I wanted to call Patty and tell her all about this crazy farce. Would she turn me in?
No, Patty was my best friend. She would never get me into trouble. I decided to call her.
From the moment I heard her chipper “Hello?” from the other end of the line, I felt instantaneously better. Patty had been my friend for over twenty years. We have always been able to gripe about our lives and our kids together. The shared dysfunctionality in her own family bonded us together like sisters.
“Patty!” I almost cried. “You are never going to believe where I am!”
I proceeded to tell her the entire story, starting with the idea which sprang from watching the Channing Tatum movie, through the ridiculous craziness of Trisha’s new boyfriend and Hermie wrecking my car, down to the final insult of my mother-in-law coming to live with us. I found as I was talking through it, I began to get more and more angry at my family for putting me over the edge.
Like a true best friend should, Patty mirrored my anger and frustration in my behalf. Then after a brief pause, she asked hesitatingly, “Sue, I know they were rotten to you and you totally deserve a break from your life, but, when are you coming home? How long are you going to stay up in Washington?”
“I don’t know,” I said quietly. “I don’t know yet what I am going to do, but I’m not coming home. Not for a while, anyway.”
We both sat quiet on the phone, each unsure of what to say next. Finally, I broke the silence, “Hey, Patty, what can you tell me about waitressing?”
Patty had waitressed for several years in college at a local bar and grill. She filled me in on as many tips as she could think of. An hour later I was back downstairs in the cafe, sifting through the assortment of used uniforms for the staff. They were simple red dresses with a ruffled white apron, perfect for a little cafe in small town Washington. I tried one on in the tiny staff bathroom, fluffing my short brown curls and wishing that I had thought to bring some hairspray with me from up in my apartment.
From up in my apartment. It sounded so single and free. I gave myself a little grin in the dingy mirror. “You ready for this?” I asked the new woman smiling back at me from the other side of the glass. I answered my own question, “You bet, Kathy!” Then I left the room, ready to start my shift.
I found my way back into the kitchen, where Bill told me about the days’ specials. He slid a plate with a hearty slice of meatloaf on an open-faced sandwich over in my direction and instructed me to eat up. I readily agreed, and devoured the special of the day. I realized that I hadn’t eaten since yesterday and I was starving. The food was delicious, and I was sure that Bill’s cooking was easy to sell.
After I ate my lunch, Roxanne gave me a brief run-down of what my duties were, how to take orders, and where to pick up the food. “Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough,” she said, patting me on the arm. “Shirley will be here for her shift in a few minutes. Just do what she does, and you’ll be alright.”
It was hard to miss Shirley. She breezed into the cafe like an orange-topped tornado, her brightly colored curls piled high on her head. I tried not to notice how she seemed to have the wrong sized uniform, since the buttons on her top were furiously fighting to contain her voluptuousness. I didn’t know how she was able to pull off the loud turquoise-colored running shoes with her ensemble, but somehow it worked.
Roxanne introduced us and Shirley beamed at me. “Nice to meet you, Kathy! You’re gonna love it here!” I gave her a hesitant smile and she proceeded to take me under her wing.
I shadowed Shirley around for the first several hours, until I felt comfortable with talking to customers on my own. Really, I didn’t think that my first day went too badly, other than the slight mishaps of bringing the wrong order to table four, or spilling ice water on the checkered tablecloth when I was trying to top the customers’ glasses.
By the time nine o’clock rolled around, however, I was exhausted. I wasn’t used to being on my feet all day and they were throbbing dully. I also wasn’t used to the constant movement and commotion of working in a café. I found it all exhilarating. I was doing something different, new, and exciting. I could be something different, new, and exciting! There were people in and out all day, each one different, with some sort of story to tell. Shirley was amazing at small talk, and all the customers seemed to know her by name. I wondered how long it would take me to fit in to a place like this.
Why couldn’t this be my new place to start? What if I just stayed, and everyone would know me by name…well, sort of, my fake name at least. I began to wonder if it was possible to truly start over again. Don’t like the life you have? Hit the eject button, put in a new cassette, and push Play all over again.
Just as Roxanne predicted, we turned the latch on the last straggling customer at around 9:45. Wes, the night cook, was already out on the dining room floor stacking chairs up on tables. Under Shirley’s direction, I started gathering all the salt and pepper shakers from the dining tables to refill them, while she was going through receipts at the cash register, preparing to close out the till.
