This is the story of Clare. Like most of my fictional characters, and many people I’ve learned to love, Clare speaks with a Tennessee accent. She smokes when the urge strikes, cusses a lot, and she prefers whiskey over wine. Clare has known very little happiness in her life, so her story is filled with hard truths and ugly details not suitable for young audiences. But she still has a sense of humor.
by Kathy Boles-Turner
I come from a place framed by forests and rivers, crisscrossed by two-lane roads and wooden bridges. Quaint. Charming. Dying from the inside out, a slow decay. Some men leave home before their coffins get measured. Too many women stay to tend the bones of barren factories, raise their children on scraps. Those women walk the borders of ancestors’ gravesides, tell stories of better days no one remembers, point to stars in the night sky, unclouded by pollution. They say beware the big city, the noise, the bums and thugs on the streets, the violence. Here it is safe and quiet. No one said beware the signs of junkies and rapists, the crimes done on country roads, inside quaint little houses. No warning came to watch out for gamblers, drunks, liars, and cheats. If the night sky’s stars charmed them all out of the truth, I cannot say. I come from a place that was never safe.
“Last call!” Amanda makes that announcement with more gusto than her flawlessly made-up face expresses.
Jake walks up behind her, turns the switch that brightens the overhead lights. He glares toward the pool tables where four law students are intensely focused on their game, sleeves rolled up, expensive haircuts mussed. Jake is 6”6’, about as wide as a city bus, and that glare of his could melt metal. No one pays him any attention.
Amanda, with her tired eyes and strong voice turns to me, “Clare, you clean the front of house, Jake, lock up the back, I’ll handle these guys. C’mon, darlings! Last call. We got a fifteen-minute countdown.”
The good-looking law students have been regulars at that same pool table every night since I started training on Tuesday and haven’t yet left before closing time. The kitchen has been closed for two hours and there’s no band tonight, but the middle-aged men who have hunkered on stools around the bar, drinking steadily since happy hour, seem reluctant to give up on the hope of a party breaking out.
Amanda calls them each by name and says, “Pay up, gentlemen.” They groan in unison as they pull out their wallets.
I go to my assigned tasks, scrubbing down tables and chairs, clearing the floor beneath of any debris. I let my broom clatter against the booth where a couple in their twenties have been making out for ten minutes. I smile when they come up for air to frown at me, then off they go, out of the booth and toward the front. Soon the tall, faux mahogany and brass-trimmed bar is surrounded by a dozen people tabbing out for the night.
These shoes are killing me. That was apparent to Amanda who saw me hobbling around midway through the shift. According to her, I proved myself a newbie by wearing brand new three-inch heels to work.
“It’s just commonsense. People don’t break in new shoes on a six-hour shift. Get some wedges, no more than two inches high, and throw those pumps in the back of your closet.”
“How do I break them in if I don’t wear them?” I had asked in a pouty voice I will always regret. She had sneered at me while I polished glasses fresh out of the dishwasher and placed them each on the low counter behind the bar.
“Wear them for an hour at a time around your house. Do that for at least a week. Run in place, go up and down stairs. I thought Dennis hired you because you had service experience.”
“We didn’t have to … look cute at the other place I worked. I wore- “
“Never mind.” She had sighed heavily then turned away to start liquor inventory.
The Tavern is so close to empty because just two blocks down BB King’s is having the first night of a week-long headliner showcase. The halfway decent crowd we had early on cleared out around ten o’clock because some famous guitar player was going on stage at BB’s place. I’ve never been there and have never heard of the famous guitar player. Since moving to Memphis, I haven’t had much leisure time.
I’ve got about three hundred dollars in the pockets of a slim black apron tied around my waist, maybe sixty dollars more on credit card tips. Not bad for a Thursday night this far from the heart of Beale Street. Not bad, for a place that only requires a tight black t-shirt and this slim black apron as uniform—along with the suggestion of sexy shoes that was voiced during my twenty-minute new hire orientation.
Amanda wears a tight miniskirt and high wedges with leather laces that tie just above the shin, keeps her blonde hair short and her lipstick a come-hither red. This place is so much different than the Midtown diner I worked at, and another world from what I expected when I answered the help wanted ad.
I expected greasy bar food and beer taps considering all the copper and brass, the steampunk clockwork décor, the two pool tables center of the bar room, a wide stage over on the right, and that suggestion of sexy shoes. What I got was two nights of training on Formal American Table Service and a half-inch thick manual describing the merits of expensive wines. Instead of line cooks, the kitchen has a chef with team of white coated culinary trained experts and muscular young dishers obeying the chef’s every command. The chef, Jim, has the build of a rubber band, but the voice and vocabulary of a pissed off truck driver.
I wasn’t supposed to be allowed any tasks other than running meal orders out until my training was completed next weekend, but the regular Thursday server didn’t show up tonight. Neither did the Sommelier. I only recently learned what a Sommelier is and once explained I figured that person must have died of boredom and what a great excuse for not coming to work.
In the face of all the challenges earlier tonight, Amanda didn’t panic. She just looked at the ceiling while she told me, her team of one, that tonight she would manage the Sommelier duties, along with tending bar and acting as hostess—The Tavern hasn’t had an official hostess since it opened. That was another want ad alongside the one I answered for server.
Since my training has been so limited, Amanda and the chef gave me a crash course on the night’s special and how to quality check each plate before serving, then they quizzed me on formal settings and service an hour before the first reserved tables were filled. Besides shorting one table a plate of Chicken Francese, I did alright handling the two open dining rooms through a dinner rush that ended promptly at nine. Not bad for a hick from Juliet, Tennessee.
After nine, there was just a sparse, subdued bar crowd, those pool players, and a few hipster foodie stragglers hoping for a discount on Jim’s elaborate creations. Amanda wasn’t very friendly to them, but she called all the others darling and tended to their every need with expert efficiency.
There’s a curvy girl pirate on The Tavern sign out front, wearing the same black t-shirt emblazoned with a colorful parrot below a diving v-neckline. I’m thinking of dressing like her tomorrow night, short skirt, and tall boots. Maybe I’ll clear five hundred in an outfit like that and learn to be grateful for a new third job added to my schedule, a job that doesn’t end until one in the morning.
I’m giddy enough about the bump in my cash flow and my idea to wear a pair of boots that are well broken in, that I suddenly have the energy to push out the booths near the stage and sweep underneath without being told. By the time I’m cleaning the last booth, three of those law students are in a heated argument.
The guy with the dark blond Harvey Specter haircut is the only one not joining in. I watch him pay the tab, thank Amanda politely, then turn an impatient look on his companions. “Come on guys, that’s enough. Let’s go.”
His partner in the game, a stocky ginger with a baby face, says, “We’ll go, Dunham, just waiting for these fuckers to honor the bet. We won, pay up.”
“Argue outside. Let’s get out of Amanda’s way,” Dunham says with more irritation than real anger. He leaves the three disgruntled guys behind and heads for the door. They follow, mumbling insults at one another just as Jake comes to stand beside Amanda again.
“Go see them out, Jake. Lock it up. Clare, you done?”
“Good. Need to color up?”
I turn to stare at her, “What does color up mean?”
She braces both hands on the bar and looks up at the ceiling. “Do you want to cash in your small bills for big bills?”
“No thanks, small bills are fine.” I finish stacking chairs and make my way toward the kitchen to put away the cleaning supplies. A few minutes later, my apron full of cash and those uncomfortable pumps are stuffed into my backpack and I stand with Amanda as she smokes a cigarette and gives me a rundown on my performance.
We’re standing outside in the January cold near the backdoor in the alley. Jake guards the entrance to the alley like a fierce Spartan ready to defend his homeland. He’s not wearing a coat. I’m bundled to my eyeballs and my toes have gone numb inside my sneakers, but I’ve no intention of leaving while Amanda is in the mood to talk to me without sneering, sighing, or looking at the ceiling.
