The Language of Stars A Home Away from Home
When you are the planet’s Worst of All Waitresses, your only hope is to be its newest, too. Drop a plate on some poor diner who didn’t even order it? Widen your eyes in horror, then put your hand to your mouth. “Oh, I am so sorry!” Breathe deeply, tragically. “I’m new here.” Screw up the orders, so the haddock goes to the table that wanted the veal—half an hour ago? “I can’t believe I did that!” Pause. Sigh. Whisper, “It’s my first day.”
It was my first day at Mamselle’s for over a year. I went to work there as soon as I turned fifteen. I couldn’t serve drinks, but I could wait on tables. And since Shepherd needed all the help he could get, and my mother wanted me to save for college, it was pretty much decided without me. I’d never seen my father in his element before, and trust me, it was nothing like Take Your Kid to Work Day. No fancy office, no quiet hum of printers or doors you can close and keep closed. Only the glare and blare of the kitchen at full tilt, the steam and the tension. And it wasn’t just a once-a-year visit, either. From then on, it happened every weekend—hell on Fridays and Saturdays.
I never really learned to pace myself, never got used to the rush and the heat and the yelling. I trailed two waitresses, one after the other, for weeks on end. But nothing took. I couldn’t get the graceful balancing act going that the others managed. I felt more like a clown juggler in shoes the size of boats. Cut to thirteen months later: I was still dropping plates, still making the same newbie mistakes—I placed too many orders at once, I cleared from the left, I brought the salad last. But I guess I should be glad I was there, messing up like always, when Shepherd fired the new hire. Otherwise, I might never have found Baylor’s cottage. It’s tied together in my mind, somehow: first the steam and the noise, and then that little house that helped me forget all about them.
It was only a few days after Christmas. The silver wreaths were still hanging over each table in the dining room, but it was business as usual in the kitchen. I was cutting bread for Chef Manny, focusing on keeping the slices thin enough so I could get three baskets out of one loaf, when Mamselle’s brand-new busboy pushed into the kitchen at the same time Shepherd was going out. The sound that made me look up, that made everyone in the room stop what they were doing, was like a train wreck. Only this train was made of silver and china and glass. When the tray of leftover food hit the tile floor, it bounced and clattered halfway across the room, and by the time the flatware and dishes had stopped spinning and smashing, we were all staring at the kid, holding our breath.
For a few seconds, everything was quiet—no talking, no cupboards closing, no pots slamming; only the low sputter from something on the grill and the skittering of a single plate, spinning and wobbling like a one-legged ballerina:
KITCHEN AND WAITSTAFF
Winn-WINN-winn-WINN-winn, WANG, WANG, wannn, tannn, t-chang,
Son of a bitch!
There was a sort of music in what was happening. Until that last sour note. Shepherd’s voice was a yell and a snarl at once. It was a tone I’d heard more times than I could count, the one he saved for anyone who screwed up. And, of course, I screwed up more than most. “I thought you said you’d worked tables before?”
The boy was my age, maybe younger. He stood over his fallen bus tray, staring in disbelief at how the six half-eaten meals he’d been carrying a minute ago had flown through the air and landed . . . well, everywhere. There were soggy rolls, smashed veggies, and lumps of who knew what smeared across the tiles; gravy had splattered onto the pass-through, and béchamel sauce was oozing like an alien life form down the counter’s metal sides; sprigs of parsley and bits of carrot had shot as far as the baseboard heater, and I’m pretty sure the lemon curl I pulled out of the bread basket wasn’t one of Manny’s “innovations.”
Shepherd was in his maître d’ monkey suit, but he’d lost his dining-room manners. “Pick up this shit, and get out,” he told the boy, who was still entranced with the food collage he’d made. “And don’t forget to take off that cummerbund before you go.” Merry Christmas, Shepherd-style.
“You’re firing him?” I spoke up before I realized that my support was the last thing this kid needed. Some fathers might give their daughters slack, and others might bend over backward to pretend there’s no difference at all. But ever since he’d given me this job, Shepherd had gone out of his way to be harder on me than on anyone else. My station was the last to be filled, my tables were always small parties, and I never, ever did anything right. So sticking up for the new busboy was probably giving him the kiss of death.
“Shut up, Sarah.”
See what I mean? Nice father-daughter dialogue, right?
“Shepherd, I’m just saying—”
“You’re just saying nothing, Sarah. And as for you”—Shepherd turned back to the boy, who’d sunk to his knees and was making sloppy passes through the mess with a sponge—“you’re lucky I’m not charging you for those dishes. Now get lost.” Happy holidays, from our place to yours.
