We were sitting at a table near the bar, but closer to the kitchen. It was noisy there, what with the crash of pans and the cooks yelling at the waitresses to pick up their orders. Stephanie said it was because we were women and everyone knew women were notoriously bad tippers. She actually said notoriously like the three of us were the reincarnation of the James Gang.
“I tip,” Fran said. She was practically shouting.
“Me, too,” I said.
Stephanie shook her head impatiently. “You two are the exception. It’s because you”—she pointed at me with an unlit Tareyton—“are a waitress and you”—pointing at Fran—“date rich guys.”
“Dated,” Fran said bitterly. “Past tense.”
Fran’s love life was why the three of us were here at the Elks Club, a sort of good riddance to bad rubbish night organized by Steph. It was a cave of a place, low and dark, smelling of old fish and swamp water, but we wanted to get fucked up, totally trashed, in the company of no one we knew. From what I could see so far, the clientele ran from sixtyish women with platinum hair, their faces thick with makeup, to men who licked their thumbs before peeling a bill from the fat wad they carried in their pockets.
“It’s not like he’s some big loss or anything,” Stephanie said.
Fran looked at her hands and nodded. “Maybe,” she said. I didn’t say anything. As far as Fran was concerned, I’d already said too much. I was the one who told her about seeing Scott at TGI Friday’s with his tongue down Ellen Morris’s throat. Of course I texted Fran. She said no, Scott was bowling with some former frat brothers from State.
Bowling or balling? I typed. I didn’t hear from Fran for three weeks and only then because I called and asked her if she could please return the black spandex top she’d borrowed from me. We were talking again, but not in an okay way. I felt like every word I said to her had to be poured into a measuring cup and weighed before I could give it away.
“No maybe,” Stephanie said. “Scott was a dick. D-I-C-K.” She thumped her glass on the table for emphasis.
The woman at the next table turned to glare at us then whispered something to the man she was with. Something about the guy, maybe the way he held his elbows tight to his body, made him seem more like a date than a husband. Her hair was blue and done up in two plump rolls at the back of her head. The man was wearing white canvas Keds.
“Ma and Pa Kettle!” Stephanie said. She finished off her gin and tonic and studied the lime at the bottom of the glass. “This lime is fucking slime.”
I glanced at the couple. “Will you shut up already?”
“But I love the sound of it.” She poked at the lime, spearing it with her straw, and held it under my nose. “Does this lime look slimy to you?”
“Whose round?” Fran said.
“Mine,” I said, too quickly. I looked around for our waitress and finally spotted her head above the line of plants that divided the bar from the restaurant part of the club. It was just as well. I was glad to have an excuse to get up from the table, get away. I was halfway to the bar when Fran called me back.
“I’m going to switch,” she announced, only “switch” came out two-syllabled: suh-witch. I’d lost count of how many glasses of wine she’d had, not that it was any of my business to keep track. The light in the bar turned the blue of her eyes white. She looked wild and little dangerous.
“I want tequila,” Fran said.
“Wine and tequila?” Stephanie said.
“A shot of Kwur . . . Cuervo,” Fran said.
Stephanie frowned. “You puke in my new car, you pay to have it cleaned.”
“And a Diet Coke,” Fran said.
“Because there’s no way to get that smell out. Ever.”
“Can’t Daddy just give you a replacement car?” Fran said. “Off his big lot?”
“So take the bus home then,” Stephanie said.
“I am not going to puke,” Fran said. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
I walked away. I knew as soon as I was out of earshot, they’d quit bickering at each other and start talking about me. Nothing bad exactly, just oh, poor Carrie, still living at home, stuck in that crummy job. It was how we were together, how our friendship had been as far back as freshman year of high school. During Stephanie’s round, Fran had gone on and on about Steph’s new car, a candy apple red Audi her father had given her for graduating college after five years. “I wonder if he knows Steph bought her term paper in anthropology,” Fran said bitterly. “From some frat guy.”
At the bar, I wedged into an empty space between stools and watched the bartender, an older guy, work. I could tell it hurt him when he had to bend down and get bottles of beer from the cooler and that it was hard for him to thread an orange and a cherry onto a sword. But he was a pro, pulling bottles out of the well without looking, pouring shots like the bottle was part of his arm. Nothing flashy or show-offy like the place I worked, a chain restaurant where the male bartenders flipped liquor bottles in the air and caught them one-handed, smirking, behind their backs. The waitresses liked to joke that the bartenders were hired on the strength of their butts and how well they plumped out their black uniform pants. They were all pretty and way too vain to be taken seriously for more than a minute or two. In the five months I’d worked there, they’d barely said a word to me.
