We’d planned to have dinner with the Hardaways at a restaurant we’d never been to, a popular new fish place. They had been there a number of times already, enough to be considered regulars and to know which table to ask for, so they made the reservation for four at 6:30.
We were looking forward to the evening, but Katherine, Mrs. Hardaway, sent us a message the day before saying they had to cancel. She suddenly needed to have dental surgery and wouldn’t be in any shape to enjoy the dinner.
Court and I decided we’d still like to go, and he called the restaurant to see if the Hardaways had canceled their reservation. They had not. Court told the person the Hardaways wouldn’t be there and asked to change the reservation to our name and to move the time up to 6. We felt lucky to keep the table.
We got there at 6 on the button, a parking space near the door opened up, we pulled in, and Court joked that he’d phoned ahead to make sure a spot would be cleared for us. The host found our name on her screen, poked the screen with her finger and we were off. The table was in a corner toward the back, an aquarium behind it, somewhat protected from foot traffic, the restaurant already filling up. Our waiter stopped by, introduced himself as Hugo, and took our drink orders, a martini for me and a beer for Court. We began scanning the menu, sharing ideas for a side dish we could split. The restaurant smelled appetizing, and Court commented, as he sometimes did when the situation applied, that the customers looked clean.
Soon Hugo served our drinks and we told him we wanted to enjoy them for a while before we ordered. No rush at all, he assured us. We took our time, and when we were ready we returned to the menu to make our selections.
We’d just told Hugo our order when I saw the Hardaways all the way up the aisle, past the bar, speaking with the host who’d seated us, another couple standing near them.
“Is it 6:30?” I asked Court.
“It is. Why do you ask?”
“Don’t turn around, but the Hardaways are here and they have our stand-ins with them.”
I gave Katherine and Jack a wave. Katherine nodded and Jack lifted his index finger an inch or so to acknowledge me.
“They’re coming,” I said, “and they’re not bringing their friends with them.”
“Holy crap. I wish we had bread so I could stuff my mouth full and point at it.”
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed. They’re the ones who should explain.”
“Looks like you made it,” Jack said, forcing a sly grin and shaking Court’s hand.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Katherine,” I said. I couldn’t tell that she was in any pain.
“My doctor had a more urgent case come up at the last minute.”
“Looks like we got your table,” Court said, echoing Jack’s attempt at an icebreaker.
The Hardaways didn’t answer, and the way they looked at us annoyed me, as if the table should have been theirs. We didn’t offer to yield to them.
“Sorry about the misunderstanding,” Jack said. “We have friends waiting for us at the bar. The restaurant says they’ll work us in.”
They waved faintly and left, joining their friends, offering them an explanation, the couple quickly eyeing us. Court had his back to them but saw me watching.
“I sense we’re being spoken of.”
“I think so. By them and their friends who outrank us.”
“I wonder what story they could be telling them. Did you think Jack’s jaw seemed a little tense?”
“Yes, and Katherine had that agitated undercurrent we’ve seen get into her before. I imagined her pulse pounding in her head.”
“I don’t feel like I belong at this table.”
“That’s how they want you to feel. I don’t see where they get the right to claim it.”
“They didn’t cancel their reservation. I did.”
“You think we should give it up?”
“No way. Though I do have mixed feelings.”
So we had a subject that would stay with us as we drove home and brushed our teeth and tucked ourselves in bed.
Our food came promptly. We both loved our dishes, and Court gave his halibut a few defiant, celebratory smacks. The noise in the restaurant had steadily grown to a roar, and we had to raise our voices to hear ourselves. People were turning sideways in the aisle and the staff rushed around, altering course to avoid collisions. As we ate, a woman waiting to be seated trolled the tables to see if anyone was close to finishing.
“Are they still at the bar?” Court asked.
“They are. The host is speaking with Jack. He’s nodding. The aggressive customer who buzzed by sees them and is getting in the middle of it. The host is leaving them.”
The table troller started our way, glancing over her shoulder at the Hardaways.
“I’m not going anywhere,” I heard her say loudly.
Court heard her too. “If she asks if we’re getting dessert, I say we refuse to cough up an answer.”
The host approached the Hardaways again, menus in hand, and seated them and their friends at a table across from the bar. The troller noticed and rushed toward them, calling out that she was here first. She stood at their table and protested, the Hardaways ignoring her.
“How is everything?” Hugo appeared and startled us by asking.
“Dramatic,” Court said.
Hugo nodded, unsure how to reply, and moved on.
“We can’t avoid passing them when we leave,” I said.
“You could tell Katherine you’ll call her tomorrow to see how she’s doing.”
“It’ll be interesting to see if their friends know what I’m talking about.”
“Or we could just act nice and smile.”
“We’d regret it later if we did.”
“We’d stay awake thinking of different things we should have said,” Court agreed.
“We’d have only ourselves to blame. But if we’re rude we’ll look bad.”
“You tell Katherine you’ll call her. I could say we loved our table.”
“Don’t lay it on heavy. No sharp edges.”
“What do you think they’ll say?”
“Out loud, nothing. They want us out of here.”
Glen Pourciau’s first collection of stories won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His second story collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books in February 2017. His stories have been published by AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, Mississippi Review, New England Review, New Ohio Review, Paris Review, Third Coast, and other magazines.