The Counter

Fiction by Stephen Dixon
illustration by the author

This is something that happened to me today. I'm sitting at a counter in a restaurant. In a number of my short stories I called the restaurant Drankwater's. Its real name is Atwater's. There are four or five Atwater's in and around Baltimore. This one is on the border between Baltimore and Baltimore County, in a shopping area known as Belvedere Square. It's Sunday. I've just come from the Y, where I worked out for about an hour. I'm having lunch. I do this almost every Sunday afternoon and have been doing it for around three years: sit at the counter and have lunch at this Atwater's. I try not to get here before two. That way there are always empty parking spaces in front of the restaurant and empty stools at the counter. My lunch, which is almost the same one every time I eat here, is a cup of soup--there are always four choices--and a piece of dark bread--I ask that the bread be dark--and a pat of butter and a coffee. Sometimes--maybe once every eight times or so--I also have a side salad. And a couple of times in the past year, I ordered half a turkey sandwich because I hadn't had much breakfast that morning and was unusually hungry. Maybe I ordered a whole turkey sandwich one of those times--I seem to remember that--and took one half of it home and had it as part of my dinner that night. A woman sits down at the counter two stools away from me. I have the end stool. That's the one I like best in the whole restaurant because it's closest to the door and huge windows and there's more light the closer you are to them and you can see lots of people walking past inside and sitting at the tables that line the windows and I don't feel so crowded in with people on stools on both sides of me. So, lots of reasons. I didn’t know till I just thought of it. I also might mention that there are several counters in this restaurant; most of them further in, and that this one gets the most light. I first noticed the woman when she came in. Attractive. Intelligent face. Hair in a ponytail. Seems to be in good shape. Sixty, sixty-five, so the right age for me if that is how old she is. If she's younger, then not the right age for me. That's what I've come to think. And people told me when I became infatuated, though nothing happened, with a woman who'd been my student twenty years ago. She places in front of her on the counter one of those table stands, I'll call it, with a number on what seems like half an index card fastened between clamps at the top of it. Hers is 19. So the server knows where to bring the order when she or he comes out of the kitchen with it. In this restaurant you can have one server give you the menu, another take your order, a third deliver it, a fourth give you your check when you ask for it, and even a fifth to take away your dishes and a sixth your check. If you're having one of their made-to-order coffee drinks, another person who works the coffee bar might bring it over to you. If you're having regular coffee or tea, usually the server who took your order gets you that. She must have ordered at the cashier's booth, just a few feet away from my stool, where they also sell lots of different breads. Most customers who sit at the counter--this is what I did--order there after they've looked at the menu and pay up at the counter too. I didn't mention that when she sat down at the counter I looked at her and she smiled and said hi and I said hi and no doubt smiled and she looked away and I went back to the book I was reading. Her food is placed in front of her about two minutes after she sits down. Same server takes the stand away. Fast. My food came out about five minutes after I ordered it and she has one more plate than I. One has a cup of soup, bread, butter, tablespoon, plastic knife and paper napkin on it. Just like mine. Second plate has what looks like the vegetarian Reuben that was on the menu--half of one--and pickle chips. I should say something to her. Who knows? Maybe I can engage her in conversation--maybe it's what she'd like to do too--while we both eat and I also drink my coffee. Attractive. Every time I look at her I think so. Profile. Full face. From every angle. She must have been a real beauty. Gray hair, or gray-brown--not completely gray--but nothing done to it, I think, to change the color--but healthy looking and I like the ponytail. Makes her look more youthful. Nice smile when she said hi to me; both could be good signs. I could somehow find out if she's married or not. No rings on her fingers, but not every married woman wears one. If she isn't and I'm still attracted to her and the conversation went well and she seemed smart, I could say--and by now we probably would have exchanged names--"This was nice. I enjoyed our little chat. Like to meet for coffee or lunch one