An empty outdoor table on a spring day in New York City can be just a table, or the setting for a story.
It was the first warm day of the first spring toward the end of the pandemic.
Alyson carried a small wicker basket filled with cloth napkins and heavy silverware out the front door of the restaurant and carefully set up the tables on the sidewalk for what she hoped would be a busy lunch hour or two. The round, two-seater on the corner would be the most popular based on her experience. Dining outside is about being seen and this would be the best place for that.
If she was lucky, if she ended up with the right sort of customers, she might turn the corner table three times between noon and two o’clock and that could be worth thirty dollars in tips. But she made it a point not to count her tips until they were left. It is better to be surprised than disappointed. She learned that on her first restaurant job, during that summer in high school when she worked at Sally’s Salt Water Kitchen on Montauk Point.
She set each place with a Buffalo China plate, a thick white napkin, folded with no particular flair; a fork, and a knife with a wide and dull blade. The silver served the added purpose of preventing the napkins from blowing off the tables when the wind blew, or a large truck passed by.
It was a good sign when the first customers approached and asked for the corner outside table fifteen minutes before noon. Two men. Middle-aged white guys who arrived from different directions and from different downtown office buildings. They looked like they had a mutual problem to solve. More specifically, one looked like he needed advice and the other looked ready to listen.
Alyson had seen the look on the worried man’s face before. It’s the look men get when they’ve just found out their wife wants a divorce, or is cheating on them. With not much appetite the first customer ordered soup and salad. The soup of the day was minestrone. The listener ordered a cheese burger with sweet potato fries. Tap water was fine for both of them. Cheap, she thought.
Zach and Justin began their conversation in quiet tones, but as they loosened up and began eating, they became more comfortable with their temporary office and spoke louder. It was easy for Alyson to hear as she kept busy tending to other customers.
“This guy has become a real headache,” Zach told Justin. “I know he is talented, I know people at your place like the work he does, but it’s a completely different story when you have to live with him all day long.”
Zach went on as Justin listened. He looked surprised to hear Zach’s side of the story and he was willing to side with Zach on the issue if that’s what it required. As far as Justin was concerned, his relationship was with Zach’s firm, not any one person working there.
“The guy comes and goes when he pleases. He never does what is asked, when it is asked. He has no fucking respect for the chain of command and he treats everyone on the team like shit. Under normal circumstances, there would be no question what to do. But I know he’s good at what he does and I know when it comes to dealing with clients, he’s completely different. He behaves close to normal.”
“Well, now that you mention it, I have seen him do some things I wasn’t too impressed with. He can be very condescending, especially with women,” Justin said.
“Oh yeah.” Zach paused for a moment. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but what the hell, we’ve known each other a long time.”
“A few people on staff tell me he’s been bringing women into his office a couple times a week and uh. Well, let’s just say while he has some enemies on the inside, he has some fans. If I let him go, it could open up a whole different set of problems.”
“Jesus. Have you confronted him?”
“I don’t have enough evidence,” Zach said. “For some of my people, he’s like the team captain. I have to have something like that, nailed down, before I could confront him over it.”
“Christ. Well that’s a major problem. My advice is rip off the fucking Band-Aid. I’ve been through something similar. It’s taking your eye off the ball. Every minute you waste on this guy is a minute you are not worrying about what’s important and even worse, it’s a minute out of your own life.”
“That’s kind of the way I’m leaning, but I wanted to hear from you first. Your business is important to me. I wasn’t sure how important he is to you.”
“Not that important. There’s always someone else who can do the job. Always.”
The two men took a break from the conversation and looked at their food. Zach hadn’t touched his lunch. Justin was almost done and was deciding whether to finish off the last quarter of his burger with one bite, or two. He knew it would fit in his mouth, but he wasn’t sure how messy it might be.
Zach shook his head as he considered his problem employee.
“The other day, in a meeting with a client, in front of our whole staff and her whole staff, he told her to ‘shut up and take our advice, because we get paid either way.’”
“He’s never exactly been Holly Golightly, I will say that.”
“Yeah,” Zach chuckled. Then they both chuckled. Then Zach and Justin started laughing for the first time during the whole lunch and didn’t stop for awhile. When they did stop. They looked at each other and started laughing again. And then they asked for the bill.
The check for lunch was forty-five dollars and Zach left a fifteen dollar tip in cash. Good start, Alyson thought as she slid the ten and the five into the front pocket of her black jeans and cleared the table.
Jill arrived early for her meeting with Niles and took the chair facing the direction from which she expected him to arrive. This would be the first time they’d be meeting in person. They had gotten to know each other over the last two years in the awkward few minutes before the rest of the group signed in for the weekly project meetings on Zoom.
