Saturday, February 17, 2007

Ulysses S

Ulysses S
Ben Nardolilli

I had a few extra dollars in my pocket that morning and so decided to spend them on a really good breakfast, down at the diner I always passed every day and night as I went to work and came home from it. The dollars came from participating in a psychological experiment in my spare time. They, and I am not really sure who the "they" were, had us, the subjects, sit around computers and click buttons on the screen to collect points. I must have collected a fair number of points, I made fifty-seven dollars and nineteen cents, a pretty good haul for an hour and half of work, just dragging the cursor and clicking. I was paid with one fifty-dollar bill, one five-dollar bill, one-dollar bill, one dollar coin, a dime, a nickel, and four pennies.
The fifty was a new experience for me. I had handled twenties before, plenty of twenties, but never any fifties. Once I handled a hundred dollar bill before depositing it in the bank after my first (and last) Holy Communion, so I had handled bigger bills, but this was the first time I held in my wallet a likeness of President Grant. The other bills were inconsequential to me, I had Washingtons and Lincolns already in my wallet. Too many Washingtons in fact, they were making it difficult to close the leather flap. They have a high rate of reproduction, they breed like rabbits, coming from the dissolution of Jacksons, Hamiltons, and Lincolns as well as the occasional fusion of smaller Washingtons.

So I had some bills in my wallet and they were becoming a burden, they made the wallet heavier and harder to close, but did not make me feel any richer. The one fifty, that thin slice of the pie, was worth more than the stack of country fathers in my pocket. I figured the diner near me would be the ideal place to unload the dollar bills and the fresh Lincoln, for it had a reasonably priced menu, cheap for breakfast, and moderately priced for dinner, which is sensible, considering a steak should cost more than a pancake.

The diner was brown. That is the word I would use to describe it pretty much, brown. It was a down to earth place, so down to earth it looked like it was painted with mud. Of course it’s not the outside of a diner that counts, it’s what on the inside that goes into your inside that counts. One can't eat ambience. The place was clean inside, disorganized, but clean. There were things everywhere, but they were not collecting dust, you could tell that every night they moved them lovingly, brushed them off, and then piled them up again. The diner was old, part of the neighborhood for a few generations, and it sat strategically on a corner so you could sit at one table and observe two street scenes at once. If there were an accident at the intersection you overlooked, you would be able to see both cars and the resulting mess, the entire sequence of events in an omniscient sort of way. Of course you'd be interrogated by everyone to death after the crash, but you'd have a privileged point of view. And for cheap too.

When I went to the diner that morning, I ordered a coffee, sausage, and eggs. The bill came out to fiver dollars and fifteen cents. I fumbled through my wallet, thinking to myself that I needed to get a new one to accommodate the expanding array of dollar bills growing between the leather flaps, to retrieve the five-dollar bill to pay the waitress. I found it and placed it on the table with a thud, forgetting that the table was wobbly and I spilled some water on it. I admired the face of Lincoln staring at me, the familiar, fatherly bearded face looking off into the distance, contemplating American unity and prosperity. The bill held a Washington under it and was supported by some coins stacked in a miniature ziggurat.

I left the diner feeling full, confident, and greasy. I felt as if I had gotten a free meal, for I had pretty much done nothing for the money I used to pay for it. Sitting on a computer and clicking the screen is something I normally do for free anyways. There was a feeling of somehow overcoming the system, of getting back at the times I was overcharged for necessities or luxuries that seemed like necessities at the time. The sun was bright and high in the sky, baking the diner’s walls and giving the windows a smoky complexion, hiding the money I had laid out inside from the view of passing onlookers.

A week later I returned to the diner hoping to get a meal that would be more substantial, a meal worthy of my fifty-dollar bill. I wanted to get something really special for the occasion, to justify parting ways with my president Grant. I put on a jacket even though the night was warm, because I wanted to mark this event as the kind that is worthy of making you uncomfortable, like how one wears a tux and tight shoes at prom. The outfit is stuffy and makes you pay attention to what is going on all around because you have to think about something other than how your neck feels tight, or your ankles feel pinched. I would wear the jacket to the diner and feel warm, so that I could focus on my meal and how I was spending fifty dollars in one sitting. Like a real gentleman type.

I entered the diner and already I could sense the occasion was going to be special. The waitresses smiled at me and the manager personally escorted me to my table. My jacket was fairly nice, but I wasn’t wearing a bow tie or had any gold trim around my sports coat. I had worn a brown jacket to blend in. As soon as I took my seat, the waitresses began to fight over me. They came to me in a succession, each one introducing themselves, and claiming to be my real server for the night. They brought me glass after glass of water and they stood over me, each one waiting to refill one of my seven glasses of water, which I alternated drinking from every time I got thirsty. They were arranged in a circle around me, like the hands of a clock I extended my neck and arm out and took a sip of each glass, which was filled once again by the time I came around to it, having drunken from the other glasses laid before me.
The waitresses all seemed to want something from me. I know they expected me to give them an order, and then a tip, but I got the feeling they were mistaking me for someone else.
"I'll have the steak, but to start off I'll have something rich, oh what is the soup of the day, hmmm, I'll have that yes, oh can I have a coke, or Pepsi, no it doesn't matter, I'm actually looking forward to that steak, make it a rare medium rare."