day--doesn't have to be here.” But what to say to start it? Just start it. Something will come. "Excuse me, and I don't mean to be bothering you," and she looks up from her smartphone, which she pulled out from somewhere when I wasn't looking and put on the counter to the side of the sandwich plate, "but what soup did you order? It's always difficult making a choice from the soups they have on the menu. Or maybe not so difficult, because all the soups here are always extraordinarily good. You really can't lose." "Same soup as yours," she says. No smile. Looking as if she were saying "That had to be obvious to you, so why'd you ask?" "Mexican bean." "Right," I say. "I should have noticed. Especially because of the paper cup of sour cream that came with it on both our plates. Only soup that does." "I don't like the taste of cilantro, though, so I can't mix it into my soup." "Is that what that green is in the sour cream? I thought scallion." "Cilantro. Says so on the menu." "I guess I didn't read it carefully. Maybe you can get one of the servers to bring you some sour cream without cilantro." "I don't want to bother for such a small thing and I don't need the sour cream. Soup's good without it." "I had a brother who also didn't like cilantro. Basil was okay. You and he are the only two people I know who felt that way about cilantro. And I see you asked for dark bread with your soup. Same with me. If you don't specify, they give you one of their light breads, which I don't like as much. Don't think I'm complaining. I'm happy to get any of their breads with my soup." "I didn't ask for it. It just came with the soup. Light or dark, I'm not going to eat it. I've more than enough bread with my sandwich." "Is that the veggie Reuben you have?" "Yes," she says. "And you'll have to excuse me. They didn't give me the water I asked for." "Of course." She waves to a server behind the counter. He comes over. "May I please have some water? But without ice or any lemon on the glass rim." He fills up a glass with water and puts it on the counter. "Thank you," she says, and drinks some of it. She then dips her tablespoon into the soup, brings it to her mouth and blows on it, and swallows the soup. Then she looks at her smartphone and presses something on it to move the message upwards. "I'm sorry," he says. "I've been talking too much. Out of practice. Don't know when or how to shut up. And it's obvious you don't want to talk to me." “God, where did that come from? That's the silliest thing I ever heard." “No it isn’t.” "No it isn't, but it's close. Listen, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I only have so much time for lunch. I'm a working gal, and I take my work with me," and she holds up her phone, "so you'll have to excuse me." "I understand. Really, I do. Again, I'm sorry." She nods, eats another spoonful of soup, this time without blowing on it, and looks at the message on her phone. I open my book to the page I was on, butter some more of my bread and bite off a piece of it, pretend to read. That was such a stupid remark I made, about her not wanting to speak to me. Why'd I make it? I ought to tell her--"Just one more last thing to say. You're right. Where did it come from?" but I think I already said enough. More than enough. Just shut up. Stupid me. Stupid me. I can be such a fool. I never seem to learn. Thirty-five years ago…was it thirty-five? November, 1978. Eighty-eight. Ninety-eight. Hundred and eight. So: thirty-seven. Something very much like it to a woman I'd never spoken to before. I've written about it so much. Obviously that hasn't helped me from repeating my mistakes. Although that one turned out good. I got lucky. I wanted to speak to her for about an hour. A party. Birthday party a woman we both knew gave for herself. The Village, right by the arch. Raining when I left for it, snowing when I went home. Then I saw her with her coat on and holding her gloves--mittens they were; mittens; white, alpaca, I think--heading for the door alone and I went up to her--nearly rammed into someone in my hurry to get there--and said--she had her hand on the doorknob--"Excuse me. Excuse me. Don't leave just yet. I doubt you'll want to talk to me. But I've been observing you for the last hour--you probably noticed; I think I made it too obvious--and felt I had to introduce myself." She said "That's a funny thing" or "Now that's a funny thing to say as an introduction. Why would you think I wouldn't want to talk to you?" "Good question. I don't know. It just came to me. Wrong, right? I hope. Although now I remember why. Because you're on your way out of here. And I'm stopping you. And maybe the way I'm dressed. I don't know. Too anxious. Barreling up to the door. Nearly knocking someone over to get here." "Well, you made it. And I'm glad you didn't knock anyone