She was impressed that he always wore a tie on camera, but she was sure that like the others, he was wearing sweat pants or shorts under his desk. But then there was that time when he stepped away from the camera to put his dog in another room. She noticed he was wearing dress slacks and well shined shoes. She meant to comment on it, but then the others logged in and she didn’t want to embarrass him by asking about his clothes.
And there he was. Walking toward her with a smile. Niles was wearing a dark blue pin-striped suited. The kind with stripes that look like they were made with a piece of chalk. His shirt was light blue and his tie was black with silver pin points. His shoes were perfectly polished and he even had a white square folded in a straight line in the pocket of his jacket.
“You are always so well dressed,” she said as she stood up to greet him with a smile and a friendly hug. “It’s so good to meet you in person after all this time.”
“Yes, good to meet you. Thanks for doing this,” Niles said as they both sat down.
“It’s so unusual to meet anyone these days who dresses the way you do. I hope you didn’t get all dressed up for me.”
“Well, in a way I did,” Niles said. “It’s a hobby of mine. I picked it up when I lived in Mumbai. There was an old British tailor shop near where I worked and I was able to buy high quality clothes there at really low prices. Crazy prices. It makes me feel good to dress this way, and I think it shows respect for people I’m meeting with. So, in that way, yes, I got all dressed up for you.”
“How interesting. Isn’t it uncomfortable sometimes?”
“Not for me. You get used to it. I figure my dress clothes are the most expensive clothes I own. They’re well tailored. The best material. So that must mean they are the most comfortable. Right?”
“I guess so. That’s one way to look at it. I noticed that you are always dressed up on Zoom and I wondered what was going on, but I didn’t want to ask in front of everyone else.”
“I get questions all the time about it. Except from my tailor. He never asks why, he is just happy to see me and send me the bill.”
They both laughed and then Alyson stopped by to ask if they were ready to order.
Two salads and Perrier. There would be no risk taking today. The Rueben, though always tempting, was definitely a second lunch choice with all that kraut and dressing, Niles thought to himself.
They talked about the weather. Life during the pandemic. The hope the worst was over. They discussed the work project that brought them together — virtually anyway. They hoped that as people began returning to the office to work there would be more efficiency, less wasted time, and more accountability. They both felt that the virtual office had allowed some members of the team to delay progress, put things off, and avoid making final decisions.
With that out of the way the conversation turned back briefly to men’s clothing. Women’s clothing. Jill’s interest in the history of Central Park and her volunteer work at the New York Botanical Garden. They were both divorced and explained why from their perspectives. There was also the origin story of Niles’ Irish Terrier, Rose, who he adopted in the year following his divorce as a way to battle loneliness. Niles told Jill, “I take long walks with Rose through the park on Saturdays and I’m surprised I never ran into you there.”
Both Niles and Jill, following divorce, told themselves, never again. Both pledged to live their own lives and never compromise on their own dreams for the sake of a relationship. But as the conversation became easier and chattier and more enjoyable they were both wondering about the possibilities. It’s only natural to think in terms of couples, partnerships and romance.
Jill shifted in her chair and as she crossed her legs her calf came to rest on the crease in Niles’ pant leg. They pretended not to notice, but they did and the moment seemed to last a long time until Jill, just as casually, shifted slowly away so as not to appear startled by the accidental touch.
“Well, let’s do this again,” Niles said as he placed his credit card on top of the check and insisted on paying.
“Yes. It was so good to finally meet you and clear up the whole suit and tie situation. Now I know,” she laughed.
Niles left a $20 tip and made sure Jill noticed. He did not know why he made this investment in something he had convinced himself he did not want.
Jill and Niles stood up. They hugged once more and said goodbye. They turned to walk their separate ways back to their offices and when they had each gotten about a block away from their table, they turned to look back to see each other once more and wave goodbye.
Interesting guy, Jill thought. I wonder if she likes dogs, Niles wondered?
As Alyson wiped the table, the single streak of blue hair that distinguished her from all the other blondes on the wait staff dangled across her face and she brushed it back with one hand as she set out fresh napkins and clean silverware with the other.
An anxious man approached and asked for permission to grab the table before someone else did. Alyson glanced back briefly to see if anyone was waiting. Seeing no one, she said sure, “Sit wherever you’d like. It looks like the lunch crowd is cleared out.”
Bill sat with his legs crossed and arms folded on his lap and he could not stop looking at his phone and over his shoulder. He was on the lookout for someone. He did not seem worried about being late. He was the type who always got there first. He seemed more worried about what might happen at lunch.
After a few minutes of fidgeting, he stood up as a black SUV approached and stopped near the corner partially blocking traffic. A man got out on the front passenger side and opened the door just behind him. After a brief pause an older woman crawled out of the back seat, dressed in serious business attire, and walked toward Bill who was nervously waiting to greet her. They said hello without a handshake and certainly without any other gesture of familiarity. He sat only after she did.
