Marty McDade’s uneven fingernails gripped the flesh of my right buttock and I knew I should have spat in his gravy. I spun around to face him, prepared for our third confrontation in as many days, only to be mocked by a smile. His sales smile. The self-proclaimed Used Car King of Bent Harbor was more like the Lord of the Lemons, and my brother had the Yugo to prove it.
Slow drops of sweat dribbled from his receding hairline, down his forehead, and nestled in the lashes of his beady brown eyes. As usual, he had a mid-cardiac arrest look about him, and only the steady movement of his hands reaching for french fries, dipping them in thick beef gravy, and raising them to his waiting lips proved that he wasn’t about to drop dead (at least until he’d finished eating).
His greasy fingers had no business on my ass.
I turned to see a glimmer of amusement in the eyes of Marty’s top salesmen, Ed Banks and Tony Fletcher. They were paunchy, middle-aged sheep, who couldn’t come up with their own opinions if their commissions depended on it, and I was sick of being their daily joke.
“Do you mind?” I snarled.
“Not a bit, Jody,” Marty said, “you’ve got a sweet ass.”
It wouldn’t have been so bad if his son hadn’t been sitting next to him, staring out the window, his lean face flushed with the rich red hue of Marty-fication.
I hadn’t seen much of him since we’d finished high school, and he’d left town along with most of our graduating class. As I cleared the older men’s plates and tried to come up with a stinging retort for his father, I watched Lucas from the corner of my eye.
He was still on the scrawny side, lucky to have sidestepped his father’s girth gene. His eyes, staring at Bent Harbor’s midweek shuffle, were the same washed-out blue I remembered, framed by almost invisible blond lashes. His jawline was covered with a faint dusting of stubble while his lips were faded and dry, as though he’d spent the past ten years at sea.
I cringed slightly, wondering if he remembered groping me in the darkness of the Starscope Theater in ninth grade. His breath had been hot and reeked of red licorice, his hands clumsy with the wooden toggles on my cardigan. Things hadn’t gone very far—a few sloppy kisses and a couple of wool-weakened squeezes when the toggles defeated him. I couldn’t recall exactly what I’d seen in him and, since he hadn’t acknowledged our acquaintance in the forty minutes he’d sat at table 11, I didn’t give a rat’s ass.
I piled plates and gathered cutlery, wishing Marty would find a new lunch destination, but he and his wingmen frequented Dean’s Ocean Galley for every break their schedules allowed. They treated each visit as a unique opportunity to belittle me and giggle like a trio of twelve-year-olds with a stolen porn magazine. They were all single, no surprise, considering their toothpicksucking and belching, not to mention the furtive reaches under the table to make groin adjustments, as though their intimate bits and pieces would take flight if left unattended.
I turned to pile the dishes into a bus pan and Marty pinched me again.
“Hands off!” I barked, glancing toward the kitchen to see if Dean was a witness. He wasn’t in the cook’s window, which meant he was either having a smoke out back with the latest in a string of useless junior-high dishwashers, or he’d taken an issue of Time into the restroom for a bit of “system cleansing,” as he liked to call it. Either way, I was on my own.
Of course, I’d told Dean about the lewd jokes and comments, but there was very little he could do. He’d asked them to tone it down, but he was a teddy bear, and they knew it. Besides, Bent Harbor was a small town with a weak-kneed economy and I couldn’t really expect him to turn away customers.
In seven years, I’d gradually become immune to the crudeness, but the physical stuff was a different matter and my patience was wearing thinner than Marty’s comb-over.
“Sorry, Jody,” he smirked. “You’re just too tempting in that getup.”
“Ah, yes,” I said, through gritted teeth, “the synthetic-fiber defense. I’m sure the irresistible lure of a poly-knit blend has been the downfall of men for centuries.”
“Huh?” he grunted as I turned away.
I cursed my insipid sailor dress and moved to clear another table, certain I’d think of the ultimate zinger in three or four hours, when it was too damn late to use it.
