All-You-Can-Eat Special

There’s dust on the ledges, but not on the tables, and definitely not on the gold dragon statue by the front door that almost no one remembers to rub for good luck. 

And neither of them have ever put their hands on it. No, instead they come in even before the buffet is fully set, look the Dragon straight in its opal eye and grimace, their heads thinking “here’s another day yet!”

“Still giving us plates, heh?” they say to Meng, whose name I know but they do not. He will be back to fill their coffee twice, sometimes three times, but they won’t speak again. Some things do not change, even in 20 years.

“He’s a stubborn bastard,” one mumbles a minute after Meng’s finally walked away, sniffing at me to add more kale to the buffet. “I like him better for it.”

From their years of barebones chatter, I knew them to be soldierly, of the type who had found their own separate comfort (in the years after their wars) sitting under the yellowing fluorescent lights of the Dragon Palace. Those two, dressed in their bomber jackets – one red, one blue – always twitching their noses at the same moment, rubbing their wrists where their guns used to rest. Never eating, they’d come to co-exist at a table’s length, both content to watch the world go by from their cramped window booth. 

“You hungry?” 

One of them always asks, the other answering in some form of:

“Couldn’t stomach any of it, myself.”

Both swirl their coffee in a similar clockwise, then counter-clockwise motion, taking a sip before giving me and the now kale-stuffed buffet a cursory nod, eyes skimming the smorg of jello cubes and ginger beef and prime rib and pizza. Going to the corner to listen, I sip my own flat coffee, watered down with ice from my glass, itself sweating in the heat of the hottest July on record.

“It’s quiet in here today,” one of them says. I can never tell if it’s a joke.  

“Be thankful. You won’t find any out there.”

First one and then the other (but who knows which) turn their attention to the window, itself a frame for the crowded sidewalks just on the other side, these filled with young people decked out in Pride. You can’t see the street for the rainbow flags and their wavers, the crowds brimming with their backs to us, temporary hearts tattooed on their sleeves.

“You know-” 

“You say it every year,” the other cuts in. 

“Then let me say it this year, too. If you’re gonna love a man, love a man! Sing about it all you want, even. I just take issue with all that sex being so out in the open.” 

As if to prove his point, the last leg of the pride parade begins with its token wail of too many sirens, muted through the glass. At the tail end, one of the loudest (a fire truck) honks its horn continually, laden with fine-chested, suspendered firefighters grabbing suggestively at the two firehoses attached truck-side. We three watch through the frame (so much like a television screen), lost somewhere between the two sides as the youngest of the crowd begin to turn away, cowering toward the restaurant window, their cheeks pressed against the glass and mouths open, screaming, their small hands protecting small ears from the sound.

The glass between us and them reads: 

DRAGON PALACE

All-You-Can-Eat Special $11.95!

From behind them but not me, Meng returns, taking his time refilling their coffee, eyeing their empty plates.

“You ever notice he gives you more than me?” one says after a long while, Meng now lost again to the depths of the kitchen. The other bends over the two identical cups steaming between them, eyeing the whites of each rim. 

“Looks the same to me.”

Suddenly, the bell at the door jingles – a rarity before noon. With the door open, some of the outside pours in, breaking our silence: the laughing amid the sirens amid the cheers amid the screams. Then it closes and for a moment and there’s silence again, causing us all (the three relics) to hold our breath, wishing already we could go back to the way things were. Instead, a stream of young, brightly-haired twenty-somethings fill the entry way, craning their necks to look at the sweating buffet.

“The food good here?” asks the tallest of us all, a milk-skinned bald girl with long fingers and a military green back-pack. 

No one answers. Not even Meng appears from the back. The girl taps a high-sandaled foot and waves a well-crinkled ten in the air, the face of it flying, the silver badges on her backpack shining even in the dim.

“You know…the buffet…?” Her question echoes against the walls, rushing back to us in fours, making her seem so much taller against her compatriots–her voice so much louder, and much more shrill in the face of our three blank stares. 

“I don’t even see a bathroom…” whispers a thin other voice from the group.  

“You guys just wanna do that place with cheap noodles?” asks another more boldly, their left hand casually petting the golden dragon at the door. The rest chorus in a string of long suure’s as they leave almost as quickly as they’d come, the sounds coming in and out, the sirens gone and the crowd following after, the buffet alone again to melt, untouched. 

“Shame to waste such good food,” says one man after a while, red bomber blazing. 

“Shame,” echoes the other, pushing his coffee mug to the end of the table in preparation for the next refill, his blue sleeve still stained with yesterday’s brew. Slowly, I walk over and pick up their plates, putting them back on top of the unused stack sitting at the end of the buffet. 

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