When Iris reaches table number 47, she consults the slip in her hand and matches it against the number on the table twice. She gestures for her son Sal to wait and raises her hand in the air, snapping her fingers. Sal sticks one hand in his shorts pocket, and he twiddles his finger on the other around a string dangling from the hem of his worn t-shirt with the picture of a blowfish on it.
Iris snaps her fingers again, and a tall, balding man in a blue, button down shirt with a curling moustache trots to the table. Iris gestures to the swirling spacetime vortex in the center of the restaurant, a vortex adjacent to which she and her son have been seated.
“Excuse me,” Iris says to the server, “but I requested non-vortex seating.”
Like every time he is faced with a situation like this, Sal ducks his head and wishes he could withdraw himself into his torso like a turtle.
The server shrugs and gestures to the crowded restaurant.
“I’m sorry ma’am, but we’re full up. You can sit at the vortex or at the bar.”
Iris scans the room. It is obvious every other table is full. With a ‘humph’, She plops into her seat, smooths her gray sun dress, unrolls the napkin from her silverware and places it in her lap.
“Bring me a mimosa. My son will have water.”
Sal bites his lip and slides himself quietly into the opposite chair. He wants an apple juice, but he doesn’t say it. The server asks if they would like anything else, but Iris shoos him away with a wan wave of her wrist.
Without another word, Iris nudges a menu towards Sal and opens her own. A small, blue insert wafts out from inside her menu and after a moment of almost weightless suspension, it drifts through the air and into the vortex where it vanishes with a crisp little pop.
“Guess we won’t be having one of the specials,” Iris mutters.
Sal furrows his brow and opens his menu. There are no pictures which causes Sal to tap his foot anxiously. He can read, of course, but reading takes work, so much more work than picking the food from pictures. When restaurants have menus that only have a few items pictured, Sal deliberately ignores the non-pictured options.
It’s even harder to concentrate with the vortex swirling right there. It is a three dimensional, omni-axis vortex, and word is they’d yet to determine the coordinates of its outflow. Of course, they don’t know if it is really an outflow – it can just as easily be a simple exhaust vent, but already Sal wants to throw a little bit of salt into it to watch the cool-blue electrical discharge that will crackle around the grains’ points of ingress.
“Your father never wanted to come here, you know,” Iris tells her son. “He thought the vortex was an ill omen.”
“Misbegotten?” Sal says.
Iris titters and places one hand over her mouth daintily.
“Yes, that’s the word,” she says. “A misbegotten omen. Well, he can dig his misbegotten ass an early grave for all I care.”
“I don’t think-“
“Then don’t speak,” Iris says. “I’d throw your father into that space-time rift in a heartbeat were he to walk through that door and not feel a lick of remorse.”
Sal looks away as his mother launches into one of her customary belittlings of Sal’s father, trying to focus on the vortex. It’s not really something you can look at, however. Your mind thinks a moment it sees green and purples clouds spaghettifying in a spiral decent towards some central point, but though it is mathematically describable as three dimensional, the three dimensions it uses are not the same as the ones people often think of when they reference that concept. Before Sal knows it, he’s sweating and his mouth’s gone dry, and he realize that one of his eyes has managed to divert its attention to the brightest object in his field of view – a neon sign that says “Try our 14 flavors of liver!”.
Sal tries to bring himself back to his menu. If he’s not decided by the time the waiter gets back, his mother will not be happy, but none of the options look good. The restaurant is cool and all on account of the mysterious vortex and everyone says it’s really good, but it’s just not much of a kid place, or at least Sal thinks not. He fumbles to the back of the menu in search of children’s options, but all he finds are the equations that theoreticians believe govern the vortex printed beside a Sudoku and an old cartoon about a boy and his stuffed tiger. Sal tries to read the comic, but he finds himself unable to concentrate it, and the meaning of the piece slips past him.
He sets the menu down and frets his fingers together in his lap.
“Mom,” Sal says. “Can we go somewhere else?”
“Ugh,” Iris says with a roll of her eyes and an exaggerated slump of her shoulders. “By the time we get somewhere else and get seated, it’s going to be way too late for lunch.”
“I know but I don’t think they have anything I’ll like,” he says.
Iris scowls and snatches the menu from her son.
“I’ll just order for you.”
Then, she looks around abruptly like a startled meercat.
“ Bread?” She says, raising her hand in the air and snapping again. “Bread? We going to see anything made from grain today?”
A red-faced busboy trots from seemingly out of nowhere with a basketful of bread twists and a bowl containing a swirl of whipped butter. In his hurry, he sets the basket down a bit abruptly, and a little burst of crumbs pops up like thrown confetti. The crumbs bounce on the table-top and then the vortex pulls them across the surface and through the air towards the nebulous vanishing point.
