Writers & Lovers (Page 9)
A few mornings later I get hit by a car. I was giving myself a pep talk while walking the dog. I’d had a few bad days of writing, and I was tempted to go back a chapter to fix it, but I could not. I just needed to move forward, get to the end. Painters, I told myself, though I know nothing about painting, don’t start at one side of the canvas and work meticulously across to the other side. They create an underpainting, a base of shape, of light and dark. They find the composition slowly, layer after layer. This was only my first layer, I told myself as we turned the corner, the dog pulling toward something ahead, his nails loud on the sidewalk. It’s not supposed to be good or complete. It’s okay that it feels like a liquid not a solid, a vast and spreading goo I can’t manage, I told myself. It’s okay that I’m not sure what’s next, that it might be something unexpected. I need to trust—the leash snaps out of my hand and the dog bolts across the street after a squirrel and I bolt after him and slam into a silver sedan.
I find myself on the ground a few feet away from where I was. It all probably looks a lot worse than it is. The car stops immediately and a woman comes flying out saying ‘sorry, sorry, sorry’ in a Caribbean accent and lifts me up and holds me in her arms. Someone else brings the dog back. I’m crying but not because I feel any pain. My hip and wrist are a little sore, but that’s it.
‘I will take you right this minute to hospital,’ she says.
But I can’t go to the hospital and am relieved I don’t need to. She insists, just to make sure, she says. Sometimes there are injuries inside the body. I have to explain I can’t afford it.
‘I will pay! Of course I will pay!’
When I tell her that without insurance X-rays will cost hundreds of dollars, she grows frightened and gets back in her car.
At work the wrist gets sorer, and by the end of the night the busboy is carrying most of my food. It doesn’t feel broken, though. I got lucky. If the accident had been any worse, the cost would have sunk me.
When Liz and Pat Doyle come back a few nights later and tell me about a job, a real job with health benefits, I’m more receptive than I would have been before the accident.
‘I thought of you because your mum helped get this organization off the ground,’ Liz says. ‘And it’s a writing job. They need a writer.’ She hands me a card: LYNN FLORENCE MATHERS. FAMILIES IN NEED. ‘Lynn is a character. You’ll love her.’
Muriel makes me wear pantyhose and a pair of her beige pumps to the interview. I blend in with the women I pass on Boylston Street, but I feel like a freak.
Lynn didn’t know my mother, but she’s the type of person my mother loved: quick, outspoken, a thin but charming layer of femininity covering a masculine confidence and drive.
‘Sit, sit,’ she says, directing me to a green padded chair. She sinks into the armchair behind her desk. I slide my resume toward her. She scans it and passes it back. ‘You’re thoroughly overqualified. Hablas español?’
‘Si. Viví dos años a Barcelona con mi novio Paco que era un profesor de Catalan pero me hizo loca y tuve—’
‘Whoa. Okay. You lost me back at Barcelona.’ She exaggerates the theta.
She gives me a W-9 form and tells me about their health insurance—a gold policy, she says—and other benefits.
Muriel told me I should ask about the ‘mission’ of the organization, so I do.
‘Rich people’s unwanted crap transported to poor families who are desperate for it.’ She pulls out three blank pieces of paper from her drawer. ‘This is just pro forma. I don’t know what a master’s in creative writing means exactly, but I’m sure you can write circles around all of us here.’ She pairs the papers with an index card and stands up. ‘Mr. and Mrs. Richard Totman of Weston have donated an old refrigerator that went to a home in Roxbury. I’d like you to write a brief thank-you to them.’
I follow her down the hallway to a windowless room with a chair, desk, and typewriter. ‘Just bring it to me when you’re done.’ She shuts the door behind her.
I look at the card. Both the organization’s address and the Totmans’ address are on it. I don’t know where to put the addresses on a formal business letter. I strain to think of all the business letters I’ve gotten, the kinder ones before my debts were turned over to collection agencies. I make my best guess and start in. The typewriter’s electric, and it takes me a while to figure out how to turn it on. It has one of those balls in the middle with all the letters on it. The keys are sensitive. I go through the first two sheets of paper quickly because it keeps typing letters I didn’t mean to touch. I’m careful with the last sheet and manage to get both addresses on without errors, one above the other on the left side of the paper. No idea if that’s right. I begin:
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Totman,
Or should I have written ‘Mr. and Mrs. Richard Totman’? My stepmother always got mad at me when I addressed a letter to her as Mrs. Ann Peabody instead of Mrs. Robert Peabody. But it’s too late.
