The Courtyard is bustling this morning as Sean stares at his phone, scrolling past fake smiles of fake people he used to know. He resists the urge to stare at the little black iron gate. He resists the urge to listen for the creak as more guests shuffle in. His green eyes peek over the bright blue screen of his phone as the waitress with blonde curls tamed into a ponytail that could rival a show horse’s offers a refill on the water glass he hasn’t touched. “Would you like to order, sir?” He waves her away and straightens his collar. She’ll circle back. A customer isn’t a customer if all he does is sip water. He hears the patter of little feet first and looks up to see Connor in his red sweater racing to him. Sean stands and embraces his son, lifting him to the cloudless sky and spinning him underneath the oak leaves as they dance in the light October breeze. His giggles fill the air and Sean stares adoringly at his boy’s crooked front teeth. He sets his son down who at age eight, struggles to pull back the rod iron chair. “I can do it!” he protests as his mother, with a sour look on her face, tries to help. When she straightens and glances at Sean, her lips curl into a pursed look. She nods at her son and says, “Try not to let him be late to school this week, huh?” Sean nods and takes his seat as she struts away, her six inch stiletto heels clacking on the cobblestone. His son has taken out a bright red fire truck and is racing it along to the edge of the table making siren sounds.
“Wheee hooo, wheee hoo, make way, people this is an emergency!” calls out Connor as the truck races faster and faster, it careens along the edge. He sounds a bit like his mother in that last part, “People.” His mother said that people get divorce, people fail at marriage, people give up. She meant Sean and he knows it. The waitress pops by with her ocean blue eyes and gives Connor a paper kids menu and a set of crayons. The truck crashes to the ground and Sean kneels to pick it up. His body aches and moans; he’s not 20 anymore. As he begins to stand he knocks his head on the table sending crayons and the menu falling to the floor. His head burns and he cries out a curse word. When he finally straightens up at the table he takes in the image of his wailing son who is now crying out louder than the fire engine’s siren and a distraught looking waitress who holds a pitcher of water in mid air. He raises a hand to let all the onlookers know he is a-okay before kneeling in front of his boy who is still screaming like a banshee. “Connor,” Sean takes a gentle tone and his son’s little hands in his calloused ones. “What’s wrong?” he asks and Connor’s glassy green eyes stare into his as he tries to catch his breath. Connor jams an index finger down at the crayons.
Sean bends down and places the crayons onto the table. They’re a little dirty, but salvageable. “The red one is broken,” complains Connor. Sean stares at the one pointy part of the crayon he had found and scoots his foot to reveal more wax pieces. He looks wildly around the restaurant, wondering what to do next. The waitress pops over with a little plastic baggie holding fresh crayons. He sniffs loudly and Sean gently wipes his son’s tears with a napkin. “Do you think you might want Mac and Cheese?” he asks and Connor nods. The waitress writes it down on her notepad, “And chocolate milk?” he suggests. Connor looks up delighted, the only evidence of his tears are soft, rose colored cheeks. His mother never lets him have chocolate milk. Sean consults his menu briefly and orders the chicken parm. The waitress bounds away like a little rabbit and his eyes linger before he chastises himself, runs his fingers through his hair and takes a seat. Connor is coloring loudly, the crayons grate along the slats of the metal table. Sean’s eyes look to the clouds as he asks his son how school is going.
“Fine,” responds Connor. “I have a pet beetle. His name is Tim and he eats oats. Mom says sometimes I eat oats,” he says this with a hint of skepticism.
“You do, Buddy. Oats are in your dinosaur breakfast,” Sean tells his son and watches as his eyes go as wide as saucers. This makes his father chuckle. Lunch is served, chocolate milk is guzzled, and a single photo of them is taken by the waitress. The fountain gurgles in the background and upon examination, Sean notices a milk mustache. He can hear his ex-wife's words now, “Embrace the imperfect.” Sean makes the photo his screen saver, tips the waitress generously, and takes his boy’s hand as they make their way to the park across the street, fire engine siren once again, blaring away.
