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"The Man From the Seaside"
by Zak Mir
I met the man when I was working at the restaurant. I was in Montgomery, Alabama working as a waiter at a steakhouse. The restaurant was once well known for its prime rib and southern style fine cooking and it drew crowd from all over the state, mostly the upper middle class. It was also a place that was frequented by Air Force Officers, businessmen and public officials and once in a while the Governor of Alabama also came to eat there. Those were the halcyon days and by the time I started working there things had changed. But it was at this restaurant I met an elderly gentlemen, whom I waited on one night and still remember after more than twenty years. The man was from England.
The year was 1990 and I had just finished college; my wife had conceived our first child and America had declared its first Persian Gulf War on Iraq. The time was very uncertain. The American economy had slipped into a deep recession and people were out of work. The Help Wanted section of the Montgomery Advertiser was a coveted post for job seekers in the area as unemployment was higher than ever especially for office jobs.
My friends who worked in the food service business raved about this steakhouse, and said, people were making killer money waiting tables and that I should give it a try. So, after looking for a desk job for six months, I decided to I pick up a job as a waiter. I said to my wife one day, “Honey, if things don’t work out at the restaurant, we’d have to move to New York. I heard people make killer money waiting tables, even driving a taxi.” She smiled cynically.
Things looked promising in the beginning at the restaurant but after a few weeks the unraveling was disappointing. I picked up all kinds of shifts and worked odd hours but there were times I did not even make gas money. The story of making killer money turned out to a tale from the past. Some people blamed the new chain restaurants that had opened up on the main boulevard for stealing our clientele; others blamed the war. Every time I pulled into a filling station, my heart sank with fear looking at the meter reading. I could not even afford to fill up the tank anymore and I had a small car.
That evening, Ruben, one of the waiters, said the shift manager had closed his section early and he was going home.
“Do you want my table,” he said. “I just got seated.”
“I thought they closed your section!”
“Is that stupid or what?” he complained. “I’m going home.”
“I’ll take it.” I said. “I need all the money I can get.”
I grabbed some silverware and approached the table.
As I came around the corner and greeted the guest, I was astonished by the man’s appearance. I took a second look. With a shiny bald head, white eyebrows, and long white side burns he looked just like my grandfather. He was tall and slim with distinctive features, and had a thin pointed nose. Even his complexion was so fine and oily, the resemblance was uncanny. He was wearing a short sleeve shirt that showed his long slender arms full of white hair. He wore a thin gold wristwatch, an old fashioned one. I guess he was in his late seventies, the age my grandfather was when he died.
“Is everything alright young man?” he asked with an English accent.
“Yes Sir,” I said, putting down the silverware on the table. “What can I get you to drink?”
“I am ready to order,” he said, closing the menu. He ordered a scotch with a splash of water and a petite filet mignon for dinner. “Pink in the middle, not red.”
“I’ll be right back with your drink,” I said.
“Take your time,” he said. “I’m not in a terrible rush.”
I put in his order and ran to the bar to pick up his drink. There were a few customers at the bar drinking quietly and Troy, the bartender, stared out the window with a look of despair on his face.
“If this ain't a recession, I don’t know what is.” Troy sighed. “I used to have a full bar every night.” He turned his eyes to the empty corner of the bar where the grand piano stood silent under a giant chandelier.
“What do you want?” He pulled off the drink order from the printer.
“Scotch, go easy on the water,” I said. “I’m waiting on a nice Englishman.”
“And you want to make money, is that right!" he said wryly.
“And why not?” I said.
“You’re in the wrong place my Bangladeshian friend,” he said. “If you want to make money you better go up the boulevard. That’s where people are going.”
“That’s just my luck,” I said. “I arrive and the well is dry. If it weren’t for the war, we’d have done just fine.”
“But you Arabs started the war,” he said. “Now we all have to suffer.”
Troy shuffled to the other end of the bar where he played with the remote control, changing the channel for his few customers.
“You’re too much,” I snatched the scotch off the bar and headed back to my table. Troy was one of these plain old southern men who was born and raised in the south and has never gone anywhere outside the Mississippi border line.
“What part of England are you from, Sir,” I asked the Englishman, putting down the drink on the table.
“Weymouth,” he said, taking a sip of the scotch. “Do you know where that is?”
‘No Sir, I’ve never been to England,” I said. “But I bet it’s more beautiful than in the postcards and movies I‘ve seen, especially the English countryside.”
“Yes, it is,” he said and then explained to me where it was. As he described the place where he lived, I pictured in my mind a small fishing village with docks and fishing boats, similar to the postcards I had seen. I imagined an old English cottage somewhere by the seaside with a wood-burning fireplace, where the man was reading a novel and sipping fine scotch. An old white Spitfire parked outside his window and the screeching of the seagulls preoccupied the moment.
