A Certain Kind of Problem Customer

Originally published August 19, 2017.
Contains: long-term weight gain, behind-the-scenes encouraging.

You might recall from the description of Losers that after writing something that dark (in comparison to my other stories), I felt like I needed to write something extra light and fluffy, to reset my equilibrium. I did start a story of that nature, and hopefully it will see the light of day eventually. But in the midst of writers block on that story, I got the idea for this one, and it just appealed to me more.

This originally started out pretty similar to Waste Not Want Not, where an employee is caught eating leftover food and punished for it the way the main character of this story ends up punished. But that felt too dark for me, even after Losers. So I changed him to the character we got instead, and it made the “punishment” feel a lot more just.

Synopsis: Charles is a “very important” business man who relaxes every week at the restaurant Tino’s, where’s he’s rude to the servers and often leave pitiful tips. After he stiffs a waitress one night and leaves her no tip at all, Titus, the restaurant’s owner, employs an appetite stimulant and fullness suppressant to be snuck into Charles’ food. As a result, Charles eats a lot more thanks to never feeling full, and the pounds pile on, until he gets his just desserts, and Tino’s gets its relief.

Charles walked into Tino’s for his usual Thursday night solo dinner. He depended on these dinner to unwind after a long work week and give himself a boost to get through Friday. Not that Fridays meant much to someone as important as him, who was known to work a full work day over the weekend to finish everything he had to get done. But he knew how much the company depended on him, and they wouldn’t have assigned him the work if they didn’t think he was capable. To know that they recognized his capabilities put a satisfied smile on his face, even when he was pulling up to the office at 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning.

But it wasn’t 8:00 AM on a Saturday morning; it was 7:00 PM on a Thursday night, and Charles was going to put work out of his mind so he could go in refreshed the next day. After all, someone as vital as himself couldn’t afford to be distracted. He’d have a good meal, get a good night’s rest when he got home, and go into the office ready to work.

At least, he hoped he’d have a good meal. There was something comforting about Tino’s, with its mid-tier Italian food that was upscale enough to take clients and coworkers to lunch there, but casual enough that he could relax, often walking in without his suit jacket. That kept him coming back even though Tino’s, like most restaurants Charles ever dined at, didn’t always live up to his standards.

He didn’t feel hopeful for that night as he walked in, when the maître d’ couldn’t seat him at his usual booth and had to relegate him to a two-person table. He scrunched his nose as he followed her, before putting on a smile and saying “Thank you” as he sat down. While he read over the menu he practically knew by heart, the waitress seemed to take her sweet time coming over. Once he saw her approach, he recognized her, as he recognized all of the waitstaff who worked Thursdays. Her name was was Linda, or something like that. He let out a quiet sigh, as she was one of the less competent staff there.

“Hello, welcome to Tino’s,” she said, as if Charles were just another anonymous face in the crowd and not regular, loyal customer. He didn’t like her. “My name’s Lindy, I’ll be taking care of you tonight. Can I start you off with a drink?”

“Merlot, and easy on the pour this time. I do have to drive myself home.”

“Of course,” she replied, sounding a bit flustered. “I’ll be back with your drink, as well as some bread and oil.”

Charles decided what he wanted to order well before Linda or whatever her name was brought over his drink and bread. She returned with the glass a third of the way full, at which Charles had to suppress the urge to roll his eyes. He’d asked for a light pour, not a tiny paper cup’s worth to be drunk during a church service. The oil also left something to be desired, being less dense with the restaurant’s signature herb mixture than it usually was. “Do you know what you’d like to order?” she asked.

“Fettuccini alfredo, and not too much cream this time,” he commanded, hoping to avoid a repeat occurrence of the last time he’d ordered alfredo there. Linda had a neutral expression on her face as she wrote the order down, which seemed odd to Charles. It was a simple enough order; was she that scatterbrained that she couldn’t remember it? Regardless, he resented the fact that she wasn’t smiling as she wrote it down. Service people, he thought, should always smile when they serve the customers. If waiting tables was the best they could do, he thought, they should be happy to have a job at all.

Charles ruminated over his various other thoughts about the world and people’s places in it as he snacked on the bread and oil. When his pasta finally arrived, he was happy to see that the sauce didn’t look as runny as it had before. But it seemed to have gone too far in the opposite direction, so much so that it was more of a task to spin the noodles around his fork than it should have been. It still tasted delicious, as Tino’s made his favorite alfredo sauce out of any nearby restaurants. But overall, the final result was lacking.

When his pasta was finished, Charles sat as the table tapping his finger until he saw Linda again. When he did, he flagged her down for the check. She brought it to him, saying naively, “Thank you, no rush.” As if a man of Charles’ importance was ever not in a rush. As if he didn’t have places to be, even that late in the day.

It was the last straw for Charles, who looked at the “tip” field on the bill with a frown. Normally he left 10%, for he thought there were few servers who went above and beyond enough to earn the full 15%. But Linda had especially disappointed him that night. With the pen in hand, he clicked it and drew a line across the “tip” field, before copying the subtotal amount unchanged into the “total” field.

Lindy waited until Charles left before she took his bill, trying to minimize how much conversation she had to have with the pompous ass. She didn’t have to wait long, as he seemed to be in a rush to leave once he finished signing his check. As if he had anywhere important to be at 7:40 PM on a Thursday night. With a sigh and a roll of her eyes, she walked over to his table to clean it up, working around the bill holder. Being that Charles was a notoriously stingy tipper, she wasn’t looking forward to seeing how little she’d take home that night.

Once the table was clean, she opened the bill up, only to stare at it for several seconds when she saw the straight line through the “tip” field and the subtotal re-written identically in the “total” field. She looked behind the check, but found that Charles hadn’t suddenly gained an affinity for tipping in cash. Having not found any money on the table itself as she cleaned, she was forced to conclude that either he’d forgotten to tip, or…

She ran to the front entrance, knowing it was absurd to think that she might catch him after she’d dallied so long cleaning his table. Running past the maître d’s stand, she opened the door and looked out into the parking lot, where she saw no sign of him. “Piece of shit…” she muttered.

