Part I: A Piece of Work and His Wife Walk Into a Restaurant

Anywhere else, the couple would have attracted side glances from diners when they entered the restaurant. In Manhattan, not so much.

The woman, still svelte in dark designer jeans she bought at a consignment store on the Upper East side, once had an eighteen-wheeler mudflap girl figure. A heavy leather biker jacket that fit neither her small frame nor personality covered her mock turtleneck sweater. She walked everywhere and her cheap black flats reflected that. Her wiry gray hair stuck out almost as if she administered an electric shock to it instead of reaching for a much-needed flat iron. A minimalist with makeup and most things in life, the septuagenarian wore only bright red lipstick on her wide lips, which made the gap between her two front teeth look more pronounced.

“Let’s sit in the back, away from the bathrooms and not by the front door. It’s too drafty,” she announced, said, now attracting the attention of the host and the young couple sitting by the entrance turned to look at her.

“I used to own a place like this,” her husband said, his voice projecting more than hers. “They should put a vestibule here to increase the value.”

He emphasized “vestibule” as people do when trying to impress others with their vocabulary.

The hostess lifted her eyebrows and glanced back at the couple as a signal to the passing waitress, Bethany. She was in for it with this couple, who complained all the way to their seats for all to hear about how “the clientele has really gone downhill since the last time they were here.”

A stand-up comic from Ohio and one of the staff’s most seasoned servers in her mid-thirties, Bethany could handle the most difficult customers. Her agent declared her “sidekick pretty” and could see her cast as the witty best friend of the beautiful girl in a rom-com.

While his wife had once been attractive, the husband had never been in any way. The husband ran one hand through his greasy gray hair, then snorted a gob of phlegm in his bulbous nose down to his throat, igniting a gooey cough. Much to the horror of a seated customer, a speck of glistening spit from his puckered, uncovered lips landed on her raised fork. Her friend sitting across from her saw it happen and mirrored her revulsion.

Oblivious, the stout elderly man continued on, knocking chairs with his ancient paper Bloomie’s bag. The husband seemed at least five years older than his wife. He wore a brown military jacket, the kind sold at surplus stores, with a plaid scarf peeking out at the top and knockoff Timberland boots. When he took off his jacket, he revealed a burgundy button-up vest with belted baggy blue jeans.

“It’s our 30th wedding anniversary!” he bellowed as Bethany approached the table for all to hear. “She said no three times! The fourth time’s the charm!”

Favored by museum tourists and nearby office workers for lunch, the restaurant was an odd choice for such a special occasion. If the hostesses got five dollars for every time a patron walked in and said, “I didn’t know this place was open for dinner!” they might have stuck around longer.

The husband extracted a bottle of wine from the department store bag. It was not a bring your own alcohol kind of establishment. Before Bethany had time to explain this, he unscrewed the top and began to pour the Merlot into the glasses on the table. His wife looked at him with resigned amusement.

He signaled Bethany with his finger to come closer to him. As she leaned down, she followed his gaze down her white blouse.

“I’m hard of hearing so you’ll have to speak into my left ear! Can you get us some complimentary appetizers since it’s our 30th anniversary?” the husband said more as an order than an ask.

Mellow music from the 1990s began to play from the speakers to soften the ambiance and muffle the older couple’s banter. They kvetched to patient Bethany, who worked three jobs to support herself as a standup comic, about the entree prices, the menu changes since 2011, vegetable fads, and how expensive the Upper West Side’s gotten.

Eventually, the couple decided what they wanted: one bloody rare steak, one medium rare. She left to enter their order only to be summoned back by the man with his beckoning fingers. Bethany’s mask cracked with an uncontrollable flinch as the perv waved her to bend down next to him so that he could complain about the “annoying elevator music” playing from the speakers throughout the dining room.

“What’s your wedding song? We can play it for you,” Bethany asked, trying to stem the tide of negativity.

“We don’t have one,” the wife grimaced before taking a long sip of wine. “We eloped. Right after my mother died.”

“We got married on the beach! We got a deal to go to Jamaica! It was a last-minute trip and the airlines always need butts in seats!” the husband exclaimed. “I used to work for the airlines. I was a pilot.”

He assessed Bethany up and down, waiting for her to be impressed. She was not.

“You married? You’d make a good stewardess. See the world, meet a man.”

Despite having heard the foulest comics do bits on the raunchiest topics, Bethany felt her cheeks turn red.

The wife glanced at Bethany’s hands that confirmed she was indeed single.

“Don’t wait too long to have children. We did. It was hell on me. And the fertility treatments, they cost a fortune!”

Bethany nodded and took the opportunity to escape by saying she would place their orders. She returned with with their. The husband complained the meat looked overcooked. Twenty minutes after berating Bethany and the manager, new slabs of nearly raw meat with an extra servings of insulted chef spit arrived from the kitchen.

By the time Bethany came to take away the couple’s empty plates, they were drunk. A third bargain bottle had been unscrewed and poured. The husband became more belligerent while his wife’s tone grew softer. Bethany asked if they had saved room for desserts.

“Oh, I don’t eat after 8 p.m. and it’s about that time,” the wife said, patting the top of her skinny jeans.

“Get me a decaf,” the husband pointed at Bethany. “And half-and-half. Not milk, not skim, not soy, not almond, and not whatever that crap is that comes out of the little plastic cups. I want the ‘farm to table’ milk. I used to be a farmer, back when I lived upstate. We’d have fresh cream straight from the cow. every morning.”

“You’re a piece of work,” the wife shook her head. They both looked up at Bethany, who bestowed an obligatory smile.

Just before Bethany begged a fellow waiter to cover her table so she could perform at the early show at Gotham downtown, the husband signaled for the bill with a wave of the hand, followed by a scribbling gesture. Bethany wondered if they would whip out a checkbook to pay for the meal.

The wife scrutinized the tab and pulled out a credit card from her front pocket. She carried neither a handbag nor a wallet. As Bethany walked to the register, she looked down and read the name on the American Express card.

Bethany returned to the table after the charge went through. Thanking them and wishing the couple a happy anniversary, she turned to the wife with her receipt and card.

“You have a distinctive last name. Are you by any chance related to an Ashley who does standup?”

The wife’s eyes, already glassy from intoxication, filled with tears.

“That’s my niece! Oh my Gawd, you know Ashley my niece! I am shocked by the cosmic nature of this encounter!”

Her trembling hand knocked a spoon to the floor.

The husband abruptly stood up and bumped the table with his big belly, making the remaining tableware rattle and Bethany uncomfortable with his invasion of her personal space. He headed for the men’s room as his wife dabbed a dirty paper napkin to her eyes.

This was not the reaction Bethany expected.

The woman fished around in her pockets again, this time pulling out a business card. “Here, give Ashley my card. I would love to see her do her comedy act.”

Bethany took the card and nodded. The woman’s shoulders slumped. Her brittle angles and voice softened.

“And tell her if she would speak to me beyond that, I would be grateful. But I understand if she says no.”

Bethany stood above the elderly wife, mother, and aunt. She searched her eyes, trying to get a read on her soul: What had this woman done to her kind and generous friend Ashley?

Jennifer Zajac