Isolation Tales 6: ‘American Waitress’
When I suggested publishing a complete set of my short stories to a young editor, he gave me a wary look (because age) and said, ‘There aren’t going to be any unpleasant surprises in there, are there?’ I thought Gee, I hope so seeing as they’re meant to be tales of urban unease, but I knew what he meant. After all, I’d begun writing them in the mid-1980s and social mores were very different then. I haven’t read many of them back since, but I’m not too worried about coming across as non-PC. I was always drawn to writing about strong women and moral liberalism, but I suppose there might be the odd glitch that catches an oversensitive eye. Not so with this story, which went on to win a couple of awards. I wrote it after seeing how so many women in the US service industry were living close to financial disaster every month.
The woman on Table 4 has a laugh like a hen getting sucked into a jet engine. She’s been sitting there for hours fooling around with a tuna melt that’s gone grey on her. Clearly she has nothing better to do than sit there taking up a whole booth, filling in time between the carwash and the nail bar, yakking with her friends about what one woman said to another, and how the husband is fooling around on both of them. It never ceases to amaze Molly how small the talk can get toward the tail-end of the afternoon, when the orange light is low and fierce behind the restaurant blinds.
She’s managed to keep the four ’til twelve shift at the restaurant so she can work with Sal, who has more years on her and won’t work after midnight, because she has a little girl with a twisted spine who won’t let anyone else put her to bed. Sal lives in an EconoLodge near Junction 17N which is filled with frat boys throwing parties and looking to get laid, but it’s safe enough for the kid, who feels safer where there’s noise. Sal is a classic; she washes her hair in bleach and keeps it filled with pins and pencils in case any guy has a mind to run his fingers through it. Molly likes her; no Ps and Qs but no airs and graces either, so they help each other in the two hours that their shifts overlap.
Molly likes her job, and she’s good at it. Her mother was a waitress in those chrome-fitted fifties roadside diners that have mostly been demolished now, except in states like Missouri and Florida, where they’ve been preserved with a kind of airquote-irony she doesn’t take to. As a kid, Molly passed her life in diners and family restaurants waiting for her mother to come off duty. She never got bored. She read the books diners left behind, or watched the cook orbiting elliptically between the counter and the grill. Her mother yelled the old diner slang– Adam ‘n’ Eve on a raft, murphy in the alley, shingles with a shimmy, burn the British, hounds on an island – nobody uses that stuff anymore.
Now her mother is gone, and Molly has been a waitress long enough to type any customer within seconds of him coming through the door. That’s how she knows the guy on Table 7 is going to be trouble. True, he doesn’t have any of the usual telltale signs, he doesn’t look angry or drunk or both, but there’s something about him she doesn’t want to get too close to. For a start he looks like he has too much money to be eating in a place like this, forget that crap about family restaurants being great social levellers, you don’t eat here unless you’re watching the pennies more than the carbs. He’s in a blazer, tie and cotton twill slacks, high-top boots and some kind of fancy silver watch peeking out from his sleeve, and it just doesn’t feel right. Still, he’s in her section so she has no choice.
Molly’s worked everywhere, Eat ‘N’ Park, Chili’s, Hooters, Village Inn, Denny’s, Red Lobster, Tony Roma’s, Chi Chi’s, Houlihan’s, Applebee’s, Red Onion, Lone Star, IHOPs, TGI Friday’s, but she prefers the little family places away from the highway, where the regular trade consists of couples who’ve been coming for years, local workers and lonely widowers who won’t cook for themselves. Plus, you get people passing through who are just looking for a place to eat where the arrival of their eggs won’t interfere with their reading of the newspaper.
In some places the work is seasonal, so it requires her to move across state. Molly doesn’t mind; she has no kids to worry about uprooting, so she follows the job. But the mom and pop joints are disappearing as more people eat on the run. The chain takeouts are carefully situated to cater for office crowds. What they serve is less important than where they’re based. The chains purchase tactical real estate, and keep throughput high by avoiding the comfortable familiarity of diners. They expand ruthlessly, encroaching on each other’s territory so much that Molly has to look harder than ever to find the places she likes to work. Eventually she’d shifted all the way from Arizona to Florida. She likes warm weather and doesn’t want to head upstate, but knows she might eventually have to in order to find a place where she can more easily afford to live.
