As the Queen of Situations liked to say, when Anya was good, she was very, very good. And when she was bad, she sang opera.
Like many of the restaurant’s waiters, Anya had moved to the city with a handful of youthful dreams, most of which involved a stage, an audience and dressing rooms full of lilacs. But the sheer odds against a big break had convinced her to get a night job, and she learned to content herself with turning the restaurant into her own private theater. The wine cellar became Anya’s Garnier, full of dramatic intrigue and emotional rows—while tableside became her ‘Tosca’, an occasion for a bravura performance belting out the specials and presenting the Amarone with tragicomic flair. Some nights, she’d make the busboys call her Euridice, who had been dead many times, with her tongue full of graves; on others, she’d be Dido, trailed by a cacophony of lyres and flutes, or Iphigenie, draped in her cloak of sunset colors. On special occasions, they’d salute her Aida, pearl of the Nile, mother of all merchants and mistress to the Orphic gods who trafficked in Eastern splendours.
Anya’s partner-in-crime was Vanya, a vaudevillian actor who got his start in the restaurant business doing shirtless cocktail service at a burlesque show on the Gulf. (Every time the cabaret had played the can-can, Vanya and the other waiters had to put down their drink trays and chorus-line to the music.)
When their tables were slow, Anya and Vanya disappeared to sing falsetto tunes in the barista station. Vanya was Musetta to Anya’s Mimi, Frasquita to her Carmen, Jenny Diver to her Lucy Brown. When they tired of that, they’d plot how they planned to make their fame and fortune. They were going to move to Paris and open an absinthe joint where avant-garde directors and their gaunt starlettes would dine every night. They were going to haunt the streets of Petersburg, seeking the butterfly ballerinas of the Tsar’s fallen court. They were going to show up in Bavaria for the Ring Cycle auditions, bedecked in the Rhinemaidens’ flossy tresses, undulating with the ashes of the Aesir.
Another waiter who fancied himself a man destined for the stage was Fritz. He was a regular cad, with a shock of sandy hair and a boyishly dimpled smile. When the restaurant was in full swing, he’d sweet-talk the newest waiters into taking over his tables, then saunter to the bar, hop on the great bronzed countertop, and trade card tips with Fabian until the Queen of Situations caught him and marched him back to his station.
Fritz loved two things: Fritz, and attention. If the waitresses ignored him, he’d flirt with the busboys. When that wasn’t enough, he’d corner Vanya in the wine cellar, serenading him with the lyrics to the can-can. Fritz liked to show up for service, scantily-clad, in a white and gold tunic that he had once purchased on a peregrination to Rome. He donned the robe so he could show off his muscles and tell women on the street that he was a centurion: “Fritz Federov, of the order of the Ivy.” Or sometimes, “Fritz Federov— Lover, Earth-Shaker, Golden God.”
If the waitresses, busboys, Vanya, and random strangers failed Fritz, there was one last place he could turn for company: Paulie Doyle. Paul was a career waiter, the first man hired at the restaurant, and he told people that he owned a stake in the place. A large fellow with thick fingers that gave him trouble when he had to light candles (but were brilliant at popping champagne corks) he barged through the restaurant Behemoth-like, knocking over waiter’s trays like a delirious waterspout that leaves in its wake a froth of shattered glass, broken bottles, water stirred up with flecks of nacreous vomit and sea-glints, all that detritus of the drowned. In his own mind, though, Paul was as delicate as a moonbeam.
