Kids Eat Free
By Joe Miller
“Just two, please.”
Manny says it casually, with his ever-ready politeness. I know he’s only making the hostess feel appreciated, but the words hit me hard. Just two.
“Follow me.” The young girl says as she slides two bent laminated menus from her kiosk and spins toward the dining area. Manny lifts his furry eyebrows into a smile and puts his arm behind me, gently leading me to follow the young girl. The restaurant is empty, and the girl takes her time strolling to one of the many barren tables. I can’t see the girl’s face, but I can feel her eyes rolling, her longing to return to her cell phone at her kiosk, back to thumbing through images of meaningless preoccupation. With her slender waist and child-bearing hips. I want to shake her. I want to grab a fist full of her healthy black hair and wretch her face back to me and scream at her that she doesn’t even know how cruel and painful the world can be. Instead I sit down quietly. Manny does too, smiling and thanking her.
The girl hands me a menu the size of a science fair poster and robotically runs through what events will come next as if I’ve never been to a restaurant in my life, let alone this one.
Just as the hostess’ prophecy foretold, our usual waiter was with us shortly, setting a frayed basket of tortilla chips and a chilled bottle of soupy red salsa on the yellow, red, and blue patterned table cloth before us. We order drinks. Manny a water, and a margarita for me. Why the hell not, now.
Manny dives back into a story he was telling me in the car that I had already forgotten.
“So I kept hearing this noise. Pik-pik-pik. Pik-pik-pik. It wasn’t the dog. I got up, looked around the house. It wasn’t in the house. But I kept hearing it. Pik-pik-pik.” He thrusts a single finger forward as he mocks the noise. I lose track of the story while I watch him wave his arms and eyebrows around the table. He’s handsome, like an aging TV character actor, and I know he’s being jovial for me. He does everything for me and I begin to remember my long list of why I don’t deserve to be this man’s wife.
He pinches down his index finger to his thumb and the gentle nature in which he does pulls me from me self-hatred.
“It was a little bird!” he said, tilting his head and forming a compassionate “w” with his long bushy eyebrows.
“I could see it from the kitchen window. It kept tapping against the side view mirror on your Accord. Pik-pik-pik, just like that.” Again with the thrusting finger. But all I could think was, I’m so worthless.
“So, at first, I’m like, this bird is just crazy. He’s attacking our car like a nut. But then, I just keep sipping my coffee, watching this thing dip down, pik-pik-pik at the mirror then hop back on top of the mirror and huff and puff and I realize, hey, that thing is bleeding.” He pauses and his eyes become two big round eggs. The animated sadness on his face is too much. I can’t help but mimic his expression.
“Turns out, this poor little bird wasn’t fighting your car, it was fighting itself in the mirror. You know. Pik-pik-pik. Once I figured out what it was doing, I couldn’t just let it peck itself to death, so I taped a kitchen towel over the mirror. So, there you go. Jess?”
I realize he’s talking to me and I shake myself to attention. “I’m sorry, what?”
“The towel taped on your mirror. You asked in the car why you had a towel taped on your side mirror.”
“So the little bird would stop attacking itself. It did, I think. Stop attacking itself.”
I nod and squeeze my lips into a smile that says “please stop trying to make me feel better” more than “oh, thank you for clarifying.”
Manny’s expression changes into that face he makes when he wants to speak seriously. I hate it. “Honey-“
“You guys ready to order?” the waiter interrupts. His face is bronzed and worn like desert terrain, a smile cracks through the years of burden. He cradles both of our drinks in one hand and sets them down gently on the table. Manny smiles politely. We’ve been to this place enough times before to know that he owns the restaurant, but still waits tables. He’s always been kind and loquacious, and usually asks too many questions from us. He doesn’t today. Am I that obvious? Will everyone pity me forever?
They both know I’m going to order the same thing I order every time we come here, but Manny still lifts his eyebrows to me and asks with his eyes if I’m ready to order. I nod.
“Combination number three, with a side of rice and beans please.” I point to the picture on the glossy menu as I say it. Manny orders the exact same thing as me, as always.