“You’re about the best closer I’ve ever worked with. The front end is pristine, the server areas well stocked, all right on schedule. But you need to speed up your pace during dinner rush and learn our wine list. Tomorrow night will be brutal, even with two other servers on deck. We still won’t have a hostess, so those girls will cutthroat you by grabbing all the big tippers and leave the server areas in a mess. Take care of your assigned sections, and don’t let them get to you. I’m on till nine, then Carmy takes over. The first band goes on stage at nine thirty, and this place will turn into pure chaos. Be ready.”
I nod, “Thanks, Amada. Is it alright if I do the whole girl pirate thing tomorrow night? I’ve got these really great black boots that won’t kill my feet and I could wear- “
“Fine, just nothing too slutty. Somewhere between upscale Pirates of the Caribbean theme park and an overdressed Hooter’s girl, okay? Regardless of what Sly and Devin turn up wearing—why Dennis puts up with them, I don’t know. And no tricorn hat. Let that gorgeous dark hair down, wear jewelry. Don’t flirt, just smile, make some eye contact, and work your ass off. You made what? Four hundred tonight?”
Surprised at all the advice and the sharp estimate, I grin at her, “Almost.”
“Don’t expect that much tomorrow night. Expect three times the work and half the tips. Friday shifts earn primo Saturday shifts and a good customer base, plus a free dinner between eight and eight thirty. You’ll do yourself a favor by eating one of Jim’s burgers before the crowd arrives. If the male clientele start buying you drinks, have one, pocket the cash for the rest. Good god I’m exhausted. You have a ride home?”
“Yeah, my car is just across the way.”
“Alright, let’s get out of here. Thanks, Jake. See you at four.”
“Night, ‘Manda. Night, Clare,” Jake says with a wave.
We walk in three separate directions. I round the corner and cross over to the back entrance of a parking garage that costs twenty dollars per night. The place could use a few extra light bulbs, but so far, it’s proven safe from loiterers and lurkers. My twenty-year-old Honda is on the second tier, looking worn out with its scratched bumpers, faded red paint, and mismatched tires.
My legs hurt all the way to my neck by the time I sit in the driver’s seat of my most important possession. I bought a cell phone yesterday, and those ridiculous three-inch pumps. My possessions are piling up.
Though it’s one in the morning, I dial my sister’s number as I steer Old Hondo out of the parking garage. Shannon answers on the third ring. She doesn’t sound a bit sleepy.
“Oh, hey! You want me to call back, so you don’t have to pay the long distance? You don’t sound like you’re at the bus station. “
“No, save this number, it’s my new cell. No more long-distance charges! No more calls from the bus station!”
“Congrats! Why are you up so late? That city is so scary, please tell me you’re not driving around in the middle of the night looking for a place to sleep.”
“Just driving from my new job number three to my new place to live. I’m waiting tables at The Tavern, not far from Beale. And as of yesterday, I’ve got a big suite at an extended stay hotel. It has a kitchenette and an amazing shower/tub combo. How’s Mama?”
“She’s the same, too skinny, and too quiet. I thought you already had a third job?”
“The diner was a bit slow, and they couldn’t work around my school schedule. I happened to see a help wanted ad for The Tavern, got hired on the spot.”
“You’re working in a bar downtown? God, I won’t sleep a wink.”
“You haven’t slept since you were fourteen. What’s the difference? Did you get the check on time? I sent it Friday”
“Yeah, rent is paid. Thank you. Listen, kiddo. That city is scary as hell, you’re working your behind off, and I sure wish I could trade places. These kids are driving me bonkers. Eli came home today with a note from his teacher—apparently, he’s been grabbing girls, trying to kiss them. I’ve got to go to the Principal’s office tomorrow for a meeting. He’s seven years old and about to get expelled from second grade. I just don’t … “
“Davie Carpenter did the same when we were in second grade. Don’t do like his mom and force Eli into church camp, okay? That guy grew up to be a maniac. Just sit Eli down and talk to him about boundaries and respect.”
“Like he’s going to understand all that? C’mon, Clare.”
“Kids understand more than you think. He’s curious and he needs to know it’s okay to be curious. Just hands and mouth to himself. Be plain about that.”
“Yeah, I definitely want to trade places with you. Having all that parental wisdom when you couldn’t keep a goldfish alive must be a nice fuzzy feeling.”
“Alright Lady Sarcasm. The goldfish was a tragic accident that happened when I was twelve. Ease up, I’m just trying to help. You and Marty tend to go all Old Testament when the kids just do dumb kid shit. Don’t forget they’re tiny humans who will remember all your fuckups once they’re big humans.”
“Since when do I go Old Testament?” Shannon sighs heavily into the phone. I hear ice cubes clink into a glass then the click of her cigarette lighter as I drive onto the entrance ramp of 240 East.
“Forget I said that. So, Mama’s the same. How are you?”
“Can’t you tell? It’s one-thirty in the morning and I’m drinking cheap bourbon and chain smoking. It’s long hours worrying about everything under the sun.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about money anymore. So, give that up, sis. I’ve paid off the lab bills, and Mama’s tax lien, her mortgage is up to date, and I can keep paying half your rent as long as you need. The last hospital bill has a nice-sized dent in it. If you need it, I can pay more than half on the rent, send money for groceries. Where’s Marty?”
“Sleeping like a princess. He had a hard day’s work not finding a job. Three weeks now since the unemployment checks ran out. But he still managed to come home tonight smelling like beer and Cally Mason’s perfume.”
“Oh, Jesus. I wish you would- “
“What? Divorce him? He’ll never allow it. I’m just happy he doesn’t come home yelling and spoiling for a fight anymore. The kids have gotten comfortable with being ignored by him.”
“A few more months and I can get you out of there, Shannon. I’ll put off getting Mama’s house ready to sell, and put the money – “
“I’m not moving these kids to Memphis, Clare. I know you hate this little town, you hate Marty, you hate this old rental house, but this is home. Marty will eventually get bored and think of a divorce all on his own and I’ll be free then. At least here, unlike Memphis, my kids don’t have to worry about getting mugged or shot at or made fun of for not having expensive shoes, and I don’t have to worry about having a stroke in rush hour traffic on that crazy expressway.”
“There’s plenty of suburb areas, you don’t have to live in the city, just somewhere close so I can help out.”
“And what about Mama? You’ve been gone for almost two years and only visited her three times in the nursing home. I move away, she’ll have nobody to visit. And Aunt Kari? Uncle JR? They depend on me. And they depend on getting to live in Mama’s house, rent free. Are you really going to sell it?”
It’s my turn to sigh heavily. The streets are almost empty, as I exit 240 and maneuver onto Poplar Avenue. “I’ve been gone sixteen months, visited four times. Besides, Kari and JR have a slew of grown grandkids that should be helping them. If you’re gonna stay in that shithole town, I’d rather you move into Mama’s house. I’m conflicted about selling, truthfully, but that’s the only idea I can come up with to get money enough to solve one major problem—you could stop waiting for Marty to get bored. You could move far, far away. Then file for divorce. And there are other nursing homes that we could transfer Mama to.”
“Can we talk about something else? Tell me about this new place to live you’ve got. No more shitty roommates? No chance of having to sleep in your car? I can’t believe you lived in your car for two months. I can’t believe you just didn’t come back home.”
“Home is not there anymore, not for me. And yeah. No more shitty roommates. It looks like my new job number three will take care of the rent just fine. I’ve got an amazing queen-sized bed, central heat, cable tv, and did I mention that tub?”
Shannon laughs quietly. “Lap of luxury, doll. How’s the classes?”
“Love ‘em. Last year, grinding through all that studying, getting my GED and all the core stuff out of the way, probably the smartest thing I ever did besides leaving Juliet. Six more months and I’ll be a certified Administrative Assistant. Cool, huh?”
“Very. The old shoe factory where you got your first job closed last week. Two hundred people out of work, no notice, no severance pay. I miss you, Clare, but I’m sure glad you didn’t wait around here, living off unemployment checks and …” Shannon sighs again. “The baby is up. I’m going to put you on speaker while I feed her. Stay on the phone with me until you’re in bed.”
Waking beneath a fluffy duvet in a roomy queen bed is something I haven’t become accustomed to yet. It makes me smile even as my obnoxious alarm clock honks to alert me that it’s 6 a.m. I roll over, hit the snooze button, and curl up in fluffy softness for just five more minutes, let myself say thank you to whoever or whatever kept the nightmares away.
