Short Story: The Phantom Customer

Late one night, when the sky had opened up and the rain was pouring down, a drenched man walked into a nondescript restaurant. The restaurant, open at this late hour only because the storm outside was raging too hard for any of its employees to leave, was nearly deserted. Only a few customers remained inside and they were mainly huddled around the entrance, waiting for the lightning to stop. But through that entrance way did this man walk. He looked cold, his eyes almost sunken into his skull. He smiled wanly at the other customers as he walked to the maitre’d’s station.

There was no maitre’d that night, as he went home early, sensing the coming storm. So a waitress, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail scampered over to the man. She smiled and remarked, “Y’know, sir, you are very lucky. Usually we are closed this late at night, but due to the storm, we are open! One, is it?” The man smiled and nodded his head and the waitress led him to his table. He hung his soaked coat on a nearby rack. When he was seated, the man finally spoke. “I used to come here all the time, growing up, and it was always open this late. How things change.” The young waitress could only shrug and practice the “costumer is always right” smile.

The man seemed to open up after that. When he ordered, his joy at reading out his order was infectious. Soon the waitress, who had previously been watching the clock and the flicking lights outside the restaurant’s windows, was bopping and hopping across the restaurant to serve this guest. He ordered things on and off the menu. The kitchen obliged because what else was there to do on a night like this? When the waitress tried to push some alcoholic beverage on him, the man refused, saying he could no longer drink alcohol. The waitress was embarrassed, as obviously this man was a recovering alcoholic and she was pressing to hard. She brought him only water.

Off in the corner, the man’s coat drip dripped with rain water, never seemingly drying. The man’s matted hair, what little there was off it, also refused to dry. Transfer from his body to his tablecloth and chair had left both a darkened with water. The waitress laughed at this, in her head, saying maybe the man can fill the pool at her apartment complex that always seemed to be empty, even in the sweltering summer heat. Yet, every time the waitress would happen to brush past the wet man with the sunken eyes, he seemed hot. Warm. Like the water was not affecting him.

Finally, it was time to for the bill to come. The waitress was a little disappointed, because she liked having the man around to keep her busy, both with orders and with conversation. She sighed, saying at least the weather would keep him in the restaurant a little longer to talk. Imagine her surprise when the man paid for his bill in cash, smiled at her, and grabbed his coat (which was seemingly still as wet as when he entered) and walk out of the restaurant into the dark night. She didn’t see any headlights of a car drive off or any other indication of how the man was going to get home in the pouring rain.

The next day, when the waitress returned to the restaurant to start her shift that day, she noticed something was off. The table where the man had sat the previous night was gone. In fact, the carpet underneath where the table was located had dark splotches. At first, the waitress thought the table was off drying somewhere from the man’s water transfer, but when she asked the maitre’d, he looked confused.

“Why, we haven’t had a table there in years. You see, we used to serve a flambé as a desert. It was the talk of the town. It was very hard to make. One night, a man ordered it. He was a long time customer. He was also going through a nasty divorce and he reeked of alcohol. When it came time for the flambé to be lit, his coat caught fire. After days of being on a bender, his clothes soaked with some of the purest alcohol one can buy, he went up in flames. The table too. The kitchen staff tried to save him, bringing buckets and buckets of water to douse him, but no matter how many gallons were poured, he could not be put out. By the time the fire department came, he was dead. Last night was actually the anniversary of that incident, if I remember correctly”

The waitress was in shock. When the maitre’d described the man, she felt a twinge of familiarity. Could the man from last night be the burned man? That was ridiculous. Yet…She asked the kitchen staff if they remembered making some unusual dishes last night. They said they did, but only because the waitress was asking about them. They assumed she was eating them. No one else from last night could remember the soaked man, the dullness of the night making memories seem foggy. The waitress was dumstruck. She opened her purse to grab a cigarette and there she found the money the man left for a tip. The edges of the dollar bills were darkened and ashy. As if they were in the pocket of a man who was burning.

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One Response to “Short Story: The Phantom Customer”

  1. Trina Says:

    I enjoyed the read–thanks for posting. You might consider changing the title–it gives away the ending.

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