Angel of Death
I got a job at this oyster bar. There was grease floating through the air. It got into your eyes and lungs. Most of all I didn’t like the customers.
“What’s so bad about them?” asked my wife.
“Nothing, nothing. They’re the same as anyone.”
“We used to eat there.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Back then,” she said, “we were the people you hate.”
I thought about what I wanted her to understand about my job.
Then I said, “When I bring their food to the table, I feel like the angel of death.”
“That makes no sense to me.”
“Good,” I said. “It shouldn’t.”
When I came home from work the next night my wife asked me how many people I had killed. She was washing the dishes in our tiny kitchen. I stood behind her and talked to the back of her head.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said.
“You said you were the angel of death. What else can that mean?”
“I don’t know what I meant by that. Maybe that they sit there eating their oysters like they don’t even know they’re going to die someday. But I know.”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s all I think of—it’s so obvious for some reason—but they’ve forgotten.”
“No, it’s not.”
She washed the dishes.
I sat down and took off my shoes.
I said, “I feel like they need reminding.”
My boss never spoke to me. There was a large picture of him on the wall. I stared at it and wondered who he was. When I felt like having a word with somebody I talked to the dishwasher for half a minute. His name was Lawrence, and he was crazy. He stood in his dish pit surrounded by stacks of dishes. He had a handlebar mustache that never went limp in the steam.
“Touch those plates,” he said.
I picked a plate out of the steaming rack he’d yanked out of the dishwasher. It scalded my fingertips.
He laughed and ripped them out four at a time.
“I don’t feel the pain anymore,” he said. “I’ve been here too long.”
“Do you like it here?”
“I hate it, but I don’t care anymore.”
He ate food off the plates. He kept a little stash in the corner behind the dishwasher.
“You want an oyster? I’ve got half a dozen back here.”
“Somebody left half a dozen oysters?”
“They came in separately.”
He offered me one on a plate of crushed ice.
“I’d better not.”
“I save them for breakfast,” he said. “They energize me.”
Then he told me about the boss.
“Don’t talk to him,” he said. “Stay right away from him. He’s been here too long.”
“He doesn’t seem to notice me.”
“That’s very good,” he said. “That’s ideal.”
On my day off my wife and I had sex. We’d planned on going to the beach—she’d been taking surfing lessons and wanted to show me what she could do now—but we spent so much time in bed that the beach didn’t make sense anymore.
“Let’s get something to eat,” she said.
“I’m not spending one millisecond of this day inside a restaurant.”
“Oh, now. Don’t make an issue out of this.”
“Let’s drive to some other city and walk around, pretend we live there,” I said.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“It was just a suggestion.”
“Let’s get something to eat.”
We went to a restaurant that was also a bar. We sat at the bar and ordered beer. The woman who dropped them off to us said nothing.
“God, what a bitch,” said my wife.
“You don’t understand,” I said.
“She doesn’t even know us. We just walked through the door.”
“If Christ himself walked through that door, she would hate him too.”
“That old line,” she said. “Why are you even sitting here next to me?”
“Because part of me loves you.”
We read the menu and drank our beers.
“There’s nothing there I want,” I said.
“I’ll order for you. I know you better than you know yourself.”
“Nothing with a shell,” I warned. “Nothing alive.”
The waitress walked back and forth from the kitchen to the dining room with three or four plates balanced on her arms.
“Is that what you do?” asked my wife.
“I could never do that,” I said.
“She’s very talented.”
“She’s hating every second of this.”
“I don’t know. She doesn’t seem all that hateful to me. Just a little too quiet maybe.”
“She’s full of hatred for this place. I can see it.”
“What do you see?”
“I see fire coming out of her face. Flames.”
“You really see that?”
“It’s burning everyone in the room.”
“Another of your angels of death.”
The waitress came over. My wife placed our order. She hadn’t mentioned what I was getting but it was exactly what I wanted. I don’t even think it was on the menu. She asked for two more beers.
When the waitress went away my wife said, “While I was ordering, I was also contemplating our deaths.”
I laughed. She rarely joked about death.
By the time we finished eating we were slightly drunk. The sun had come out, and the city glittered like something seen through a veil of mist. In other words, it had become slightly magical.
I felt healthy. I felt young and honest.
We went home.
The phone started ringing as soon as I opened the door.
“Don’t answer it,” I said. “It might be my boss.”
“You said he didn’t talk.”
“He talks on the phone.”
“You made him sound like some kind of mute.”
“Oh, he can talk. He just doesn’t. Not unless he has to.” After a moment I said, “He’s been there too long.”
The phone kept ringing so long I thought the world was ending.
“Ah, go ahead and answer it,” I said. “Make it stop.”
She picked up the phone. Then she handed it to me.
“It’s your boss.”
It was the first time he’d spoken to me since I was hired.
“We need you,” he said.
“I’m busy.” I thought of his picture on the wall. His glasses.
“Actually, I’m drunk.”
“You don’t sound drunk.”
“I’ve been drinking.”
“We need you.”
My wife drove me to the restaurant. There was hardly anyone there.
“We’re expecting a party of forty-three,” said the head waiter.
I went into the kitchen and found Lawrence smoking a cigarette out the back door.
“You asshole,” he said. “You answered the phone!”
“My wife did,” I said.
Before he could say anything else I said, “I told her to.”
He laughed and said, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to insult your wife.”
“How many oysters did you eat for breakfast today?”
He looked at me like my face had slipped sideways.
The party of forty-three arrived. They all ordered pretty much the same thing. The cooks cooked it, the head waiter and I and some other guy I’d never seen before, like he’d been pulled in that morning out of the people passing by on the sidewalk, carried it out to the dining room and arranged it on the tables.
I tried to keep the fire from leaving my face. I tried hard. There were children in the party of forty-three, and I thought of myself as a good person. Children always paid attention at the worst times.
When I got home my wife was asleep on the sofa. I woke her up.
“How many people did you kill tonight?”
“I killed them all.”
“Well I guess that’s that then, isn’t it.”
She got up and kissed me goodnight and we carried each other to bed.
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