Dinner at the Delphi

An aura of absolute authority covered the maitre’de. He stood behind the lectern, his hands clutching it, like a judgmental gargoyle. No, Zane corrected himself. It was more like St. Peter at the pearly gates, but without the slightest drop of mercy in his heart. Only the maitre’de knew your final destination, but he waited for you to dare approach before handing over the keys or pushing the secret button that sent you plummeting to damnation. Or at least the burger joint down the street.

Zane had booked his reservation a week in advance, but his knees still weakened as the guardian of The Delphi gestured for him to step forward. The maitre’de, his eyes darkened slits, his eyebrows furrowed, his neat little mustache somehow scowling, fixed Zane with stare, neither kind nor cruel, but full of unspoken judgments.

“I have a reservation,” said Zane.

The maitre’de nodded as he ran his finger down the registry. “Ah, yes. Party of one, sir.”

“It’s two, actually.”

The maitre’de’s unhappy mustache softened. It wasn’t happy, but it was probably as close to happy as it ever got. “Right this way, sir.”

“But I didn’t tell you my name.”

“No need, sir. You have been expected.”

He walked away without a backward glance, trusting Zane would follow. They marched through the crowded restaurant.

The Delphi was unfamiliar territory for Zane. He was a fast food guy. He cooked a little, but nothing more complicated than a simple lasagna or casserole. Sometimes, when he was treating himself he’d go to Olive Garden.

The Delphi was higher end. Not the highest, but the staff all wore crisp uniforms. The lighting was low enough to be intimate without presumptuous, and the customers were dressed up. He’d bought a jacket and tie for the occasion but the light blue tie clashed with the muted colors of the restaurant and its other occupants.

The maitre’de marched through the bustle with a steady pace as the rest of the restaurant moved around them with immaculate precision. Not a single stride was broken by a single person, aside from a stumble from Zane. Even that seemed to be built into the calculations of the humming machine that was The Delphi.

They stopped before a small table, just large enough for two. The maitre’de pulled out a chair for Zane, who awkwardly sat.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’m a little early, but blind date, y’know. Kind of nervous.”

“We know, sir.”

“I haven’t been out in a long time. Not since . . . .”

He drew in a deep nervous breath.

“You don’t care about that. Sorry.”

The maitre’de almost smiled. “No need to apologize. We at The Delphi care, sir.”

Zane scanned for sarcasm. He didn’t detect any, but also, he probably wasn’t sophisticated to catch the brand used by the maitre’de.

“I’m a little early,” said Zane. “Can you direct my date when she gets here?”

It was a dumb question. It was the guy’s job.

“Your second party will not be joining us this evening, sir. Car accident, I’m afraid.”

“What?” Zane checked his phone. No missed calls. “Did she call the restaurant? Is she okay?”

“No call is expected, but there is no need for great concern. Merely a fender bender, sir. Mostly an inconvenience, though it will serve as a funny story to tell at her wedding. The day her future husband rear ended her before she even learned his name, she’ll say many many times over the years with a ribald grin.”

The maitre’de bowed his head slightly.

“You’ll enjoy your meal.”

He was gone before Zane could ask anything else. Zane sat at the table with its two place settings and chairs and single candle centerpiece.

He didn’t know Mary well. Didn’t know her at all. A friend of a friend of a friend. They’d talked briefly on the phone, but both had been too busy for weeks. It was only through a series of texts that they’d managed to set this up.

As the phone rang, he knew it was a mistake. Now he’d look like the kind of guy who was too inflexible or too eager or too something. Something bad.

Mary picked up. “Hey, I’m on my way. I’m sorry if I’m running a little–”

There was the distinct sound of something crunching into something else.

“Ah, son of a bitch. Some idiot just hit me. Can I call you back?”

“Sure, that’s fine. Let me know-”

The call cut off. The server cleared her throat to announce her presence. She was a tall, thin figure in a button-upped vest. Everything about her was technically perfect. Not a single hair out of place. Not a single eyelash. Not a wrinkle in her clothes. Her posture suggested a stone column from which the Earth itself had grown.

“I didn’t get a menu,” he said.

“You’ll have the fish,” she said.

Zane set down his phone. “Actually, my date just canceled, and I’m not really that hungry.”

“Nonsense. You skipped lunch, unless you count an old package of peanuts you found in your glove box, which you shouldn’t.”

“How did you . . . . ?”

“It’s our business to know. You’re free to go home, of course, but that personal pepperoni pizza waiting in your freezer will fill your belly, but it won’t ease the disappointment in your gut.”

“I’m not disappointed. I didn’t even know her.”

“But aren’t those the most troubling disappointments? Those little moments that could have been. The what-if’s and the never-was’s. They weight heavily upon us, don’t they?”

“Yeah.” He hunched over the table. “She seemed nice, I think.”

“She is, but she’s not here now, is she?”

She stepped away. A woman in a nearby table jostled her wine glass. It swayed, threatening to topple over, until the server steadied it with a single finger. She returned to Zane’s table, ducking under a tray.

A glance around showed the rest of the staff working with equal exactness. A man dropped his knife and a server instantly deposited a clean one next to his plate. Another table had an empty soup bowl cleared away the moment the spoon was set down, replacing it with the next course.

“Is everyone here psychic?” he asked.

“Most everyone. Though the term psychic is a bit generic. None of us can start fires with our minds or levitate cars. I prefer the term oracle, myself.”

“Most everyone?”

“Not the chef,” the Oracle said, “but he makes up for it with a terrific duck l’orange.”

