Monday. Laren, Beardo, and I have shown up early to taste the seasonal wines. Beardo introduced himself last Saturday, but he came upon me from behind while I was stretched up towards the Roman cornice crowning the martini-glass shelf, reaching for the CD changer and the stop button—Louis Prima had caught a heavy-morose snag on “Time Goes By,” kept crooning, sigh-sigh-sigh-sigh-sigh-sigh. Apparently, Beardo had followed me into the corner with his hand extended for shaking, and halted just short of climbing up my heels, so when I turned back around his beard leapt at my face. Before I recovered, my hand was limp and taken, his name given, missed.
We pull some chairs down in the back room, push a couple tables together and sit while our food runner, a failed Mexican jockey and shrunken Clark Gable, swept bread crusts off the floor. People always mined the fluffy center of the loaves and left the crusts uneaten, which for whatever reason usually wound up lost below tables.
Giovanni, the wine rep, walks around the table, pouring. A paunchy but sprightly Italian I admire if only for his rise. A low-echelon wine steward at the Four Seasons in the seventies, not yet twenty years old, he had filled in on the absolutely right night for the flu-stricken master sommelier, and just happened to have a sheik beckon him over and order 20,000 dollars worth of Bordeaux to impress his entourage.
“He just pointed. For my white women,” Giovanni once told me. “He hands me the book. I shutted the book.”
The next day Four Seasons fired the sick sommelier and made Giovanni master. Now he manages Italian wine for the distribution company the restaurant buys from.
“So what do you think?” he asks us while we swirl, sniff, suck. He wears reading glasses pinched to the very tip of his nose. An orange loop droops from the earpieces, slack and intestinal about his shoulders.
“Dark. Bloody. Almost black?” Laren holds her glass up against the light.
“Bingo,” Giovanni says. “Little black grapes.”
Beside me, Beardo tirelessly etches notes on a clipboard. We all speak over his furious, stabbing pencil. Not long before, we had learned Beardo didn’t drink, nodded it down, understood he would always be a stranger.
Over the years, I’d tasted so much that it all tasted the same now. It was supposed to be the other way around, your palate more discerning over time. I wasn’t even sure why I was there. There was a time when I’d been concerned about pairings, about what to recommend with pesto and so on. Now I just recommended what I knew and had once tasted. I left the new wines for Beardo, and to the other servers who came and went with the seasons. Really, I just wanted a free buzz before my shift.
Giovanni walks to the head of the table and sets the bottle down. He picks his frames off his nose and they fall against his eminent belly. He traces the line of buttons down his shirt.
“I gived my tie away today. Old time sake,” he says. “An old parable of hospitality training, the good waiter makes a gift of his tie for the customer who compliments it.”
On his clipboard, Beardo prints, GIVE TIE AWAY. He circles it.
“In my day, I give five ties,” Giovanni tells us, popping an olive from the table into his mouth. “Today… six. The chef at Bouchon tells me, I like those colors.”
We sit there for a moment, listening to Beardo catch up.
“Did they ever come back wearing it?” Laren asks.
Giovanni is quiet. He looks off at a memory taking shape in the green wallpaper. “This did happen. His smile was all face. Below it, the tie. He kept lifting it, shaking it, laughing. He was a smear in the dining room.”
Beardo stops scribbling. The new quiet is palpable, expanding in dimension like when the furnace suddenly clicks off and walls lean in on you. “I’d certainly have stopped after that,” he said.
“Because one man is stupid,” Giovanni says, “you stop?
“No. You never stop, because magic. Beautiful. You give your tie, you give everything. Astounding. You watch their face… Is like a miracle.”
John Kersey lives in Chicago with his wife and their daughter. He teaches creative writing at Elgin Community College. More work of his can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.