by Philip W. Gorski
Simon sat on the queen-sized bed, his apartment recently having become all-too-large now that Evelyn had moved out. His phone continued to make its presence known on the nightstand, its tones and chirps only the finest the factory settings had to offer. Simon’s focus remained on the abandoned engagement ring next to his antique iPhone 4, the text messages piling up pointlessly as his friends tried to convince him of meaningful distractions.
To be fair, his friends had tried their damnedest to help Simon feel at least a little better. Greg succeeded in convincing Simon to see The Monster of Blood Lake XII: Most Bloodiest Revengery, the latest in a series of movie sequels that had long ago stopped taking itself seriously as part of the horror genre. The outing had gone so close to perfect, at least up until Simon spotted Evelyn with her five friends who showed unbridled loathing toward Simon on their best days in his company.
Life had devolved into little more than cookies and cream ice cream and Netflix-binging after that as Simon burned through vacation days and his allotted time to work from home. E-mail reminders from Simon’s all-too-lenient boss about how much of a rock star he is and how they’re there to support him in this difficult time. The standard mourning of a now-dead love life.
There was a knock at Simon’s door. It was the kind of knock that suggested a visitor who was willing, and perhaps able, to remove the door from their way if necessary.
“Just a sec,” Simon said. He pulled on a pair of pajama pants from the heap of laundry next to his bed, aware and unbothered by the various food stains, and made his way to the door. A quick, no-fucks-given peripheral glance in the hallway mirror afforded Simon a view of his month-old stubble, greased-down blond hair, and the pizza-and-wings gut that arrived after far too many meals consisting purely of comfort food.
A cursory glance through the peephole revealed Bill, Evelyn’s older brother. Simon had gotten along very well with Bill, despite some initial awkwardness.
Bill pressed an eye to the peephole. “Open the damn door, Simon,” Bill said. “I know you’re in there. Your car’s covered in parking citations.”
“Shit,” Simon said under his breath. He sighed, hesitating a moment before unlocking and opening the door.
“I don’t think any of Evelyn’s stuff is still here,” Simon said.
Bill shrugged. “I know,” he said. Bill stood at least a foot taller than Simon and, on at least one drunken occasion, had made Hobbit jokes at Simon’s expense.
“She said something about a yoga mat that’s dead to her at brunch today,” Bill said, shrugging lazily. “I’m here to check up on you. She told us what happened. I’m really sorry, man. You could have called me or something, you know? We lived together for, like, ever back in college.”
“We lived together for a year in college,” Simon said. “I didn’t want to bug you. Seemed kind of awkward given the situation, you know?”
“Bullshit, man. You’re like the brother I wish my sister had been,” Bill said. “Get yourself cleaned up. There’s this awesome new restaurant on Meadville Street that should fix you right up.” Simon hesitated, considering all of the other offered distractions he’d had since the break-up.
“Sure, okay,” Simon said. “I guess I’m free this afternoon.” He started toward the bathroom, a little more life to his previously zombie-like gait.
“Wait a minute,” Simon said, turning around to face Bill. “Shouldn’t you be at work or something? This can probably wait. I’ll be fine.”
“I totally disagree on all fronts there,” Bill said. “No work today. I’m currently free as a bird. I might have sent an e-mail with a bad autocorrect subject.”
Simon cocked an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know?”
Bill smirked. “You’ve got to see tits,” he said. “It should have said ‘this’, but shit happens or whatever. Get cleaned up. This place runs weird hours and I’m not going to wait around your dump all day. Your whole apartment stinks like old socks and despair.”
One quick shower and a prolonged search for clean clothes later, Simon was in Bill’s battered Volkswagen Jetta.
“I didn’t see any citations on my car,” Simon said.
Bill continued focusing on the road. “I might have lied a little there,” he said. “Look, this place is just what you need. You know Jake Robbins? Works in your office. Plays golf with me every other weekend, and he sucks at it so bad. He told me you haven’t been in to the office in over a month. You love that accounting crap, so I was worried. Just go with it, okay?”
Simon sighed. Admittedly, he didn’t really have much else to do. He was in the middle of rewatching Friends, for the third time since it had arrived on Netflix, this time taking note of the specific nuances that made each character a real friend worth having, but he suspected that could wait.
Bill parked in front of John’s Wildwood Pizza and started walking along the sidewalk. Simon hopped out of the car, speedwalking in an attempt to catch up.
There was a building just next to The Empty Keg—one that every ounce of Simon’s brain insisted hadn’t, and shouldn’t, be there. Smoky windows and a plain storefront made it impossible to guess exactly what was going on inside. The only indication this establishment was open for business presented itself in the form of a small, handwritten sign on the door.