“You did real good tonight, Honey,” she said, in between a few smacks of her gum. “I would never have guessed that you’ve never waited tables before. You’re a natural!”
I blushed a little. “Thanks,” I said, trying not to spill the salt on the counter as I was refilling the shaker. I didn’t need any more bad luck.
A few more gum smacks.
“So, Kathy,” she said, in a way which made me think she didn’t really believe it was my real name. “What’s your story? How did you end up at The Wild Huckleberry?”
“Oh, you know, I just needed a job,” I said in a noncommittal tone, not looking up.
“Um hmm….Where you from?”
“Reno.” It came out before I even thought about it. I didn’t really want to tell her where I came from, but I hadn’t planned out my new story yet, so I didn’t have time to fabricate a new life for myself. Why didn’t I think of this before? Of course people would ask these kinds of questions!
I decided to switch the conversation to focus on Shirley instead. It seemed safer.
“What about you?” I asked. “What’s your story?”
“Oh, it’s just the typical Lost Girl Tale,” she said, shrugging. I looked up with a questioning look, encouraging her to continue.
“Well, I married my man real young, on account of I couldn’t stand to be in my father’s house one more day. I was seventeen and pregnant, thought I would be able to start this exciting new life. But then I lost the baby, and he started coming home drunk more often than not, smelling like booze and cigarettes. Finally I’d had enough of being his punching bag, so I stole his wallet in the middle of the night and hitched myself a ride. I didn’t know or care which direction I was headed.”
Shirley paused from her story, and I noticed that Wes, who was mopping up the dining room floor, had also paused in his work to listen.
Shirley cleared her throat. “Anyway, I ended up here, at The Wild Huckleberry. Roxanne took me in, no questions asked. Gave me a job on the spot, and even let me rent out the apartment you’re living in now. Best thing that ever happened to me. It’s going on fifteen years now, I’d say.”
I didn’t know what to say. Compared to her story, my complaints sounded pathetic.
Twenty minutes later I was turning the lock to my new apartment. Shirley’s old apartment, I thought to myself. I leaned heavily on the door and looked around the room. It was dark, except for some flashing blue neon lights from across the street coming through the single window.
I decided that I needed to talk to Patty again.
“Hey, Sue!” she said cheerfully upon answering. “How’d your first shift go?”
“Oh, it was fine, no major disasters anyway,” I said, then paused. I couldn’t explain this heavy feeling in my chest which had crept up on me since I asked Shirley about her past.
“What’s wrong, Sue?” Patty asked.
“I was just wondering…” I struggled to get the question out. Finally I decided to just spit it out. “I was just wondering, has Jerry or the kids asked about me?” For some reason, I felt embarrassed to have to ask. And I was even more embarrassed at my anxiety over what her answer would be.
There was a long pause on the other side of the phone. Finally she answered quietly.
“Yes…of course they have, Sue.”
“What did you tell them?” I asked eagerly.
“Oh, that I hadn’t heard from you, of course. I didn’t tell them anything, Sue.”
I didn’t know if that was what I wanted Patty to tell my family or not. Did I really want to disappear, or did I secretly want them to come frantically searching for me, begging me to come back home? I allowed myself a brief fantasy of Jerry, on bended knee pleading for my forgiveness and the kids standing close by, tears running down their faces in contrition.
I let out a heavy sigh.
“Sue, are you okay? Maybe I should come up and stay with you. You know, we can have some good old fashioned girl time, watch a marathon of chick flicks and eat a gallon of ice cream every night.”
It was tempting. But also not.
“No, thanks Patty. I think that I need to figure this one out on my own.”
After we said our good-bys, and Patty made me promise to call her the next day, I hit the End button on my cell phone. I crossed the dark room, and pulled my one and only chair over to the window. I looked out at the quiet, black night, lit up periodically with the neon blue flash of the sign across the street. I wondered if it was the same scene that Shirley had looked out over fifteen years ago. “Barb’s Bar” flashed on, off, on, off. I closed my eyes and could still see the color emblazoned on the inside of my eyelids.
I had never felt so alone.
Check back tomorrow to see what Sue/Kathy does now!