Carter Olson’s fingers tremble as they grip the silver handle of the door. The cab driver tips his hat as Carter says to no one in particular, “We’re running out of time. Annie and me…we’re running out of time.” He doesn’t notice the string of Christmas lights adorning the shopping complex's many windows filled with the latest video games and displays of the hot new toy for Christmas 2021. He simply wraps himself in a bear hug and remarks, “It’s rather nippy for September.” His breath dissipates into the cold air. He leaves the cab door open and rushes into the restaurant.
The lobby is bathed in a warm faux candlelight. Carter shuffles in. His worn cowboy boots leave behind a trail of slushy gray snow. A hostess smiles widely at him and asks if it’ll be a table for one. Carter’s eyebrows as thick as caterpillars and white like Santa’s beard, wrinkle as he ponders the question. A waiter-tall, dark, and handsome, in a black button down and matching pressed pants swoops in. “I’ve got him,” he tells the hostess-snatching two Carbarnet red menus from her stand. He takes Carter to his table. The one in the very back of the restaurant, tucked beside a window, with a half booth.
Carter’s dark brown eyes look glassy, a bit confused, as he negotiates the dull ache in his right hip that never seems to go away, and settles into the booth. A soldier at heart, he picks the seat that presses against the cream colored wall, so he can watch all entrances and all exits. A sense of dread fills his heart at the second menu that sits across from him, neatly closed. How, how, how, can he tell her? He stares out the window at the elderly couple parking across the street from the restaurant and wonders what it might be like to be so old.
Tim was in the kitchen tasting Chef Michael’s special for the evening-braised lamb in a wine reduction sauce-when his alarm went off. It was 5:30pm. Tim threw down his silverware and ran from the kitchen. Carter had already arrived. Mikayla, the hostess, stands concerned and confused, as the old man before her couldn’t seem to decide if he’d be eating dinner alone. Tim rushes past her while she asks if she should call the police, grabs the menus, and seats Tim. Then, he snags a twenty from his wallet and rushes out to pay Smithy. The cold pierces through Tim. He closes Carter’s door before passing the twenty over to the cab driver. Smithy tips his cap at him, “He’s doing pretty OK, tonight. Happy holidays!” Tim waves and heads back into the restaurant. Mikayla grabs his arm as he rushes by.
“That’s Carter,” explains Tim, “He’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He comes in every Tuesday to meet his wife to break up with her. He thinks he’s twenty three. He thinks it’s September. And he firmly believes that she’ll be better off at college than with him.” Tim looks very seriously at Mikayla, “Tonight, as she did fifty years ago, as she does every Tuesday, Annaliese will prove him wrong.”
Annaliese is radiant in a bright red long coat and lovely black sweater dress. Carter doesn’t notice that her hair is now more salt than pepper. He just smells her sweet, rose perfume. She takes off her coat and slides into the booth facing Carter. “How are you, my love?” she asks. Annaliese radiates kindness, warmth. Carter mumbles his response out of sheepish shame.
He tosses the questions in his mind: how could he trap her here when she could have so much more success out there? She’s gotta go to the school offering the most money, right? Couldn’t she find her way back to him after college is over? Wouldn’t they fall in love again?
The waiter stops by the table, interrupting Carter’s train of thought, and introduces himself as Tim. “Hi, Tim. I’m Annaliese,” she says. A smile fills Carter’s face. He never understood why she always wanted the waiter to know who they were on such a personal level. “And the handsome smiling man sitting across from me is Carter, my beloved for the last,” she pauses and Carter looks up, “three years.” How unlike Annaliese. Usually, he is the one counting up from that first date-from the picnic in the park and the red checkered blanket she stole from the back of her mother’s closet.
Tim asks if they’d like to see the drink menu and Carter swipes it up like a fox with a wink at his girl, “Two more months before you’re twenty one.” She replies with a toothy grin and leans across the table adorned in a snow covered cloth to kiss his cheek, leaving a red imprint of her love. Furiously, Carter rubs it off with his hand. He orders a glass of white wine because he’s craving salmon tonight and a Cola, with a maraschino cherry, for Annaliese because it’s her favorite drink. Then, Carter experiences a wave of emotion because he has a vague feeling that he loves the salmon here despite the fact he has never been to this restaurant. His gaze returns to the window, puzzling it out, as Tim heads to the bar with his order.
Tim pours a glass of wine behind the counter for Carter and makes up the soda for Annaliese. He swings by the kitchen to tell Chef Michael that the Olsons are here. The sous chefs nod at Tim with affection. “Are the Olsons here yet?” asks Shelby. Her golden curls are tied back in a tight ponytail. Tim blushes when she walks up to him.
“Um, yeah. Yeah, they’re here. I mean, it’s um, a Tuesday after all,” the words spill out like a flood. He kicks himself for making himself sound like a fool. Shelby leans against the table that the Point of Sale machine sits on and stares at the Olsons’ table, “I just think it’s so romantic. The dedication, you know?”
