The diet was off. The craving had stalked him for two days. He had to eat something real. This didn’t mean that he hadn’t thought twofold before entering the grungy restaurant down the street, five houses away from his own. Run down or not, food didn’t come cheap. Not even at Makishu’s. The meal would cost him a mini-fortune, but to heck with accounting. As he climbed the narrow stairs to the entrance, he afforded a cursory glance into his wallet. There was enough. The door was pulled open by a smiling waiter.
“Good evening sir. Welcome to Makishu’s.”
He stared blankly back. “Just me,” he noted absentmindedly. Smiling Man nodded and guided him to a table in the corner.
He took a seat at the curve of the table. Smiling Man returned with a menu, flipped it open and offered it with ease. He took his time, browsing the darkened pages, absorbing the foreign names of each item with its corresponding English price. The restaurant manager, dreaming behind the cash register, sat up when he noticed the lonely customer and switched on some music.
His study of the tattered menu continued despite the intrusion of an instrumental version of “Lady in Red” that now poured into the room. From the corner of his eyes, he noticed a shifting of legs. Smiling Man had returned.
When he looked up, he was surprised to find another waiter standing where Smiling Man should have been. The new guy was older, the shadow of a frown on his face. He looked back into the pages; by now, he had discovered the cheapest items, memorized their names, numbers and prices.
Narrowing his eyes he looked back at the Waiter who returned his attention with a cool, vacant face. He imagined the Waiter’s legs were invisibly tapping with impatience.
“One beef chopsuey, one beef with oyster sauce and the fish in vegetable. To go please,” he ordered after clearing his voice, striking off each item from his mental incarnation of the check.
The Waiter scribbled it down in his little white note book with great attention.
“Will there be anything else, Sir?”
“Yes,” he replied, with as much nonchalance as he could. “Get me a coke, please.”
He knew that the rates were higher within these walls but he wanted the Waiter to know that he could get one. Just because he felt like it. The Waiter dutifully wrote the additional order down like a secret of some importance, turned as if his limbs had caught rust and retreated to the kitchen.
He was all by himself again. It was time to start dreaming. The bill would come to two forty. He knew. The two fifty in his pocket would take care of that. The remainder ten he would leave as tip, because he was a generous man.
With the math worked out like it should have in school, he relaxed. Before he realized that he had been drifting away he found himself waking up to a modest cough.
Smiling Man had returned with a plastic bag and casually placed the bill, safely contained in a leather folder, on the table.
He opened it casually.
“Excuse me, I think there has been a mistake,” he whispered. “I’m afraid you’ve billed me too much. I’m quite sure the total comes to two forty. It says two sixty on the bill.”
Smiling Man peered into the folder over his shoulders, his fingers circling the depths of his cleft chin.
“Yes sir. That would be the value added tax, sir.”