Your feet start to hurt just before the dinner rush; only a few tourists complaining of sand, how it gets under their skin and irritates. Smiling with each order, your fingers can barely keep up. Some of the men glance at your exposed legs, despite their wives and girlfriends. “Whatever gets ya the best tip,” Nellie says as you pin and spin orders. She trained you two months ago, every piece of advice replaced with an endless clutter of expectations. You only hope you won’t still be working here in ten years, flirting to pay the rent.
“Ya holding up okay tonight?” Gilbert asks, as you pass his office.
“Just fine,” you reply.
Nellie warned you about him too, how his concern can quickly shift to sexual harassment. Best to nod and walk away, let him stare at your ass but take note when possible. You’ve never been attracted to older men, not like mama was. They’d show up with sweets or videos, and were usually louder than her through the walls. You asked George if one of them was your father, but he only laughed at the notion. “None of these assholes care about us, Sherry. They only want one thing, and she ain’t got no problem giving it away.”
You hear your brother’s voice as if it were your own, a defiant call that makes every request a little more insufferable. The customers will forget about you long before their food is digested; returning to lives, families and jobs with boring stories of another week spent at Ruby Cape. Hurricane season has become your favorite; time enough to recoup from a routine you’ve fully accepted. You used to watch the storm through cracks in boarded motel windows, mama completely oblivious. She had those little dots keeping her company.
Around seven, you get a group of six in the corner booth; three boys and three girls as if it were a sitcom. They’re about your age, rocking university attire and custom sunglasses. One of the guys almost looks familiar, his two cronies considerably drunker, squinting at the menu. Two of the gals hold their noses high, but their friend compliments your necklace. Strawberry blonde, you wonder why her boyfriend keeps staring at you, as if to make sense of a bad decision.
He’s even worse when you bring their food, the girlfriend barely noticing. Nellie would probably crack a joke to make everybody a little more comfortable. These people are already relaxed to a point of complete ignorance. Passing Gilbert outside the kitchen, you sigh and say it’s time for a break. He barely responds; Manuel finishing a cigarette not far from the dumpsters. You say hello, but he’s zoned out, playing some cellphone game.
That first drag is almost enough to make you forget. Manuel quickly ducks back in while you savor the fresh ocean air. He’ll probably tell one of the cooks you’re out here; then it’s all a matter of which one wants rejected. These men are only a distraction, to remind you of how mama lost track; southern charm not much more than a backwards look before a smack on the ass.
Rounding the corner near the restroom, the same dumb college boy stops in front of you and gargles. “Aren’t you Dale and Bonnie’s daughter?”
“Excuse me?” You reply, startled.
“I mean, they were your foster parents. We know each other, or at least I remember you. Your brother made-out with my sister when I was like ten.”
You think about him for a moment then nod. “Your parents were friends with Dale and Bonnie?”
“Yeah, and we were on vacation.”
“I don’t remember your name.”
“It’s Hank, and I only remember yours because of the tag,” he points to your left breast.
“Well isn’t that convenient?”
“So how are Dale and Bonnie?”
“I don’t know. They put me into a girl’s home when I was sixteen. Said it was better if somebody else dealt with me for a while.”
“I’m sorry. I guess this is a sore subject then.”
“Not at all. How are you, Hank?”
He tells you about his life up north, some state school where he’s made great friends. They’re renting a house not far from Lombardo’s, suggesting you shoot by for a drink after work. You tell him you’ll think about it, before filling requests for four tables then returning to theirs. His girlfriend, Jacy, extends the same invitation, their companions suddenly sympathetic. You’re not sure how to respond, taking the scribbled address then waiting for them to finish.
It’s a big tip and faint memories of that first summer with Dale and Bonnie. They took you and George in with a common optimism, showering you with all sorts of things you didn’t need. You’d ask about mom frequently, but their answers always sounded the same. She was getting help, and we needed to stop worrying so much. Their friends would come over and get loaded, showing us bad card tricks or how to kick a field goal. Your brother wouldn’t let up, insisting that the situation was only temporary. You refused to believe him, adjusting even after George left.
By nine, the corners are almost clear; Nellie leaning against the bar watching her customers shovel those last few bites. “How’re you holding up, girl?” she asks.
“I’ll make it through.”
“You look tired, ya know?”
“That’s a nice way of saying I look like shit, isn’t it?”
“Sherry please, what I wouldn’t give to look like you for one more day.” Nellie pats you on the back and struts towards an old couple crumbling crackers in their soup.
You’re on autopilot until ten when Gil lets you leave with half the kitchen staff. They suggest drinks at some dive, while you just smile and wait for the jeep’s engine to kick over. A few flips on the radio dial before it’s time to sing along with the windows down. Other cruisers scope your engine at stoplights, making their eyebrows dance. These looks have lost their appeal; boys with big toys usually on the prowl for a certain type. They’ll have plenty of other nights to lead someone into the dark.
