“THE RESTAURANT OF OBSCURE SORROWS isn’t the best place to work,” I told Alice, “but at least there’s no surprise disappointments … except, when it’s the special.”
“Surprise disappointment,” Alice said, one finger raised in the air like she was a game show contestant, “is sprinkled with sage, the sweat of the hopeful, and sautéed in dragon’s blood!”
“Uh, yes. That’s correct,” I said.
“I’ve studied the menu, Mya,” she said; her voice was small and high-pitched as a triangle. She glanced at her feet. Her long blonde hair curtained her creamy complexion, and pouty lips.
“It’s your first day,” I said with a shrug, “just follow me. It’s all you got to do.”
Alice nodded. I drifted into the dining room. Alice followed. Her red sneakers squeaked against the tile floor. I turned around. She smiled; her sapphire eyes twinkled. I groaned at the sight and drifted into the dining room. She squeaked behind me. I turned the lights on overhead. The walls moaned with the sudden beam of light. Alice jumped backwards at their sudden gurgle. I chuckled and drew back the curtains. “Don’t mind the walls,” I said, “they’re always cranky. Don’t touch ‘em.”
“They’re alive?” Alice asked, eyes widening.
“Well,” I said as I propped open the iron door, “they’re portals to the other side.” She tilted her head, confused. I sighed, “Hell, I mean. We can’t say that, clearly, or it’d cost us customers. And, technically, we don’t own the rights to say so.”
“Oh,” Alice said.
I took out the ashes of the dead from behind the host desk and sprinkled the ashy flakes across the tables, onto the curtains. “The gig’s pretty sweet,” I said. “Be as horrifying or dreadful as you are. The humans will come for that. Makes them feel better about living. What’s your deal?”
“I’m sorry?” Alice asked.
Truth is, anyone that came to work here had to be unfortunate, terrifying. If you smelled like resilience or hope the cook shot you in the head. You could tell by who worked here. You could also tell by the walk-in where they stored the warm-blooded bodies for food-prep, for dishes like: eye of the beholder, cat got my tongue, and fried broken hearts and pickles.
“You must be something unwanted to work here?” I asked. “I’m a ghost. Most poke their fingers through me or ask me to howl. Pretty simple stuff. What’s your niche?”
“Don’t laugh,” she said.
Alice’s shoulders slumped. Blonde hair fell across her chin, and then thickened into branches. Her skin hardened into bark. Her feet were not feet anymore but roots. She became a willow tree. She twisted her waist that was now a trunk.
“Huh,” I said, surveying the veins in her leaves.
Alice turned back to her petite form.
“It’s not much,” she said, “but people find it strange enough.”
“That is something,” I said. “Well, you do what you can. Far as the rules go: 1.) Don’t kill the guests, 2.) Do make them cry or scream, 3.) We work to preserve love at any cost.”
“Love?” Alice laughed. “That doesn’t seem to fit in here?”
“This is serious. Pay attention. We’re on strict orders from down below. They’re tired of eating such sad, bored souls. They say they taste like celery and sawdust. Love sweetens them. We work to scare them, not too much, just enough to return to their lives, fully, happily.”
Alice nodded. She wrote we work to preserve love on a pink, sparkled notepad.
“You have to write this down?” I asked.
“Um,” Alice looked up, “I’m documenting the ways you tell me work is done. Do you have a lot of customers here?” Alice asked.
“Our customers are your run-of-the-mill twenties, looking for something interesting, or new, or profound. We are obscure enough to operate at almost half-full capacity on good nights,” I said.
“Huh,” Alice said, and scribbled what I said down, using her hand to cover up the words she wrote like I’d make fun of those too. I shook my head and turned at the sound of wind chimes. Another twenty something couple walked in and sat at the Hungover at the Eiffel Tower table.
“Watch me greet them,” I said, “The Hungover at the Eiffel Tower table is wrapped in devil’s snare, so whoever sits across from you looks to be trapped there.”
