The Man at Table Five
by Pedro Blas Gonzales
part 1 of 2
I sat quietly watching.
My eyes were riveted to that outer reality, the world of which my life, I can't help but to think, is as surreal a part as the lives of the people I saw before me. My rear corner booth offered me a splendid vantage point of the many colorful characters who streamed in and out of the tiny, stuffy diner.
This was my first visit to this restaurant. I was told by some of my students that for a psychologist this place was like a micro-lab. This was as good a morning as any to try it out. I stopped in on my way to the office.
The small, frail man sitting at the tiny table by the window, the table with the shabby, dirty tablecloth, took out a packet of cigarettes. His nimble fingers softly began rolling the marble-white cigarettes. His eyes were stale, fixed. He didn't seem to have the energy in him to blink. I sat and watched him while I waited for service.
No more than a few minutes of this analytic voyeurism had gone by before I caught myself making an analysis of the fragile man three tables away from mine.
The clientele of this small and asphyxiatingly warm diner — eatery, I suppose some call it — was made up of the locals in this small, Southern university town. The place offered no intimations of cleanliness or respectability, but I was told, strangely enough, that the food was quite good.
As a crowd began to assemble, I began thinking of what my students had said. The motley crew that parted the two glass doors at the front shattered the fragile silence that the sticky, oppressive humidity concealed.
It was now 5:53 a.m.
“You're new around here, aren't you mister?” asked the waitress.
“Yes. My first time. I needed to get out of the rain. Did you hear about the terrible accident three blocks away?” I asked, trying to be friendly.
“Someone else mentioned it about two minutes ago.”
“I can't tolerate sights like that very well. They make me nervous. I witnessed another one last year. Terrible. Three people died in that one...”
She cut me off: “Tell me, what will you have, mister?”
I ordered some fried eggs and more coffee. By this time the wind had picked up considerably, making visibility near zero. It was now 6:02 a.m. Meanwhile the old man continued to stare, as if there was something of interest hidden in the storm. He didn't eat. His sole activity revolved around his resolute calmness.
During the next few minutes I took a discreet respite from watching the thin, old man. I gazed into my coffee cup and thought about the lives of the individuals in my vicinity. I watched the sugar melt away into the swirling, murky blackness. The look on the faces that surrounded me seemed like the outward manifestation of empty, lonely nights and days of incessant toil.
I now directed my gaze once again toward the man by the window that read: “Joe's.” His face was not a common face. His wrinkled, pale skin gave the appearance of being that of an ancient man in a cracked oil painting.
The old man looked perplexed. He placed his emaciated strands of fingers softly, almost tenderly, on the windowsill. Outside, small drops of rain began to splash against the dirty glass. The old man sitting at table five took a deep breath, almost gasping. This was the only movement that I had seen coming from him. Taking a second gasp of air, he now began to sip his icy water. The rain intensified.
Random thoughts began to churn through my wandering mind, as if competing with the ferocity of the storm outside. First, I came to think of the old man as mentally unbalanced. Perhaps he had recently been released from a mental institution?
Minutes later, what resembled a glint in his eyes showcased an innermost spiritual fulfillment, or so I thought. Seconds later I begin to think of him as terminally ill. His body was that of a man in his deathbed, I imagined. My mind was fast at work, conjuring up theories, racing through categories, classifications, possibilities, and an endless array of answers that defied all but the most stubborn yet subtle qualifications.
I was still bothered by the car accident.
Sometimes I stared. Other times I glanced discreetly, prudently out of the corner of my eyes, and yet at other times I simply stared into my cup, as a safe refuge from my indiscretion.
Imagining that I knew this man, I continued to pigeonhole him into the many logically concise boxes that my mind had fashioned for him. My thoughts were ablaze with the status quo of this complete stranger.
“Is everything okay?” a voice rang from my right.
“Uh,” I reacted, startled.
“Is everything alright?” the voice continued, this time in a softer tone. “The food. Is the food okay?”
“Oh, yes. Fine, everything's fine. Thank you, Miss.” The young waitress left.
