Yesterday, after taking a break from Christmas shopping for my wife, I stopped to grab a bite at a Mexican food restaurant. After, I wrote down the following story because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This isn’t a story sketch so much as a recording of this event so I can reference it for future stories. I do this whenever something happens to me that sticks in my head.
I’d been wanting to try that Mexican food place on Antelope, so I stopped in today while I was out shopping.
I walked in and there was nobody to be seen. The “OPEN” sign was lit up outside and I could hear someone cooking in the back, but the host was missing from the host stand and the tables were all empty. It was too early for the lunch crowd I guessed.
It was a warm, adobe style place, the kind of place that’s too much of a restaurant to serve legit Mexican food, but it was cold out and I was hungry, so it would do. I stood there for about five minutes before calling out, “Hello?” There was a brief pause in the sounds of cooking coming from the back, but no one responded. I looked around the host stand and found the menus and utensils.
I helped myself and browsed a menu. It had pictures of every food item; I liked that. My stomach rumbled violently. I really hoped they were open. I called out again and almost as soon as I did, a man came waddling around the corner on my right. He was a short, light-skinned Mexican, like my father. He looked like the owner or a manager. He had clean-cut hair, black, and greased to one side. His white button up was clean and pressed. There was something wrong with his mouth. It had almost no lips and he held it to one side. There was evidence of scar tissue on the skin stretching across the hollow of his left cheek. He greeted me with, “Hello my friend.”
“Are you open?” I asked, trying to hold back a tone of annoyance in my voice. The sign hanging behind the host stand reminded me, “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO ANYONE,” and I was too hungry to leave now.
“Yes, of course, of course. Please, sit here.” The man gave a small bow, gesturing with an open hand to a table near the entrance. “You are from California?” The question came out more like a statement. It caught me off guard and I slowed a little as I lowered myself onto the bench seat.
“Yeah,” I said, “I am.” I wanted to ask how he knew, but I was trying to puzzle it out for myself in case it was something obvious.
“So-cal. Southern California. The Orange Country area.” I hadn’t been living in Orange when I moved, but it was more recognizable and less embarrassing than admitting to living in the Inland Empire.
He asked me if I was visiting family. I told him I had recently moved to Utah.
“Really? I’m from California, too. San Diego.”
“So you’re from the far south,” I said. He smiled, said some other friendly things, told me my server would be with me soon, then walked away.
Hm. He was from California too. That’s how he knew… No. That didn’t make sense. Did I smell like California? Was I wearing my California hat? No. I looked at my reflection in the window to my left. I was wearing a jacket I had purchased in Utah after I arrived. Did it give me away? Was it because I was wearing shorts in the snow, my Nike shoes, my hair, what? By the time I decided I wanted to ask him how he knew I was from California, he was nowhere to be found.
I ate my meal quickly. It was the Burrito Grande, the restaurant’s namesake. It was decent. It came smothered in sauce (I usually can’t stand restaurant burritos on their own; where were my California hole-in-the-walls?) and came in a portion that was certainly grande. I think I liked the hot sauce more than the food.
After my last bite, it suddenly came to me. My car! I still have California license plates on my car. While I was calling for someone to come serve me, he must have looked out the window and seen the plates. Ha! Got you, you old charlatan.
I paid my bill and thanked my server (the service was eager to the point of annoyance, but I left my usual twenty-percent). As I was leaving through the second set of double doors I noticed something that made me feel uneasy. My car wasn’t in front of a window. The plates wouldn’t have been visible, especially not from where the man had emerged on the other end of the restaurant.
What was I supposed to think? Did this Mexican man have mystical powers? Was I missing something? My satisfaction at finding out how he had known where I was from with a single glance vanished. I slumped into my car and pulled out of the parking lot, back into the mad rush of Christmas shoppers. Damn.
The next time something like that happens to me, I need to remember to speak up. It’s driving me nuts.