13TH NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR FICTION | 2002
“Lobsters in a Tank” by Kiyash Monsef
Most great writing comes from experience. It is the way that the world informs us, the way that we tap its essence, that shapes the details that make a story great. This is an active process, as much a discipline as actually sitting down to write. — Kiyash Monsef
Monsef received $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
Lobsters in a Tank
By Kiyash Monsef
Lance comes across to the customers as knowledgeable and dependable. They’ve told me as much. I watch him sometimes, too, just to make sure everything is going okay. I know I don’t have to worry about him when he approaches the tables. He is dependable and knowledgeable, and almost always gets twenty percent because he makes people feel like they are privileged to be in his care for the evening.
Bradford is young and people like that too. He isn’t knowledgeable like Lance, but he’s smart, and he’s quick and funny, and he works hard, and that’s how he’s successful. When he can’t remember something, he makes a joke out of it. He entertains, and he usually gets twenty percent because people like that there are white-hot people in the world like Bradford.
They’re our two best servers. Everyone pretty much is good except for the ditzy stripper girl, but she does fine, too, for obvious reasons, and the dour one with the faint Aussie accent, but what are you going to do. Everyone’s good, but I always give Lance and Bradford the biggest sections because no matter what, I know they will handle them, and I know that those people will all want to come back.
And it gets crazy here, believe me. We turn over tables upwards of three times on a busy night. That’s non-stop from like 5:30 to after 11. Like any Friday, when we’ve got the surf and turf special, and there’s all the extra presentation involved, and everything takes longer, but there’s all these reservations and walk-ins, and you can’t turn away the business, so you seat them at the bar and serve them a drink and maybe comp them some hors d’oeuvres if they’re a big party, and ride all the servers to turn their tops quicker because it’s better for everyone to keep the tops turning.
The energy is important, maintaining the energy and the momentum. I’m not saying it’s easy, those nights are never easy, and I don’t care how much energy you’ve got, but at the end, when you’ve closed your last check, and you go home and fold all that money you made away into a corner and lie down with your girlfriend and close your eyes, your nerves are still jangling and you dream of two-tops and four-tops and eight-tops all night long, opening wine bottles and bussing dishes and presenting and greeting until the sun comes up, and you feel like you haven’t even slept a wink. Enough nights like that and you start consciously blaming all the good folks who are putting money in your pocket for all those sleepless nights and jangling nerves, and that’s what most people are running on every night, behind the smiles and the obsequious nods and gestures, behind all the careful, thoughtful wine recommendations. Rage, you know, that these people will all go home and sleep well, their bellies full, their memories of the night pleasant if a little bit loud, while you’re tossing and turning, still hungry because you didn’t get enough to eat, or you didn’t get to eat until twelve and the food’s just sitting in your stomach all night, and everything that happened on the floor is still spinning around you like a goddamn carousel.
Of course, you wouldn’t know that if you sat down to eat here. You wouldn’t know it because of how concerned, how genuinely concerned everyone is with making sure that you get exactly the right food and exactly the right wine to complement it. You wouldn’t know with Bradford because he’s not there yet. He hasn’t done this enough. I know, because I watch my servers when they leave the tables, I see how their eyes turn cold as they’re striding off back to the kitchen, those big long swishing strides that only waiters use.
Watch Lance sometime, watch how he sets his face when he’s approaching a group of customers. He sets it like he’d set a table, the same smile, the same invincible posture that, in his blacks and his apron, bespeaks an inexhaustible wealth of culinary knowledge and understanding. When he speaks of wines, he speaks in reverent and hushed tones. He speaks from some deep and studious love of the grape. When he describes a robust cab, he grows forceful and his voice becomes strong. A dry chardonnay is spoken of crisply and cleanly. The guests are awed, they feel that his vast expertise is a great windfall on this evening when they had hoped only for good food. Fine. Follow him to the bar, he places the drink orders, he spits out those same names spitefully, with only cold efficiency. They mean nothing to him.
So that’s a busy night on the floor. Angry swaths cutting between the tables, glowing briefly with plastic good humor, then becoming hard again, swooping through the canyons of chairs and tables to and from the kitchen, bearing their steaming burdens to the rounds of hungry bellies that await them.