“Lindy, what’s wrong?” Emma asked, walking around her stand with a concerned look in her eyes.

“Charles stiffed me,” she proclaimed.

“He what?” Emma asked as her eyes opened extra wide.

“You heard me right. Left no tip, whatsoever.”

“Jesus. I knew he was bad, but I didn’t think…”

“Me ‘neither. Guess I should have!” Lindy exclaimed as she threw her hands in the air. “I mean, fuck me, right? Doesn’t even tell me what he’s not happy about so I can fix it, just what the last server did wrong. So I made sure I followed his specifications, and this is how he thanks me?”

“Lindy, it’s not you, I promise. Charles has been an ass ever since he started coming here. Look, I have a reservation for a group of 10 in 15 minutes. I’ll put them in your section. You’ll get at least 18%. Way more than you’d have gotten from that asshole even if he had tipped well.”

“Lindy, Emma… is there a problem?”

Titus had inherited Tino’s when his uncle, whom the restaurant took its name from, had retired, and none of his kids wanted to step in to take his place. He tried to learn everything he could from his uncle, from passing down the family cooking “secrets” to the cooks so their dishes could stay as delicious as they’d always been, to his uncle’s shrewd business sense. While his uncle wasn’t much with social media, he was thrilled when Titus turned out to be a natural, helping expand Tino’s web presence with his uncle’s enthusiastic blessing.

But if there was anything about his uncle’s leadership style that Titus wanted to consciously leave behind, it was the iron fist his uncle managed with. Titus had worked as a waiter before he took over Tino’s, unlike his uncle, who’d been the owner from day one. He knew that having a boss as strict as his uncle was a detriment to employee morale, not a boon, and he was naturally more forgiving of his employees’ mistakes than Tino had been, having been on the other side himself.

So when he heard what sounded like Lindy shouting coming from outside of his office, he didn’t rush out to reprimand them like his uncle would have. Rather, he came upon the two and asked, “Lindy, Emma… is something wrong?”

“Cranky Charles just stiffed Emma. Left her no tip at all.”

“And he didn’t give me any indication he wasn’t happy with his meal,” Lindy told him, sounding like she was pleading to be believed. “Just complained about the service he got last time, and then this!”

She held the check close to Titus’s face, where he could see the line through the “tip” field. At that, he could feel his blood starting to simmer. He didn’t have his uncle’s temper, which was known to boil over at even minor things, but an injustice like that got to even him. “Can you give Lindy some of the bigger tables, Emma?” he asked coldly, flatly.

“I already have her down for the group of 10 coming in at 8:00.”

“Good. Make sure Lindy goes home with her fair wages tonight. Lindy, don’t worry. I’m going to take care of this.”

“H-how?” Lindy stammered nervously. “Surely you can’t ban Charles from the restaurant for this… right?”

“No, I have bigger plans for him,” Titus said, prompting a confused look from both Emma and Lindy. “Leave it to me,” he insisted before walking back to his office.

Though Tino had been a hardass, and Titus wasn’t a fan of his hardass ways, he knew it came from a strong sense of justice. And while Titus took a more sympathetic approach to managing his employees, that sense of justice had not been lost of him. So to hear that Charles, one of their most consistently ungrateful customers, had outright not left a tip, pushed him over the edge.

“We have a secret for certain kinds of problem customers,” his uncle had told him back in the day, during the last few days before Titus would take over Tino’s. The conversation now replayed vividly in Titus’s mind.

“What do you mean?”

With a dead serious expression, Tino opened his bottom drawer and pulled out a bottle labeled, “Voracious: Appetite Stimulant and Satiation Suppressant”. “It works. The chefs know how to incorporate it into a dish so the customer doesn’t even taste it, and they know to pass that knowledge on to new chefs. Once the customer eats it, you can count on them eating more.”

“Wha–but, why? Why would you ever use that?”

“We’ve had a few customers who were better dealt with this way than directly.”

“Like who?”

“Each case is different, my boy. Don’t try to compare the cases you’ll deal with to the cases where I resorted to this.” With a solemn expression and tone, Tino put his free hand on Titus’s shoulder and continued, “You’re a smart boy. You have a good head on your shoulders. You know right from wrong. When the time comes to use this, you’ll know.”

He knew. Titus hadn’t believed his uncle at first, but he kept that bottle of Voracious anyway, in case that day ever came. It had probably long ago expired, he thought as he pulled it out from the back of the bottom drawer. After confirming that the date had passed years ago, he tossed it in the garbage and wrote himself a note to buy more before next Thursday.

Next Thursday night, Charles headed to Tino’s as he always did. Having gone there on a weekly basis for about five years now, he knew he couldn’t hold that one bad experience against them. To visit the restaurant 250 times in a row without one bad night was simply improbable, no matter how much he liked to think his status as a regular would get him extra good service. Regardless, the comforting familiarity of Tino’s was just what he needed to center himself after a very tumultuous week at work.

Once he’d parked, Charles got out of his car before taking off his coat and tossing it on the back seat. With his suit jacket off, one could see that the years of office stress had made an impact, accumulating on his waist as his belt line grew wider. He wasn’t especially hefty in comparison to the men in his office, being just trim enough that his heft wasn’t noticeable if he buttoned his suit jacket. But with just his shirt over his torso, the buttons held the cloth over an abdomen that bulged noticeably over his belt line. But most of the older men in the office like himself had some amount of stomach pudge. If anything, he would have been the odd one out if he didn’t.

Sometimes, Charles wondered if he should try to lose his belly. Not having weekly dinners at an Italian restaurant would probably make for a good start, he thought. But that thought disappeared as he walked into Tino’s, finding it quieter and less crowded than it had been the previous Thursday. After the maître d’ lead him to his usual booth, he sat down with a genuine smile on his face as he felt a certain sense of tranquility. That feeling was exactly why he went back every week.