Ted is tucked in the corner table with Mark who is not even looking at his father, just playing some video game. Ted cringes at each cry and yell of fictional warriors. He is certain his son didn’t notice the chaos that the man in the pretentious cashmere sweater caused. “I hope they’re ok,” whispers Carolina. Her warm breath and glossy lips against his ear. Ted just nods at her and wonders for a moment if Mark ever caused that kind of chaos. Kitty would know. She was always the more...hands on parent. More present is what she would have said. And in fact she did as she stared at him in the courtroom. Apparently, the judge agreed because this is the most contact he gets with his son each week. “Mark, have you decided what you want to eat?” he asks as he picks up his own menu and considers his options. Beside him, his nervous girlfriend of six months, her lip. She squeezes his hand. It’s sweaty. Ted squeezes softly back.
“Don’t care,” responds Mark and the sounds of swords hitting each other echoes in the restaurant.
Ted sighs and drops his menu on the table with a loud thunk, “Can you please put down the game until after the meal?” Mark looks up startled and stows away his game. He slouches back in his seat and crosses his arms definitely over the black t-shirt with the white skull. “How’s school?” inquires Carolina. She is desperately attempting to make eye contact with Mark. She has dramatically perched her pointy chin in the palm of her left hand. Her fingers cradle her rose colored cheek. As she waits for his response, she takes a dramatic sip of water.
“Stupid fucking waste of time,” mumbles Mark. Carolina sits back. She’s disappointed by his response. “What makes you say that?” she asks. She’s too polite. Ted places a warm hand on her bare knee. He sits up straight when Sam approaches the table. His eyes are an elevator starting at her bouncy bangs, lingering over her bustline, pausing at the green apron tied to her hips. Ted clears his throat and Mark orders a beer confidently. Sam asks for his ID, eyes the pepperoni covering his dough boy face, and he says, “Actually, a soda instead. I don’t need to drink this early.” She chuckles and Carolina clears her throat uncomfortably and asks if they have sweet tea. This makes Mark roll his eyes. Ted shoots a warning glare over at his son. They don’t have sweet tea, but they do have sugar packets and regular tea. Carolina nods eagerly and Mark huffs at her.
“You’re sixteen,” Ted raises an eyebrow, remembering his own antics when he was her age. The homecoming dance. The bottle of beer he snuck from his own father’s fridge in the garage. The sparkling silver, sleeveless dress that Mark’s mother had shimmied into. He closes his eyes picturing the cold grass and the checkered red blanket he spread out. The sounds of the video game snap him back to the present. “Phone away, I won’t ask again,” warns Ted. Mark scoffs and turns the volume up. “Give me the device right now,” Ted lowers his voice and leans across the table. He braces his hands against it and wonders when they got so wrinkled, wonders where that age spot came from. “Mark, hand it over,” he commands, using the voice that used to send him quaking to his time out step. It’s the voice his mother brought out when she caught Mark with a girl in their minivan. Carolina shrinks into her chair. She clutches onto her pink handbag. Her eyes darted from father to son, measuring the situation.
“Or what?” challenges Mark. He has paused the game and holds the device in his left hand like a trophy.
“Or your mother and I will stop paying for it,” responded Ted. He raised an eyebrow, thinking the battle was won.
“That’d require you to talk to her and we both fucking know that won’t happen,” says Mark lazily as he starts up the game. Ted stood and marched over to the table. He ripped the electronic, screaming peasants, swords clashing, from Mark’s fingers. His son yelped like a scolded dog and crossed his arms again. “At least pause the fucking thing,” he quips.
“Watch the language,” retorts Ted as he approaches his seat.