The front wheels of Dale’s pick-up are covered in mud as you step out and head up the stairs. He lies on the futon in black shorts and a beater; two women arguing over a man on the television. “Hey,” you sigh.
“Yo,” he replies, before sipping his pounder.
“Are there any of those left?”
“This is it, I think.”
Opening the fridge, your eyes dart from take-out containers to the condiment rack with no luck. “I guess I’ll be alright,” you reply. “How was Kasey tonight?”
“Okay. I just put her down if you wanna see if she’s asleep.”
“Do you think she is?”
“No,” Dale smiles.
You walk to the end of the hallway and open her bedroom door a crack. “Hey Sherry,” she says, groggily.
“So you’re not asleep?”
“No. I’m not tired. Can we watch something on TV?”
You sit on the edge of her bed, running a hand through her hair. “Sorry, not tonight, but tomorrow I’ll be home early.”
“I’ll be at my mom’s tomorrow,” she says.
“Don’t worry. We’ll plan something fun soon.”
“I don’t wanna go there,” Kasey says. “It’s better here.”
“Your mom loves you just as much as we do.”
“No she doesn’t. She’s always on her phone or dressing up like a crazy person, asking me how she looks, even though she doesn’t care what I say.”
“Maybe when you’re over there just try and do something fun for yourself. Read or draw a picture. Let your mom have her time.”
“Then why do I have to go over there at all?” Kasey asks. “I can do all of that stuff here.”
“Sometimes we have to do things we don’t wanna do for other people. It’s not always the easiest thing, but it’ll make you a stronger person.”
Before she can reply, your cellphone buzzes. “Just a minute, sweetie.” You answer it in the hallway; George’s voice strained amidst faint rumblings. With each word spoken, a sharp headache surfaces at your brow. Another bar fight; your brother more apologetic than usual. You say what he’s used to hearing, then tuck in Kasey and tell Dale. He curses a bit, and returns to the television; some faint advice hitting your ears at the screen door. “Eventually, you’re gonna have to cut ‘em loose”
You agree to avoid lingering; a day’s work caked into your uniform. Dale was never meant as a permanent solution; a sweeter side only visible when Kasey’s around. The rest of the time, his tolerance for anything is limited. You’re not sure how to leave them, whether another opportunity will appear or be forced. Kasey should take it better than her father, far more resilient than most at that age.
The officer stares down your shirt while you sign the release papers. He mumbles something about your brother, how he got lucky this time. You nod and wait to roll your eyes, sitting next to a woman in ripped red stockings. “Real pisser of a night,” she growls. You want to say something profound, but there’s enough noise to leave this one alone.
Your brother marches out from the back with messed up hair and a scab on his lip. You know better than to hug him, merely walking through the double doors, past more pigs with starch looks of dissatisfaction. George hops into the passenger’s seat, while you take a breath and consider every word, before starting the engine. “I’ll pay you back for the bail,” he finally says a few blocks down the road.
“You better,” you joke.
“Christ, how is it that these things keep happening to me?”
“You can’t ask that question without telling me what happened first, and I’m guessing you probably don’t wanna talk about it.”
“You already know the story. I got drunk and horny, and then punched in the face.”
“I guess I’ll just have to settle for the Cliff’s notes.”
“You don’t need to worry about it. I mean, I appreciate you picking me up, but this is my problem.”
“Couldn’t you have just walked away?”
“You don’t get it, Sherry. It’s never me. It’s every other asshole, and no matter how close I get to saving up and getting the fuck out of this town, something always happens. It’s impossible to start fresh.”
“Wouldn’t it just be some other asshole in some other town?” you ask.
“You’re right. I’m fucked no matter what.”
“Where am I dropping you off at?”
“You know where.”
You turn the radio low and coast past tourist attractions with dimming neon. George hums along before you stop in front of Sally’s apartment and ask if things are good between them. He can only smile. “She’ll understand. That’s all that matters.” Your brother soon walks up the stairs and knocks on her apartment door. She looks at his face and then your jeep before you drive off. He’ll tell Sally some fraction of what she needs to hear, while you’ll wonder why it can’t be that easy for everyone.
Passing Lombardo’s, you remember the cocktail napkin in your pocket; another life waiting patiently in the wings. You pull over and check the address, then slowly navigate towards the beach, parking between two SUV’s. If only there’d been enough time to get dressed, enough privacy to make all of them somehow jealous of your tan. You ring the bell and wait, already thinking of an explanation for Dale. Everyone should know what they’re missing out on, even if it’s only for one night.
Christopher S. Bell has been writing and releasing literary and musical works through My Idea of Fun since 2008. His sound projects include Emmett and Mary, Technological Epidemic, C. Scott and the Beltones and Fine Wives. My Idea of Fun is an art and music archive focused on digital preservation with roots in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. (www.myideaoffun.org). Christopher’s work has recently been published in Linden Avenue, Noctua Review, Yellow Chair Review, Crab Fat Magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, The Gambler, Lime Hawk and Talking Book among others. He has also contributed to Entropy and Fogged Clarity.