Thank you very much for your donation of the refrigerator.
I don’t know what to say after that. Something about the family in Roxbury. You have made a lovely family in Roxbury very happy? Is that true? Already used ‘very’ above. It has been installed in the house of a family in need in Roxbury? Three ‘ins’ in one sentence. It was very generous of you? ‘Very’ again. My pinky touches a key and six semicolons shoot out onto the page. Fuck. I scan the room for Wite-Out. Nothing. The desk has one thin drawer below the surface. No Wite-Out, but a small stack of white paper. I yank the sheet out of the machine and begin again.
It takes me eight drafts and forty-five minutes. Lynn is on the phone when I emerge from the room. She asks me with her eyes what happened and I don’t know how to mime the answer and she doesn’t signal for me to wait. I set the letter on her desk and leave.
I feel like kissing every step of the staircase as I climb up to the restaurant that night in my comfy black sneakers. I never have to go back to that office on Boylston Street again and sit in uncomfortable clothes and type in a windowless room. I get to move and talk and laugh and eat good food for free. And my mornings, my precious mornings, are saved.
Victor Silva, who recently told me he writes poetry and essays, comes in late in his big black cape and overhears me talking to Harry about the interview.
‘Why on God’s green earth would you ever think about a desk job?’
‘Financial security. Health insurance. Fingers that doesn’t smell like aioli.’
He bunches my fingers in his hands like a bouquet. ‘But I love the smell of your aioli-scented digits,’ he says in his wife’s Brazilian accent, then, in his best Bard: ‘ “Universal plodding poisons up the nimble spirits in the arteries.” ’ Then back in his own voice: ‘You know they have a health plan here.’
‘It’s not bad. We use it. Bia’s plan at Polaroid is crap.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Would I lie to your wounded fawn face?’ He goes off with his two pots of tea in long strides.
‘He has kind of an asexual writer thing for you, doesn’t he?’
‘Is that what it is?’
I go to see Marcus about the health insurance. It’s a Cambridge Pilgrim plan, and the deduction is manageable.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about this when you hired me?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe it was because you looked like Mommy and Daddy took care of all those messy details.’
‘Screw you. My mother’s dead, and my father’s a perv. Put me on that fucking plan.’
Iris is a crude place, but it was better than writing thank-you letters to rich people in Weston.
Three mornings later, after the dog walk but before my cereal and cup of tea, in the middle of my writing morning, in what I believe is the middle of a paragraph, I finish a sentence. I lift my pencil a few inches from the page and read it. It’s the last sentence of the book. I can’t think of another. That’s it. I have my underpainting.
Brunch that Sunday is a zoo. It’s raining, the deck is closed, and we have to haul a few extra tables downstairs and cram them in the club bar. We’re worn out before we open. Harry met a Harvard design student that week, and they’ve gone off to the deCordova museum for the day. The Twisted Sister is hungover and storms up and down the stairs barking orders as if they are the only people lifting a finger, while Mary Hand and I quietly cloth, set, and flower every table. Yasmin is sick, and Stefano, the on-call, isn’t picking up. We keep returning to the reservation book, hoping that the numbers have gone down since we last looked.
People arrive all at once, hungry and cranky. Our clientele are people who don’t deny themselves much of anything, but on Sunday mornings they’ve often foregone all pleasures, and not just the Catholics who can’t eat before receiving the host. Sometimes they have even waited to have their first cup of coffee. They arrive at Iris ravenous and jonesing for caffeine.
Brunch also means working with Clark, the brunch chef. For my first few shifts with him I thought he was kind like Thomas. He gave me the extra Romanesco my customer wanted for her crab cakes and replaced an overcooked sirloin without complaint. He said my long neck reminded him of the Road Runner and beep-beeped at me when I came in for my orders. At the end of a bad brunch last month, when I’d dropped a benedict and forgotten a niçoise and my body was buzzing like a hive, he found me on a milk crate in the walk-in and when I got up to leave he blocked my way. He touched my hair and breathed all over me. He reeked of the tequila in his Mexican coffees.