over. But now I do have to go. A concert at Lincoln Center and they won't wait till I'm in my orchestra seat to start." “What are they playing? And who's playing? No, you're in a hurry to go, and I don't blame you. But I wish you'd stay a few more minutes so we could talk. I'd even walk you to your cab or the subway or whatever you're taking to get there. It'd take me a few seconds to get my coat. It's in back." "No need to. My name's Pamela Hirsch. I'm in the Manhattan phone book, on Riverside Drive. I suspect you know how to spell Hirsch. S-c-h.. If you forget any of that, Bea knows how to reach me. Bea's your host. You know that." "Yes, I met her this summer at an artist colony." "And your name?" I gave it. "Call," she said, "and we'll talk," and she left. I called her the next day. We met for coffee and started seeing each other and married two years later and six months after that had a child. I try not to look at this woman again. I think of getting up and going to the other end of the restaurant to another counter, but that'd mean taking my coffee and soup plate with me. Then after I finish my soup and bread and I'd just take my coffee. But that'd seem petulant or spiteful or childish or rude or stupid or something to her. Or it wouldn't seem anything to her--she could care less; that attitude--so better I stay put or pay up before I'm finished eating and leave. I eat my soup, drink my coffee, try to read my book. Can't concentrate on it. Read the same short paragraph four or five times and still don't know what I'm reading. Maybe she'll say something to me, but I seriously doubt it. I shouldn't say anything more to her, that's for sure--not even a goodbye if I leave first. That's what I'd normally do to someone I'd spoken to at the counter even for a few seconds. And if she leaves before I do, no goodbye there too--unless she initiates some talk. After about five minutes--I've finished my soup and bread and am draining the last of my coffee--I glance over to her. I still find her attractive. Ponytail especially, which is actually more gray than brown or dark blond, and it looks good on her. The color. She's playing with her phone, has finished her half Reuben--I once, when I was with friends here, asked for half a veggie Reuben and the server said it only comes whole. So they've changed their policy since then or the server didn't know what she was saying or this woman has pull. She's--and I remember the server. Cute one. Looked like a twenty-year-old Audrey Hepburn. She didn't last long here. She's also finished her soup. Hasn't touched her butter and bread, just as she said she wouldn't. It'd be nice--I'm dreaming now--if she asked me if I'd like her bread. She hasn't touched it, she could say. She knows I like dark bread and she may have noticed the piece they gave me was pretty small, about half the size of hers. Curious why that would be. Of course she won't offer me her bread. Or maybe--there's a better chance of this: she's had a change of mood and also isn't as busy with her phone--she could ask me what I'm reading. Because she looks like someone--that intelligent face again and the way she spoke seemed to be that of an intelligent woman--who likes books. Is interested in them and what people are reading. Or she could say something like "Excuse me. I didn't mean to brush you off before. But there was a message on my phone I was expecting and I needed to read it and text back." Or she could say "How was your soup. Mine was quite good. They do things with soup nobody else does." I know I'm being absurd in what I'm thinking she could say to me. If she says anything, if she leaves first, it might only be a goodbye. To sort of clear things up. Not leave me with any bitterness or whatever negative feelings she might think I feel to her. So I'm done. Maybe I should order a cortado. More to stick around in case she does say something to me. And it's delicious--a good way to end the lunch--and small enough to come in what looks like a juice glass, so I won't have to hang around with it as I would with another mug of coffee. And seeing it placed in front of me on the counter, she might ask, because it looks unusual enough coming in that glass and with that design in steamed milk at the top of the drink, "What's that?"