As he started browsing the menu, he heard an enthusiastic voice with a Spanish accent say, “Hello, welcome back!” It was Isabella, one of the better servers, in Charles’ experience. He usually only saw her on business lunches, as she tended not to work the dinner shifts, making her greeting a nice surprise.

“Isabella! Fancy seeing you working dinner shift.”

“Yeah, I swapped with one of the girls who needed the night off. Do you know what you’d like to drink?”

“Sauvignon blanc, glass.”

“I’ll be right back,” she said, walking away as Charles kept looking the menu over.

Just as he’d narrowed his selection down to a few choices, she returned with both the glass of wine and the bread and oil. To Charles’ surprise, there were two loaves in the basket. “I think there was a misunderstanding, Isabella. It’s just me tonight.”

“Oh I know. But one of those loaves was small,” she said, prompting Charles to look into the basket and try to decide which of the two hefty loaves was the “small” one. “Can’t have one of our most regular customers getting insufficient bread.”

“Hmm, seems wasteful, but I suppose that’s the restaurant’s judgement call to make, not my own,” Charles mused as he kept looking over the menu.

“Have you decided what you’d like to eat?”

Charles preferred when Isabella asked “Have we decided…”, but he supposed that was nitpicking. “You know… I think I’m in the mood for the chicken parmigiana tonight, on penne.”

“Yeah, good choice,” Isabella enthused. “Get something that’s usually too heavy to eat for lunch.”

“Uh, yes,” Charles replied, growing momentarily self-conscious about ordering a big meal when he was already a pretty big man. Until he remembered that he had no reason to feel inferior to the person who served him his food while he had lunch with very important clients. Regardless, he pushed the bread basket away from himself after eating only three pieces, dipped quite shallowly in the oil, to avoid the temptation of eating more.

Once the chicken parmigiana came, Charles wondered what he’d gotten himself into. The entrée was a good deal more sizeable than the dishes he usually ordered. Making him wonder whether he’d be able to finish it. That was, until he remembered that he could take some of it home and heat it up for dinner the next night. After feeling a tad silly for forgetting that was an option, he took his fork and knife and dug in.

The dish proved to be even more delicious than Charles had expected. The chicken was delectably juicy, and the crumbs had not yet become soggy, in spite of being covered in a flavorful marinara sauce. The penne was cooked perfectly al dente, making for a good alternative when Charles wanted to take a break from the chicken. It was so delicious that Charles didn’t want to stop eating it. But he promised himself he’d stop when he was halfway done, so he’d have leftovers for the next night.

It was a promise that Charles soon broke. In spite of how filling the dish should have been, with all the chicken and cheese and sauce, once he passed the halfway point, he just kept eating. He was still hungry, against all odds, and saw no reason to stop as long as his body was telling him to eat more. Even as more and more of the plate appeared from underneath the chicken and pasta. Even as the amount left went from a meal to a snack to barely even that. Even as the entire dish disappeared off his plate.

Charles didn’t pause to consider how much he’d eaten until he finished the entire plate. After wiping his mouth daintily with his napkin, he looked down at his empty plate and his satisfied smile turned into a confounded frown. After promising himself he wouldn’t eat more than half of the dish, he wasn’t pleased that he hadn’t had enough self control to keep his promise to himself. Even more confusing yet, he still felt hungry.

As Charles snacked on the bread, alternating dipping in the oil and the leftover marinara sauce, he pondered how it was possible. As he considered it, he finished the first loaf in short order before moving on to the second one, which he also managed to finish. Yet even with a whole order of chicken parmigiana in his stomach, along with two loaves of bread and oil and sauce, he didn’t feel particularly satisfied, let alone stuffed like he would have expected after eating that much food. It was the strangest thing. Perhaps the other dishes on the menu were just less filling than the few he usually ordered? He wondered…

“Did we leave any room for dessert?”

When Charles looked up and saw Isabella, even he was surprised when he said, “You know, I think I will have some. I’ll need to look at the dessert menu first.”

“Of course!” she exclaimed before she walked away, returning swiftly with the laminated list. As Charles looked it over, the chocolate cake jumped out at him, which felt strange, since he didn’t usually order dessert at all. He supposed doing it this once couldn’t hurt, but when he’d already eaten so much, he wondered, should he just turn it down?

“Anything look good?”

“I’ll have the chocolate cake,” he said with a smile, the words almost feeling like they weren’t his own. But he’d ordered the dessert, and Isabella was taking the menu from him and putting the order in. He spent the next few minutes wondering what had gotten into him, other than the chicken parm and bread, until the chocolate cake showed up. It had a sizeable dollop of whipped cream on top, and the whole thing was drizzled in chocolate sauce, with chocolate shavings for extra flare. It looked amazing. And Charles devoured it before he could give it a second thought.

“Anything else I can do for you tonight?” Isabella asked as she picked up the empty plate.

“Just the check, please,” Charles replied with a smile. Isabella, quick on the draw as always, laid it out in front of him. Charles recoiled when he saw that the cost of dinner was more than $30. But upon closer inspection, he saw that the cost of the chicken parmigiana and the chocolate cake accounted for that increase. He supposed that going for dishes without meat and skipping dessert had been saving him quite a bit of money.

“Well, won’t be doing that again,” Charles said to himself. He nearly filled out the bill with his usual 10%, before deciding to round up to the nearest dollar, to give Isabella a little something extra for being so on the ball. After all, it wasn’t her fault that even after eating dessert on top of such a large dinner, he was still hungry.

Charles started trying more dishes across Tino’s menu during his weekly visits. To his surprise, all of them were less filling than the entrées he’d usually get. But he kept trying them, as he was consistently surprised at the amount of quality he’d been missing out on by settling into always ordering his usuals. He’d taken to ordering appetizers along with his meals, hoping to make up the difference in fullness, only to end up ordering dessert again in a futile attempt to feel full. Every night, he enjoyed his food immensely, and every night, he somehow left hungry. But he never let himself order more than one appetizer, one entrée, and one dessert, feeling anything more than that would simply be excessive.

