by Bob Brussack
He took lunch, as was his custom, in the dining room of the River Haven Hotel in Kinnelcubby. In years past, he would have been joined by the other members of the Kinnelcubby Round Table, as they styled themselves — a circle of local wits that could be counted on not to leave any topic, worthy or otherwise, unflayed by largely harmless abuse. More recently, however, Toad had lunched in the dining room alone. He had lunched alone because the Round Table had shriveled and then dissolved, beset by deaths, emigrations to Spain, and a certain collective ennui. And he had lunched alone because he had come to appreciate, in his advancing years, the virtue of public solitude, the phenomenon of being in the midst of others but apart from them, free to enjoy his meal and follow his thoughts unencumbered by the responsibility to say anything and surrounded by the somehow calming background hum of indistinct small talk.
Mary Grace brought Toad the menu. She brought it because the bringing of it numbered among the rituals of courtesy and attentiveness in which she took so much satisfaction as a front-of-the-house professional. And she brought it because she knew that on the day she failed to bring it, Toad would decide on that day to have something other than the beetroot salad with goat’s cheese. Not that she would mind a departure from the tedium of his utter predictability. She would welcome it. But she would not be caught up short. She would not have failed to bring the menu. “The usual?,” she asked, extending the menu slightly toward him. “Yes, please. And a glass of the Casal Garcia.” He spoke in a deep, subdued, faintly raspy voice. “Of course,” she said.
All would have been well, except that someone on the dining room staff — certainly not Mary Grace — had decided to bring the room’s piped music into alignment with the current tastes of young Dublin, as Toad supposed, and at a volume suitable for a wee- hours romp, as he further supposed, not having attended a wee-hours romp since Thatcher. Gawd. Must they?
Toad hadn’t quite caught Mary Grace’s eye to press for a return to the cafe jazz playlist when a family entered the dining room — the Pleasant family, as it turned out, on holiday from Upstate New York. Mary Grace welcomed them and escorted them to the table farthest from Toad, as a precaution.
In Toad’s transmutation from local wag to connoisseur of calm, Mary Grace knew, he had devolved in his capacity to endure noise in general and gratuitous vocal excess in particular. And the Pleasant family included a young child — a blond girl in a blue dress, four-or-so years old — who carried the potential, in Mary Grace’s estimation, to be a “screecher creature.”
Having seated the family, Mary Grace turned, noticed Toad with his hand up, and knew without having to ask. She nodded and intervened to return the piped music to the soft jazz. She then brought Toad his wine from the bar, and Armand emerged a few minutes later from the kitchen with the beetroot salad. Not long after that, the American family had been served and had begun to eat. All seemed sorted.
Then came the undoing of the peace. The little girl was on her feet and fast-walking through the dining room, looking back, pursued by her brother, who must have been six- or-so. As she scampered, she emitted a relentless high-pitched scream. The mother said something that must have been meant as cease-and-desist, but it had no discernible effect. Meanwhile, the little girl entered Toad’s airspace. With a flick of his tongue, he grabbed her at the waist and popped her into his mouth headfirst. She screamed louder, but the screams had a muffled quality, as one would expect.
The father neither said nor did anything, unable to process the situation. The mother leapt from her chair and closed in on Toad, yelling “spit her out! Spit her out this minute!” Mary Grace, hovering nearby, reached Toad first, extracted the girl, and began wiping her face with a serviette. “You’re all right, lass. You’re all right,” she said.
Toad was as mortified as anyone else by all this. He apologized immediately and profusely, explaining that his tongue had something of a mind of its own, that he was on medication to suppress the reflex, and that he had supposed it was working, given that he hadn’t snatched anyone for several years — not since that fellow who had been insufferably loud watching the rugby on the big screen TV over the bar in the first few months of Mary Grace’s employment. (It was this incident that Mary Grace had firmly in mind when she seated the family well away from Toad.)
The father, having gathered himself and become indignant, wanted the Garda called and something done. Mary Grace, however, employed her considerable diplomatic skills, saying there would be no charge, of course, for the meal, and the family were welcome to enjoy the evening’s trad as guests of the River Haven. In the end, the authorities were not brought in, and the family thought better of an initial determination to “sue the pants off” the River Haven and Toad. A generous settlement might have been involved.
As for Toad, he withdrew himself entirely from public life, taking his meals at home, having his groceries delivered by Tesco, and entertaining himself listening to cafe jazz on Apple Music and the generally and tastefully diverting offerings on BBC 4. He read, of course. And he delighted in the weekly visits from Mary Grace, who had taken it upon herself to make sure he was not alone. When he opened the door for her and invited her in, she always stood at the threshold for a moment, looked directly at him, and said, “Now mind your tongue, Toad. Mind your tongue.”
Bob Brussack is an author of poetry and fiction who resides at the moment along the south coast of Ireland. In 2007, he retired after a career on the law faculty of the University of Georgia in the US.