As the day’s schedule marinates in my mind, I am thankful another payday is here for my job on the housekeeping crew at the downtown Mallory Hotel. The check I will get today should be enough to pay off the balance of my spring semester tuition.
My first Friday shift at The Tavern will be 6:30 to 1:00. If Amanda is right about earning half the money as last night, I’ll have enough to pay through mid-February for this lovely bed. I stretch leisurely, eye the stack of money on my nightstand and smile again.
This is going to be a good day. Thank you.
Marlena is deep into telling juicy gossip when I’m pinning my nametag on my dull gray maid’s uniform. “Forty thousand dollars, can you believe it? Jessica just received half the money, she’s eight weeks along, says the morning sickness is a bitch, though.”
Shonda waves hello to me but it’s easy to see she’s very into whatever Marlena is talking about. “That’s just crazy. She likes the people, the couple?”
“Not really. They’re terrible snobs who only meet her at the Surrogacy Agency or the doctor’s office—the agency set up a meeting at their house once, and the lady about choked. Jessica doesn’t give a shit. They’re going to cover her living expenses for the year, cover healthcare until three months after the kid is born, and she’ll have forty grand in the bank. Says they can be as snobby as they want. She figures she can do this again in two years. Apparently second timers get more money.”
“I had no idea people paid that much, did you, Clare?”
“Paid that much for what?” I punch my timecard and go looking for a cart as Marlena answers the question.
“Remember Jessica who used to work the third floor, the skinny bright-skinned girl? She’s pregnant with someone else’s baby. They’re paying her forty grand.”
“Oh, you mean like her eggs, and the husband’s sperm all stirred up then implanted in her. What’s it called? A surrogate?” I ask while thinking this is an odd topic. Marlena usually gossips about the guest shenanigans, not ex-employees.
Shonda, who’s a bit older and lot less menacing than Marlena, pipes up, still looking shocked but savoring the details.
“No, it’s actually the wife’s eggs. Something is wrong with her womb … so the kid will be one hundred percent theirs. Jessica is just the incubator. It’s kind of gross. But, anyway, that’s a lot of money.”
“It’s kind a gross little miracle, isn’t it?” I look around for another cart to prep with fresh towels and pretty, gold label soaps “I mean, imagine wanting a baby desperately and not be able to have one. Had a friend who went through awful stuff, one miscarriage after another, but she would never have been able to afford …” Wow. That came out of nowhere. I haven’t thought of Katie in years. I haven’t thought about giving babies away in years. “Anyway, what floor am I on today, Marlena?”
Marlena’s dark face changes from the soft glimmer she had while gossiping to her usual stern and grim mouthed boss lady. Shonda immediately steps away and lowers her head, subtly recognizing the other woman’s change in attitude. Ah, we’re back to the power play. I’ve been working here for a year, so I thought maybe Marlena’s suspicion of me had dimmed a little.
“You’ve got laundry duty until ten, then the banquet room. There was quite the party last night. Enjoy.”
I really thought she was over this HERE’S PROOF THAT I’M IN CHARGE thing. Last week I got to work the twelfth floor with Shonda where the upscale guests leave generous cash tips in crisp envelopes for the housekeeping staff. Oh well, nasty sheets and floor scrubbing it is. I’ll remember not to be so eager to interrupt her gossiping next time.
Shonda shows up in the laundry and hour later to retrieve a cart of sheets for the twelfth floor. She checks behind her to make certain Marlena is nowhere around before smiling slyly and asking me, “Would you do it? Have someone else’s baby for money?”
I smile back at her, “You’ve really fixated on that, haven’t you? I don’t know. Would you?”
Her smile falls. “Well, I couldn’t. Just a few years past the possibility. But back when I could have? Hell yeah. I gave birth to two of the prettiest black babies you ever saw, girl. I liked being pregnant. There’s a peace to it, you know?” She sighs softly, checks the king sheets stacked on top the cart for starch by rubbing her hands over the fabric.
“Jessica says the couple she’s working with are biracial, both attorneys, and they insist that she eats a bunch of organic, gluten free foods. She’s going to travel with the money, go to Paris.”
Shonda sighs one more time, then stops rubbing the sheets, takes hold of the cart handle. “You ever been to Paris, Clare?”
I shake my head and get back to work loading a duvet into the washing machine. “Never crossed my mind to go, Shonda.”
“What would you do with forty thousand dollars?”
I keep working and say, “Get a bachelor’s degree.”
Shonda sounds truly disappointed when she says, “Well, that’s a boring answer.”
I peek over the second giant duvet I’m stuffing into the machine and wink at her, “I don’t mind being boring. If you see Jessica, tell her I said best of luck, and enjoy Paris.”
I was right about the paycheck. It’s plenty to cover my last installment for spring tuition. The tips made last week on the twelfth floor will cover at least two books for the summer semester. I drive to the bank to deposit most of my cash and the Mallory payroll check, then drive over to campus to catch the Bursar’s Office about to close for the day and hand over a personal check.
I tear up thinking about the fact that I have a checking account, a savings account, a nice safe place to stay, all on my own. It’s nice enough. Safe enough.
This getting emotional over my little accomplishments is a recent development. Last Friday I cried for five minutes after I made the final payment on one of Mama’s many medical bills. I didn’t cry that much at Daddy’s funeral. I never cry after waking from one those cold paralyzing nightmare memories. But finding a nice winter coat in a thrift store for ten dollars, that just nearly broke me down.
I’ve built a decent wardrobe, paid off a huge chunk of Mama’s debt, including catching up the mortgage on her house, and helped Shannon. I’m paying my way through school and wanting more. None of that would be the case if I’d stayed in Juliet, or if I’d stayed with Jen in that crappy Midtown apartment.
I don’t have to worry about roommates running up the phone bill or eating my food or doing drugs in the bathroom with some disgusting guy they brought home. I don’t have to worry about a drunk brother-in-law threatening to kick me out for one reason or another. I never have to take Shannon’s kids away from the house in the middle of the night while she and Marty rage at each other. I never have to go back there again except for brief visits. And I don’t have to feel guilty
All my errands are quick, and I’ve got plenty of time before my shift starts at The Tavern, but I run up the two flights of stairs to my room anyway. After a quick shower, and a lot of fussing with my hair and makeup, I lay my outfit on the bed, and pick up one of the two binders stacked on the desk in my “living room”. With a red sharpie, I mark off all the bills paid in the past two weeks, then pick up the other binder and adjust my checking and savings balance on a spreadsheet that tracks all of my deposits.
Then I slice up an apple and pour a glass of water, and stare at my outfit—parrot t-shirt, black miniskirt that falls just below mid-thigh, and black boots that stop just below the knee. The boots are low heeled and super comfy. Sheer black tights should finish everything off nicely. I decide to put on dark red lipstick after finishing my apple.
I can be girl pirate. I can totally handle this job. Time to go.
Amanda was totally right about the cutthroat girls. She was right about everything. By the time I finish off one of Jim’s burgers, I’ve only got nine dollars in my apron pockets and the server areas are trashed. Jim gives me a brief look of sympathy then turns his attention back to fancy appetizers. I decide to bum a cigarette from him and go out back, try to get my head together. Amanda shows up for a smoke break just a minute after I light up.
“Didn’t know you smoked,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Rarely do. So, Sly and Devin, they used to be strippers? Or assassins?”
Amanda doesn’t blink, just exhales a stream of smoke, and looks at me with a serious expression. “Probably assassins who enjoy dressing like strippers. Warned ya. They made the last newbie leave crying. How bad is it?”
“Pretty fuckin’ bad. But mean girls haven’t made me cry since I was eight.”
Amanda grins, flicks away her cigarette and turns for the door. “Go show them that. That outfit is just the right combination of cute and sexy. Not too much cleavage, no visible ass cheeks. Those mean girls will never understand that skin doesn’t make the big bucks in a place like this—too diverse of a crowd. We’ve got socialite foodies, bankers, lawyers, soccer moms, high class bachelorette parties, execs, bands, and fans for every music scene under the Memphis sun. By the end of the night, if Sly and Devin truly hate you, then you’ve done well.”