The diners adored Paulie—it was because of the way Paul took control of the table, spreading his arms wide around the hull of the banquette as if to embrace the happy party and steer them towards gustatory lagoons of pleasure. He’d clap men on their backs, complement wives on violet-colored jewels, tickle babies and generally behave as if running for office in the Old Ward. When a four-top sat with Paulie, they sailed back to an era of Sunday dinners out with family, of congenial ruddy-cheeked barmen and big bowls of clams diavolo. To the customers, it seemed like an enchanting experience designed for them alone. It wasn’t—Paul had a routine, and used it on every table. The lynchpin in his performance was the Il Tredici Negroamaro, a hefty, chewy red—cheap enough to sell two bottles, pricey enough to make the host look classy—that Paul recommended indiscriminately. Duckling, polpo, calf’s liver, cod—there was nothing Paulie couldn’t pair with the Il Tredici Negroamaro. On a busy Saturday, there’d be Paul’s entire station, full of twenty ebullient customers guzzling Il Tredici with their scallops and their tripe.
Paulie never complained, like the other waiters did; never suffered from depressed moods or existential doubts. He was upbeat, self-assured, sturdy as an albatross. No dark corners of the mind there. It wasn’t natural happiness, though—reportedly he was just running on massive amounts of moonshine.
It’s six o’clock on a summer evening. Paulie and Fritz are standing out by the back entrance, smoking one last cigarette as the city edges into twilight. Night-walkers stroll by on the street; the sky is fretted with copper clouds. Beyond the rim of the horizon, the first stars tumble out. All over the city, at a thousand restaurants, waiters are performing this same ritual. They regard the painted sky, they talk of idle things. Inside, the kitchen is burning and bellowing. Tables are being set, lamps lit to burn the night away. But the waiters linger in the alley, their last secret space. It is from this alley one day that they will finally take off their ties and walk into the open air, away from the restaurant and all its tattered characters. They think of that day often. They do not discuss this with each other, but they all know it is coming. They long for it. They fear it, just as they fear death by water. They may be tethered for the moment, but eventually their restless natures will break free, and their souls will roam to the widest corners of the world, ravenous with desire, seeking the white foam and the breaking wave. One day, they will put themselves back on the paths of the sea.
The night Anya told Vanya her secret started out like any other night at the restaurant. Fabian was busy holding court at the bar; Art’s ballerina had shown up twice already; the Queen of Situations was cooking up some sordid plot against the chefs. It was a clear evening at the beginning of spring, when the swallows nestled in the hedges and the pear trees hung heavy with heady blooms. Anya and Vanya had been lounging in the back alley, greedily sniffing the green air and humming tunes from ‘La Vie Parisienne’. Vanya started in on their old routine—they were going to infiltrate the masquers of Venice! They were going to get cast as cigarette girls in an opera fantastique in Rome!—when Anya burst into plaintive tears. There would be no French escapades, (she said), no midnight gondolas or gaunt starlettes, for she was pregnant—five months in—and one cannot play Helen of Troy at the Winter Palace with a baby in tow.
Vanya pretended to be happy for his friend, but when Anya went inside to tell the rest of the waiters about her predicament, he, too, wept bitterly in the back alley.
As Anya’s due date approached, the restaurant began to prepare for new life to enter into the world. The bartenders mixed her special tonics, sprinkled with crushed lilac and grasshopper wings. The hostesses plaited ivy in her hair and brought her armfuls of summer flowers. And since Anya had joked about immaculate conception—at any rate, she wasn’t revealing the father’s name—the staff took to calling the baby ‘the littlest prophet.’
Only Vanya grew more and more depressed, until finally, with a week to go until the birth, he told Anya what had long been building up in his heart. He presented his offer in the barista station, site of their best performances. The Tsar’s court and Montmartre might be out of the picture, he told her, but it was not too late for them to seek a better world—for her baby should not grow up in a restaurant. Then he showed Anya an old map, with a route that wended from the city’s docks out to sea.
Anya hugged Vanya close and they both patted her belly.
A few days later, the littlest prophet was born. He had thick curls, damp against his olive skin, and his eyes were bright and shining blue, like sun on the noontime ocean.