I floated towards them. They looked new to each other. The woman kept pulling her shirt down. The man kept clearing his throat. A lot of nodding. A lot of feet shuffling.
“You two all set to order?” I asked.
The man poked my shoulder. His hand fell through me.
“She’s cold like an air vent!” the man said.
“Even with the ghosts?” the woman said with a sigh. “You want a side of pickled remorse?” She peered over the menu; eyelashes coated thick like beetle pincers.
“I’ll have what you’re having, dear,” the man said.
“Is that all you have to say?” the woman asked.
“If you two don’t know what you want …” I said.
“We’re ready,” the woman said. “We’ll have one side of pickled remorse, and a Coke. Are you happy with that, Mitch? That good enough?”
I drifted backwards. Alice followed as I floated towards the black-box stage we had set up in front of the tables, beside the front door. The stage floor was trimmed with head-hunter skulls and dust. Violet curtains adorned the sides.
“The first trick, Alice,” I said as Alice scurried behind me, writing down every word, “know that love has to argue. They need it. They need to hear if it’s worth it or not to feel worth it, or not. Don’t interrupt them. If they stay, great. If they seem utterly miserable, wait to bring out the food. If one leaves, let them. The other can find someone better. We want them to find better.”
“Why would we do that?” Alice asked, pencil in hand.
I sat on the edge of the stage, kicking my translucent feet.
“Didn’t you listen before?” I sighed. “We want our souls happy for the long term.”
“How do we know what that is?” Alice asked.
“Well we, we show them what it’s not,” I said.
“Huh,” Alice said, and wrote happiness is showing them what it’s not. That wasn’t a bad answer, I thought. Why did she sound like that wasn’t enough? I crossed my arms.
The door to the back alley swung open. It slammed against the wall, and then fell out of its hinges. Alice jumped like lightning entered the room. I rolled my eyes. It was just Jimmy. His lute strapped to his shoulder. He wore the same leather jacket worn to white on the elbows. Curly hair framed his angled cheekbones like a cherub. He was dreadfully gorgeous.
“Who’s that?” Alice asked.
“He’s the house musician, is all,” I said, teeth clenched.
“Oh,” Alice said. “Is that all?” Alice eyed me up and down.
I could smell him coming closer: cupcakes and motor oil. I fought the urge to turn towards that smell, that hint of him. Instead I looked at Alice. I looked at Alice’s eyes. I watched them soften as he approached. Bet she just saw those lips of his, two perfect half-moons.
“Who’s this?” Jimmy asked. “I didn’t know there was a new hire.”
“You don’t know everything,” I mumbled.
Jimmy sat down on the stage. I stood up and floated behind Alice. Jimmy sighed. He shook his head and unstrapped his lute. He began to tune its strings, pulling this one or that.
“I’m Alice,” Alice said.
“Welcome to the Sorrows,” Jimmy said without looking up at her.
“How long have you been here?” Alice asked, feet shuffling.
The E string flicked against his nail, clattered; I was gone before he could look to me.
I first met Jimmy out back, behind CBC, 1977. I needed a cigarette. I didn’t actually smoke, but I needed to look like I did. I: all dressed in leather, studded, and hairsprayed frizzle curls. He didn’t think twice before offering his light. I tried to act casual, like I knew how to light, like I cared less all the time. It was raining. I was three drinks into the night. He offered me his wings. At the time, I thought they were an umbrella. Water fell down my cheeks, anyways.
“Sorry about that. I tried,” Jimmy said.
“Better than nothing, right?” I asked. I didn’t know. I wore white lace stockings I bought earlier, then went home to make holes in them to look worn enough.
“What are you doing, here?” Jimmy asked. “You look kinda young.”
“You look kinda like everyone else,” I said, swallowing a cough of smoke.
“That would mean, what exactly?” he asked, turning his toned upper body towards me.
“Oh nothing. Why don’t I show you a time?” I asked.