--that is, if she doesn't know what it is, but I don't remember seeing anyone else order it in all the times I've been here--"Some kind of espresso drink?" I glance over to her. She's putting her phone into her shoulder bag looking the other way from me. I look at my book and then at her again. She's getting off her stool. Again with her back to me. Intentional? Who knows? Her bread's gone. Maybe she wrapped it up in her paper napkin, which I see is also gone, and put it in her shoulder bag for later. She heads for the nearest exit. It's possible she looked at me and would have even said goodbye to me if I was looking at her. Just "Goodbye." Nothing more. And maybe with a flash of a smile, or maybe not. Probably not. I watch her leave the restaurant. She never turns around to look back. Goes right, probably to the main parking area of this food hall. Everybody seems to come here by car. No reason to order a cortado now. Next time I might start off with one. And less to drink, less to pee. It can be a problem when I'm away from the house. I pick the few bread crumbs off my plate--little pieces of crust; I love them--and put them into my mouth. I look more closely at the plates she ate off of. Napkin isn't stuffed into the soup cup. Nor is it on the floor underneath or around her stool. So she almost had to have taken the bread in it. Maybe she gives it to squirrels or birds. I signal the server for my check by scribbling an imaginary pen into the palm of my other hand. She signals she'll bring it. Though maybe I should get a cortado. What's my hurry? And I'll go to the men's room before I leave this place. Maybe someone I know will pass by and we'll have a little chat. It's happened before. This is a popular place. The server brings my check. I say "Wait," and take my wallet out of my pants and give her my credit card without looking at the check. I know, unless they've raised the prices since the last time I was here, how much it'll come up to: $6.89. That's what it always is when I just have a cup of soup and a regular coffee. If I only had a cortado as my coffee drink, it'd come to about fifty cents more. She comes back a minute later with the credit slip for me to sign. I write in one-fifty as a tip, add it all up and sign it. I leave it on the counter with the pen it came with, get off the stool and slip the customer's copy of the credit slip into my book. I just don't want to leave it here. I've been told that's not smart. At home I'll tear it up and throw the pieces away. Should I leave? Nah, walk around. Maybe there's a new food place I might want to buy something from for dinner tonight. There's also a wine bar at the extreme other end of this place and one day, I've told myself, I'm going to sit at the counter there and have a glass of wine. Just to do something different here and drink a wine I've never had. What's been stopping me is I don't like to drink till around five or six in the afternoon and I don't see myself driving here for just one glass of wine. I also don't like sitting at a bar counter alone. I walk around the food hall. Nothing new here and nothing from the old places I might want something from. Most are way overpriced. Grilled smoked salmon and trout I like, but at 5.99 a quarter of a pound? And the fresh mozzarella balls at the Italian deli here are almost twice the price per pound of the mozzarella balls at my neighborhood market. Maybe not as fresh--for sure not as fresh; here they say they make them every other hour or so--but nearly as good. I'd buy a few bagels at the bagel shop here--they're just a dime or fifteen cents more than the bagels at another market I go to near my house and almost as good--but I have a number of different kinds of bagels in my freezer from both the market and this shop and I should start using those. Bread. I could use a loaf of bread. All I have at home are bagels. And freeze three quarters of the loaf in three freezer bags, four to five slices to a bag, and eat the rest for breakfast with my yogurt-granola and fruit dishes, one slice a day. I go over to the restaurant's bread cubicle. Stacks of about eight different breads are in the display case. Little signs on the protective glass the breads are behind have the names, ingredients, and prices of all the breads there. The darkest bread with what looks like the hardest crust is the raisin pumpernickel. I say to the young woman behind the counter--same one who gave me the check for my soup and coffee--"The raisin pumpernickel looks good. Could I have one, please--sliced?" "Absolutely," she says. She puts on plastic gloves, picks up the bread and puts it in the slicing machine, slides the whole sliced loaf very carefully into a plastic bag--it's fatter than the other breads and not easy to get into the bag whole--and ties it at top with a small green tie. "Anything else I can get for you?" she says. "I know you paid for your coffee and soup." "I did. No, that'll be it. Thank you. You've been very nice." I pay with my credit card, don't add a tip. There's a space for it on the credit card slip, but I don't think they expect one. It's just a loaf of bread. I start to leave the hall. I should have asked for a paper bag to put the bagged bread in. I don't like walking out of here with it as it is, and I'd also put my book in the bag. I don't know why I feel that way. Maybe it's because it could look like I'm