When Anya felt strong enough, she and Vanya arranged for a boat and they led the waiters in a processional one evening down to a dock near the Hadrian baths. Paulie and Fritz carried the torches, which shone diffusely on the pavement and made everyone more golden than usual. Anya wrapped the baby in a pelt of black goat-skin and then the waiters helped shove the little boat off into the river stream. They waved as the tide guided Anya and Vanya away, past the gates of the city, heading towards the sinking sun and the incandescent horizon.
As the waves grew deep and high, and violet clouds stretched out over archipelagos without name, they showed the baby the dolphins dancing in the sunset, and the little singing pilot fish, and the winking phosphorescence twinkling in the starlight. And when the baby fretted and would not sleep, Anya sang him lullabies of lost sea voices, and he quieted and wailed no more. Out on the deep, they saw tempests churned up with sparkling sunbeams, shoals of blue-green jellyfish and millions of golden birds winging their way west. And when at last the trio found themselves lost, on a stretch of moonlit ocean where sea serpents slid darkly under the boat and underwater trees cradled the gaunt bodies of the drowned, a pod of selkies arrived to lead them along the whale-path to the Happy Isles. And that is how Anya and Vanya and the littlest prophet escaped the restaurant.
For the waiters left behind, dinner service suddenly seemed very quiet without Anya and Vanya around to belt out their brassy show tunes. Their absence also meant that Fritz and Paulie had to pick up extra tables, and soon the heavy load caused Fritz to act particularly naughty. He took to showing up late and flirting with the hostesses instead of polishing the silver. He accosted the waitresses with inappropriate innuendo. He wrote down his orders all wrong—tunny-fish instead of dorade, pork chops instead of the vongole—and then skirted off to the pastry kitchen to serenade the dessert chefs as his station went up in flames.
After a few weeks of this nonsense, Olympe decided it was time for the ‘Golden God’ to go. She would fire Fritz at the end of the next dinner service. He was a marked man—and the Queen of Situations always got her mark.
The next evening, Fritz was late for work again, and so the restaurant was packed with people by the time he traipsed knavishly through the door. Olympe trembled as she thought of how she would deliver the fatal coup in a few short hours. The skin on her ivory arms prickled and her throat closed in ravished excitement.
But at that very moment, Fritz made a shocking announcement. He wouldn’t be staying long (just a few moments to say goodbye to the busboys), for he had been cast in a play and rehearsals started that same fortnight.
It seemed improbable but it was true: Fritz had been crowned the newest member of a troupe of itinerant actors, who wandered around far-flung festivals and juggling shows in the hopes of one day making it to the grand stages of the world. The fellowship was headed up by a flamboyant baritone named Zagreus, who had a barrel chest and a flair for playing villains. Fritz had been hired to serve as Zagreus’ understudy and to carry the master’s luggage.
For a time, Fritz sent postcards back home to the hostesses, telling the sylphs about his newest roles and all the splendid places he was seeing. Here he was in a crumbling stadium overlooking the Aegean; here he was at a country fair in Cornwall, dressed as a pauper while Zagreus waltzed about as Merlin. Fritz complained about the troupe’s petty power struggles—Zagreus, it seemed, was a bit overbearing and rarely let Fritzie out of his sight—and confided that he felt destined for greater things than playing a servant.
Eventually, his missives grew shorter and more infrequent, and one day, they stopped altogether. The last the hostesses heard, Fritz was headed to Seville to perform as a lame bull opposite Zagreus’s Toreador. In his final words, he mentioned that he dreamed of escaping from the troupe for a few hours to taste the fresh oranges growing on the trees, and to climb the sultan’s tower in the coolness of day, and to get lost in the labyrinths carving the stark Andalusian desert.
“More soon, my lovelies,” Fritz had scrawled, his pen trailing off the page. “Must hide—Zagreus is coming.”
Fritz’s epistles always annoyed Olympe, for they reminded her that she’d been cheated of a firing. But soon enough, one of her spies noticed that Paulie Doyle was acting peculiar, and a few simple espionage maneuvers caught the waiter in a clandestine racket with the chefs.
