Coffee was the same shit that killed Elvis. So when Otis offered me a cup, I politely declined. Instead, I walked past the server’s station and threw my coat into the empty banquet room.
The banquet room wasn’t always empty. On occasion they even held banquets there. And if it wasn’t reserved for some graduation party or company function, we’d open it up to the general public, but that was only on Friday or Saturday nights when we got filled to the gills with patrons. The rest of the time, staff used it to keep their purses and jackets or as a sort of water-cooler situation when management wasn’t looking.
Every morning when I walked in, Otis was lingering around the server’s station at that goddamn coffee machine pouring himself a cup. I always liked Otis, but, for a moment, every morning around 9am, I thought a little less of him. And despite the fact that I declined his offer each day without fail, still he held that pot up with that stupid smile on his face and asked if I wanted any. Perhaps it was more out of Southern hospitality than sheer stupidity, though I can’t decide which explanation would irk me more.
Tim, the opening manager, was supposed to unlock the doors at 8:30, but most mornings Otis and I waited out into the parking lot until 9 or a quarter past 9 depending on how hungover Tim was. This would piss me off to no end, but I kept my mouth shut. Otis, on the other hand, never missed an opportunity to complain. Because no matter how late we were at starting our morning prep, it had to be finished on time. There was no wiggle-room when it came to this.
Although Otis was just 19, he had a five year-old son that he never shut up about. He’d go on and on about how his son loved dinosaurs and how well he was doing in little league and how he loved going to school each day. I hated school, Otis would say. Couldn’t wait to get out of there. I tried to smile and nod while remaining as quiet as possible when it came to discussing my life outside of the restaurant. Otis took this to mean that my life outside of the restaurant was non-existent.
I’m going to be somebody, I thought, dicing tomatoes at the large metal prep-table. The wheels were all rusted, so it took the both of us to push it back into place once we were finished. The night-shift closers would pull out the hose and spray the floors and the walls and basically everything in sight. They weren’t supposed to, but it cut clean-up time in half so they did it anyways.
Otis may have talked a big game about being a great father, but Claire knew he was full of shit. Claire went to high school with Otis’ ex-girlfriend and openly gossiped to the wait staff about how he basically dropped off the face of the earth once the baby came. He was available, at most, for Christmas dinners and family get-togethers, sending the obligatory birthday card when his grandmother reminded him. The girl stopped going to school when she got too far along, Claire told me, and never came back after that.
Claire was one of our hostesses. And although she was still finishing up her senior year, she had every pair of balls in the building swole-up and counting down to her eighteenth birthday, including Tim, as married and balding and slightly overweight as he might have been. Claire was just that pretty. She was short, barely five feet probably, with a cute, if not mousy-looking face. Her petite nature, however, did not negate her hourglass figure, a bust that may have not appeared as round or full on a girl of normal proportions.
Having a child was like carrying around an anchor while trying to swim from one sinking ship to the next. As proud as Otis pretended to be, I knew he resented the little bastard. I couldn’t even imagine having a golden retriever at my age, much less a bunch of shitty diapers stinking up my trash can.
I still had a future. I wasn’t about to let some jezebel snare me in her honey-trap and I sure as hell wasn’t going to talk shit about the boss behind his back, especially while riding his coattails. I knew enough to keep my mouth shut and my eyes on the prize. All those assholes in dock shoes and European sports cars- that was gonna be me someday. The guys with trophy-wives and cushy jobs, living in houses with so many rooms you could sleep in a different one each night- that was gonna be me. I was going to be somebody.
Once morning-prep was finished, Otis and I had to clock out and wait til the lunch rush was over. Tim may not have trusted us enough to run point or even run the deep-fryer, but once those dishes piled up, we were his go-to guys. But until then, we sat at the bar drinking sweet-tea out of plastic cups and watched whatever station the TV was turned to. Tim had the remote. Lord knows where he kept it, hidden in his pocket probably.
The lunch crowd was mostly old ladies, pearls strung from their turkey-necks and gaudy rings with diamonds and other expensive stones that I had never even heard of, presumably bought by their dead, dock-shoes-wearing husbands, hanging loosely from their Crypt Keeper fingers.
One group of gray-haired battle-axes came in every day around 11:30 and sat in the bar behind Otis and I as we watched The Price is Right, waiting for the plates to stack high enough in the dish pit for Tim to pop his head around the corner and yell, Clock In! Only one of the broads smoked, so they never sat in the main dining room, always the bar. For that one skinny, long-necked gal with the Virginia Slim dangling from her painted nails, the other three suffered through the type of loneliness that only an empty bar at noontime could bring.
