On the Utility of Small Talk with Waitpersons by Tom Williams

I was in a booth with a former student at B-Dubs, the one place in town with a decent draft selection. I was pleased to hear that Ben, in his dissertation year, still felt my advice had aided him more than not. It was also good to hear, second hand, the talk that transpired at universities far better than where I worked. Years earlier, I told everyone who’d listen that I wouldn’t be here long. Now I harbored no thoughts of escape. I’d even gladly settled into the role of one who avidly counseled those who could flee.

Our waitress, Cassie, spoke of available specials without pressure, didn’t mix up our IPA’s, arrived in time to take food orders and did not burden us with how arduous her day had been or how amorous the intentions of the latest floor manager had become. She was unobtrusive when she needed to be, yet never so far out of reach I couldn’t ask for blue cheese or Ben could request extra napkins. One time while I chewed a mouthful of French fries, she managed to ascertain I actually did want that glass of water I’d turned down earlier.

After she set down the check, assuring us she was in no hurry and we could take our time, I said to Ben, “We’re about to conduct an experiment.”

Ben stroked his beard, nodded. By my measure, students are never ex-students, unless they get jobs at institutions that overshadow my public regional comprehensive. Cassie strode near, smiling and eager in her black slacks and referee’s jersey. I said, “You are far more competent a server than this restaurant deserves.”

She smiled, touched her chest. “Aw,” she said. “That’s the nicest thing anybody’s ever said.”

She looked toward Ben, who nodded, said, “It’s true.”

She touched us both on the shoulder, as if observant of what patrons might interpret were the intimacies otherwise. Here, I should say the black and white vertical stripes worked a certain magic, in addition to her doe-like brown eyes, her lustrous workplace pony tail. Her hips and chest were ample but not excessive. She wore no discernible lipstick, which made the pout and plumpness of her lips all the more alluring. I say all this because her looks indeed played a role in my decision to engage in small talk. I would like to claim that had she been less attractive but as competent I would have offered the same compliment, but I am aware of my lusts. If I desired a tryst, however, I was only dimly hopeful: After I turned fifty, my flirtations grew clumsier by the month.

I said, “I’ve seen extraordinary service before.  All over the US. Abroad. And you are one of the best.” That I’d only been to ten states, and all of them east of the Mississippi, didn’t matter. Nor could I claim more than three days in Paris, and one spent confused on the Metro and finding my supper at a supermarket. What matters to my experiment is what happened next. Cassie looked both ways as if fearful of eavesdroppers, squatted so only her head was above the tabletop, then said, “I’m taking the CPA exam next week.” Her volume dropped even more. “I tell my girls and my mother to keep praying. I study every chance I get because if I pass I am out of here for good.”

I had my eyes on the flutter of pulse in her neck. My credit card slipped from my fingers and she trapped it on the tabletop. She stood, said, “Be right back.”

I must have trained Ben well, because he said exactly what I was thinking:  “What if she doesn’t pass?”

That was three months ago. Ben has gone back to lengthen his beard and work on his dissertation over property dualism. Classes have resumed here in the town with a college (not, decidedly, a college town), and I haven’t been back to B-Dubs. Instead, on those days when I can’t bring myself to cook—which are rarely fewer than five per week—I go to the Chinese buffet or the Mexican place or the steakhouse with wagon wheels and free peanuts in the shell. None of them offer the beer selection I prefer, and the overall comeliness and competence of the waistaff is lacking. I cannot say whether Cassie is still arriving tableside the nanosecond after one made a decision between fries or the upcharged salad for a side. I don’t quite know what’s revealed  by my test—if I have uncovered the truth why it’s best not to humanize those who bring your food and drink or if I have demonstrated that my sorry emotional constitution is one of the reasons I am a philosopher not known outside the general education sections I teach.

Sometimes I drive past B-Dubs, during busy evening hours, but I have no idea what I would need to see to know what to say next.

Tom Williams has published flash fiction in Five Points, cream city review, and Los Angeles Review. The Dean of Liberal Arts at University of Central Arkansas, he’s also published three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. He lives in Arkansas with his wife and children.

Boy smoking sitting next to a chicken
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