Molly side-glances the loner as she grabs the coffee pot and swings by his table, dropping the menu in front of him. He’s staring at her strangely. Okay, I’ve got a weird one, she thinks, unfazed. Some eateries attract nothing but crazies, they’re situated too close to the bus station, but this place isn’t one of those, even though they make you wear pink nylon uniforms that gather more static than thunderheads. She glances at Sal, with her hair like a ball of unravelled blonde wool, stuck through with pens, and wonders how she does it. Sal has five full plates and a coffee pot in her hands. Like Molly, she’s on an eight-hour shift making $2.70 an hour plus tips, and she never stops smiling. ‘Honey, I can outsmile anyone if I have to,’ she tells Molly, ‘some days it feels like I have a clothes hanger in my mouth.’ She can handle eight tables at a time, no problem, more if she has to. There are seventeen tables in Mickey’s, so the girls take turns to pick up the overlap. She’ll give refills on coffee and water but not soda (although her offer to top ’em up gets noticably slower after three trips) and she takes no shit from anyone.
Molly stands beside the guy at Table 7 and offers: ‘Hi, what’ll it be?’ because he’s closed his menu.
‘What’s the special?’ he asks, making eye contact and holding the look too long, too deep. He knows damn well what the special is because it’s on the board right over the cook’s hatch. He’s late twenties but going to seed young, too tanned, watery brown eyes, expensive clothes that fit a little too snug. He looks like he doesn’t get laid too often.
‘Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, onion gravy.’ Molly stands with her pen poised.
‘You have a really pretty face, you could try smiling like your friend over there,’ he tells her in a refined, not-from-around-here voice.
‘I’ll smile when I finish my shift. You want the special?’
‘No, I’ll have the hash and an egg-white omelette.’
‘We finish breakfast at midday. I can do you the hash as a side.’ He sighs and reopens the menu, taking a while to choose, finally settling for chicken-fried steak. Molly checks out his waistline and thinks maybe he shouldn’t be opting for the most calory-laden dish on the planet, but keeps the thought to herself.
He nods and she goes to pour when his hand flashes out and grabs her wrist, twisting it hard until she’s forced to drop the coffee pot, which bounces on the formica-topped table and cascades scalding liquid into his lap, soaking his crotch and thighs. He doesn’t flinch or make a sound. Weirder still, he looks like he wanted this to happen. Then the flicker of a smile vanishes and he explodes, jumping up and batting at his wet pants in mock-horror.
‘She goddamned scalded me!’ he shouts so that everyone turns. ‘Jeezus!’
‘Sal,’ Molly calls, ‘some help here.’
Sal slides her plates down and shoots over to the table, but so does Larry, the assistant manager, who makes things worse by taking the customer’s side without even checking to see what happened.
‘I’m burning here, Christ,’ yells the scalded guy, hopping around, ‘your waitresses don’t even know how to pour coffee, I’m gonna sue you for every fucking penny you’ve got and put you out of business, man. I have the best lawyers in town, you are so history.’ Sal drops a wad of napkins on the table and throws the scalded guy another wad, saying, ‘You knocked that out of her hand, mister, I saw you do it, you lowlife, you can clear your own damn mess up,’ and with that all hell breaks loose, with customers taking sides and Larry fighting both of them, standing in front of the scalded guy like a shield. And that’s when Molly knows this job is gone, because the customer won’t let it go and the management has already decided who’s right.
But she can’t allow the incident to bug her. You let one misstep like this throw you off and you’re sunk. Money runs so tight that it only takes a small miscalculation to drop you into a whole world of ugly-ass debt, and once you fall down you never get back up. So Molly checks in her uniform and says goodbye to Sal, who ruefully promises to stay in touch. Then she begins circling the wanted ads, and the next place she can find that’s hiring is called Winnie’s Home Cookin’, a dozen blocks further to travel from her apartment, twenty-eight tables split three ways, red plastic banquette seats and no tourists, because they stay uptown where there are no burned-out buildings or mean-faced homeboys sitting on the backs of bus benches.