Oh, they hate my guts. I cash out a party table, then turn in a bill for five shots that two suited guys at the end of the bar have put on their tab for me, while telling Carmy, “I just knocked back five shots of sweet tea, so I need to run to the bathroom.”
Carmy winks at me and hands over two twenty-dollar bills. “Good girl, be back in five. Last call is gonna be a bitch with this crowd.”
Carmy is just as efficient, just as wise as Amanda. And she’s not scared to put her foot down with Sly and Devin when they try to get out the door without cleaning and stocking. “You’re not getting the credit card tips paid out until you put those server areas right. Both dining rooms. Sweep, mop, stock. Go.”
If looks could kill, I would have bled out right there. But I just smile and finish up mopping the front of house. When I’m all done, Jake gives me a nod and opens the backdoor.
“Wait for Carmy to finish, we’ll be right out. He hands me a cigarette and a lighter without asking if I want either. I really wanted another cigarette.
A few minutes later, Sly and Devin stomp out, Carmy follows. She hands me a To Go cup of sweet tea. “One for the road.” She grins and lights a smoke as Jake locks up and takes his position at the alley entrance.
“You crushed it tonight. Did Amanda tell you the last newbie left crying by ten?”
“Yeah. Said if the girls hate me by the end of the night, then I did well.”
“Oh, they hate your guts. I’m giving you a spot on dinner shift tomorrow. Those headliners down at BB’s and all the other special downtown events are creating a lot of overflow and Jim has a brisket special that brings in thirty dollars a plate. Dinner is seven to nine. Happy hour starts at four, be here at three. We still don’t have a hostess. Wear that goddamn glorious outfit. You’ll make a fortune.”
I smile all the way home. I smile the entire time I’m soaking in that wonderful tub, and I’m smiling when I call Shannon.
“You made how much?”
“Almost six hundred in two shifts. Tomorrow, Carmy says I’ll make a fortune. I can’t imagine what she thinks is a fortune. Remember when I used to bring home two hundred for a week at the factory? “
“Yeah, and all those blisters on your hands. Listen, I’m proud of you, kiddo.” Shannon yawns. Then I hear those ice cubes clink.
“Mama had doctors’ appointments today. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it looks like the cancer is back. They did a bunch of tests. Results will be back next week … she’s lost like ten pounds since I saw her Sunday. If it’s as bad as I suspect, I want to bring her back home. Hospice will pay for a part-time nurse, that’s what Aida Fredricks said.”
I sit silently in my car in the hotel parking lot, not sure what to say. “Shan- “
“I feel it, Clare. Those results are going to be … I’m gonna bring her home. I’m gonna tell Marty to get the fuck out, and I’ll need help with her care. Aida said that freelance nurses cost about $300 per day. I’ll need someone at least three days, besides the part-time Hospice help. I also talked to Uncle JR, he feels real guilty about not paying rent, said he’d start next month getting the boys to repair the roof, clean up the yard. I … I can handle having her at home, Clare. I want her here with me. I can make Marty get the fuck out.”
It takes me forever to gather the words to say to my sister. “Don’t do anything until you talk to the doctor next week. Then call me. Okay?”
Those ice cubes clink. I can hear the tears in Shannon’s voice when she says, “Okay. Stay on the phone with me until you’re in bed.”
Saturday morning, I don’t wake up smiling. Before I’ve had my first cup of coffee, I open my laptop and search Surrogacy Agencies. I put the nightmare memories out of mind. I take deep breaths and will myself not to let my jobs, my bank account, this cozy room, make me feel too safe. Just safe enough. Safe enough to know that I can find a way to solve all my problems.
Carmy colors me up at ten o’clock. She gives me a look that I can’t quite decipher the meaning of, then points toward the east dining room beyond the pool tables where a larger group of law students are having a nine-ball game. They’re wearing a colorful array of pretty, tailored shirts with the sleeves rolled up, tailored slacks, gorgeous, shiny shoes. The guy they call Dunham, with the carefully sculpted dark blond hair, he has his hands propped up on his pool cue, watching me while two of his friends argue about an illegal bank shot.
The east dining room seats thirty. One of my end of shift tasks was to move all the tables together and cover them with a huge white tablecloth, then place a formal setting, complete with wine glasses and water glasses. I just finished. Everything in there is in perfect order and polished to a high sheen.
“Employees have Family Dinner in the east dining room every Sunday when all the other downtown places are open for brunch. The boss likes to play host. He will bring a case of great wine, and Jim always shows off with the menu. Be here at eleven, okay?”
“Oh, that’s … do newbies usually get invited?”
“Almost never. Dress like you’re visiting a really wealthy aunt, bring your best manners.”
“Of course. Thanks for everything.”
I’m about to walk away when Carmy leans close to me and says, “I’ve seen you watching the legal eagles over there. I know they’re all pretty, but you need some friendly advice before doing anything other than enjoying the view. Pete, the tallest? He and Amanda have this weird on again off again thing. So, hands off. Ernie, neck muscles, constant smirk? Girl, don’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. He’s nasty. The ginger? He’s my cousin, DJ. Only go for him if you think puppies that pee on the floor are adorable. I love him, but he’s got some impulse control issues and shockingly few social filters. He doesn’t actually pee on the floor, but you know what I mean? Now … the prize in the group, that’s the ridiculous hair model, Patrick Dunham. Of the More Money Than God Dunhams. He’s a genuinely good person. A guy that gorgeous being a genuinely good person is unheard of, I know, but it’s true. If he wasn’t DJ’s best friend since freshman year at LSU and so filthy rich, I’d have already … well, I would have done bad, bad things. But, standards, right? Come have a drink. You look like you could use some friends and a beer. Hey, ‘Manda! I’m gonna take a twenty, okay?”
I’m gaping at her like a moron. That was a lot of unsolicited information. While I’m trying to compose myself, Amanda shouts okay from behind the kitchen door, and soon appears. Her hair is all spiky tonight and she’s got her eyes made up like Mardi Gras.
Carmy is just her opposite, tall, athletic, the face of a freshly bathed angel, and natural red hair that drapes down her back. She uncaps four beer bottles and holds them up over her head, “Hey, Patrick, Deej!”
The guy who’s been watching me, Patrick, grins and props his pool cue against the wall, then pats his ginger friend, DJ, on the back. They meet us at the four-top in the back corner as the first band of the night exits the stage. The crowd surrounding the stage disperses with quiet applause.
Carmy sits down, passes out the beers, and makes introductions for their benefit, “This idiot here is my cousin DJ Bell, and this is Patrick Dunham. They’re in second year at UofM law, students who daydream about becoming professional pool players before getting trapped in Esquire hell. Fellas, meet Clare Caldwell.”
DJ grins sheepishly, “Aw, we’ve been calling her Snow White Pirate Princess, you’ve ruined it now.”
Patrick’s face flushes a little. I already like him. Which is quite a surprise because I haven’t automatically liked anyone in a very long time. He says, “Nice to meet you.” Then everyone taps their beer bottle to mine, and Carmy starts talking to DJ about family stuff.
Patrick looks at a loss for a moment before deciding to make eye contact with me. From a distance his eyes are like warm bitter chocolate. Up close they are a dark hazel green.
“How long have you lived in Memphis, Clare?”
“What makes you think I’m not from here?”
He frowns slightly, “Everything. Your accent, the way you smile so readily at everyone.”
I decide to tease him since I like the way he blushes, “I have an accent?”
There’s that blush. He grins and says, “Oh, yeah.”
I take a sip of my beer to keep from grinning back at him. “I’ve been here a while. From the edge of East Tennessee, little town with two traffic lights and a bunch of dead factories. Where are you from? I can’t place your accent.”
DJ pipes up then, with an exaggerated Southern aristocrat drawl, “That’s a boarding school accent, sweetie. The East Coast white-washed that southern down to the edges. No one ever guesses he’s from Memphis.”
Irritation flashes across Patrick’s face. He doesn’t acknowledge DJ’s snide statement.
“I’ve traveled a lot.
