by M. Nathan Robinson
When the check comes, I review it item by item. Luckily, there are no mistaken additions and, unfortunately, no omissions either. I place my credit card on the tray and let it hang over the edge to ensure the waiter won’t miss it. He misses it. He passes by three more times, eyes averted, before I pick it up and create a makeshift turnstile with my arm he can’t squeeze past.
He returns fifteen minutes later with two receipts printed on the narrowest of flimsy thermal paper. They curl up on sight. I smooth them straight and use my fingers as paperweights. The twins share pink, end-of-the-roll warning stripes and uneven jagged edges.
I am not one to penalize waitstaff when calculating the tip. It’s a grueling job for little pay and the few times I was pressed into service, I’m sure I did nothing to earn my gratuity. I multiply by two and move the decimal. I write the amount with the bleeding, hairy-nubbed pen provided and place the total below. My nine looks like a seven and the five could be mistaken for a six, so I cross out the number and write more precisely in the margin up along the side. As taught by god knows who, I go back and initial the crossed-out portion. I’m left with a space the girth of a string bean for my signature. I do my best, but it mimics a child’s depiction of an ocean wave or, perhaps, an inchworm in flight.
Only then do I realize I’ve accidentally filled out the customer copy. It’s indicated at the very bottom in three-point type with the “ner copy” sheared off. I know enough that it doesn’t really matter and so I simply keep the merchant copy for myself. I crumple it in my hand and stick it in my pants pocket so the dryer has a nice snack for later in the week. As I get up to leave, I stir the air and the half-ply, featherweight parchment rides the draft onto the floor and under the table. It continues on until it comes to rest with the lint and filth between the booth and the wall. Thank goodness I’m here to witness it and rectify the situation. I retrieve it, along with a set of chopsticks, a straw, and a linen napkin, even though the restaurant switched to paper two years prior. I place the receipt back onto the tray and pin it down with the salt shaker.
But as I make my way to the exit, something doesn’t sit right. I see no sense of urgency. There is no meticulous procedure being employed. My documentation, with my precise calculations, my initialized and certified corrections, my requisite signature authorization, just sit there fully exposed. No one is racing over to assure a chain of custody, inspect the integrity of work, or rush it into processing.
I assume the amount of the gratuity and the final tally need to be resubmitted to my credit card company to verify and finalize this financial transaction. But, it now dawns on me that I have no idea how that works. This procedure that I’ve performed more than any other binding financial contract I can think of in my life, actually makes no good, goddamn sense to me. How does the tip get applied? What stops them from adding in any amount or changing the total? Am I expected to review my statements and remember all these amounts? If I choose to dispute the charge, will there be a hearing? Will a forgery expert be called in to testify? Will my hairy squiggles be distinguishable from all other hairy squiggles? I mean, what the fuck?
Or have we just been operating on the honor system all this time? Upon reflection, I’ve never had a waiter or waitress I’ve suspected of wrongdoing, but surely, they’d know not to grin, wring their hands, or laugh maniacally in front of us—their victims.
Where’s the protocol—the systematized bureaucracy that creates a series of hoops, red tape, and crushing penalties as a deterrent? I mean, am I mistaken or are we all exposing ourselves to fraud, forgery, and embezzlement on a daily basis? And our only protection against these crimes is—what? I can hardly imagine.
Would I be expected to testify? Coached to say something like “That’s not my hairy squiggle of my first initial followed by what looks like it could be a smudgy smear of my last initial!” or “Yes sir, I am very confident that my hand is incapable of making a line with humps and dips in those precise locations!” And where is all this paperwork being cataloged and stored for trial? Good god, man—I’m picturing an undertaking bigger than the colonization of Mars!
Is the only solution to lunch exclusively with notaries who travel with their stamps and embossers? Or is it as easy to forge their shit too? Maybe it’s hopeless. Like so many problems we seem to be facing these days, there’s probably no good solution. Maybe the answer is to join ‘em—or, at least, get in the game. Can I go back and dispute all my credit card charges from the beginning? What evidence do they have that my signatures and my initials were not forged? I don’t know about you, but the only person on the planet who may be incapable of forging my signature is—me! My nervous hand forces a signature that is sometimes tall and loopy and other times flat and pointy, or anywhere in between.
So, why not? Go ahead! Have at it! Give yourselves two-hundred percent tips, add eight more items to my bill, leave room to type in a litany of extra fees and surcharges. I guess all I have to do is deny them all—every last one! Hooray! Yippy! Oh, who am I kidding? We’re all screwed.
M Nathan Robinson is from Philadelphia, PA, USA who got the bug to write creative fiction rather late in life. He’s published one suspense novel, RIFT, in 2020 and has a collection of short satirical fiction and essays coming out in 2024 entitled, “I Don’t Like to Complain, But…”