Jimmy crushed his cigarette out with his boot and lifted his hand in the air. I took it and curtseyed to him. He snorted. I had no idea what I actually meant by that. I led him back into the club by his hand anyways. I turned towards him onto the multi-colored dancefloor. People danced around us in armless shirts, ripped jeans, chains.
I stepped forwards, eye-level to his chin. Smirking, he took my other hand in his. We both bowed. Then he twirled me around. My ragged jean skirt twirled around in the air. I could hear his breath release, like a sigh, or a quiet laugh. Did I make that? I thought I did. I smiled.
“Are you, like, a musician?” I asked, when he pulled me close to his chest again.
“Something like that,” he said, before dipping me over one knee.
“I think that answer is what makes bad music,” I said.
“Don’t tell me I picked up another critic?” he slid his hand around my waist.
“Who says you picked me?” I said.
Then I tripped on my own feet. He leaned in so my chin would fall against his chest, so it would look planned. I smirked. My nose caught in the nook of his throat.
“Fair enough,” Jimmy said.
I brought my hands to his cheeks. They were scruffy. I liked that. This would be it, I thought. We had the song, or at least a song. We had a dance, and now comes the movie-star eye-lock, the weakened knees, the fall towards, the kiss. I took off his sunglasses.
Before I could close my eyes, I saw his. They were pure emblazoned gold. Two trapped stars exploding or being born in his sockets. They burned, or maybe they didn’t burn, but I did. I burned like I swallowed a sun or a thousand. This was it. My entire body turned to stone on the spot. I closed my eyes. I heard someone scream, no. It wasn’t me. It was ragged like torn metal coming from his mouth. It was him. I know that. I couldn’t scream then; I died.
I opened my eyes. Jimmy was gone. My spirit hovered in the air above my statued body. The others on the dance floor pranced around the me that was stone like I was a statue they must have ignored before. One did a line of coke off my marbled shirt. One left a beer bottle under the crook of my arm so he could go off to pee in the corner. I closed my eyes.
I thought of Jimmy and then appeared at his side. He sat in the alleyway, his chin against his knees leaning up against the brick wall. I hovered. I, tangled wisps of air. Rain filled the gutters overhead. I waited for them to break. I thought if they did, I would break too like the rain. But they didn’t. I stayed there and not there. He said nothing.
I took his sunglasses off and looked into his eyes. This time the stars didn’t burn me. They couldn’t. He tried to push me away, but I just lifted above his hand. “Stop,” I said. “That won’t do any good,” I sighed. “I suppose it’s too late to ask for a kiss goodnight.”
Jimmy laughed, a bitter snarl. “How could you still want one?” he asked. He kicked the brick wall behind us. The steel on his boot scraped bits of the mortar onto the cement.
“It was going to be my first,” I said. “You could give me that.”
Jimmy’s snarl dropped. “I didn’t,” he stuttered. “I thought you were all right. I wouldn’t have done that, not to you. I can’t turn it off yanno.” He turned towards me. He pulled my chin towards his. Underneath his fingers, I had form. I wasn’t alive, but I was solid. His curled finger pulled his lips to mine; they pressed together. I held. He held. I held.
“Huh,” I said.
“What?” Jimmy asked and pulled away.
I became the air again, as if I always was.
I waited in the kitchen as Jimmy and Alice talked. I hoped it was the small kind, the unmentionable kind. I couldn’t have her knowing. Not on today.
The cook gurgled, “What’s on your mind?” He raised his eight tentacles up in the air, the suction cups trying to curl around my neck like lips. The smell of garlic and seawater flood my nose. He lifted a battered heart and dipped it into the deep fryer. It sizzled. I glared at the pots on the shelves. One fell onto his head. He roared and gurgled. Served him right. Grubby cook. Didn’t he know better too? Today was the anniversary of my death.
I drifted in front of the tables. I watched Jimmy set up his mic. He tapped it. He uncoiled the amps’ wires. He plugged them in and cleared his throat.
“What should I be doing now as a worker, here?” Alice asked.
“You can bring the couple their food, if you want,” I said.
