Wish You Were Here
1. Little Flags
Tuesdays were tortilla soup days at Blackbird’s Café. They offered unlimited refills for a lousy four ninety-five. It was awesome if you were a tortilla soup lover. It was some kind of evil if you were a waitress there.
The restaurant’s trick was that the bowls were wide and shallow, making it appear like a massive amount of soupy goodness, when really, each bowlful amounted to just a few thinly spread ounces. The problem with said plates disguised as bowls is that they were impossible to carry on a tray; the soup just sloshed from side to side, predictably spilling over the lip each time you traipsed from the kitchen to the customer’s table, no matter how steady your hands were. Jack, the owner, and his fat “little” brother, who went by Jon-Jon (ridiculous, I know), insisted that we carry the trays up high, like waitresses on roller-skates at a goddamn carhop. It’s part of the charm, they said. The word charm was used loosely to justify the outdated décor, in my opinion.
If you ordered the “bottomless” tortilla soup bowl, you
had to shamefully raise a miniature flag on a tiny flagpole screwed to the end of your table. It was an abominable mechanism, truly, but it achieved Jack and Jon-Jon’s desired effect: no one ever, not even a three-hundred-pound man with a passion for Tex-Mex, would raise the flag more than twice; it was too humiliating.
Unfortunately, this type of ploy to get people into the restaurant without the business losing money didn’t draw a high-tipping clientele, so Tuesdays were a bust for the waitresses at Blackbird’s. We made no money and we always went home with a healthy amount of tortilla soup splattered on our white tuxedo shirts. (Yes, we wore tuxedo shirts and bow ties in a pie-and-fry diner; more of that charm I guess.) But this particular Tuesday was the worst.
“I FEEL LIKE I’m in hell. Have you seen the guy at table twenty-three?” Helen, my best friend, roommate, and fellow waitress, said to me in the side station.
I peeked around the wall and spotted a gray-haired man eating by himself. “Yeah, what about him?”
“He asked for an avocado al dente. Who the fuck uses the term ‘al dente’ to describe an avocado?”
“You know what he means though, right?” I was laughing but Helen was serious.
“Yes, but this isn’t Spago. He’d be lucky to get a green avocado at this place.”
“It’s not that bad,” I said as I filled a plastic cup with Coke. The fountain dispenser started huffing and puffing little bursts of air. “Fucking shit, the CO2 is running out. Can you go tell Jon-Jon?”
“Sorry, I have to get twenty-one’s order.” As Helen left the side station, I watched her hips sway from side to side as she breezed into the dining room. Helen knew she had a good body and that men gawked at her. She walked slowly and rhythmically, which made me think she liked the attention.
I, on the other hand, walked fast everywhere, with my shoulders slumped and my head down. People would always say, “You’re a pretty girl, Charlotte. Why do you walk like an old man?” My response was usually something like, “I don’t know, it’s just the way I walk.” Lame, I know, but I didn’t put much thought into how I was perceived. Probably because the only thing I really liked about my entire body was my long, reddish-brown hair. I had big brown eyes that my brother called “poop colored” and freckles that, thankfully, were fading as I got older. Still, if you asked me to draw a self-portrait, I’d unconsciously add the freckles. It’s like that Freudian theory that says you’re a perpetual child in your own mind.
“Did I hear my name?” Jon-Jon was suddenly standing inappropriately close to me as I unscrewed the large CO2 cylinder.
“Can you fix this?” I was bent over with my ass in the air.
“You seem to be doing a pretty good job.”
I popped up straight. “Why are you so pervy? You’re gonna get sued one day.” Had I not been fired from two jobs already that year, I never would have put up with Jon-Jon’s crap, but I needed the money and I was not in a position to lose another job. I think it goes without saying that waitressing wasn’t my career of choice, though that wasn’t my biggest problem. I had a degree in nutrition and my real estate license, and I was a certified massage therapist. See a pattern?
At one point I actually thought I wanted to become a horse jockey. I’d never even been on a horse, but repeat viewings of Seabiscuit were enough to persuade me.
“Relax, Charlotte, out of the way.” Jon-Jon moved his tubby little body in front of me and took over replacing the cylinder.
I looked into the dining room to see raised flags on three of my tables. It was time for some ingenuity. I found a large pitcher under the dishwasher’s station. “Can I use this?” I held it up to one of the busboys.
“Sure, Gutterfoot,” he said. Did I mention that everyone at Blackbird’s called me Gutterfoot? Directly underneath the big metal trays where we stacked dirty dishes was a one-foot-by-one-foot drain where we scraped all the nasty food that was left on the plates. Sometimes it got clogged, and very rarely, a waitress would step in it. Some shitty Tuesday when I was in a hurry, I was that waitress, and the damn thing was practically overflowing with what looked like vomit. It wasn’t actual vomit, of course, but if ever you need something to really resemble vomit, a mixture of soup, meatloaf scraps, pie, soda, and beer is pretty much as close as you can get. The sludge went halfway up my right calf, but I just pulled my foot out and smiled, briefly thanking some higher-up somewhere. On any other day of the week, this incident would have enraged me, but it was a Tuesday. I thought for sure I’d get sent home and be relieved of my duties as soup peddler. I was wrong. Jack said we were too slammed, so I had to stay and distribute bottomless bowls of tortilla soup with a sopping-wet pant leg and shoes filled with rotting food sludge. Naturally, I got nicknamed Gutterfoot.
