“A man I know who lived for two years on about seven cents a day was and still is a bonny figure indeed, tall, lean and wholesome. . . physically at least. Perhaps an empty stomach is not a good literary adviser.” (MFK Fisher, How to Cook a Wolf, 1942)
A few friends started a regular tradition of dining at a fine restaurant in Greenwich Village. Here was a place besotted with heavy linens, the Italian marble bar, a generous pour. Truffled potatoes. Sautéed spinach. There were roasted cuts of meat and a larder full of bottles. The light fixtures hung low, bemused.
I know all this because I joined the girls once, exactly once, for a full meal. They opened ceremonies with plates for the table (“just something to nibble on”) and a bottle. A very good bottle. And then, strapped in as we now were and upon this terrifying ride, they made way to the main courses. And who could review this menu and not sample the Norwegian urchin served on a bed of its own foam, still sputtering a poem-ode to the north Atlantic? Who would pass a fine cut of Kobe steak rendered in its own honeyed juices gleaned from hives of the Japanese prefecture itself, and not order her straight away? Another bottle. No! Two. For fuck’s sake. Fuck. You like this, don’t you. Well, I do. I do too. It’s delicious. Okay, fine. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s fine enough for a third bottle then. Three please! This lobster pasta— it’s seasonal, you know. And they’re practically giving it away! This cheese sampler? And what of this dessert plate? This party plate for twelve? Never mind that we’re seven, what of it? What? I feel like you’re looking at me strange.
But I wasn’t looking at anyone strange. I had simply swooped and glided along with these triangular girls, their well-stocked wallets, the larder of larders. I wanted to string the night out, to stretch it like taffy. I thought about doing a runner. I stood up “to stretch” and considered the runner. I had had a glass of wine and then another because I needed to steady my nerves. Naturally this engendered the order of an additional bottle, everyone agreed, and then the words “for the road!” rang out. I bristled. I buckled down. I had had it. So I ingratiated myself to the thick leather sofa on which we sat, soaking up its luxurious grains and the aroma of wealth.
There was nothing I could do, no heading the beast off at the pass. The bill, long in its lashings (a novella of numbers) arrived. The girls grabbed, eager, surmised, and then they totaled, divided and, against all my best wishes and quiet prayers, they rounded up. They rounded way up. Tis the season to tip, I know, I know, and grinches and scrooges are an unsavory lot, yes, yes. A grand total reached for one and all. I swallowed hard. I submitted my credit card with the others. I prayed.
How easily it mingled, slapping its way down on the wafer thin tray and transported away. I watched it go. I hoped there might be a mistake, some slip of the dime, a charge left uncharged. But nothing of the sort. The waiter returned and did the unlovely work of doling out cards to the half drunk and unwise. I signed, shuffled papers, returned my card to its rightful deep patch in the wallet and twirled my sip-and-a-half-remaining like there are and will be no cares in this world or the next.
As the other girls piled into their cabs I stuffed my hands into my pockets and waved them off, finally agreeing to slip into the very last one and just take it, “well, as far as you’re going. I’d like to walk the rest of the way,” I said. “It’s such a nice night.”
When we got to that point I slipped out and blew kisses. I promised to keep in touch and to do it all again soon. Very, very soon. The girls knew nothing of my breaking account, these lowest of all possible numbers, and I breathed not a word of the thinness and in this way the earth carried forward, the whole planet on a need-to-know basis.
I walked the rest of the way back to my place. When I climbed the stairs I tried to focus on the lingering buzz-rush of the wine and not the deadening pound of money lost. Forever gone. My key stuttered into the grit of the lock and when I got inside I put my head down on the counter and then regrouped and got down on the floor, into full mourning position over the money.
I could never do it again. Twenty two and a half nice Chinese chicken boxes for that price. Gone. Nearly one month unlimited on the subway, anywhere I might have wanted to go including Coney Island. Gone. A full ninety-seven books purchased at the Strand at the price of one dollar per. The money was done and dusted, done and gone and I had nothing to show for it but the rocking motion of my stomach as it unwittingly went about the business of digesting ninety-seven dollars worth of urchin and wine when it would have just as happily done the same to reconstituted instant noodles or a half molded potato or both or neither. No. I could not do it again.
Over subsequent Monday nights I continued to hear of the venture, the get togethers, those opulent dinners. And I begged off. Or accepted and then issued a last minute, desperate cancellation. The jerk diner.
And yet, wanting to see these particular young women again and to be in the company of fine, great things, I came up with a plan. And so tonight, when I received the latest invitation, word of a return to the fabled spot of ninety-seven, I resolved to execute my plan.