The kid stood slowly, his face flushed and damp, then fumbled with his satin belt. You could see he was way too nervous for fine motor movements.
“Shit!” Shepherd grabbed one end of the cummerbund and yanked it off so hard the boy’s shirttails got pulled out of his pants and hung from his waist like a collapsed parachute. A parachute that hadn’t saved anyone.
Then the kitchen doors were swinging silently and Shepherd was back in the dining room, making nice. Out front, Mamselle’s was très élégant, as they say in France. Those giant padded doors were like a border between two countries, locking out the heat and the earsplitting noise from the kitchen and opening into climate-controlled comfort, old-fashioned butter churns, tablecloths made from antique grain sacks, and Shepherd in a tux. He called everyone “sir” or “madam,” remembered their names and their favorite desserts, and generally split a gut to make sure they came back. (Which meant, of course, he also made sure only the older waitresses served the regulars—a good thing for my first-day routine, but a pretty lousy thing for my self-esteem.)
I had watched my father work that room weekend after weekend. And tonight was no different. In between orders, I studied the way he glided when he walked, the way he almost whispered when he spoke, the way he soothed and calmed and sweet-talked. “That little noise, Mrs. Hazen? Why, that was just some high spirits in the kitchen. It’s one of the staff’s birthday.”
He bowed at the waist, leaned into the table. “I certainly will, Mrs. Hazen. Why don’t you let me freshen that drink? I won’t forget the extra olive.” And then he was on to the next table, with more smiles, more little touches that made customers feel pampered and special. Mr. Congeniality—that was my dining-room dad.
My kitchen dad? Let’s just say he deserved a different award. “I’m sorry,” I told our newest ex-busboy on my next pass through Hell’s Kitchen. The kid was tall and skinny and looked seconds away from tears. “My dad’s a jerk.”
“That’s your father?” He sounded like I’d told him I had cancer. I walked with him to the staff-room door, watched him take his jacket off the hook.
“Sort of,” I said. It was too hard, too complicated, to explain. I didn’t go around announcing to strangers that my mother had once had a thing with Shepherd. That she never wanted to marry him. That now, she didn’t even want to speak to him.
I wished I could tell this boy not to let Shepherd get to him. But he’d just lost what was probably his first job, and words wouldn’t change that. Besides, it had taken me forever to learn to roll with the punches. So all I said was good-bye, and then I watched him and his starched shirttails disappear out the back door.
As for me, I wanted to make a statement. My shift was over, not that Shepherd had seated anyone at my tables in the last half hour, anyway. So I decided to leave, too. But not by the staff door—that would have been following the rules. Instead, I kept my apron on and walked, head high, right through the dining room, right past everybody’s favorite maître d’ cracking jokes with a party of eight. I moved the way I did onstage, even when I only had a supporting role. Calm and steady, I fell right into my part, a girl who belonged in that elegance and cool, a girl who could barely feel Shepherd’s eyes burning holes in her back.
I knew he wouldn’t call after me, not with everyone in the room watching. Not with Mrs. What’s-Her-Name waiting for her drink. Not with that jolly make-believe birthday party under way in the kitchen. And Shepherd sure wasn’t about to rat me out to Mom. He would never dare tell her he hadn’t given me a ride home.
So I just kept going. Straight through the front door and out onto the patio, where lights were strung in the potted trees, and where in six months, summer diners would be eating at wrought-iron tables under giant blue umbrellas embroidered with a silver M. I stopped when I hit the fresh air, but only for a minute. I didn’t know where I was going next; I only knew it wasn’t home.
* * * *
The dirt path took you so far off the main road that, until the sign was put up the year before, not a whole lot of tourists ever found the place. That night, I almost walked past the turn myself. I was still fuming over the way Shepherd had treated the new kid. And yes, over the way he hadn’t put anyone at my tables until Marsha’s and Laynelle’s diners were eating butt to butt. I had replayed every one of his curses, every snide comment, until I was pretty near liftoff. That was when I saw the streetlight bouncing off the gold letters by the drive: RUFUS H. BAYLOR SUMMER COTTAGE: 1.5 MILES.
I knew the house existed. Everybody did. But even though a few of my friends had hiked up there and taken the tour, I’d always wondered what all the fuss was about. A famous poet, who’d lived lots of places, had rented a regulation beach cottage here for a few summers. Big deal, right? Now, though, I decided anywhere was better than home: one and a half miles up. And back. That would give me time to cool down. Maybe.