My sight was shot through with only the old man in focus. I sipped my coffee not realizing how hot it was. It burned my tongue. But regardless of my minor discomfort, my full attention, all of my thoughts, were with the old man. I began to transgress the boundaries of my everyday imagination.
Is he a wanderer, a drunk, a poet perhaps? Or is he someone important? Or was he once? Some European Count, perhaps? An aristocrat, a South American industrialist, a brilliant and cunning international diamond smuggler? Why not? Isn't anonymity power? These are all the kinds of people that no one seems to ever know.
Perhaps he was a crime syndicate boss? A criminal? Could he still be killing, even now, with his pitiful half-cadaver, half-skeleton physique? Who is to say that a murderer, a rapist, an adulterer, a pedophile, a monster, in fact, cannot look the part of an asylum-ridden, harmless old fool? I sat and pondered. I couldn't bring myself around to controlling my agitation.
It was now 6:19 a.m.
His fingers began to tap the humid surface of the windowsill. The rain continued.
Should I spark up a conversation? I wondered.
Judging by the subtle rhythm of his asparagus-like fingers, he must be a music man. Yes, a musician, I convinced myself. A pianist, maybe? Could he be a famous conductor? He seems to have music in his head.
Sipping more coffee, I looked towards the old man at table five. I had become obsessed. My mind was reeling with possibilities.
Strong thunder could now be heard in the not too far distance. The lights flickered on and off for what seemed like an eternity, here, amongst the stray men and women of the world. The morning grew long and heavy. Although it was early, the customers all looked tired, weary. Their faces were sullen, as if they had been out all night.
Is he one of them? They're not talking to him? No one notices him. He surely fits their profile. The whites of his light eyes were red, something like Martian soil. They looked irritated. The old man resembled a still life, a perfect and tranquil pastoral landscape. Somehow I began to feel a connection to him. We psychologists tend to do that.
Smoking another cigarette, he turned, ever so slowly, and looked at me. His countenance was vacuous, but penetrating. Perhaps he's trying to make eye contact with the waitress, the young blonde roaming around behind me? No, his every bit of energy was now directed upon me. His look was intentional, motivated. His was not a careless, disinterested, or idle glance. I felt that he was able to read my mind.
I looked down at the table, searching for something on the cool Formica surface to engage my shame, something to take my mind off his threatening glance. Finding the courage to look up, I saw him facing the window — the storm — once again. His was a mesmerizing look, that of a schizophrenic, the vacant stare of a catatonic. With the fingers of his right hand still tapping the windowsill, he brought his home-rolled cigarette to his dry, chapped lips with his left hand.
It was now 6:45 a.m.
My curiosity bursting within me, I stood up and began a slow, deliberate walk back to the counter. I recall once having read a Zola story, “The Death of Oliver Becaille,” I think it was, where the narrator painfully and claustrophobically describes his horror in being buried alive. Was my inquietude, my insatiable curiosity having the same effect on me? I flagged down the waitress.
“Tell me, Miss, that man over there, the one at table five. Do you know who he is?”
“Are you police, mister?”
“No, no. Just curious.”
“I don't know him,” she answered.
“So you've never seen him before?”
“Look mister, I don't want any trouble here. This is a peaceful place.”
“No, no trouble. I assure you. You say you don't know him. Has he said anything to you?”
“No! I already told you, I don't know him. But I've seen quite a few strange ones here, already. The place is open twenty-four hours, you know. The only one in town of its kind.”
“Have you seen him communicate with any of these other people?”
“Do the other waitresses know him?”
“Hey, what are you, F.B.I?”
“I give you my honest assurance that I am not a policeman.”
“Then, you like him or something? Are you one of those?”
I ignored the remark.
“I think he may be someone I knew long ago.”
“Then, go over. Talk to him,” she suggested, motioning toward table five.
“No, no. I can't do that. I'm afraid I may be mistaken. But tell me, has he done anything worth noting?”
“What more you want? Just look at him. Good thing he's harmless. You keep looking at him and he might come over and punch you out or something. Just go up to him and start a conversation. Well, as you wish. I can't help you much, besides I have work to do.”