I pocketed a two-dollar tip left by the fire chief, which brought the day’s total to just short of sixty bucks, not bad considering it had been a slow shift. I carried my bus pan to the vacant kitchen, and returned to the dining room with a damp cloth. Relieved to see that Marty and company were absorbed in conversation (except Lucas, who was still staring out the window), I wiped ketchup and grease from the Formica and glanced around the restaurant, amazed I’d worked there so long.
A thick layer of dust covered the collection of seashells in the far corner, and the plank walls were lined with the same creased maps and old photographs of prize-winning fish (caught somewhere other than our shallow dip of coastline) that had been on display when I’d started the job. A ship’s knobby steering wheel, rescued from the St. Peter’s flea market and rummage sale five or six years earlier, leaned against the hostess station, apparently awaiting its unlikely return to sea. Old glass fishing floats, tangled in frayed nets, hung from the ceiling like some kind of mariner’s chandelier.
Dean called it “ambiance.”
Sixteen booths lined the rain-streaked windows, their torn turquoise seat covers depressing, at best, and each table was outfitted with ketchup, malt vinegar, salt and pepper. Laminated menus, boasting big meals for small budgets, were tucked behind chrome napkin dispensers, an absolute bitch to clean. I’d spent countless afternoons attempting to defy fingerprints with a bottle of Windex, a dishtowel, and a string of profanities.
Of course, my assessment of the restaurant wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t consider the thin layer of grease on the checkered tile floor, furniture, light fixtures, and, most importantly, all over my body. I never felt clean at work, and even when I showered at home under a scalding spray, it was nearly impossible to clear the glossy sheen from my pores and hair. And the smell! The entire city block was drenched in the odors of fish, fat, and french fries no matter how much bleach we used on the floors or how quickly our ceiling fans sliced through the air.
If heaven could be found on earth, it was nowhere near Dean’s Ocean Galley, but that was the price I paid to live in Bent Harbor. I could have raced to Seattle like everyone else, but I’d chosen to stay. It wasn’t a perfect town, but it was my home.
I walked to the counter, where Max and Jaundice were slurping coffee and shooting the shit, just as they had every afternoon since retirement from the electric company.
Jaundice wore the yellow golf hat and windbreaker that earned him the nickname years before I was born, and Max fiddled with the zipper on an Adidas track jacket designed to shelter a younger man’s belly. They were best friends for life and my most tolerable regular customers.
If, in some parallel universe I could only fear, I had to choose between them, I’d say Jaundice was the better looking of the two. There was more substance to his wild spray of white hair and he was long and lean, like a lizard or insect. The thick lenses inside his square black frames reduced his eyes to dark specks. His teeth were his own and the envy of Max, who wore chipped dentures, discolored by tobacco, coffee, and foul language. Next to Jaundice’s lanky build, Max looked even shorter and more bulbous than he actually was, so he liked to prop himself on the highest stool at the counter for the sake of aesthetics.
I caught Max’s eye and he gave me a wink, the signal he was ready for dessert. I pulled a slice of blackberry crumble from the pie case. The sugar and oat topping was soggy and stained dark purple from sitting too long, but I placed it in front of him anyway, knowing he wouldn’t care.
“Hot damn!” Max crooned. “I was just about to say I wouldn’t mind some dessert and here it is. You’re like some kind of mindreading computer, Jody.”
“Yeah, well … ,” I murmured.
“I mean it! Goddamn high-speed technology!”
“Click-click-buzz-buzz. A waitress with the brain power of a computer. This place should be called ‘Megabites.’”
He dragged me through the same stale routine every day and didn’t seem to notice I’d stopped laughing in 1998.
“So, what’s the topic of the day, guys?” I asked, leaning against the counter to rotate my heels. Pain didn’t care about the faux-leather, rubber-soled orthopedic horror shows I slipped my feet into every morning, and the varicose veins I predicted would be splattered across the backs of my legs by the time I was thirty were bubbling closer to the surface with every shift I worked. Age twenty-seven and my body was already betraying me.
“Let’s see,” Max mumbled, pudgy fingers stroking his bristled chin. “P.J’s having another episode, so we dropped him off at Whispering Pines this morning.” He polished his fork with the tail of his flannel shirt, and I couldn’t fault him for doubting our latest dishwasher’s dedication.
