A sinking feeling outside a Memphis seafood restaurant

July 30—To her credit, Mandy knew our meal would be disastrous before we even set foot inside the restaurant.

“That’s not a good sign,” she said, or something, as we pulled into the parking lot and found a prime spot near the front door.

“What isn’t? I said as I looked at the joint through the rear view mirror. The building was a sprawling complex of square shapes painted all the dark reds and off-whites any respectable seafood restaurant should have.

“It’s noon on a Monday,” she said. “The parking lot is empty.”

It was true. A small number of vehicles dotted the huge parking lot, which shared space with a nearby shopping mall. Tumbleweeds rolled by as I scanned an unusually desolate landscape for what was ostensibly lunchtime for all but the night shift workers and Lost Boys.

“Well, Google reviews are good,” I said. So I offered to take us somewhere else.

“No,” she said. “Let’s try.”

And that’s what we’ve done. It was our mistake.

—-

The towel rack was our second red flag.

“Why is everything sticky? Mandy said, rubbing grease between her fingers.

Before I could respond, the server appeared.

“Hi,” she said to us with much the same affection I would give to a discarded cup of chewing tobacco. She told us her name, then scribbled an illegible version on the butcher paper covering our table. “What can I get you?”

I told him we were both going to order the fish and chips lunch special with a calamari appetizer. For drinks, I said, my wife wanted an unsweetened tea. Just water for me, please.

“OK,” she told me, then turned to Mandy. “And for you?”

Mandy and I looked at each other warily, then turned back to the waiter.

“I…uh…want the fish and chips too,” she said.

“Oh, yeah,” the waitress replied, scribbling something furiously in her little book. “I understood.”

She then disappeared for about 10 minutes. When she returned, she was carrying two glasses of water. She threw them on the table and then left. We wouldn’t see her again at our table for about 45 minutes.

“Do you want me to flag someone down and see if we can’t get the tea you ordered?” I said to Mandy, who was shaking her head as she looked at the glass of water.

“No, just make sure we’re not charged for it.”

After ages, one of the cooks pulled out the dehydrated, rubbery husks of our fried calamari; some time later, another cook took out the dehydrated, flavorless shells of the fried fish. We ate our food in silent disappointment.

“When do you think she’ll be back?” Mandy said after about 30 minutes of picking up our food.

“As soon as she finishes her conversation with the other employees,” I told her, pointing to the booth at the back of the restaurant where several restaurant staff had been seated for half an hour. It was the only table within half a mile that had someone in it. Besides ours, of course.

As most parties do, this one eventually broke up. I watched our waiter walk to the back.

“The check should arrive soon,” I said. “I’m so sorry I chose this place. You were right. It’s awful.”

Mandy nodded and told me she’d seen enough shows based on Gordon Ramsay to spot the warning signs.

“Here it is,” I said, taking my wallet out of my pocket. “I’ll toss her the credit card when she hands us the check so we don’t have to wait another hour for her to come back.”

But she didn’t give us the check. Instead, our server placed a single glass of unsweetened tea on the table between us.

“Here,” she said.

Mandy and I looked at each other, then her.

“Uh…we don’t want that,” I told him.

She looked taken aback.

“You do not have?”

“No I said. “We’re done. We would like the check, please.”

“Oh,” she said. “OK. I’ll be right back.”

She was not.

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