The Elks Club bar was made of some kind of wood, something heavy and dark that was lighter in places where I imagined people had propped their elbows, set their drinks. Authentic. It was a word I rarely used, never thought of much until now. The place I worked was fake vintage, imitation everything.
The guy on the stool next to me shifted and turned, looked at my chest, and then my face. “Hey,” he said. “Can’t get a drink, huh?” He was wearing jeans and a golf shirt with some kind of insignia over the left breast. He reminded me of the guys who came in to the restaurant for Happy Hour on Fridays, forty-something guys who thought they were hot because they had a wallet full of credit cards and just enough hair to be dangerous. Guys like Jim, the man my mother married last year. They Happy Hour guys would get drunk and hand me their business cards with “call me, please” scrawled in ink. I usually threw them out at the end of the night along with the other junk I’d collected in my apron pocket.
I ignored the golf guy and stared instead at the photo over the ancient cash register, four men wearing fedoras and identical striped suits. My mom had a picture of my dad in a hat like that, pointing a plastic machine gun at the camera and laughing. It was taken on Halloween, she said, the year he dressed up as a gangster for some party they went to. A week after the party, he died in a head-on with a drunk driver.
By the time I finally ordered for us, I was feeling guilty about wasting the bartender’s talent so I changed from white wine to a sidecar. I’d never had one, but I’d seen an advertisement in the bartending book at the restaurant. It looked like it would taste clean, the way a drink of cold water goes down on a hot day. It came to only seven-fifty for the whole round, so I left him a ten. He rang it up on the ancient cash register and dropped the two singles and change in his tip jar without looking at me.
It took me two trips to deliver everything to the table and when I finally sat down, Fran and Steph had their heads together, giggling about something.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
Fran glanced at the bar. “Check out that guy.”
“The one in the hat, sitting at the end of—Jesus, don’t turn around.”
“I think he’s staring at you, Care,” Stephanie said, giggling.
I hated the way Stephanie giggled when she got drunk, like she was having such a good time. Then again, maybe she was. Or maybe it was because lately, the drunker I got, the more I thought about my life and whenever I thought too much about my life, the less drunk I felt.
I took a sip of my drink. It tasted like cold, sweet fire. The place was filling up—a lot of women wearing pantsuits in jewel colors and men in suits. There was a little platform at the opposite end of the bar with a drum set and a couple of guitars. The waitress had told us a band was scheduled to go on, but she wasn’t sure when. Later, she said.
“Yeah, Care,” Fran said. “He’s staring at you. At your great big boobies. Like every other guy in here.” She looked away from me and lit a cigarette.
“You have one going already, dumb ass,” Stephanie said.
“I do?” Fran said. “Oh, I do. Okay.” She stubbed the old one out, half-smoked.
“What a waste,” Stephanie said. “That’s, like, a quarter’s worth of cigarette there.”
“They’re not that big,” I said.
Fran snorted. “Right.”
I looked at her. “You think my life’s so great? How would you like it, men looking at your boobs all the time? Saying shit?”
“Girls, girls,” Stephanie said, wagging her finger at us. “Play nice.”
Fran muttered something under her breath and stomped off. I watched her wriggle her way through the crowd and find a place at the bar next to the golf guy. When he turned to look at her, she bent her head toward his and said something that made him laugh.
I looked at Steph. “What is with her?”
“Scott’s an asshole. You said so yourself. She’s better off without him. ” I had to shout over the noise of the jukebox. The woman at the next table turned to look at me.
“Let’s go to the john,” Steph said, grabbing my arm.
In the bathroom, she leaned over the sink and applied a new mouth of red lipstick while I waited for a couple of blue hairs to flush and finish. It took forever for them to wash their hands and then figure out how the paper dispenser worked. I leaned against the wall, cinder block painted fungus green, and stuffed down a yawn with my fist. I’d worked late the night before, slept five hours and pulled a lunch shift, humping hamburgers and Cokes for quarter tips. I’d made exactly $14.31 and instead of paying my mom what I owed her for the electric bill, the way we agreed, I’d blown it on a matinee and a medium bucket of popcorn. I didn’t care what movie I saw, I just wanted to yank all that empty, air-conditioned dark down around me like a blanket and get lost for a while.
