Seven Reasons Jerome Likes Sizzler
by Tom Lavagnino
Reason one: The tables.
The tables at Sizzler are huge. Jerome has his favorite. In the corner, near the window. First thing, salt and pepper shakers get moved aside. A-1 and ketchup bottles, too. Then Jerome pulls out the sports section. Opens to baseball. Snaps it across the tabletop. Jerome spreads his fingers, makes the newspaper flat. An almost perfect fit to the table. Then leans forward. Starts in on yesterday’s box scores. His favorite teams in each league. The Reds. The Twins. Paying particular attention to his preferred statistical category. NP. "Number of pitches thrown." Then glances up across the expanse of the Sizzler.
* * *
Reason two: The Hibachi chicken.
There's something about the way they cook it. Combined with the teriyaki-barbeque sauce. Jerome can't get enough of it. Has to have it twice a week for dinner. He works around the corner. DB Enterprises. Post-production sound for film and television. Four PM to one AM shift. His project tonight: a rap video filmed in a sewer. Full of gunfire. Needing echoes. Jerome knows how to make videos "echo-filled." Takes twenty minutes. Billed out at four hours. As per Stu, the boss. Jerome knows how to bill hours. Stare at monitors, push buttons. Walk the halls, back-and-forth, carrying pieces of paper dotted with time-code. Jerome hunkers down. Getting deeper and deeper into the numbers. The NP's. Every team played yesterday, although the standings haven't changed appreciably. Jerome looks up again. This time, he smiles.
* * *
Reason three: No tipping.
Well, no required tipping. But you can tip at Sizzler if you want. Jerome always tips. Even though you order at the counter. You pay first, like at McDonald's. You get a cafeteria-style tray with your receipt. You take it and sit wherever you like. At the big table, near the window, if you like. So the light from the streetlights can illuminate your box scores. If that's what you like. The Sizzler server stops by your table. He or she examines the receipt, confirms what you've ordered. If you've ordered a "side salad"--instead of the full-fledged, all-you-can-eat "soup and salad bar"--he or she asks what kind of dressing you'd like on your "side salad." Jerome always orders the "side salad." Always takes pains to debate the relative merits of the various salad dressing options with the server. Because it leads to more one-on-one interaction with the server. With Monica.
* * *
Reason four: Monica.
"How are we today, Mr. Baseball?"
Monica is in her early twenties. Vaguely Hispanic. Dark black hair, dark brown eyes. Not knock-'em-dead attractive. Nevertheless the highlight of Jerome's day. Every day. Especially the days he doesn’t see her. She wears a shade of pink lipstick tonight that reminds Jerome of a gum he used to chew. "What's on, Monn?" he says.
"Oh, you know--another day in paradise."
Jerome always smiles when she says that. She reminds him of a girl he went to high school with—-a stunning Latina with perpetually wet hair. They’d shared two classes, senior year, but never spoke. Never made eye contact. Unlike Monica, who looked at him, talked to him, right from the beginning. She asked Jerome about a song playing over the restaurant p.a., that first night. He recognized it as "Vincent," the old chestnut by Don McClean. Monica asked if it was about Vincent Price—-"you know, from the 'Thriller' video." Jerome corrected her. She nodded, smiled. Genuinely smiled. Never looked at him quite the same way again. Like he was somebody smart, not a sound editor. Like somebody whose knowledge of life extended beyond ProTools. It felt good. It feels good. Jerome likes the way Monica's eyes are working tonight. Then realizes they're working maybe a little too hard tonight. Something's amiss tonight.
"Now, I forget--what kinda dressing you want," she sighs, "on that usual side salad?"
"Tough night, huh?"
"I'm not gonna stand here and lie to you, but—-yeah." Monica starts to say something more, but chokes it back. Abruptly steals a glance over her shoulder. Then looks back at Jerome, whispers out of the side of her mouth. "Tough customer," she says. "Third night in a row he's here. And tonight? Seven trips to the salad bar—-so far-—and made me refill his Pepsi every time I turn around."
