he red leather booth at Tony’s Bella Vista let out an airy creak as I moved around to get comfortable. I sat next to Andy. After three months of dating, he and I had grown partial to sitting on the same side, even if it was just us. He slid closer to the brick wall, grabbing two menus from behind the salt and peppershakers. My hands grasped the laminated pages on both sides, but I already knew what I wanted.
“Why this place?” Andy ran his palm over the flame of the candle next to the wall. “It’s so dank in here.”
Six mahogany dowels stretched up from each booth, sectioning them off, and the floor was stained in a red oak. The hardwood looked much darker than what it actually was - the dim lighting adding nothing more than a night-light effect, and the walls across from our table were lined with acrylic paintings of the old country.
My eyes moved from the antipasto section of the menu, hovering to my left. “Do you see that man over there?”
Andy pushed his head against the booth, dropping his chin and narrowing his eyes. “The waiter?”
I refocused my vision back to the menu, the sticky film of its plastic rubbing off on my thumbs. “That’s my father.”
Andy turned his body to the left, propping his arm on top of the booth. “What do you mean, ‘that’s your father?’”
“I mean, that’s my father,” I said, scanning the pizzas on page six.
“How do you know?”
“My father left before I was born. My mother had said a month before her due date, and I found this crumpled Bullocks Wilshire shopping bag in her closet last year, filled with pictures.”
“How old are these pictures?” Andy asked.
“Most are marked September 1970 - four months before I was born.”
“How come you’ve never mentioned any of this before?”
I looked at Andy. He shuffled aimlessly through the sugar packets on the table before pulling out a Sweet’N Low to read its ingredients. “I’m telling you now.”
Andy scanned my father, who had walked to the table across from ours. “What’s his name?”
I flipped the menu closed. “Walter.”
I rested my hands on the table, thumbing the checked red and white on and off. My father walked toward us, and I quickly picked up the menu.
He fumbled for a moment grabbing a pen inside the pocket of his apron. “What would you like to drink?”
His voice was smooth and low, and even though I didn’t look at him, I sensed sadness. “Water, please.”
“Same,” Andy said.
My eyes left the menu again, and I watched him as he flipped open his pad of paper. My father’s hairline receded from his temples, and thin metal glasses sat on the bridge of his nose. He had a thick prescription that magnified his eyes. The color of his irises were lost in the faint light, but I imagined them to be blue, like in the pictures.
Andy touched my shoulder, bringing me back from wherever I went to in my mind. “Are you ready to order?”
I double blinked, and then nodded. I looked at my father and watched as he waited for me to speak. “We’ll split the Pizza Montecarlo.”
He took his time writing, swirling his pen in a way that looked like cursive. “Would you like bread?”
“No, thank you,” I said.
I watched him walk away; his left leg had a slight limp to it. The black shoes he wore were more like dress sneakers, and even in the sparse lighting they showed wear.
“Why’d you order for me?” Andy asked.
“I don’t know. It’s pizza. You’ll eat pizza.”
“Will you tell me how you know this is him?” Andy followed him through the mahogany dowels in front of our booth, maneuvering his head in an S pattern. “He looks sad. Pathetic even.”
“Shut up,” I said, shooting him a side-eye. “Shut up.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry.” Andy shifted and paused, dropping his hands onto his thighs. “So how do you know this is him?”
“My mother and I came here about a month ago, and she saw him.” I pointed to a table behind us and to the right. “We were sitting there.”
“Was he your waiter?” Andy asked.
“No, he was working the bar.”
“Do you think he would have recognized her?”
“Jesus, Andy, I don’t know.” I pulled a few bangs toward the center of my forehead. “Maybe, I don’t know. It’s been twenty-two years.”
My father set our waters in front of Andy and me; his wrinkled hands were dotted with liver spots. Drops of water fell down the glass, and I watched it sweat a bit before grabbing it.
“What’d your mother say to you when she saw him?”
I followed my father with my eyes as he walked to the table across. He stood almost pigeon-toed from this angle.
“She was swirling pasta on her fork, bobbing it up and down and blowing on it so the steam would leave, and then she just stopped. She told me to turn and look at the man behind the bar, through the mahogany dowels. He had a towel over his shoulder, cleaning glass cups, and I said, ‘What about him?’”
Andy raised his eyebrows. “And?”
“She told me on the drive home. She turned down the radio, Steely Dan, and said, ‘That was your father.’ I told her about the Bullocks Wilshire shopping bag that I had found, and how I had saved a few pictures from the stacks.”
“Are you going to talk to him?” Andy asked.
“I don’t know, maybe.”
