“Hey! Do you work at Happy’s?”
My knees bounced, chin persistently pressed against my chest barely heaving. The purple visor concealed my blush, but the black cardigan was too iconic.
“You’re a natural beauty,” he said, as I snuck him the cup from McDonald’s that I filled with Dr. Pepper. He and his friend. James and Austin. This was two weeks prior. They spoke to me as my father would have drunk from a dirty glass, cursing a shortage of real alcohol. I’ve had few problems attracting men, though snaring genuine intrigue’s long been hard.
“My boss doesn’t think so,” I looked to my gravy-stained apron, placing my hands in pockets, handling cash though I was told this was “gross for a waitress to do.” The police officer had a word with the manager, who told him I was new to food service. “‘Stay in school’ is what you tell her, my friend. She won’t stand a chance anywhere else. There will always be a need for college professors.”
I retold the exchange to Julie and Lane, both of them shaking their heads, giving me a hug, announcing “I’d never marry someone if he did that on a date.” And many a ring we saw declined. Always after six in the early dusk. Eleven hours more. I walked, cleaned, squirted whipped cream, ladled ranch dressing, and told dirty jokes until five in the morning. Usually.
James and Austin strangely didn’t ask for chicken fried steak. Though James caressed my contaminated palms, asked me to sit down, and smiled as I made small talk about friends I knew who paid off their debts by pole dancing. The couple I served five feet away promptly rose, leaving me nothing.
“Say, the Smithson Motel just down the street’s open twenty-four hours. We’re staying there tonight. A business trip.” Austin was the one who never spoke.
“I’m here until five.” I remembered the teacher who waited for her salad at the bar. “What would we do anyway?”
“Eh, we were just gonna kick it with some chicks. Would be nice if you’d join us. Got some Malibu rum in a cooler. Let me write you the room on this receipt.”
“Sir, I’m afraid I can’t.” Howard slid a bowl of drenched lettuce down the aisle from the kitchen. I hurried to make my delivery. Then I returned to a Sharpie scrawl, dark as the sky I could see through the bullet hole lodged above the two young men in their loafing.
“Your number, here.” An arrow beneath, a line etched an ant’s worth from the bottom of the receipt. Reading men was always hard.
I blinked, trying to make up a number as I already fabricated a good twelve. I gave them a code, and James brought his phone to make the call. Just to make sure I knew how to reach him.
“I, please. Guys, I really can’t—”
“No worries! We’ll pick you up at five. The motel’s down the street.”
“I, look. Are you like this with every waitress?”
Jason crossed his arms, spread his legs to reveal his inner thighs stained with what I wanted to think was soy sauce or maple syrup. I didn’t inquire.
“Sweetie, you’re a special girl. An intelligent one. Not many girls just take a seat and talk to the patrons the way you do. It’s not that they’re snooty or anything. It’s just, they lack the capacity.”
“Honey, what I mean to say is when we hook up with girls, we prefer them to be intelligent. Look, we didn’t buy dinner. But we’ll tip you well. I promise.”
“Give me a minute.”
I rarely blushed, and this time, blanched. My face with its dry patches, resembling a waxing moon, its craters void of life. My shortcomings often revolved around crafting a polite declination. It’s something I still can’t do.
I spoke to the manager who told me of the police offer’s dissatisfaction with my skills.
“Consuela, all men are dogs.”
“Of course,” I picked at a hangnail.
Josue looked on as the boss walked over to where James sipped from his not-from-Happy’s cup. Josue was aware of the jaunty exchange but washed our dishes to the mantra of equal opportunity. “Women, they’re not infants,” he’d say, pointing at me to reiterate that really, I should know better.
Austin glared without a word. Jason tipped his hat my way. “Don’t be so presumptuous,” he greasily cooed.
“Ah, no shame.” Josue patted my shoulder. “But look, they left you a tip!”
At their emptied booth laid the smeared request. And a dollar. His phone number crassly added, whining like a dog confined for retaliatory defecation.
“Don’t be insecure,” Josue pointed his lips. “Don’t be giving it away, just because a guy says you’re pretty.”
“But so many do, Consuela. Just the other night, some girl got raped by a man she ran into on the bus.” The waitstaff only called me Consuela as I resembled a character in some eighties movie. A mousy girl with academic promise, working in her father’s restaurant all through dusk, forsaking homework that was due the morning after.
“I’ve learned not to talk to men on the bus.”
“And so you used David as your reference to work here.” David, I met at a bus stop. His tip book convinced me to try waiting tables. Wipe away vomit, lie about life, pretend to be the girlfriend of a rich old man. Albeit in a fashion laughable.
Barely concealed by the purple hat, I glanced at James to see blackened scabs. An altercation, or crystal meth. I continued with my presumptions. He skimmed through the Classifieds, looking for work.
“No, I can’t say I work there.”
“Oh, okay. Just, you look familiar.” He looked out the window, into the fog of one a.m., when no cars passed. The bus driver called for me to get off, as I lugged my bag of newspapers. My second job when Happy’s gave me a break from long evenings.
I ran with all I had, from imaginary predators.
– Connie Undone, my first novel, officially comes out on March 1st. But you can pre-order it on Amazon for $18.99. If you’d like a pre-ordered, signed copy, Venmo me at KristineBrown1918, and for a limited time, I’ll send you a paperback for $12, if you’re a U.S. resident. If you’re outside of the United States and would like a copy, let me know, and we’ll work something out. I’ve decided to challenge myself by writing a poem for the first 250 purchasers of Connie Undone. I’ll write the poem on the subject of your choice. Include the subject along with your mailing information if you are buying a copy from me. If you prefer to buy books on Amazon, just send me a screenshot as proof of purchase, and I’ll get started on your poem!