“Mya, does working with Jimmy, you know, get in the way?” Alice asked.
The bell in the kitchen rang. The pickled remorse was up.
“You should get that,” I murmured.
“I know it’s not my place to say it, but—”
“Then, don’t,” I said.
I teleported to the kitchen. I looked at the plate; it rose. I dropped it on the table. The plate cracked a bit, but the man didn’t mind. He dived in for the pickles. The woman crossed her arms. She emptied the bottle of Port and chewed on the stale bread. She scoffed.
“Everything come out OK?” I asked.
“I didn’t order this,” the woman muttered.
“Yes, you did,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood for this. I didn’t feel like spinning the plates until they giggled or screamed. I just wanted them to leave. I wanted to leave. I shook my head and hovered above the table. I bet the woman didn’t even think once today about what skin feels like. I bet she thinks of it like car air-fresheners, or socks. Disposable. Replaceable.
“Leave your mistake,” the woman said.
I bet you she wouldn’t even notice if I slipped inside his.
“Your date seems to be enjoying it,” Alice said. “Isn’t that what we look for her, Mya? Our customers should be happy. We all benefit from happy customers. You said that, right?”
I jumped. I didn’t even see her arrive or hear her silly sneakers. The woman smiled, charmed. She looked back at the man, and said, “Maybe I should enjoy it while it lasts.”
Alice winked at me. For a second, I thought something flickered there like anger. I drifted back towards the stage. Alice followed me; that look in her eye dimmed. She sat beside me. “Some take too much joy in feeling sorry for themselves,” Alice said. “It ruins it for the rest of us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I know what you mean. One time, a blind man came in here to eat. He spent the whole time asking me to read each item off the menu. He ordered, eventually. When the food came out, he didn’t want to eat it. He just talked about how he wished he could see what he picked. He didn’t stop jabbering until I told him I hadn’t tasted food in twenty years.”
“Mya,” Alice paused, “are you happy here?”
Onstage, Jimmy adjusted his mic. “Check, check.”
“That’s my cue, kid,” I said, and pretended not to notice Alice sigh.
I floated onstage, behind Jimmy. I allowed myself this much. I liked to be there right when he began, so when he took off his leather jacket I could see his wings open. They were tattered and black, like an old umbrella. It reminded me of the rain, how I used to feel that. Rain, like the sky saying: here, here, here, on your cheek. The music creaked out of the lute.
The woman at the table uncrossed her arms. Mitch stopped chewing. The cook slammed the spatula louder. Alice sat at the front of the stage. The man reached his hand out to touch hers.
Jimmy played “The Song for Amber.” I knew this one. This one I liked. I didn’t like much he did, but this one was different. It was his attempt at a ballad: a mosquito held in amber, wishes it could speak to tell the the amber how guilty it feels for never being able to hold it in the same way. He wrote it when he believed it’d matter. Did it? I closed my eyes.
“What?” Jimmy asked.
It was the hours of morning when conductors rose and the college kids stumble into bed, vodka smiles plastered on their faces. It was six months since I turned to stone. Me and Jimmy lived in the studio above the Sorrows, the restaurant his mom owned. She told me I’d do okay.
We did better than that. We had the best act in the city: the apparitions. Jimmy played each night at the Sorrows as I danced in front of him. We were perfect during the day. Then night came, and the guests left, and we walked up the staircase to our bed, and it got how it got.
“I don’t know,” I said. I hovered by his side as he lay in bed. I passed my hand through a pillow. I focused hard enough to poke it. My hand became air again, always too soon.
“OK,” Jimmy said, and rolled over in bed.
“What’s it like to sleep?” I asked. “Can you still dream?”
“Really, Mya?” Jimmy sighed and threw his hands down to his side. “Are we going to have go through this every night? You know you will forget.”
I blew the blankets off him. He shuddered.
“No,” I said. “It’s, just, hard. I haven’t done this before.”
“I know,” Jimmy sighed.
“Do you?” I asked.
