Colleen Wells, 8/28/2017
Current Occupation: Writer, Volunteer, Mom, Vendor at B-Town Flea Market
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty at Ivy Tech Community College
Contact Information: Colleen Wells writes memoir, short stories, features and poetry. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review and Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women. Her memoir, Dinner With Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness and Recovery became a springboard for mental health discussions and inspired her to become certified as a community health worker/peer recovery specialist. Colleen taught college courses and currently mentors high school students. She edited One in Four, an anthology of student mental illness narratives. You can read more about her work at:
The Blue Flamingo Bar was seedy, but not overtly so. I had been working there for nearly three weeks and it was a much coveted Friday night shift. A few minutes before 5pm, I entered the bar noting Bryson the bartender with the blonde, curly mullet who doubled as a manager was working. This fact would not set me up for success. He was more attentive to the other servers, which resulted in them getting drinks to their tables first while I had to wait like the last dog in a pack to be walked. Tonight would be no different. Jackie was leaning against the bar laughing with him. She was loud and wore a sleeveless lime-green t-shirt with a low-cut V in front. Denise with the expertly drawn, smoky, eye-makeup who spoke in a slow, southern drawl was also there. Nikki, who was actually the nicest of the three, was clearing a table. She wore cut-off shorts which revealed the tail of a serpent hanging down her left thigh.
At the start of my shift, I went into the back to get two ketchups for tables in my section that were missing theirs. The kitchen help appraised me. One of them said something in Spanish and they laughed. The cooks didn’t speak much English, and what knowledge they did have of the language seemed to be used selectively, especially with me. They had brooding brown eyes, caramel colored skin, chiseled arms and chiseled chins that made them appear all the more cute and yet somehow a little sinister too.
Everyone at the Blue Flamingo was hired on a probationary status. There was an emphasis on up-selling, and being to work on time. No one was allowed to drink on the clock, but many people did when Chet, the owner wasn’t working. Chet wore thick glasses and sported a bowl-cut that might have been a toupee. His hair swooped down a little over his right eye. Everyone knew that he had a mail-order bride tucked away at home. She never came into the bar. Chet had the ability to see everything that was going on at his establishment with eagle-eye precision. Bryson had this gift as well.
I learned to avoid both of them as often as I could. Especially since all of the new servers were required to join Bryson on the karaoke stage to sing a duet. It had to be either “Don’t go Breaking my Heart” or “Islands in the Stream.” It must also be sung within the first 30 days of employment. When I was hired, I was given tax forms and Xerox copies of the lyrics to both songs. Bryson always got to choose which to sing, and Chet said to familiarize myself with both since I wouldn’t be privy to the song we would be performing until we took the stage. He pushed his middle finger up the bridge of his glasses and cracked a crooked smile. This job requirement didn’t seem legal to me as a condition of employment, maybe a hazing activity at a sorority at best. I just told myself they wouldn’t remember if I didn’t bring it up.
My roommate Ericka, who works lunches and Saturday nights, is one of my best friends from back home. She neglected to share anything about this rite of passage with me when she encouraged me to apply. All Ericka talked about was how good the tips were especially on the weekends. I didn’t get too angry with her about this considering she gave me a free temporary place to stay on her couch on the screened porch.
After graduating from Ohio State near home, I’d planned to get a job in the area, but was tired of the Midwest including the cold winters and the predictability. Ericka seemed happy in Atlanta, so it made sense that I could be too.
Checking my section included making sure that the tables were wiped free of sticky ketchup and barbeque sauce. Some of my tables faced the other side of the street where a waiter in a white collared shirt served appetizers, probably bruschetta or calamari, on the quaint patio of the Italian bistro.
I tried to appear busy even though I only had one table to wait on. It was a married couple bickering about their parenting differences. “You spoil her rotten,” she accused. “You’re never home to give her the time of day,” he fired back. As the tone of their conversation grew more toxic, it was difficult for me to gage when to ask them if I they wanted another round of drinks.
Bryson caught my eye and nodded toward a portly middle-aged man who I had overlooked. He sat alone at a two-top near the window. I hurried over and he ordered a Jack and coke. The man wore a dark grey hoodie and matching sweat pants. Dark hairs sprouted from beneath a bejeweled Peugeot watch.
When I served him his drink being careful to place it on a cocktail napkin, I noticed an almost sad, and definitely faraway look in his eyes. As if he could hear my thoughts, he perked up and asked, “How is your night going kid?” I wanted to reply with something flirtatious like the other servers always did, but I couldn’t whore out my words in a way that sounded natural like they could. They would have said something like, “Better now that you’re here,” and it would come out like butter.
“It’s okay,” I said. “A little slow for a Friday night.”
He winked at me, clinking a chunky pinky ring against his glass as he raised it for a sip.