“The place Lyme Regis, is that near you?” I asked, having a recollection of the film, The French Lieutenant's Woman, I had just seen a few years prior. “Have you seen the movie?”
“No I haven’t,” he chuckled. “I’ve read the book.”
“One day I want to read the book too,” I said. “Before I came here I had a chance to watch the film. It was playing at the British Council in Dhaka.”
The man smiled.
“Are the waves so daring over there?” I asked. “It looked so dangerous.”
“Yes it can be, it’s the English Channel,” he smiled. “Lyme Regis is literally a few hours from me.”
“That’s really incredible,” I said. “Sorry for getting carried away.”
“No worries,” he said. “Please tell me, where are you from?”
“Bangladesh,” I said.
He raised his white eyebrows. “That’s a long way from here.”
“It’s so far,” I said. “Sometimes it feels like I’m on a different planet.”
“I was there once,” he said, “in Bangladesh. I was in Chittagong? Do you know where that is?”
“Of course I do,” I said. “I went there with my father once. That was the first time I ever saw the sea.”
“I was at the Hill Tracts for a while, working as a missionary,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re working with the tribal community there. They were very vulnerable.”
“The Chakmas,” I said. “That’s very interesting.”
As I stood there talking to him I was not only charmed by this connection, which was random and strange, but I was nostalgic thinking the man I was waiting on had once visited my homeland that I was missing so much.
“But that was a long time ago,” he said, referring to his trip to Bangladesh. “Tell me, how did you end up here?”
“Montgomery, you mean,” I chuckled. “People ask me that question all the time and I really didn’t know the answer for a long time. But now I know it’s destiny that brought me here.”
“Why do you say that?” The man asked.
“Well, I came here for college,” I said. “The next thing I know I met a woman, we got married and now we’re having a baby.”
“Everything has a reason,” he said. “Even though we may not know it at the time.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said.
“How often do you get to go home?” he asked.
“Not very often,” I said. “It’s very far and expensive, and the way things are turning out, with the war and all. Who knows when the next time will be.”
“I understand,” he nodded. “War changes everything.”
By then the lights in the dining room were dimmed and the food runner had brought him his dinner on a large oval tray. I served the guest and told him I would check back with him in few minutes. I got a few more tables and the evening had picked up slightly.
“Please let me know if you need anything else.”
In between serving other customers, I kept an eye on him from our work station. As I stood there and observed the elderly Englishman, I sensed a pang of remorse and penitence coming upon me. The more I looked at the Englishman the more I thought of my grandfather and I realized I never got to the know him.
My grandfather was very tall and handsome but he was a very harsh man. His short fuse and vile temper always pushed me away, kept me aloof. After all these years, I still have vivid memories as a child running and hiding under the bed at the very sound of his footstep. I would dreadfully watch the giant wooden sandals move about the concrete floors and with my eyes shut tight and heart trembling, I would pray to God for the footsteps to disappear. The slightest mischief, a footstep, a giggle or a laugh would set him off like a wild fire. And at that moment, if someone was within close range, he would strike them with his big callous hand, if not he would come charging with the black umbrella that he always carried with him everywhere. The maids could never please him, and even though they were always at his beck and call, he treated them unkindly as though his heart was made of stone. The only time he ever looked pleased and calm was when he stayed in the attic in his solitary confinement, listening to his tri band radio and reading the daily Bengali newspaper.
As the guest took a gulp of water, I had another recollection of my grandfather, but this one made me chuckle.
It was a ritual that my grandfather had. Every morning, sitting on the back porch, he would shout impatiently until the maids would arrive with a big heavy jug of water and the morning newspaper. Without a word he would fill the glass, take a big swig and then toss the rest of the water on the porch, almost half a glassful. Sometimes he tossed the water at the dog, Tommy, or at the pair of geese my grandmother kept as pets. Sitting at the far end of the porch, grandmother shoved dry kindles into the clay oven and blew into it with a thin iron pipe to stoke the fire. And as she squatted on the floor making breakfast she fought her tears and wiped her eyes with her sari. It was never clear to me whether the tears that ran down the creases of her face were caused from the smoke or the pain she bore quietly.
Then one day a sudden illness came upon my grandfather and he died. Even though I did not cry or shed a tear at his funeral, as time went by, his parting made me feel sad thinking about the last time I saw him lying on the hospital bed breathing through a machine.
I returned to the customer’s table and asked if everything was okay.
“Yes of course,” he said, savoring the last few bites of the steak. “This is one thing we can’t get back home, good steaks.” He rested his fork on the plate.
“It’s very brave you know for a young lad like you to leave home and come all this way.”
“It was very scary at first,” I said, reflecting upon the time when I first set foot in Montgomery. “I didn’t know a soul. But gradually I met people.”
“I can only imagine what it might have been like for you,” he said.