She chooses the place because of the menus, which at Winnie’s are bonded carriage trade leather with linings, not sponge-cushioned PVC, and a sign that the place once saw better times. It’s as good a way as any to pick a job when one restaurant is so much like another. A few years back, raffia-covered menus became popular, but customers picked the corners off and one pat of butter would ruin them. The public doesn’t realise how much of a server’s job is side work, clearing and cleaning and replenishing, and one mushed butter-pat can really throw you off. Molly waits tables in places that have cooks, not chefs, where the portions are big and hot, the salads still sweat ice from cold storage, the pie cream comes in a spray can and every other condiment from dressing to creamer is in a fluted plastic pot. She’s given a two-to-ten shift with a half-hour break and an unflattering licorice-red uniform with a name-tag she has to get printed herself. The busboy is Indian and speaks better English than her co-workers, Marla and Jeanette, both of whom have allowed their everyday conversation to elide into shorthand order-speak.
The place is really busy tonight, and the table configuration is a bitch to get used to, but she’s good at realigning herself to any environment, a homœostatic impulse that serves her well as she moves from job to job across America. Molly knows the secret of staying on top of the work is to be on good terms with the cook, because if he takes against you, your whole shift can go to hell. Unfortunately she got off on the wrong foot with Jomac by accidentally parking in his space. The heavy-set cook looks so uncomfortable in his sweat-sheened body that she half expects to see him step out of it like a discarded jumpsuit.
She’s keeping busy in a quiet patch, folding cutlery into paper serviettes, thinking about the loss of her last job with some annoyance, when the guy from Table 7 walks right in, bold as a rooster. She recognises him instantly, because you never forget the face that got you fired, but she’s careful to act like she’s never seen him before, even when he arranges to be seated in her section. Her first thought is; how the hell did he find me? The only other person who knows where she’s moved is Sal, and she would never tell.
This time he’s wearing a blue double-breasted blazer with gold buttons and has blonde-frosted hair, a low-rent version of a high roller, like he has money and wants folk to think he’s someone special but doesn’t have the taste to pull it off. Molly makes sure she keeps the coffee pot well clear of him, and her hand is steady as she pours. He never takes his eyes off her, but she won’t be drawn, because if she catches that look he’ll know that she recognises him. Her rent is overdue because of the days she lost switching jobs, and she can’t afford to screw this one up. She tries to sound casual as she takes his order, which he changes and fools with, trying all the while to connect with her, but she’s steel inside, never once letting down her guard.
Placing the order at the hatch, she grabs a glimpse at the table and is shocked to see that he’s still staring after her. She wishes Sal was here to back her up. She can’t confide in Marla or Jeanette, who share a rented trailer together with Jeanette’s boyfriend, so they obviously have no secrets and no time for anyone else’s. She’ll have to deal with it alone, but forewarned is forearmed, and this time she’s not coming anywhere near his reach. When the meal arrives she slips the plate across from the far side of the table, smoothly withdrawing her hand before he can get near her, although he makes no attempt to do so.
She comes back from the table, serves the couple on 12 with lurid emerald slices of key lime pie, and is refilling their plastic water glasses when she hears the cry. She instantly knows where it’s coming from, and looks over. He’s sitting there clutching his mouth with both hands, and there’s a thin trickle of blood coming out of the corner between his fingers. She tries to ignore him but knows he is calling to Marla, who’s just passing his table. Her world slows down, because it has suddenly been rendered fragile.
She wonders what could be wrong. He couldn’t have burned himself on the plate or found a piece of glass in his potatoes – Jomac is so meticulous in his preparation of the food that the servers are constantly hassled by impatient diners. Her mind flashes back over the service she provided – nothing she’s done could have caused him injury; she’s in the clear. He’s yelling like crazy now, and if she pays no attention it’ll look like she has something to hide, so she goes over and stands beside Marla, watching the performance.
