walking around the room collecting us. He deposits each person one by one around the arranged table. He steps up to the mother and offers his arm by dipping his shoulder so she can comfortably reach. But the son jumps to attention and offers his arm instead. He dares a scowl at the man, yet he walks his mother to the table all the same.

It is my turn. I look for a weapon to protect myself, but his eyes hypnotize me into submission. I slide out of the booth looking to my window hoping a stranger can see what is happening. I have no choice but to fill the second to last chair.

As I sit down, the beast of a man walks up to the head of the table and leans on fingertips so his head and shoulder cut into the middle of our circle. I can hear us all breathing shallow, tight inhalations.

“Would you allow me a prayer to our God?” He asks no one in particular.

He prays a short liturgical style prayer, dips his hand into the basket and pulls out half a loaf. His fingers pinch off a piece and he passes the bread to the woman beside him. She pinches off a piece and hands it to her boyfriend with a tiny nod of her chin. The large man flutters his eyes closed and puts the bread to his lips before taking in the bite. A soft Forgive me Lord exits with his breath.

Wait, I know this. Is he handing out Communion? My blood boils to think about participating in such a religious act at a time like this. It is just a bite of bread, but everything feels wrong. Don’t the Catholics think it is actually Jesus’ body? Is this what people do to atone for bad things they do to other people?

The other guests are mimicing the man’s actions without protesting. Bites of crust are swallowed one by one and I watch in horror until the warm bread touches my hand. I lurch away and I can feel my eyes burning with alarm.

“Son, please take it.” He pleads with me.

“No!”

The sharp opposition of my voice is wonderful to hear after the stifling silence since the kitchen accident. I rise from my chair, slicing him with my gaze.

“You cannot be forgiven for the actions of you and your family. I will not take part in this sick ritual.”

The bodies of the other diners stiffen. The man drops into his seat.

“I was not asking for your forgiveness. You are at my table because I needed people to help me grieve the brokenness of my sons and their children’s mothers. My wife and I have loved them so much. This restaurant, Rose Marie’s, this was her gift. She wanted to create a place where we could all work together, and still gather for dinner each night. But the boys went bad and she has been gone for nine years now. I no longer have anyone to share the wine and the bread I work for every day.”

“Your son just killed a woman. You expect us to just have dinner with you and forget that?” I shove the accusation back at him.

I can see fury boiling to his surface. I try and hold myself straight but a slight tilt in my shoulders makes me shrink back.

“You come here every week to eat my spaghetti and stare at my guests like they are pawns on your chessboard. Never once have you brought anyone to dine with you. No, your pleasure is to sit and pass judgement on everyone like you know them. I have fed you for so long, keeping my eye on you, watching for a change. Now I know, there is not one bit of gratitude or goodness in your heart.”

I cannot protest what he says because I am shocked he thinks this of me. I never once thought about his table and his food being more than something I purchased. I really have never even looked at his face before, but I am sure if I sift through my memories he has been around. It is his restaurant after all.

Deflated but conscious of the other diners, he explains.

“The woman, Candice, we tried to send her to the ER but she ran. No one was killed.” His eyes bore into me.

“My son was sent to the station to get a restraining order to protect the children. He is also turning himself in for what he did to their mother. The kids will not see her until they are grown enough to choose. She uses, and steals money for her habit. The love in our family could never rescue her from that.”

His head hangs and his fingers trace the worn patterns on the tablecloth.

“I do not expect any of you to return here after tonight. But around every family table there is hardship and you shared in mine tonight. Maybe you will return to experience the goodness another day.”

His heavy palm reaches for the corkscrew, but the young man anticipates his actions and grabs it first. He opens the Chianti with a pleasant pop of the cork. His mother is collecting the glasses as her son pours. With a soft, understanding smile she sets the first glass before the owner. Together they pour and serve the wine to each person around the table.

My posture holds me stiff at the side of the table. I am looking at each of them trying to understand why every other face and body in the room is relaxing around this man. He is keeping us against our will after a violent attack on a woman.

“The door is unlocked from the inside. You are welcome to leave at any time. I shut it earlier because I did not want new guests to come in and not have food to serve them.” He does not even raise his face to tell me this.

“One day you will need to be forgiven and comforted. Go ahead, sit and see how it is done.”

