By Chef Max Shephard
I was never one to believe in bad luck, or curses, or voodoo, but when a mysterious man showed up one night for dinner at the Applebee’s where I was a waiter, I couldn’t help but wonder.
It was a Thursday night and I had just started my evening shift. Tammy, a 40-something waitress who wore the tightest tops they sold at Walmart and smoked menthols on her breaks, was complaining about a family of four who had only left her a 10% tip.
“Those little shits dropped French fries all over the floor!” she complained. “And the Dad spilled his lemonade. Twice! I’m tellin’ ya, next time I’m …. “ Tammy’s eyes widened ever-so-slightly, and she lowered her voice to just above a whisper. “Oh my Lord Jesus, would you look at this…”
I turned toward the front door to find the source of Tammy’s amusement. It was an older man, 60’s maybe, who had tripped on the rug in front of the waitress stand and was struggling to pull himself up.
“Five dollars from my tips tonight if you pretend to help him up, then drop him,” Tammy quipped. “Fifteen if he breaks something.”
“Tammy, that’s terrible,” I shot back, shaking my head.
The man got up on his own. He wore a dark, ill-fitting suit with white pinstripes, the kind you might find at a Salvation Army for $25, and was missing most of the hair on his head, save a couple tufts on the side and back. The white shirt beneath looked two sizes too small, accentuating the bulge at the man’s waste.
“If Genevieve seats Pin Stripe in my section, I’m quitting,” Tammy said, looking at her watch. “I’m dead serious.”
But Genevieve didn’t seat him in Tammy’s section. She sat him in mine.
“He’s limping! Paul, he’s friggin’ limping…” Tammy hissed from behind me.
I ignored her and shuffled over.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I asked in the kindest tone I could muster.
“Water,” he said solemnly, looking around the restaurant.
“Oh, are you meeting someone? I can seat you somewhere else?”
“No. Here’s fine.”
“Okay,” I responded, checking to see if he’d moved the menu at all. He hadn’t. “I’ll be back in a minute for your order. Take your time.”
I made my way to the bar and got his drink. On the way back, Tammy stopped me.
“Paul, he’s staring down every person that walks in. Like, boring holes through them. And he’s squinting as he does it. This guy is a creeper.”
Tammy’s gossip skills were top notch, so I didn’t really doubt her. Still, she was annoying. “He’s probably just bored. Don’t you have tables to see to?”
“I guess,” she replied, sighing. “Ruining all my fun. This guy is the most interesting thing to happen here since Antonio got fired.”
“I bet,” I said absently.
The man ended up ordering chips and salsa, and that was it. I filled his water a couple times, but he didn’t ask for anything otherwise. He just sat there, checking out everyone that walked in. After I watched him squint at a Mexican family as they were being seated, to the point where it made them obviously uncomfortable, I reluctantly began to agree with Tammy.
This guy was a creeper.
I kept an eye on him the rest of the night, but all he did was stare at customers and eat his chips. After about three hours, he got up and limped out the door. He’d left the exact amount of his bill on the table, in cash and change.
The only other thing notable about that night was the dad of the Mexican family, who’d consequently been seated two tables down from Mr. Pinstripe, ended up throwing up all over their table. After I cleaned up the mess (the joys of being a waiter, I tell ya), I noticed his chicken was bright pink in the middle.
My next shift was two nights later. Tammy met me at the door, waving at me to follow her. I was supposed to clock in as soon as I walked in, but Tammy was insistent, to the point of grabbing my elbow and pulling me behind her. We stopped at a spot near the kitchen, with a view of her section. She put her hand on my shoulder and pointed a shaking hand toward a nearby table.
The man was back.
He was wearing the same pinstripe suit, the same tight white shirt beneath it. He was sitting at the table, staring at absolutely nothing, eating chips and salsa.
“Hmm,” I said, trying to sound disinterested. I really wasn’t in the mood for Tammy’s antics. “So?”
“So? SO?” Tammy adjusted her bra before putting her hands on her hips, like she was about to scold a child. Then, she paused. “Oh, you weren’t here last night.”
“Co-rrect. I had the day off. What happened?”
“Oh my God. Creeper happened! He was here last night, too. And Genevieve sat him in my section.” She rolled her eyes. “I think she’s mad because I sort of called her fat on a Facebook post…”
“You know she has hypothyroidism, right?”
