Friday, July 1, 2011

The Limits of Napkins

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.”

“Why not?”

“He’ll know we were watching.”


“It’s rude.”

“So is hacking up a quart of mucus in a restaurant. Give him your napkin.”


“Why not?”

“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.


Marsha Sigman said...

I really hate that girl. I think this means the story is pretty good.

Unless the purpose was to not hate her and go to restaurants with better napkins. Or maybe the naplin is a metaphor...

Anita said...

This is so freaking awesome! There are like three things I'd adjust, but it is sooo good. Are you on some kind of writing steroid, or what? If you could write a whole book like this, you'd be golden and I'd be begging you for help.

D.G. Hudson said...

Couth cannot be instilled into certain strains of humans, but sick people shouldn't be in restaurants either.

This story does not paint a pretty picture, Bryan. AND, I have a hard time feeling sorry for the guy who got sick. He should have stayed home and not ruined the other diners' dinners.

Matthew MacNish said...

Clearly this rules, since it's evoking such a powerful reaction from us. It seems so simple, so commonplace, but you eloquently combine something everyone has been through (being sick) with something else we've probably experienced (observing rude behavior in public) in such a new way that it jumps off the page.

Well done, Murph.

Alexander Field said...

Love this little illustration man. Very nice Paul, well done. : )

Unknown said...

There are more than three things I'd change, Anita.