That was, until one night when he went into Tino’s already hungry. As nonsensical as it was, he felt like ordering his usual one-one-one would only leave him more famished. In which case, surely ordering two appetizers couldn’t hurt.

Charles walked in that night with his button-down shirt stretched tightly over his stomach, where it had once fit with a comfortable amount of space to spare. Charles had convinced himself that it must have shrunk in the wash, even as it wrapped around a belly that had rounded out enough to jut out over his belt. While he still didn’t stand out much from his coworkers, he was on the heftier side of the average. But he didn’t think about it much; a man as important as him couldn’t afford to think about anything but work.

So Charles walked into Tino’s with his shirt hugging a mound of fat that stuck out undeniably from his stomach, with his belt closed on its last notch. It was strange, he thought, how he could feel so hungry after his meals, and yet he was still gaining weight. A part of him felt like he should cut back to his usual eating habits that had kept him at his previous weight. But if Tino’s food wasn’t filling him up, he reasoned, how could it be fattening him up? It must have been work stress, he told himself, but work stress was just a part of the job for someone as important as him.

He didn’t have long to ponder the matter before the maître d’ sat him down. That night, in addition to his usual entrée and dessert, Charles ordered both antipasto and the eggplant pesto appetizer before dinner, hoping they would help him feel more full. But when the end of the meal came, he’d finished all four plates, and all his bread, and yet he was still hungry.

In the subsequent weeks, Charles tried out different appetizers, ordering several with each meal in the hopes that he might once again leave the restaurant feeling full. But he still left hungry every night, even when he ordered appetizers that were made to be shared. Even when he tried ordering what should have been the most filling selections from each part of the menu, it somehow wasn’t enough.

Those frustrations culminated in one particular dinner where Charles once again arrived with his clothes fitting rather snugly. But these were not the same clothes he’d worn to Tino’s that night when he first ordered two appetizers. In the time since then, Charles had given in and upgraded his wardrobe to a bigger size, now that his clothes were fitting too tightly to be appropriate for a professional setting.

Charles had to suck his stomach in to button his old shirts, and once he let it relax, the seam would separate to reveal his undershirt between the buttons. If he managed to slip his pants on over his meatier thighs, he couldn’t button them no matter how much he pulled at the sides. He got around that for a while by using his belt to hide the unbuttoned top of his pants. But even then, he knew he was risking ripping his pants every time he sat down. Once he outgrew the last notch on his belt, that became the final straw.

So Charles bought new clothes that were two sizes bigger, so he wouldn’t have to replace them for a very long time, even if he continued gaining weight. At least, that was his reasoning then. But he’d grown into his new outfits at a remarkable pace, and he seemed on track to outgrow them just as quickly. As he walked from his car to Tino’s that night, he knew he’d be spending the next day after work buying replacements.

For Charles’ body had widened past the point where it could be explained away as just an aging man’s belly, the natural accumulation of the passage of time, like wrinkles and wisdom and thinning hair. No, Charles now had a legitimate gut. It jutted out not just in front of him, but also over the side of his pants, his flab now spilling out wherever it could find room. His belly filled up his tucked-in shirt like a sack being filled with grain, as the cloth billowed out to hold all his newly added heft. He was once again relying on his belt to keep his unbuttoned pants up, as his belt held on for dear life by its last notch. On top of it all, his double chin had pushed out, hanging from his jaw and jiggling as he carried out all the important conversations he had in a day.

Even Charles’ walk was starting to change. As he strode ahead to all the important meetings he had to go to, he found his arms swinging more widely just to keep himself walking at the same pace that used to come easily for him. When he walked particularly quickly, he could feel his stomach bounce just a bit with each step. But he wasn’t walking quickly much those days, as his newfound weight made it difficult to walk faster than a modest stroll.

That was how Charles walked into Tino’s that night: more slowly, more deliberately, as he carried all his extra heft in a shirt whose buttons were straining to hold all of him in. But the staff thought nothing of it, not making any comments or even glances at his ill-fitting wardrobe. They just brought him to his table, where he awaited his server eagerly. It was exactly that kind of respect that kept him coming back week after week.

That night, Charles ordered the fried mozzarella triangles and fried ravioli appetizers, with the veal parmesan as his entrée. He wolfed them down ravenously, but halfway through his entrée, he knew dessert wasn’t going to be enough to fill him up. It usually wasn’t, but even all the food he’d already eaten hadn’t made a dent in his hunger. Sheepishly, he raised his hand as he saw his waitress walk by and quietly asked, “Can I see the menu?”

“You mean the dessert menu?”

With an embarrassed sigh, Charles answered, “No, the regular menu.”

“Sure,” the waitress replied. Her nonchalance made Charles think she had no idea what was about to happen, but perhaps that was for the best. Soon she brought a menu back, which Charles looked through as he kept wolfing down the veal Parmesan in front of him. Without much waiting, Charles called the waitress’s attention and asked her sheepishly, “Could I put in an order for the chicken cacciatore?”

“Oh sure. Is this a to-go order?”

Charles looked down, trying to avoid eye contact with the waitress and anyone else in the restaurant. “No,” he answered quietly.

“Okay! We’ll get that out as soon as we can, then.”

“Th-thank you,” Charles stammered, surprised once again by how unfazed the waitress seemed by his request. With his head still tilted forward, he could see just how much his belly was pushing the limits of the fabric of his shirt, even more than when he walked in. But he just looked up to his veal parmesan and smiled, before cutting off another piece and resuming his eating.

The chicken cacciatore came out not long after Charles finished his veal parmesan, much to his pleasant surprise. Perhaps, he conjectured, they’d rushed his order to the front of the line because he’d already ordered once. Either way, with a smile on his face, he picked up his newly brought fork and knife and dug in, eating the dish as voracious as he’d wolfed down everything that came before it.