“Oh baloney! Yeah, she says that, but….” Tammy shook her head. “Damnit Paul, this isn’t about Genevieve! That guy is strange. LOOK at him.” She glanced over at his table.
I obliged, grudgingly. Mr. Pinstripe was holding a chip in his hand, piled so high with salsa it appeared to defy the laws of physics, then shoved the whole ensemble into his mouth.
“Well, maybe he…”
Before I could finish, there was a crash from behind me. Tammy and I turned to look. Carl, the night shift manager, was on his back on the ground, tangled up with Susan, a new waitress who’d just started that day. Carl was howling, clutching at his ankle amidst the wreckage of a full tray of spilled food.
“See?” Tammy said, “He’s bad luck!”
“No, Salsa and Chips! Ever since he’s been coming, shit has been going wrong. That guy threw up on your shift two nights ago….”
“… and last night, something in the kitchen caught fire! Almost burned the whole place down!”
“Yes! Luckily we had that fire training last week, and someone put it out with the fire extinguisher.”
“I didn’t even know we had one. Who was it?”
“Marvin, I think. And I guarantee you, Carl’s ankle is broken. GUARANTEE IT. This guy is bad ju-ju.”
I looked over at the man, Tammy’s words echoing in my head. Bad ju-ju. Most of the people around him had gotten up to check out what the noise was. Some were still sitting, albeit a little flustered. But the man was simply staring straight ahead, enjoying his chips and salsa.
About forty-five minutes later, every system in the restaurant went haywire.
The lights dimmed down to almost nothing, and the air conditioners kicked on full blast. It sounded like a lion roaring in the ceiling. And then “Welcome to the Jungle” started playing through the sound system, cranked up to full blast. Everyone was either covering their ears, trying to warm up, or running for the door. The new waitress, Susan, the one who crashed into Carl, tried to serve someone a steak in the confusion, and the customer ended up slicing his finger with the knife pretty badly, to the point he had to leave the restaurant and go to the hospital for stitches.
It was a madhouse.
Carl was in the office icing his ankle, so the servers had to take care of finding out how to turn everything off. Tammy ended up getting the air conditioner taken care of, and I figured out how to turn the music down, but the lights refused to un-dim. Flat out refused. The customers that stayed had to finish their meals in the relative dark.
And in the darkness, Mr. Pinstripe remained perfectly calm. But you already figured that out.
At one point, I think he may have been smiling.
But as weird as those three nights were, nothing could have prepared me for what happened on Monday night.
It was about 8:45 p.m. Mr. Pinstripe was back, same suit, same shirt, same salsa and chips, and sitting in my section, to boot. I’d just refilled his water and turned toward the door when I saw Tammy walk in, a man on her arm.
Tammy was off that night, but she was the type of person to go eat at the place she worked on her days off. That was just Tammy. And I was pretty sure the real reason she was there was to show the guy off. To whom, I’m not sure, but you could see it in Tammy’s eyes. She was dressed to the nines. Skin tight dress, two sizes too small, hair pulled up into a messy ponytail. Heels she couldn’t properly walk in. But, I’ll give it to her, her makeup actually didn’t look like a child had applied it, for once.
When she walked in, Mr. Pinstripe turned and stared at her. His eyes were squinted down to almost nothing.
Tammy stared back.
Genevieve met her and asked where she wanted to be seated. Tammy pointed to an empty table in my section.
Next to Mr. Pinstripe.
I shuffled over to the waitress’s stand, trying to stop Genevieve, but it was too late. She obliged, leading Tammy and the guy, a bulky red-headed dude wearing an Affliction shirt, to the table Tammy had requested. They sat facing Mr. Pinstripe. I turned toward the kitchen immediately, not wanting to be a part of whatever was about to happen. My week had been stressful enough.
I hadn’t made it very far when I heard a loud voice ask, “What’s so interesting?”, loud enough to be heard over the music and the din of conversation. I knew it was Affliction who’d asked it. And I’ll give you one guess who he was talking to. I sprinted back toward my section.
“Actually, nothing,” Mr. Pinstripe answered. “Nothing at all.”
“Oh yeah?” Affliction said, standing.
“Tell him, Ryder,” Tammy goaded. “Tell that weird fuck where he can stick it.”
