Sweltering sticky restaurant kitchen, floors slick from leaking buckets of fish. Hands everywhere, swiping food, wiping sweat, slamming trays, slapping bugs, sucking cigarettes. My first waitress job, the last summer we were the only hotel near the beach serving drinks. All those bright lights on the dry boardwalk couldn’t keep the thirsty singers happy. Our place down the coast road was their bug light.
Like Janis Joplin: purple feather boa around her neck craning over the bar, giggling nose-to-nose with Jack our good-looking bartender. 10 in the morning. Smiles and Southern Comfort sliding back and forth in smoke-hazy lounge light. I came in to steal some olives and a look at Jack. He was blind to me. My foot found that boa fluttering all the way down to the floor, and – oh, sorry! – there she went sailing off her stool like another little piece of her heart, laughing as she fell on my naughty foot and pulling me right down with her. It was Jack who yelled for a towel, a towel for godsake can’t you see she’s bleeding? She and me, but she got the towel.
Iron Butterfly terrorized our chambermaids and hit the road before police arrived. Tiny Tim never left his room. We waitresses got organized and cheated the Beach Boys, overcharging
every item on their bill to jack up our percentage-based tips. Only Althea with her coke bottle glasses cried over the shame of it. Kept quiet, though, when we hid a tape recorder near their table, meaning to make more money with What The Beach Boys Said Over Lunch. Turned out to be mostly fuck this and fuck that and pass the ketchup, dumbaass. Althea was struck dumb.
It was the only summer I stayed at a boarding house with good old Oscar and Eva, who didn’t want me to use their kitchen, not that I could cook, but kept asking me to join them for
meals, boiled dinner, fried chicken, finnan haddie. Or, “Tea, dear? Have a cookie. You’re too thin!” Words I never heard at home.
Double shifts every chance I got, with harder work and better money at dinnertime: whiskey sours and lobster for the folks rich enough to avoid the beach-fried rabble on the boardwalk. I crossed railroad tracks walking to work, foggy mornings by the sea. What if my big white waitress shoe got wedged between the rails and the train I never heard coming came roaring at me out of the milky soup? Trains and my fear of Jack never noticing me: these were my only worries.
Moon landing that hot July Sunday, seen from Oscar and Eva’s living room. Perfectly quiet but for the table fan and the static of those transmissions from space. “This is somethin,” Oscar in his tee shirt said from his recliner. Eva in her mumu nodded from hers and they turned to look at me. “Yes, it is,” I agreed, and tripped over the dog as I went flying out the door.
Fake ID for too much rum at the cheap Chinese place after work. Piled into somebody’s car for the short drive to the black beach with the high dunes for hiding. Jim the waiter passed
around a joint, to celebrate his birthday. All those mouths kissing it, damp and droopy when it got to me. Held it to my lips and coughed a lot, faking it. Jim had just been drafted and was on his way to boot camp, then ’Nam. He’d be dead by Christmas, when the draft became the lottery, too late for his fine high number to save him.
Jack the bartender drove me back, one arm crawling across the seat to my thigh, he so drunk and smug and me so ready to be loved. Every single light in the house still on and Oscar
shouting my name as I came stumbling through the door.
Hostess in her clicking heels always gave me the station nobody wanted, on the terrace so cramped and crowded that diners sat sideways in order to fit between tables. Legs had no place
to go but in my way. Stubbed a foot serving a bottle of beer and watched as it drizzled down a fat lady’s sunburned back. “Ooooh!” she squealed but didn’t even turn her head to add, “Thanks for cooling me off, haha.”
A stuck-out leg at another table sent six prime rib dinners sliding right off my tray. Plates and knees and potatoes up in the air and down on the floor. Everyone stopped eating. Kids covered their ears. Cook grabbed me as I limped into the kitchen. He ran the meat under the faucet, threw it all back on the fire and then back onto my tray. Jack the bartender slapped bandaids on my bloody knees. Tips made me rich that night and Jack let me wait for him in the parking lot.
I guess everyone loves a fallen waitress.
Priscilla Kipp’s work has appeared in Boston Sunday Globe Magazine; the Worcester, Berkshire and Foundling reviews; Night Train; Every Day Fiction; and others.