Tim clutches their drink order, “Me, too.”
“Really?” she raises an eyebrow at him, “I’m surprised. Most guys aren’t really into the whole romance thing.”
“Carter was,” Tim remarks, “Annaliese told me that before the Alzheimer's set in, he used to bring her here once a year for their anniversary. That’s how he knows this place so well.
“Oh!” gushes Shelby, “I just love that. And you are just so wonderful to help her.” She gives him a side hug and Tim breathes in her blackberry perfume.
Carter is cold. He decides it must just be nerves. Tim arrives just in time with the wine which Carter takes three long sips of. Annaliese has closed her menu. Her hands rest neatly on the top of it. She gives him a soft smile, “Are you ok?” Carter nods and opens his menu. Tim says he’ll give them a moment to decide. Carter expects Annaliese to sigh dramatically. His eyes blur the words together on the crisp white page. He blinks furiously and drops the menu on the table. “Did you see anything with salmon?” he asks Annaliese. She smiles, consulting the options again.
“Chef’s Salmon-Pan seared wild caught salmon served with a rye berry salad and heavenly cream sauce,” she reads out and studies him over her menu. Annnaliese has this dish memorized. Before her sits her husband of forty years. He is slouched over himself, folding in like a rag doll. A sad look darts across her face, hidden by the large menu; he’s cold. She takes a deep breath and peers inquisitively at him.
Tim returns; he starts with her order-the sirloin cooked medium rare with mashed potatoes. Then, he glances at Carter who is fumbling with his menu. He desperately looks to the right side and then the left. Carter’s train of thought has derailed. He hears her voice, soft and warm. He feels her smile, welcoming and gentle. But Carter just can’t place the words she just said. Hot tears prick the back of his eyes, “Um, I um. I...I...um…”
Annaliese shoots a quick look to Tim who mouths, “I’ve got him.” He takes a breath and offers, “If I could recommend the salmon. It is simply spectacular. My absolute favorite.” Annaliese smiles.
“Yes, yes. Yeah. I like salmon,” replies Carter. He closes the menu. He also raises his wine glass, requesting a refill. Tim smiles and scrawls their order on his notepad. He scoops up the menus and departs silently. “Annie, Honey,” begins Carter. He swallows the lump in his throat with a gulp of wine, “Honey, I um, need to talk to you about something.” Carter’s heart is simultaneously shattering and beating as loud as a drummer in a homecoming parade. He avoids her beautiful coal black eyes. He stares at his hands and notices a wrinkle.
Tim lingers in the kitchen. The order is up, but he spots Shelby. She’s wrapping up an order for the elderly couple in the middle of the dining room. He can hear the melody of her laughter as it dances and reverberates off the walls of the restaurant.
“Hey, Tiny Tim!” hollers Simon, one of the line cooks, “You ever gonna ask that girl out?” A deep red blush fills Tim’s face. He clears his throat. “Hey, man, if you ain’t gonna make your move, I will,” warns Simon. Tim spins around and catches Michael shooting a warning look across the kitchen. “Hey, Tiny Tim, I’m just joking,” he holds his hands up in surrender and takes his scraps from the veggies he finished chopping to the compost bin. Shelby appears and calls out her order with expert speed.
“You’ve got a good table, huh?” stutters Tim. Shelby gives him an affectionate look.
“I love Tuesdays because it’s slow enough to get to know them,” she muses. She stands so close to him he can feel the warmth radiating from her. He reaches up and tucks a strand of blonde hair behind her ear. She smiles. He could just lean over and kiss her. His blue eyes stare into hers. The ring of the bell signaling order startled both of them. “Get a room, you two!” teases Stewart as he grabs his Mozzarella sticks from the Line. His Sandalwood cologne, which everyone in the restaurant swears he bathes in before work, causes Shelby to crinkle her nose, “Disgusting.” Tim resists the urge to kiss it.
Instead, he looks at the huge lights in the kitchen. She whips out her phone. The moment is lost. His left eye, always a bit less obedient than the right, sneaks a glance at the brightly lit screen. She’s texting a girl named Louise. All he can read is, “Wish T would make a move.” A burst of hope rushes into his heart. She closes the messaging app and slips the phone into her back pocket. She slips past him, snags her guests’ salads, and departs without another word. Tim lets out a groan. While waiting for his order to be fired, Tim looks around the restaurant. He watches Carter slam his hand on the table. He watches him stand. He wonders in amazement as Annaliese calms him down.
“Gotta make your move, Tiny Tim. Girl like that ain’t gonna wait around forever,” teases Simon. Tim dramatically grabs his entrees from the counter to show Simon he is ignoring him.
“Is everything OK?” asks Annaliese. Her tone is filled with panic.
“I’m OK, Honey,” assures Carter.
“Then what is it?” she demands and takes a sip of her soda.
“Annie, I just, I don’t know. I think maybe, it’d be best if we let this dinner be our last,” says Carter. He stares at the slice of bread on his plate. A tear falls from his eye. “You gotta go to college, Annie.”