‘You probably suck dick better than you wait tables.’ He grinned, and I could tell this line had actually worked in the past.
‘Nope,’ I said. ‘I don’t,’ and I ducked under his arm and shoved up the big handle to get out of there.
I came in early the next day to tell Marcus what happened.
He laughed. ‘Jesus, Casey. You came in here so fucking serious I thought you were going to tell me you killed someone. He was teasing you. Clark has no trouble getting his dick sucked, believe me.’
Later I heard him and Clark laughing hard in the kitchen.
Clark has been punishing me ever since.
I’m slammed out of the gate. Three families of five within fifteen minutes downstairs and two deuces up top, while Dana and Tony share a party of twelve.
Fabiana seats me another three-top. ‘You’re a sadist,’ I whisper to her as I pass by with a tray of samosas and Bloody Marys.
‘The rest of us are still wasted from last night. You’re taking one for the team.’
Two small boys at the new three-top are looking right at me. Children suffer the most at brunch. Their faces could be used for UNICEF posters. I can’t get to them, though. I have to drop the main courses at one of my five-tops downstairs. We aren’t allowed to use trays for food, only the small red lacquered ones for drinks. The plates have been sitting in the window under the heat lamp long enough to get hot, but I don’t have time to find a cloth. I load up four along one arm and grab the last in my left hand, kick open the kitchen door, and run directly into one of the little boys. Two omelets slide across their plates but stop right at the edge.
‘’Scuse me, miss,’ he says. He’s wearing a red bow tie and an orange-and-white-checked shirt. His burly hair has been combed down and is still damp. He’s six, maybe seven. ‘It’s my dad’s birthday.’ He thrusts out a wad of cash at me. ‘Can I pay for our food?’
‘You may. But after I take your order. After we know how much it will cost.’ The plates are burning the inside of my right arm.
His mouth twists. He’s only practiced these words. He doesn’t have any more.
‘Here.’ I put down the plate in my left hand on the counter of the wait station. ‘I’ll take this now. And if there’s change I’ll give it back to you. I won’t bring you a check. Does that sound okay?’
He nods, hands me the money, and makes a fast but indirect retreat back to his table.
Down in the club bar, the family asks for ketchup, extra Caesar dressing, an Arnold Palmer, and a glass of grigio, but when I get upstairs I can’t breeze past the boys in bow ties again. I sidestep Mary Hand dropping salads at her eight and slide to a halt at their table.
The boys look up from their menus at the same time. The father does not look up. But he’s familiar. The father is Oscar Kolton.
‘How are you this morning?’ I say, angling my head to the boys on my right, hoping I can get their drink order before my blush has reached full force.
Waiting on writers is my undoing. Jayne Anne Phillips came in a few weeks ago, and my face flamed up every time I went to the table. Her collection Black Tickets is like a prayer book to me. When she and her two friends ordered tea, the cups rattled on their saucers as I set them down. I’ll have to get Mary Hand to take over Oscar Kolton’s table.
‘Fine,’ the older boy, the one who gave me the money, says.
‘Hot chocolate, hot coffee, hot tea?’
‘Hot chocolate? In the summer?’ the smaller boy says.
‘It’s not summer. It’s autumn,’ his brother says, pronouncing the n.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I used to work at this ski resort in New Mexico, and it just comes out like that sometimes: hot chocolate, hot coffee, hot tea.’ First comes the blushing, then the babbling. ‘I could bring it cold if you like.’
‘No chocolate,’ Oscar says, still not looking up, thank God. ‘Coffee for me. Black.’
‘And for you two?’
Silence. Of course they want the chocolate.
‘They’ll both have orange juice,’ Oscar mumbles, flipping over the menu to find it blank and turning it back over with a frown.
Mary Hand gets a six so I can’t pass them off on her. I bring my downstairs table their drinks and condiments, then come back up for the OJs and the coffee. They have set their menus in a neat stack at the end of the table. Without menus they have nowhere to look. I place the glasses of juice above the boys’ knives and pour the coffee from one of our silver-plated decanters into Oscar’s coffee cup. They watch my hands in silence. Even in the chaos and clatter of brunch, I’m aware of the empty chair, the hole where a mother should be.
