Helen was getting drunk. Saucy, the waiter, poured her another glass of the 2007 Cab and she watched him, first with expectant eyes, then with the slightest guilt; her brow pitched upward thinking: maybe I shouldn’t have another.
A small legion of Saucy’s cohorts dressed in snug white coats and black pants set the plates on the table. Anders, to Helen’s left, had the sustainable fish plate—seared albacore tuna over a posole broth—and a glass of Sprite. Greg, across from Helen, both hers and Anders’s manager in from St. Louis had the rib eye. It sat in a shallow pool of half bloody au jus staining the bottom of the whipped pile of garlic mashed potatoes next to it. Henry, from Finance, looked down at his vegetarian lasagna and breathed it in. He nodded yes to another glass of the Cab. Oscar, the Compliance Officer, sat next to Henry and finished up his gin gimlet and said “Yes, please,” to another cocktail and a glass of wine. His plate was also the rib eye with the autumn rice pilaf and not the potatoes.
They were in the middle of talking about deep frying turkey for Thanksgiving, which had just past.
“It’s a lot of trouble,” Oscar said. “And pretty dangerous, too. But damn it if wasn’t the best turkey I’ve ever had.”
“We tried it once,” Greg said, “but instead of getting a real turkey fryer, we filled up a metal trash can with oil and heated it from the bottom—over a fire. That sucker got so hot it started glowing! We had to lower the bird into the oil using spears.”
“But it was good, I bet, right?” Oscar said.
“Amazing. Crispy and moist, you know,” Greg said.
Butter and garlic and tannins rose from their table and it was the moment of the early evening when all restaurant managers make the conscious decision to lower the house lights a smidge. Those perceptive to changes in atmosphere notice it immediately. Those on the border of tipsy do, too—like they’ve just been tapped on the shoulder by an unnoticeable spirit.
“See that?” Helen said. “Right when the food comes out, of course. To make it look better.”
“Bon appétit,” Greg said.
Oscar hadn’t seen Henry or Greg in two months. He started to cut into his meat and said to them: “You heard about Mona’s kid, right?”
Henry had just put his first bite into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed. “No. What?”
Greg shook his head no, about to cut into the meat.
“Flew off his dirt bike in California City.” Oscar said. “He’s in a coma.”
“My God, that’s awful.” Greg set his fork and knife down. Henry stopped eating to listen. Anders took his second bite of fish, then a drink of his Sprite.
“How old is the boy?” Greg said.
“How’s it look?” Henry said.
Oscar shook his head. He had already put a piece of steak in his mouth and was chewing on it, working it slow, then speeding up to answer Greg. “Not good. Mona’s been off for three weeks. Boy won’t come to. They tried to take him off the respirator but everything started to shut down.”
Saucy came with the sides. Brussel sprouts with roasted garlic and pine nuts, asparagus tips in warm salted rosemary oil, and mashed sweet potatoes. “How we doing folks?” he said.
“Fine.” Anders spoke in mid-chew.
Saucy put his hands together as if in prayer and bowed slightly. “Enjoy.”
Greg stared down at his plate. “That’s horrible. I met him once. Good kid.”
“They should just let him go,” Helen said.
“There’s not much they can do.” Oscar cut another gash into his steak and bent his head down a bit to smell it. “This is a good steak.”
“Fish is great,” Anders said.
“Will you pass the asparagus, Helen?” Oscar said.
“What can we do? For Mona?” Henry said.
“Donate your PTO.” Oscar heaped the asparagus onto his plate. He handed it over to Anders and took a drink of wine. “She needs the time.”
“She used up all her long-term leave when Barry’s mother died in February. That family. I tell you.” Helen sipped her Cab, set the glass down, and patted her chest.
Henry took a drink of his wine. Anders kept his eyes on his plate. He was halfway done with his dinner. Greg shook his head and cut into the meat.
Oscar turned to Helen. “You know, I did notice that. How the lights just went dim.” He cut again, put the slice onto his fork and scooped a heap of rice with it. He chewed and looked up at the chandeliers. They glowed warm though amber-stained glass—the outline of a rose etched in each one with a mauve glaze for the petals.