The young woman, who had been bickering with her boyfriend over garlic knots just forty minutes ago, gazes right into my face.

“I know how to forgive. But you cannot go around hurting people and expect it to be okay.” I spit out.

“Then leave. There is no reason for you to stay with us.” Soft words from the older woman passing around full glasses of wine.

I bristle at her dismissal, but this is my chance to get out of here. Now is not the time to stay and argue so I shove the chair away from my legs. I steady myself from tripping in my haste. The weight of my footfall is audible in the room. I yank my coat and book from my original table before testing the give of the door. It is hard to believe the door has been unlocked this entire time. I could have just made a run for it. The glass and metal door give under the pressure from my palms and I am out in the cool autumn night without one glance back.

Despite my forced control I can feel my pace quickening the further I get from the restaurant window.

I turn west to head back home and then I see the woman from the kitchen earlier in the back alley. She tosses her head back as if she is swallowing something. I realize by the gulping and shaking of her head she is swallowing pills.

“Stop! What are you doing? You can’t just pop some pills and leave your kids with those psychos in the there.”

My arm is swinging around wildly to indicate the restaurant we both are unwelcome in.

Her face squints to understand me, but then a wave of recognition floods her expression.

“Yah, I know who you are. You’re the creep always comes in for spaghetti and meatballs and tips Katie bad even though she does exactly what you want. Vance gives her a little extra on your nights.”

She is working a cigarette out of pack while I stand there trying to absorb what she tells me. The bruising flesh of her jawline is the only evidence of my dinner’s dramatic end. She must notice my stupor because she continues.

“Didn’t know Vance knew about you, huh? Ya, he believes you need somewhere to be. I know that because he did the same for me before Ricky and I feel in love.”

Her eyes twinkle a little. I think the high is coming on.

“He is always saying you don’t have friends or family. You can think you are so much better than Vance, but you don’t see that he is saving you. Not the other way around. If you don’t believe me, try skipping a night, see what happens when you don’t come by the restaurant.”

“I am not ever coming back to this freak show. After tonight, I’d be the crazy one to go back there.” I start to back out of the alleyway.

A puff of smoke is exhaled before she tells me, “Well, your mistake. Cause we all need Vance on our side.”

I get myself around the corner, out of sight, and start to jog. I need to get home so this night can reset itself.

When I make it to my apartment door, I have got too much energy to go inside. There are too many questions in my head that need answers. Debating with myself, curiosity wins and I decide to go walk past the restaurant. I circle the entire block before finding a shadowy spot to look across at the lit up front window of Rose Marie’s.

The dinner guests and Vance and a few of his family are all still sitting there. More food had been brought out. A few empty wine bottles are lined up on the bar. I look for signs but the people inside Rose Marie’s are not laughing or acting drunk. Instead they talk, each in turn. The couple is holding hands and the son has slung his arm around the back of his mother’s chair. Vance is serving a slice of cake to the waitress, Katie. They are acting like they have known each other their whole lives. I check my phone, it is almost midnight.

I can never go back to this restaurant ever again. There is no way this place is a real a business. It probably is a front for the family and their corruption. The guests are standing up now. I better get out of here. Right as I turn, the mother and son are hugging the owner. The woman seems to be assuring him of something.

All of them appear to be wishing each other well, the way people pass around Christmas tidings. What is going on with these people? Was Vance that good at manipulating people? How could I be the only one to see through his act?

I dash through the shadows, before they make it to the door, and down the block. If I turn left here, I can take a different route home. My mind reels. The events of tonight have to be a one off chance. No way do people gather around tables and confide in each other. What really burns is that man had the audacity to chide me for never bringing a guest to dinner with me.

Of course, I am not going to be able to sleep tonight. Everything is wrong. My mind is whirling around the events of the night. I feel like I have lost something important. A person should be able to go out and enjoy a dinner without the intrusion of another person’s personal life. And the way they all acted as if they cared for one another. There was no way they were genuine.

Standing in my living room, I see my Clue board on the bookshelf. A round of murder mystery will take my mind off this weird night. As I sit at the table, the creased cards fanned out before me, I cannot shake the feeling I was left out of something important. Something happened tonight I might never understand. Old feelings, of when all my cousins would get up and leave me alone, flare up inside my chest. Once again, I am left looking into the Clue board, to envision imaginary worlds only I can see.

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