I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.
I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.
But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.
And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.
Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.
I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.
I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?
I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.
I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.
Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.
“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”
Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.
Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.
As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.
I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.
Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.
I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.
I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”
“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”
That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”
“Yes. Any problem?”
“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”
What an idiot.
I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.
Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.
Of course, I blow it.
Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”
She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.
She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.
“I’m usually up late,” she says.
Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.
Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.