Jim Redford was sitting at his usual booth at Antonio’s. It was in a far corner, largely isolated from other tables by the architecture of the place. Antonio’s had several small rooms, some nooks and a cranny or two. The booth Jim liked sat in a corner out of the way of the flow of the restaurant and could only be noticed if the noticing was intentional. In that regard it was private, not subject to the odd passerby looking for the restrooms or a way to sneak out on their check. The restrooms were actually quite close, but out of sight from this booth; there was a more direct route to them from the rest of the booths and tables which were more commonly used.
This booth also was not on the way to the kitchen, so his privacy was rarely disturbed by the odd busboy—or the odd anyone, really. When Jim was seated there, he was left alone. That was what he liked: to be left alone in a place that was occupied by people and amid the sounds of others eating and chatting. The familiar sounds of a busy and moderately upscale restaurant surrounded him while he sat alone with his book or magazine, did a crossword puzzle, and ate his small meal. He would drink his glass of one of the interesting varietal reds Antonio’s kept and keep to himself while still feeling part of the world, but insulated from it.
He was always alone. Tonight, as frequently happened, he had eaten, then opened the book he’d brought, Stolen Prey, one of John Sanford’s Lucas Davenport novels—great escape reading. He was solidly into the book and hadn’t noticed the time. Then, voices interrupted him.
He could tell from their direction that the voices were coming from outside the restrooms. What he heard was a soft, young teen voice saying, “May I help, ma’am?” and a woman’s voice saying in frustration, “Evan won’t go into the ladies room any longer; says at eight, he’s too old for that. But the man who just went into the mens was looking at Evan, and, and I….”
“You don’t want him to go in alone?” Again, the soft voice.
“Sure. I’ll just go in and stand by the door and make sure the man sees me there. Come on, Evan.”
Just then, the picture that was forming in Jim’s mind of what was happening nearby was shattered by a voice. “Hi, Jim. I’ve got a new Barolo I’m thinking of putting on the list. It’s a bit expensive, but what Barolo isn’t? ‘d like your opinion.” Jim raised his head and saw Tony standing by his booth. Tony was the restaurant’s owner. He had black, curly hair—mostly black; a few gray strands were beginning to show. He kept it fairly short. He was a man in his early 50s, a few years older than Jim.
Jim had been coming here long enough to be considered a regular, requesting this booth and usually ordering the same thing. Restaurant owners value regulars; when times get tough, every customer coming through the door is important; regulars can keep a restaurant afloat through those periods. And almost all restaurants go through tough times.
Over the years, the few initial conversations between the two men had been expanded, and it had become the norm when Jim was in the dining room and Tony wasn’t being rushed off his feet for him to make an appearance at Jim’s table. The two men had found they liked speaking with each other, both had a substantial interest in wines—well, red wines—and their casual meetings had blossomed into a well-established friendship. Now, when the evening was getting late and few customers remained, Tony would occasionally wander by Jim’s table, sometimes with a bottle of wine, sometimes with a couple of desserts in hand. Jim, if his mood was right, would smile, invite him to sit, and the two would chat and discuss the wine and dessert Tony had brought. Yet, the initial ritual was continued: Tony would say something deferential and look at Jim, and Jim would look back. Tony would wait for a signal to sit down, which was usually a broad smile. It was up to Jim to decide if he wanted company or not. Sometimes, he didn’t. Tonight, well, he considered it, then gave Tony the smallest of nods, the smallest of smiles. But when he sat, Tony was rewarded with a full smile, the smile of one good friend to another.
“Where’s this wine you’re touting, on which you need an expert opinion?” Jim asked. He was surprised how much Tony’s visit this evening had lightened his mood, lightened it enough for him to be somewhat jocular. However, while he could see Tony, he could also see he was empty-handed.
“Breaking in a busboy. Could be a waiter some day. He’s smart. There’s a quality to him…well, you’ll see.” He broke off for a moment before continuing. “But I’m teaching him how to serve wine. He’s too young for it yet, but I wanted to see if he could do it. He’s a fast learner. This’ll be his first time at a table in the restaurant, not in the kitchen. I sent him to get the bottle. Watch.”
