On (not) dining alone

The commotion commenced when the lettuce waved at me. I was dining - rather, I was trying to dine - in an establishment that billed itself as an elegant restaurant. The food was excellent. The atmosphere was redolent with class. The personnel . . . well, they turned out to be a bit overcultured, if you want the opinion of an ol' country boy like me.

The waitress set before me a beautiful platter laden with a brownish trout almondine, yellow lemon wedge and green lettuce doily, upon which was centered a silver tub of tartar sauce. ''Do enjoy your meal,'' she said.

I proceeded to do so and was munching my first almond sliver when, as I say, the lettuce waved. It must have startled me, because first thing I knew, several diners were staring at me from candlelit booths, and I realized I had been holding a forkful of fish over my plate for several minutes. Someone sent the waitress to check on me.

''Everything all right, sir?''

''Yes, yes, oh, quite all right.''

The moment she turned her back, the lettuce waved again. Leaning over to see what it wanted, my nose encountered the tartar sauce. The waitress observed this inexplicable ritual from the corner of her eye and hurried over once more.

''Is there something the matter, sir?'' As a matter of fact, this time there was. I had tartar sauce on the end of my nose and could think of no graceful way to remove it while she stood there staring at me.

''Well . . . it's the lettuce. That leaf of lettuce has been waving at me.''

She bent over, narrowly missing the silver tub herself, and while she was distracted I grabbed my napkin and tidied up my face. Presently, she went away, shaking her head.

Overcome by curiosity, I moved the candle closer and saw a little green worm anchored at one end to a curl in the leaf of lettuce. The rest of his body, down to the other end, searched the air for some further anchorage.

''Oh, my stars!'' shrieked the waitress, who had sneaked up behind me and seen the creature, too. She startled me so, I knocked over my glass of water. ''I'll bring the hostess.''

''A dishrag would suffice,'' I called, but she was out of earshot.

The worm, tiring of midair acrobatics, was proceeding along the curl in search of an alternate route, and I had enjoyed another bite of trout when I saw a matron swooping from out of dim shadows toward my table. Without waiting for introductions, she reached for my plate. I grabbed it in the nick of time.

''Pardon me, sir,'' she said, ''we will serve you another dinner.''

''That's very kind,'' I replied, ''but your servings are so generous, I'm not sure I can finish this one.''

''I mean, sir, we will replace the . . . uh . . . defective entree.''

''The defec - oh, you mean . . . it's only a worm.'' She suddenly stiffened and began smiling at all the diners and ''sssssshing'' at someone. ''I had a salad earlier and wasn't going to eat the lettuce anyway. He's not harming anything. Incredible, isn't it, how they can arch their backs? Listen, I grew up near the country, and you wouldn't believe some of the critters that came to the dinner table from our garden. Why, I remember one - ''

''I'll send over the manager.''

The manager was a large man with an impervious, imperial aura. If anything, he had less interest in hearing about the critters of my childhood than the hostess did. ''You will be so good, sir, as to allow me to remove this platter.''

''I will,'' I said, ''when I am finished.'' He glared at me over the candle. ''I'm paying good money for this trout, and you will be so good, sir, as to allow me to have my fill of it.''

''No, sir. You cannot pay for this meal.''

''Not only can I,'' I huffed, reaching for my wallet to offer proof, ''I shall do so . . . in cash!''

It was a tug of wills, but I finally wrestled a check from the waitress, over the manager's mumbling objections. I held out a forefinger, and the worm climbed aboard. I thought we had it made, but there was one more indignity to endure. Since I could not reach my wallet with my free hand, I had to set the worm on the cashier's counter. She glimpsed a threadlike movement of green and rolled up one of the elegant menus into a lethal swatter.

''Don't touch him!'' I snapped. ''We cannot know, can we, madam, but what he is a friend of E.T.?'' She peered at me over bifocals. ''In any event, he is leaving with me.''

Outside, I found a leafy shrub and encouraged my dinner companion to inch off my thumb onto a branch. ''Granted, the food was superb, and you may go back inside if you like,'' I said, ''but, frankly, my wee friend, I'm afraid I cannot recommend any restaurant where the personnel are so hysterical they simply refuse to let a customer dine in peace.''

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