Monday, November 6, 2023

The Last College Tradition


This short story was written in response to a short story prompt called "Indian Curry" and is loosely based upon actual people and events in my life, although I changed the names and some of the details both to avoid giving away too much information about my past. Anyway, let me know what you think! As always I appreciate any feedback!



"The Last College Tradition"
by James J Meadows III

                The refreshing aroma of various spices tickled my nose as I passed through the dirty double-glass doors of the old restaurant. Somehow, even after all these years, the familiar aroma still filled me with a rush of excitement and anticipation, sending my mouth watering and tongue tingling. The smells blended nicely with the equally pleasant sense of comfort and peace I felt, as I looked around at the familiar decorations and tapestries, almost completely unchanged since the first time my friends and I had placed foot inside this restaurant so many years ago.

                “Mister Baker,” called the warm, cheerful voice of a middle aged Indian man, emerging from a nearby doorway. “My goodness, is it that time already? How the months have flown!”

                “Good afternoon, Mr. Sachdeva,” I replied. “I agree. The months certainly have gone by! How are you doing?”

                “Doing well, thank you,” he said. “Your usually seats and table, I presume?”

                “Yes, please,” I replied, as he collected four dinner menus and signaled for me to follow. “I am sorry to hear about your father, by the way. He was a wonderful man.”

                “Thank you,” Mr. Sachdeva replied.

                He seemed uncertain what else to say and I, sharing his sense of awkwardness, didn’t press the conversation. Mr. Sachdeva’s father was the original owner of the restaurant, and had owned it at the time my friends and I first started coming here. Back then, Mr. Sachdeva worked as the greeter. He had taken over the family business after his father’s death a few months ago.

                “Here you go, sir,” he said, gesturing me toward a chair at the small table for four in the back of the restaurant.

                It was the chair I always sat in, at the table my friends and I always sat at. Mr. Sachdeva placed the menus around the table at their various spots, while I took my seat.

                “I’ll be right back with the drinks,” he said. “You would like Riesling, of course. Mrs. Daniels wants a Chardonnay; Mr. Jones would like a water; and Mr. Bellard will take a Pinot Gris. I will place the food orders with the cook.”

                “You know us too well,” I said, giving a small laugh.

                He shared in the chuckle, yet the smile did not extend to his eyes. There was a look of sorrow in them and, I daresay, perhaps even pity. I tried not to think about the look as he walked away.

                Glancing at my watch, I checked the time. There were still five minutes until six o’clock, the hour my friends and had I agreed to meet here – I was usually early. The gathering was a tradition for us. This was our favorite restaurant when we were in college together and, when we graduated, this is where we ate our final meal together. On that day, we made an agreement to make sure our friendship never died. We would meet here every six months, on June 1st and December 1st, at 6pm, and we would eat the same exact meal we had on that last day, with the same drinks and everything. Today, was June 1st.

                We knew the tradition was silly. At the same time, it was something unique, fun and ultimately meaningful to us. Now, sixteen years later, it was a tradition we still maintained. Sadly, though, it had changed somewhat.

                  I glanced at the chair to my left. This chair once seated, Shannon Daniels. She and I had met in junior high school and hit it off quite well. We formed a study group with some of the other kids and even dated for a short period, before ultimately concluding we were much better off as friends. We remained so throughout our college years.

At the time we graduated, she was engaged to a young man named Allen. She was the first of our group to get married and the first of our group to have children. Sadly, a heat stroke, while working in her garden one weekend, meant she was also the first of us to die. She was still in her twenties.

                “Here you go, sir,” Mr. Sachdeva interrupted my thoughts, placing down drinks around the table.

                “Thank you,” I answered, glancing at the glass of Chardonnay he placed at Shannon’s spot.

                After she passed away, my friends and I decided to keep her spot. Not only that, in keeping with tradition, we would still order her food and drinks, to serve as a reminder that she was still with us in spirit.

                “Should I start the food, sir, while you wait?” Mr. Sachdeva asked.

                “Yes, go ahead, please” I replied.

                He gave me another mournful look, which I tried to ignore, and headed for the kitchens.

                  I glanced down at the glass of water sitting across from me. This glass belonged to Michael, the only one of our company who didn’t drink. I met him at Sunday school, while I was still in high school. We became best friends almost instantly. For the remainder of our high school days, we were inseparable, together every evening, weekend, and any other time we could get away with it. We were the closest thing either of us ever had to brothers.

                 Unfortunately, like the Chardonnay, this glass would not get drunk. Michael and I went different directions in our careers and to different cities in our state after graduation. When we were thirty three, he suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of stress at work. The police and his family found his body at a hotel, where he had ended his own life. Distracted by work and life, I hadn’t spoken to him for three months prior to his death – a fact for which I doubt I will ever forgive myself.

                “Your food, sir,” Mr. Sachdeva’s voice broke in upon my reflections.

                “Thank you,” I replied, as he placed a full plate of freshly cooked curry in front of me. “It smells wonderful!”

                I pulled out my fork and started eating my dinner. As I took a bite, I watched Mr. Sachdeva place a plate of Beef Biryani in front of the spot where Shannon sat and a plate of Rajma and rice in front of the spot where Michael once sat. Finally, he put a large bowl of Jalebis in front of Robert's spot.

                Robert’s food would not get eaten either, though I couldn’t tell you why. I’m not sure I’ll ever know. Robert and I met while working at the same summer job after our freshman year. We bonded over a passion for computers, television shows, and video games. I never really knew his family, outside of a few girlfriends he dated, who sometimes came to our get-togethers.

                One day, when we were both 36, I called Robert and scheduled a time for us to get together in about two weeks to hang out, have dinner, and just visit. When the date came, he didn’t show up. I texted him but he didn’t respond. I tried calling him, no answer. Later that day, I went onto his Facebook page to send him a message – which was rare for me since I don’t use Facebook much.

                I saw from comments and pictures left by family on his site that he had died a little over a week-and-a-half before. His funeral was performed the previous day, the day before we were supposed to meet. I messaged his family, asking what happened. They never messaged back and I didn’t press the issue.

                Finishing my last bite of curry, I placed the fork down onto the table. I stared for a few seconds at the untouched dishes and drinks circling me. Just sixteen years ago, a group of college graduates sat at this table, celebrating our friendship and planning for the future. How could they all be gone in less than twenty-years, not one of them getting to see their forties? How much longer would I press on before joining them?

I leaned back in my chair, staring at the empty seats. For a moment, a brief moment, the seats weren’t empty anymore. I could see Michael’s pale skin, platinum hair and trademark smile as he sat upright and proper, watching me; I beheld Robert’s dark skin, dark hair, and scarred face as he reclined backward in his usual manner; I gazed in Shannon’s bright green eyes as they sparkled with her usual zest and enthusiasm.

Somehow, I knew they were all there with me, smiling at me, thinking of me and proud to know that I was thinking of them. Then, the images faded. I saw only Mr. Sachdeva standing across from me, watching me with his sad, yet understanding stare.

“How much do I owe you?” I asked, rising from the table and reaching for my wallet.

“Nothing,” he answered. “This one is on me.”

With a small smile, he picked up the plates and headed toward the back. I reached into my wallet, withdrawing all the cash I owned. It wasn’t much but it was something. I placed all of it onto the table then turned for the door.

 Passing through the glass doors, I gave one last nostalgic look behind me, staring at the table as long as possible until the tinted doors finally closed, hiding its view from me. Heading for my car, I climbed inside, buried my head in my hands and wept for the last time – until December.

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