By Amy Jarvis
The lobsters take pleasure in staring at you with their beady, black eyes. Their claws are taped together with manacles that indicate their weight. With their remaining limbs, the lobsters crawl over each other to get a better look through the murky water of their tank – displayed shrewdly near the front of the restaurant. The lobsters must notice the pressed white button-downs and black pants, the dangling apron ties and no-slip shoes. I often questioned whether or not, despite the gratification they must receive from making people uncomfortable, the lobsters swallowed in fear each time a server walked through the doors of Seaside Lobster to begin their shift.
I never cared for closing a Friday dinner shift. Even though we earned higher gratuities, leaving the restaurant after midnight, after being run ragged all evening, wasn't something I looked forward to. I swallowed hard when I bypassed the lobster tank, and once again felt guilty about working in a restaurant that slaughtered dinner for its guests by tossing lobsters into a pot of boiling water. After the manager approved my uniform and gave me my section assignment, he asked what I would be selling that night. I rambled off piña colada, stuffed mushrooms, and chocolate cake, along with a slightly ambitious seven hundred dollars in sales.
Although seven hundred usually happened on a bustling night, I never had the intention of pushing guests to order something they weren’t interested in for the sake of meeting my goal. After checking in with the hostess, I stopped at the beverage station, poured a coffee, and walked into the kitchen. I watched as everyone prepared for what was shaping up to be a hectic summer night.
"The first time I ever witnessed a lobster in the kitchen, I excused myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, sat down next to the toilet, and sobbed. "
Several hours into my shift, I approached a table that had been seated in my section, and noted a middle-aged man sitting across from his two children. The man studied the menu as the boys scribbled on coloring pages the hostess had given them. Broken pieces of crayon were already scattered on the floor, soon to be ground into the carpet. I tried to hide my frustration and greeted them with my usual script: Hello, I’m Beatrice. I’ll be your server. Can I start you with drinks?
The man asked for three cokes. Then he announced that he wanted to order a live lobster.
I prepared to find out which weight they wanted: one pound, two, three.
“Can my kids choose the lobster?” he asked.
What kind of sick f—
“Sure,” I said.
I was never able to grab the lobsters with metal tongs from their tank and escort them to their deaths. The first time I ever witnessed a lobster in the kitchen, I excused myself to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, sat down next to the toilet, and sobbed. After, I pulled the mini-bottle of Jameson I kept in my apron and downed it before I returned to work.
I didn’t admit my problem with the lobsters to the guests. Instead, I explained that another server would meet them at the tank shortly. Waiting by the tank, I thought, would give this man’s kids a chance to choose what lobster they wanted to boil. As my table headed for the front of the restaurant, I grabbed the nearest server and asked if he could pick up a lobster. I had only been serving for two months; the other server, Julian, had worked there for several years and had probably grown insensitive to the requirement, or at least he could handle it.
“No problem,” Julian agreed.
Julian followed the same route my table had taken. I imagined what the lobster saw: guests working through plates of seafood, followed by the humming kitchen; the salad station where servers carelessly tossed dressing onto premade greens; the alley where servers hastily grabbed oversized trays, piled them with plates hot from the warmer; the line where the food was prepared. And finally, the boiling pot, which was kept behind the line, in the back corner of the kitchen. I wondered what the lobster’s last thought would be before being dropped in.
I returned to clean the table after the guests left, which included bringing the carcass of the lobster back to the dish station and dumping it into the trash can. When I finished, I picked up the check presenter and paused at the POS to find out how much the man had left me. I wondered if the lobster’s life was worth only fifteen percent gratuity.
Amy Jarvis is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.