by Paul Michael Murphy
The Limits of Napkins
I was just about to shovel in a forkful of fettucini when the guy at the table next to us horked up his entire lung. You can’t not look when you hear something like that, so both Terri and I eased our eyes over to their table, the way you do when you don’t want to be obvious about it.
He was with a girl. She was young. I pegged her at twenty-three but my pegging’s not what it used to be. The way they go about now, she could have been seventeen or thirty. I expected her to be embarrassed. She wasn’t. “What the hell?” she said.
“I’m sick,” the guy groaned into his napkin. He wouldn’t take it away from his face and I imagined a Ghostbusters-like slime behind it. The napkins were of decent quality, but the things are meant to wipe away a bit of food from the corner of a mouth, not absorb the entire contents of some guy’s respiratory system.
Some of the stuff was leaking-- no, oozing, out. It hung there at the bottom edge of the napkin, swaying back and forth like Poe’s pendulum. “Oh, my god. You are so gross,” the girl said. I half-expected her to abandon the poor schmuck, but she didn’t. “Really?” she said. “You’re gonna do this tonight?”
“I can’t help it,” the guy said, his voice stuffy with whatever was miraculously still in his nose.
“Unbelievable. It’s always about you, isn’t it? I get a promotion and instead of just sitting there and--”
The guy pulled the napkin away from his face. It would have stopped you mid-sentence, too. Snot was covering his face, coating his lips, dribbling into the little patch of hair on his chin.
“Give him your napkin,” Terri told me.
“Your napkin. Give it to him.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“He’ll know we were watching.”
“So is hacking up a quart of mucus in a restaurant. Give him your napkin.”
“He’s disgusting,” I whispered.
“It’s a napkin.”
“Then give him yours.”
Terri looked down at her napkin like it was a cherished family heirloom. She shook her head.
The guy cleared his throat. He coughed. I knew what was coming and couldn’t help myself. Right as the guy was about to unleash another torrent, I hopped up and thrust my napkin to his face. It was just in time.
“Thanks,” the guy said.
His date looked at me with piercing eyes. “What the hell?” she accused.
I apologized and sheepishly returned to my seat. The girl’s eyes followed me the entire way.
“My hero,” Terri said.
I grunted and looked down at my dinner. Fettucini. All that white sauce.
And as I stood to go to the bathroom the girl said, “Next time, mind your own damn business.” Then she dabbed at the corners of her mouth and carefully laid her napkin back over her thighs.