But that’s not Bradford, right? Bradford’s different from most because he’s just got that spark that young people have. He’s practically still a kid, his hair’s a little long in front even (I don’t tell him to cut it because I think the people like it a little scruffy like that, it adds to his mystique or whatever). Bradford likes people, I really think he does. Or if he doesn’t he does a good job fooling everyone. Anyway, everyone likes him, even the kitchen staff. He even speaks Spanish with them, which I can only do in awkward little stumbles. And not just “Hola como esta” and all that, not just restaurant Spanish, but really he talks to them, makes them laugh and such. Like I said, the kid’s smart. He’s lanky and tall, but never clumsy. He carries himself with a sort of graceful and languid purpose. What I said, for example, about how Lance’s face would set and unset when he was walking to and from a table, doesn’t apply to Bradford. He’s always the same, it’s either always genuine or it’s always false, but I’d be fucked if I knew which one it really was, and I only say that because you never really know people, but if you just asked me I’d say he actually loves his work and the people that he serves, and that he’s truly happy to be out on the floor and providing you with an unforgettable dining experience. But he’s still, you know, young.
I’d figure Lance probably takes home about two-fifty a night, give or take. He does real well. He’s an asshole, sure. He’s always bossing the bussers around, and shouting at the dishwashers when we’re out of steak knives or lobster crackers and he’s got to mise en place for the surf and turf or something. No one likes him, but he sells, and you can’t get rid of a guy who sells like him. He sells hundred-dollar bottles of wine to ordinary people, not suits or anything.
It’s psychology, he plays them until they get to thinking that this night, this dining experience is going to be The One fine-dining experience that they will take with them to the grave, and that it deserves nothing less than the absolute pinnacle of flavors and complements, and so of course nothing less than the ’95 Stag’s Leap Cab’ or the ’89 St. Emilion will do. But he’s an asshole through and through, and you can see all the hatred pouring out of him. One time he told this one kitchen assistant Jose that he was going to call Immigration on him because it was a busy night and the guy like forgot to put a garnish on something and Lance took it to the table and the people asked where the garnish was, and Lance of course looked and felt stupid. It wasn’t fair because Jose got all freaked out and I had to talk to Lance, and of course I couldn’t let him go because he’s been so good for the place, but all I could do was tell him to ease up and that we don’t tolerate that shit around here, which of course didn’t faze him at all, and of course the chef was yelling at him too for harassing his staff, but that didn’t faze him either, and he just went on back to work, just as angry and spiteful as before.
So he’s an asshole, and so when Bradford comes to me and tells me that Lance just took his table, his ten-top that would have been easily a hundred-dollar tip if not more, it’s not like I’m surprised, but I tell him he’s got to give the table to Bradford and he says of course he can’t, he’s already done the spiel, and introduced himself and it would be wrong to switch things now, it would be too confusing to the customers. Besides, he says, it’s Bradford’s fault, he left them sitting there for like five minutes, and so what was Lance supposed to do? Just let them sit there? Bradford says something about how he had to present the lobster special, which involves opening these silver platters, and then running the lids back to the kitchen, and he couldn’t find a busser to run the lids back and he had to do it himself, and he knew about the ten-top and was about to go greet them right after he dropped the lids in the kitchen, but when he got out Lance was already there and it wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t even five minutes, and so Lance should at least give him the tip. But of course Lance says that it’s Bradford’s fault and that he’s not giving him a penny off this tip. And we don’t have time to sit here jawing about this, none of us, because it’s packed, the place, because it’s Friday night and all, so I say fuck it, and tell Bradford he gets the next table in Lance’s section, which I can already see is going to be a two-top, and I know it’s not fair, but I say it anyway just to settle the matter and get these guys back to work.
They go back off to work and as they do I hear Lance telling Bradford never to contradict him again, and I think Bradford gives him a little shove as they split, and I’m about to say something, but it’s too late and they’re both gone already, and we don’t have time for this soap opera shit tonight so I figure that if they don’t have to talk to each other again then it’ll just die out. But I feel real bad for Bradford, and I decide I’m going to make it up to him next chance I have, maybe I’ll give him an extra table or let him comp a few people some stuff, because he’s still young and he doesn’t deserve that shit.