Iris glares at the busboy with such ferocity that he backs away with cheeks that could now be mistaken for a boiled lobster.
“Yelp’s gonna love this,” she says.
“Mom,” Sal says, his own face hot and red as lava, “Please, not today.”
Despite the fact that the vortex appears to suck all small particles towards it, all the warmth in the room seems suddenly sucked into Iris’ expression as all emotion vanishes and she clasps her hands together and sets them on the table’s edge.
“Salvador Linchburg-Trellis,” she says. “You don’t even think of telling me what to do or so help me God, it’s going to be your ass that gets thrown into that vortex.”
Sal bends his neck even further so that he can barely see his mom as he gazes up from the top of his eyes.
“I’m sorry mom, it’s just that it’s my birthday-“
“I don’t care if it was Christmas and you were Christ himself,” Iris says. “You came from MY womb, and you will behave with respect.”
Sal finds himself wiggling against the back of his chair as if he could wear his way through it and into some safe, hidden recess beyond.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-“
Iris slams the flat of her fist onto the table, causing Sal to jump in his seat. The vase wobbles, the silverware rattles, and more crumbs pop into the air to begin their journey towards the vortex. At least a dozen other patrons now watch them, drawn by the sudden sound.
Iris plants both hands on the table’s edge and leans forward.
“Don’t apologize, just don’t do it to begin with,” she hisses with her chin practically in the bread basket. “You’re embarrassing me.”
Iris’s hair also trembles towards the vortex and for a flash, Sal imagines his mother suddenly being ripped from the seat, pinwheeling through the air, and vanishing into the terminus of the spiral. He is immediately scared that he even thought it, but he finds himself laughing too.
“Shh,” his mother says. “This isn’t funny.”
But Sal laughs harder. He knows he should stop, but its his birthday, and his mom is being so mean, and he is the one who is so embarrassed, and the restaurant is just so wrong for him.
“Shut up,” his mother says, looking about frantically. The whole restaurant is watching them now. Several patrons have stood up from their seats.
Iris takes hold of her son’s wrist and squeezes hard.
“Shut up, now!”
But it’s no use. Sal laughs great belly chortles, and his whole frame shakes. He wobbles on his ass and suddenly falls out of his chair. His arm tears from her grip as he tumbles, and he hits the floor with a thud. The laughter dies instantly in his throat as the chair falls over in the opposite direction and begins a slow crawl towards the vortex. A waiter runs over with a long pole with a hook on the end to save the piece of furniture from being sucked in.
A tall man with a broad chest approaches with the waiter that first answered Iris’s initial beckoning approach the table. The new man crosses his arms and scowls.
The waiter says, “I’m sorry ma’am, but you’re going to have to step outside.”
Iris could be renamed “Still Life With Bread Basket” or “Portrait of a Mortified Woman.”
Two other patrons edge closer, a man and a woman. The woman gestures to the man to hang back and as she steps forward, she removes a badge from her pocket. She raises both hands in a calming motion.
“Everyone,” she says, “Let’s calm down, best not to get too worked up so close to the vortex.”
As if in agreement, the vortex itself seems to pulsate a little. The threads of its spiral seem a little swollen, a little more vibrant. The pull across the whole dining room towards the vanishing point seems more pronounced.
The officer kneels by Sal.
“Hi there, I’m Officer Merryweather,” she says, offering her hand.
Sal takes her hand and lets her help him sit up. His cheeks are hot with tears he didn’t know he’d been crying.
“My name is Sal.”
“Is there someone else you’d like to go home with?”
Sal nods and tells Officer Merryweather his father’s name and his phone number. It is the only phone number Sal knows other than his mom’s.
Iris opens her mouth to object, but Sal knows that at least for the moment her words, her temper, will all be useless. Though he has no doubt there will soon be another day, another outing, with her because that’s just how things work, simply knowing that there are some forces that she can’t stop takes some of the shadow from his heart.
Officer Merryweather pulls a handful of coins from her pocket. She selects five shiny pennies and offers them to Sam.
“Would you like toss a couple pennies into the vortex while I try to contact your dad?”
Sam’s eyes open as wide as dinner plates.
“Would I?” he says breathlessly.
Andrew Najberg is the author of The Goats Have Taken Over the Barracks (Finishing Line Press, 2021) and Easy to Lose (Finishing Line Press, 2008). His poems and prose have appeared in North American Review, Louisville Review, Fleas on the Dog, Mockingheart Review, Faultline Journal, Yemassee, Nashville Review, Artful Dodge, Stoneboat Journal, Istanbul Review, Bangalore Review, Drunken Boat, Another Chicago Magazine, and many other journals and anthologies. Currently, he teaches creative writing for the University of Tennessee Chattanooga where he assists with the Meacham Writers Workshop.