Sunday morning, I wake way too early, but the invitation to Family Dinner is heavy on my mind. Carmy said to dress like I was visiting a wealthy aunt and I’d said ‘Of course’ as if I actually understood what that meant. For now, all I can do is guess it means wear a modest dress and try not to look like a hick.
I stand frowning at my closet feeling very much like a hick. I own exactly one dress—a simple navy sleeveless thing that I bought at a thrift store just because it was tagged for three dollars. It fits like a glove, has a high square neckline, and would definitely go with the pumps I bought recently. The high temperature today is expected to be thirty-seven degrees. I’ll freeze my ass off.
I count through the stack of cash earned last night and decide it will be okay to splurge on something, then I make coffee and toast and watch hairstyle videos online.
That thrift store on Alicia that I like so much doesn’t open until noon on Sundays, so I have to go with retail. The pickings are slim near Midtown—nothing but fancy boutiques and head shops. So, I decide to put on the dress, do my hair and makeup, pull on my heavy tweed winter coat, and go out to see what I can find outside the neighborhood.
There’s a shopping center with a TJ Max not too far away. I settle on a black half-jacket with a fur collar that’s forty percent off, then a new pair of black silky tights, black faux leather gloves, and I notice that a costume jewelry display has a long silver necklace and matching hair pins for half-price. The clerk gives me a stern look when I leave the counter to go to the restroom, then come back toward the exit wearing everything I just bought.
One more stop with that ‘visiting a wealthy aunt’ advice—I stop by Kroger’s floral department and pick up a winter bouquet of white roses entwined with red berry looking things. That’ll do, right?
There’s a crowd of people at the back-alley entrance, all dressed like they’re going to a Methodist church on the rich side of town. Among them, I see Carmy and her cousin DJ, and Patrick.
DJ sees me first and his expression gets all smarmy. “Ah, Snow White Pirate Princess cleans up nice. Yum. Yum.”
Carmy turns to look at me, then swats DJ across the shoulder. “Behave yourself Donald James, or I’ll rescind the invitation.”
DJ’s eyebrows draw together, and he actually pouts, “You know I can’t afford real food, Carmen Elizabeth. I survive all week long on Jim’s Sunday creations. Don’t be cruel.”
“Don’t be a letch. Hey, Clare, glad you made it. Dennis will love the flowers.”
Patrick holds the door open for me as DJ skulks in behind Carmy. He smiles down at me. I try to ignore the effect his deep, deep questioning eyes have on me. So, I decide to distract myself with asking a nosey question.
“I thought Family Dinner was just for people who work here?”
In a matter-of-fact tone, Patrick says, “The Dunham family is one of Dennis’s major investors, so I’m invited to everything. Employees can bring a family member or significant other if they get permission from Dennis. Carmen brings DJ because he otherwise lives on beer and ramen noodles.”
“Very. You’ll understand just how nice once you’ve had Jim’s serious cooking. He earned a Michelin Star in New Orleans.”
I smile as if I know what that means. We enter the dining room side-by-side. Dennis stands just outside the dining room doorway ushering people in. He’s wearing a proud papa smile and a gorgeous black suit with another of his signature jewel-toned ties. When we met last week in the interview, I couldn’t get over how much he looks like Harrison Ford, minus all that gruff masculinity.
“Ah, Clare. I’ve heard great things. Welcome.”
I feel my face heat up like a red neon sign and clumsily push the bouquet of flowers at him. Dennis smiles graciously, takes the flowers, and says, “These are lovely.” Then, very loudly for everyone to hear, “No one ever brings me flowers!”
He reaches to shake Patrick’s hand, “Good to see you, Patrick. How’s second year going?”
“So far, brutal. But I’m making it.”
“Good, good. Jim! We’re ready. Patrick, you and DJ help serve, Clare, come sit by me. I brought some California wines, new vineyard that will be famous in no time. Help me open some bottles.”
Family Dinner is such a good name for this occasion. Everyone obviously basks in the feeling of belonging, of happy kinship. Even Sly and Devin show off good manners and no tits. They refrain from stabbing me to death with their glares like they did Friday and Saturday night. I haven’t been introduced to most of the other employees, Jim’s army of sous chefs and dishers, but they all seem to know my name, they all include me in conversation.
Dennis sits at the head of the table, I’m at his right, Patrick at his left. Jim is at the opposite end, with Amanda on his right, Jake on his left. Huge platters get passed around, a dozen bottles of wine—I barely sip at the pretty golden liquid and refuse to admit to anyone I don’t have a wine pallet at all. Cheap or expensive, white, red, or in between, it all tastes like nail polish remover smells. So, I drink a lot of ice water that goes nicely with the gorgeous food that Jim prepared.
From what Dennis has repeated several times, the entrée is a French pork dish that I’ll never try to pronounce. All the trimmings are upscale recipes made with potatoes and other winter root vegetables, and there is a fluffy white dessert that Amanda keeps looking at lovingly, long before it’s passed around.
‘So, tell us how you’re enjoying Memphis, Clare,” Dennis commands politely as he refills his wine glass. “Is it East Tennessee you’re from? All alone, right, no family here? Very brave.”
I will my face not to turn neon red. “Yes, initially I came out to room with an old friend from high school, but that didn’t work out well. Now I’ve got my own place, a temporary place. Hopefully something more permanent in a few months.”
“You’re going to college, too? Like Carmen and the legal eagles here?”
The neon red heats up my entire head and I hate myself. “Sort of. Just community college for now, vocational classes. I’ve got plans to take classes at the university, eventually.”
“Well, you’re young, plenty of time. By the way …” Dennis stands, holds up his glass of wine and addresses everyone at the table, “One of the perks of being a managing owner is getting to peek at everyone’s birthdays. Let’s make a toast to Charles, sous chef extraordinaire, who celebrated his thirtieth yesterday. Here, here, Charles!”
Everyone raises their glasses and repeats the cheer. Charles stands and bows, grinning broadly. I would enjoy the moment, but instead, I’m fighting the urge to crawl under the table.
Dennis’s voice goes a bit sly, “And, to our newest newbie, a bright up-and-comer who I’m told handled her first weekend here like magic: Happy Birthday Tomorrow, to Clare. Happy twenty-fourth! Here, here!”
Everyone bangs the table and raises their glasses, shouts the cheer, and I just don’t know what to do. So, I look away from Patrick’s warm stare and Dennis’s beaming smile, stand, raise my glass, and like Charles did, make a little bow.
Two blissful hours later, Jim places a To Go plate in my hands, winks at me, and says, “See you next week, Clare.”
By then Dennis is gone, following a round of boisterous thank yous and goodbyes and pretend cheek kisses. Carmy and DJ leave soon after. I wave to Amanda and Jake and turn to go. Patrick is just outside the door when I exit.
He’s holding a To Go plate, too, smoking a cigarette, looking up at the icy blue sky.
“So, what did you think? Dennis puts on a helluva party, yeah?”
While he speaks, he stops looking up at the sky and offers me a smoke. I say, “No thanks, and yeah. This place is such a contradiction, right? The sign out front, the steampunk pirate bar, then bam! Expert service and five-star food, that beautiful Family Dinner, a total welcome vibe.”
Patrick’s smile is soft. He really likes it here. All the people. That’s plain on his face.
“Dennis was a legend in New Orleans, Baton Rouge. He owned four of the nicest restaurants in Louisiana. That’s where he met Jim. He was thinking about expanding into Memphis when this place went on the market, made the decision not to change a thing, like that sign and the décor. He just had it scrubbed clean and brought in that upscale service and five-star food the place is going to get famous for. Then he hired Amanda, she and I went LSU together, and she’s the genius who came up with booking bands still in the garage phase, all genres, not just blues. I typically ignore my family’s business dealings, but when I found out about the financial ties to Dennis, for once I was in total agreement, hoping to be included.”
“You recommended Amanda for this place?”
He shrugs. “Just made sure she knew who to get in touch with, to get her ideas noticed. Amanda, DJ, Pete, and I used to haunt some of Dennis’s places when we were in college, along with a few of our other friends. The guy knows his stuff. Knows how to hire good people.”