“Cordelia’s,” it said in flawless, beautifully crafted handwriting. “Presently open. One guest per table to ensure an ideal experience.” Under the sign, etched deep in the door in the same script, were the words Just What You’ll Need.
“Sounds cool, right?” Bill said. “Really mysterious stuff. I’ve been here twice now, buddy, and I can promise it won’t disappoint.” He waved Simon toward the door.
Simon looked around, not feeling entirely certain this was a great idea. If he fled now, he could probably make it halfway down the street before Bill caught up to him. Perhaps not the best idea after all, he realized. He extended a hand, reaching for the door’s ornate brass handle, when the door suddenly opened inwards.
A man and a woman dressed in identical tuxedos stood in the doorway. Simon found himself wondering if they were twins or not.
“Good afternoon,” the man said.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the woman said. “You are, in fact, almost late.”
“Only almost, however,” the man said. “And almost only counts in horseshoes.”
“And when throwing hand grenades,” the woman said. “This way, please.”
Simon followed the two employees into the dark building. The door shut quietly behind him, but he was distracted by just how massive the interior was compared to the storefront. It extended back for what looked to be miles, the length of the floor interrupted by countless tables. Balcony seats overlooked portions of the room here and there, but their occupants seemed far less interested in Simon than he was with them. Simon couldn’t tell if the candlelight was real or artificial, but something about the overall atmosphere was supremely relaxing. He was seated at a small, round table, paired with a particularly large, overstuffed, and entirely comfortable leather chair.
“Your meal with arrive shortly,” the man said.
“We do hope you enjoy your visit,” the woman said.
Simon raised a hand in protest. “But I haven’t even seen a menu,” he said. “My friend’s still outside. I was supposed to be getting food with him, I think.” The duo chuckled. It was polite laughter, devoid of any judgment.
“Enjoy,” they both said together, walking away without another word.
Simon looked around, hoping to get a better idea of what to expect. Everyone seemed so happy and peaceful as they enjoyed their meals, each guest seated at a table-and-chair combination different from the next. It was as though the outside world had been put on pause.
Simon became suddenly very aware of how hungry he was, and he found himself wondering exactly how long it would take before his mystery meal would arrive. There was a mix of cautious optimism and abject horror, as though Simon had suddenly found himself on a roller coaster. A slightly rotund, aggressively cheerful waiter appeared, as if summoned by Simon’s thoughts.
“What a delightful afternoon it is, my good man,” the startlingly British, very posh-sounding waiter said. “Your first course is titled Old Baggage to Be Burned. Very clever, if I do say so myself.” The waiter placed a tall glass full of what looked like bog water—a kale-based smoothie, no doubt, which was an Evelyn favorite—and a leafy spinach salad. Large, puffy globs of slightly fermented goat cheese, another Evelyn favorite, stared up at Simon from between the greens, and he could feel an overwhelming urge to wrap himself in a bathrobe and watch another thirty or so hours of Netflix programming.
The waiter handed Simon a miniature torch. “Just press that lever,” he said, pointing to a small switch Simon hadn’t noticed on the torch, “and apply fire to that which troubles you. House rules dictate you may not set fire to the wait-staff, thank you very much.”
Simon looked at the food again, his despair replaced with something in the neighborhood of anger. His friends and family often accused him of being incapable of anything beyond moderate indifference, and so Simon was about to prove those people wrong. He flipped the small lever on the torch. There was a pleasant whoosh, followed by a charming, warm blue-green flame appearing. Slowly, deliberately, Simon lowered the small torch onto the salad.
The fire spread quickly, each vile leaf and disgusting blob of cheese crackled and smoked as they burned out of existence. More surprising, however, was how as the salad burned it was gradually replaced by something else. The flames dissipated, gone almost as quickly as they’d appeared, and Simon found himself staring at a perfectly plated tiramisu. Chocolate lettering around the plate’s edge reminded Simon that life is short and to eat dessert first.
Simon glanced at the glass of kale-sewage smoothie, then back to the waiter.
“Certainly worth a try,” the waiter said, a conspiratorial grin spreading across his age-worn face.
Simon carefully lowered the torch into the glass, expecting it to sputter out. Or, far worse, that it would somehow cause the smoothie to explode all over him and the waiter. Nothing.
A sudden, harsh sound rang out. Deep cracks had started to form in the top of the glass, making their way downward and threatening to allow the drink to spill everywhere. The glass let out a final, horrible nails-on-a-chalkboard sound before falling to pieces. The martini glass that stood in its place, surrounded by bright, decorative stones, most certainly contained a Manhattan.