Charles knew he shouldn’t have been surprised when he finished the dish just as quickly as the ones before it, nibbling on whatever scraps were left until the waitress took it away. And yet, he still felt hungry. It was ludicrous, he told himself, to eat so much and not feel full, let alone stuffed. Perhaps a third course would do it? No, that was preposterous. Eating two courses in one night was gratuitous enough, but three?

“Can I interest you in dessert?”

“Yes,” Charles blurted out, happy the waitress hadn’t given him the opportunity to ask for another entrée. Though he always resented that wording, “interest you in dessert.” Any server who said it never did anything to make Charles more interested in dessert. All they’d do was bring the menu and expect the selection to sell itself.

Granted, those days, it did. Charles took a customary glance at the menu before ordering a slice of cheesecake, which he gobbled up just as quickly as the rest of his meal. He feared he might pop from eating so much, but once again, he still felt like he could eat more. But he cut himself off then, knowing he’d already eaten a ridiculous amount of food. When the waitress asked if he wanted anything else, he ignored the hungry voice coming from his stuffed stomach and asked for the check.

There was a certain amount of relief that Charles felt when the check came. Sure, he was still hungry, something that shouldn’t have been possible after how much he’d eaten. But with the check in front of him, he knew he wasn’t going to order any more food. His stomach’s reign of hunger was at an end, much to his relief.

It was a short-lived relief, however, as Charles leaned forward in his chair to put his card down and heard the rip of his shirt’s cloth. He heard something small land on the plastic folder where his check lay, before seeing a button skitter across the table. He froze with a blank look on his face, before he put the card in the pocket where it was supposed to go. He didn’t even want to look or even feel at the front of his stomach; all it would do is confirm what he already knew, which was that he’d eaten enough swell his belly wide enough to bust his shirt open. To still feel hungry felt like insult added to injury.

Leaning back in his chair, Charles stared straight ahead, only breaking his forward glance to nod at the waitress when she took the check. When she brought it back, his eyes followed the black folder down just a bit too far, and he saw the gap in his shirt’s buttons. Where the one had popped off, there was a large diamond-shaped window that showed his undershirt. He was thankful he’d worn a white button-down over his white undershirt that day. Yet even after the rupture, the other buttons were still stretched tightly, as the shirt struggled to wrap around his stuffed stomach.

Charles signed the check and tried to walk out as inconspicuously as he could. It wasn’t easy when he was full of enough food to change his gait. He had to walk with his back arched to give his stomach the room it needed, which didn’t lend itself to downplaying his blown button. On top of that, he could feel himself walking more slowly than usual, hobbling out of the restaurant to avoid upsetting the contents of his packed stomach. To his relief, only the maître d’ bid him farewell, while the other customers ignored him.

Once back in his car, Charles unbuttoned his shirt to relieve the uncomfortable tightness. Once his bloated stomach was free, he sat back in his car seat, sighing heavily in relief. It was a relief that lasted only until he felt the metal of his belt buckle under the bottom of his stomach. A flat expression spread across his face as he tentatively moved his hand toward the bottom of his belly. Once he touched it, he could feel that his undershirt had ridden up to expose a thick stripe of his gut. He tried to pull it down, as it if made any difference now, only for it to creep back up over the overstuffed ball.

Charles let out another sigh before he told himself, “Only one entrée a night from now on.”

Charles ordered two entrées the next week, and the next, and the next after that. Once he’d crossed that line, he had no issue with ordering entrées and appetizers in any order and quantity that he pleased. As long as he was still hungry, he felt free to keep ordering more food, with only his vague sense that he shouldn’t be eating that much making him stop. And each week, the influence of that intuition was becoming weaker and weaker.

Only one thing made Charles stop and consider whether he really should have been eating as much as he was. It happened one Thursday after a particularly stressful week at work, when Charles arrived at Tino’s around 8:00 after a late night in the office. Nights like those, he was thankful that Tino’s was open until 11:00 on Thursdays.

As Charles ambled across the parking lot, it was clear that all those giant meals were accumulating on his midsection. At least, it would have been clear to him if he didn’t leave the restaurant hungry every week. Charles had grown to be among the heftiest men in his office, having replaced his wardrobe several times since he’d first ordered two appetizers. Gone was the modest business gut of yore, replaced with a belly that pushed into Charles’ desk when he tried to sit as close to the keyboard as he used to.

Charles wore a button-down shirt that sat rather baggily on his chest before wrapping more snugly around his gut. With his growth, he’d come to resent the lack of readily available, well-tailored dress shirts for men of his size. He’d already outgrown the sizes sold by the stores where he previously got his work clothes, and the local big-and-tall store didn’t sell very good-quality professional outfits. But it was the best he could do. Outgrowing his outfits always snuck up on him, requiring more immediate replacement than a specialty online seller could provide. And while he wanted to splurge for a good quality wardrobe, he found himself outgrowing his clothes too often to justify spending that kind of money.

So Charles wore a shirt that was barely becoming of a man as important as him, draped over a belly so big that his arms couldn’t rest straight down at his sides anymore. As he ambled across the parking lot, they swung at his sides with a wide range, which suited the midsection they framed. His belly had grown to the size where it was no longer just another flabby part of him, but the undeniable centerpiece of his frame. On his sides, it had swelled up to stick out beyond his shoulders, and in the front, it jutted out enough to enter a room or round a corner before he could. As he entered the restaurant, the maître d’ could see his belly pass through the door frame a good half second before she recognized his face.

“Welcome back,” she greeted. “Long day at the office?”

“You have no idea,” Charles sighed.

“Well, hopefully we can make it a little better,” she said before she lead Charles to his usual both. Luckily for him, it was still free, even though the restaurant was busier than usual. Unluckily for him, it was getting harder and harder to fit his widened body between the bench and the table. Those days, he had to push the table away from himself to sit down, and could only pull it back part-way before it bumped into his belly.

But Charles was just glad to be seated for dinner, and know that he could finally unwind after the hectic week he’d had. Even the fact that Linda was his server for the night didn’t perturb him, as no blunder on her part could possibly stress him out worse than work.