The restaurant moves in a strange half-time as she watches Marla trying to convince the man to take his hands from his mouth. He tips the crimson-stained palms away and parts his bloody teeth as Marla probes. Molly sets down the water jug and realises, as she looks down at her uniform, that she is no longer wearing her name badge. She washed the outfit last night, as she does most nights, and ironed it before she left the room, pinning the badge in place as she walked down to her sideswiped Nissan, but sometime between then and now it has disappeared, and she has a terrible feeling that it is in his mouth.
Sure enough, the pin is hooked into his gum, but Marla’s strong fingers pull it free, she just reaches in there without thinking, not worrying about germs or anything, she used to be a nurse at the city hospital, and he retches and spits onto the tabletop, the little red badge skittering out in front of him. Molly snatches the thing up, wiping blood from the raised letters to reveal her name. The pin has been jammed in his mouth so hard that it’s almost bent double. Marla’s trying to wipe him down with a wadded cloth but he’s still yelling blue murder, and now the temporary manager, an ineffectual, almost ghostly Texan kid who goes by the wholly appropriate name of Sketch, is calling her over with a look of anger on his face that’s the first genuine emotion she’s seen him show.
It’s raining hard, the first time in over a month, and it’s falling too fast for her wipers to clear, pelting through the smashed window and soaking her shoulder, so she pulls over beside a phonebox. She no longer has her mobile – that was one of the first expenses to go. She’s lucky – Sal is just leaving to start her shift.
‘How he could even convince people he’d accidentally eaten it, for God’s sake, it’s a nametag, he said it had been deliberately pushed into the mashed potato where he couldn’t see it, I mean, what is this guy’s fucking problem?’ She listens to Sal, who’s a mix of common sense and Southern toughness, a woman who once went back on a double shift within hours of an abortion in order to pay the doctor.
‘No, I didn’t report the car window because what’s the point? He obviously recognised the vehicle in the restaurant lot, looked in and saw my badge on the seat or the floor. Well, it seems pretty obvious to me that’s what happened, ’cause I sure as hell didn’t come near enough for him to rip it off me in the restaurant.’ She listens some more. The rain is steaming off the car hood like mountain mist.
‘The same as before. Won’t press charges if they let me go, yadda yadda, they couldn’t get me out of the door fast enough, everyone’s so shit-scared of lawsuits. Marla with blood all over her, unbelievable. God, no, I don’t want to track him down, I just want to stay the hell out of his path. I wouldn’t even be able to give the police a clear description, he looked kind of different this time. Sure, I recognise him, but that’s because of his manner, you know how you do in this job, complainers stay with you. But I’m going to change the car, that has to be how he found me. I have to anyway, I can’t afford to get the window fixed, although what’s gonna be cheaper than this heap of junk I don’t know. No, I have no idea what car he drives. No, Sal, it’s celebrities who get stalkers, I’m just a waitress, but I’d like to know what the fuck he thinks he’s doing.’ She scans the straight wet street as she listens. The sky is darker than the buildings. ‘Sure, I’ll be in touch just as soon as I get something.’
After hanging up she goes into the convenience store on the corner and collects the freesheets. She needs to start looking for hirers right now. She can sell the Nissan and go to Rent-A-Wreck until she’s back on her feet, the cash will tide her over between jobs, but doesn’t know how she’ll ever cover the gap and save for another car.
Back in her room at the motel – she swore she’d never rent like Sal, the margin for financial error is just too slight, but there’s no alternative now that she’s moving around again – she looks at her face in the bathroom mirror, and knows that some restaurants will rule her out. She was always pretty, but the look is getting hard. She’s not as light-hearted about the job as she used to be, and it’s starting to show. The management want their ‘girls’ looking fresh, not troubled. She’s always been good at hiding her worries behind a smile, has no problem with being on her feet all day and knows the work better than any of the younger ones, her customers always tell her that. If she’d been an executive she’d have risen through the ranks by now, but when you’re a waitress there’s nothing to be except another waitress, and the older you get the more management start thinking you’ll want to use their health plans.