“Well, I’m grateful for him. I made more money this week than I did the entire last month at my other waitress job. And now I can say I’ve had French pork and hundred-dollar wine. It’s freezing out here, Patrick. I better get going.”
“Yeah, me too. Nice to see you, Clare.”
My Sunday afternoons since moving to Memphis have been spent at the laundromat, then staying at the Central Library until closing just because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I decide to keep the routine after laundry and groceries are taken care of and get myself a seat in the computer lab to finish up three homework assignments. I email those completed documents to myself to print out on Monday in class. Then I spend an hour researching Surrogacy Agencies and all the medical tests required to become a surrogate, and whatever other information I can find on the topic. There is a lot.
I print off the list of medical requirements, tests, sample contracts, then go to check out Considering Surrogacy, by Linda Oliver. One of the librarians notices the book title I’ve chosen and suggests another, Birthing a Mother: The Surrogate Body and the Pregnant Self, by Elly Teman. While she goes to locate it for me, I get kind of queasy. When the queasiness passes, I tell myself, “Just give it a week, read the books, then all I have to do is make a decision about contacting the agency. Nothing more.”
But truthfully, I know I will do this if deemed medically sound. Mama’s care will take every penny I make from now on. And if I don’t get to go to college, I’ll fuckin’ die. I’m doing this for a lot of wrong reasons. But I don’t have to feel guilty.
Shannon calls me at the ungodly hour of seven in the morning, Monday. “Happy birthday, baby sister!”
I laugh because her voice sounds all stuffy and crackly. “Thank you for rising at such a ridiculous hour.”
“Girl, I haven’t been to bed yet. The kids’ school bus is broken down, so I drove them in, now I’m buying coffee at McDonalds while the baby gets her morning bottle in the car seat. So! What are you doing to celebrate?”
“Driving to the Women’s Hospital with a trunk full of lab test results. Clocked in an hour ago.”
“Jeesh, I can’t keep up with all your jobs. Anyway, happy Twenty-Four! Have I mentioned lately how jealous I am?”
“Stop, you love your life, Shannon. Well, except for Marty still existing. How are the kids?”
“I was talking about you being ten years younger than me. Jeesh, it seems like yesterday I was young. And fine as hell. And these kids …” she sighs heavily, “they are cocky little menaces, strutting around with all that Marty Jones DNA coursing through them. Well, except my sweet Maggie, here. It will be a few months before she can strut. Remember the day I found out I was pregnant again? How upset I was? Now I just can’t imagine life without her. S’pose that’s how Mama felt about her surprise baby. And now you’re all grown up, Surprise!”
We laugh together over that. Shannon and my brothers, Jason and Mike, actually called me Surprise until I started Kindergarten. I was so disappointed to discover my real name wasn’t quite as awesome and the teachers refused to call me anything except Clare.
“Eric and Eli, my terror twins, made you a card, it should arrive in your mailbox today. Darla and Samantha couldn’t be bothered with an old-fashioned card, so they made you a video. I’ll send it now, since I’m within range of McDonald’s Wi-Fi. Hold on.”
A text dings while Shannon mumbles something to the gurgling baby. Then, “Did you get it?”
“Yeah, I’ll watch it later. When I’m not driving. Now that I have a cell phone and reliable Wi-Fi at home, I’ll start sending your tween sweetheart girls video messages frequently. They’re so damn cute, Shannon. You’re in so much trouble.”
Shannon sighs, then thanks the drive-thru person for her coffee. “Tell me about it. I cringe every time they walk out of the house. And, Clare, you just referred to a hotel as home.”
I honestly didn’t notice. Of course, she would. “Yeah, I guess I did. No offense, sis, but it’s the nicest place I’ve ever lived. Guess what’s included in my rent? A weekly cleaning, vacuum, mop, full dusting, laundered towels, all done by someone else.”
“Well, you’ve officially offended me. I may not recover.”
I laugh again as I make the turn that takes me onto the Women’s Hospital campus. “Thank you for the birthday wishes, be sure to hug and kiss all the kids for me, I’ve got to go.”
“Alright. Love you, Surprise!”
“Love you, too.”
After I get signatures for all of the deliveries, I stop by the gynecology department to ask for an appointment on Thursday and give the scheduling nurse the long list of surrogacy health requirements. The nurse looks at the list, then at me as if I’m nuts.
“The doctor will have to write referrals for the mammogram and the pelvic ultrasound. And I’ll need a copy of your insurance card.
“I don’t have insurance.”
“Oh, honey.” The woman’s look of pity depresses the hell out of me.
“How much?” I ask with as level of a tone as I can manage.
“Three hundred for the initial visit with Dr. Michaels. The ultrasound is an additional three hundred, all lab work is billed separately. Mammograms vary—do you have a family history of breast cancer?”
She writes something down, clicks at her computer keyboard, then sighs. “I can get you in Thursday if you can pay the six hundred when you arrive. Appointment is 2 p.m., be here by 1:45.”
I’m five minutes early for afternoon classes. I love everything about this little college, the casual way all the young professors lecture, the shiny office equipment and thick textbooks, the structure of the lessons, the exams, all of it. Who knew that I, the person who used to ditch high school classes just for the sake of ditching, would develop aspirations for doing well here, then going on to a bachelor’s degree?
I hang out in the campus library to finish up notes for an essay due Wednesday, then once all my stuff is stored in my room, I change into sweatpants and a t-shirt to go try out the hotel gym for the first time. All this work, studying, driving at all hours, lifting trays of beers and platters of food, is taking a toll. I’ve woken up twice in the middle of the night with leg cramps. According to what I’ve read about energy levels and building muscles that don’t hurt, it’s important to do cardio, lift weights, and stay hydrated in order to encourage the body to rest well at night. I’ve never exercised outside of hard work for a paycheck, so this is utterly new to me.
The gym is small and simple. A bench press, leg weights, stationary bicycle, elliptical machine, treadmills, wall to wall mirrors. I grimace at my messy bun and lack of makeup and go read the big bright chart center of one of the mirrors. It’s instructions on how to warm up before cardio and cool down afterwards. Very helpful. I manage my first thirty-minute workout, then go change into a one-piece suit to do laps in the big, heated pool next to the gym. After a soak in the tub, I don’t remember much.
Despite waking with damp hair tangled in a damp towel Tuesday morning, I follow the workout routine through Wednesday night. Another thrift store purchase made not long ago is a small crockpot in which I left chicken and veggies slow cooking all day. I sit down with a plate, my day planner full of schedule scribbles, then view the texts from Amanda. She’s had to rework the schedule for the week according to her intro message, but I’m glad to see that mine remains much the same as last week’s training schedule. So, I’m on Thursday and Friday 6:30-1:00, Saturday 3:00-10:30, and invited to Sunday’s family dinner. She adds that my schedule should remain the same other than when volunteers are needed if someone gets sick.
I work through the calendar to make certain there are no conflicts for the rest of the week, and the next. Classes are Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:30-5:30, lab delivery Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday 6:30-2:00, the hotel housekeeping Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 6:00-2:00. Friday and Saturday mornings are going to be rough until I get accustomed to being up so late with The Tavern job. Asking Marlena to adjust my schedule is out of the question for now. She’d probably just cut me all together.
That warning from Amanda about people getting sick reminds me to take vitamins and drink an extra glass of water before bed. I’m just dozing off when my phone rings. It’s Shannon. Heart pounding, I sit up in bed, “What’s wrong?”
She’s sobbing, “I told you. The tests … I told you, I felt it in my bones.”
“Okay, breathe, honey. Tell me everything.”
Shannon takes a shaky breath. I can hear her open a door, and the background noise changes from a TV commercial to almost silence. She’s walked out on the back porch. That shaky inhale and exhale again, then, “Stage Four. Ovarian cancer. Stage Fuckin’ Four, Clare! The oncologist said tumors were missed in the scans back in October!”
Shannon breaks down again. I just sit in my big warm bed trying to remember how to breathe. There are no words. No consolation.
“I’ll be there Sunday. Did you call the boys?”
“N-not yet. Jason is … I don’t even know where. Mikey’s little girl had the flu last time we talked. I need to get my shit together. You know Mikey can’t stand it when anyone cries. I need to …Can you come sooner?”