“Hi, welcome back,” she greeted. “Can I get you anything to start you off?”

“Glass of Pinot Grigio and the bruschetta, with the cheese, as well as… the lemon peppercorn wings,” Charles ordered, coming to a quick decision so he’d have something to snack on while he decided what to eat.

“I’ll bring that right over, as well as some bread,” she said. At the very least, Charles was glad she’d finally learned to stop asking if he wanted bread along with all the appetizers he ordered.

Over the course of the dinner, Charles ordered whatever his heart desired off of either the appetizer or entrée section of the menu. By then, he’d learned to hang on to his menu until he was ready for dessert, which signalled the end of the meal in his mind. With the week having been as stressful as it was, Charles ordered four entrées in total, or perhaps five, along with a similar number of appetizers in between. After a slice of chocolate cake, though he still felt hungry, he was ready to call it quits.

After Linda cleared the table and he asked her for the bill, Charles became aware of just how much his stuffed belly was pushing into the table. It seemed strange to him that the internal pressure of all the food he’d eaten hadn’t been enough to push the table out of the way on its own. But no matter, he told himself; with his hands against the edge, he pushed the table away, letting out a sigh of relief as his gut expanded into the newly available space.

By then, Charles had become increasingly less self-conscious about how much he ate and the size that resulted from it. As he sat back in the booth, he let his left hand wander over his packed stomach, feeling just how firm it was, filled with all that pasta and sauce and meat and bread and oil and vegetables and everything else. Compared to the flabby bottom of his belly, which bounced back against his touch like a flan, the top was firm like a chocolate-covered ice cream bomba served right out of the freezer. And yet, even though he could feel the mountain of food he’d wolfed down pushing back firmly against his touch, he still felt hungry.

But he’d already decided he was done for the night, a decision further enforced when Linda brought him the bill. And though he could have kept eating, he felt relaxed, and ready to face the remainder of his week. After checking the first few items on the bill to make sure it was his, he slipped his card in and passed it back to Linda. Once she returned, he thought it over and decided that, though she was far away from 15% territory, she’d certainly earned her way back to 10%.

So Charles wasn’t especially pleased when he opened the bill and, under the line that read “Subtotal: $82.46”, was a line that said, “Gratuity (automatic, 18%): $14.84”.

Looking up from his check, Charles flagged down the first server he saw and asked him to send the manager over to his table. As the young man walked away with a nervous look on his face, Charles tapped his fingers impatiently. Of course, Linda was nowhere to be seen as he waited.

Soon a man in an outfit like Charles’ own, with a spiffy dress shirt and a tie, walked up to Charles’ table. “Hello, my name’s Titus, I’m the owner and manager of Tino’s. Was there a problem with your dining experience tonight?” He recited the whole spiel like he’d been practicing it, and yet there was still a certain casualness in his voice. He seemed too enthusiastic about being called over to a table, which Charles wasn’t exactly pleased with. He was also younger than Charles expected, although he looked at least a decade older than most of the waitstaff, which Charles felt was at least something in his favor.

“At least one, yes. The one I’ve called you over for is that there seems to have been a gratuity automatically added to my bill. I was under the impression that this kind of thing was only done for large parties.”

“That is indeed where the policy is invoked most often, sir. However, ours is a little different from most restaurants’. If you look at the menu…” Titus looked around, before he spotted a table where some of the diners were still choosing their items. “Excuse me, could I borrow one of your menus for just a moment?” he asked, which the guests graciously obliged. Opening it to a random page, Titus pointed toward the bottom, where the small text read, “An 18% gratuity will be added automatically for parties of six or more, or for bills totalling $75 or more per diner.”

“Well that’s not fair,” Charles protested. “Why even add that? Who would eat that much in one sitting?”

Charles could see Titus struggling to hold back a smirk, to which he shook his head while muttering to himself. “You know what? Fine. I’ll pay the 18%. I should have known to read the fine print. But we’ll see whether I come back next week.”

“Well, we would certainly hate to see you go, sir, but policy is policy, and that’s not going anywhere.”

“I’m sorry, did I mishear you when you said you own the place? Policy isn’t some immutable law like gravity. You have the power to change the policy.”

“Indeed, and I exercised it by adding the $75 clause not long after I became owner. As long as I’m in charge, it’s not going anywhere.”

Charles grumbled about choices and his lack thereof as he signed the bill, while Titus stood by and smiled. “That will be all, thank you,” Charles stated, prompting Titus to nod and walk away. “See if I come back next week,” Charles mumbled as he pushed the table farther away from himself to stand up.

Holding the side of the booth with one arm, Charles pushed himself up, arching his back to avoid compressing his stomach any more as he did so. Once he was standing, he could feel his belly relax and swell out, filling out the new space it had been given now that he was upright. With a loud exhalation and a quiet, tired “Whew!”, he turned to hobble his way toward the door. He moved even more slowly than he had as he walked in, his chest swaying side to side on top of his swollen belly. With his head leaned back, his mouth hung open just enough for him to breathe through it, trying to catch his breath as he digested such an ample feast. He was thankful his shirt hadn’t popped, but he wondered how long he could count on it, as he could feel the tightly stretched fabric holding back against the expansion of his gut.

As he left, Lindy came in behind him and picked up the bill. Having eavesdropped on the conversation between Charles and Titus, she knew she wasn’t going to be getting anything on top of the 18% he was charged automatically. But as she looked down at his signature, and the $14.84 amount printed on the receipt, she smiled. It felt like some form of justice, when he’d stiffed her once before, to make him tip her nearly twice as much as he usually tipped the servers.

The next week proved just as stressful for Charles as the previous one, requiring even more late nights in the office like the previous Thursday. Those late nights seriously tested Charles’ resolve to not go back to Tino’s after they’d forced him to tip Linda more than she deserved. While he’d started the week still resenting that affront to his financial freedom of choice, by the time Thursday came around, there was nothing he wanted more than the comforting familiarity of Tino’s.

