Off the Menu by Jeffrey Hantover

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Tell Gerardo he makes one fine salad.  I don’t care if he gets it out of a jar, it’s the best creamy Italian in San Francisco.  You’re new, aren’t you?  I’ve been coming to Pinecrest for twenty-odd years.  Nowadays you gals come and go.  Always looking for something better.  Don’t blame you.  But it’s nice to make a personal connection, you know.  You sit down and the waitress brings your coffee without asking how you like it.  Turkey club on white, or are you going for the Greek salad today she asks?  Well before your time, I tell you that Linda could read my mind.  Had a tongue on her though.  Right there, behind the counter in front of the donuts, that’s where he shot her.  That was a good twelve years ago.
            She’d been working ever since I started coming here.  Pardon my French, but she was one tough broad.  She could dish it out.   Eight the hard way, was two men’s ex-wife and had no kids she ever talked about.  Probably was good looking back in high school before she got that bad bleach job and the pounds settled in to stay.  Not much of a smiler, but everyone was “honey” and once she knew you were a regular, she called you by your first name and knew what you took and how you took it.  She let me have a booth at lunch even if the place was filling up.  
            It was Saturday morning, a few weeks before Easter.  I didn’t usually come downtown for breakfast on the weekends, but I had some things to do and decided to treat myself to a blueberry stack and an order of Canadian.  It was early and only two or three booths were filled – a few tourists hunched over their guide books and some young girls, a little worse for wear, ending a long night with black coffee and waffles.  A regular who worked at the parking lot up on Ellis was at the counter, and another guy sat a few stools away deep in his Chronicle.  Enough eyes and ears to shame him.
            I never knew his name until I read it later in the paper.  Not his age either though George Papademos looked every year of fifty-nine.  Thin stringy hair and the sallow vanilla pudding complexion of a man who never saw the sunlight, cooped up all day like a vampire in the kitchen of the Pinecrest.  Once in a while, you’d hear a low, gruff echo, “two eggs over easy, side of hash” or whatever order Linda and the other waitresses called out to him.  Maybe once he had his own place, a past he took pride in, or a future he was working toward.  Not anymore. 
            The greasy griddle at the Pinecrest was not a career, not a step in any direction he wanted to go, just one morning after another of two eggs sunny-side up, whole wheat down, a side of bacon.  The paper said he lived alone somewhere in the Sunset.  Who knows what eats at a man’s soul.  Maybe he looked in the mirror that morning above the red letters warning him to wash his hands and didn’t like what he saw.  Maybe he was tired of taking orders and was ready to show the world lost in their newspapers and their own troubles that there was a real man behind the griddle.  Or maybe he got up on the wrong side of the bed.  And Linda?  That time of the month maybe, more likely the Pinecrest was her world, she gave the orders here and that was the way it was.  
            This guy comes in and sits at the counter.  Poached eggs and toast he says.  We don’t do poached Linda says; it’s not on the menu.  From the back, I hear George’s low, mournful voice.  It’s ok, I’ll make him poached.  Linda fills the guy’s cup with coffee, puts the pot back on the burner, and turns slowly toward the stainless steel ledge where George puts the orders.  She’s not shouting, just talking in a steady, full voice. 
            “He wants scrambled, fine by me, she says.  An omelet – what kind?  Cheddar, bacon, mushroom?  He can have it sunny-side up or over easy, but poached, we don’t do – the Pope doesn’t get poached.”  She raises her voice, clipping off each word like a bullet, “It’s not on the menu,” she says.  The words ricocheted off the white tile floor.     
            There was a hush in the place like someone just dropped a plate on the floor.  Even the Mexican busboy was afraid to look up from the rack of steaming glasses he just brought out front.  I looked across the counter and saw George’s face was red as a bottle of ketchup.  He didn’t say a word.  The guy at the counter said he’d have scrambled.  I felt bad for George and was embarrassed by Linda’s vinegary words, so I didn’t clean my plate like I always do, just paid my bill, and got out of there.
            On Monday I came back for lunch.  Linda’s working, but another cook is in the kitchen.  I figure George has had enough of her and quit.  Halfway through my BLT, George walks in.  Both his hands are in his blue windbreaker and he’s leaning forward like he’s fighting against a headwind.  Linda is walking to the counter from a booth in the back her order pad in her hand.  She looks up and sees George who hasn’t said a word.  He had Sunday off, likely his anger was at a slow boil all day.  He pulls out a .38 from his pocket and shoots her in the chest.  She staggers back behind the counter – I guess she is trying to make it to the kitchen. 
            George follows behind the counter and shoots her again and she falls to the floor.  George sets the gun down on the counter gently as a bowl of hot soup and walks out front of Geary and stands outside calm as can be waiting for the police to take him away.  I hear he is serving life down at Chino – probably working in the kitchen.
            Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sorry for Linda.  No one should die over an egg.  But this is America, where everyone has an inalienable right to go off the menu – that’s what I was fighting for in ‘Nam.  She should have known someone always pays the price for poached eggs that never get made.  
            Thanks for the refill.  Did I tell you about the time I ate pigs’ ears and green onions in Saigon?  Do they call that a salad?  But that’s a whole other story.

Jeffrey Hantover is a writer living in New York.


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