Oscar reaches for the cup before I’ve stopped pouring. He takes a long sip and holds it with both hands in front of him. I think of Silas saying Oscar put his hands behind his back while listening to his story and no one knew what that meant.
‘Boys,’ he says.
‘I would please like the eggs with sausage and a biscuit and side of fruit,’ the older one says.
‘Scrambled, fried, or poached egg?’
He looks at his father.
‘Poached is sort of boiled but not in the shell. You won’t like it. It’s runny.’
‘And for you?’
The younger boy stares at me, having forgotten his lines. His eyes swell, and he ducks his head into the crook of his arm.
I hazard a guess. ‘Blueberry pancakes with a side of bacon?’
He nods fiercely.
‘Mind reader,’ Oscar says, unimpressed. ‘I’ll have the coddled eggs.’ He hands me the menu. ‘Only because I wanted to say the word “coddled.” ’ His eyes flash up briefly—the brightest green of all.
I put a rush on their meal. Mary Hand tells me Oscar and his family used to come in for Mother’s Day every year. ‘I figured I’d never see them again.’
‘It’s his birthday. The kids are treating.’ I hold up the wad of money.
‘Cuteness on a stick,’ she says in her drawl, punching in her big order.
Marcus comes around the corner. ‘You know that’s Oscar Kolton, right?’
‘Yes, I know.’
When I bring more coffee each of Oscar’s hands are in a thumb wrestle. They all pull apart so I can pour.
‘Say thank you, Papa,’ the younger one says.
They resume their thumb wrestling.
I load up the next five-top order and bring it downstairs, clear plates, refill coffees, pass around the dessert menus, welcome a new deuce they’ve wedged in near the bathroom. Gory, in whites for a croquet tournament in Lennox in the afternoon, stops by Oscar’s table. A few people nearby look on.
‘Your bennies are up,’ Tony tells me as he whips by with five chocolate bombs up his arm.
‘You are not a waitress if you do not pick up your food,’ Clark says when I come into the kitchen. He snaps a rag at me through the window and it catches on some of the hollandaise, which splatters on my cheek and collar. It burns. I wipe it off and my eyes are watering, but I wheel around with my two benedicts before he can see.
‘Ugly-ass bitch,’ he says as I kick through the door.
It’s a question of displeasing everyone a little bit, spreading around the disappointment evenly. When I get downstairs and drop the meals at table 4, table 6 is ready to order dessert. Oscar and the boys’ food will be up now, but a man at 6 can’t decide between the bourbon pecan pie and the compote.
Clark is waiting for me at the door. His face is slick with grease and bubbled with sweat. ‘I break my fucking balls for your rush, and you can’t be bothered to come get it.’
‘Welcome to brunch. I’ve got to be eight places all at once, up and down, and I get stiffed if I’m not. Sometimes I have to leave a plate of pancakes under the heat lamp for three minutes. I’d like to see you try it. All you do is stand back there and crack eggs and shit all over people.’
Angus, my only ally in the kitchen when Thomas isn’t cooking, lets out a long whistle.
Clark whips around and tells him to shut the fuck up.
‘I’m going to get you fired, you little cunt.’
‘I’m not scared of a fucking brunch chef,’ I say and push past him to get my order.
Out on the floor I tell the boys the plates are really hot and not to touch. I put Oscar’s eggs down last. They look overcooked. ‘More abused than coddled, I’m afraid. The chef today is an untalented prick.’
The boys stare at me.
Oscar’s mouth twitches.
‘I mean a jerk. He’s a jerk. I’m so sorry.’ I look at the boys. ‘That is an awful word, and I should not have used it. He’s a man with a lot of anger, which he tends to dump on me.’
‘He probably has a crush on you,’ Oscar says.
It’s such a clueless, grandfatherly thing to say that I wonder if he’s older than he looks. ‘Definitely not,’ I say. ‘He truly loathes me or whatever I represent to him. I actually think he likes her’—I point to Dana—‘but she’s after him.’ I point to Craig at the bar. ‘But I think he’s pretty asexual.’