I took the pitcher and began ladling tortilla soup into it when Jon-Jon found me. “Charlotte, what are you doing now?” he asked.
“I have a bunch of refills. This’ll make it faster and easier.”
“You know you’ve been on thin ice since the closet caper, right? We don’t serve soup via pitcher,” Jon-Jon said.
“I’m being efficient! And, anyway, the closet stunt was Helen’s doing.” We always got blamed for each other’s mistakes because we were inseparable. A couple of weeks before, when our shift had gotten slow, she’d told me to find Jon-Jon and ask him if he’d fixed the door to the linen closet. I’d known she was up to something.
When Jon-Jon had opened the closet, Helen jumped out and yelled, “Wah!” He’d fallen back on the floor and clutched his heart immediately; a man with his kind of dumpy little body was totally a candidate for sudden cardiac arrest. Luckily we hadn’t been responsible for his untimely death . . . yet.
“You were part of it,” he said.
“No, I really wasn’t.”
Helen came bouncing through the kitchen. “Dude, you have flags up on, like, every one of your tables. People have no dignity.”
“I’m going, I’m going.”
Jon-Jon was right. Tortilla soup should not be served via pitcher, but if anyone asked, I would say it was part of the charm at Blackbird’s.
After our shift slowed down, I pulled a little closet caper of my own. I knew when Helen went on break that she’d sometimes make out with Luc in the linen closet. They’d
been sucking each other’s faces off for about six months. He was a French dude who had flunked out of some hoity-toity pastry school in France and now was stuck at Blackbird’s, making pies for the masses. He was actually surprisingly proud of his job, despite the fact that he made minimum wage. His pie technique was incredible, and he had the freedom to make every kind of pie he wanted. Somehow, this aroused Helen. I tried not to judge, but I could barely watch Helen’s face whenever Luc said anything. He pronounced her name Huh-leen, and every time he said it, she practically had an orgasm.
The first time they met, he’d kissed her hand and whispered in her ear, “You and I would make beautiful babies.” Helen had turned into a pile of goo, and she was Luc’s ever since. He’d helped both of us get hired at Blackbird’s—I was between careers, and Helen hadn’t landed a substantial acting gig in eight years—so I just rolled my eyes and kept my mouth shut whenever I saw Helen throwing him seductive looks.
But when I swung the linen closet open, it was just Helen sitting on a stool, puffy-eyed and holding a bottle of vodka she’d clearly swiped from Jon-Jon’s famous Bloody Mary bar.
“What are you doing?”
“Luc broke up with me.” She sniffled.
“What? Just now? Why?”
“He was rambling something in half French, half En-glish, so I didn’t catch it all. Something about a ship running its course, and overripe peaches. He was smiling the whole time, that bastard.” She took a swig and hiccupped.
“How do you know he was breaking up with you?”
“Because he said, ‘Huh-leen, it was a beautiful think, you and me, but eet is over.’?”
She unintentionally made Luc’s accent sound Mexican, and it made me laugh. “I’m sorry, but honestly, you’re better off. I mean, those bright-pink tennis shoes and that permanent five-o’clock shadow . . . come on. I bet he wears Speedos.”
“He does!” She burst into tears.
I bent and hugged her around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, babe; there will be other, less stinky fish in the sea.”
She straightened up. “He smells, doesn’t he?”
“Like body odor mixed with pie dough. It’s offensive.”
“I need a rebound.” Her eyes shot open and she raised her index finger to the closet ceiling. “That’s it, we’re going out tonight.”
I shook my head. “I’m too tired, and you shouldn’t be going out tonight, either. It won’t make you feel any better. The first night of a breakup should be about Chinese food, ice cream, and bad TV.”
“I’ll let you dye my hair tomorrow,” she offered.
Helen nodded like an excited puppy.
“Ugh. Deal.” I had been contemplating going to cosmetology school, but I didn’t have enough people to practice on. Helen changed her hair color after every breakup—it was currently a pale shade of purple—but she’d never let me near her hair before.
“I’m thinking chartreuse,” she said, rising from her stool.
“Chartreuse will look great on you!” I gave her a bone-crushing hug of gratitude. “We’ll get some Manic Panic tomorrow. So, where do you want to go tonight?”
“Ladies!” Jon-Jon barked.
“Out of the closet. Do I have to remind you that this is a place of business?”
We peeked our heads around the door. “We weren’t doing anything, Jon-Jon. We just wanted a break in peace,” I said.
“Well, take your break outside. You two are getting phased for the night.” He made a circular motion with his hand in front of his face, which was the symbol for, Wrap up your tables because you’re going home.
“Thank you, Jesus!” Helen shouted. Once the rush was over, every waiter wanted to get phased. You didn’t really make any money after the dinner rush, and the waiters who had to stay late ended up doing boring side work, like filling up saltshakers and ketchup bottles. It sucked.
“Did we decide where we’re going tonight?” I asked Helen while we wiped down our empty tables.
“How about Villains?”
I gave her a wide grin. “Perfect.”