The Midnight Menu
The clock said “Midnight” when I entered the diner. Actually, spoke the word. “Midnight.” Some kind of talking clock. Cheesy, like the rest of the place. Outside, the neon sign on the window, burned out and dusty, perched over the words ’Home of the Midnight Menu-Eat All You Want. Open 24 hours.’
Not usually my kind of place, but as the clock said, it was midnight, so if I wanted to eat, this was it. I lingered in the doorway, scanning the customers, losers hunched over their meals. They lived here. You could tell. Maybe they had apartments and houses. But this is was their social life.
My gut churned, not just with hunger. I shouldn’t be eating in a place like this. My lousy job and all its lousy overtime for a lousy, measly salary. Sure, I got it. Times were tough, and people had been laid off. And I was willing to put out extra effort. Some. But I had a social life. Stress on had, now. If you didn’t have the moolah and you didn’t have the time, the party moved on without you.
“Good Morning, Sir!” the host, proprieter, waiter, whatever he was, broke into my thoughts. His name tag said, “Robert. “Welcome to the home of the Midnight Menu!” He looked at me appraisingly. “Please. Allow me to show you to a table.”
I shivered. Something about him. Like he was offering me a choice, and knew exactly how I’d choose. I didn’t like it, and briefly thought about turning and walking away.
But the only thing I had in the apartment was a banana. More bruise than banana. When I’d picked it up, it moved, so soft the pulp inside slid and oozed out the peel. I wiped my fingers against the inside of my pocket, just from the memory.
Bob smiled and moved toward a table, and I followed.
“You’ve entered our fine establishment at midnight, sir, and that qualifies you for the Midnight Meal,” Bob said. I wasn’t paying much attention. I wasn’t there to talk. I just wanted to get the menu and pick out my dinner.
As if he read my mind, Bob said, “There is no menu for the Midnight Meal. A ‘paperless’ menu, if you would.” Bob’s smile widens. “You decide you want, and you decide what you pay.”
I snorted. “What if I want antelope horns in bear’s urine?” What a rip. Like this place would have anything I wanted.
“If that’s want you desire, we’ll do our best to satisfy. But we find, generally, that most people want the same things.” His smile was genial, but his eyes glittered. I was reminded of my banana. Like there was something soft and oozy inside him.
“Yeah. How much?” Not that it mattered, really. How much could the ‘Midnight Meal’ strain my credit card? I was still paying on the Hawaiian vacation I took two years ago, and college, and the five-year old leather coat sitting in my closet. The bill for this meal would be lost in the sands of time, unremembered.
“We take our purpose here very seriously, sir. The Midnight Meal has no menu. You decide the meal and you decide the cost. We attempt to satisfy, and you pay us with what you have,” Bob said.
I blinked. “I decide what to pay you? What if I’m not satisfied? Is the meal free?”
Bob smiled, again. “No money changes hands until you’re satisfied.”
I drummed my fingers. A free meal. Because I wasn’t going to like whatever they had. My mouth watered at the thought of Pan-roasted Quail with Port Sauce. Like they would have it. I could order the kind of food I should be eating, and just eat what they gave me, instead. They wouldn’t be able to satisfy me, and I’d eat for free. Even if they, by some freak-a-zoid chance, had a decent pantry, it wouldn’t be cooked to my standards. I wondered if you could do this Midnight Meal thing more than once.
Bob slid a cup of coffee onto the table, and I started. I must have been lost in thought, because I hadn’t seen him leave.
“Your meal will be here in a few moments, sir. May I bring you some cream?”
Words of protest rose to my lips. I hadn’t ordered. But then the aroma hit my nose. That coffee aroma. The aroma that warms you, briefly, when you pass a coffeehouse on a cold night. That takes you from half-sleeping to half-awake in the morning. All potential and power and energy. My hands almost shook with anticipation, and my lips hit the cup eagerly.
I almost moaned with disappointment. The coffee was good. But just coffee. Not… It was missing something. That aroma had promised me something, and the coffee didn’t deliver. I drained the cup. Well. If the food was like this, it wouldn’t be so bad. Edible, but it wasn’t going to satisfy.
To my surprise, Bob appeared in my view, and I realized that he must have left again and come back. I shook my head. I was even more tired than I thought, getting too wrapped up in my own head and losing track of the world around me. Curiosity stirred. What had he brought? Wouldn’t it be funny if were Quail?
It wasn’t, but I didn’t complain. A simple meal. Filet Mignon, seared and rare, heaped with mushrooms. Asparagus spears on the side—not those limp, dreary things you see so often. These were tenderly steamed. Okay. I was surprised. Hell, I was amazed. And free, too.
I’ll give credit where it’s due. The steak was near perfection. I didn’t even need my knife. There weren’t any sauces, any gravies. Just a touch of spice, an excellent cut of meat, and fresh vegetables. This place had a cook with a light touch. As I chewed my way through the meal, though, I began to enjoy it less and less. I’d had my tongue set for quail, and the mushrooms weren’t the kind I’d have chosen. Asparagus wasn’t really my favorite. A good meal, but it wasn’t what I wanted, so, yeah. It was going to be free.
I wasn’t surprised when Bob appeared this time before I’d even finished. He said nothing, just slapped down the latest dish. I didn’t like his look. Sort of a knowing look. He left without removing the previous dishes or coffee cup, which I found even more annoying. I pushed them aside, and examined his new offering.
A heavier meal this time. Crown Roast of Pork with apple stuffing and baby greens. A glass of hard cider. I won’t bore you with a repetition of the first meal. I’m not a gravy man, and things just went downhill from there.