Simon’s jaw dropped. He glanced at the drink and then the waiter. “How?” he asked, finally finding his ability to speak once again.
The waiter wagged a finger. “I’m afraid I cannot say,” he said. He bowed with a theatrical flourish. “If you’ll excuse me, I will be back in due time with the main course. Enjoy.” The waiter was off, his gait steady but faster than Simon would have expected.
Simon watched as the waiter disappeared through a pair of double doors tucked away between two towering potted plants. Determined to enjoy this experience, as strange as it had gotten, Simon took his first bite of the tiramisu that had started off as a particularly loathsome salad. Memories flooded back to Simon of a time he spent at an Italy-themed hotel, where he would spend his nights sitting out on his private balcony. It was the first time he had been trusted to handle a business trip on his own, and he even went on to receive a special congratulations and bonus for his success.
Each bite brought another pleasant memory to the forefront of Simon’s thoughts. Each sip of the Manhattan—mixed to perfection and devoid of the typical alcohol after-burn—made less room in Simon’s thoughts for Evelyn. There was a dull clinking sound as his fork hit against the empty plate, and Simon briefly felt sad.
“Is everything to your liking thus far?” the waiter asked, having returned without a sound.
Simon found himself wondering just how long the waiter had been there. “It’s all very good, thank you,” he said.
The waiter cut Simon off before he could say more. “Most wonderful,” he said. “And now for the main course, titled A Celebration of Fresh Starts.” The new plate, however, was quite noteworthy for being completely bare. Pristine, in fact, as there wasn’t even a hint food had ever touched its surface.
“There’s some kind of trick to his, isn’t there?” Simon asked.
The waiter tapped the side of his head with two fingers. “Very observant, my good man,” he said. He presented Simon with a small party hat, the sort he would have worn at a birthday party over a decade ago.
“There’s no way I’m putting that on,” Simon said. He scowled at the hat.
The waiter waggled a set of bushy, gray eyebrows at Simon. “You don’t know what you’re missing out on, I dare say,” he said.
Simon sighed, taking the hat. It fit perfectly, making him feel even more ridiculous. His attention was drawn away from his new attire, however, and toward the scent of aromatic spices. A tremendous porterhouse steak appeared on his plate, flanked by some of the best-looking asparagus Simon had ever seen and a curious sort of potato dish.
“Wow,” Simon said.
The waiter smiled, nodding appreciatively. “That certainly is an appropriate response,” he said.
“Not to sound picky,” Simon said, “but what kind of potatoes are these? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like them before.”
“I’d sure hope not,” said a woman who appeared next to the waiter. Various stains from countless hours of preparing all manners of food were visible on her long, white apron, and a hairnet did its best to keep her long, wild black hair tame.
“Good to see you visiting patrons, Miss Cordelia,” the waiter said.
“Thanks, Bertram,” Cordelia said. She glanced down, suddenly aware she’d left her apron on. In a quick, fluid motion, she removed it, stuffing it into Bertram’s arms. “I think table twelve needs his glass of Shiraz refilled.”
Bertram frowned. “I suspect he may have spilled it on the tablecloth again,” he said. “Understandable, given the week he’s had. I’ll tend to that immediately.” A few quick, long strides later, Bertram had disappeared from view.
“Right,” Cordelia said. She grabbed a fork from one of the many pockets built into her apron and pointed at Simon’s plate.
“Thrice-baked potatoes,” she said. “Baked once the standard way, the second time with a secret blend of herbs and spices, and the third time with an especially-secret selection of cheeses. You’re the first who got ‘em, so don’t keep me waiting. Try!”
Simon raised an eyebrow, turning his attention back to the plate. Evelyn, in the heat of a particularly bad argument, had once thrown a baked potato at Simon’s head. There is a wealth of embarrassment, he discovered, in explaining just how it’s possible to get second-degree burns on one’s forehead via spud-projectile.
“Damn, that’s good,” Simon said.
Cordelia placed her hands on her hips, smiling proudly. “Of course it is,” she said. “I made it.” She pulled up a chair from a newly-vacant table neighboring Simon’s.
“You’re probably going to say something like if you told me, you’d have to kill me,” Simon said. “How do you do all of this?” He gestured around the restaurant with his fork.
Cordelia mock-scowled in response. “My dad was this amazing chef, right?” she said. “Died back when I was only twelve. I was a train wreck for months, and nothing could fix that. One night forever ago, around two in the morning or so, I got up and started cooking. Turned out to be just what I needed.”
