I was the only one left, in my usual booth. My friends had gone home and I was holding my one last drink, staring through the little window in the door out into the night.
Jag lumbered out of the kitchen and murmured for a while with Alyson the bartender before slumping onto the bench beside me.
Jag's real name was Jerome Andrew something-Italian-that-begins-with-G. As a kid, his mother had called him "Romy" and it took moving to the other side of the continent to shed that name.
He slouched against the upholstery, his belly pushing against the table. He took a deep breath, held it, and let it out. "That's it, man."
"Yep". I took a sip of my drink.
"Nope". I took another sip.
"My last night."
"Mmm. Hunh?" I held my glass in mid-air.
"Tomorrow I'm gonna... I don't know. I don't know!" Jag laughed and drummed the table. "It's been a while since I could say that!"
I took a sip. "What's up, man?"
"How was it tonight? Did you like it?"
"Come on. The usual." He turned to look me in the face and saw me staring bemusedly. "The soup, dude. How was the soup?"
"Uh, good. Actually, yeah, I got the soup, and it was good. Yeah. Bern and Ellen had a taste and they liked it too. Yeah. It was good tonight. Better I think."
"Yeah, a little different. I mean it's always different, you know? You know I made that joke once about how the soup tasted like you just put one spoonful of everything you had in the kitchen? But it's always different. And it was different tonight. But in a good way."
"I don't know. Those other times it was like it was nearly there but just missed. Sometimes missed wide, but always missed. And tonight I think you nailed it."
Jag leaned back and sighed. "Yeah. Thanks man. I think I nailed it, too."
I took a few more sips while Jag stared through the little window in the door.
"It was my grandmother, you know?"
"What's that?" I put my drink down again.
"My grandmother. She was teaching me some of her recipes when I was a kid. There was this one soup recipe she had. It had been her grandmothers back in Europe. We left the stove and she sat down at the table and started writing it down. She was laughing and saying you should never write down the recipes; you should just remember them. Because if there's anything you forget, then it shouldn't be in there anyway. Plus, it's bad luck. So as she's getting to the last ingredient, the last step, she stiffens up and drops the pencil. She's having a stroke. I shout out and my brother runs in and she goes to the hospital. She's there for about a week before she died. One day when I'm alone with her in the bed I show her the paper she was writing on. She hasn't said a word now, but she looks at me and kind of moves her jaw, moves her hand, but then just goes back to sleep. She died the next day and I was upset that she was dead, but also because I never learned the last ingredient."
Jag shifted in his seat, still staring through the little window.
"I've done lots of things, had lots of jobs. I was happy when I got this job. I tried to do like my grandma taught me, tried to do things the way she did and her family did, back in Europe. I started including her recipes on the menu, but I held off on the soup because I didn't know how to do it right. But, when I had already done all the other recipes I tried making the soup. And each night I would stir in a different ingredient as the last step: a pinch of oregano, juice from a far of olives, a tablespoon of truffle oil, everything I could think of. And as I started getting bored of this job, tired of the repetition, I got more and more into perfecting this soup, and the more crazy things I tried. But this morning when I woke up I decided I was going to quit. I was going to give Charlie two weeks. I come in today and tell him and he's upset and he tells me not to come in tomorrow, I'm fired. Then he realizes he needs me at least for one more night, so I wash up and get started. The soup was on the menu, and I said to hell with it, but it turns out to be just right."
I took another sip, expecting Jag to finish, but he remained silent. "So, what was the missing ingredient?"
He turned to me. "Hmm? Oh. No, it wasn't like that. I had been making that same mistake all along. Grandma wasn't telling me to do something. She was telling me to do nothing. Leave it alone. Let the soup breathe a bit. Don't even stir it. Let it be."
Jag and I talked some more, about mundane things such as where he was going to look for another job, travel, women, etc. I haven't seen him since that night, although I heard he's running for office somewhere.