Lance takes the ten-top’s order, and it’s a big one. If he gets his usual twenty per, he’s looking at maybe one-fifty on this table alone. He sells them some of our best wine, and three surf and turf specials. He says surf and turf in a way so that it sounds like an exciting and dangerous game that only the most courageous people would ever dare, like it’s a challenge, and of course the three young men at the table just fall right into his little trap. That’s how good he is.
Meanwhile, Bradford is back on his game. I can tell that he’s steamed about losing the ten-top, but he’s doing what he’s supposed to do, and I know I don’t have to go over and talk to him, which is fine because there are plenty of people waiting for seats, and I need to keep them all entertained somehow and I don’t have time to deal with this Lance vs. Bradford crap. By the way, Lance is I think kind of pissed at Bradford for being so good, and by good I don’t mean a good waiter, but actually a good person who also happens to be a good waiter. I think it really gets him that this kid is every bit as good as Lance, and without the years of hatred and spite that got Lance to where he is today. I don’t know if that’s true or not, it’s just a hunch, but there’s a little bit of psychology in this business, and I’ve been in it awhile, and I think I’m right enough of the time that these hunches should count for something.
The surf and turf, by the way, is our top ticket food item. The lobsters are flown in fresh from Maine once a week. We keep them in a big tank back there in the kitchen, all huge and blue and crawling all over each other, and we boil them to order. It takes a few minutes longer to make this one, and the waiters always have to advise people when they order it that it takes some time, but then they usually add that believe me it’s worth the wait. The steak is a really nice marbled cut of hanger, it’s marinated in a secret recipe that the chef won’t even tell me, and seared so all that flavor is locked inside. It’s best rare. That’s when it’s really juicy. You should hear someone like Lance waxing on about the dish, it is poetry. I’m just telling it straight, but these guys out on the floor, they love Friday nights, even though it takes longer to serve because of the presentation. This is where they get to shine, where they get to make everyone’s eyes light up at the table.
The people who don’t want to drop seventy-five a head, or can’t afford it, you see the longing in their eyes. It’s longing, I shit you not. It’s the Holy Grail, and they can’t have it because they haven’t earned it, do you understand? Ah, but if you have earned it, you’re in for the real treat. You’re in for the big show. The big flourish, the drumrolls, the fanfare, here comes the godalmighty surf and turf special, steaming hot on a silver platter for only the most important, the most worthy and dammit Successful human beings to step through our front doors. Is that you? Do you want to be that person? Do you want everyone in this big room to know who you are, that you are one of those people who will eat the lobster from Maine? That’s the big question. That’s the big show, the Friday night game.
Well. Lance’s order comes up, and for once, he’s all aglow. He’s sold three of these bad boys and these folks will definitely want more wine. Two hundred for him, I’m sure. These boys at the ten-top will drop up of a grand, they don’t care, whatever it is they’re celebrating, merger or acquisition or big sale or general economic status or whatever. I look for Bradford, I figure I’m going to have to chill him out right now when he watches Lance take the silver dishes from the runners and uncover them with that big and majestic flourish that he does with such ease, uncover those fire-engine armor plates, all cracked open and- and the flesh all soft and steamy inside, those thick and juicy steaks all sweaty and strong. If it was me, I know I’d be hopping. I’d want to punch Lance right there. It isn’t fair, I should maybe have made a different call and maybe I still will. Maybe I’ll make Lance split the tip or something, we’ll see at the end of the night. But so here’s Lance, walking down the aisles like the conquering king, runner trailing behind him like a squire carrying the shield on which rest all the night’s great spoils: two lamb plates, one pork loin, one game hen (side garlic mash), two filet mignons, one plate of ribs, and three beautiful, gleaming silver domes, beneath which wait, in immaculate presentations, the greatest treasures of all, the surf and turf specials. I look for Bradford. He’s serving another table. He looks up, but he doesn’t seem angry anymore. Intrigued, maybe, but not angry.