“So you started up your own restaurant to do the same for other people?” Simon asked.
Cordelia leaned forward, resting her chin against her hand. “Nah. I joined the circus as Pennsylvania’s best, most-bearded bearded woman,” she said.
Simon cringed. “Maybe that was a dumb question,” he said.
“Only a little,” Cordelia said. “Why’d your lady leave you?”
Simon winced again, the question hitting him hard. Oddly enough, he wasn’t too terribly offended. “She said she needed space,” he said. “And maybe we needed to see new people. And that all I did was focus on my work. I don’t know. It’s complicated. Wait a minute. How did you know that?”
Cordelia cocked her head. “Sounds like a whole lot of bullshit to me. Can’t tell you how I know things. Proprietary secret or something. I’m just that good,” she said. She pointed at the plate again with her fork. “How’s the steak?”
Simon cut off a piece, eyeing it as he did. It looked to be medium rare with just the perfect amount of red. He took a bite, which almost immediately melted in his mouth.
“It’s perfect,” Simon said. “Amazing. How do you manage all of this?”
Cordelia wagged a finger in front of Simon’s face. “Top secret,” she said. “Very much a matter of the ‘I could tell you but I’d have to kill you’ variety. Maybe I just have a knack for figuring out what people need to fix them right up.”
“All right, all right,” Simon said. “Maybe I missed it, but do you visit all of the tables like this?”
“Huh? Oh. No, not typically,” Cordelia said. “You were a bit of an oddball, if you don’t mind my saying.”
Simon sat back, once again trying and failing to be offended. “Why’s that?” he asked. “I like to think I’m pretty average.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Cordelia said. “Restaurant policy is three courses to each guest, customized to exactly what they need during that visit. You want to guess what you wanted for your third course?”
Simon scratched his head, considering the question. “Maybe a bowl of chicken and dumpling soup?” he said. “Uh, I don’t know.”
Cordelia wrinkled her nose. “I can see why your buddy over there pokes fun at you,” she said. She pointed back over her shoulder. Bill was standing at a tall, rectangular table that looked more like the counter at a bar.
“Anyway, you wanted company,” Cordelia said. “Someone to talk to, chat with, whatever. That’s also a new one, so I figured it couldn’t be too horrible.”
Bertram returned, handing Simon the check. “For your records, of course,” he said.
“One good memory,” Simon said, reading the check aloud. “A handful of unwanted regrets and the probability of a return visit?”
“Paid in full,” Bertram said. “And I look forward to seeing you again.”
“Sure. Thanks,” Simon said, not sure what to make of the odd payment methods. “Wait. I’m not being horrible, am I?”
Cordelia smiled, revealing slightly crooked teeth. “I’m still here, but maybe I’m just bored,” she said. “Probably not. I’ve got to clean up. It’s almost closing time.”
Simon glanced down, noting his food had been conveniently boxed up. The Styrofoam box had been decorated with a Sharpied-on smiley face and a short thank-you from Bertram.
“So, uh,” Simon said. He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Do you think I could see you again?”
Cordelia stood up, stretching out as she did. “Don’t know. Maybe,” she said. “Come back soon and find out.” She offered a sly wink before returning to the kitchen.
Simon met Bill outside of the restaurant. Somehow, at some point, it had gotten dark out. A quick glance at his phone told Simon that he had apparently spent the last five hours in a way that felt like no time had passed at all.
“I thought you might have gotten all mopey and sneaked away without me,” Bill said, punching Simon’s arm. “How’d you like it? What’d you get? What the fuck is up with that hat?”
Simon grabbed the party hat off of his head, having forgotten it was there. “A really great tiramisu,” he said. “The best Manhattan I’ve ever had. A steak, a thrice-baked potato, and some asparagus, and I think a date?”
“Like the fruit?” Bill said. He studied Simon’s face. “What? Oh, damn. I had a bunch of good, can’t-afford-this-on-unemployment food, and then the waiter left me a list of therapists instead of desert. Something about unresolved father issues. Guess I’ll just have to come back with you and try to play the role of the mysterious spy with a tragic past. See how this so-called date goes.”
“Yeah,” Simon said.
The smoky darkness beyond the front windows of Cordelia’s grew somehow darker, and Simon was certain he saw something move by the edge of his vision. He looked back to the door, expecting to see someone waiting for him, but no one was there. The sign on the door had a different message from earlier, though it was clearly not a different sign from when Simon had entered.
Don’t be a stranger. Come back soon.