Frank rolled the final meatball from his spaghetti glumly across his plate, just barely touching the tines of his fork to it. To the onlookers, it appeared that Frank was doing everything in his power not to harm it. But, after all, it was a heavily marinara-ed meatball. Surely the harming had already been done. He continued this routine and slowly the meatball spun itself in gradually smaller and smaller concentric circles on the sauce-splattered plate.
A small girl who had been watching this from across the café whispered to her mother, “Mommy, what’s that old man doing?”
Her mother, forcing her daughter to shift her gaze elsewhere, scolded her in a whisper, “Don’t stare, Maggie.”
The frown that had exaggerated Frank’s loose skin began to tighten a bit as he directed his eyes across the table. And then, a smile. A new set of wrinkles—happy ones—overtook Frank’s face. “Stein! What are you doing here?”
“How could I miss the chance to enjoy a Halloween lunch with my brother. It’s our tradi—” Stein absorbed the already devoured plate of spaghetti on the table between them. “You already ate.”
“To be honest, Stein, I didn’t think you were coming.”
“Didn’t think I was coming? What gave you that idea?”
“Well…you are late.”
Stein looked disgruntled and even released a deep, unsettled, sigh. “Well…should I eat on my own?”
“Eat! Eat, Stein! We can still visit while you eat.”
“Alright,” Stein waved his hand in the air to capture the attention of the waitress, “don’t mind if I do.” Stein unfastened the napkin so tightly wound around the utensils to his right.
“I’ve gotta make a trip to the bathroom, Stein. Be back in a minute.”
Frank dawdled between tables that had been crowded too close together and eventually made his way to the bathroom. On his return trip to the table he was now sharing with his brother, Frank scavenged leftovers from unoccupied tables. Some zucchini here, half-eaten garlic bread there, olives when they were easy to snatch, and one of every variety of pasta.
By the time Frank made his way back to the table, both of his hands were filled with noodles, vegetables, bread, and sauce. His hands were not unlike a small child’s when first learning to eat. An incredulous look overtook Stein’s face as Frank slopped his findings down on his plate with the once lonesome meatball, “What on earth are you doing?”
“Well, I thought I’d have a little more to eat while you’re eating.”
This explanation did not satisfy Stein. “You could have ordered something.”
“No, I’ve been trying to trim expenses where I can.”
“Where you can. That’s people’s half-eaten food that you just reassembled on your plate. And what a truly disgusting creation it is!”
“Leave me alone, Stein. Mind your own business. I can make whatever monstrous meal I want to concoct. It’s Halloween for ghoul’s sake!”
Scoffing at his brother’s insanity, Stein was about to reprimand his behavior once more right as the waitress arrived beside their table. “Good afternoon, can I get you something?” The waitress was kind, but the confusion showed on her face, unsure why only one plate occupied the table: a unique blend of pastas, sauces, and veggies in a chaotic arrangement. An awkward silence filled the space and Frank wondered why Stein didn’t respond. The waitress was most uncomfortable of all.
Finally, Frank broke the silence, “He’ll have the spaghetti and meatballs.”
The waitress maintained an expression of confusion on her face and managed a soft, “Okay.”
“What’d you do that for, Frank? Can’t you see I was still looking over the options on the menu?”
“That was awkward. She asked you a question. You didn’t respond.” Frank was raising his voice now, summoning the attention of the final few café-goers who weren’t already watching his every move.
“Keep it down, Frank! People are eating.”
Frank looked out at the crowded café to see that most every set of eyes were focused on him. Wrinkled foreheads and concerned mutterings sputtered off like a teapot reaching temperature. Frank felt like a teapot of boiling water, his face reddened in embarrassment at the café’s attraction, which had apparently become him.
“Whaddaya all lookin’ at? Eat your own meatballs!” Frank angrily shouted across the expanse of tables filled with families, young’uns in costume, and a few retired folks who bore resemblance to Frank in physical features, but not mental state.
“Sir, are you okay?” The waitress questioned him quietly so as not to further exacerbate the escalating situation.
“Of course I’m okay! I’m sitting here, trying to eat my meal and get my brother some food to eat.”
“Yes, my brother. This man…right here!” Frank extended his hand across the table toward an empty chair. “Wait! Where’s Stein? Where’d he go?”
“Sir, you’re the only one sitting at this table. And have been for hours.”
Frank looked down at the mess of noodles on his plate, their outline not unlike a human face. The two olives he had managed to claim while an elderly woman wasn’t looking, stood in for eyeballs. A piece of zucchini, chopped julienne-style, now a frown. Garlic bread, the representation of hair. And, the meatball, most certainly a rounded nose. “Stein! Stein! What happened to you?! How do I make you human again?” The plate of leftover food did not oblige Frank in conversation. He dropped his face into it and began to sob uncontrollably.
The café-goers left in a mass exodus sensing something more concerning was coming.
Frank mourned his brother who had never been there at all.
Elizabeth Bates is a writer from Washington state where she lives with her husband, son, and two Siberian Huskies. Bates is the editor of Dwelling Literary. Her column, “Full Send,” has been featured at The Daily Drunk. Bates’ writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Versification, Seaborne Magazine, Your Dream Journal, GLITCHWORDS, Second Chance Lit and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ElizabethKBates.