Bob kept bringing dishes. Chicken Kebabs, and Gnocchi and Grilled Salmon with a Red Wine Sauce. Even Lobster, but each meal was less and less flavorful. Always, it smelled spectacular, arranged on the plate to delight the eyes. Always it promised delectation beyond compare, and always it failed to deliver on its promise. Nothing was ever bad, just… there had to be something better.
Bored with my food, I people-watched. People came and went, but a lot of customers where those present when I arrived at midnight. The lady next to the door wasn’t eating any more, her head sunk down onto her hands. I think she might have been crying, but I looked away before I was sure. You never want to make eye contact with someone like that, because they’ll suck you up into their own personal misery. Like a drowning victim, pulling you down.
A younger couple sat across the way, a toddler spewing spit at them from his baby-chair. And Bob had let them order. Given them a menu and let them study it. They studied hard, obviously worried over the prices. Guess they didn’t qualify for the Midnight Menu.
I almost choked on the Linguini I was eating. Of course, they didn’t qualify. It was light out, pale morning grey had replaced the black of night. My eyes swung to the clock, which said, “6:00 A.M.” I’d swear there was mockery in its tone.
The couple agreed to split a croissant and some fruit, and when Bob brought them a second croissant, free, explaining it was the last of yesterday’s and needed to be used, you’d have thought he’d given them a diamond.
They really seemed to enjoy it, though. I’d had a croissant earlier, and it wasn’t so great. I thought about leaving, but , obviously, these guys were getting better food. It wasn’t right. I should be getting the good stuff, too. When Bob passed, I flagged him down, even though he juggled three trays precariously between arms and chin.
“I want another croissant. Not from last night. One of the new batch.” I glared at him, making sure he understood I wasn’t going to put up with leftovers like the younger couple did. Bob, studied me. No smile now, just a faint twist to his lips. “Of course, sir,” he said.
He took his time, which fried my bacon. He’d hear about it when he got back. I shoved at my plate, pushing it into the stack that surrounded me. I’d asked Bob to clear them, and he hadn’t, and I’d be saying something about that too.
Shouts erupted from the other wing of the diner, back where I couldn’t see. Some loon shrieking that he wasn’t a prisoner and they’d better let him go. I slammed as far back in my booth as I could get. Someone would call the cops. As soon as they arrived, I’d leave. There was thumping and pounding, Bob demanding that the loon settle down and the loon screaming. Then, suddenly, shockingly, there was quiet. A man in apron, the first employee I’d seen besides Bob, streaked out of the kitchen with a drop cloth in his hands. I heard a shuffling sound, murmurs. I couldn’t tell if the loon’s voice was one of them.
The couple had left before the disturbance, laughing and hugging. They’d left.
I craned my head cautiously, as I took account of everyone I could see. Everyone who was in the diner when I entered was still there. Others had arrived later and left, and they’d been happy, exclaiming, obviously enjoying themselves. The breakfast crowd had come and gone. The midnighters, like me, we were the only ones present. Our tables were heaped with dirty dishes and we all slumped, sort of caved-in on ourselves, in various poses of misery. The edges of the table cut into my palm, I gripped it so hard. What would happen if I tried to leave? My heart pounded at the thought. None of the others were leaving. Why? What would happen if one of us did? What did just happen? Why hadn’t anyone called the police? Was the loon alive. I hadn’tseen anything.
When Bob arrived with my croissant and hot chocolate, I didn’t look up. He didn’t speak and neither did I. The croissant was tough and stale, and the chocolate already had a skin on it, thick and scudgy.
I’d walked into some kind of trap. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before. This midnight menu was some kind of scam. They weren’t going to give me all this food for free. Probably if I tried to leave, I’d be slammed with some kind of bill that would bankrupt me. Or maybe it was some kind of cult thing. I might even be beaten if I tried to leave. What had Bob said? I’d pay with what I had? Those words seemed sinister now. Given the incident with the loon, maybe they’d cut off a finger or arm if one of us tried to escape. Why else would they be staying. They knew something I didn’t. Something had happened before I arrived, and they knew something I didn’t.
I wouldn’t be the first to try escaping. Let someone else try. As soon as someone else got out, then I would.
And then Bob was at my table. He wore a fresh suit of clothes.
“Pan-roasted Quail with Port Sauce, sir,” he said. “I’m sorry it took so long, but sometimes we do have to call out.” He smiled, and I quailed. What had I gotten into? He waited and watched as I took the first bite. It tasted like cardboard. Why was he watching me? He’d wasn’t watching me before.
I sighed with relief when he finally left, and shoved the Quail onto the heap of dishes. Everything started to slide, and I did some fancy work, heaping left-over food into piles, and stacking like-sized plates together and glasses into glasses, until the mess finally stabilized. I wasn’t sure how long I could keep the whole thing from collapsing.
Bob continued bringing dishes—burgers, tacos, braised cabbage with bacon. Chocolate cake, apple pie, green tea ice cream. Wine, soda, coffee, coffee, coffee. Everything tasted sour and greasy. I could smell my own sweat.
I could leave. Get up and walk. But every time I made the decision, got my feet beneath me, ready to leave, Bob would bring another dish, and watch until I took a few bites. He’d murmur words of encouragement, and he’d smile. I shuddered every time he smiled. The lunch crowd came in and left, then the dinner crowd, and still Bob brought me food.
Suddenly, the clock said “Midnight”. I looked up at the woman who’d just entered. Good. Maybe Bob would focus on her and I’d have a chance to escape. I thought briefly of warning her. Jumping up and screaming at her to leave. But I stared at the greasy fries, the steak congealing in globs of gravy. The stinking heap of spoiling food that threatened to crash down on me.
I didn’t have anything. Why should anyone else.