It was midwinter, but on the Carolina shore, that doesn’t exactly look like a holiday card. There’s no snow. No red cheeks. Sure, you’ll usually want a sweater or jacket at night. But I was carrying more than enough heat with me—from the steamy kitchen, from Shepherd’s abuse, from getting up the nerve to parade through the dining room like that. So I slipped out of my sweatshirt, tied the sleeves around my waist, and followed the winding trail through the pines and scrub brush. The farther up the path I got, the less Shepherd mattered and the more I felt like myself again. By the time I saw another light winking at me through the trees, my heart was settling, and the whole bad day was righting itself, turning over like one of Manny’s crepes, light and lacy and good enough to eat right out of the pan.
That second streetlight, when I reached the end of the drive, lit up a row of white fence pickets, made them rise up out of the shadows. Long, spindly fingers of spicebush waved from behind them, still summer yellow, still smelling like something you wished you could keep in a bottle and spill all over yourself when things got bad.
Sure enough, once I got close, the house was no different from most of the cottages that dotted the woods on the bay side of town. It had a porch out back so renters could finish their day sitting in the breeze that came off the water when the sun went down. The front was plain, no-nonsense, and except for the metal plaque on the siding by the door, you’d never know it was anything special:
RUFUS H. BAYLOR SUMMER COTTAGE—FOR TEN YEARS, THE RENOWNED POET BROUGHT HIS FAMILY HERE EACH SUMMER, DRAWING PEACE AND INSPIRATION FROM WHALE POINT’S PICTURESQUE STREETS AND FRIENDLY RESIDENTS.
I laughed when I read the words. Because the only way I could find my own brand of peace and inspiration was to get as far away as possible from those very same picturesque streets and friendly residents. All I wanted was to forget that my mother had my life mapped out for me, including rest stops, attractions, and shortcuts to success; and that my father . . . well, you already know about my father.
I went around to the back of the house, stepped onto the porch, and put my face up to one of the windows. A security light on the roof threw part of the room into a sort of spotlight, and made the rest disappear in gloom. In the center of the spotlight, a group of photo frames glinted from the top of an old rolltop desk. Rufus Baylor was a household name, a National Treasure, someone we all had to learn about in school. Which is why it was hard to imagine him sitting at that ordinary desk, walking through the rooms of this ordinary house, and going to the beach with all the ordinary kids in those photos. Ordinary, except for one.
I had leaned so close to the window that I felt the glass on my forehead when I picked out her picture, set in a silver oval, right in the middle. There were other photos around hers, but you knew this girl was the main attraction. She was about my age, only more together—face it, there are sixteen-year-olds . . . and then there are sixteen-year-olds.
Her hair was lighter than mine, nearly white, and much curlier. She had friendly, safe eyes and a holdback smile that told you if she opened her mouth, poetry would come out. I didn’t know if she was the Great One’s daughter or maybe granddaughter, but she was clearly special to him, sitting center front like that.
I’m not sure why I decided to call her Nella. Maybe because the name sounds like water. She looked the way light does when it shines on waves—glittery, but peaceful. The next time I went back, on the way to work, I named the other kids. The ones in all the frames I could see through the windows in the daytime. Some of them were thinner or prettier than Nella. Some sat beside dogs or wore graduation caps and broad, smug grins. But none of them made me feel the way she did: Like if I walked up to her, I wouldn’t have to introduce myself. Like this was my house, too.
It wasn’t, of course. Yes, I made a habit, from then on, of stopping by the Baylor cottage on my way to the restaurant. As winter turned to spring, I watched the red allspice berries and sumac fruit give way to tiny grape hyacinths and daffodils. And I found myself imagining the lives of the family that used to live in that picture-perfect dollhouse. But no, I never thought of going inside, not even on visiting days, when the rooms downstairs were open to the public.
For one thing, the place was always closed by five, which was when Mamselle’s prepped for dinner and I walked to work. For another, being inside a dollhouse isn’t the same as looking at it from the outside, and who wants to find out the whole thing is held together with glue and Scotch tape? Trust me, the diners at Mamselle’s were better off in their air-conditioned never-never land, where everyone wore jackets and no one threw pots or economy-size tantrums.
Looking in from the outside was good enough for me. The truth is, spying through the windows of the Baylor place gave me another life, one I didn’t want to lose by walking inside. For just a few minutes, I lived there, too. I spoke in rhyme, I read just for fun, and I had a fancy celebrity father instead of Shepherd, who was, now that I’d gotten to know him up close and personal, worse than none at all.