The empathy and the kindness in his voice made me instantly connect to him and I thought he was one of the few customers that I ever waited on who was so approachable and genuinely interested in making a conversation with me, his waiter.
“What brings you to Montgomery?” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking. We don’t see many foreigners here. The few that come through here are Air Force Officers, attending the Officer Training Course at Maxwell or Gunter.”
“I’m here to visit the Maxwell also,” he said. “But for a different reason.”
Then he explained that his younger brother had been with the Royal Air Force of England who came to the Gunter Air Field during WWII. There was an accident and his brother was one of the officers killed during flight training.
“What happened?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” he said. “The weather was very bad, visibility was poor. That’s all they told us.”
“I’m so sorry,” I noticed the man’s gaze drift away outside the window where he held his eyes and stared at the dim glow of the evening sun descending behind a pink twilight.
“It was a night like this,” he said. “But it was too late when we got the news. He was already buried. The war was on and we couldn’t even think about travelling. My mother cried for days.”
Although I do not remember the exact expression on his face, whether it was despair or sorrow, there was a sense of strength in his deep blue eyes as if he had made peace with his loss a long time ago and the wounds had healed. He was here to see his brother again and that very night was the celebration of that reunion.
“The US Air Force had decided to honor the veterans from the Commonwealth countries with a ceremony this year and I was invited to attend as a family member,” he said.
“That is a very nice gesture after all these years,” I said.
“Yes, it is. And I’ve been trying to come back all these years,” he said. “For one reason or another it’s taken me twenty years.”
“You must have been proud of your brother,” I said. “He died for a noble cause.”
“Yes, he did,” the man nodded proudly. “He was young but always very brave,” he said. “About your age, in his early twenties.”
Taking the last sip of his cordial he said, “Young man, I truly enjoyed our conversation. I will take the check when you are ready.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” I said, putting the check down on the table. I turned to walk away.
“Young man,” he stopped me. “Do you know, where is Oakwood Cemetery. I’ve to visit his grave in the morning.”
“It’s all the way downtown Sir, by the Civic Center, a short ride from here,” I said. “I only went there once when I first came to Montgomery.”
It was nearly the end of summer when one day, my college mate and I had decided to check out the downtown area. We had heard about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights Movements, so the two of us decided to take a historic tour.
The bus dropped us off somewhere near Dexter Avenue. The streets were empty and uninviting, filled with big white office buildings. Everything looked very desolate and lifeless and even the people who manned the downtown shops were wearied and motionless as they sat on the bench, dressed in their polyester suits and fedoras and fed the pigeons, staring aimlessly at the water fountain.
My friend and I stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol building and snapped a few pictures to send home, and then we scurried off to see the Alabama River by the train tracks and then the Oakwood Cemetery, located in the back and forgotten part of the city next to the police station.
When I returned to the table the man had left. There was cash on the table, a very generous tip, and a note that read, ‘Good luck to you young man. You’ve been very kind.’
And as I stood there with the note in my hand I felt a sudden unrest, a pang of emotions surging inside as though it had always been there and I had been unaware of it. I felt as if the customer was someone I had known a long time and now I was saddened by his departure.
I took off my apron and ran to the front door looking for the man. I stepped outside and saw him standing on the island at the end of the street across from the Ramada Inn. He was waiting for the light to change.
‘Hello Sir, wait,” I ran toward him.
The man looked back.
“Is everything alright?” he asked. “Sorry if I didn’t leave enough for the check?”
“Not at all,” I said. “You were more than generous. But I came to ask you something else.”
“What is it?”
“Would it be ok if I offered you a ride to the cemetery tomorrow?” I said. “To come along with you, I mean.”
The man took a moment to reply. His momentary silence made me feel awkward and embarrassed.
“I don’t know what to say,” he said. “Sure, that would be very nice.” He held my hand and gave it a warm handshake. I could feel it came straight from his heart. Then he headed toward his motel.
By the time the man crossed the street and disappeared inside the sliding doors of the motel, the street lights came on and the traffic light had changed several times. I stood there thinking that as the Englishman from the seaside greets his brother tomorrow with a bouquet of flowers to pay his tribute there will be no words spoken, just silence. He will feel the warmth of the summer breeze coming over the hills from the Alabama River and gently brushing against his face as he stands near the grave of his brother with his hand on his heart, his eyes closed for a moment. And as he reunites with his brother after more than twenty years, I will be there watching him from a distance.
Zak Mir is a Healthcare Project Manager by profession, with a passion for English and Bengali Literature. He likes to write short fiction and currently working on a screenplay inspired by a true story of a war hero, a true patriot who gives his life for the freedom of his country, Bangladesh.
Tagore, Nazrul and D.H. Lawrence are among some of the writer's favorite writers. The writer currently lives in NJ with his family.