It was just past one in the afternoon on a rainy October day. The thirty or so minutes it had taken the family to actually get their boots, and their coats, and their bags, and get out of the apartment put them a little behind schedule. Thirty minutes may actually have been a record for all six of them to leave but, nevertheless, their mother was still flustered. Alison Engel wasn’t as rigid as half of the Manhattan mothers but the two things that upset her like nothing else were baking failures and being late.
This puts the family; Alison, her husband, her two daughters, and her two sons, in the Mark Hotel’s restaurant a little after her ideal lunch time.
Sitting down was a whole other ordeal. The two boys needed to be separated to avoid fighting but sitting directly across from each other would just result in kicking each others’ shins under the table cloth. So, with some resistance, it was decided that Frankie (the eldest) would sit between her two brothers, Mr. Engel next to James (the third child), Alison next to Timothy (the youngest), and Elsie (the second child) between her parents. Nobody was completely content with their neighbors, but they shut up for the sake of their mother. The family formed a circle, a vase of hyacinths at the center. Tim plopped his chin down on the table to peer through the vase. The curves of the glass distorted his father’s face making the little boy giggle to himself. He had a bit of an ugly laugh.
“Timothy, please sit up straight and take your jacket off,” Alison helped him shrug the fleece over his shoulders and drape it on the back of his chair. She glanced closer at her son, noticing a little smudge of strawberry jam on the corner of his mouth. She licked her thumb and cleaned it off his face in one quick swipe. Then, satisfied with his appearance, she wiped the leftover breakfast off her thumb and onto the underside of the white tablecloth where nobody would see except, eventually, the waiters.
Speaking of, two had arrived. One with ice waters for everyone on a big tray that must have taken some skill to balance. The other held plates, menus, and utensils wrapped in cloth napkins and sealed with a paper strip. They were distributed with some clatter, Frankie had to lift up her book to allow a plate to be placed in front of her. Her reddish bangs covered her eyes but you could guess that she hadn’t looked up from her page. When those servers were gone, another waiter arrived, this one a little younger and a little sweatier. He had hair that Elsie would describe as mouse-like and too messy for an establishment like the Mark Hotel. He brought a basket of bread and a dish of butter. All hands reached for the rolls, and their knives battled for a slice of the butter except for the two girls.
Frankie had taken out a little ribbon from who knows where, and was twirling it across the words she was reading. This bothered Mr. Engel.
“For God’s sake, Frankie, eat some bread and put that book down.”
It was the first time he’d spoken since they entered the restaurant.
“I don’t like bread.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, everyone likes bread,” Alison said, pointing at various options on the menu to Tim (who was perfectly capable of reading himself).
With a sigh, Frankie grabbed a piece of the bread and placed it on her plate. Her father mumbled, “Don’t sigh,” but her parents were pleased enough that she took a piece to bother noticing if she actually ate it. Instead, she picked at the crust. At first peeling the little translucent flakes away so they looked like dandruff. Then she tore a bit off of the left corner and glanced up quickly before tucking it under the rim of the plate to hide it. She picked up a little crumb with the pad of her finger, brought it to her tongue and closed her mouth, where she just let it sit there, not swallowing.
Sometimes, Elsie liked to play a game where she would guess each thing someone would say before they said it. Just then, she had guessed correctly that one of her parents would tell her sister not to sigh out loud. Elsie herself did actually quite enjoy bread but two things held greater precedent than her love for carbs. First, she knew her sister wouldn’t want any, and secondly, she was interested in the waiter who was now walking away.
“I’m going to ask for some more water. Maybe even a pitcher,” Elsie informed her mother. “You know how I hate when my glass is less than half full.”
Elsie had, in fact, never told anyone that fact before but she knew Alison would agree instead of admitting that she didn’t listen to half the things Elsie told her. So, excused, Elsie got up with her cup, kissed her mother on the cheek, and followed after the waiter.
She walked hurriedly through the other tables, her galoshes abrading the skin of her shin since she had refused to wear the long socks that didn’t match with her dress. She pushed the swinging door to the kitchens open and caught up with the waiter.
“Sir!” she called. She didn’t often use the word sir, but she felt it made her sound fancier than just saying Mister. Recently, Elsie had been reading the books Frankie was finished with before they needed to be returned to the library. Though she didn’t really understand the old English dialogue, she knew that they used the title “sir” a lot and enjoyed it.
The waiter turned, as if he was unsure it was him who was being addressed. He located the young girl, standing there in her boots with a half-full glass, dripping condensation onto her little red hands.
“Yes? I mean… how may I help you?”
“I was wondering if I could have some more water. Maybe even a pitcher.”
“A whole pitcher? You haven’t even finished one glass, Miss.”
“Well, I like to be prepared.”
The waiter found this amusing. “All right then, Miss, let’s get you your pitcher.” He reached up above the sink to grab one of the empty pitchers, took out a tray of the little square ice cubes from the mini-freezer, and put them into the glass.
“You can call me Elsie. I don’t think I look like a ‘Miss’.”
“Alright Miss Elsie,” the waiter smiled, and started to fill the pitcher up.
“Just Elsie,” she crossed her arms and took a step closer to the waiter, narrowing her eyes to get a better look at him. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like a mouse?”
“Not to my face, no,” he concentrated for a moment to really recall if he’d ever been compared to a mouse before. “Do I?”
“Remarkably. I’ve never seen someone with such mouse-like features.”
“Is that a good or a bad thing?”
“It’s better than rat-like features,” she responded.
“I’d say,” he turned off the tap. He studied his new friend, thinking. “Has anyone told you that you look a bit like a fox?”
Elsie then started crying. No noise came from her, but her chest shook and big, fat tears rolled down her face.