At precisely eight each evening, Paulie would order three shots of wormwood and deposit them in the barista station. A few minutes later, Chef Gong would skulk out of the kitchen and swill down the bootleg liquor. Their rudimentary ruse elated Olympe—liquor theft was the owner Frank Pittura’s bête noire—and so she had her spy “discover” Paulie and the chef in the middle of a handoff one busy Friday night.
Olympe practically pulled Frankie back to the barista station to watch him confront the criminals. Mr. Gong said nothing, just clutched the shots to his round little chest and hid his face behind his veil of silvery hair. But when Paulie sheepishly fessed up, Frank’s face contorted darkly.
“You traitor!” Frank Pittura shrieked. “You Judas! You lowlife scum!”
Paulie was a much larger man than Frankie, but at that moment, he looked very small as he stood and let Frank’s spittle spatter across his shirt.
After Frank’s tirade, the owner announced he had a headache and was returning early to the countryside with his daughter. He said Paulie should vacate the premises. He did not (to Olympe’s dismay) mention any repercussions for Mr. Gong.
Paul shuffled slowly back to his station. There, he poured out the remaining glasses of Il Tredici Negroamaro, and joked wistfully with his favorite regulars about their girlfriends and wives. One by one, his tables ate and paid and sighed full sighs and said goodbye. And then Paulie’s station was empty.
Up in the front, the restaurant’s lights were winking off for the night. Paul removed his tie and laid it across the back of one of the soft banquettes. He walked past the great bronzed bar, pausing a moment to run his fingers along its refulgent countertop. And then Paul left the restaurant.
After his exile, Paulie was a man untethered. Eventually, through a friend of Fabian’s, he found work at a tavern down by the crayfish docks on Sosostris Street. It was a workaday joint, with sawdust on the floor and only winter beer to sell—but the patron was kind and the hearth was warm, and there was an old wolf-dog who liked to rub his nose against Paulie’s legs. As the fishermen slouched into the tavern after their rough shifts, Paul would haul them tankards of ale and exchange a few words about the perils of the catch and the latest shipwrecks. When the men got drunk, they would try to get Paulie to sing a few lines of their trawling songs (“Thalatta! Thalatta! The Sea! The Sea!”) and join in their simple betting games. But even as he collected their empty glasses and watched over their idle chatter, Paul felt as far removed from the pomors as if he were a wretched hermit who lived way off by the milky rivers, some lonely guardian long ago cast out of paradise.
Every so often, on his way home from the tavern, Paulie would pass by the wide boulevard that led to the restaurant. There it stood, under the shadow of the juniper trees, flickering in the darkness. He could smell its splendid magic still shimmering on the wind like incense. And then Paulie’s dead heart would stir, and his soul would be consumed by insatiable flames, and he would ache for all he had lost.
Everyone at the restaurant was very sorry to see Paulie go, but they took an instant liking to his replacement. Chaude was a dancer, a pert and cheerful little soubrette who had taken up cocktail waitressing in between stints as a sugar-plum. With her lithe limbs and her halcyon voice, all tangled with ivy and honey, she breathed an air of dulcet sweetness into each night at the restaurant.
When Chaude came pirouetting through the bar, Frank’s torrid tempers eased and Art felt his despair evaporating like a midday mist. The hostesses quickly adopted her as an honorary water-sprite. Even the regulars tried to be on their best behavior, for they noticed how Chaude was kind to outcasts like the card sharp and Progonnaya. Indeed, she seemed to throw off sparks of light everywhere she stepped.
Yes, Chaude’s arrival pleased everyone—everyone, that is, except Fabian.
