Read an Excerpt after hours at the almost home
By tara yellen unbridled books Copyright © 2008 Tara Yellen
All right reserved.
Chapter One JJ was in the way. The aisles were crammed, people bumped into her-there was no place to stand. "Excuse me," she said. She squeezed her elbows close to her body, then tripped through a jangle of chairs. She'd never waited tables before, and so far all they'd had time to show her were how to change the soda syrups and where to find napkins. Customers grabbed her arms and asked her for things she couldn't hear or didn't understand. "Go Broncos," she said.
"Do something," a tall waitress hissed as she passed, her ponytail whapping JJ in the mouth. The waitress was carrying a tray of drinks high in the air and was moving fast without looking like she was moving fast. People got out of the way. JJ tried to follow her, to ask what it was exactly she should do, but the waitress was already far ahead, the crowd filling in behind her, the tray of drinks traveling over heads the only proof she hadn't vanished entirely.
JJ did her best. She handed out napkins, refilled waters. Tried to keep track of the servers. There were three of them: the tall blond waitress, another waitress who was older, in her thirties or forties, and a waiter who'd given her a quick tour earlier and told a funny joke about a goat that couldn't spell. His head was shaved and he was big. Really big. Tall and overweight both. He wasn't the type you'd imagine waiting tables-maybe not even someone you'd want around food. But the customers seemed to like him. One table applauded when he brought them pitchers of beer, another chanted his name. As for the bartenders, JJ couldn't see the one working now, way back there behind the swarm of customers-and had only briefly met the lanky, dark-haired guy who'd been behind the bar when she first arrived. He hadn't had time to say much.
It was fun, JJ decided. Or it looked fun: the activity, the purpose. How the servers all held their mouths in the same fixed manner. The way they balanced trays and carried plates across their wrists and up the insides of their arms. The food slid a bit on the plates, and the ketchup bottles that they stuck heads-down into their aprons waggled dangerously with every step, but nothing fell. Not even with the tall blonde and her cloppy heels. Amazing, JJ thought, watching her swoop a tray of bottles over someone's suddenly raised arm.
Something good happened in the football game. People jumped up and cheered. It was a strange mix of people. A woman dressed like a witch stood up and covered her ears. Across the room, at the midpoint of the long, boomerang-shaped bar, the big waiter-Keith-waved his tray and hollered for the bartender. "Order up!" The servers got their drinks there, at the wait station. It was marked by two silver handlebars curving into question marks. Like the kind you saw going into swimming pools.
Customers yelled, "Beer!" "Shots!" "Grandma," a woman called and held up her glass. Grandma. Maybe JJ'd heard it wrong.
The older waitress came up and touched JJ's arm. "This way," she said. Her face was wet and splotched, and her short orange hair stuck out in funny horns like she'd been yanking it. "I'm Colleen," she said, catching her breath. "Here-please-follow me."
JJ helped Colleen bring food to the tables. It wasn't as easy as it looked. The plates were hot and the cooks expected you to grab three or four at a time-which, for JJ, made it just about impossible to move, let alone cross the room. It proved far simpler to take things off the tables than to put them on, so she slipped away and busied herself with clearing used napkins and dishes and glasses, scooping them up and depositing them into plastic tubs by the kitchen doors. Just as she was getting the hang of it, though, just as she was starting to enjoy the stacking and weaving-it was almost like a sport-she went and dropped a chicken wing into someone's full mug of beer.
The beer's owner held it up. "What's this? Whatcha twin' to give me? A wet boner?"
Laughter from the rest of the table.
"No," JJ said quickly, without thinking.
More laughter. In college, they were the type of guys who'd never given her a second glance: backwards baseball caps, smirky smiles. She resisted the urge to touch her hair.
"And where're my cheddar fries? It's been, what, hour and a half since we ordered? And now I don't even have a freakin' beer?"
"I'm so sorry," JJ said. "Maybe I could-"
"On the house." The tall blond waitress reappeared out of nowhere and set down a fresh mug and a full, foamy pitcher of beer. "See," she said to the guy, laying a hand on his shoulder, "we got you covered, sweetie"-then she pulled JJ away by the wrist and backed her against a wall. "Who told you to come in?"
"I don't remember his name," JJ stammered. "I think he's a manager-"
"He said tonight."
"Wonderful. That's just terrific." The pendant around her neck read Lena in gold block letters. That seemed right: sharp and direct, like her voice. And her stare. And her breath-she was so close, JJ could taste the menthol of her chewing gum. "Maybe you haven't noticed, but it's Super Bowl Sunday. Welcome to Madison fucking Square Garden. If you're looking for a Girl Scout badge, try some other goddamn place."
And she was off.
She could be a beauty queen, JJ thought, still frozen there, getting an image of one of those frosted dresses with tight shoulders. Or maybe not the queen but a runner-up, a very close second.
Then it struck her: maybe she did have the wrong day.
Maybe she'd heard it wrong or written it down wrong, and really she was supposed to come in next Sunday. Or maybe-oh god-even yesterday. JJ tried to rethink the conversation and remember exactly what it was the manager had said.
"More beer," a nearby table hollered. "More everything!"
