Short Fiction – Babies

Val glanced up at the clock above the bar as she finished filling carafes of water. Twenty five past nine. Through the large front windows she could already see a line forming; a grizzled older couple, Lonny and Margie, who had been regulars here since the days when it had been a dive bar; a group of four millennials and three, no, four sets of parents with strollers. Fuck Sunday brunch, she though to herself vehemently as one of the parents knocked loudly on the window and then gestured to his wrist.

“It’s freezing out there, you know,” he said with a snarky tone as Val unlocked the door and everyone filed in.

“We open at 9:30,” Val replied, making a note to herself to replace his coffee with decaf.

Lonny and Margie took spots at the bar, while the group of millennials took over a booth by the front window. The families gravitated towards tables at the back of the room where the live music stage was set up. There was always an empty space left in front of the stage and many parents would let their toddlers loose in this area to run around unattended while they enjoyed their brunch in some semblance of peace.

As long as the kiddies stayed in this area, Val held her tongue. The place was a bar, technically, and children running lose was not only disallowed, it was dangerous. But as long as they didn’t bother other patrons or her staff, she usually let it go. Millennial parents could be rabid if they were called out for not keeping their kids under control, and with social media being what it was, Val knew she was one enraged tweet away from the majority of her brunch clientele boycotting the place.

Which she secretly wouldn’t have minded, honestly. Brunch was busy but never a big money-maker. Customers never ordered appetizers or dessert at brunch so tabs were small unless people were drinking mimosas or Caesars, they lingered pseudo-obliviously for hours even though there was a line-up out the door, and millennial brunchers were mostly really shitty tippers. Nobody on staff would have complained about Val shutting down the brunch shifts so they could sleep in on weekend mornings. Yet she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Even when the crowd changed over the years from the older artists and grizzled junkies to yuppie families who moved into the hood buying up old rooming houses and renovating the former dumps into million dollar homes. Her bar more often resembled a daycare on Sunday mornings than an historic live music venue, but something wouldn’t let her shutter the place for brunch. Even a little bit of profit was better than no profit, and most weekend mornings did turn a profit.

“Excuse me, hi…” Watch guy was trying to get her attention as she dropped off menus to another table. “I’m just going to put a chair on its side across the door to the stairs here.”

“I’m sorry, you can’t do that. There must be access to the restrooms.”

“But the kids might fall down the stairs,” he shot back, a challenge in his voice.

“Then you need to ensure that your kids stay away from the open stairwell door. You can’t block a passageway, it’s the law.”

“Well, can you at least close the door?”

“Sorry, it tends to stick, that’s why we leave it open.” Val shrugged, not caring that she had straight-up lied. She held her tongue to stop herself from adding, “and we’d really prefer that your kids stay in their seats.”

The morning rushed on in a blur of coffee refills, backlogs of orders of the huge oatmeal pancakes the restaurant was known for, and Val and her staff repeatedly dodging children who treated the aisles between tables like a race course. The other server, Kathleen, slopped coffee all over a table when a child ran headlong into her legs.

At one point, when Val and Kathleen were both in the kitchen picking up orders, Val walked back into the dining room and sensed a weird energy. There was a hush about the place, pretty much everyone had stopped talking, and Val looked up to see a couple of child-free regulars gesturing frantically.

Without dropping off the hot plates in her hands, Val rushed over.

“Shitty diaper!” the woman gasped in Val’s ear, then pointed across the room as she got up from the table and fled to the washroom, her plate of huevos rancheros rattling as she jostled the table in her rush to get away.

Val approached Watch Guy just as his wife handed him the balled up shitty diaper.

“I’m going to have to ask you guys to leave. You REALLY can’t change a diaper, especially a shitty one, on a restaurant table!” Val cried. “You could totally get me shut down for health infractions!”

“Well… you need to have an accessible washroom with a changing table,” Watch Guy replied with both defensiveness and an evil tone of delight.

Other customers were viewing the exchange with interest, while also trying not to retch at the stench that had engulfed the dining room.

“No, actually, I don’t. I’m licensed as a bar. I don’t need to provide a changing table, although there IS one, two in fact, in both male and female washrooms.”

“But we can’t get the stroller down the stairs.”

Val sighed. “That’s not my problem, sir. You cannot change a diaper on a table in the middle of a restaurant while other patrons are eating their food. It’s unhygienic. I need you to leave now.”

They’d already paid their bill so Val was thankful that she wouldn’t have to give them the satisfaction of getting a free meal for their obnoxious and disrespectful behaviour, but as she watched them gathering up their belongings, including the dirty diaper that Watch Guy kept trying to hand to her, she did a mental calculation on how many other meals she was going to have to comp for the inconvenience.