I play that question over in my mind a few times. No. No.
“Clare, can you come sooner than Sunday? We need to talk to Hospice, and, fuck, I don’t know who else. Marty you sonofabitch, get back in that car and go back to Cally Mason’s house. Now! Get the fuck ou-“
“Shannon! Don’t get in a fist fight right now. Shannon?” She hung up. Or threw the phone at Marty’s head. Dammit. I get out of bed and dial as I walk to the kitchenette and pour myself a shot of bourbon. “Shannon?”
“I hate that bastard. Drunk every day. Sliding back here every goddamn night. Why won’t he just stay away? Hasn’t so much as put in a fuckin’ lightbulb for a year, much less-“
“Focus, sis. God. I’ve got a cigarette around here somewhere. Where did I put it? Did Marty leave?”
“Okay. Let’s calm down a minute.”
I finally locate that lone cigarette, get it lit, take a shot of bourbon, inhale, exhale. “Okay. What’s Mama’s … how much time does she have?”
“Six months? The oncologist won’t … She doesn’t want any more chemo. Surgery … they don’t know for sure if surgery is an option. More tests need to be done.”
“Okay. You call the doctor tomorrow, tell him we want all the details, and we want him to meet us at the nursing home Sunday afternoon. Explain my circumstances. If he can’t meet us until Monday, I’ll work it out. So, the four of us need to talk, we need to talk with Mama. If she doesn’t want chemo, then fuck it, she doesn’t have to have chemo. We’ll move on to Hospice, whatever other treatments … Christ. Let’s try to find out all the costs of moving her home, so I can figure some stuff out. And let’s consider talking to JR, Kari, and the cousins. If I can’t swing your rent and Mama’s mortgage anymore to cover meds or nurses, they’re gonna have to go and that’s all there is to it. You’ll move into Mama’s house. When’s your lease up?”
“Okay. We’ll figure that out.” I smoke the daylights out of that cigarette, take another shot of bourbon, then turn on the ceiling fan and the bathroom fan, spray some Lysol. “Sonofabitch.”
Shannon sighs loudly and says, “Yeah.” She swallows back more tears, “Kiddo, I don’t know what I would do without you.”
“Love you, too, sis. Try to get some sleep, okay? I’ll call tomorrow night. Let me know before then if … if you need anything.”
Shannon sniffles, “Okay. Night.”
Thursday at two thirty, I walk into the women’s clinic. Within an hour, I’m sitting half naked on a table trying to recover from the feeling of being violated that always lingers after a pelvic exam. A young nurse finishes up a blood draw, reads the chart of my vitals taken earlier.
“Your blood pressure is amazing. Oxygen and heart rate are as well. Glucose is perfect. We’ve got a mammogram scheduled for twenty minutes from now, a pelvic ultrasound for next Thursday at three o’clock. By then we’ll have a lipid panel and full work up done—cancer screening results, etcetera. While we’re waiting to go on to the mammogram, answer these questions for me: You’ve been on oral birth control for more than a year, correct?
“Yes, four years.”
“Do you smoke?”
“Rarely. Maybe … three cigarettes per month.”
“And how many alcoholic beverages would you say that you drink per month?”
“Less than three.”
“Does anyone in your family suffer hypertension, Diabetes 1 or 2, heart disease, lung disease, or liver disease?”
The questionnaire seems to take years. The nurse doesn’t blink, doesn’t comment when I answer the cancer questions—Mother, breast cancer in remission, stage four ovarian cancer, prognosis six months. Father, pancreatic cancer, deceased. Paternal grandfather, bladder cancer, deceased. She is a cool, calm professional. I am a mess.
“Sorry. Nothing. Never mind.”
All these people in my have family are riddled with cancer, I’m taking steps to become a surrogate which requires excellent health, and all I can think about on the way to The Tavern is buying cigarettes and swilling a bottle of whiskey. The first package store I see, I pull in, buy a pack of smokes and a half pint of their cheapest bourbon. By the time I’m in the parking garage, I’ve had two cigarettes and two shots.
“Break time, Clare,” Amanda’s voice sounds flinty behind me. I turn around to look at her, at a loss for what I could have done to make her sound like that. The expression on her face isn’t much softer.
“It’s only …” I have no idea what time it is. No idea when I’m actually due a break. Her eyes are like tempered glass. “Is something wrong?”
“Yeah, that tabletop was supposed to be dark brown. You’ve been scrubbing it for twelve minutes so now it’s beige. Meanwhile the east dining room has two customers sitting without drinks and their appetizers are already out. And I’ve called your name four times.”
“Go on break. Now.”
“I already served them. Walk away from that table.”
I look down and sure enough, the table is … “Good lord.”
“I better not have to repeat myself. You’ve got ten. Go get a drink, a smoke, whatever. Return with brain waves.”
“Yeah … shit. Sorry.”
I walk straight past the bar, the kitchen, the restrooms, and out the backdoor without even putting down the soapy, stained bar towel, or putting on my coat. I stare at the puffs of fog my breath makes.
The backdoor slams. I turn to see Carmy lighting a cigarette. Without a word, she offers one. I take it and just stand there looking at it.
“Jesus Fuck, Clare. Did you bump your head or something?”
The dumbest words come out of my mouth. “I should be cold shouldn’t I? My breath is all foggy.” I look up at Carmy and have the dumbest thought—everything is in black and white, like an old movie.
Carmy frowns at me. “Light that cigarette, toss that towel in the dumpster, and start talking sense before Amanda loses her temper. What happened?”
I toss the towel, take her lighter and get the cigarette fired up, take a drag. I wonder if she means what happened my entire sorry life or just today. By the second inhale of nicotine, I can see color again. Carmy’s red hair is haloed by the overhead light.
Too many thoughts are crowded in my head. “When I came here—sixteen months, one week, three days ago. Memphis, I mean. When I came to Memphis … my sister and I had just put our mother in a nursing home. She was only fifty-seven then. Chemo and radiation and surgeries … just … she couldn’t walk anymore, but the breast cancer was gone.”
I look away from Carmy’s halo, and the sudden shine in her eyes. I look at the brick wall to her left. “My sister cried for a week after we left Mama in that place. But she had four kids, another on the way, and a real asshole of a husband. None of us could make a living on all those dying factories… got by on fuckin’ scraps.”
Carmy suddenly has my coat in her hands. She stands close to me and drapes my coat over my shoulders. “I’m going to get Jake to take you home, hon.”
“I don’t have a home. Mama’s got ovarian cancer now. Daddy had pancreatic cancer. Grandpa had bladder cancer. Shannon never sleeps. She’s too skinny and too tired, and if I step foot back in that town, my soul will just shrivel up and die. My head is so full of this hateful voice. Words, and sorrows and names, and wants. I can’t… I can’t focus on anything today except this voice saying that I should feel guilty. Shame on me for not feeling guilty.”
Something blocks out the light. I turn to see that Jake is there. And DJ and Patrick. Amanda is leaning against the doorframe with a lit cigarette in her hand. I look down at mine, drop the smoldering thing before it burns my fingers. I wonder how long everyone else has been standing there.
“Clare,” Jake says softly. “You don’t have to stay here tonight.”
I take a deep breath. “If I leave, if I give in, then the bullshit wins. I just need a minute to get … I just need a minute.”
Amanda’s flinty voice says, “You’ve had ten minutes. Get to work, newbie. Or go sit down and cry. Pick one, now.”
Carmy gasps. I see Patrick and DJ turn to stare open-mouthed at Amanda. Jake takes a step back. The sharp edges of Amanda’s voice have just the right effect on me, though. They make me focus. I look directly at her. She doesn’t flinch. But those tempered glass eyes have changed, warmed, dampened.
“You gonna cry, newbie?”
“Not tonight, Amanda.”
“Good. Y’all mother hens go peck at something else. Newbie has two four-tops down. Let’s go.”
I realize at some point, just before Amanda shouts Last Call at the thirty or so patrons in the bar, that I’ve been talking to myself. I have to name each task I’m about to do. My face hurts from smiling at people. Their faces are all a blur.