The boys stare at me again. I am not used to children. ‘Ketchup?’
‘On eggs?’ the older boy says.
‘There’s a whole swath of people who like ketchup on their eggs.’
‘Really?’ He looks to his dad for confirmation.
‘True fact,’ I say.
‘We are not a part of that swath,’ Oscar says.
‘Nor am I. Bon profit.’ I figure Oscar can handle a little Catalan. I’m eager to get away. I can feel the heat where the hollandaise sauce hit my cheek. And their kindness after Clark’s vulgarity is making my throat hurt.
I get the rest of my tables squared away while they eat.
‘Is that a smile?’ Tony says as we wait at the bar for our drinks and I drag an ice cube over the burns on the inside of my right arm.
‘Fuck no. Put your fake glasses on, four eyes.’
‘You are smiling, and I have never seen you smile.’
‘Okay, without Harry around. Harry makes you smile.’
‘Harry is very funny.’
‘Is he? I think he’s an arrogant ass.’
Tony has tried to hit on Harry many times with no success.
‘That’s just his accent.’
‘Those kids are staring at you.’
I look over, and they look down.
Craig hands me my screwdrivers.
‘You want to split an apple papillote later?’ I say.
‘Sure.’ Tony says.
I’ve surprised him. It suddenly seems easy to make people happy.
Once he’s had his pancakes and bacon, Oscar’s younger boy comes alive.
‘Do you like mammals or amphibians?’ he asks me.
‘Cards or board games?’
‘You have to choose.’
I know my desserts are up in the kitchen and that two tables downstairs are waiting for their checks.
‘Let her get back to work, Jasper.’
Jasper. He looks just like a Jasper should. Little mushed face with thick lips and long lashes and his father’s green eyes.
‘Blue or red?’
‘Ms. Murphy or Mr. Perez?’
They laugh, Jasper the hardest.
‘Tennis or golf?’
‘Tennis. But I don’t play either.’
‘Then how do you know you like it better?’
‘Because I hate golf.’
This seems to upset him. ‘Even miniature golf?’
‘Mini golf is okay.’
‘Our dad is really, really good. No one can beat him.’
‘I could.’ I don’t know why I say that. Apart from it being true.
Both boys protest. They make so much noise the tables around them turn. ‘You could not!’
They look at their father to defend himself. He shrugs. He isn’t grinning exactly, but he’s pushed his plate away, and his fingers are laced in front of him. I smile, thinking about telling Muriel. I clear their table and leave.
I return with dessert menus. ‘I know there was a no-chocolate rule earlier, so dessert might not fly.’
The boys watch their father.
‘Dessert will fly.’
They cheer. I pass out the menus. Behind Oscar’s chair, I mime sticking a candle into something and blowing it out. His brother nods discreetly, but Jasper squeals. Oscar turns around and I look away. When he turns back I wink at the boys.
Jasper orders the basil-lavender crème brûlée, his brother chooses the Tahitian coppa, and Oscar goes with the cookie medallions. Cookies are not conducive to candles so I go to the pastry chef, Helene, in her far alcove of the kitchen. It’s a different land back here. She plays classical music. Her team wears white caps, not bandanas, and their white aprons are clean save small artistic smears of chocolate and raspberry.
Mary Hand’s back there loading herself with desserts. ‘Johnny-on-the-spot,’ she says and vanishes.
Helene bends over a row of pear compotes, placing a blackberry in the center of each one.
I point to the small machine that’s printing out my order. ‘Could I somehow get a candle or two on that cookie plate?’
She nods. I wait.
Igor tears the ticket off slowly and places it beside the others. He always looks like a drawing to me, with his tiny upturned nose and long fingers. He moves like a dancer. He must be twenty years younger than Helene, but they’ve been together since the restaurant opened in the early eighties.