With Watch Guy and his brood out the door, she set about sanitizing their table and everything on it. No sooner had she pushed all the chairs back into place than the table was claimed by two young couples, one with a newborn in a stroller, the other with a young son of perhaps two.

“I’ll bring you a booster seat,” she offered as she brought them a carafe of water and some menus.

“Oh, there’s no need for that. Owen is a free spirit, aren’t you fella?” said Owen’s dad, tousling the child’s hair. “He likes to run around.”

Val shot Owen’s dad a death stare, but he had already turned back to his friends and started talking.

Almost immediately Owen wandered away from his parents to the tables near the front window where he stuck his little hands into a customer’s plate of food. Val calculated the loss in her head as she caught up with the child and whisked away the plate of tainted pancakes for a replacement. She stopped by the table where Owen’s parents were deep in conversation with their friends.

“Excuse me, your child is wandering around and bothering other customers. You need to keep him at the table with you.”

All four looked up at her, somewhat dazed. “Whut? Oh? Owen, come on back, buddy!” his father said, not getting up to fetch the child, but instead gesturing for him to return to the table.

A while later Val looked up to see free-range Owen making a beeline into the kitchen behind Kathleen. Seconds later a loud crash came from the kitchen entry and Kathleen appeared, eggs and refried beans splattered down the front of her shirt.

Val wanted to grab the child by the scruff of the neck but knew she couldn’t.

“Hi folks, I’m not asking again. You need to keep your child at the table with you. He just ran into the kitchen and caused an accident. It’s too dangerous for my staff, and other customers, and your kid, to let him run around like this.”

Owen’s dad rolled his eyes. “Fine, fine. We’re just trying to have a nice meal, y’know?”

Oh, how Val wanted to tell him off and kick them all out. She didn’t get paid enough to put up with this shit. This asshole genuinely thought he could bring his kid here and everyone would just put up with the entire family’s bad behaviour.

“I understand, sir,” Val replied, sarcasm dripping off the ‘sir’ like maple syrup. “But so is everybody else and it’s too dangerous for him to run around.”

Owen’s Dad became argumentative. “There’s piles of kids running around over here,” he said, gesturing to the stage at the back of the space.

“And as long as he stays back there, and doesn’t bother other customers or endanger staff, that’s fine. But he was in the kitchen. He could get hurt. You need to watch him and keep him under control.”

As Val walked away she heard Owen’s mother say, “Never mind, we can post about it on Yelp when we get home.”

“Fuuuuuuuccccckkkkkkk…” Val muttered to herself as she found safety behind the bar.

“Rough service?” Margie asked.

“Did you see the guy earlier with the shitty diaper?” she asked.

“We could smell that over here,” Lonny said.

“I’m so sorry,” Val said, “Can I offer you a complimentary mimosa for the inconvenience?”

“Oh no, doll,” Margie replied. “You don’t have to do that. We get it. These rich kids are jerks, and their babies are learning to be jerks too. You’re just doing the best you can.”

Val smiled her first genuine smile of the day, grateful for the customers who gave her no grief.

“Oh, there he goes again!” exclaimed Lonny as they watched Owen run into the bar area. At their table, Owen’s dad had his sweater off and was showing off his freshly inked sleeve tattoo to his dining companions. None of the four were paying attention to Owen or his whereabouts.

Just then a group of five or six people came in, all holding both the inner and outer doors of the small foyer open for the person behind them. Owen took this opportunity to dash out to the street.

“Oh shit!” Val said.

She and Lonny and Margie all looked over to Owen’s parents who were still engrossed in their conversation.

A customer sitting in the big front window yelled to the room. “Oi!! Anybody lost a small boy? He’s just run out the front door and and is heading east along Queen Street!”

Still Owen’s parents did not look up from their conversation.

Val was tempted to say nothing. It was, after all, not her problem. But as much as Owen was a complete little shit, and as much as his parents were a pair of clueless dickheads, she’d never have been able to live with herself if anything happened to the kid.

Lonny saved her the trouble, bellowing across the room in a thick east coast accent. “HEY! OWEN’S DAD! Your kid just did a runner, you might want to stop admiring your own arm and go catch him before he ends up dead!” Val’s heart melted with thanks, especially as Lonny muttered “you pretentious, selfish piece of shit” under his breath.

The entire bar watched Owen’s dad look up, a pissed-off expression on his face at being interrupted, only to realize that his kid was out playing in traffic. The woman whose food Owen had stuck his hands into earlier jokingly suggested they start a quick pool to see how far he’d make it before getting caught. Someone else muttered a comment about bad parenting. As Owen’s dad ran out onto the street, everyone seated in the front window stood up to get a better look as he ran past in search of his wayward child.

At the bar, Val insisted on passing complimentary mimosas to Lonny and Margie and offered an emphatic toast.

“Fuck Sunday brunch!”