“He didn’t want to go,” Jaundice said, stirring his coffee. His entire chin moved when he spoke, like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“You got that right,” Max agreed, scooping a mound of crumble into his mouth.
PJ. Hardison was the town’s dominant nutcase, slightly overshadowing the runner-up, Dottie Maple, who was oblivious to the competition. He was about the same vintage as the men at the counter, though a childhood accident had left him slightly off center.
“What kind of episode?” I asked, starting to refill the salt and pepper shakers. I wasn’t sure how his state of mind was measured, but as far as I could tell, his entire life seemed to be one weird, extended episode.
P.J.’s favorite pastime was rattling off a random and endless list of hockey players’ names. He liked the sound of his own voice almost as much as he loved the NHL, and while his muttering alone was bearable, the rambling used to be accompanied by the rhythmic swinging of a rusted machete. He’d claimed to be keeping Old Marine Highway safe by hacking off overhanging branches and increasing visibility for drivers, but his fervor was enough to make more than a few people nervous. Back in 1993, the local police decided that while P.J. wasn’t dangerous, the weapon was, and they’d confiscated it. He spent a couple of days down in the mouth until my brother, Josh, dug an old Star Wars light saber out of our basement as a replacement. Judging by the beaten bushes I’d seen in recent years, the force was still with him.
“Well, sometimes old P.J. gets to be like a broken record with those players,” Max explained. “He gets stuck on one name and can’t seem to get past it. Repeats it for days.” He shoveled another forkful of crumble into his mouth and groaned with pleasure.
“This time it’s Bobby Orr,” Jaundice added. “Bobby Orr, Bobby Orr, Bobby Orr—”
“Cut it out, for Christ’s sake!” Max snapped. “It’s bad enough with just one of you doing it.” He turned his attention back to me. “Orr’s been on his mind for three or four days now. Hasn’t been that bad since seventy-eight.”
“Seventy-seven. The electrical storm was in seventy-seven.” Jaundice added two spoonfuls of sugar to his coffee.
“It was seventy-eight.”
“Seventy-seven. I was with Gert. That was the year she left.” He looped a bony index finger through the handle of his mug.
“She left you four times,” Max pointed out, unnecessarily.
“I meant that was the year she left for good.” Jaundice frowned into his coffee and I couldn’t tell if he was depressed by his wife’s memory or the flavor.
I watched two elderly women squint at the menu in the front window for a full minute before stepping inside.
“Do you serve take-out fish and chips?” the taller of the two asked, gripping her white purse as though theft were the soup of the day.
“Absolutely,” I said, offering her my cheesiest smile.
“We’d like a cod and a large chips to share, please.” She started toward the counter with tiny, birdlike steps.
“I’m sorry, we only have halibut,” I said, for what must have been the eight thousandth time in my waitressing career. The sign on the roof should have read “Dean’s Ocean Galley. If you don’t like halibut, fuck off.”
“No cod?” she gasped, and Max smiled between bites. He’d been trying to talk Dean into adding it to the menu for years.
“No, ma’am. We’ve always served halibut,” I told her.
“Always.” I nodded, and muttered to myself, “Since the beginning of goddamn time.”
The woman turned to her friend, who was still hovering near the front door. “Did you hear that, Phyllis? No cod.”
“Eh?” The smaller one lifted a white-gloved hand to her ear.
“No cod,” her friend repeated.
“What’s theology got to do with my supper?”
“I said, no cod.”
“There is no cod!” My voice boomed toward her.
“May he strike you down!” she gasped.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.” Her companion sighed. “We’ll get hamburgers across the street.”
The door slammed behind them and Max continued with his story as though there’d been no interruption. “So, P.J. was at his worst in nineteen seventy-seven.” He looked to Jaundice, who reluctantly nodded his approval. “There was an electrical storm while he and his brother Dirk were out fishing.”
“In an aluminum canoe,” Jaundice interrupted.
“I’m getting to that.”