“Fuck. No,” shouts Mark. Ted spins on his heel and grabs his child’s bicep. Blind rage has filled him and the sound of rushing blood courses through his ears. While clutching onto his rebellious son with his left hand, the fingers of his right hand fishes his wallet out, snags a twenty, and slams it on the table. Beside him Carolina is gasping and clearing her throat. She’s desperately tucking in the chairs and piling the empty paper sugar packets into one little space. He drags his child silent and brooding out of the restaurant. In the car Mark refuses to buckle his own seat belt so Ted completes the task for him. Carolina buckles herself in and sneaks a peek at her almost step son. He looks small and fragile like a drowned puppy. Her sweaty hands clutch and unclutch her bag. The anger pulls away from Ted like a wave from the shore. He takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly to the reflection of his son’s dyed black hair in the rearview mirror. Mark doesn’t turn to face his father, just stares out at the waitress. He watches her pick up the twenty, look around the restaurant with confusion, and take another guests’ order. His eyes linger on her lips, on her hips. “I just…” Ted’s voice trails off. “I don’t get much time with you, Mark,” confesses Ted.
“And whose fault is that?” demands Mark. The first hot tear falls from his eye and he rubs angrily at it. Ted pulls away from the curb slowly, a few leaves linger on his windshield.
Sam clicks her phone off and screws her lips to one side of her face. She sighs deeply and runs her fingers through her hair before tossing it back up into her signature ponytail. The kitchen wasn’t thrilled that table 2 ran off, but the sin was long forgotten through the lunch rush. Sam clocked back in and put on her best happy face. She started with gathering table 1’s drinks. It’s a bunch of happy hens in their 40s. They happily cluck to one another which makes getting their order challenging. Every single one of them is long winded. Every single one of them wear colorful leggings patterned with bright leaves, jack o lanterns, and bats. Sam adds their order and heads to table 3. She pauses mid stride when she sees the cowboy hat. It’s black and wide brimmed. The head within it has snow white curls and laugh lines along the corner of his mouth. Table 3 is his table. It’s right across from the fountain, far away from the gate and not in the corner. Most guests don’t ask for the table because of the bustling street it faces. Practically perfect and reserved every Saturday at 3:30pm, just in time for a late lunch. The broad shoulders clothed in a deep blue button down don’t turn to face Sam as she approaches. They don’t spin and open up for a hug. Instead, they remain squarely forward. Sam is certain that his grey eyes are watching the cars, imagining the lives of the passengers within them. She takes a deep breath and asks, “Can I get you anything to drink?”
Alex gazes at her, takes in his daughter from below his hat. In the setting sun, she stands like an angel. Her beautiful curls, inherited from her mother, are framed in brilliant rays of sun. The tree behind her dances softly and releases a few more precious colorful leaves, the kind of leaves she used to leap into even though he had spent two hours raking them up from the front yard. Her cherry colored lips curl into a smile. Her right hand is perched perfectly on her hip. There is an exhaustion in her eyes, something he knows he gave her, but can’t ever take back. “Just the usual, sweetheart,” he mumbles. Sam nods, clinging to her father’s deep voice, as smooth as the dark liquor he swirled in his office as she told him that she was moving in with her mother. He didn’t stop her, just picked her up at 3:15pm on an October Saturday when she was 12. Sam puts in the order for a Cola with a pump of cherry. “That guy bothering you?” asks Peter. He’s the newest addition to the wait staff and is eager to please. Sam shakes her head and brings the drink over. Alex clears his throat and orders a BLT with a side of fries. He watches as she buzzes about the dining room. He wonders if the smile she wears is fake. He wonders if it’s his right to know.
“Ice cream sundae, hot fudge, and two spoons,” says Alex when the topic of dessert is brought up.
“I just got off break, Dad,” complains Sam.
“Who said the spoon is for you?” replies Alex with a cheeky grin. Sam sets out the dessert and tends to her other guests. The hens are on their second pitcher of Sangria. She hopes for a big tip. Alex leaves without a word, he stuffs 2 fifties in the black checkbook. When Sam circles back she realizes he is gone. She pockets his tip and notices the ceramic bowl on the table. Exactly half the sundae has been eaten. As she sweeps it up, she sneaks a few bites with the unused spoon.