The burden of convincing every customer to try the roast chicken with its side of Irish potato fries, Italian sauce and boiled plantains is one you embraced with an eagerness that surprised even your boss. Made him look at you first with curiosity and then suspicion and then – when he saw reflected in the account books the pecuniary proof of your zeal; the satisfying drawl of figures in maiden columns – it crawled into respect. You would cajole a customer with your smile and a competent vigour that you made sure to keep cautiously moderate; told them the one thing they had never heard from a waiter before – that you would give them their money back if they didn’t love the meal – until they agreed to see what you had seen, their curiosity unwrapped and laid bare on a dinner plate. You would then shuffle into the kitchen, half-hop in your step with that smile that your co-workers now recognized – that smile that said you had now found a purpose worth half-hopping for – and you relayed one more order to the increasingly unsurprised head chef.
You have a bigger problem convincing your mother to take a pill. Any of the dozen pills she needs to swallow every precise 6 hours of every day so that she doesn’t die. You don’t want her to die, but watching the heady droop of her face every night, her veined fingers folding into a pitiable fighting fist as she defies you and your life-restoring medicine again and again, you wonder if she wants something different. On some days, when she is in a good mood, she ignores you, the vacant look in her eyes telling you she has seen neither you nor anything else. Every time else, it is a struggle of contrasting physicality that leaves you both in tears. In your home, in the face of her increasingly bizarre stubbornness, your persuasive skills are useless. And you cannot afford to be useless.
The chicken, brown and covered in syrup, is a new staple, brought home by the new chef who joined the establishment in April last year. Her name is Miriam, but everyone calls her Madam Mush. Everyone also says she studied abroad, one of the irreverent I-Got-Backs with a bridge-size chip on their shoulder, and she confirms these rumours with her inflected manner of speaking. Her walk. Her antiseptic gesticulation. The way she refuses the use and acknowledgment of local lingo and instead calls everyone “mate” in that manner that came off to you as patently undynamic. Pass me the salt mate. Watch out, mate, these yams are bleeding hot. Everyone else mocks her behind her back, but you like her. She makes the chicken fried with honey and a sauce no one else knows how to make. She has her shenanigans – all 253 of them, but she is happy. She loves cooking, did it well and did it in a way that made you believe she was paid a million dollars.
She also had a great face, and she had in her eyes the vastly rare combination of cunning and vulnerability common, as it seems, to exceptionally beautiful women. A combo curiously present, also, in your father’s eyes. When he was alive. And occupied the space that was your home and filled your mother’s life with every piece now missing. She laughed then, every time. Found everything, every unexcitement, every hysteria, every good and bad thing worthy of her feminine mirth. And this was because the man she loved, the man who, appearing as he did at the time in her life when she was most deeply floundering in the bucket of nothing that was her existence, rescued her. He wasn’t a smiling man himself. Wasn’t particularly funny, but it was her job to find his presence in her life funny. The contrast of existence, between when he was there and before he was, was so startling, she knew God had tried a joke.
The love they shared was of the kind that excluded you; kept you a viewing stranger gazing in through a misted window on people who were supposed to be your parents. This did not mean that you were unloved. Only that you were loved differently from how they loved each other. Many a time you watched her – without warning and in the midst of a totally random event and without the immediate explainable need for it – turn to stare at her husband, the cheerfulness in her broken eyes sufficient information of her gratitude on what he was doing to and for her.
And when – on his birthday and 3 hours before a surprise party could surprise anybody – he died, everything ended. The pain of grief is affected, chiefly, by the kind of death suffered. Your mother was wracked, you knew, not by the simple fact of the death of her love but by the manner and flippant carelessness of it, creating as it did a limbo of wishes about how one simple insignificant change – in the weather or perhaps the food eaten or the congregation of dust on his dashboard – would have been enough. And you knew your mother was willing upon the past a panicked reshuffling of events, a plea to cooperate, to place in front of, and not behind, your father’s car, the trailer of chickens so that when the shock of a sneeze jerked his foot suddenly against the pedal, there would be no spectacular hunk of metal to ram into. It was cruel. This wishing. To watch it and to feel it.