Tony clapped his hands once and grinned. When no one showed up, his grin evaporated. “That’s odd,” he said. “He should be here.” After waiting a minute, he clapped again. Almost immediately a young boy walked up to the table.
Jim was struck by his appearance. He was the type of boy where, in one light, holding himself in a certain way, he looked like he could be 13. Caught in another pose, the light falling differently on him, he could have been 16. One thing that made him look older was, he wasn’t smiling. He was almost expressionless.
Jim could study him because he was looking only at Tony.
The boy had a bottle of wine with him. He put on a performance for Tony. He presented the bottle to him, holding the large end in his palm, the neck of the bottle extending up his arm, and offered the label for inspection. The boy watched Tony’s face for approval. When Tony nodded, the boy, still not cracking a smile, went through the process of cutting and removing the seal at the top, removing the cork smoothly without popping any wine out with it and handing it to Tony to inspect, squeeze, smell and accept. When Tony again nodded, the boy carefully poured a half-inch of the deep-purple liquid into Tony’s glass, then stepped back about a half-step.
Tony expertly swirled the wine in his glass for a couple of seconds, then raised the glass to his nose. He sniffed and smiled, then raised the glass to his lips, sipped and savored before swallowing.
“Very nice,” he said to the boy, smiling at him, a smile that wasn’t returned. Tony then nodded again. The boy looked at Jim and asked softly, “May I?”
It was the same voice Jim had heard before. The voice that had volunteered to help the lady and her son.
The boy poured Jim’s glass about a third full, then did the same for Tony. He then looked questioningly at his boss.
Tony smiled. “Very well done, Tristan. Bravo. Thank you.”
The boy nodded, never smiling himself, and set the bottle on the table and was gone.
Jim had watched the entire operation in silence. He’d been shocked at the boy’s appearance. Throughout, while the boy’s face had been expressionless, his eyes had been sad, sometimes as sad a pair of eyes as he’d ever seen. He’d studied the boy while he was serving the wine: his raven-black hair, worn long enough in the back to reach the collar of his shirt but shorter in front and on the sides; his pale face in the dim lighting of the restaurant, his features regular and deserving of the descriptive ‘handsome’. But all this was offset by his eyes. Jim though them uncommonly beautiful—but so, so sad! They were a startlingly bright gray, contrasting sharply with both his clear skin and ebony hair.
It was their melancholy cast that caught and held Jim’s attention. They, and the rest of the boy’s appearance and demeanor, were arresting. The entire visage made an impact on Jim that he was unable to understand, but an impact it was. Whatever the reason, Jim was struck by the boy.
“What do you think?”
Coming out of a fog, Jim realized that Tony was speaking to him. Had he seen Jim studying the boy? Had he read Jim’s mind? This momentarily freezing thought, this concern that Tony was asking him for his opinion of the boy rather than the wine, disappeared when Jim saw Tony raise his glass and nod at it.
Jim picked up his glass and tasted it. The wine, like many reds these days, had very little acid, very little bite, but a mild, long, somewhat oaky finish and a very pleasant, underlying complexity with mixed floral overtones. “Yum,” Jim intoned and then took a larger sip, rolling it in his mouth before swallowing.
“Me, too,” said Tony. “I’ve ordered several cases.”
The two spoke wine for a few minutes, and then the hum of a vacuum cleaner intruded. Jim said, “It’s closing time; I’m keeping you,” and prepared to stand. Tony reached out and touched his hand and said, “We have a bottle of wine to finish, my friend, and you look very lonely tonight. They’ll be busy closing down the kitchen for at least another half hour. What’s the rush?”
And so they took the time to finish the bottle. Somehow, a tiramisu showed up, and they shared that, too, and when Jim left, his mood was considerably brighter. It was so easy these days to slip into a mild depression. Nights like this, empty ones at home, brought them on. Tony seemed to know, to understand. That in itself helped.