“Looking forward, but will be a bit late,” I replied. And then I waited, allowing the evening hours to pass as I opened a can of split pea soup, crushed some crackers into it and poured a tall glass of water. I dressed in casual separates and languished in the taunt pull of my belt as I fastened it about my waist. With another hour to go, my meal finished, I revised my eye make up and switched shoes for the long walk ahead, across town.
By the time I reached the glorious palace of comestibles the ladies were already well into their third fine bottle, their table strewn with the leavings of good mains, all pastas and rare meats. They had rung up quite a bill, they were on the downward spiral. My timing was perfect. I came rushing in the door.
“I’m so sorry I’m late!” I nearly shouted, taking my seat, one part harried two parts grateful. “Work was insane today. Insane! I only just got out. Totally insane.” That was what I said. That is what everyone says. There are scripts in life and we trade them back and forth from hot to cold to hot hands again.
“Wow are you ok? What have you been up to?”
“This whole new project came in and, you know, I’m really the only one who can deliver the thing. It’s huge and it’s going to take up so much time in the coming weeks. I’m just glad to have gotten out of there when I did. It looked like it was going to be a lot later. I mean, just a lot later.”
I wiped my brow. I glanced around the table, confirming that not a soul present was aware of my having been completely fired some months ago. Then I looked around the actual dirtied table itself.
“I see I’ve missed dinner.”
“Would you like to order anything?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no it’s fine. We ordered calzone at the office so, you know, I ate that. Calzone. It was just all business. We didn’t have time for anything else. Calzone? It’s terrible! I’m so sorry to have missed out though.”
“Well, at least have a glass of wine. God, after the day you’ve had, you should have a whole bottle!”
“No, no, no, no, no just a glass, that would be great.”
And with that I settled comfortably into the plush leather booth and the conversation washed up and over me. When the waiter in his pressed linen apron came by to ask if I might want anything, anything at all, from the kitchen, I graciously waved him off. And in this way a good hour passed. I sipped my wine slowly, savoring its ruched heft and the fact of cheap soup and crackers already in my belly. And when the conversation hit full tilt and steam again, when everyone was a-tilt in laughter at that crazy joke, the old card, I saw my chance and shot a hand out to rip a corner, just part, off a slice of bread still in the bread bowl. It was fine, luscious bread, crisp on the outside with a supple, chewy build. Finest bread I ever tasted. I looked around for something to dip the remaining scrap in. I had a scrap!
And the joke rolled on, the table in an uproar. That’s when I made my move to a puddle of long forgotten sauce. No one would notice. It seemed a shame to wash a sauce like that down city drains, unnoticed and condemned to a life of bleach and pipes, to water treatment and the Hudson. My bread handily absorbed the sauce. I brought it back to my mouth, tipping back in the booth once more to laugh and nod and smile, blending in equal measure to the enjoyment of the atmosphere and that very, very funny joke.
And then it occurred to me that there was in fact one more piece of bread, just sitting there in the breadbasket. That not one of these girls appeared to be making a move, sated as they were on the truffled gnocchi and deviled octopus of the evening. Just one last slice.
“Can I take these plates away for you ladies?”
The death knell. The grim reaper himself.
“Oh yeah, totally. We’re done,” a friend said with a casual wave of her hand, a wave that extended over the landscape of the entire table, inclusive of the bread, inclusive of the sauces.
“All right then.”
And with that, everything disappeared.
When the desserts came out I took an entirely different tack, careful not to glance even a sidelong prong off a single morsel of flourless chocolate cake, careful to keep my wine glass at an easy ebb so as not to garner the notice of the others. Anything more than a single glass and the leavings of bread would draw me to within striking distance of the bill. And that, when it finally came, would be astronomical to me: a mighty three-digit figure topped off with cents in the high end. The girls did as they always do, a head tipped this way or that, the calculating, the rounding up.
I reached for my wallet.
“Oh no, no way, you really shouldn’t put anything in.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah, what did you eat? You had nothing. Whatever. A glass of wine? No, no way.”
I sat there, my dumb wallet held aloft. But of course, not wanting to make a scene, how meek now my retreat.
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“Oh yeah, totally.”
It was a victory, an unprecedented score. The casual enjoyment of jokes, a judicious glass of fine red and the leavings of the breadbasket, all topped off with studied saturation of the sauces that, I believed, no one noticed. All for nothing. I had done it again. Hands came down on laps. Yawns were issued. Some light stretching ensued. And it was roundly agreed that the night, while a very good one, a very good one indeed, was over.
I bowed deeply to my friends. They piled into fat yellow cabs to all their destinations many miles away. I tightened my belt and began the long, long walk home.