walking out without paying for the bread, and also the bread just in a transparent bag is too revealing in some way. Oh, what am I going on about? It's a short walk to the car and nobody's going to be looking at me. I could just see it: "Hey, did you pay for that bread?" So don't worry. And it's also better for the environment, one less bag. I get in the car, untie the plastic bag and take out the top heel of the bread and start eating it. God, is it good. I don't think I ever had it in all the times I asked for dark bread with my soup. So, great, a whole loaf of it, and I bet it's delicious toasted and with butter and marmalade on it too. Should I have another slice? The next one down from the heel, so not a very large one. Even if it were a regular-sized slice, I could tear it in two and eat the other half sometime later. At home with some cheese on it, maybe. But I've had enough bread for now--don't want to just stuff myself--and swallow what's in my mouth and retie the bag. That woman, the one on the stool who did her best to ignore me. Ah, that might not be accurate. She was busy. Give her a break. Don't be so hard on her. But why did I say what I said to her? That "You probably don't want to talk to me," or something very much like it. Ask yourself why it was also the first thing you said to Pamela when you met her at the party almost forty years ago. Thirty-seven, next week. Well, that one worked out. She gave her name, how to reach her, coffee, lunch, dinner, bed, marriage, child. Maybe I thought something would work out with this one--at least a possibility. Got to keep trying if I want to be with someone again. Do I? You know I do. But two different people and, of course, two different times. I'm thirty-seven years older than I was then and I look it. Pamela never would have acted--say, she was that woman today--in the brusque, unequivocal...what would be the best word for it...? Anyway, a lot different than the way this woman did if she wasn't interested. She would have put up with me longer and then with a different--I mean, pleasant smile, nothing at all hard like this woman's was--an amiable smile, nothing off-putting--excused herself as politely as she could from any further conversation because of the work she had to do on her phone. "I know it looks like I'm only here for lunch. But I do have some other things to attend to in a prescribed amount of time." Something like that but not that. "I certainly don't mean to seem rude." That too. That's the way she was. And I'm not overromanticizing her. But I'm getting myself all mixed up. It was at the front door of the apartment the party was in where I first spoke to her. She was leaving and I just wanted to say something to her---start something, really, if it was possible; I was that attracted to her and had been for the past hour--before she left, because what were the chances of ever meeting her again? Not much, I must have thought, because she might not even know the woman who gave the party. She might have just tagged along with someone who had been invited--it turned out she did know the host--so it's now or most likely never. And she was alone. She at least was leaving alone and didn't seem to be with anybody special since I first laid eyes on her. Well, this woman was alone too. It worked with Pamela, it didn't with this woman. So that's all there is to it. And of course this woman could be happily married and she knew I was coming on to her--it must have been obvious—and she wanted to stop it fast as she could before it embarrassed both of us or made one of us very uncomfortable. And if it wasn't that, so what? I'm almost eighty, for Christ's sake, and she could be a lot younger than I thought she was. I'm not an expert on age. In fact I've gotten worse at it the older I get. I don't know why. A guy I don't know at the Y could say--not "could"; this recently happened--to something I said about him related to the strenuous exercise he was doing with weights--at least it'd be strenuous if not impossible for me--"Why? How old you think I am?" And I said--this is how old I thought he was--"Seventy-five?" and he said "Not even close. Twelve years younger than that." Pamela once said the same thing happened to her on a New York City bus. Some old guy asked her--out of the blue, though, and a man probably older than I am today--how old did she think he was. Anyway, "I'm sorry," I said. I'm not good at determining ages, as you saw. And he said...well, I forget what he said. But he didn't look happy. So she could be sixty, for all I know. Fifty-five. Fifty? Probably not that. But wrong and ridiculous from the start. Foolish, that's what it was. That I thought something could happen. Oh, drop it. Have another piece of bread? No. And maybe I'll see her again sometime. I come here often enough. Once every