Their small walk-in has a glass door and inside it looks like a jewelry shop with its meringues and feuilletines, caramel tuiles and white chocolate butterflies. Igor pulls out a crème brûlée, places it on a doilied plate, and torches the top with a blue flame until the sugar glows and liquefies. Next he pulls a plate off the shelf and with a big pastry bag squeezes out a thick spiraled cone of mocha cream in the center. He slides this plate to Helene at the same time that she slides John’s coppa to him. She arranges three cookies around the mocha cream and sticks a tall sparkler in the cream while he drops glazed raspberries on both the sundae and the crème brûlée. She leans to her right so he can light the tip of the sparkler with the torch, and they both wipe down the steel counter as soon as I lift the plates. I leave their Chopin nocturnes, pass through Zeppelin—‘I’m gonna give you my love,’ Clark is screaming at the steaks on the grill—and emerge into Craig’s Sinatra mix in the dining room.
I approach Oscar from behind, so the boys can watch. John keeps his smile trimmed, but when Jasper sees the sparks flying in all directions he starts giggling and pounding his feet.
‘Oh no,’ Oscar says, turning. ‘No singing. Please no singing,’ he says, but his boys and I start and the people beside them and then the two Kroks at table 4 who were eating with their parents and Tony and Craig and Gory and pretty much everyone else joins in. Oscar glowers at me, and I can’t tell if his kids are singing or laughing too hard. Afterward everyone claps and Oscar tries to blow out the sparkler but has to wait till it blazes down the stick.
‘That was a dirty trick,’ he says.
‘Are you mad, Papa?’
‘I’m not mad at either of you.’
‘Don’t be mad, Papa, not at anyone.’
Oscar reaches over and touches John’s sleeve. ‘Oh sweetie, I’m not mad. I was kidding. This is the best birthday ever.’
Jasper is whacking at the shellac of burnt sugar with a spoon.
‘I love doing that,’ I tell him. ‘It’s like ice, even though it’s the opposite. Made from heat not cold.’
‘Yeah,’ he says, lifting out a jagged shard and trying to look at me through it.
I realize I’m just standing there, hovering. ‘Can I get you all anything else?’ I say, back in my waitress voice. It seems to startle all three of them. They shake their heads.
I stay in the wait station, drying the rack of clean glasses Alejandro brought out, embarrassed that I hovered. I have a problem with that sometimes, getting attached. Other people’s families are a weakness of mine.
When Mary Hand’s big table leaves I help her clear it. Oscar signals for the check. I print it out but put it in my pocket. It was $87.50. I pull out the wad of cash John gave me. It’s mostly ones: $24. Two of the tables in the club bar tipped me in cash so I can cover it easily.
I bring over one of our small check trays with three chocolate mints. ‘Your sons paid in advance. Happy birthday.’
‘What?’ he says, but I’m already walking away.
I watch him haggle with them. The boys are grinning. Jasper’s legs are swinging below the table. Oscar stands and John stands and Jasper stays in his chair. His brother pokes him, and he tries to poke back and misses. Oscar signals for John to step away, and he bends down and scoops Jasper up and drapes him on his shoulder as easily as cloth. Oscar turns and looks toward the wait station. I’m over near the far windows, working on roll-ups, and he doesn’t turn far enough to see me. Then they’re gone.
I clear the table: the martini glass scraped clean, the burnt-down sparkler laid among cookie crumbs, the basil-lavender crème brûlée nearly perfectly intact, minus its sheet of sugar ice. Iván, the brunch busboy, comes and helps me take away everything else, the salt and pepper and sugars and vase of flowers. We pull off the pink top cloth so that only the white one remains. I bring the dishes to Alejandro, and when I come back out Mary Hand says, ‘Looks like Marcus’s having a little dustup with your fellow.’ A dustup down at the gazebo. I feel the memory fall through my body like a stone.
Oscar’s back in the doorway, pointing at me. Marcus is clearly trying to intervene, but Oscar pats him on the arm and moves past him. I meet him halfway. All the tables are gone now and the room is stripped and Craig has left and no music is playing. I can hear his boys thumping on the stairs below. He’s breathing heavily through his nose. I would have thought something awful had happened, except I know it’s just about the money.
‘Hey,’ he says, out of breath. It feels like we’re alone in a narrow corridor instead of an enormous dining room. He stands close and plunges his hands deep in pockets, bunching up his shoulders. He looks younger without his kids, nearly boyish. ‘So, they pulled a fast one on you, didn’t they?’