Jerome has never come in three nights in a row. Not that he hasn't wanted to. He thinks about Monica on the nights he goes to McDonald’s. Or Coco’s. But never wanted to seem pushy. Never wanted to seem like a stalker. Even though he’s neither.
"Why can't you pull the ol' 'We reserve the right to refuse service' thing?" asks Jerome.
"I already asked my manager about that, he says we can't."
"The customer is always right."
"The customer is always creepy."
Jerome starts to laugh--but Monica gives him a look, and he deftly stifles it. She’s not kidding around. Clearing her throat, lowering her voice an octave. "Jose was back at the dumpster, says the guy's truck's got an Oklahoma license plate."
"That's a long way away from here." Jerome is careful to drain the comment of levity before he says it. He folds the sports section closed. Stuffs it into the chair next to him. His full attention on Monica. Concentrating on the need to take this seriously. This opportunity.
"How, exactly, is he creeping you out?" Jerome asks.
"By the way he looks at me."
"Like majorly looking at my crotch every time I walk by."
Jerome considers this. It's the first time Monica has used the word "crotch" in front of him. That any woman has used a word like "crotch" in his presence. He tenses involuntarily, wonders what to say next, can’t think of anything.
Monica leans down to him. Her hand is two inches from Jerome’s. He can feel its heft on the table.
"Then," Monica says softly, "there's the things he’s been actually saying to me."
"Like last night? Said the "f" word--I think. And then--tonight? Something about how tonight he's going to make sure and hang around till closing."
Jerome turns to look at the guy for the first time. Concentrates-—and makes sure Monica sees he's concentrating. She's not asking his advice about who sang some song. This is significant, tonight.
The guy in question is forty-five feet away, on the other side of the salad bar. Wearing a gimme cap the color of Astroturf. Sloppy grey stubble covering the back of his neck. Sloppy grey stubble discernable from forty-five feet away says a lot about somebody, Jerome thinks. He turns back to Monica, gives her a conspiratorial look.
"You want to know what's a shame?" asks Jerome, gulping.
"That I can't just kill him for you, leave him in the dumpster out back."
"Yeah," she chuckles. The air around the table instantly belly-flops. Monica stands up straight, quickly glances to the floor, then back at Jerome. Her voice goes to a dB level Jerome is intimately familiar with: A hair above a discernable whisper. "It's too bad you can't do that."
"You know what would happen if I did?"
"You'd have to go out with me, finally."
Monica smiles. That pink gum grin. "You're right," she says, "I would."
"I guess I'd kinda have to," Monica looks him straight in the eye. Taking her time with what she says next. “Wouldn't I?"
Jerome hesitates, then raises a finger at her. Gesturing to come down to his level. He forms the question in his mind. Then asks the question.
* * *
Reason five: They give the servers a pretty free hand.
No ridiculous uniforms. No insipid patter. They can be themselves. Ed, who used to work here, had a stud in his chin. Monica, who's been here three months, can be Monica. She can slip somebody an extra baked potato if she feels like it. An extra portion of hibachi chicken, with extra teriyaki-barbeque sauce, if she's in the mood. If she wants to do a little sleuthing, she can. Find somebody's credit card receipt from the night before. Use it to access the credit card company's number, find out more about somebody, if she wants. And if she wants to pass the information along to somebody, she can do that, too. Without anybody getting into a fuss about it.
* * *
Reason six: Sharp knives.
Considering it's a family restaurant, the steak knives are surprisingly sharp. Jerome unwraps his from the napkin as Monica starts across the Sizzler with his freshly-cooked chicken. It’s late. The restaurant virtually deserted. Jerome’s hands shake. His knife shimmers in the refracted streetlight. He catches Monica in the reflection. Arriving at the table in a water spot. She's smiling. No, actually, she's not. Jerome summons a grin, turns, looks up to her. Grips the handle of the knife without looking at it. His breathing suddenly irregular. He ignores the steaming baked potato, the beckoning Hibachi. Although he's looking forward to it. Really looking forward to it.
* * *
Reason seven: They don't lock their dumpsters.
Tom Lavagnino kicks ass.