“On Shiver Pond,” Jaundice said.
“It doesn’t matter where they were.”
“Details make the story, Max.”
It didn’t matter whether I’d heard the tale before, or if I was listening to them at all. They could talk until their coffees were colder than a toilet seat at two A.M. without skipping a beat.
“Anyway, those two get caught in a downpour,” Max continued, “so they head for shore. When they reach the safety of land, they take off across that meadow on the west side. You know the one, right, Jody?”
“Of course she knows the one. You can’t go to Shiver Pond without seeing the meadow.” Jaundice rolled his eyes.
“Can I tell the story?”
“Doesn’t seem like it.”
Max sighed and continued. “Okay, the rain’s pouring down and they have to run across the meadow to get to their truck, so you know what they did?”
I shook my head.
“Those dumbasses ran across an open meadow in a lightning storm, using an aluminum canoe for cover!”
“The lightning killed Dirk,” Jaundice explained.
“Yup, that’s the kicker. The normal brother dies and old P.J. gets the charge of his life!”
“That’s what stalled him on Guy Lafleur.”
“Right.” Max nodded. “The Lafleur kick lasted damn near a week. That was the first time we took him to Whispering Pines.”
“God only knows what they did to him, but when we picked him up for Dirk’s funeral, he was onto new players.”
“Right. Gordie Howe and so on. Cured, I suppose,” Max laughed. “Well, as cured as old Patrick James could get.”
Patrick James. Along with the rest of town, I’d been calling him “Poor Judgment” for as long as I could remember.
“Now it’s Bobby Orr,” Max said, shaking his head.
“At least he’s stalled on one of the greats,” Jaundice added. “He’ll be fine in a few days, I’m sure.”
A loud burst of laughter erupted at Marty’s table and Jaundice glanced over his shoulder. “What’s with them?”
“The usual. They’re being assholes again.”
“So, ignore them,” he suggested, as though the thought had never crossed my mind.
“I try, but it really pisses me off. I’m sick of coming in here, day after day, and taking crap from a bunch of car jockeys.” I was just getting warmed up. “And the worst of it is—”
“You know, some folks say that sour grapes make whine,” Max offered between mouthfuls.
“Great. I’ll try to remember that.”
“All I’m saying is, sometimes life is the shits. Deal with it.”
“I appreciate your candor, Max. All I’m saying is, I can do bet ter than this.”
“I hope so,” he said, “I’ve been drinking lukewarm coffee for fifteen minutes and you haven’t even offered me a warm-up.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know.” He smiled and handed me his mug.
“Can we get a total over here?” Marty called from across the dining room.
I gave both Max and Jaundice refills before moving toward the McDade table.
“Yessir,” Marty taunted, as I handed him the bill. “She can fill out that uniform like nobody else.”
I glared at him, my ideal zinger still out of reach.
“Come on, Jody.” He leaned toward me, belly pressed against the tabletop. “We all know how you feel about me.”
“You’re like … bad sinus congestion.” I grabbed his plate.
As I turned to walk away, Marty patted my backside with a warm palm. “Then I guess you wanna blow me.”
While the three older men laughed hysterically, I turned to see Lucas wincing on my behalf and I felt something snap inside. I’d heard worse jokes and managed to walk away, but suddenly seven years seemed like too damn long to put up with Marty’s bullshit. He would never stop harassing me, and his sneering smile would always be waiting at the corner table, pushing me to believe that Dean’s Ocean Galley was as far as life would take me.
I froze, dropped his plate and cutlery onto the nearest table with a clatter, and stood dead still, hands on my hips.
Ed’s face was flushed, and I saw tears of laughter glittering in the corners of Tony’s eyes. They were laughing at me because they could, knowing I had to be polite and friendly for the sake of a few lousy bucks in tips. I was tired, sore, greasy, and it was never going to get any better than clearing tables and slinging fried fish. There was no ladder to climb, and no promotions to look forward to. I was a waitress. Period. Even though the money I put away was slowly building up in my savings account and I was inching closer to buying my dream house on Sitka Point, I loathed the feeling at the end of a shift that all I’d accomplished was feeding a bunch of losers too lazy to cook for themselves.