“This is kind of an open spot isn’t it? Everyone can see us here,” she said.
“Do you want to move inside?”
“No, this is fine. We won’t be here long. I didn’t want to do this in office.”
The woman declined a menu when Alyson offered and instead asked if the chef could possibly prepare an avocado on one slice of rye toast, not white, and a glass of white wine, not chilled.
It was becoming clear to Alyson that Peg was used to exerting her power by pointing out what was unacceptable first and what she wanted second. Ideally, perhaps, those around her could deduce her desires through a process of elimination.
Bill, who Alyson assumed was an employee, or a lawyer, or consultant of some kind, ordered green tea and a house salad with a wedge of lemon and no dressing. Alyson was bored with their special requests and wished they would just rent the table for an hour instead of pretending to have lunch.
“Did you have a good weekend” Peg asked?
She did not listen to Bill’s answer as he responded and asked about her weekend in return.
“Oh yes,” she said. “Charlie was up from Savannah. But he had to leave early.”
“How is Charlie, I haven’t seen him in years?”
“He seems happy, but I don’t know how he could be,” she said, as she took a sip of wine.
Bill waited for her to get to the point. He cared about Charlie as much as she cared about his weekend. She did not delay.
“Now about our little issue. This matter. Are you sure what we have planned is the best way to do this?”
“It’s the best approach from a series of bad options. You’re in a difficult spot, but it’s survivable. This is the path that gets you past this problem quickly and allows you to get on with what’s next.”
“It seems very expensive. I don’t like paying out this much to someone who has treated my company so poorly. And me personally, I might add.”
“The whole situation is an unfortunate mess, I agree,” Bill said, “but we’ve come to a point where it’s best to make a decision, put it behind you and move on. From my perspective — and I know I’m not in your shoes, I can’t see the whole picture, everything you see — this issue is taking too much of your time. You are better than this. You have bigger things to deal with — a company to run. People who are counting on you. You have other opportunities that you’ve had to put on hold because of this.”
For a man she treated as a servant, he seemed to have her best interests in mind. His advice was sincere and sound. Definitely a lawyer of some kind, Alyson concluded, as she caught bits and pieces of the conversation and observed their interaction.
“I’m just so tired of fighting,” the woman said as she moved her avocado toast back and forth on its plate with her fork. There was never a possibility she was going to eat her toast. It was a prop. It was necessary to complete the illusion of a lunch meeting.
“It is such a beautiful day. The sun is so warm. I’m glad we sat outside. I don’t care who sees us,” she smiled what could have been a real smile for the first time since she got out of the car.
Bill smiled back and waited and listened for instructions.
“Let’s do this,” she said. “You have my permission to make the offer and get it done. If you have to negotiate a bit around the edges go ahead. Let’s just get this behind us. You’re right — I need to get this behind us.”
“I think that’s the right decision Peg. I’ll reach out at the end of the day today, after the markets close and see what the reaction is. I think they’d be foolish not to accept. They need to move on too,” he said.
He couldn’t help but notice that whenever things were going Peg’s way, whenever the decisions were easy, it was all Peg’s work. When there was risk involved she would use phrases like, “we need to do this” or “let’s get this behind us.” In most circumstances with Peg, there was no “we.”
“Let me know how it goes.”
“Of course. I’ll text you tonight or leave a message with the office.”
“Only communicate on this directly with me,” she said.
“Right. I’ll call tonight.”
“Good. I feel good about this. I feel like a weight has already been lifted off my shoulders. Thanks for your work on this. Do you have weekend plans,” she asked, again, without listening for an answer. It was Tuesday, so the question was not meant to bring a serious response.
She nodded to her driver, who had been double parked throughout the entire meeting. The same man who had opened the door for her on her arrival, jumped out of the front seat and opened the rear door for her again as she stood up, said good-bye to Bill, walked toward the car and bundled herself in.
Standing by the small table, Bill watched her be driven away and nodded toward the blacked out window in case she might be looking his way from inside. She was not. He sat down. He ate his house salad with lemon juice dressing and then ate Peg’s avocado toast for dessert. It was no longer warm.
Alyson approached and asked if the meeting went well.
“Yes,” thanks for asking. He found her interest in his welfare amusing. She clearly could not possibly understand what was at stake or how the outcome might actually effect her life.
She asked if there was anything else and he said, “No — thank you. Everything is perfect.”
He thumbed through the cards in his wallet and pulled out the one with the name of Peg’s company on it. He paid the bill and left a big tip, because Alyson had been kind. Fifty-percent. Bill stood up. Stretched. Took in the sunshine and started walking. He had been given his mission and now it was back to work while Peg did, whatever Peg wanted to do.
Alyson cleared the table a third time.
She went inside, took off her apron, ordered herself lunch and looked forward to the dinner hour.