“Yes, of course. Don't let me keep you. Thank you.”
The young waitress took several steps toward the back of the counter when she stopped and turned back.
“Actually, you know,” she said, walking back to my table. She supported herself on the back of a chair. “You know, he did say something strange.”
“Is that so?”
“He told me he lives in the abandoned house up on the hill, over there,” she said, pointing.
“You think he really lives there?”
“No. Nobody lives in that wreck. That shack is falling apart. It's been like that for years. I've lived in the area for the last year.”
“Does he own a car?”
“Maybe you're right. He's beginning to look like a real mystery man to me too. Anyhow, you want more coffee?
“No, thank you. I'm fine.”
Never during my conversation with the waitress did the old man turn to look at anyone other than me. His was a disinterested posture. He looked out into the storm. I finished my cold coffee, now, pretending to read my newspaper. I followed his every breath, vehemently, dissecting him, almost.
Two or three minutes later he got up from his table. Taking out a bill from his left shirt pocket, he placed the tip of the bill under the perspiring glass. His steps were heavy, short, like those of the elderly man that he was. Moving across the restaurant floor, his legs almost dragging, he looked at no one in particular. Only I noticed him leaving.
I kept my eyes fixed on the back of his dirty, brown frock coat. Once he reached the two glass doors at the front, he turned left. Walking past me, as a phantasmagorical silhouette, he walked out into the rainy morning towing his ragged umbrella high above his valley-smeared face.
It was now 7:08 a.m.
“Your friend is gone,” said the waitress. “Anything else?”
“You need anything else, mister?”
“No, thanks. I'm fine. Just the bill, please.”
A few minutes later the waitress returned with the bill. “Here you are,” she said, handing me the check. “Do you want more coffee?”
“No, thank you. This is good.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Another question? All right. But tell me, why are you so interested in that weird man?”
“Oh, nothing special. I'm more intrigued than anything else. I just like to figure what moves people. What gets them going, you know, that kind of thing.”
“Is this what you teach at the university?”
“Is it true that all psychologists are crazy?”
“No. That would be psychiatrists.”
“Oh. A while back, about a year ago, we had one of those who used to come here for breakfast. A tall, skinny man with white hair.”
“Steven Membridge. Yes. He retired last year.”
“You know him, then?”
“Steven? God, yes. Peculiar guy, isn't he?”
“Peculiar? He is downright crazy, if you ask me. I observed that man, you know. He's crazy alright. He wouldn't eat his food if the different foods on his plate touched each other. The eggs were kept separate from the grits and so on. He said he liked his food pure. I still don't know what that means.”
“Steven is a character. Do you think I'm crazy too?”
“Nah. Not you. You're just lost, thinking that you and your university friends can understand people. What do you call it, “the science of man?” You're pretty funny, actually, wondering about some old man, and all that. Besides, you haven't been here that many times for me to make up my mind about you. I've learned to read people pretty well, you know.”
“I'm glad you don't think I'm loony.”
“Hey, do you have a wife or something?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact I do have a wife. We've been married eighteen years. We have a twelve-year old boy and a nine-year old daughter. See, I'm very normal.”
“Does your wife understand you?”
“I like to think so. Hey, you are now the one asking a lot of questions. What would happen if the owner were to walk in right now?”
“The owner? Hah!” she laughed aloud. “I'd say, hi, dad.”
“Your father is the...”
“Sure is. At least I like to believe so. So, you see, I have all the time in the world to be talkative and friendly. Besides, everyone here pretty much knows each other. Except the man you are interested in. Want me to tell you something? I agree with you that he is very strange.”
“So, I’m not the only one who thinks so.”
“Actually, I think you're on to something.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Well, can I trust you?”
“I don't see why not. Apparently we're both equally perplexed by him.”
“Alright. But you need to keep to yourself what I'm about to tell you. Don't go telling all your psychologist friends. I have studied him pretty closely, just like you did a while ago. Except, I know more about him than you.”
“Like what? I'm interested.”
Copyright © 2009 by Pedro Blas Gonzales