From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Some Service

My father was the hardest-working man, and he loved to give orders: what to eat, how long to stay up, even when to shower. After a long day’s work, he always stretched out in his throne-like recliner, making us take off his socks and shoes. “Give me some service,” he would say.

When I was sixteen, he brought me to the restaurant where he waited tables. It was Thanksgiving Day, and he didn’t even bother to tell me where we were going. He just told me to slap on a pair of black slacks and a white dress shirt and get in the car. When we got to the restaurant he handed me a jacket and bow tie, telling me—not asking me—that today I would start to work.

All the waiters were surprised to see me come in wearing a busboy’s outfit. I mean, they had seen me in the booths as a kid, eating dishes of ice cream. They swirled all around, plates stacked along their arms. The customers all looked wealthy and important, the men dressed in suits, the women wearing mink coats and tons of makeup. Each table was clothed in a sparkling white tablecloth. I just knew I was gonna spill things on all these people’s laps.

An old, gruff Chinese man, the head busboy, showed me the layout of the kitchen and the dishwashing section, a flat metal table stacked with dirty plates. He flung the dirty utensils, forks and knives, with fury into this gray murky basin of water. Some of the utensils first ricocheted off the wall. There was no way I was going to copy his style.

I cleared dirty dishes from the tables into a bus box of my own, learning to balance it and not to set the box on the floor. I barely knew the menu, but toward late evening my father made me go over to a table of customers—”a party”—and take their order. “Does the lasagna have any onions in it?” the lady asked, frowning into the menu. “I’m very allergic to onions.” Allergic to onions? I didn’t know there could be such a thing. My father overheard, and he told the woman, “Yes, it has onions. Take the ziti instead.” I managed with the rest of the order and served the food—ziti for the woman and broiled salmon for her husband.

Soon I was working part-time as a waiter. My protective father made me suspicious of everyone, the other waiters, even the customers. “Pick up the money the second you see it, before someone else puts it in his pocket.” Most of the other waiters were over seventy years old. Roy had tattoos on his forearms from his days in the Navy. Mad Diego used to work as a shoe-shiner in Panama. And Walter, the slowest waiter, was still hoping to be an actor, performing poetry for strangers in the subway.

With his broad smile, my father was the customers’ flat-out favorite. They were demanding, but he knew how to take care of them, and they kept on coming back, lining up at the door even when the other waiters had open tables. My father would introduce me to them: this one’s a dentist, a lawyer, a wheeler and dealer in real estate. I was never really sure if he was telling me that one day I would have such a job, or if he wanted me to recognize them in case someday he couldn’t be there to take their orders.

His shift went from 2 P.M. to midnight. After 8 P.M. the other waiters went home, and he worked alone, covering the entire restaurant. On many nights over the years, even while I was in college, he would call me for help if it got too busy. I’d drop everything, grab my stuff and race to the restaurant. “Hey, the bull pen made it on time!” the cashier always joked as I rushed through the door.

Maybe it was all those long hours and being around so much food, but my father’s health got worse. He gained weight, had trouble sleeping and was often on antibiotics.

One day when I was off from college, my father called me from work. I groaned, knowing my free day would be ruined. “Can you come to the restaurant fast, and bring me a fresh white shirt? Size seventeen.” He hung up. I went there quickly. But when I got there I found him in the shadows of the back room of the restaurant, pale and ashen.

“Why’d you need a white shirt?” I asked him, “Yours got dirty?” And then I saw his shirtfront and stopped; it had a dark red blotch spread across the front of it. “Are you all right?” I asked. He just shook his head softly. I told him to go home. “I won’t let you work like this.” I went into the locker room and put on the shirt myself, gathering his pencils, waiter jacket and checkbook. Worried that I would not be able to handle the station alone, my father wouldn’t leave until my mother finally came with the station wagon to take him home.

Somehow I managed by myself with my father’s customers. I found out later that he did not go to the hospital until nighttime, when he woke up coughing blood. Even then he insisted that he was just vomiting some beets he’d eaten. My mother had to practically drag him to the ambulance.

Those doctors saved his life. It turned out that a growth was putting pressure on his esophagus. Hooked to an IV in intensive care, he was too weak to sit up or sip water or even have family come see him. I couldn’t believe this man, who had taught me to swim in the waters of Coney Island, would ever be anything other than invincible. After all, he was the strongest man in the world.

I visited him at night after work, the bow tie stuffed into my back pocket, my white shirt and black pants smelling of the restaurant. I went upstairs through the maze of corridors and florescent lights. My mother had arranged it with the staff so that I could see him after hours. After a bunch of false starts, when I thought this person lying down, white and weak, must surely be my father, I arrived at his bed. His appearance was so abrupt and sudden. There he was.

He opened his eyes immediately. He shook his head a little, as if to make some sort of comment on the situation like, “Me in bed, can you believe it?”

And then I leaned over. I leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, my ribs pressing into the metal rails of the bed, because I knew I loved him, and because he was still alive, and he would get better. We would all make him better, my family and the doctors and everyone. And I kissed him because I never kissed him enough; I probably hadn’t kissed him in years. “I love you. I took care of all your customers,” I whispered to him, and kissed him again. And then I heard a beep and then another. The beeps were coming from the machine he was hooked up to, its monitor showing the lines rising higher and higher to the point of a mountain. The sounds of his pulse.

Eli Shoshani

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