The Table

The highway beside the restaurant was busy with vacationers. SUVs and swollen sedans blurred past, like streaks of white and orange raindrops on a window. The couple who were not vacationers ate dinner outside under the screened porch, alone at a large, wooden table.

            “Alright, what about this,” he said, holding his half-full beer glass, “have you ever thought about all the people who’ve eaten at this table?”

            “Today?” she asked.

            “No,” he said. “Ever.”

            “I don’t get it.” She was tapping the table with her fingernail, tic-tic-tic.

            He took a drink. “Think about it. Just tonight— ” he broke off as the server laid the bill between them and took his plate, empty but for some bits of lettuce smeared around in a watery bath of sour cream. When the server was gone, he said, “Just tonight I’ll bet seventy people have sat at this table.”

            She touched each finger of one hand with the index finger of her other hand, figuring the tip.

            “Nine is plenty,” he said.

            She wrote the number down and looked at it doubtfully, still tapping a finger.

            “The lunch service was probably half that, so, we’ll round up to one hundred people in a day.”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Multiply that,” he went on, “by three hundred days. So that’s thirty thousand right there, just in a year.”

            “A lot.”

            “And how many years, do you think?”

            “How many years what?”

            “Has this table been alive?”

            “I don’t know.”

            He reached out and took her hand, stopping the tapping.

            “Okay,” she said, leaning back. “Let’s say, ten years.”

            “So that’s 300,000 people. Think about that! About all the meals and drinks and conversations. The first dates. The last dates.”

            The patio was filled with families and children. Their table was the only one without children. A little boy wandered the room. He said to another child, “Ya-ya,” and the other child turned away.

            “That’s a lot of people,” she said. “But I bet none of them were in love like us.” She scrunched her face at him and then brought the bill close to count again. She tapped her finger as she thought. When she looked up, he was waiting. “What?” she said. “I don’t feel any connection with them, if that’s what you’re asking.”

            “You don’t?”

            She shrugged. “Nope.”

            “Okay!” He leaned forward. “That’s sensible. How could you when you’ve never met any of them?”

            “Do you?”

            “Not with anyone in particular. But I do feel connected with something.”

            “It’s probably our love,” she said scrunching her face again.

            “Please.”

            “Please what?”

            He tried again. “Can you see how we’re sharing something with countless people?”

            “Where is that— crying coming from?”

            “A baby,” he said, leaning back. “Over in the corner.”

            She made a grunting sound and crossed out the tip she’d added to the bill. He took a long drink of beer and caressed the table’s dozens of scars, little pockmarks and commas in the wood.

            She finally looked up. “What is it?”

            “Nothing, I guess.”

            “Oh, come on,” she said. “Speak your truth.”

            He took another drink of beer and swirled what was left in the glass. “My truth?”

            “You didn’t like my response,” she said, watching his face now. “You never do.”

            “Well,” he said. “It was pretty lousy.”

            “Would you prefer I just agree with you?”

            “I don’t want you to agree. I just can’t stand you never being interested.”

            “I am interested. We talked about it, and then it was over,” she said. “What else do you want?”

            “Nothing. I’m fine.”

            “I know when you’re fine, and this is not fine.”

            “I’m not fine, then.”

            “So, what’s wrong?”

            “Nothing’s wrong.”

            “You’re trying to make me feel crazy.”

            He muttered something.

            “What was that?”

            “I said traffic is getting bad.”

            Across the road, someone laid on their horn for three, full seconds. Trying to stay with him now, she leaned forward and said, “It’ll take us half an hour to get home, won’t it?”

            He swirled his glass, but it was empty now. “I just thought we could talk, talk about nothing, I guess, and enjoy it.”

            “Is that what you want?”

            “It’s something.”

            “It’s always something.”

            “Yes,” he said. “It takes work.”

            “But we do pretty good,” she said cheerfully. “Don’t we?”

            The little boy suddenly slapped their table. “Ya-ya.”

            “Hello.” She turned to him and scrunched her face. “Aren’t you adorable?”

            “He is, isn’t he?” He smiled at this and sat up straight again. “Where’s the waiter? Let’s have another drink until traffic let’s up.”

            “I’ll wave him down.”

            “I don’t want this to be difficult,” he said then, leaning in. “I won’t be bothered if you don’t want to keep up.”

            She waved at the server. “I never want that.”

            He leaned closer. “What? You never want what?”

           “That— that screaming child.”

            He finally set his empty glass down and leaned back.

            “What’s wrong, now?”

            “Nothing’s wrong. I don’t want a drink.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because I don’t.”

            “What do you want?”

            “Can’t we just talk? Can we not just talk without a drink?”

            “It was your idea to have a drink!”

            “Yes, but only because I wanted you to talk to me.”

            “That’s not fair,” she said. “You know that’s not fair.”

            The server arrived. “What can I do for you?”

            He handed the server his glass. Then, he took the bill and marked through the tip she’d written. He wrote a different number and handed the bill to the server. “Thank you, we’re fine.”

            The two of them sat quietly. He watched the parade of cars, all glinting steel and dull plastic. Through the dark windows, faces floated along, illuminated blue, marching slowly, painfully south to the town where the couple lived.

            “What do you want to do?” she asked. “We can do anything you want.”

            “To go home.”

            “Is that all?”

            “Yes,” he said, standing. “What else?”

Will Hearn grew up in Mississippi and after five years out West now lives on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. His fiction has appeared in Visitant Literature, Boiler Journal, and soon forthcoming in Louisiana Literature, among others. He is a full-time firefighter and story writer. He's on Instagram and Twitter @will__hearn.