When Jimmy sang his black wings opened, then folded, like lungs beating behind him. They pulsed, a hidden heart. He never saw how they moved. I wished he could. I looked through the holes of his wings, as he played. I could see Alice. She squinted at the stage.
The song was ending. The tattered wings folded neatly back into place. The couple watching shook their heads, then looked to each other, as if just seeing each other after years of longing; they kissed. Alice clapped. Jimmy turned to face me, but I was already by Alice’s side.
“He plays well,” Alice said, “but I really don’t see what the fuss is about.”
“Yeah, he’s okay,” I said. “Wait, who are you to say that?”
“Mya,” Alice said. “I think you’ve been around him too long.”
“This is your first day here,” I snapped, “where do you get off on telling me that?”
Jimmy stepped off the stage. He could hear me shouting at Alice. He was probably concerned I’d make her cry. He walked towards us. I knew that walk. The raised shoulders, the wrinkled brow. He had something to say. I wouldn’t hear it. Alice needed to recognize her place.
Alice glanced towards Jimmy. Alice glanced towards me.
“I’m sorry I didn’t do this sooner,” Alice said, “they’re right, you know. The dead, the really dead inside, they even smell like sawdust. Mya, you can’t stay here anymore.”
And then Alice turned into a tree.
“Mya,” Jimmy said, “what did she just say to you?”
His voice pinched at me, all of me, like bunched cloth.
“I didn’t forget about today,” Jimmy said, “if that still counts.”
Alice, or what was Alice, lowered a branch. For a second, I thought she was asking me to climb it. But then, the branch swayed to the right, and struck me in the gut. I could feel it.
I could hear Jimmy. I could feel again. I could feel the shell of bark against my skin, like I had skin. I had form. The branch lifted to the right and then struck my gut. This time I was flung into the wall and passed through it, breaking into billions of pieces. It felt like I was becoming the rain.
Alice turned towards Jimmy.
“I’m sorry for the audit at the start of your workday,” Alice said, “I know you had an attachment of sorts to Mya.” Alice’s voice was now brass as trumpets. “We were hoping to see some improvement with her. Sometimes, people just don’t know when to move on.”
Jimmy dropped his lute on the ground. Some wood splintered off the neck. “Watch out there,” she continued, “don’t want to lose what you can give back to the customers.” She smiled.
Jimmy lunged towards Alice.
Alice turned one hand into solid oak, and it slammed against Jimmy’s chest. He faltered backwards. She giggled. “As I was saying, The Restaurant of Obscure Sorrows is about preserving love at all costs. Can’t let the morale slip in this place.”
“It wasn’t her fault,” Jimmy said. “If you should take anyone, it’s me.”
Alice patted Jimmy on the cheek. “Oh honey, you really didn’t hear a word I just said. Mya stayed. She could have left, anytime. Didn’t you think it was strange she did stand by the man who killed her? Are you meaning to tell me you were going to release her? How romantic.”
“She cared for me,” Jimmy said.
“Since you two have gotten together, you’ve always been on the outs and sales have plummeted. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice?”
Jimmy threw his lute at her.
“Oh, relax.” Alice deflected it with her arm turned branch. As she smashed it into pieces, Jimmy lunged himself into the wall. Alice groaned, “Oh way to be melodramatic, Jimmy. Even in death people fling themselves over one another. No thought to the cost!”
Alice turned to the couple who still sat at the table. “Now what about you two?”
The woman grabbed her date’s arm. The man laced his fingers through hers, and they ran.
Alice smiled at how tightly they held each other, how blessed they must have felt to escape, then sat down at their table. “Fried broken hearts!” Alice squealed, devouring the plate. How easy this was, she thought, as she sucked the juice from her fingers, waiting for the next customer.
Cassandra Clarke‘s work has been previously published in Catapult, Electric Literature, Pithead Chapel, Entropy, Bitch Flicks, and other homes that celebrate the personal, the geeky, and the weird. She has an MFA from Emerson College and you can follow her misadventures @cass__clarke.