“I’ll have that then.”

“No, sir. You’ll have the fish.”

“I don’t usually care for fish.”

“You’ll want to wait for this fish.”

“I’m not going to win this argument, am I?”

“Not if you trust me,” said the Oracle. “And you should. I’m afraid we’ve fallen a little behind tonight.”

“How can a psychic restaurant fall behind?” he asked.

“There are some mysteries beyond anyone’s understanding,” she replied. “It will be forty-eight minutes before the fish is ready. It will be worth the wait.”

He shrugged. “Whatever. Not like I’m doing anything else tonight.”

“Very good. I’ll bring some bread and a Diet Coke with a squirt of lemon.”

He almost protested, but then said, “I’ll like it.”

She smiled, and he felt reassured. “We at The Delphi appreciate a discerning guest.”

She disappeared into the kitchen.

Zane amused himself by watching the restaurant. It was quite a show in itself. It was like seeing the world the way it should work, but also uncanny and dehumanizing. He saw The Delphi as a clockwork machine, each person merely a component doing its job. Even the customers, though unaware, were still only parts of a single perfectly functioning whole.

The Oracle brought his bread and beverage.

“Why a restaurant?” he asked.

“Why not a restaurant?” she replied.

She grinned coyly, and he thought that might be the only answer he would get.

“Do you really want to know?” she said.

“I don’t know. Do I?”

“Now you’re getting it.”

The Oracle sat at the empty chair at his table. It felt like something forbidden.

“The Delphi has existed in one form or another, since the first shaman read the first omen in the fresh born stars. But even prophets and soothsayers have to make a living. Prophecy is a tough business. Someone gets a lousy future, they tend to blame the messenger. And they never want to pay. We started serving food to cover expenses. Also, a good meal can make bad news easier to stomach. Pun intended.”

“It must be tough knowing the future,” he said.

“Not really. No tougher than not knowing it. We all make tomorrow with our choices. The only difference between you and me, Zane, is that I’m generally less surprised.”

“I didn’t tell you my name.”

She winked. “You didn’t have to.”

The Oracle returned to work. It was only after she was gone that he thought he should’ve asked her name. It seemed only fair.

Was she flirting with him? He didn’t think so. It was too easy to read the friendliness of wait staff for something more. He did not want to be that guy.

He spotted her across the room, taking another order. Her back was to him, but she turned her head to the side and smiled at him again.

He lowered his eyes and blushed, like a schoolboy unsure of how to talk to girls. It wasn’t too far off. He’d gotten married pretty young, and after the divorce he’d floundered. Now he was here stood up, eating alone. But it wasn’t so bad.

The empty chair and place setting across the table meant something, too. Nothing happened in The Delphi that didn’t mean something. Someone would be sitting there. He just had to wait.

She brought the fish out at the forty-eight minute mark. He hadn’t been keeping time, but he just knew. She set the plate before him, and while it looked perfectly cooked, it didn’t look to change his opinion on fish in general.

“You’re sure I’m going to like this?” he asked.

“I’m sure.” She loosened her tie and sat in the other chair. “It’s Cassandra, by the way, but most people call me Cassie.”

Her veneer of perfection fell away. He noticed a cowlick in the back of her hair, and two wrinkles on her collar. She slouched in the chair and unbuttoned her vest, taking a breath.

“Do you mind if I join you?” she said. “My feet are killing me, and I’m starving.”

“Are you allowed?”

She laughed with a little snort at the end. “The boss will call me in tomorrow, but he won’t fire me.”

Another server set a steak before her.

“Thanks, Laocoon,” she said. “You’re a lifesaver.”

She cut into it and took a bite, savoring it. “Best thing they serve here.”

“But you recommended the fish,” said Zane.

“The fish takes longer to make,” she said. “I didn’t get off until now.”

She took a piece of bread from the basket.

“Cassandra, huh?” he said. “You know, in mythology Cassandra was destined to know the future and never be believed.”

Her smile dropped. “Oh, really? Never heard that one before.”

He took a drink of his soda while figuring out the best way to apologize.

Her smile returned. “You’re cute when you’re embarrassed. Let me ask you something, Zane. If I told you that we’d be moving in together in three months, would you believe me?”

“That seems fast.”

“Who are we to fight fate?”

She put her hand on his. His heart didn’t race. He felt something else, something better. Like he’d known her forever, and that everything in his life lead to this moment. Which was true about every moment, when he thought about it.

“I’d believe anything you told me,” he said.

He took a bite of his fish. It was good, but fishy. Not something he’d order again.

“Well?” Cassie raised an eyebrow with a knowing grin.

Zane held up his glass, and she tapped hers against it.

“Worth the wait.”

 

 

 

 

8 Replies to “Dinner at the Delphi”

  1. Nice twist. I like the tension between what Zane expects to happen, and what actually happens. It keeps the reader on their toes. I like that he didn’t like the fish. I wish some unexpected feeling also happened at the end, rather than the one the reader had begun to suspect/expect..

  2. This was darling and funny – and of COURSE her name is Cassandra. What else would it be? Seriously, great little story, feels like hiring a dating service from the Twilight Zone. Also, I think I need to find this restaurant.

  3. Loved it Alex. The premis was exticing in that weird and funny way caugt me off guard:

    “But even prophets and soothsayers have to make a living. Prophecy is a tough business. Someone gets a lousy future, they tend to blame the messenger. And they never want to pay. We started serving food to cover expenses.”

    The twist or more a turn at the end is really nice and fit perfectly.

    Well done.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.