Jim went home and eventually to bed. He tossed and turned for a while before sleeping. The boy at the restaurant kept slipping into his thoughts uninvited, keeping sleep at bay. Such sadness. When Jim had been leaving the restaurant, he’d seen the boy again. He was sitting on a bench outside, having changed out of his busboy uniform; he was wearing a turtleneck sweater and a jacket even though it was a warm night, and he was staring at nothing, caught up in his thoughts, unaware of anything around him. He didn’t look quite so young, either. His sadness had changed, too; he appeared less sad right then than simply lost. Like the weight of the world was on his shoulders, and he hadn’t any way to wriggle out from under it.
Could Jim help? Probably not. It was unreasonable to even entertain that thought. But the thought was there, and it kept repeating itself, and wasn’t to be denied.
Jim was a large man, still fit even in his 40s. He lived alone in a fair-sized house in a settled, mature neighborhood. It hadn’t always been that way, but time passes. Things change. Life moves forward, immutably. You change with it, Jim told himself, or go crazy. Doesn’t mean it’s ever easy.
Jim had been with his company since graduating from college. He was an accountant, had gone to school nights to finally reach the point of taking the CPA exam. He’d passed it on his first try, something not many applicants were able to do. No one had ever disparaged Jim’s smarts. He’d stayed with the company because he liked both the people there and the work, and over the years he’d moved up through the ranks.
With the CPA certificate, doors above him had been opened, and he’d been positioned to walk through them. That he was personable and capable had made his ascent easier than he’d expected at such a large firm. He was currently the head of the accounting department and had been for a few years. His firm did quite a lot of work handling the books for small businesses that found it cheaper to hire his firm than to do the job in-house. As head of accounting, Jim supervised 20 professionals. He assigned them to companies and monitored their performance. It was a good job. He enjoyed the challenge the work provided and his relationship with the men both above and below him in the company.
His home life, however—that was different. He’d come home every night to an empty house. He’d sink into a comfortable chair and, sometimes, just not bother with dinner. Who wants to eat alone? Who wants to cook for himself?
At work he had stimulation and people counting on him. At home, he had neither.
Which is why he went to Antonio’s so often. And took something with him to read.
One night, a few days after his last visit, Jim was in an unusually unsettling funk, a darker depression than usual, and he chose not to cook; yet he was hungry and knew he should eat. The times he avoided dinner altogether often caused him to be dull the following day, and he liked to be on top of his game at work. So, even though the thought of food was distasteful, he got in his car, and it seemed to steer itself to Antonio’s.
“Hey, Jim. Nice to see you again! Uh, let me check, but I’m sure your booth is open. How are you this evening? And will you be needing a menu tonight?”
It wasn’t Tony at the front, greeting him. It was one of the waiters taking his boss’s place while Tony was busy with something else. Tony would have noticed Jim’s demeanor; he well understood Jim’s moods and would never have asked how he was after seeing the expression on his face. Tony would have simply nodded to him, not even asking if he needed a menu that evening. Tony knew that there were times Jim didn’t feel like talking, wanting merely to be left alone, and how much a greeting like the one he’d just received, forcing him to talk, would annoy him.
Jim grunted an answer and said he’d find his way on his own. The waiter nodded and handed him a menu, which Jim waved away.
He made his way back to the booth, expecting it to be empty as it almost always was. He wasn’t disappointed. The table sat waiting for him.
When his waiter came, Jim asked for a large house salad and a glass of red wine, specifying the type, tonight a Duckhorn Merlot. The waiter scurried away, and Jim opened the newspaper he’d brought.
Both the salad and wine were gone by the time Jim had reached the crossword puzzle. His plate had been cleared by the busboy Jim had noticed the last time he’d been here. A quick glance—Jim had wanted to stare but had not allowed himself to—showed him the same thing he’d seen before: a handsome face carrying unhappy eyes. The boy hadn’t met Jim’s eyes, hadn’t spoken, and neither had Jim.
Jim was working through the crossword puzzle, an exceptionally frustrating one—they got harder every day as the week progressed and this was a Friday—and the clues were vague at best, cryptic at worst. He was chewing on his pen and grrring when he felt a presence. Irked at the interruption, he looked up. The busboy was standing there. Jim’s irritation vanished. He couldn’t define it, but there was just something about this boy that rattled him.