I ended up seeing a comedy about an unhappy wife who wanted to get even with her cheating husband. It was full of bare butts and fart jokes and pretty good actors. The popcorn was swimming in butter and I ate it way too fast and felt sick and then depressed over the fact that such good actors had to be in such a crappy movie. Or maybe they wanted to and that seemed worse in a way, that they’d appear in this movie just for the money. They probably had bills the way I did but on a different scale, like a swimming pool to heat or something, instead of student loans and security deposits.
“So what’s with you?” Steph said.
“What do you mean?”
“Can’t you at least pretend to have fun?”
I picked at the cuticle around my thumb. “I thought I was.”
“Sure you are.” She leaned into the mirror again and started lining her eyes.
“I am.” I opened one of the stall doors and looked in. A toilet full of blue water gurgled at me. There were two full rolls of toilet paper and a plastic wastebasket with a liner. “Look at this.” I pointed to the stall door. “No graffiti. When’s the last time you were in a bar bathroom that didn’t have graffiti?”
Steph finished with her eyes and did something with her hair. I envied her hair, wiry and thick and so dark it was almost black. She got it cut someplace where they charged a hundred bucks for a trim, but it was worth it. She could fluff it up, twist a few curls around her face and it would look perfect again. My own hair was split and thin; I’d gone months without a cut. What was the point? For work, I pulled it up and back and stuck a clip in it. It was easier all around.
Steph spritzed her throat from a tiny bottle of something that smelled like gumdrops. “Want some?” she said.
I shook my head.
“Come on. You might as well smell expensive.”
“That stuff?” I played with the lock on the door, the old kind where you had to thread a hook through a little circle. A test to check whether you were truly drunk.
“Sixty bucks an ounce,” Steph said.
I made a face.
“Why do you always do that?” Steph said.
Steph yanked at the zipper on her purse and shook her head.
“What?” I said again.
“Make me feel…I don’t know…shitty about having money or something.”
“I don’t know. Maybe because I don’t have any?” I said it slowly, with exaggerated patience, the way you’d speak to a small child or a simpleton.
She turned back to the mirror and did something to her bangs. “Is this about grad school?”
“Apply someplace else,” she said.
I twisted the hook. It came off in my fingers. “Not just that.”
I shook my head. My mother had been so excited when she met Jim the previous year. You’re going to love him, she said. He’s going to love you.
I didn’t want him to love me. I didn’t want to be around him.
“Let’s get another drink,” I said.
We made our way across the dance floor. A guy was going through his test one-two thing on the microphone while a second guy ran through some guitar riffs.
“Actually,” I said, “I’m exploring new career options.” I felt around in my purse until I located the card a customer had handed me the other night in case I was interested in making “some real money.” He said he was always on the lookout for attractive women servers for the club he owned, but judging by the way he looked at me, I suspect “attractive” was just a euphemism for “big boobs.”
Steph looked at the card and then at me. “No way. Stripping?”
“Not stripping,” I said. “Waitressing.”
“Yeah,” Steph said. “In your skivvies.”
“Probably,” I said. Truthfully, the prospect didn’t seem so terrible. Men undressed me daily with their eyes; why not do it for them? Cut to the chase, end the tease. Make them pay for it.
“God, now he’s looking at me,” Steph said.
“That guy. The one at the bar. Don’t—”
“—look. Yeah, I know.” Instead I brushed my napkin to the floor and when I bent to pick it up, I shifted my chair around just enough so I could see him out of the corner of my eye. Steph was right, the guy was staring right at her. He had a round face, wide and white as a dinner plate. He wore a silver tie and a black shirt and a suit coat with padded shoulders. He looked like he might have a gun in his pocket or in a holster strapped around his chest and that alone kept me from walking over there and saying something clever like, why don’t you take a picture, it’ll last longer?
“Maybe we should tell the manager,” Steph said. “Or the bartender.”
“What are you going to say? ‘Excuse me, sir, but please ask that man at the bar to quit staring?’”
I started laughing at the absurdity of it and pretty soon Steph did too. I laughed so hard my nose started running, and while I was fumbling around in my purse for a Kleenex, the waitress arrived with a tray of fresh drinks, another gin and tonic for Steph and white wine for me.
“Compliments of Lulu,” the waitress said, collecting the empties.
Steph looked around, bewildered. “Who?”
