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ARE YOU ORDERING from the menu?” I asked.
“Maybe.” She used her index finger to trace each line she read.
“The buffet is cheaper.”
“I know,” her eyebrows raised without her eyes, “I just don’t know if I want to eat that much.”
I pulled at the scruff of my face. “You don’t have to eat everything in sight, but at least you’ll have the choice. And …”
“It’s cheaper,” she finished.
“Yeah. About two dollars cheaper, and don’t forget we still have to tip. That will be another two at least.”
“Can’t I just look?” She closed the menu and let it drop behind the silver napkin dispenser.
“Get whatever you want.” I held the menu over the table towards her but she refused to untangle her arms. “Heidi,” I groaned. “Forget it.” I let the menu fall in the middle of the table.
Over her shoulder, I could see the buffet line. A blue-haired Granny was tweezing a strip of bacon with a pair of twelve-inch silver tongs. Her family—two generations, I guessed—had lined up behind her. The men and boys wore pastel polos. The women and girls wore floral-print ankle-length dresses. They looked like Easter Sunday.
When our waitress finally appeared, the stink from her last cigarette mixed with her perfume did a little promenade up my nostrils. “Good morning, my name is Olivia.” She scratched a little spot on her notepad to prime her ink pen.
I leaned my nose away in search of clean air, “I’ll have coffee.”
“Okay, coffee.” She appeared to spell it out in longhand. “For you, ma’am?”
“I’ll have a water.”
“Water?” I nearly shouted. “But we pay for a drink with the price of the buffet.”
“I want water.” Heidi stared, daring me to say another word.
Olivia’s eyes bounced from one side of the table to the other. “Okay. Water. Got it.” She wrote herself a little note on her little pad. She clicked her pen. “The buffet is over there; y’all be sure to visit the omelet bar. Charlie makes them to order.”
I took the second plate from the top, shook off the dishwasher sweat and inspected for any baked-on crusties. I could not afford to lose my appetite on my first round. There is nothing worse than finding a piece of yesterday’s breakfast sticking to the plate like a booger to the bottom of a school desk.
The Blue-Hair and her family must have done some damage. A couple of Mexicans were bringing out fresh loads from the kitchen. They could have been twins. One of them wore a hat.
I watched as they used the serving spoons to pry up the empty pans from the steam table. After dropping in a fresh pan, they scrape the leftovers from the last on top of the new. With the eggs piled high and the bacon back above the grease line the hatless man went down the line arranging the handles of the serving spoons to the standard forty-five degree angle. The man wearing the hat followed behind with a white towel and wiped away the orphaned bites that had fallen in between. When their work was done, neither man looked to me for approval. They probably didn’t know English.
After laying a strong foundation, I started to build. Bacon strips went over eggs, sausage links were Lincoln-logged on top of sausage patties, and a pancake went over the entire construction. That would provide a little sweet taste to help balance the salty. I passed Heidi on my way out. She was talking to a woman wearing leather chaps and a skull-cap in line at the omelet bar. I should have taken her to McDonald’s. A buffet is no place for a woman. Okay, let’s do this.
Speed was my ally. Eat before the body realized it was full. That was my plan. That was how I was going to get them. I skewered a piece of pancake, egg, sausage patty and sausage link onto my fork, took a bite, reloaded, swallowed, took a bite, reloaded. Speed baby, speed. Eat now, taste later. When my plate was cleared I scooted it to the outside edge of the table and hopped out for seconds. Heidi had just placed her order.
“You should see this guy make an omelet,” she told me.
“Can’t wait. I’ve got a good pace going,” I was glad to see she was entertaining herself. I could focus.
I grabbed a plate, did a quick shake and another visual inspection. No boogers, only fork scratches from a lifetime-worth of breakfast.
I stuck with the same basic layout of my first pass, but this time, I omitted the pancake for a biscuit with gravy. I laughed at the fruit salad.
When I made it back to the table I could see Heidi had her omelet but was now rubber necking in line. I was going to have to pick up her slack. She looked like she was shopping for shoes.
I stirred the grease bubbles that were rising within the gravy. I used the edge of my fork to cut the biscuit into bite size pieces. I mixed everything together and drizzled it with syrup. I swapped over to a spoon to eat. That would cut back on drips of gravy escaping, thereby reducing sopping time.
I was finished with that round when Heidi arrived at her seat. “I can’t get over the way that Charlie can cook an omelet. He’s like one of those Japanese …” I stacked my second used plate on top of the other and left her alone to finish the sentence which was something about me being a jerk. I didn’t care.
A man doesn’t come to an all-you-can-eat buffet just to eat. He comes to win.
I began filling two plates instead of one. I covered everything with gravy. I dodged all starches and allowed myself only one biscuit per pass. Meat was king and I had him on the run. The dirty plate stack grew six inches high. With every new addition I demanded the restaurant’s attention by letting it drop into place. I was calling them out.
I was double fisting my way back to the table when Charlie spoke. “Hey buddy.”
“You want to try an omelet?” He was alone now, standing at his griddle, spinning an egg atop his wooden cutting board. Something about the way he spoke threw me off. His voice didn’t belong behind a griddle. It belonged to a drug dealer in some eighties cop movie.
“I don’t know if I can wait,” I told him.
“You won’t have to. I’ll have it ready for you when you come back.” He used his tongue to roll a toothpick from one corner of his grin to the other. “Unless you’ve already had all you can take.” The twin Mexicans stopped to watch my next move. I looked around the restaurant. Everyone was watching.
“I can go all day, Charlie.”