“Okay, guys. Be right out.” He grabs our giant menus and avoids my eyes.
As the owner shuffles back to the kitchen my eyes follow him back and I scan the dimly lit restaurant. Besides the young hostess texting behind her worn wooden kiosk, a lone person sits in the dining area with us, though he’s not eating. Over my shoulder I see him set up in the corner in front of an amateurish mural of a senorita handing out red roses. The man wears a denim vest and has pulled his scraggly grey hair back into a pony tail, the way someone would do from whatever era he’s still clinging on to. He’s surrounded by balloon animals and is twisting a long black balloon into some four-legged creature, a dog, I think.
I swivel back to Manny. “That’s odd.”
Manny grabs a trifold cardboard cutout from the center of our table and presents it to me like a game show model. It says, “Monday nights, Kids Eat Free!” And below in between two smiling emojis “Plus! Free Balloon Animals!”
“But there’s nobody even here.” I say. Manny shrugs. I steal another look of the man breathing life into a zoo of balloon animals.
“It just seems kind of sad. Him sitting alone and no one’s even here.”
“He doesn’t seem sad to me.” Manny says. “Maybe he just likes making balloon animals.” He shrugs again. “Who doesn’t like balloon animals?” Manny smiles. I wince.
“Let’s just hope he doesn’t come over here.”
A glob of yellowed ice slowly surrenders to gravity down the side of my margarita glass. I grab the stem of the glass and see my bulged reflection in its side as I bring it to my lips. I guzzle most of the drink right then. I hate the taste but take an extra gulp anyway.
“That isn’t why I suggested this.” Manny says in that serious voice I despise, eyeing my half-drank margarita.
“Then why else are we here? It’s not for the free food.” I point to the trifold cutout on the table. I see the sting on Manny’s face.
“Maybe I like balloon animals.” He says, pouring humor on the pain. “We just need to get out of the house, little duckling. It’s not good for us to just stay home all the time and dwell.”
I can’t look at him for fear of agreement. Instead, I stare at my drink and my ballooned reflection on its cold surface. It’s silent after that, except for the faint sound of mariachi music and the rubbery twisting noises of the old guy making balloon animals in the corner. The silence calls me in and I begin to think. I begin to remember. I remember my mother’s church friend Janet awkwardly detailing to me all her prayers for my womb. I remember Manny’s sister texting a picture of a “World’s Dopest Auntie” t-shirt to me. I remember my mother stroking the back of my head while we embraced after I told her Manny and I would try one last time. I remember the pile of shower gifts my coworkers gave me that we abandoned in our basement. I remember the doctor’s final courtesy frown, before closing the door to let us “gather ourselves.” I remember wanting to catch every one of Manny’s tears. I remember melting into Manny’s arms and him holding me for days. I never wanted to leave his arms again. But instead, we’re here, trying to be people again.
I stare at myself in my drink and drops of cold sweat roll down my reflection in my glass. When a tear falls from my cheek I realize that it’s me that’s crying.
Manny reaches a hand out across the table for me.
“I’m sorry, little duckling.” Manny says. I still can’t look at him. I don’t deserve him. He deserves better than me. “It hurts me, too. At some point we have to carry on.”
“But why? What for? I wanted to give you a little version of you. I wanted us to be happy. I wanted a legacy for us to leave behind.”
The owner is back with our food before he can respond. His face changes from concerned husband, to polite customer, and back to loving companion as the owner drops off our steaming food and fades back into the kitchen. Manny unfolds his silverware slowly. We eat quietly.
After a few bites of our food, I lean down towards a forkful of my rice and I feel the presence of someone at the edge of our table. I smell him first, cheap latex and fruity lotion. When my eyes peer up, the balloon animal guy from the corner, now standing at our table, smiles brightly. His grin seems out of place on his weathered jowls, but sincere and earnest.
“Um, hello.” Manny says as pleasantly as he can with food in his mouth.
