Ethel and Sarah had kept this weekly lunch date for more than five years, and the fact that neither of them wanted to attend wasn’t going to stop them.
Ethel was mad because her son Thomas, at the age of forty-two, had decided to divorce his wife, leave his two children, and become a gay. Sarah was tetchy because the other three members of her bowling team had each developed new and interesting chronic ailments, which was having a terrible effect on the team scores and also making her attempts to join the post-match complaint sessions awkward.
So both were in a snippy mood for their meal, and despite their long friendship (which stretched back more than two decades, even though the weekly lunches had only been codified for a quarter of that time) neither was above some veiled sniping at the other to boost her own mood.
Out of the blue, Sarah announced that she always thought boys whose mothers let them play clarinet were a bit fruity, carefully not bringing up that she had seen Ethel’s photos of her son in a Dixieland jazz ensemble as a child.
Ethel declared that while shopping—window shopping, thank you very much—she finally found a pair of hoop earrings that didn’t make their wearer look like a whore. She accented “whore” nicely, just as a stray sunbeam danced off of the gold rings in Sarah’s ears.
Sarah pointed out that Ethel was spilling her coffee all over the place and making a dreadful mess. While Ethel examined the table, Sarah reached across and grabbed her arm, causing the coffee cup it was still attached to shake and finally spill some of its contents across the tabletop. “See?” she said, smugly.
Ethel said that Sarah’s new cane made her look like an ugly old biddy who cooks children and eats them, and since she could walk just fine without it, why didn’t she just drop the pathetic bid to detract sympathy from people who really deserved it.
Sarah called Ethel a “bitch.” Ethel repeated her previous judgment of “whore,” just in case Sarah hadn’t caught it in her subtle delivery the first time around.
And then the waitress delivered the check.
This was invariably the most difficult of the meal, as each would demand to be the one to pay they would fight for several minutes, ultimately deciding to divide the check not by what each had eaten, but by how many small bills each had, so as to save the server the trouble of a trip to the cash register.
(Because of the disturbance these arguments caused, the waitstaff had, on several occasions, petitioned the owner to let them bend the restaurant policy against splitting checks. The owner always refused, because she liked policies, and particularly their creation and enforcement, far more than logic or flexibility.)
The waitress had served these women often enough to recognize their shared sour mood. She dropped the check with a rushed, “Whenever you’re ready, dears,” and raced back to hide in the kitchen, never realizing how close she came to trampling one of her coworkers and the tray of five milkshakes he was carrying.
Neither Ethel nor Sarah offered verbally to pay this time. Both simply reached for the check. Sarah was a bit faster, grabbing it and beginning to slide it toward herself. Ethel was quicker to resort to physical violence, however, pounding Sarah’s hand to the table with her fist. It earned an involuntary “Ow!” from Sarah, who also released her grip on the paper to shake her hand out. Ethel pounced on this opportunity with the speed of a much younger woman.
Sarah’s cane cracked against Ethel’s fortunately still-sturdy shoulder, causing no permanent damage, but sending the bill fluttering to the floor beneath the table.
They both dove, and suddenly there were two rotund mounds of pantyhose sticking out of the gaps between booth and table, neither being sufficiently draped by a skirt to preserve modesty.
Not that modesty was in either woman’s mind. Each took pride in her own determination, and admired that quality in the other. Knowing this, when Sarah managed to snare the check, she reflexively reached back and put it on her own bench where it would be out of Ethel’s reach. Her first inclination was to stuff it down her blouse, but that obviously would have stopped nothing.
It was at this point that Sarah and Ethel simultaneously realized why people sit in restaurant booths the way that they do, rather than doubled over as they currently were. Momentum and sheer will had wedged them into a gap slightly too small for their folded bodies, and now neither could move.
Sarah wiggled for a bit longer than Ethel did, trying to wrench either booth or table free, but both were solidly attached to the wall and floor. Like a frog in its last moments in a pot of boiling water, her rump eventually ceased its twitching.
“My foot is falling asleep,” Ethel complained.
“Eat more fish!” Sarah snapped.
“Eat more fish yourself!”
“Oh brother,” murmured the waitress, who had finally dared to check on the bickering pair and, needless to say, regretted it.
“Do you think you could get us out of here, honey?” Ethel inquired, perfectly sweetly.
“Yes,” the waitress replied unsteadily, but then she was struck by a sudden brainstorm. “Maybe we can just sort of slide you out,” she said.
The maneuver wasn’t comfortable or quick or dignified—the final pulls of both women left the waitress on the floor with Ethel or Sarah splayed across her face, but ten minutes later the diners were extricated from the booth.
“Thanks for the meal,” Ethel growled as the pair left the restaurant. “Why don’t we make it our last?”
“Fine by me,” retorted Sarah.
They were, of course, back the next week, and for several years after that, because this routine was far more important to each of them than their brief bout of nastiness.
Only the waitress was displeased at this, for Sarah left a tip of only 80 cents on a thirteen-dollar bill, and that was simply not enough.
I think everyone has watched/participated in one of those petty I’ll pay/no I’ll pay battles at restaurants. My original plan was for this to devolve into violence, but I’m glad it didn’t go far along that path. This will I think find its home in the Clean Hippie Murders.