Pick up those beer bottles on the two-top. Take this credit card slip to Amanda, cash out the couple who drank five martinis and had Jim’s brisket. Polish the glasses, send the silverware to the disher.
“We’ve got a fifteen-minute countdown, darlings. Last Call!”
Smile at the ‘legal eagles’, go get the broom and mop bucket. Breathe. You’ll be fine. Smile at Amanda.
“Jake, lock down the back, Dunham I swear to God you better get those boys to behave or y’all won’t play pool here anymore.”
At the mention of his name, I look up to see Patrick standing between DJ and the very muscular guy who always wears crisp white oxford shirts … Pete. Pete is angry. DJ is angrier. Patrick is sick of them both. Ernie, the fourth in their group just stands off to the side, smirking.
Carmy said they’d all been friends since freshman year at LSU. But I’m pretty sure Pete is about to pull DJ apart and ruin the friendship. Stack the chairs, sweep under the tables.
The front door slams. I stack the last chair. Amanda calls my name. “Clare, you want to color up? You’ve got one-fifty on credit card tips, I’ve got three fifty dollar bills.”
Answer Amanda. “Yeah, please.”
“Walkin’ around here like a zombie bride and still pull that kind of money on a Thursday night. Alright! You got five before lights out, newbie!”
At the backdoor, Jake looks at me with sad eyes. Amanda hands me a To Go cup of coffee. Her mouth is set in a grim line.
“I can’t come to Family dinner this Sunday, Amanda. Should I email Dennis… or something?”
“I’ll tell him.”
Jake takes up his position at the alley entrance, keeps his back straight. Amanda lingers at the backdoor.
“So, you coming back. After Sunday? You’re on a permanent weekend schedule now, that usually takes a newbie three months to achieve. Tell me if I need to get someone else.”
I shove my money stuffed apron into my backpack and look at Jake’s Spartan stance rather than her face. “I’ll be here, Amanda.”
“Alright then. Night.”
Without looking back at the curiosity flashing in her eyes, I say goodnight to Jake and walk toward the parking garage. How is it that I’ve known these people for a week, and I already love every one of them? How is it that I really don’t want to go see my mother, my siblings? I just don’t want to make that drive Sunday. Or ever again.
Saturday night is the biggest crowd I’ve seen. Three bands play a forty-minute set each. Tourists, music bigwigs, two bachelor parties, a food critic, and so many tailored suits and mixes of designer perfumes have me dizzy. Carmy has Jake bartending while she schmoozes the food critic. Sly and Devin are actually working for once, rather than flirting as if their lives depend on it.
By nine o’clock, I’ve colored up three times and have three-hundred-dollar bills in my left boot. By midnight I’ve needed to pee for two hours, and the dizziness is getting to me. Carmy walks the food critic to the front door, and eyes me on the way back as I put another margarita order in for the NASTY X 3 manager. His band is three grungy teenage boys that have screamed and ravaged their guitars on stage for thirty-nine minutes. I fear deafness is in my near future.
Carmy points at me, then toward the kitchen door. Break time. Thank Jesus. I deliver the margarita, maneuver around the band manager’s greedy hands and slimy smile, then rush toward the door. A few minutes later, Carmy crashes through the backdoor into the alley where I’m smoking a cigarette after swilling a full glass of water.
I nod in sympathy. Her long red hair is turning to a tangle of sweaty tendrils, and her face is flushed, her hands shake as she lights a smoke.
“Well, Dennis fuckin’ built it, they came, and I swear he better hire some more help. I’m a pre-med student for Christ’s sake. I’ve got no damn business trying to handle three record company dudes, band managers, and that snobby ass food critic. All in one night!” She takes a deep breath, exhales loudly, then leans against the door.
After a moment of cleansing breaths, then remembering she has a cigarette to smoke, Carmy levels her gaze on me.
“You should be able to pay full price for a new car after tonight, Clare. You alright?”
“Maybe a nice used car,” I smile at her. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Carmy flicks ashes, never takes her eyes off me. “Going back home tomorrow?”
“Starting the drive tonight, after the shift. Makes for a quicker trip to drive in the middle of the night.”
“Has been so far. This will my fifth trip back … there.”
Carmy finally stops looking at me with those big eyes of hers, turns to open the backdoor. “Hey, Charles? Can you bring me a coke? Thanks, babe.”
He hands her a coke a moment later, then disappears back into the kitchen. Carmy’s expression changes dramatically once she flicks her cigarette away and guzzles the soda.
“Deej is smitten with you, talks about you all the time. But I think Patrick has decided to have your babies. He’ll never make a move, too much of a gentleman, unlike Deej, who I’ve practically had to tie up twice tonight, just to keep him off you.”
I burst out laughing. She grins. Then her expression changes again and her voice lowers. “If you ever repeat this, I’ll kill you and throw ya in that dumpster over there, so this is confidential, okay? Amanda’s been through something similar to your family issues—tragedy and living off scraps. She wasn’t being mean the other night, I realized that later. She just knows how to survive the bad shit. Tough love, right? So, don’t think she hates you.”
“I know. She’s helped me a lot.”
“Good. We’ve all been through one shit storm or another, even trust fund babies like Patrick. So, if you need anything, just say so. We’ll do what we can.”
I can’t say anything because there’s a clump of tears in my throat, so I just nod.
When my closing work is done, while Carmy scolds DJ for something, I go and change into jeans and a sweater. When I exit the backdoor, they’re all out in the alley, Carmy, Jake, DJ, and Patrick.
Carmy hands me a steamy To Go cup of coffee. The guys look at me with solemn faces. Her face isn’t very cheerful either when she says, “You’ve got your pick of four volunteers to ride shotgun.”
I stare at each of them, feel a wash of affection and embarrassment color my face. “Th-thanks, y’all, but there’s no need. Honestly, I don’t know exactly when I’ll be back—I’ve called into my Monday thru Wednesday day job and school already, just in case.”
DJ speaks up, “But you’ll be back Thursday? We’re having a straight pool tournament. Dunham is aces at straight pool… Bill and Sandy are joining in.” His face pinkens. “I’ve told them all about you, Snow White Pirate Princess, so I hope you’re here.”
He’s so sweet. I barely finish that thought when he wiggles his eyebrows and says, “I can’t stand the idea of not seeing you in those black tights and boots, not even one night. And the way your skirt-”
Patrick slaps DJ in the back of the head to make him shut up. I can’t help but laugh. “Thanks, y’all. And thanks for the coffee, Carmy. Bye Patrick, bye Jake.”
When I’m stepping over the threshold into the parking garage, Patrick is suddenly beside me.
“I’d apologize for Deej, but he’s always been a slime ball. Relatively harmless though.”
“Yeah, I figured. No need to apologize. He’s the sweetest slime ball I’ve ever met.”
“Everybody’s worried, after the other night. Sure you’re okay?”
I stop walking at the rear bumper of Old Hondo. Patrick looks down at my car and frowns. I frown back at him.
“Truth is, Patrick, I don’t know for sure. There’s no telling just how bad things will get over the next few months. Mama won’t make it. That’s just fact. It’s my sister that I’m worried about, though. And I’m probably not reacting well to y’all being so sweet to me. That’s a new experience. Dealing with family members dying, with my sister stressing, that’s normal life. Y’all are something different. Don’t think I’m ungrateful.”
“Nobody’s expecting gratitude, Clare. Just … “
He shrugs and shoves his hands in his coat pockets. It’s a cashmere suit coat, tailored. Probably cost more than Old Hondo brand new. Why is this guy looking at me like that?
My phone rings. I know it’s Shannon. “Gotta go, Patrick. Goodnight.”
“Take care.” He frowns down at my car’s bumper again, then turns to leave as I answer the phone.
“Hey, Clare. Will you stay on the phone with me while you drive?”
“Of course, sis.”
2 thoughts on “Dearest Wounded & Healing, I’m Going To Tell You A Story. Chapter One.”
Really well written. I missed the central problem though…is there one?
Thanks for reading! See the paragraph just below the Chapter One header–Clare is trying to build an independent life far from her “hometown”. Be sure to read Chapter Two 🙂