“Your friend over there. At the bar.” She pointed to Fran, who winked and put a finger over her mouth. The last time we went out, she had been Roxanne and the time before that, Celeste. Roxanne worked at a recording studio. Celeste was a photojournalist. When I asked her what was wrong with being just Fran, a pediatric nurse, she tossed her hair and said, “You don’t get it, do you?”
I watched the waitress collect the little pile of napkins I’d shredded and disappear into the kitchen. I wondered if she’d dump her tray next to the dirty dishes and light a cigarette, bitch about the three drunk girls at the four-top nearest the kitchen, the mess they made.
“Cartoon names,” Steph said. “Ever notice that?” She had to shout over the jukebox and the guy tuning his electric guitar on the bandstand. A short, wide guy with a flare of dark hair that may or may not have been real.
“Celeste?” I said doubtfully.
Fran came back to the table, making a scissors motion with her fingers. “Cigarette, please,” she said.
The tequila had raised her skin color a few degrees above sallow, up to a blush pink. Fran usually had too many sharp corners to her—elbows, nose, knees, chest—to be pretty, but now, in this light, she looked almost beautiful.
“I’m a television producer,” she said. “With, you know, an ABC thingamajig outside of Albany.”
“An ABC station?” I said.
“No, not…you know, a whatchamacallit. An affiliate,” Fran said. She pronounced it carefully, like she had just learned the word. “I’m visiting friends from college. For the weekend. From when I went to Cornell.”
“Gee, why not Harvard?” I said.
Fran gave me a scathing look. “Women don’t go to Harvard, ” she said. She stubbed out her cigarette and squeezed her way through the crowd back to the golf guy. The bar was a kaleidoscope of shapes, forming and reforming. I thought I saw the golf guy put his arm around Fran, but I wasn’t sure.
“True love,” I said.
“Maybe she’ll throw up in his car instead of mine,” Steph said.
“Women do so go to Harvard,” I said, nodding in time to the drummer who had joined the guitar player on the bandstand. I couldn’t see him clearly behind the stack of drums and cymbals, but the thump of the bass drum fell in step with the beat of my heart and I liked it.
“You ever notice how names go with hair?” I said suddenly.
Stephanie looked at me. “You’re drunk.”
“The way you wear your hair, I mean. Like, look at the guy on the bandstand. Playing the guitar. What do you think—”
“Elvis,” Stephanie said.
“Exactly,” I said. “How about the drummer?”
“Um, two names. Billy Bob. No, Joe Bob.”
We went around the room: A sweet-faced woman was Marie. A fifty-something with a blonde pageboy was Carole Anne. A man with swoops of silver hair was Dominic. A redhead in tight pants wearing too much purple eye shadow was Brenda.
“No, Edie,” Steph said.
“Edies aren’t greasers. Edies wear their hair in French twists.”
“Come on. Edie Frederick? Red hair? Tenth grade gym class?”
I thought of the eight ball we used to pass around in the back row of a boring class while the teacher droned on about covalence or manifest destiny, so much that was mysterious and useless to us at the time. The important questions we asked the eight ball—Would we be asked to the prom? Would we do it by the end of the summer—and the answers would rise up from the watery depths of the eight ball and present themselves in shivering script, white against black. Edie’s face came back to me like an answer, turning over and up in my mind: her crooked smile, the way she bit her lip while she teased her hair in front of the mirror after gym class. “Speedy Edie,” the guys used to call her. They laughed behind her back, at her greaser hair and her crummy underwear.
For some reason I thought of David Stephens, my lab partner in eleventh grade biology. I don’t know why. I hadn’t thought of him once in the nearly six years since high school graduation. But it was his face I saw, red-cheeked and shiny, when I imagined bending in a down-to-there top to serve him a drink. Then I thought of my mother’s husband. I’d bet a million dollars that, for all his talk about God and the importance of family, Jim went to places like that. He’d call the waitress “Honey” and “Toots,” sit up front by the stage so he could look up into the crotch of the woman dancing above him, all the while making nasty remarks out of the corner of his mouth to his buddies.
But maybe I could be like Fran, leave Carrie at home when I went to work. I could rename myself, rewrite my resume, hide my own hair under a short, blonde wig, something layered and platinum that would lend itself to a new name. Blaine, maybe. Or Maisie.
“Omigod, omigod,” Steph gestured wildly toward the other end of the bar.