In a moment of defiance I made a big decision.
“That’s what?” Marty asked, running stubby fingers through what remained of his hair.
“It. I’ve had it with you guys, with this whole place.” I untied my apron and tossed it on the nearest table, adrenaline pumping.
“What, you’re quitting?” Marty asked, lips stretching toward a smile.
“Yes!” Saying the word was like releasing a held breath, or loosening a belt. I was ready for the next stage of my life. I could do anything, be anything! I could control my own destiny. “I quit!”
“Again?” Ed and Tony asked in unison.
“Yes, again,” I snapped, refusing to let them steal my thunder.
“For real this time?” Marty asked.
Of course, they’d seen me go through the motions of quitting, only to return to work the next morning with my tail between my legs, at least six times before. By the time I’d reached my doorstep, I realized that even if I found another job in town, which was about as likely as Marty having a low cholesterol count, nothing would pay as much as the Galley. Tips, large or small, had always reeled me back in.
But this time I’d had enough. This time, I really meant it.
“For real.” I nodded briskly and headed for the kitchen, noting the slight smile on Lucas’s face and the slack-jawed shock of Max and Jaundice.
With each step away from Marty I felt my confidence build, and by the time I reached the doorway next to the deep fryer I was ready to burst with a newfound sense of power.
From behind a pile of filthy pots and pans, a gloved hand pointed me in the direction of the office. It was actually a large supply cupboard, with no windows and little room for much in the way of furniture, but Dean didn’t mind. I peered in the doorway, where receipts and check stubs were piled next to menu samples, paper place mats, and an overflowing ashtray on the wobbly card table he used as a desk. My boss sat on a folding chair, reading the Bent Harbor Times.
“Uh, Dean? I need to talk to you.”
“Oh, hey, Jody Come on in.” He shuffled his chair to one side until I could step into the space. “What’s going on?”
He smiled, his teeth bright white against the darkness of his skin. His broad cheekbones and lips were pure Makah, and I envied the density of the short, black hair he claimed was difficult to style. At well over two hundred pounds, but only five foot six, he was a low wall of a man, with thick, leathered hands resting patiently on his knees. Behind his glasses I could see a fine web of wrinkles, a reminder that he was nearing sixty.
Suddenly, I felt guilty about quitting.
Seven years earlier he’d given me the job, despite my lack of experience, and aside from his choice of asinine uniforms, he was a better boss than I’d ever hoped for. He was accommodating when it came to days off, and he fed me well, which probably accounted for the extra fifteen pounds I’d packed on.
“Quit?” he asked quietly, catching me off guard.
“I could see it in your face. For real this time?”
Why did everyone have to ask?
I thought about the classified ads I’d scanned during my coffee break that very day. Linda Larson’s plea for Avon reps was outlined in bold next to listings for an experienced telemarketer and a part-time paper route on the east side of town. That was it. I had no chance for immediate employment, but I didn’t want that to matter. It was time for a change.
“For real, Dean.”
“You’re sure?” At least he had the decency to keep a straight face. How many times had we exchanged those words?
“Pretty sure.” There was no sense in burning my bridges.
“You know you can always come back if things don’t work out.”
“I appreciate that.” Returning to the Galley was practically the dictionary definition of things not working out.
“Okay, then.” He sighed. “Don’t worry about covering any more shifts if you don’t want to. Katie’s starting in a couple of minutes, and Barb wants extra hours. One of my nieces has been asking about part-time work, too.”
“Oh.” I was disappointed to hear my absence wouldn’t leave a glaring hole in the schedule, but I pushed the thought to the back of my mind and concentrated on the excitement of leaving instead.
“It’s been a pleasure.” He stood and offered me a handshake, which turned into a tight bear hug.
“Well, thanks,” I said, when he released me, unsure of what else to say. “Thanks for everything.”
I felt the sting of tears as I turned away from him and lifted my knapsack from a coat hook on my way out the door, but I also felt good about taking a stand and finally making a move to change my life.
I should have known better.