other week, on average, though I don't remember ever seeing her here before. Though it's a big place--and I can apologize for the thing I said about her not wanting to speak to me. I'll think of something. "It was foolish of me," I can say, "but I can get like that sometimes." Or was it "I'm sorry--I'm bothering you" what I said? I really forget what it was. I know it made me seem a little simple-minded and desperate. But she did come here by herself. Had more of a lunch than I did. Half sandwich, and it was a big half. They really stuff the sandwiches here. The soup with the bread that came with it was filling enough for me, and I was hungry. And she finished the sandwich and soup, didn't leave a scrap, and then took her bread. So what am I getting at here? That there were certain signs--alone, eating everything--that it wasn't unreasonable to think she was single. How so her eating everything, and what about her taking the bread? I had something in mind but forgot it. That was it? No, I really lost it. But it was good, in a way, that I went beyond myself--overcame whatever it was that usually holds me back--and tried to initiate a conversation with a woman I was attracted to. Who looked smart and had a nice face and pleasant voice and seemed at the time age-appropriate for me is the term I recently heard someone say for it--with the possibility of it leading to something more. Shows I haven't given up on being connected to a woman, which is what I want, right? So, good for you. Good for me. That it didn't work out? Well, that's the way it goes. One day, maybe, and maybe at this same restaurant--the counter’s a good place for it, and maybe also while sitting on that same stool, my favorite. Or maybe from now on on one of the middle stools, giving me more of a chance of meeting someone on either side of it--I’ll say something to a woman I’m attracted to that'll start a conversation and she could also be interested in me or become so and we start seeing each other after that. I get her phone number. Or she takes mine, but one of us calls the other. It's possible. It could happen. Just the woman has to be the right age for me and intelligent and seem nice. The whole thing sounds a little sad, but it's okay if it works out. Just don't stop trying. Though if I see this woman today at the counter again when I first get there and a stool's available beside her or one or two over, sit somewhere else. And if I'm already at the counter having a soup and coffee when she gets here, for sure, if she recognizes me, she'll sit somewhere else, I just know it. In another section, most likely--that far away from me. So that's it. I start up the car and drive out of the parking area and head home. But what am I going to have for dinner tonight? Is it important? Well, I have to eat something. The soup and chunk of bread won't hold me till morning. I could make a frittata with scallions and mushrooms I have at home, put it between two slices of toasted raisin pumpernickel with lettuce and mustard, but I don't feel like cooking, even something as easy as that. Then maybe a wrap. That'll be enough with some carrot sticks and wine. So, a wrap. I drive to Eddie's supermarket, which is on the way home or at the most a couple of streets out of the way home, where I'll order a chicken salad and bacon wrap at their prepared food and deli counter. Also some German potato salad, which I also like a lot and have gotten a number of times there. Only a third of a pound of the salad, though; anything more than that would go to waste. I'm about to pull into Eddie's parking area when I think save the wrap for another day. You'll come up with something to eat tonight, if it isn't the frittata sandwich, and I turn off the directional signal and drive home.

Stephen Dixon

Stephen Dixon (1936-2019) grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with six siblings. Before he became a college professor at the age of 43, he worked as a school bus driver, a bartender, a systems analyst, an artist’s model, a middle school teacher, a department store clerk, and a reporter in Washington, D.C., where he interviewed John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Nikita Khrushchev, and L.B.J., among others. He taught at Johns Hopkins University for 27 years. He is the author of 18 novels and 17 short story collections and published over 600 stories in his lifetime. He was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and two National Endowment of the Arts grants. He was also a two-time National Book Award nominee—for his novels Frog and Interstate—and his work was selected for four O. Henry Prizes, two Best American selections, three Pushcart Prizes, one Best Stories of the South, two stories in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, and possibly others he was too modest to list.