And if you had it in you, in whatever small doses your dying spirit could afford, you would go on a gathering spree, driving into a metaphorical bag, everything your mother had lost and bring them before her – offering like – laid bare on the creaking table of your decaying home – and ask that they placate her last days. You would offer and offer and give and give until everything was gone and everything was gained.
One day, a customer walked into the restaurant and takes a sit by the corner window. You watch him sit, prepared again to approach and convince. You notice things about him unusual with how you observed other customers. He wore a cashmere sweater, slightly oversized, and had a body that reminded you of miniature guava trees. His afro hair stood about in that almost tattered manner that said he paid just enough attention to his appearance as not to appear homeless. But his face. He had in it something bright and sparkly. Something that drew and kept your attention, made you curious about all the people the face had smiled at and all the emotions that had walked across it from forehead to chin.
And your curiosity is returned. Male eyes wondering why female eyes are boring into his chest. Male eyes walking through and over you, collecting details that make for good conversation later. In his room. Two weeks after his cashmere sweater covered half your window and all curiosities satisfied. But today, he is eating everything you place before him and talking to you like he has known you for years. He is asking questions, a lot of questions, more than you have answers for so you agree to meet him later. In the street, in the middle of blue noise, taking from each other what the city left as remnants, you in particular giving more than you took.
For two weeks, you are distracted, from your mother, from the plates of chicken, from Madam Mush. He shows up every day and sits by the same window and eats what you give him. Then waits for you to end your shift after which you follow him home and lay on his bed. Until one day, at the exact time agreed by all parties, you rush out and meet the sit empty. There is a forlornness to its emptiness that convinces you of the uselessness of looking for him. You knew that like everyone else, he had exercised his right to un-need you.
Your mother died the same day you lost your job. It wasn’t the product of any real inefficiency but a customer had found a fly in his food, swirling ceremoniously in his soup, and at the end of the day you and the head chef are standing in your boss’s office, perspiration evident on his forehead because he did not enjoy doing this – scolding his best staff. But blames are traded, juggled between lips and eyes and coming to rest finally on the logo of your apron, everyone convinced that your failure to properly cover the plate of soup after it had been delivered to you in the kitchen allowed alien things to enter a customer’s food. It is an easily forgivable sin – you had never been found wanting in this manner before – and your boss is ready to let you go, immediately, with the mildest warning. But you are unwilling to be crucified, to accept blame and judgment however benignly delivered to your doorstep, because what did that say of your battered innocence and your strung-out sense of pride. And that is when your lips open and you say words, untrue words, wicked words, eloquent words, angry words, insolent words. Words that dance in the room, an irreverent dance, strip bare the lines of authority between boss and staff, make very realistic the possibility that your manager would never again be able to correct you however small the transgression. And your manager, a man having as his most outstanding feature, the kindness of his face, is unable to forgive even this. And even though he could see in your eyes the hurt and courage and fear and loneliness of a gone girl, he still fired you because his male pride said so and because in that moment he knew he did not want to look into your eyes one more day.
And this is not even the real loss of the day. You are on your way out of the restaurant when you receive two phone calls, each with varying severity, but the second sending enough shock waves through your limbs so bitingly potent you drop the phone and step back 6 paces, your body involuntarily distancing itself from the bringer of bad news. It is moments later before your mind convinces you to rush to the hospital. Her body is fragile in death. You realise for the first time how physically small she was, her petite frame taking the weight of a thousand giants, holding within it the brilliant fires of loss and grief and joy and the blinding cross-road of all these. And you realize also just how much you, too, have been carrying, the crystallisation of your pain washing over you and sending you staggering into a plastic chair in the corner of the room. And you are – in the midst of hospital smells – brought low to a depth as you had never been before. A depth so dreadful, so cruel in its endlessness, so bottomless, you touched nothing when you scratched the earth beneath you.
And you walk. And walk. Until you find the blackened doors of St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church. It is a mystery how you got there. But you sit on the pews and the light of the chandeliers make you cry. And you cried until you came, slowly, to feel un-orphaned.
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