When Chaude twirled over to pick up a cocktail, the bartender would grunt at her gruffly, avoiding her eyes as he poured out the drink. If Fabian’s lady friends stopped by to flirt, he’d make an ostentatious show of peacocking around in front of them as he ignored Chaude’s orders. And at the end of the dinner shift, when Chaude sang her melodious goodbyes to the bar, Fabian could never be found (though sometimes the busboys spied him hiding out with Art in the wine room) until the waitress had long since pliéd out the door.
A month after Chaude’s arrival, on a weekend at the start of the harvest and hunting season, the bar regular Theonian stopped by the restaurant with a trio of opiated models. The girls looked more feline than human, the type of gorgeous cruel leopards who could make a man sick with desire and then dine on his quivering heart. One of them had on an iridescent pearl bracelet, which she tugged at with her long nails while Theonian talked stock tips with the bartenders and ordered extra rounds of vodka.
It was a busy night, and the bar was packed three deep, so perhaps Theonian did not notice—or perhaps he did not care—when his date’s bracelet broke, sending the pearls scattering under the tables and behind the hostess stand.
The three girls mewled distraughtly. Theonian ignored them.
Chaude did see the bouncing orbs, however, for she scooped up the jewels one by one, cupping them gently in the palm of her hand.
When Chaude presented her caché to Theonian’s drugged dates, the girls let out pantherine cries of delight and caressed the waitress’s arm enticingly. It was then that Theonian finally looked over at his harem and saw Chaude for the first time. His pupils dilated and he smiled in a way that flashed his small white teeth.
He wanted to thank the girl for her help, Theonian said, leaning over and gripping Chaude tightly by the back of her neck.
Chaude looked startled and struggled to break free, but Theonian held her close. His gaze lingered lasciviously on her limpid eyes.
Just then, Fabian’s fist flew through the air, crunching into Theonian’s nose and knocking him backwards into the busy crowd.
The bar erupted in pandemonium. Theonian’s dates keened and pawed at each other. Chaude dashed to the hostess stand, where the nereids formed a protective shield around her. The busboys, who had heard the commotion from the kitchen, ran to Fabian’s side, wielding pepper mills like tridents.
Theonian lay on the floor. Stray pearls dribbled down upon his head from one of his agitated wildcats. When he woozily lifted a hand and placed it to his face, it came back stained with bright red blood.
Glaring through his sticky scarlet haze at Fabian, Theonian commanded his dates to help him up. The girls whimpered and yowled, but somehow they propped him between their gaunt bodies, wobbling like three fallen Caryatids trying to hold aloft the pieces of a broken urn. Then the sorry party limped haltingly out the door.
For a week after the brawl, Chaude was too shy to ask Fabian for her drink orders and blushed every time she caught sight of him. But soon they were chatting about the fight like old friends.
Not long after that, Fabian started making an extra effort to clean up for dinner service, braiding his glossy hair into a sleek bun and buttoning his shirt respectably. Then Chaude took to waiting for him by the back entrance after he ended his shift. They started to pass notes back and forth across the bar, teasing each other like giddy schoolchildren. Finally, the busboys caught them snuggling in the barista station and then the whole restaurant knew: Chaude and the bartender were in love.
By the winter’s end, on a night when the stars hung low in the western sky and the crescent moon resembled the white horns of a bull, Fabian got down on his knees during the middle of dinner service and asked Chaude to elope. When she said yes, the busboys banged on tambourines, and the hostesses wrapped the bride in ribbons and carried her out to a great sled that Progonnaya had procured to spirit the lovers away. The chariot, carved by the finest woodsmiths in Kamchatka (or so Progonnaya said), was inlaid with malachite and rare gemstones and covered with scenes of winged cupids bearing golden chalices. The sleigh’s four black horses stamped and chomped in the frosty air.
The hostesses tied laurels of holly to the back of the sled, and filled the seats high with silks and sumptuous furs. Then Fabian took the reins from Progonnaya and drove the team down the empty streets of the city. The sea-girls cheered as the sleigh disappeared into the star-strewn solstice silence, vibrating as it went with the most radiant kind of light.