“Would you guys like a balloon animal? Maybe a turtle?” he says to Manny. “Or a pink bunny?” he says, twisting his head to me. He raises his eyes wide, pushing upward the yellow balloon halo he has on his head.
Manny looks at me before he declines. “No, thank you.”
“You sure? It’s free. It would be my pleasure.” He says it like he really means it, as if twisting a mass of colored balloons together for us would make his life complete. His cloudy, smiling eyes make me want to give in and let him make something for us.
“Maybe later.” I say, though I don’t really mean it. He nods kindly and drifts back to his corner. Manny gives me a surprised look from under his fuzzy eyebrows while he forks his beans.
We go back to eating our food quietly. It’s not long before I tuck my fork onto my plate and top it with my napkin, then push it all away from me. I take a long gulp and finish my margarita. We wait for the check.
As we wait, I slide a napkin from under Manny’s hand and begin to wipe away the precipitation from my empty glass. I swirl the last slushy contents of the glass around to wash clean the fog from within. I hold it up in front of me and it’s totally clear. Through it, I see Manny’s sadness from across the table and it hurts me more than my own.
The owner drops off the check, tells us to pay at the front whenever we’re ready, then slightly bows a few times before leaving Manny and I alone at our table.
“I’m sorry.” I say to Manny because it’s all I can ever say anymore. “I just don’t know how to stop drowning all the time.”
“I know. But we don’t even have to get out of the water. Let’s just start with floating, okay? We just have to try.” Manny shifts his weight and his demeanor and begins to scoot out of the booth. He paddles the air and pretends to tread water as he stands up from the table. He grabs the check, then leans over and kisses my forehead.
“Our legacy isn’t what we leave behind, it’s what we do while we’re here.”
“What is that, some Yoda quote or something?”
“Nope. But it should be.” He winks before turning to go. “I’m hitting the bathroom, then I’ll pay the check. Be right back.” His fingertips drift off my shoulder as he walks away.
It’s quiet again other than the twisting balloon noises and the low hum of mariachi music pumped out of some unseen speaker. I take out my phone hoping to dive into distractions, plunging deeper into anything to avoid the quiet. But I remember Manny’s stupid face pretending to swim, and I put my phone down. A few moments later, Manny is back.
“Ready to go, little duckling?” asks Manny in a ridiculous voice, holding a cluttered, twisted mess of thin balloons.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding.” He shakes his head as he hands me the giant yellow and green duck-shaped balloon animal hat.
“It’s a gift.” Manny points to the man in the corner.
“I am not wearing that.” But I can’t help but start to laugh at the absurdity of the thing. Manny laughs too. And it feels nice.
I give in and slide the balloon duck hat over my head. Manny takes out his phone to take a picture, and I let him. I even make a stupid duck face for him. I couldn’t help it. He gives me a hug and for a second, I feel like we’re floating.
I turn and wave to the man in the corner and mouth a polite 'thank you.' He places a hand over his chest and bows his head.
As we make our way to the door, the big duck balloon still floating on my head, I feel a tug at my waist. I know the pain is still there, but I keep moving forward.
The hostess smiles at me and my balloon hat. The way both corners of her mouth sweetly slide towards her orange cheeks feels kind and genuine.
The darkness of the January night projects my reflection inside the glass of the door. I see a ridiculous, aging woman with a balloon duck sitting on her head. I feel out of place. I feel inadequate. But Manny steps in front of me and opens the door and my reflection is gone. He holds the door open wide for me and I see our car with a patterned kitchen dish towel taped around the side mirror out in the parking lot.
Before I step forward a young family appears, waiting to enter on the other side. I stand to the side and motion for them to come in as Manny continues to hold the door. A distracted young woman with wet hair and untied shoes leads in a small boy, holding his hand high above his head. The pudgy dad follows, fumbling through the door with a sleeping baby in a carrier. The little boy looks up at me and my absurd balloon hat. His big round eyes blink.
“You’re a pretty duck.” The boy says much louder than his mother would have liked.
I gift him a grin and purse my lips together. “Quack.”