“And where is that?” Mr. Pinstripe said calmly. “I’m dying to know.”
“UP YOUR ASS!” Affliction shouted, overturning his chair and charging Mr. Pinstripe’s table.
And then it happened.
To this day, I still don’t know where the knife came from, whether it was Affliction’s or Mr. Pinstripe’s. And I guess it doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that the two men ended up locked together, fighting, both holding a portion of the four-inch knife’s handle, in the middle of Applebee’s on a Monday night.
With Tammy, predictably, in the middle.
It only lasted for about thirty seconds, and I’ll never forget her scream. Or the amount of blood that poured from the puncture wound in her neck.
The restaurant erupted in chaos. Affliction tore his shirt off and pressed it against Tammy’s neck, but it was saturated with blood in a matter of seconds. He picked her up in his arms and charged out of the door. The rest of the patrons were screaming, hiding under their tables, or running for the exits. Carl hobbled out of the office on a pair of crutches and I shouted at him to call the police.
When I looked around for Mr. Pinstripe, he was gone.
After a quick look around the store, I made my way out the side door, where customers park while waiting on their pick-up orders, and found Mr. Pinstripe casually walking away.
“Hey!” I shouted, half-jogging toward him.
I expected him to run, but he didn’t. He turned slowly around, facing me.
“The cops are on their way. If you don’t stick around, you’ll be leaving the scene of a crime.”
“I supposed that’s true,” he said.
“How can you be so calm after what just happened?” At first, I didn’t think he was going to answer. I think he did because we’d established a good report over the several nights I’d served him, even though we’d never really spoken.
“Do you want to know the truth?” he finally asked.
“Because I knew it was going to happen,” he started, a thin smile on his face. “Or, something like it. I’m a…” He paused, looking up at the moon, which hung full in the sky. “I’m a shifter, I guess you could say.”
“I prevent horrible things from happening by shifting negative energy around.”
The confusion must have shown on my face. “I don’t…”
“The guy that threw up, Carl’s ankle, the music and lights fiasco…”
“That was you?”
“…. that was me.”
“Because something worse would have happened if I hadn’t.”
I just stared, waiting for an explanation.
The man crossed his arms. “You knew Antonio, right?”
“Yes,” I answered. He was one of our cooks.
“You weren’t working when Carl fired him, were you?”
“I figured. When he got fired, right there in the kitchen over the burger he’d burned for the second time, he said he was going to get revenge. So he went home, and he started googling news articles about workplace shootings. And then he got a crazy idea. So he went and bought an AR-15. And he didn’t do anything with it. Not for a week or so. But four days ago, when I walked into your Applebee’s for the first time, he was sitting in his truck with the AR-15 in his lap. He would have killed seven people that night, including you and Tammy.”
I was speechless.
“But he didn’t do it, because I diverted some of that negative energy into the guy sitting two tables over from me. Sorry about the vomit, by the way.”
“What about the next night? And the next?”
“Sometimes I don’t get all of the negative energy. In Antonio’s case, he was filled with a vast reservoir of it, one of the largest I’ve ever felt. That second night he was planning on coming back after closing. So I had to keep coming back until I got rid of all of it.”
Something about the way he said it made me believe it. Every last word of it.
“It’s gone now?”
“I believe so.”
“But, wait a minute. People still got hurt. Carl has a broken ankle. And Tammy’s seriously injured.”
“Tammy’s dead. She didn’t make it.”
“I hate it,” he said, sounding genuine. “I really do. For Carl, being hurt is better than being dead. He would have been one of Antonio’s victims as well. He’s the one who fired him, after all. But in Tammy’s case… well, sometimes the universe just won’t give up when it’s someone’s time. She was just bad ju-ju,” he finished, winking at me.
A moment later, sirens disturbed the stillness of the night.
“I’m running out of time,” he said.
“Please, wait a minute. You have to explain the salsa and chips.”
He stifled a laugh, then said, “there’s really nothing to that. I just really love salsa and chips.”
He turned to leave.
He turned again, exasperation painted on his face.
“Last question. Where are you going?”
The man reached into an interior pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a haggard notebook. He flipped to a page in the middle.
“Ellisville, one town over.”
“What for?” I asked.
“There’s supposed to be a school shooting tomorrow.”