So he returned, ate over $75 worth of food, and begrudgingly signed the check with the 18% tip. For someone as important (and thus well paid) as Charles, 18% of $75 was a pretty small price to pay for dining at a place as relaxing as Tino’s. It wasn’t just about the food quality or the atmosphere or the service (from the better servers, anyway), not anymore. It was about how much he could eat there.

The only time Charles went to other restaurants was on business lunches, where he never let himself eat as much as he did at Tino’s. Just ordering a single appetizer, entrée, and dessert, let alone several of them, felt unprofessionally excessive. But with how much he’d grown, his appetite had followed suit, making those modest business lunches unsatisfying. Knowing he could go to Tino’s and order as much food as he desired was enough to keep him coming back.

And with Charles’ work stress only increasing, quantity mattered as much as quality. Those Thursday night dinners felt like the only time when Charles got a break from thinking about work, and he used that rare opportunity to stress eat an entire week’s worth of worries away. If he went to any other restaurant, Charles wasn’t sure he’d be able eat as much as he did at Tino’s before he felt full. But there, he could eat away an entire week’s stress, and still feel like he could eat more if he wanted too.

Of course, mounting work stress meant Charles was eating more every week. Losing count of how many appetizers and entrées he’d eaten became a routine part of his dinner, only knowing for sure how much he’d eaten when the bill came. Dessert remained the one course where he’d only order one item, but only for so long. Though he still saved dessert for the end of the meal, ordering two or even three plates of it became as much a part of his Thursday tradition as scoffing when he saw the automatically added 18% gratuity.

All this had resulted in Charles growing to be the biggest man at his company by far, outgrowing his biggest competition for the title and then growing a few more shirt sizes. This growth had resulted in more visibility for him, helping him increase his clout and his importance. He’d even overheard some of his coworkers call him “big deal” behind his back, which he knew couldn’t possibly be sarcastic. After all, he was so important to the company that they’d made accommodations for him due to his weight, like moving him into an office on the first floor, buying him a reinforced chair, and raising his desk to make it easier for him to reach his keyboard. The company didn’t have much of a choice if they wanted to keep him around, as he’d grown big enough to put them in uncharted territory.

Charles had grown so big that he had to order his work clothes custom made online now. It wasn’t cheap, but he was happy to have some choice in his suppliers again and be able to buy good quality clothes. His shirts wrapped around his colossal gut like he’d stuffed two bean bag chairs underneath them, but it was all his belly. All that weight forced him to swing his arms firmly as he walked, and even then, he could only achieve a spirited waddle before he became out of breath. His massive legs, draped in custom tailored slacks, couldn’t move him much faster than that.

Sometimes Charles wondered if all that added effort just to get around the office was part of why he was so tired all the time. But considering how many late nights he worked and how much work was trusted to him, he often fell back on blaming work stress and his hours preventing him from getting enough sleep. All he knew was that as he pulled into Tino’s at 8:30 one Thursday night, he couldn’t wait to have some time to relax. Although he did have to wait a little while, as getting from his car to the door no longer took a negligible amount of time.

But soon Charles was in the restaurant, and brought to his usual booth. By then, the staff knew to move the table away from the bench where he sat when they saw him coming, allowing him to still sit in his favorite spot, even though his belly pushed against the table when he sat down. He tucked the napkin in the neck of his shirt, even though he was so big that it barely went down to the bottom of his chest. But some protection was better than none, he figured, especially with his shirts being as expensive as they were those days.

Though Charles wasn’t thrilled to see Linda bringing him his bread and oil, he acknowledged that she had been improving since that one night when he left her no tip. Bringing the bread and oil to start with was an step in the right direction, for one.

“Hello!” she greeted as she put the basket down. It had two loaves in it, which had become standard procedure for Charles, and the oil had been brought in a salad plate rather than the usual smaller plates. “What can I get you tonight?”

At that, Charles let himself space out and his stomach be his guide. He ordered whatever looked appealing on the menu, giving little thought to how much he was eating. As long as he had something to eat, even just bread, he was happy.

And Tino’s kept it coming. He made sure to put in his order for his next course when something was brought to his table, and the restaurant kept up with him even at the voracious pace he was eating. Even when he lost count after at least a half-dozen each of appetizers and entrées, he still hadn’t finished the bread in his first basked, in spite of the fact that he’d been eating constantly since the bread was brought to his table. He heard one of the other diners comment, “I guess that’s why our food is taking so long,” as Linda brought over two appetizers for him to scarf down. But he didn’t much care; if they were regular customers, maybe they’d get that treatment too.

Charles truly didn’t know how much he ate that night. Linda kept the plates moving when he finished with them, preventing him from keeping easy count. He only managed to not lose count of dessert, eating four items off the dessert menu before he was finished.

But he knew he was finished when he could feel a painful tension in his stomach. As he leaned his head back against the seat behind him, keeping his back as straight as possible, he could feel that his packed stomach was stretched to its limits. He gave it a gentle rub with his left hand, the one that was better hidden from the crowd, as he tried to keep his groaning quiet enough that no one would hear him. Even that light touch made his stomach pulsate with pain at being reminded just how full it was.

And in spite of it all… he still felt hungry.

“Anything else for you tonight?” Linda asked, smiling professionally as the staff always did, no matter how much Peter ate.

“Juh… just the… check please,” Charles mumbled, unable to speak much louder.

Linda nodded and walked away, leaving Charles to massage his stuffed belly and try to keep his eyes open against the encroaching food coma. When she returned, he opened the bill to see that it was over $200 dollars. It seemed ludicrous, but the last four dessert items confirmed it was his. It also meant Linda would be get a nearly $40 tip. While Charles wasn’t thrilled about that, he knew it was too late to do anything about it, like eat elsewhere. After struggling to get his wallet out of the pocket of his tight pants, grunting the whole time, he put his card in the bill and closed it again.

Linda came by soon after and took the bill away. However, she soon returned with a nervous look on her face. “There’s, uh, been a problem with the card.”

