Thank You (or Not)
by Rick Hines

Composed Jan. 23-25, 2022 and based closely on a true story.

"Thank you," the girl behind the counter said to me. Her nod indicated a tray resting before her.

The tray displayed a salad and fork. My iced tea was waiting back at my seat. I picked up the tray and said, "No, thank you."

I narrowed my eyes to the bright light as I walked out to the open patio. It was a typical southern California day: palms waving in the ocean blue skies, only a sprinkling of small white clouds limited to the horizon. It was warm, but any thought of getting too hot was carried away in the light Pacific breeze. The restaurant radio was playing, a smattering of Chuck Berry, a dash of Katy Perry, and Frank Sinatra of all things.

I sat down, placing the tray next to my waiting drink and a paperback book. I picked up the book and opened the pages to the narrow bit of torn paper marking my progress. I began to eat and read. That's when I heard her.

It wasn't crying. It was sobbing. Full, deep-throated, gasping sobs. I looked up to find the source of this pathos. It was a teenage girl sitting at the far end of the patio from me, outside the low restaurant pony walls but at one of their sidewalk tables close to the parking lot. She was dressed in the fashion-conscious way of teen girls, her clothing mall nice and fairly new. This was no drug-crazed homeless street urchin. She was speaking on her cell phone, tears streaming down her face. Her makeup had seen better days. She was bent over the table, her shoulders hunched, choking to get words out between gasps.

I looked around the patio. Nobody else seemed to be paying her any mind. People were having conversations, some gazing into their phones, one immersed in their own paperback. A dog was awaiting a handout from his dining master. The restaurant workers continued to take bagged meals to waiting cars and return, passing the distraught girl multiple times. No-one looked at her. No-one offered her any help. She appeared to be invisible to everyone but me.

I turned my attention again to the girl. She was young enough to be my daughter. Maybe I should go offer my help? I could be the paternal voice of calming reason. Maybe she was just upset her boyfriend left her there, and she just needed to get home. I sure wasn't going to offer her a ride anywhere for any number of reasons. Then again, an older man approaching a young teen girl may not be the look I wanted to give off. I could imagine a scenario, part of which was her screaming, "Fuck off, old man!" followed by, "Excuse me, sir, but I'll have to ask you to leave." Perhaps another woman or teen should have offered some help. But nobody was paying any attention.

By now the girl's phone conversation was over. She was slumped over the table, and her head was buried down in her arms. Even over here I could make out her shoulders pitifully shaking. Her cries were only slightly muffled by her arms.

I looked around the crowd. I was reminded of the scene in "Brazil" where the terrorist bomb goes off in a restaurant, and, as the wounded are triaged, the remaining customers continue to calmly eat their meals amidst the ruins.

What could cause such distress in a girl? Considering her age, perhaps nothing more than being young. A bad hair day or pimple? An insult from a close friend? A boyfriend going behind her back? Finding out that one of your parents just passed away? I couldn't have helped her with any of those things if I had wanted to. This was suburban America. The most alarming thing I could imagine here was an unleashed dog. Perhaps someone had spoken to her before my arrival, and there was no need of help. Then why the sobbing? I glanced back in her direction to find her sitting up but with her suffering unattenuated.

I didn't want to be caught staring at her, so I lowered my eyes to the book I had been reading. I forced another forkful of salad in my mouth and chewed. Perhaps I wasn't the right person to offer help. Maybe I should discreetly ask to see the manager? Would he simply ask her to get lost? "Sorry, but I'm not paid enough to deal with customers' emotional crises," he would retort. The police? 911? I guessed that would have been a gross over-reaction on my part. The police would get mad, the girl would get mad, and I would get humiliated. Maybe she had emotional issues and any offer of assistance would have been met with hostility? But she didn't look hostile; she looked helpless and distraught. She was just a teenage girl.

I looked up, across the patio, and she was gone.

© 2022 by Rick Hines.
Material may not be used without the artist's written permission.