The tips at Winnie’s were solid, she needs another place like that. For a while she toys with the idea of taking a second job, just until she’s out of this money-hole. She could do mornings in a mall, grab a couple of hours’ sleep and keep her regular afternoon shift, or just work one restaurant and pull a double every three days or so, but first she has to find one job, let alone two, and the ads aren’t promising.
The first interview she gets is a disaster, a dingy deep-red ribshack staffed by downtrodden-looking migrants with ESL and a scary supervisor called Ethel who warns her that they don’t tolerate slackers. The next, which she passes on the spot, is in a diner set behind the grafitti-blitzed bus station, populated entirely by derelicts surviving on handouts of old coffee. Getting in and out of the building involves walking through shadowed no-go zones to an unlit car park; and with her stalker waiting out there somewhere, it’s not worth the risk.
Finally she gets a decent slot at Amanda’s, a dessert-heavy joint in an unsafe but thankfully well-lit downtown neighbourhood where the kids hang out in chicken-wire basketball courts smoking, dealing and constantly shifting loyalties within their social groups. Amanda’s desserts are a source of fascination for Molly. They sit in a tall glass cabinet lit spearmint-neon in the middle of the restaurant, and appear to have been manufactured from entirely alien ingredients. The jello is coloured in eye-watering shades that don’t exist in or out of nature, the cream is so white that it looks like plastic paint, and the pumpkin pie appears to be made of orange sofa foam.
But hey, it’s a job, and the other girls seem okay, if a little distant. They’re scared, she can see that, scared of slowing in case they stop altogether, like wound-down clockwork toys. The bad news is she gets the late shift, which is until 2:00am with another half-hour of clearing away after that, but servers can’t be choosers and at least night diners aren’t so picky about their food.
The motel where she’s staying smells of damp and fast sex. It has a filthy pool, a scared-looking Mexican cleaner and a weird reception clerk who concentrates on comic books as though they were Dickens novels. She gets back from Amanda’s too tired to wash out her uniform, but it has to be done the night before or it won’t be dry in time. The tips are lower because the desserts are cheaper, which is no surprise considering how they taste. Amanda was the original owner, but the place killed her and now it’s working on the rest of the staff, who have the bad skin and downbeat demeanour of drug mules.
In the moments when the work eases off, and she looks out through the plate window at the windy, desolate street, Molly sometimes wonders how it’s come to this. She has no real friends to speak of, no one to share private jokes with, no loyal lover who waits up to tell her things will all turn out fine. And on the bad evenings, when rain weighs down the red plastic canopy and the place is deserted, she asks herself how long she can go on pretending that everything is fine, how long it will be before her ready optimism and her hopeful smile crack and die with the weight of getting by.
But you think like that and you’re already lost. So she covers the burns on her wrist caused by hoisting the coffee pot and shows the surliest diner that she cares, and works on autopilot until at the end of the week, one rainy Sunday night, she doesn’t even notice that he’s back, the stalker is back, and has slipped into a booth at the end of her section just before the restaurant’s due to close.
The lights are dim over the crimson seats, so when she catches his face it’s a shock. He looks terrible, like he hasn’t slept for a month. He looks like a serial killer haunted by his deeds. His hair has grown out and he’s added a moustache that ages him, and she knows she can’t ask Rosemary, the other waitress, to take over because her section is empty and she’s slipped into the alley for a cigarette.
Ted, the cook, is nowhere in sight. No one can help her. She drops the menu onto his table and beats it, checking that her name-tag is in place as she goes. But she has to return to take his order, because that’s her job, it’s what she does. And he says, ‘Molly, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. You’re the only one who can help me. Please, don’t go, I won’t do anything bad.’
She wants to go but has to stop and ask. ‘Why did you get me fired?’ She’s holding the coffee pot high above him, ready to throw it in his face if he moves an inch toward her.
