#1052 Created Updated 12/13/2019
She insisted I have scrambled eggs.
"Scramble Egg?" she asked, obviously struggling with English.
I pointed at Jude. "She likes scrambled eggs. Do you have noodles?"
"Scramble egg?" the waitress asked again, hopefully, smiling at me. She was the only waitress at the Blue Kechabun, the only air-conditioned restaurant in the only large town on the island of Borneo, Indonesia. I smiled at her.
"You have fried rice?" I asked.
"You like scramble egg," she said, positively beaming. "Scramble egg?"
I looked over at the buffet table, where a hot pan with Chinese noodle breakfast was clearly visible. I could tell there wasn't a whole lot of it left, but there was enough. It was, after all, nearly 11 am, and Jude and I were sure we were going to be the last breakfast customers of the day.
When the waitress saw me look at the buffet, her face started crumpling into a worried frown.
"Scramble egg?" she asked, faintly, when I looked back, her eyebrows rising.
"OK," I said. "Scrambled eggs."
"Toast?" she said, looking worriedly over her shoulder at the buffet table. A large stack of bread was visible at the far end. "Toast OK," she said, turning toward the kitchen while scribbling on her pad.
"Wait," Jude said, loudly. "I'd like to order, too."
The waitress stopped in her tracks and half turned back toward Jude, smiling tentatively, and said, "Scramble Egg?"
Jude gave me a look. There were paragraphs streaming from her eyes. "Scrambled Eggs," she said, in an even voice.
The waitress smiled and scurried toward the kitchen. The restaurant lapsed into silence, except for the murmur of the four Chinese men at the table by the cash register along the back wall.
Then Mr. Big came in.
A mature Chinese man, balding, confident, a little on the heavy side, holding a Lucky Strike to his lips and puffing slowly but constantly as he marched methodically down the stairway into the restaurant. He wore a deadpan expression, and his eyes never flickered as he took in the whole room -- including us -- as he rounded the landing and strode toward his comrades by the counter.
They sprang to action. One jumped up and grabbed a wet towel and started wiping the table, another sprang up to grab an extra chair and position it in the strategic spot nearest the wall, facing the stairway, us, and the kitchen. A third leaned back in his chair and grabbed a clean ashtray off an adjacent table, then held it at eye level for Mr. Big to use as he walked by.
He never blinked, strode past the ashtray and into his designated power chair. He started issuing orders in a confident voice before he touched the cushion, jabbing his Lucky at each of them in turn as he made his points.
The waitress dashed to the buffet and heaped the Chinese noodles, white bread, fried rice and jam onto a big porcelain plate, and carried it over to Mr. Big, setting it before him with a flourish. For just a microsecond, as she straightened and turned, she glanced guiltily at our table. I smiled at her, and she flashed a quick, conspiratorial grin. Mr. Big was served. All was well.
"Investor in the Hotel," our guide whispered, knowingly, leaning toward us.
The restaurant phone rang, and the hostess answered, listened briefly, then nodded at one of the men at the table. Mr. Big rose and took two quick steps to the counter. "Ah!" he said loudly, and listened briefly. Speaking repidly, he barked what I guessed were several declamatory sentences. Each ended with a verbal thud, punctuated by a sharp jab with the Lucky Strike in mid-air, followed by a quick puff on the cigarette. His cadre swung their heads gently back and forth following the gestures.
Later that day we caught a commuter flight to the capital of the province on our way out of the country, and had a two-hour wait in the Semarang airport. There, in the sweltering waiting room, sat Mr. Big, drenched in sweat, sitting alone in the middle of a crowd, a tattered flight bag at his feet, and a very worn, rumpled paper sack in his lap, with a piece of laundry peaking out of a tear in the side.
A noisy group of Americans was monopolizing the only working air conditioner nearest the exit, so we sat in the middle of the crowd, across from Mr. Big. We waited in the sweltering waiting room, drenched in sweat, sitting alone in the middle of a crowd, our own tatterd paper bag on the seat between us, with a peak of laundry showing through a tear in the side. I saw him look at our paper bag, and we exchanged glances and smiles. He seemed to recognize us.
"Hot," he said, grimacing, sweat rolling across his forehead. He fished out a bandanna and wiped his balding head. "Hot," he said again. "Hot." I was betting he didn't know much more English, and I knew I didn't speak any Chinese.
"Hot," I said, smiling. He nodded vigorously, glancing up at the broken air conditioner on our side of the room.
The public address system called a flight, and Mr. Big rose, along with most of the rest of the people in the crowded waiting room, picking up his suitcase and paper bag and moving toward the door. He looked straight ahead, a deadpan expression on his face, a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips as he headed for his assigned seat on the old Russian airliner.
"You know," Jude said, watching the line of people disappear through the gateway, "the scrambled eggs weren't all that bad."