My father carried the pizza tray to our table on one hand, but used two to set it down. He ran the slicer gently across it, the silver disk barely cracking the crust. Sweat beaded above his eyebrows, and the skin on his cheeks sagged.
“Thank you,” I said.
He nodded, giving me a closed-mouth smile.
I pulled a piece off the tray and plated it in front of Andy.
“What would you say to him?” he asked, picking prosciutto off his slice.
“I’m not sure – maybe ‘Hi, I’m Gia.’”
“Do you think he’s married?” he asked, his mouth full.
I looked down at Andy’s pizza slice, where his teeth had serrated the edges after taking a bite, and then looked at him. I thought about his question, how I already knew its answer, but couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud. “I don’t know.”
“He seems lonely to me,” he said, wiping the corners of his mouth with a napkin. “Do you know why he left?”
Through the dowels, I could see him leaning his back against the wall by the kitchen’s double doors. The glasses on his face had slid lower onto his bridge, and his hands were folded behind him. Three waiters stood next to him, laughing, and my father looked down at his shoes. “I don’t.”
“How old do you think he is?”
“My mother said he turned thirty-four the December before I was born,” I said, nodding my head as I counted. “He’s fifty-six.”
“He looks sixty-six,” Andy said.
I rubbed my water glass, its condensation running down my fingertips.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” he licked his thumb and pulled the tray closer to him. “You haven’t touched yours.”
A thin coating of mozzarella covered my slice, dabs of melted Brie placed on top in an uneven design. The prosciutto was cut julienne - their long strips of pink looking like ribbon. “Maybe we should just take it to go.”
Andy slowed his chewing - his Adam’s apple rising and falling as he swallowed. “Don’t you want to talk to him?”
“I don’t know,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Let’s just go.”
I propped my elbows on the table and placed my palms together against my cheeks. My father still stood hunched against the wall.
“Excuse me, could you let our waiter know we’re ready for the check?” Andy asked a passing busboy.
“How does he know who our waiter is?” I asked.
Andy crumpled his napkin, dropping it onto the table. “All these tables are numbered, and they’re assigned as sections to every waiter.”
I nodded and watched as the busboy walked toward my father. He touched his arm, signaling the start of conversation, and then walked through the kitchen’s double doors. Pushing off the wall, my father stood upright and walked toward our table.
“Would you like a box?” he asked, placing dishes on top of each other.
I examined my father’s slow pace, his body fragile and stiff looking, and the hair on his forearms was thick and dark. I let out a breath before answering, causing him to turn and face me. “Sure.”
My father scrunched his nose and his glasses shifted, prompting him to form a fist to push them up with. “I’ll be right back with that.”
“Do you think he thinks I’m strange?” I turned toward Andy. “I think he does.”
“He’s pretty odd himself,” he said, placing his palms onto the table.
“Don’t make fun of him.”
“I wasn’t, I was just stating the obvious.”
My father walked back and placed the plastic check tray down. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out three red and white striped mints, sprinkling them onto the bill. He flipped the white pizza box open, its flimsy cardboard paper thin, and gently placed the remaining slices inside. Some cheese caught onto his hairy knuckle, but he didn’t notice. He took a pen out from his apron pocket, swirling the felt around on top of the box.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You’re welcome, dear,” my father said.
I paused after hearing his weak tone, and watched as he paid close attention to folding in the edges of the box. Using his palm, he pushed off the table to stand straight and walked away.
“What did he write?” Andy asked.
I pulled the box toward me, flipping it around. On top was a stamped picture of a cartoon with its arm propped, holding a pizza tray. Beside it was a blank line that had YOUR WAITER written beneath it in brackets, and BELLA VISTA written after in bold.
“Walter’s,” I said, thumbing the edge of the box back and forth. “Walter’s Bella Vista.”
Andy moved in closer to look.
“I’ll get that,” he said, reaching for the check. He used two fingers to drag the tray toward him. “Do you like these mints?”
I felt Andy shift his body and pull out his wallet, but didn’t look at him. Instead, I stared through the dowels at my father; his face now buried into the register’s keys. “No.”
Andy unwrapped the cellophane of one mint, popping it into his mouth. He sucked on the red and white swirl, and it clanked against his teeth as he moved it around. A breath of peppermint escaped his lips, and he dropped a ten and a five onto the check’s tray. “You ready to go?”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out a folded photograph, its edges bent. I looked at the man and woman on it - how their smiles were broad and showed their teeth. The man, my father, wore a yellow Lacoste polo, and his beige khakis stopped at his knees because that’s where the photo cut off. My mother, sitting close to him, had his arm draped over her shoulder. I placed the photo beneath the cash and check. “Yes.”
Andy opened his mouth, revealing the hard candy, but said nothing. I slid from the booth and nodded.