“What kind of problem?” Charles asked flatly. He didn’t appreciate his time being wasted by beating around the bush.

“It, uh… it was declined,” Linda whispered.

“That’s impossible. Go run it again,” Charles demanded. Unsure what to do, Linda’s eyes darted around the room before she walked back to the register.
Charles, meanwhile, remained in his seat and looked forward, knowing it had to be some problem with the machine. Sure, he’d been spending a lot of money on clothes, Tino’s, and delivery dinners to the office during all those late nights. But he made enough to live comfortably, he told himself; there was no way he could be low on funds.

Yet Linda still came back with a worried look on her face. “It was still declined,” she stammered, losing some of the confidence that she’d gained since Charles had neglected to tip her.

“Must be a problem with your machine.”

“No, the machine’s been running fine with everyone else’s cards tonight. Do you have a different card you could–”

“Use that one.”

“But sir it’s–”

“Was anything I said unclear?”

“The card isn’t going to go through, sir,” Linda repeated, started to sound aggravated.

“I want to speak to the manager about this,” Charles demanded. He wasn’t happy with Linda’s tone either, but that wasn’t his biggest problem.

Without even nodding or responding, Linda walked away, much to Charles’ displeasure. In the heat of the argument, he’d managed to snap himself out of his food coma thanks to his anger about his card supposedly being ‘’declined’’, and about Linda’s attitude. Of course, he sat completely still until the manager arrived, having no reason to move his food-laden belly.

Soon, the same manager that Charles had spoken to so many months ago appeared. “What seems to be the problem?” he asked. Charles didn’t appreciate his brevity, but he supposed it was better than an attitude problem.

“Your waitress keeps saying the machine won’t take my card, but I know it’s good,” Charles insisted.

“Hmm. May I try it myself?”

“Sure,” Charles said, glad that someone in the restaurant was taking this injustice seriously. He passed the manager his bill and waited, sure that the manager would be able to vindicate him.

But he soon returned shaking his head. “No good. Your card’s been declined.”

“Excuse me,” Charles exclaimed, now growing livid. “I’ve been a regular customer of this restaurant for seven years, and this is the thanks I get? To be treated like some kind of bum who doesn’t keep track of his finances? This is a personal insult!”

“Sir, all we need is for you to pay for dinner,” Titus said flatly, as if trying to diffuse an argument. As if there wasn’t a clear right and wrong party. “Surely there’s another card you could–”

“I’ve put up with subpar service and held my tongue, told myself it wasn’t worth it to cause a fuss. But now, to be disrespected by both a waitress and the management? This is the final straw.”

“There’s an ATM right around the–”

“Seven. Years. I’ve come here every Thursday night, to unwind after a long work week. But now, I can’t even do that. If I wanted to be this stressed out, I’d have stayed at the office.”


“No. Don’t try to ‘sir’ me when you won’t even show me the respect the word entails.” At that, Charles took his card from the bill, with the intent to stand and storm off.

But his belly had other ideas. Fitting Charles into the booth had required that the table be pushed up against the other seat, and even then, he still had barely enough room to fit before he ate. With his stomach now stretched full of food, he was wedged even more tightly between the bench and the table. As such, when he tried to stand up, he merely plopped back down in his seat, his sides and underbelly jiggling as a result.

Charles tried to suck his stomach in, to give himself more room to get out, but it was too full of food to budge. He tried to give a sustained push to get himself out, but his packed stomach reacted to any sort of strain by begging Charles to stay put. Even just trying to scooch himself toward the opening felt like it resulted in more bouncing flab than forward progress. All the while, the manager stood by and didn’t even offer to help, which only strengthened Charles’ resolve to leave without paying.

Somehow, Charles eventually squeezed out of his seat and resumed a standing position. His stomach was sore, his face red and damp with sweat, and he was breathing like a marathon runner who’d just crossed the finish line. With one deep inhalation, he tore his napkin off of his chest and threw it on the ground. “I’m leaving. And I won’t be back.”

Unfortunately for Charles, his dramatic exit was undercut by just how much waddling stood between him and the door. With his stomach extra full, he swayed from one leg to the other, barely bending his knees as he moved. His arms stuck out diagonally, for it was now impossible for them to hang anywhere close to vertical against his widened body. And with each step, he could feel the flab on the bottom of his belly jiggle, and his stuffed stomach complain at being forced to move.

But it seemed to still work, as Charles heard the manager call out, “Stop, no, don’t go!” But he pressed on, resolute that nothing was going to stop him. And once he reached the door, nothing had. With a heavy sigh, he continued waddling toward his car.

“Stop, no, don’t go,” Titus called out sarcastically, unable to keep up the veneer of professionalism any long. Thankfully, Charles opted to keep going, sparing Titus the indignity of needing to deal with him any longer. Once he was out of the door, Titus let out a long, relieved sigh as he took the bill off the table.

“So that’s it?” Lindy asked.

“If he comes back, he’ll have to pay that two-hundred-plus bill before he can order anything else. I think his pride will ensure that never happens.”

“So it’s over. You actually got rid of him.”

“Yep. And got you and some of the other folks some of the tips he’s been skimping on all these years.”

“Well that still leaves me shit-out-of-luck for all the service I gave him tonight.”

“I know,” Titus said. “I’ll make sure Emma gives you all the big tippers for the next two weeks. You deserve it after putting up with that.”

“Alright,” Lindy said with a smile, before she ran off to take care of her other tables.

On the way back to his office, Titus stopped in the kitchen and grabbed the bottle of Voracious from the top shelf. “You won’t be needing this anymore,” he shouted out over the ruckus of the kitchen as he held the bottle above his head, prompting all the cooks the cheer.

Once Titus got back to his office, he looked at the bottle one last time before putting it away. It looked so different from the bottle his uncle had left him. with a much more modern, minimal design, all rounded corners and bright colors. But it had worked just as well as his uncle had promised. With a smile, he put it away in his bottom drawer, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it again for a long time.

2 thoughts on “A Certain Kind of Problem Customer

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