American Portraits: A Gentleman Host

American Portraits: Jazz Hands
April 29, 2013
American Portraits: The Gondolier
May 2, 2013

He crouched above a dusty utility sink, eyes scouring the grime. You could feel the pulse in his hands, their plump and scarred fingers racing to turn the knob, to shut off the water, to grab at sanitary wipes. A ball of wet napkins landed in the garbage with a vitriolic thud, and on he went, marching like a high school band conductor to table number 57.

“Everything very well, ma’am? Everything just fine, sir?” he pushed and pressed his niceties through chipped teeth. The saccharine smile slung across his broad face was like watching a pencil of a woman give birth—there was something so unnatural about it. He tugged at his shoulders, pulling down the too-small blue sport coat and brushing off crumbs of a Bundt cake that had just flown over his shoulder. He didn’t wait for an answer from the ma’am, or the sir, or anyone—just nodded and marched on to the bar. With a pretense of childish secrecy, he scurried behind the shaggy bartender to desperately gulp a lowball of whiskey.

He smelled of day-old smoke, too. And his eyes were glazed over like a marmalade biscuit—barely moving, hardly sentient. But he smiled and nodded all night long. You could see his neck twitch when glasses careened for a toast, when sips sucked through straws swung at his ears. When it got to be too much, he huddled in the back by the liquor and shivered, dodging the servers and ogling small plates weaving between chair backs and Louis Vuitton clutches.

From five o’clock, when the unlatched doors of the dining room flooded with guests, to the stroke of 10, when stragglers finally, mercifully, left the evening behind, he nursed a half dozen whiskeys. Some he weighed down with grenadine, some with soda and lime, but all were jostled with sweaty anxiety, his plump, feverish hands never once still.

As the lights, too, faded from life, there sat the great beast of a man, curled like a “Q” over a leathery stool. The bar was empty; the rough, hairy barman tucked away for the night. And he sat, in the stillness and staleness, dropping his palms flat on the cold marble bar. Slowly, his muddied, exhausted old mind shut him off, shut him out, and his head crouched down to a marble pillow. There he would rest for a few precious hours, night sweats soaking the pits of his jacket. Too soon, the sun would creep up his back and the day would begin. He turned back to his jitters in those early hours, and flitted in angst with wet spots and wild, dying hair. Until, in the mid-afternoon, he visited that greying old sink once more, slinging swaths of water across his fat face and priming a great smile again.


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