Very softly, the boy said, “Would you like me to have your waiter bring another glass of wine?”
Jim was caught by surprise. The boy looked very young tonight, perhaps fourteen but more like thirteen. His voice had the breathy, unchanged quality of an early adolescent. But it was the fact he’d spoken at all that startled Jim. This wasn’t something a busboy would generally do. In fact, any contact with a customer would be unusual. That started Jim thinking, and he wondered if his dark mood had somehow been apparent to this boy. Jim could well imagine he was radiating his depression outward. Had the boy seen or felt it, and had he spoken in an attempt to soften what Jim was feeling? Was it possible that, because the boy himself seemed so unhappy, he could see that in others? That he wanted to help?
Could this boy want to help him as much as he’d like to help the boy?
Ahhh! That was absurd. Ridiculous. It was Jim overthinking, maybe even indulging in wishful overthinking. Still, he felt a pang, a twinge of something. The boy had made contact with him. It was an opportunity, something to take advantage of. If he did have an empathetic feeling for the boy, if he did want to take away that sadness in his eyes and change it into something much different, he shouldn’t pass up this opening.
“That would be very nice of you. Thanks. And, wait a sec.” The boy had turned to go, to get the waiter, Jim guessed, and Jim didn’t want him to leave. He wanted more time with him, more, more what? Engagement, he guessed.
The boy stopped and turned back.
“Tristan, isn’t it? Isn’t that what Tony called you the other night?”
The boy nodded but seemed to stiffen, seemed to withdraw into himself a little. Jim rushed on. Maybe this would work. Probably not, but, in for a penny…. “This blasted puzzle. I’d call it something else, but you’re underage and I don’t think a casual ‘blasted’ thrown around is as likely to corrupt you as the words I wanted to use.” Jim laughed, showing it was a joke; the boy looked on stoically.
“OK, sorry. What I wanted to say was, this puzzle is eating my lunch. Maybe you can help. I’ll take all the help I can get. So, what’s a five-letter word for ‘provocative’?”
Jim had no expectations that the boy would be able to answer, but maybe they could share a few more words together; maybe the boy could be enticed to actually talk to him as person, not a customer. Just as he was talking to Tristan as a person, not a busboy.
Tristan didn’t bite, however. He acted instead like he hadn’t even heard. “I’ll tell your waiter,” he said, nodding at Jim’s wine glass, again very deferentially, and, avoiding eye contact, turned and left.
Oh, well, Jim thought, it hadn’t been likely he’d get anywhere with the boy. He returned to the puzzle, trying a different place. Darned thing, anyway. ‘Ache.’ Damn, he hated clues that could be either verbs or nouns. And this was a six-letter word; he could think of quite a few words that would fit.
His wine had come and mostly been drunk when he saw the busboy again. He was standing off to the side, a ways away, but in Jim’s peripheral vision. He wasn’t doing anything, just standing. Looking sort of in Jim’s direction but not really. Catching him in his peripheral vision, Jim noted how slender the boy was. He recalled how, when seen in his jacket the other night, that hadn’t been noticeable at all. And watching him pour wine for Tony and himself, Jim had been concentrating on the boy’s eyes. Now he could see the boy himself, and how thin he was. Jim realized he was also short. Perhaps it was his lack of height and weight that contributed to him looking so young, Jim thought.
Jim swirled the remaining wine in his glass, wondering how to approach the boy again without scaring him away. He took a last sip, put the glass down, and turned in his seat, pinning the boy with his gaze. “Any thoughts? Provocative? Five letters?”
The boy met his eyes. The boy took a couple of steps closer. “Heady,” he said, just loud enough to be heard.
“Heady?” Jim wrinkled his forehead. “Heady? For provocative? How do you get that?” Even asking the question, Jim felt he had to be careful. He couldn’t ask it aggressively, confrontationally. He kept any taint of disbelief or scorn from his voice, making sure he sounded like he was simply looking for enlightenment.