Game music blasted from the TVs: dah nah-nah-nah, dah nah-nah-nah....
Of course, it was too late anyway. It no longer mattered. It wasn't tomorrow or yesterday. She was here now.
Across the room, Lena was charging toward the bar-her spine straight, her chin up, like she was wearing that pageant gown. Like she was off to beat up the queen.
JJ squared herself. She took a breath. She could do this.
Lena ducked behind the bar, leaving Colleen and Keith to work the floor. Why is it, she wanted to know, that when something goes wrong, I'm expected to fix it? She poured beers, poured drinks, slammed off taps just in time.
"Hey, we got a bartender," someone yelled. There was a spatter of applause.
"Right here! Another round!"
She didn't look up. She tipped the vodka upside down. One two three, across to the next glass of ice, one two three, next.
Where the fuck is Marna?
Keith came barreling behind the bar and started knocking things over in the beer cooler. Lena swatted him away. "I'll do it! Just get your tables."
"Seven Heinekens, pitcher Bud, pitcher Coors, double Jack and Coke." He hiked up his jeans and pushed himself out into the crowd, toppling a stack of napkins with a beefy elbow. "Who's thirsty?" he bellowed.
"Hey, Lena." Colleen grabbed both handrails. Her face was gummy with sweat. "She's not in the bathroom and I checked downstairs. Can I get two Long Islands? Also four ciders? Please? I'm in the weeds."
"Oh service," someone singsonged down the bar. A regular. Not yet, Lena thought. If they caught your eye, they had you. She ignored the whole idiot lot-raising their empty glasses like a bunch of Statues of Liberty. "Hey," one of them called, "I might as well be home."
Lena hadn't even worked here the longest. February would be three years-and that was counting the six months she'd quit and worked at Retox. Three years was a long time-much longer and they'd call her a Lifer-but not compared to some of the others. Denny'd started as a dishwasher back when he'd first moved here out of high school, more than ten years ago. And Keith-who'd, Christ, been named Best Server of Denver by Westword last spring and was still acting like he'd won an Oscar-well, he was going on at least four. So why was it, when the shit flew, she was the one that got the mop?
"Goddamn Super Bowl," she said to Colleen. She got Keith his pitchers, filled three Cokes and a Diet, stabbing the last with an extra straw to mark it. "Goddamn Marna. Unbelievable. Every other bar, double, triple staffed, right? A little planning involved, god forbid, bar backs, bussers-but what do we have? Who do we schedule? One flaky-ass bartender? And what? Three on the floor? And a trainee? A fucking deer in headlights?" She smacked an empty cardboard box out of her way and grabbed a cluster of ciders. This was what happened when you worked at a place with no management. As long as the doors stayed open and the register rang-and his asshole friends were accommodated-Bill could give a shit about the goings-on. Which, sure, led to certain perks. Free drinks, flexible hours. None of the corporate rigmarole you got at chain restaurants.
But there were also some big fucking drawbacks.
Lena swung open the cooler and grabbed the sour mix. It was sticky, a line of fruit flies glued to the rim. "I should just walk off. Don't think I haven't considered it. Don't think I don't consider it every goddamn day I have to be here."
"Want me to make the Long Islands? It's just the two."
"I got it, Colleen." Just. Colleen couldn't mix a gin and juice without a recipe. "Be useful," Lena told her. "Go deliver my drinks. And see if someone can come in."
"You don't think Marna's coming back? I'm sure she's coming back. I know it for a fact, Lena. It's her divorce night and she and Lily have plans later-"
"I don't care if Marna's coming back, I don't care what your daughter's plans are. I just want some fucking help."
"Hey, Lena," someone yelled, "we need to discuss the beer situation."
"Yeah, Lena, give us beer!"
"Hold your goddamn panties, I'm catching up." She scooped ice, poured, scooped ice, poured.
"I left messages," Colleen said when she returned. She dropped cherries into a cherry Coke and licked her fingers. "What about Denny? Shouldn't I call him back in?"
"Well, let's see. He worked all day-and a double yesterday and a double Friday. And he's the only one of us who cares about the goddamn game. So, hmmm ..."
"I know, but it would probably only be for a little while, right? Through the big rush or until Marna-"
"No." Lena topped off a Guinness with one hand and plunged a plastic sword into an olive with the other. It wasn't that she hadn't considered it. But right after she considered it, she pictured Denny now, this instant, in his living room-in Stephanie's living room, though that was beside the point-bent into the screen, eating White Castles and fries and drinking a tallboy. She could see everything: his one-dimpled grin, the way he'd punch a fist into his open palm and mutter at the bad plays. He would have flattened the paper bag into a plate and squirted ketchup in a careful mound, not too close to the edge. That's what was so funny about Denny: within his messiness he was somehow tidy. He had these small pockets of order.
What did they expect her to do-call him and beg? Please save us? We can't function without you?
She stared down at the muck of drink tickets. Hopeless. The ink had bled into furry blots. She grabbed empty pitchers and began pouring. Bud, Bud Light, Coors. "Here," she called to Keith and Colleen, slopping down the pitchers, foam everywhere. She shook it off her wrists. "Give these out for now. I got the bar to deal with."