“I am in college,” lies Annaliese. She tears another slice of breath from the loaf in the center of the table.
“No, Sweetie. I mean really be in college,” corrects Carter. “I mean you gotta go and not come back every weekend like this.”
“I like coming back each week,” protests Annaliese. She dips her bread in the seasoned olive oil in the center of the table.
“Stop! Eating! Bread!” shouts Carter. The restaurant suddenly feels very quiet. Both of them are very aware of the violin in the background. Carter takes his seat again. His hip aches again. He figures he must have slept wrong. Why can’t she just listen to him? How could she just not understand? His thoughts swirl and then disappear like steam from a latte.
“Carter?” Annaliese’s voice is nervous. It is soft. It brings him back. “I know you’re scared, my love,” she offers words of comfort. He refuses to meet her gaze. She reaches for his hand. He pulls it back. She reaches further and rests her fingers on his. They aren’t polished. How odd. College, he supposes, changes a person. He loses himself in the memory of her pink polished nails, lost in his dark brown curls. He relished in the memory of how good they felt scratching his scalp. His back. Why was he thinking of nail polish? Of pink? He looks at Annaliese.
“It’s OK to be scared,” she tells him. “Because it’s you and me against the world,” she promises him. Tim arrives and drops off the food. It’s salmon! Carter is delighted. And he has another glass of wine! How kismet. He was just going to ask.
Tim takes the order of a young couple. They’re in jeans. They each get spaghetti and meat sauce which is the cheapest item on the menu. They decline the offer of drinks. Tim gives them an extra loaf of breath. The couple is left giggling and marveling at what a fancy restaurant they’re in. She looks at her lover like he hung the sun, the moon, and the stars. He looks at her like she is Marilyn Monroe. Tim wanders back to the kitchen and calls in his order. Simon is busy which is a saving grace. The kitchen now smells of beautifully seasoned steam and fresh baked bread. It is alive as everyone chatters to each other. Chef Michael is expediting tonight. He likes to hand the ship over to the team on Tuesdays since it’s usually a bit slow. Tim always loved how the kitchen overlooks the whole restaurant. Everything fades away as he hears Shelby laugh.
Carter finishes his meal in silence. He is determined to end it all. To let his beautiful bird fly free. She’ll go to school, meet some real professional, the kind of man her father has always wanted her to marry. He won’t wear a blue collar like Carter; he’ll wear white. He’ll buy her a big house with marble counter tops. They’ll have two kids. He won’t be allergic to cats like Carter. No, they’ll always have at least two. And she’ll be happy. That’s what will matter. That’s how Carter can live for the rest of his days.
“My love,” broaches Annaliese. She takes a sip of her soda and looks deep into his eyes. She looks different. She looks wiser. The way he’d always imagined she would. He realizes he can’t leave. He realizes it might just kill him. “Please just give this a few more months. In the summer we can get our own place. Move in. Build a home,” she is standing, approaching him. She sits next to him and wraps her arm around his shoulders. Her head falls on his shoulder just as it did after their picnic when he sat up against the oak tree, watching the June sunlight dance amongst the leaves. Carter lives in that memory for a moment as he breathes in the scent of her shampoo.
“OK,” he whispers, “A few more months.” She kisses his cheek. Carter furiously rubs at the lipstick mark and kisses her crinkled nose affectionately.
The following Tuesday, the Olsons didn't come. Nor do they arrive the next. The third Tuesday that arrives and leaves, the last one before Christmas, Tim calls Smithy. He tells Tim he hasn’t heard from the Olsons. Tim calls the non-emergency police line and requests a welfare check. An officer on the other line promises a visit. TIm spends Christmas with his family. He receives a video game, a few gift cards, and cash. He crashes in his old childhood bedroom where he dreams of Shelby's locks of gold, crinkled nose, and laugh.
When he arrives for his shift on Saturday, he notices Annaliese sitting at the bar. She is hunched over, her long white hair wisps about her. How odd, usually it’s pulled up in a neat bun. Tim clears his throat and approaches her with his puffy winter coat whooshing about him as he walks. “Tim,” she greets him with a smile. “I’ve missed you,” she embraces him for the first time. He’s been their waiter for the last six months. He notices the puffy eyes, the red cheeks. “Take a seat, sweet boy,” she coos. She takes his cold fingers in her warm hand, soft with age.
“Oooh, we must get you some mittens,” she laughs. “Hmm,” she takes a deep breath. “Carter passed in his sleep on Christmas Eve,” she tells him. Tim’s jaw drops; his heart breaks. “Don’t cry,” she assures him. “It was peaceful. I wanted you to have this,” she hands him an envelope and hugs him one last time. He watches her doll sized figure pass through the restaurant doors one last time.
The white envelope has a red wax seal with an “O” pressed into it. Inside is a check for $1,000 and a note bearing love for him. The last line reads: Thank you for paying for his taxi all those times; use this money to take that girl out.