The round-faced staring man was walking arm in arm toward the stage with a woman in a long dress trimmed with purple sequins. I was so enthralled by the sequins that it took me another second to see the white cane in his right hand.
“Jesus,” Steph said. “He’s blind.”
“Shhh,” I said, though nobody was near us. I watched the man and the woman make their slow way across the room and up the makeshift stairs leading to the stage. He climbed the stairs carefully, like an old person, planting both feet on a step before venturing up again. I wondered why he didn’t wear sunglasses like the woman I used to see on mornings when I ran at school. She wore rhinestone tipped sunglasses and had a fat old yellow lab to guide her. Whenever I saw her, she had a Styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand and the morning paper tucked under her arm. “Good morning,” she would say, and her dog would look up and smile at me. I always wondered about the newspaper and who read it to her. I wondered how she went blind or if she was born that way. I wondered who taught her dog to smile like that. I wanted to follow her home and ask her a million questions about her life. I thought about making a documentary about her for my senior project, but I waited until the last minute and ended up doing a thirty-minute film about the wealthiest sorority on campus. The professor liked it, probably because there were a lot of shots of the girls in their expensive thong underpants putting on makeup or smoking cigarettes. He called it “natural and authentic” and complimented me on the extraordinary access I’d gained, but I suspected I was like a piece of furniture to those girls, something simply to step around, take for granted.
The woman guided the man to the microphone and I watched him memorize it with his fingers before raising it and saying, test, test, test.
“Jesus. Is he going to sing?” Steph said.
I gave her a look. “He’s blind, not dumb.” Still, I sent up a brief prayer: Please, God, please, don’t let him be awful.
“Ray Charles,” Steph said..
“What about him?”
“Ray Charles can sing,” she said. “See? I know blind guys can sing.”
“Yeah, so?” I said. The blind man was bent over, listening to something the guitar player was telling him.
“So I hope he can sing,” she said, gesturing at the stage with her straw. “I don’t want to have to laugh at a blind man.”
I opened my mouth to say, that’s really mean, when it occurred to me that Steph had said out loud what I’d been thinking. And what was meaner anyway—thinking it and pretending not to or saying it out loud? It was what I disliked about Jim: his two-facedness, a layer of gloss over meanness. The other day at Sears he’d run into some guy he hadn’t seen for a while. He made a big deal out of shaking his hand and saying, it’s been too long in this sincere voice, but as soon as the man was out of earshot, Jim started talking about what an asshole the guy was and how he’d ripped him off for ten bucks in a card game years ago.
Just then the music started and all around me, as if on cue, couples rose from their tables and walked hand in hand to the dance floor. The blind man leaned into the microphone, gripping it with both hands, and started to sing “Moonlight in Vermont” in a baritone so beautiful I could have sworn I was listening to a jukebox.
“God damn,” Steph whispered.
I nodded. Except for the dancers, no one was moving. I wonder if he felt it, how the room had stilled and hushed, sensed how our faces had turned to him like flowers to the sun. I watched Fran and the golf guy dancing, some complicated step where he spun her out and pulled her back to him, turning her around and around under his arm almost as if they’d practiced it. For a big guy, he was surprisingly graceful, light on his feet.
“You want another one?” Steph said, pointing to my wine glass. I started to tell her no, I was flat broke, but she cut me off. “On me. Come on.”
“Sold,” I said.
She tossed her hair, her perfect, hundred dollar hair. “Look, buy me a drink sometime. When you can,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”
I leaned back and into the singer’s voice. Five bucks, some change, all I had to my name. But tomorrow night I’d go to work and maybe I’d come home with an apron pocket stuffed with bills, crumpled ones and fives and the occasional ten if the restaurant was busy and not full of students. Just the other night, I’d waited on a doctor from the nearby hospital and his wife and their two out-of-town guests. They’d stayed through coffee and dessert and two rounds of expensive cognac served in tiny slivers of glasses that wobbled dangerously on my tray. They stayed while I polished silverware hot from the dishwasher and restocked glasses in the hutches around the room and when they finally left, I’d found a crisp one hundred dollar bill folded in half under the doctor’s coffee cup.
I could write my own scripts, shoot my own movies. Maybe I didn’t need school. Maybe I needed to shut my eyes and jump into the anything.
Steph pointed to my glass. “The same?” she said.
I thought about it. “Surprise me,” I finally said.
© Sarah Freligh
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Sarah’s interview]