Volume 27, Number 3

By Any Other Name

Paul Jenkins

Mr. Buford pushed gently on the brake and pulled his minivan up to the curb. He frowned and inched it a little farther forward.

“Okay, gang, everybody out.” He looked back at his family. “Hope you’re all hungry!”

The valet opened Mrs. Buford’s door, to her surprise, and she smiled shyly, setting her high heels onto the pavement and rising shakily.

“Everybody out now; let’s go,” Mr. Buford adjusted his suit coat; it hung a little loosely on his shoulders. He leaned over and wet his pointer finger, rubbing energetically at a smudge on the freshly washed windshield.

Ember, Posie and Zeke hopped out of the van and stood uncomfortably in their stiff, wrinkle-less clothes. They looked, wide-eyed, and marveled at the towering buildings and mirror-like windows.

“Mommy, where are we going to eat?” asked Posie, tugging on her mother’s flower print dress.

“Right in there, baby, see the sign?”

Posie looked up at the large chrome lettering. Humanity Kitchen, it read.

“May I take your vehicle, sir?” The valet held out a white gloved hand.

Mr. Buford hesitated only momentarily before producing the keys and handing them over. “Thank you, thank you, young man.”

“Okay, I think we’re ready. Right, gang? Got your purse, dear?” Mr. Buford steered his family protectively under the awning and up to those huge, gleaming doors. He checked his mustache self-consciously in the reflective glass and pulled open one of the huge doors. “Okay, remember what we talked about! Behave in there. This is a very nice restaurant!”

“It’ll be fine, dear,” whispered Mrs. Buford tugging gently on his tie. “We’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, yeah, we belong here,” Mr. Buford said, putting on a smile.

“Good evening. How are you all tonight?” said the friendly, smiling face of the hostess.

“We’re wonderful, thank you. Uh, party of five? We have a reservation for a table at 7:00, Buford’s the name,” Mr. Buford leaned nonchalantly on the counter as the hostess checked her screen.

“Of course, Mr. Buford.” She looked up again with that brilliant smile. “Follow me, if you will. I’ll get you seated right away.”

They followed her through the exquisite labyrinth of tables and gleaming pillars. A live band played eloquently on the stage. The floor was dappled with the soft light cast by the glowing chandeliers.

“Here we are.” The hostess stopped and laid some menus down on the immaculate burgundy tablecloth. “Someone will be right with you.”

The Bufords took their seats and looked around in nothing short of awe.

“See, baby, see the band playing?” whispered Mrs. Buford, brushing the hair out of Posie’s face.

“I’m hungry,” whined Ember as she flipped through the ornate menu, looking at the pretty pictures.

“Oh my, dear.” Mrs. Buford put her hand on Mr. Buford’s arm. She put her finger under the price of an entrée.

“It’s okay, honey. Honey, we deserve this. I just got a promotion, remember; we’re celebrating. We’re upper-class now. These are our people.” Mr. Buford adjusted his 30-dollar watch and buried his nose in a menu of his own.

“I want that,” said Zeke pointing out a picture of heaping, golden fried meat.

“That’s fried and served in a garlic sauce with an Italian vinaigrette. I’m not sure you’d like that, dear. How about this, the ‘Tongue and Cheek’ with a side of fries?”

“Good evening, folks, I’m José. I’ll be your server this evening. Can I get you started with something to drink?”

Mr. Buford looked down the bridge of his nose at the wine list. “Could we get a bottle of this?” he pointed out a red wine with a beautiful French name. “And water for us all?”

“Of course, sir. It will just be a moment.”

The Bufords ordered their food, giving no heed to cost. “We can afford it,” Mr. Buford said with confidence. “The New York Times gave this restaurant a five-star rating. It said the quality, artistry and perfection of the dishes was matched only by the superlative service and ambiance.”

“Mommy, here comes the food,” said Zeke clapping his hands excitedly.

“Shh, Zeke!” hushed Mrs. Buford sipping her wine and inhaling deeply. “Mmmm.”

The Bufords watched in barely contained ecstasy as their food was set before them. The arrangement of the dishes themselves was a work of art; it was almost criminal to eat them.

“Enjoy. Let me know if there’s anything at all I can do for you,” José poured Mr. Buford another half-glass of wine.

Mr. Buford sank his fork into his grilled kidney and, with his knife, cut off a small portion. He put it in his mouth and chewed slowly, his brow crumpled astutely like his cloth napkin. “Subtle, teasing, just… perfect!” he said judiciously nodding to his wife. “Cheers!”

“Mommy, mommy, look at the pretty lady.” Zeke waved a little paper pamphlet.

“Zeke, put that down, please; okay, dear?”

“Give it to me, Zeke,” Mr. Buford took the pamphlet. He opened and glanced at it. It showed a pretty young girl smiling innocently.

Mrs. Buford looked over his shoulder. “What is it, dear?”

Mr. Buford ignored her. The pamphlet assured him that the girl had been well cared for and had passed away under normal, legal circumstances. It assured him in strong terms that this establishment under no conditions would ever use black-market sources for their meat supply, and all of it was of course FDA approved.

“Well, that’s good to see at least, right, dear?” Mrs. Buford put another bite into her mouth and chewed appreciatively. “Posie, Posie, eat that last bite, dear. Don’t waste this good food!”

Mr. Buford deliberately took his eyes from the innocent girl on the pamphlet and hastily picked up his wine glass.

Mrs. Buford leaned over and put her arm around her husband, whispering in his ear. “Thank you so much, dear. This is such a treat!”

Mr. Buford did not respond, but just stared at the blood-red wine swirling in his glass like water down a drain.