"Great," they each said. But they didn't move. They stood there looking at her, their faces like open coconuts.
Keith: "But I also need a daiquiri and a perfect Manhattan straight up extra bitters and seven butter Crowns. Oh, and sixteen lemon drops."
And Colleen: "I'm really slammed. Can I get four more Long Islands?"
JJ overheard the last of this and caught up with Colleen. She offered, "I'11 help." Colleen was like an aunt, she decided. Not her aunt-who was older than this woman and certainly wouldn't have plucked out then drawn back in her eyebrows-but an aunt sort of person: quick-smiling and warm.
"With taking orders?" They'd stopped at a computer and Colleen began poking at squares on the face of the monitor. Fast. Menu items and modifiers. Burgers. Fries. On the side. Bourbon, Makers, rocks.
"Oh god, JJ, I wish you could." Colleen's voice was up an octave. She kept poking the screen. "I know you're trying. I wish Denny was still here to show you what to do. I don't have time. Crap, I can never find the untoasted bun key, it's not where you'd expect it. It doesn't make any sense! And it's a ridiculous thing to ask for anyway!"
"Denny. The daytime bartender?"
"Denny. Yeah. He's good at explaining. Wait. No mayo or extra mayo? Crap. I have no idea. Extra mayo. I'm deciding. Mayo tastes good."
"Isn't that him over there?"
Colleen looked up, confused. "Denny? Where?"
JJ pointed toward the far end of the bar, by the restrooms. "I just saw him. Kinda slouchy, choppy dark hair-"
Colleen stood on her tiptoes and scanned the crowd. "No kidding?"
"Just two seconds ago. He was right there, he must be in the bathroom. He was kinda behind the video game...."
"Hiding! He does that! He stayed to watch the game. Perfect. Okay. When he comes out, have him find you a book and an order pad and make him show you real fast how to write up tickets. Just the basics. I'll tell you one thing, don't even let him complain because, you know what, he's lucky we don't call him back on. Seriously. I am this close to calling him back on. And you can tell him I said that. Actually, wait, no." Colleen sighed. "Don't tell him I said that." With that, she turned back to the monitor.
"No worries," JJ said. "I'm on it."
* * *
"All right, all right." Lena poured Grand Marnier into a shot glass and slid it down to Fran-who used to work here and was now the most regular of the regulars.
At every bar Lena had ever worked, the regulars were the same. Like from one sitcom to another. Fran with her Grandmas-and her barnacle husband, James. India the fake gypsy. Ali of them. Heebie the bookie; Spencer, who sold cheap weed and supposedly played for the Raiders for about five minutes in the '80s-which was why no one would sit next to him, you had to hear the same stories over and over. And then there was Old Barney, who left his big mangy dog outside in the way of customers. Just left it standing there, not even tied up, its nose pointed in.
It was five minutes to halftime. Most of these guys had been here since open, Lena knew, though she hadn't been around to see it. The reason they showed up so early on game days was to squeeze out the frat boys who would stream in from local colleges, who would elbow in to drink ridiculous vodka drinks and shout at the TVs. You really couldn't blame them, the regulars. The frat boys even smelled young, like lemon cookies and mouthwash.
She opened tallboys, set them down with a clunk, ignored requests for fresh frosty mugs.
"Hey, Lena," Colleen said. "Denny-"
"Lena, you're not listening," Colleen whined.
"That's right. I'm not." Lena handed Keith a mind-eraser and a rum and Diet and began shaking a margarita.
"Denny's still here, Lena. He never left. He stayed to watch the game."
Lena stopped. The lights seemed to dim. She squinted at Colleen, who was trying to fit three drinks into one fat palm, her lips sucked in in concentration. For a moment Lena imagined grabbing the shaker-still half full of margarita-and whipping it straight at her. Instead, though, she stayed very still and kept her voice low, each word slow and separate like nursery school: "Denny. Is. What?"
"No kidding," Keith said.
"That's what I said! Yeah, down at the end somewhere." Colleen pointed.
Lena pushed herself up and forward to get a good view. No Denny. What she did see, however, sitting there on the last bar stool, chewing a swizzle stick, cross-legged and staring off like some poetry reading, was the new girl.
"Your idea of helping?" It was almost a real question, but if the new girl had a real answer, Lena wasn't going to wait to hear it. She took the girl squarely by the shoulders, guided her off the bar stool, and steered her through the crowd-stopping only briefly to let her grab her purse and coat-then into the kitchen, around the cooks and prep tables, to the back door. All the while, Colleen followed behind, whimpering about giving the kid a break. If you listened to Colleen, nothing was ever anyone's fault.
"Don't misunderstand me," Lena told the girl, unlocking the door, "you're welcome to come back. In fact, hey, here's a deal, if you can drum up a bartender-or someone with the vaguest idea on how to wait tables-we'd be delighted to see you again. Delighted." With that, she gave the girl a light shove out the door. It snapped shut behind her, whirling a few specks of snow into the hot kitchen air for an instant, like confetti.
Excerpted from after hours at the almost home by tara yellen Copyright © 2008 by Tara Yellen. Excerpted by permission.
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