‘They didn’t mean to.’
‘I’m not so sure. John’s pretty good at math.’
‘The prices are in tiny font, way over to the side. No dollar signs. He might not have seen or understood.’
He nods reluctantly. ‘And you let him get away with it.’
‘He was wearing a bow tie.’
He looks at his feet, fighting a grin. He has on beat-up hiking boots with red laces. He lifts his eyes up to me but not his head, and his eyes are even greener now because light from the deck is coming in over my shoulder. ‘I suppose I’d rather think of him as unperceptive than unethical. At any rate, I owe you sixty-three fifty, plus tip.’
‘I already cashed out.’
He holds out a stack of twenties, fresh from the ATM. ‘You have to take it.’
I shake my head. ‘Happy birthday.’
‘I’m not leaving till you take it.’
I step back. ‘Your boys wanted to treat you. I just helped them out a bit. I’ve got to get back to my side work.’
‘Then I’m just going to leave it right here.’ He drops the bills on the floor. They fan out. Four twenties.
‘I’m not picking that up.’ I turn around and walk through the wait station into the kitchen.
After a while Marcus finds me. He’s holding a pink envelope with a white iris in the corner.
‘Just let the customers pay for their own meals, okay? Even if they look like Kevin Costner.’
Kevin Costner? Oscar Kolton was a lot better looking than Kevin Costner.
He gives me the envelope.
In small, unslanted print it says:
I don’t open it. I put it in my apron pocket and finish my side work.
Out on the street, daylight surprises me. Somehow between the top floor and the bottom I forgot I worked brunch, not dinner. The Square is quiet. I head to the river on foot. My dinner shift starts in less than an hour. I’m still in my uniform. The sun has come out and burned off most of the rain. I feel the sun on my back, the warmed air on my arms. I walk up the Larz Anderson Bridge, thinking of Faulkner and Quentin Compson, remembering Quentin as I would an old love, with a swollen heart, Quentin who buckled under the weight of Southern sins, who cracked the crystal on the corner of the dresser and twisted the hands off his grandfather’s watch his last morning and, later in the afternoon, cleaned his hat with a brush before he left his Harvard dorm room to kill himself.
Halfway across the river I hoist myself on the wide parapet, swing my legs over the edge, and look down in the water for Quentin’s body. How does a man in Mississippi in the 1920s create a character who feels more alive to a waitress in 1997, remembered with more tenderness, than most of the boys she’s ever known? How do you create a character like that? The concrete is warm. A few people walk by on the sidewalk behind me. A quick shove and I’d go down like Quentin. But I wouldn’t die. The drop isn’t more than twenty feet, either bank an easy swim. Quentin tied flat irons to his ankles in order to drown.
I open the envelope. Four twenties and a note. I was hoping for a note.
A lot of creeps have probably asked you to play miniature golf with them. John and Jasper are not creeps so that’s 2 out of 3. They begged me all the way down the stairs to ask you. So I’m asking. 538-9771. I’ll call you here at Iris in a few days. We like King Putt out on Route 12. Lots of mummies and asps.
I stay on the bridge for the time I have left. I read Oscar’s note once more. The bow of a crew shell appears below my feet and lurches out of the bridge in two strong, synchronized pulls. They are women, eight of them, facing backward, faces wrenched to snarls, groaning in rhythm each time they heave with their whole bodies their one oar through the water, which seems from this angle to have the resistance of cement. In the brief pause between groans, as they slide back, the coxswain, a peanut in a baseball cap tucked down in the stern, speaks through a headset: ‘Build in two . . . build in one . . . on this one: Go!’ And the boat jerks forward and the strokes become fiercer and their sounds disappear, and they become smaller and smaller until they slide under the Weeks Bridge and vanish.
I take out Oscar’s letter again. I like the sentence: ‘So I’m asking.’ I like thinking of him in Marcus’s office, crossing out words, not wanting to ask for another piece of the pink Iris stationery, like me writing to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Totman of Weston. It gives me pleasure that a writer of three books would labor even a little over a note to a brunch waitress. He didn’t cross out his phone number as heavily as in the other places. I vowed never to hit a golf ball again, but I might have to make an exception for him and those little boys.