Lance takes his time setting the food. He introduces each plate as he sets it down. He speaks their names with respect, with deference. The lamb. The pork loin. The game hen, side of garlic mashed potatoes. The filet mignon, rare. The filet mignon medium. The lamb. The ribs. He does not introduce the surf and turfs. He sets them down silently. They need no introduction. The runner comes over, takes a hold of one of the handles atop these gleaming domes. Lance takes the other two. This is the big show. He nods to the runner, and at the same moment, they whip the domes away from the silver platters.
Right away I hear the screams and the cries of alarm, and I’m there quick. I’ve been in this business awhile. I know when I’m needed. I can’t tell from where the reservation desk is what the problem is, but I can see people are jumping up, people are shouting, Lance has this look of absolute horror on his face, everyone is looking up from all the tables. I am flying. I am a ghost when I want to move fast. I can shoot through any gap, I find a way. I am there.
The people are running away from the table, they are jumping back, terrified. The food is there, all of it, untouched and forlorn, the lonely platters almost absurd in their baroque, dazzling arrays. This is the nightmare: There are three live lobsters on the table, they are huge, they are blue and monstrous. They wave their claws in the air, and the rubber bands are gone and they snap them open and shut. They are huge, muscular scissors, these claws, they can take your finger off, and that’s why they put the bands on them. They seem enormous and evil. Their sharp legs make clicking noises against the hard finish on the wooden table. Their little button stalk eyes wave lazily and their antennae dangle out before them. Two of them have found each other and are fighting, it is amazing. They are dying here in the air, they are suffocating, and still they are grappling with each other, enacting their instincts in the face even of oblivion. The third is eating the hanger steak it was supposed to be served with. It is a farce. It is carnage. There is absolute chaos. It takes six of us to catch them and carry them back to the kitchen. There are many apologies and profuse. These people will not be back. They will not pay for their food. I will not allow it. The wine, the appetizers are on us. There is no explanation yet. I see these people to the door. Lance orders the bussers to clear the table. He watches as all the beautiful plates go filing back to the kitchen. I explain to everyone on the floor that everything is okay. I apologize to our guests. Eventually people go back to their meals. Conversation, when it resumes, is full of amazement, noises of reenacted shock. Everyone is wondering. Some are amused, others put out. The glory has gone out of this night.
Lance stands there watching the world become normal again, his eyes tiny and deep little pockets of pure loathing and evil. I tell him, calm down Lance. We’ll figure this out. Just be calm tonight, okay? I tell him, but he goes storming back toward the kitchen, and I go after him, because what’s important now is to save face, to bounce back and recover. What’s important now is that we don’t buckle and collapse tonight, so that if this makes the papers, at least everyone will say how well we handled it all. So I go after him and grab his arm and tell him, Lance, fucking cool it okay. You have tables. He does, he remembers. He looks at me and he can’t even speak he’s so mad. You have tables, I say, and he knows I’m right, so he puts on that face and he goes out to do what he does.
I go back into the kitchen and start sorting things out. The ditzy stripper will have to handle the front door until I get back. This is more important. I’m back there, in that big white room that’s almost as big as the front, with the shimmering metal fixtures and appliances, all chrome and tiles and men and women in white running around insane, and I ask the chef what happened. The chef doesn’t know, and I start asking other people, and no one knows, and then Lance comes back to give an order, and he looks around because he wants to know, which for some reason reminds me of the way that Bradford looked up when Lance was bringing out the lobsters, and of all the people in the kitchen now it’s only Jose who looks back, and then it’s all clear. No one notices but me and Lance, who’s shaking his head and not saying anything, but it’s all clear, and Lance swoops into the crowd of chefs and sous chefs and kitchen assistants, and then he’s gone before I can even say anything, and as I’m running out and thinking how I have to find Bradford before Lance does, I hear someone saying that there’s a knife missing, and who has the boning knife, just an echo in my ear as I’m running out the door, and it doesn’t even register what’s about to happen until I get out on the floor and the screaming starts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emmy-nominated producer and director.
Writer and creator of short stories, videos, comic books, and games.
Monsef produced Emmy Award-nominated coverage of the Burning Man festival for the TV Free Burning Man project. All content was shot and edited on site, in real time, throughout the event.
“Lobsters in a Tank” © 2002 Kiyash Monsef