‘You’re too special to be working in a diner,’ he tells her, watching her eyes. ‘Such big blue eyes, like an angel. You’re a good woman, Molly. You know how much it hurt me to let you go? The first time I saw you I knew you could save me from myself, stop me from doing harm to others.’
‘You’re crazy, mister,’ she tells him. ‘I can’t even save myself.’
‘Molly—’ He reaches out a hand.
‘You don’t use my name, and if you move one more muscle I swear to God I’ll pour boiling coffee over you,’ she warns. ‘Now you can either eat and leave or just plain leave, there’s no way I’m listening to your bullshit.’ Her hand is shaking, and she’s not sure how much longer she can hold the steel pot aloft.
‘Apple pie and coffee,’ he tells her, as normal as any other diner. ‘I won’t make any trouble in here.’ She goes to the cabinet and cuts the pie, slipping the knife into her apron pocket, but he’s as good as his word. He eats as meekly as a punished child, and leaves a twenty dollar bill on the table without asking for the check. He picks up his raincoat and goes so quickly that she has no time to see which direction he’s heading.
She’s coming due off duty in five minutes, and there’s no more side work to do tonight because they cleared and reset as the restaurant emptied. Outside, it’s raining fit to drown rats. There’s a stippled yellow pool stretching across the road where the drains are backed up. No cars, no people, like a movie set waiting for its cue. She thinks of asking Ted to walk her to her car, but doesn’t want anyone to think there’s something wrong. So she offers to close up for the night, and waits as the others pull their jackets over their hair and head out into the downpour. She douses the lights and watches, but there’s nothing happening outside. Finally the waiting gets on her nerves, so she digs out the keys and locks the front door behind her. From the canopy to the car park is a couple of hundred yards max, but she needs to plot the route because parts of the broken tarmac are flooded and her canvas trainers will get soaked.
She negotiates an isthmus through the water toward the Rent-A-Wreck Datsun and already has her keys out when she realises he’s sitting in the car, and the headlights come on as he pulls around her, shoving open the passenger door and dropping across the seats to pull her in, but she’s fast and lashes out at his face. She’s not expecting the pad across her mouth, though, and the gasp of surprise she takes draws chloroform into her lungs. That’s the trick, not to put it across the nose like they do in movies, and now it’s too late because everything’s pressing in on her, and she knows she’s losing consciousness. He’s going to kill her and leave her body in a ditch, she realises stupidly, and that’s not at all what she had planned for herself.
But not before she’s pushed her way back out of the car, and although she’s disoriented by the rain and the bitter smell in her head, she knows she must breathe clean air fast or she’ll go down, and he’s slowed up by having to stop the car and come around from the other side. And man, either he’s slow or she’s fast because she’s stumbling back at the door of Amanda’s before he comes sliding around the corner toward her. If she can shut the door she’ll have won, but his strong hand covers the jamb and pushes back, and all it takes is one clean sharp punch in the face to floor her cold.
‘Nurses are strong, of course, but they care in an entirely different way, and they empathise way too much.’
She hears him before she sees him. Her right eye is sore and feels swollen shut. She has a fat lip, a metal taste in her mouth, a jackhammer headache, but at least she’s upright in one of the darkened booths, so she can get her bearings.
‘You, though—’ He shakes a finger at her as he paces about, ‘—you’re a real piece of work. I’ve watched a lot of waitresses, and you’re a classic. A dying breed. Like those Newfoundland women who gut fish all day, nothing touches you. I like that. A true enfant de malheur:’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ she says thickly. She needs a drink of water, something to stop her tongue sticking to the roof of her mouth.
‘It means you’ve had a tough time, Molly. It shows in your face. It’s what makes you strong.’
‘Just tell me what the deal is here.’ She can’t see him clearly. Why the hell doesn’t he stand still for a moment? ‘What’s your name?’
‘Duane,’ he says softly.
‘Well, Duane, what is it you want?’