Can you get the waitress, she’d holler, waving her cigarette in the air as she smiled at me. She was a pleasant old lady, especially for a broad with money, and she always filled out her sweaters nicely, but I knew deep down that I’d just end up disappointed once that bra was unclasped. That withered old flower, I thought, was the skeleton of some stock broker’s trophy wife.
My father never had much, especially when Mom got sick. He had to sell the house and the car and get a second job working the graveyard shift at a gas station and still he couldn’t gather up enough scratch to pay for her medical bills. Those doctors probably would’ve jumped in the coffin with her just to suck a few more drops out of her neck if they hadn’t had my dad to latch on to. We’re all just one disaster away from poverty, he’d say.
But even after Mom he never had much. What he did have was spent foolishly on friends and barroom buddies. We moved to a small apartment in the colored section of town. Dad would walk to the Mill during the day and walk home to cook us dinner and then he’d walk back up to the gas station at night, trying to stay alert enough to not get shot by stick-up kids looking to grab more in five minutes than that poor son of a bitch made all shift. Then he’d walk home as the sun set to change clothes and see us off to school before walking back to that mill. Dad did a lot of walking. And, once a week, he’d walk down the street to the neighborhood watering-hole, spending his dollars on whiskey and trying not to get hustled by the black guys at pool.
Dad never did get to fuck a trophy wife.
Poor, limp-dicked bastard.
Otis and I split a can of Red Bull once dinner rush came into full-swing. The dish-pit piled up quickly and no matter how fast we worked, they just kept coming. I would scrape the plates and spray them off into the sink. Otis would load them into the dishwasher and then pull them out. The steam would swirl up when he lifted the handle and after a few minutes his forehead looked like a glass of Coca-Cola that had been set out on a picnic table on a hot summer day.
After a while, Otis started talking about his kid again. Practically gushing with pride, he said he was happy with the way that his life turned out. I just wanted to smash a plate across his face.
Why do you always offer me coffee? I ask him. But he just looks at me dumbfounded.
The kitchen door swings open and Claire yells to one of the waitresses that she just got sat a four-top. Claire’s voice pops like a firecracker, a blind man would’ve never guessed all that gusto was packaged in such a cute, tiny package.
Otis says it’s the polite thing to do. He says that if you’re gonna take something, you gotta give something. He says that’s why he splits his Red Bull with me every night before dinner rush. You wanna get a drink after work? he asks me. I tell him to fuck off. No. That’s not what I tell him. I politely tell him, no, that’s the same shit that killed Elvis.
Dad did a whole lot of walking after Mom passed. I always thought it was pathetic, but found myself walking everywhere I went. I didn’t walk for that upper-middle-class-I’m-trying-to-stay-healthy bullshit. I walked because I was too poor to buy a car. Most mornings I walked to work. Most evenings I waited in the bar and watched Sports Center until Otis got off. He’d normally offer me a ride home and I would always say, yes. It wasn’t that I minded walking home, I just knew that I had nothing to walk home to, so I hung out in the bar and drank sweet-tea for as long as I could, trying not to come across as desperate or lonely.
Claire jumped up into the stool beside me, her feet dangling off the ground like a third grader’s, and threw her purse up onto the bar. It was one of those large bag-slash-purses that broads brought to the beach sometimes, big enough for a beach-towel, but not too cumbersome to look awkward. She pulled out a composition journal and a textbook on European history. It was 8:15pm and she was waiting on her dad to pick her up. Her dad had a car.
I stole a few glances as she pushed her blond hair behind her ear and started taking notes with a pink pen with a little puff-ball on the end of it that looked like the top of those Troll figurines they used to sell in the 90’s. “Claire and Jason” was scribbled into the upper right-hand corner of the page. Fuck, I thought, some lucky bastard was sticking it to Claire. And, presumably, his name was Jason.
People drank coffee in the morning to get them going and drank cocktails in the evenings to help them wind down. Same shit that killed Elvis, I thought. All I saw when I walked past a Starbucks was a bunch of yuppies free-basing coffee beans, the drug of choice for stock brokers and their trophy wives. Guys my age would ask girls out for coffee or to get something to drink, but that shit never worked. I couldn’t think of one time that that shit worked.
So when Otis finally clocked out and approached me with his usual smile, probably still thinking about that kid he never saw, I took one last sip of my sweet tea and grabbed my jacket. I’m heading out for a drink, he said, you wanna come? I didn’t wanna go home, so I said, yes, and told Claire that I’d see her tomorrow.