“It’ll be waiting for you,” and he flipped an egg into the air and caught it on the edge of the spatula. He was like one of those Japanese guys, only this was different. Charlie did it without ever taking his eyes off mine.
When I made it to the table, Heidi had not even started on her omelet. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Waiting for some ketchup. I can’t believe they don’t keep it on the table.”
I walked across the room to a waiter’s station and grabbed one of the glass bottles. With the looks I received from around the dining room, I might has well have lifted my leg and farted.
“Here you go,” I slid her the bottle.
“I already had the waitress going to get me some,” she said.
“Well, tell her somebody else already brought it to you.”
“You’re acting like a jackass.”
I took a bite and spoke around it, “Do you know how many eggs I have to eat to get $7 dollars worth?”
“You’re eating a lot more than eggs.”
I rolled my eyes to the ceiling and stared at a brown water stain. It was in the shape of an omelet. “It’s the principle, honey. These people bait us in with all-you-can-eat breakfast and then after you pay double you’d pay at a Waffle House they slow you down with omelet bars, ambiance, starches and crappy waitresses—” I stopped. Olivia had arrived, holding a ramekin of ketchup.
“Someone was in a hurry,” she flashed a nicotine-smeared smile. She took the bottle and left us with the ramekin.
“Sorry,” Heidi told her.
“It’s all right. Is everybody doing okay?” She started to grab my stack of dishes. I placed my hand over hers.
“Do you mind leaving them? I like to see what I’ve accomplished.”
“I guess I can do that,” she pulled her hand away and rubbed where I had touched as if I were the dirty one. Then she put on a smile, “Say, are you one of those professional eater guys?”
“No ma’am,” I swallowed, “I’m just a man that likes to get what he pays for.”
When I stood to my feet a burp exploded from my belly. I chewed what had followed and washed it down with a sip of coffee. Heidi hid her face behind her hand.
“Hey Big Man,” Charlie was talking to me. “Your omelet is ready.” He held up the dish. “I call it the Great Wall.” He smiled with his top teeth. They looked like the edge of a saw blade.
“My God,” Heidi exclaimed when I arrived.
“Give me some ketchup,” I said.
“You could ski down that thing.”
“Well, I’m going to eat it.”
“You’re going to be sick.”
“Just give me some ketchup.”
It was not a regulation-size omelet. It looked like a yellow circus tent with an elephant serving as the king pole. Flaps of egg hung over the outer edges of the plate. I prodded the fluffy concoction with my fork in search of signs of life. The top egg layer must have been two inches thick, leading down to a layer of cheddar. Not wanting to waste any more time, I began eating.
I ate the outer ring first. It was simple: a few green onions scattered in with chunks of bacon. As the omelet had time to cool the cheese began to stretch like taffy. The cleanliness of my chin had to be sacrificed.
Within the ring of bacon was a double stack of sausage. Charlie had used the hockey puck patties as bricks and the links as mortar. Beads of sweat settled atop my cheeks and over the bridge of my nose. There was a traffic jam somewhere above my stomach. I had to shift and shimmy my body to get things flowing again.
Then cheese took over. I had to smile. He thought he could beat me with cheese? Charlie had underestimated me. Hell, I put cheese on my ice cream.
And then, it stopped.
No more cheese.
No more bacon.
No more sausage.
All he had left me was a three inch thick layer of unseasoned egg. It was the culinary equivalent of Russia’s scorched earth policy. Rather than try and fight me, Charlie was retreating and leaving behind nothing to sustain my taste buds. The damned coward. The ketchup ramekin was empty. Olivia was off doing whatever the hell she does. I didn’t have the energy to get my own. The egg aroma radiated through my nose. Nausea was setting in.
I was going to quit when my fork tapped into a pocket of white sausage gravy. It oozed out, giving me the relief of a thirsty well digger. I caught my second wind. Feeling bold, I cut into the mountain in the middle with the edge of my fork. What I saw put my back against the pleather booth.
An unbuttered, unsalted baked potato. The gravy had stopped flowing. There was not going to be enough. That potato was going to soak up every bit of it. I was done. I had hit the wall.
I dropped the fork and closed my eyes. Charlie’s grin floated upon a cloud of steam. Somewhere in China a gong was struck. My eyes opened. The room spun. The leather-chapped lady put my arm over her shoulder.
At the register I saw Olivia roll what I had left on my plate onto a digital scale.
“I’m sorry but we have to charge you for any food waste exceeding seven ounces. It’s company policy.” Olivia told Heidi.
“That’s fine,” Heidi said from somewhere behind me.
I tried to speak, but my mouth was trying to spit out my tongue. I must have moaned.
“I know, sweetie, you tried.” Heidi comforted me. “I’m going to get you home.”
“Bless his heart,” Olivia said.
Outside, they dropped me on a bench along the sidewalk. My head rolled back onto my shoulders. Heidi went for the car.
On the bench beside me the Blue Hair was going to work on her teeth with a soggy toothpick. She was after something buried deep between her molars. Her body jolted in relief when it finally broke free.
Holding the toothpick up in the morning sunlight she inspected the piece of bacon glistening beneath a layer of saliva. She then put the end of the toothpick back into her mouth, slurped, gulped and said, “Now, that was delicious.”
About the Author
BEN THOMPSON is a firefighter/paramedic at one of the busiest fire stations in the United States. He has built fences, sold mutual funds, been a garbage man, worked on an Alaskan fishing boat and delivered flowers. Ben met his wife Katie while he was homeless in Hawaii. They currently live in Birmingham, Alabama with their two children, Koa and Amelia.