Then they left me, the group keeping vigil over my water. Pretty soon the glasses were all empty and feeling lonely and thirsty, I dropped my fork. The clank was a call to them to come back. And they did. One brought me bread, another filled up my glass, another buttered the bread, another brought me the salad that came with the steak, another cleaned my knife with my napkin so I wouldn't get butter on my steak, another asked me how everything was going and yet another brought me my soup. They surrounded me with smiles and filled me up on appetizers. The water was beginning to trickle down into my bladder and I could not hold myself back. I excused myself from the lovely waitresses and made my way to the restroom.
When I was finished and emerged from behind the door labeled MALE, my meal was ready for me at my table, with the waitresses standing around it, leaving my chair open in front, the wooden back all waxed and polished, a throne waiting for me to sit in it.

I sat down and began to devour the repast, the waitresses kept asking me how everything was and I said that it was good, everything was good. The mashed potatoes were fluffy and creamy, the broccoli was not too steamed. The steak itself was magnificent. So tender and juicy, I let it melt in my mouth, swishing it around with the coke. It did not feel right however, and so I ordered a glass of wine to accompany the meal, thinking myself an idiot for not having ordered one sooner. Finally I was able to swish pieces of the meat between my teeth with a proper drink for the occasion. When I was done I ordered the cheesecake, which I assumed would be New York style, and it was brought to me on a small plate held by three waitresses.

As I sliced up my dessert with my fork I thought about the fifty dollar bill in my pocket, and the likeness upon it. I thought of president Ulysses S. Grant, nee Hiram Grant, and his face being covered and smothered by other bills. I imagined him trying to breathe, choking under the pressure and being afraid of the darkness. He was a resourceful man and probably would get out of the situation by lighting one of his trademark cigars and burning away his boss Lincoln and his presidential forbearer Washington. He would be able to deal with the darkness too. Such a great man, I thought. He won us the Civil War. Without him the Union army would have been continually slaughtered by the Confederate forces and the nation would remain divided today. I looked at one of my waitresses, who was black and wondered if she would be here today if it wasn’t for the man in my pocket. Grant was gruff, he was mean, and he was willing to let scores of young men die to achieve victory, but he won in the end and kept this country together. A real hero. He kept everything unified and he was helping to pay for my dinner. A great man indeed.

When I had finished the cheesecake, I lay my fork down on the plate and asked for the check. One waitress beat the others to it and snatched it from the register. She fought the others and laid it down before me on the table. I thanked her and she smiled, waiting to get some reward. She had won the competition and the tip would be all hers, her name appeared at the top of the receipt. I reached for my bulging wallet and pulled it out of my pocket. When she saw how it was ready to burst open, her eyes lit up. I could suspected that there was some payment she was desperately trying to make and my tip would help bring her closer to it. The bill for the evening was forty-four dollars and nineteen cents. I would pay with the fifty and put another five down on top, telling her to keep the change in a smooth film noir detective sort of way.

But when I opened my wallet, I couldn’t find the fifty. I checked the back first, my bills are arranged in ascending order, but found nothing, it should have been there, the last bill because it was the highest. But it wasn’t. The waitress decided it was rude of her to stand over me while I paid the bill and though about the tip and walked away. I quickly went to the opposite side of the wallet, thinking I may have tucked the fifty in there by mistake. But it wasn’t there. Frustrated I went through the entire wallet, flipping through everything that resembled a bill, there were ones and fives and a ten. But no fifty. I emptied out the leather flap and searched the pile in vain, thinking that maybe Ulysses had been crammed into the bottom, getting all folded up and crumpled.

It wasn’t there, and I didn’t have enough to cover the bill. Had I been robbed? Everything else was in order, only the fifty was missing. Perhaps some enterprising young thief with a penchant for understanding psychology had taken the fifty by pick pocketing me but left everything else in my wallet when he slid it back into my pants pocket so that I would not notice that it was lighter and suspect a theft.

Then I realized what must have happened. I had accidentally paid with the fifty after my last breakfast there. I had confused Grant with Lincoln and being a student of history I was ashamed at myself. Two white guys with beard, ah they must be the same, hell they even fought on the same side during the Civil War, so they were practically twins! I was disgusted with my mistake, and I realized that I had left more than a hundred percent tip for the waitress then, so of course they were all flocking to me now, expecting me to drop five hundred or so dollars in the tip for this dinner in the diner. I felt so terrible to let the waitresses down, she was expecting half her rent to come from this one meal with me. I would have to tell them everything and hope that they would understand in the spirit of reconciliation that Grant embodied.

The kitchen of the diner is a lot like the rest of the establishment, though there is a preponderance of metal and porcelain everywhere, when you’re washing the dishes, everything is brown. The food all mixes and mashes together until it is the same color as the earth from which it came from, and then you scrub it from the plates and turn the water in the sink a soapy brown and it goes down the drain and disappears. Then you get another pile of dirty plates and wash the residue of another meal off and shine the plate until it sparkles and is ready for someone else, who has correct change, to eat on.