‘I know you’re alone. I know you’re broke. Christ, I’ve seen where you live and I have no idea how you can stand it.’ He angrily throws out his hands. ‘What is it that keeps you going? You’ve nothing, nothing at all. But you don’t have to be alone. You don’t have to fight so hard. I could help you.’
‘Do me a favour.’ She points at the counter behind him. ‘Flick that switch down.’
He looks around and sees the steel coffee pot. ‘Right, sure,’ he smiles and shakes his head and the orange light goes on, then turns back to her. ‘I promise you, Molly, I didn’t want to hurt you and never will again. But I had to get you to listen to me. All I want is for you to be happy, and if we can come to a deal that will make me happy too, well, hey, everybody wins.’
She tries to focus, to measure how far she is from the phone, the door, the kitchen knives. ‘What did you have in mind, Duane?’
‘Okay.’ He perches on a corner of the orange leatherette seat and slaps his hands on his thighs, pleased with himself. ‘I come from a pretty wealthy family. We owned half the car lots in this city. When my old man died he left me a shitload of money. I can give you whatever you want. You’ll never need to worry about making ends meet again. This country favours the wealthy, Molly. If you haven’t got it now, there’s no way you’re ever gonna get it. But I can take care of you.’
‘You’re not in love with me. I got no real education, I got no money, I wait tables and fetch people coffee, for God’s sake.’ She glances at the pot. The orange light has clicked off.
‘You’re strong, Molly. Nothing fazes you. That’s what I need, a really strong woman.’
‘I need caffeine while I think about this. Could you grab me some?’
He rises, then seems to change his mind. ‘You fetch it. You said it’s what you do.’
She wonders how nuts he is to let her go near the boiling coffee pot. Maybe it’s a trust thing. Maybe he just likes her to wait on him.
That’s when she realises the true nature of his proposition. He loves her strength so much that her wants her to use it against him. He wants her to fling the hot liquid in his face, to stab him, to punish him, to make him cry, to expose his helplessness before her. He’s making her an offer. It’s a fucked-up world, he’s thinking, but there are worse deals going. She could be alone for the rest of her life.
She fills the thick white cups that hold less than they look. With a steady hand she carries them together with the pot to the shadowed table. His eyes never leave hers as she sets the cups down and raises the hot steel container level with his face.
He dares her. ‘Do it, Molly. Do it, and I’ll make sure you never have to work in a hellish place like this again. I’ll never hurt you. I’ll look after you like a princess. There’s crazier men than me out there.’ He licks his lips. ‘Come on, baby, show me what you’re made of.’
Molly considers the idea for a moment, then lowers the coffee pot. She absently touches her swollen mouth before she speaks. ‘You have a hell of a nerve, presuming this is what I need, just because of what I do.’
‘Everyone wants to feel needed.’
She could throw the boiling coffee in his eyes and run out, but then it will never end. Instead, she sets the pot down quietly and walks to the door. ‘Let me tell you something. I wait at your table, I take your shit, but you can’t get inside me. I’m not running across town from you anymore, Duane. You come after me again, I swear I’ll end up going to jail for killing you.’
‘You stupid bitch,’ he shouts after her, and she realises he’s saying that because torture and death at her hands is what he most desires. She wonders what happened to him as a little boy that placed him in the sexual thrall of strong women. ‘What have you got here? You’ll grow old and die serving shitty food to people who don’t give a fuck about you. You’ve got nothing and you’ll get nothing.’
‘That’s right, lover,’ she smiles to herself beneath the rain-sparkled streetlight, ‘This,’ she throws her arms wide, ‘this is what I do. But you only have to do one thing well to have a reason for getting out of bed every morning. And I’m a damn good waitress. What keeps you alive?’
Later, she’ll sit in a bar, have a drink, maybe cry. But right now, as she walks away into the night rain, she’s already thinking about the ad she saw for the Chicken Lodge downtown, a rundown family joint, good shifts, minimum wage plus tips.
Four months on, there’s a two-line piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer about some rich guy found stabbed to death in a quiet family diner. Police want to interview the woman who served his final meal.