The boy was close enough now that he could continue to speak in the soft voice Jim had heard before. He could have responded in many ways: arrogantly, proudly, boastfully, pedagogically, but none of that emerged. Instead, the boy merely said, in the same flat tone, “Provocative means several things, and two of those are ‘stimulating’ and ‘exciting’. That’s what ‘heady’ means, too.”
Jim was taking the opportunity to really look at him as he spoke. Then he looked down at his puzzle, seeing if ‘heady’ fit. It did, indeed. For a four letter word for ‘proclivity’ which crossed ‘heady’ in the puzzle, he’d sketched in ‘wont’. Now, he changed it to ‘bent’, and the puzzle began to fall apart as often happened. Jim smiled, then looked up to thank the lad, only to find he was gone.
Two things immediately came to mind. That the puzzle maker was diabolical, and that the kid was brilliant.
That night, Jim again had trouble getting to sleep. He couldn’t get the boy out of his head. He kept going over and over their encounter, trying to wring more out of it than was there. He knew why he was so obsessed, he thought. He’d been more depressed than usual lately. Everything was going fine at work, so fine that there had been fewer details than usual to become involved with. All his employees were on top of their accounts. He wasn’t needed much to solve any issues they had or straighten out sticky problems or misunderstandings. And when he came home, there wasn’t much to do there, either. Perhaps his depression, his malaise, was due to that. And maybe he was simply lonely. Maybe that was why he felt so empty.
He remembered his discussion with Tony when he’d paid the bill earlier that evening. It had been all about Tristan. He’d asked Tony about the boy, asked if he was really old enough to be working. He knew he’d been showing undue interest. Hoped it hadn’t been too much.
“Tristan? Yeah, I checked. I know, he looks young. He’s worked here about a month now. He washed dishes for up until a week or so ago. I always start kids who want jobs on dishes. If they do that well and don’t complain, I know they might work out. Might even do well. I move ‘em up. He did fine. Hard worker. Keeps to himself. I don’t see him talking to the others.”
“He’s smart,” Jim said. “And he’s really good looking. Except, when I’ve seen him, he’s never smiled. Not once. Is he always like that?”
Tony stopped to think. “I guess I haven’t seen him smile, either. He’s quite serious. But you might be right about the smart thing. When I tell him how to do something, like what a busboy needs to do and how to do it, he listens. He doesn’t need to be told twice, or repeatedly, like some. He does the job fine, right from the get-go. Cares about doing it well; you can always tell. But he doesn’t smile, you’re right about that.”
He ran Jim’s credit card, doing so automatically as he continued. “There is one thing about him. He takes advantage of something I allow all my staff to do. Teenagers are always hungry, and I’ve got food galore in the kitchen, and a lot of my staff are teens. They don’t mind minimum wage, where older staff would. Now I know I could make a hard and fast rule that anyone caught eating anything will be terminated, but then I’d have to be sneaking around watching my employees and replacing a bunch of them all the time and always being suspicious. That’s not me and not who I want to be. So, instead, I tell them they can eat anything they want, but they have to do it on their breaks. A couple of the youngsters do that, mostly opting for the garlic cheese bread; most, though, use that time for hanging with anyone else who’s on break when they are. They grab a large coke from the machine and socialize with each other. Costs me almost nothing. But Tristan, he doesn’t socialize, and he always eats when he can.”
He handed Jim the slip to sign.
“Other than that, I don’t know much about him,” Tony said, checking the tip Jim had added to the check, then taking that amount of cash from the register and dumping it in a tip can with the waiter’s name on it. “Oh, one thing, the address on his application is in the upper-class part of town. Don’t get many kids wanting a job from that area.”
“How old is he? You say he can work, but, geez. I’d swear he’s thirteen, fourteen tops.”
“I thought so, too. But he’s fifteen, and it’s still summer vacation so there’s no school conflict. He had a work permit—the minimum age for that around here is fifteen and a half—so I hired him. A couple of our regular busboys quit to go on vacation with their families. Happens every summer. I needed replacements, and he showed up. He’s been great. I hope he stays on. Why the interest?”
“His eyes.” Jim shook his head. “Those sad eyes of his speak to me. I can’t get them out of my head.”
Jim had driven home, and soon was in bed. Tristan was there with him, still in his head.