When I circled back to check on the angry couple, the woman was gone, and her husband tapped his credit card against the faux-wood table. A four-top had also been sat in my section. I couldn’t decide whether to get the abandoned husband’s bill, or take the new table’s drink order. I went ahead and grabbed the man’s credit card mumbling an apology that seemed to drag behind me as I greeted the new patrons and promised to be right with them. This was met with an eye roll from one of the guys. He had a Gamecocks ball cap on that just said “cocks.” Frat boys. I sighed.
When I swiped the cranky man’s card it took forever for no apparent reason to clear. As this departing customer signed off on his transaction, I apologized again for the delay on getting it settled, and noted the measly tip of three dollars on a forty-two dollar and thirteen cent bill. Then out of my peripheral vision, I saw two of the frat boys making their way to the bar.
Next I checked on the other two since their buddies had already gone rogue, asking them if they wanted food or just drinks. The one with piercing blue eyes wearing a Braves ball cap, said, “If we do we know we’d have better luck having a pizza delivered.” His friend laughed revealing too much dental work for someone his age.
“I recommend Domino’s,” I said, trying to play it off. But my voice cracked like a young boy’s going through puberty. I could feel heat creeping up my cheeks, and hoped this crew would not be back the night I had to sing karaoke if it ever happened. And then it dawned on me this could be that night.
Bryson hollered for me from above the increasing din of the crowd. “Add two Buds, shot of Jager and a well tequila to their bill,” he ordered. As I walked away writing the drinks down on my pad, he barked at me again. “You’ve been here, what? About three weeks? he inquired while bending down to scoop ice into a glass. The movement made his mullet swing a little. When are we gonna’ sing?” Just as I opened my mouth to say it was getting too busy to talk right now, Denise stepped in front of me propping her drink tray against the bar causing me to trip a little on my way back to the floor. “I need two long islands and four buttery nipples she announced in her slow, Southern drawl.
I had been living in this bedroom community of Atlanta for over a month now and had already quit a stint at the gas station around the corner from where we lived before starting this job. I wasn’t hired for the night shift, but the third shift was all that appeared on my schedule. After a stoned couple came in one night and I could hear them having sex in the bathroom, I quit the next day. I wanted to get my own apartment so my parents could bring me Bastion, my faithful, spunky Beagle. Ericka already had two dogs, a mellow aging mutt with coarse brown fur hanging over his listless eyes and a Jack Russell puppy who was insane with boredom. The evidence came in the form of chewed up couch cushions, hairbrushes, the legs of kitchen chairs, and once even the remote control for the TV, but of course his favorite chew toys were tampons.
I learned the guy sitting by himself near the window was named Larry. He drove a truck and lived alone. He stared into the bottom of his third Jack and coke as if looking for something he’d lost. We were trained to up-sell. “You could get some food if you wanted. Our nachos are good.”
“That’s a fine idea,” he said. Larry tilted his drink in my direction rattling the few remaining pieces of ice at the bottom of the glass. “But darlin’, bring me another one of these while you’re at it.”
The heat in the kitchen shocked my face as I pushed open the swinging door. Manuel took my ticket and stuck it behind the other orders hanging by plastic clothes pins from a metal wire.
“How long?” I asked, trying to sound tough, like I heard the other girls do.
He shrugged and said, “No lo se.” Then the cook turned his attention back to plating some onion rings. He seemed to work at it in exaggerated slow motion like it was some sort of meditation.
Larry’s nachos took forever and he had to wait on his drink too, because when I went to get it from “mullet,” he was doing a shot with Jackie. I grew more and more disappointed when I went back to the kitchen and Larry’s food wasn’t sitting in the window. Constantly having to check on its status slowed me down. Once when I went to look for his nachos again, I got double-sat. I was met with dubious expressions by both parties when I discovered them.
As my shift wore on, I started to develop a rhythm to my work. It felt akin to like when an athlete’s been away from a sport for awhile and muscle memory kicks in. Somebody fed the jukebox, and “You Shook me All Night Long” rumbled the room. A wasted guy in his late thirties got up to dance pushing a chair out of his way like it was an enemy he didn’t have time for. Others joined him until the dance floor swelled with jerking hips and air guitars.
As the night progressed along with a lot of people’s alcohol buzzes, the narrowed, steely looks in a couple of my patrons’ eyes clued impending danger. These were the types of customers who could get angry at the drop of a dime as if they had drank their normal daytime personality away and their dark, nighttime one sprung from the wings to take over. Last weekend a woman I had waited on was passing by me as she stumbled toward the restroom. Suddenly she grabbed my arm and called me a “strumpet” for no apparent reason. The red, squiggly lines of her bloodshot eyes formed a maze jutting out like secondary roads on a map. A little bit of her spittle hit my neck as she spewed forth the second “t.”
Luckily Chet had been working and saw the encounter. He rushed over and handled the situation by issuing a stern warning. While fixing her with a frozen look, he said something about not biting the hand that brings you drinks.
To add injury to insult, I didn’t know what a “strumpet” was, but when I looked it up later I was not happy.
I glanced at my watch. It was only 9:30p.m., way too early it seemed for people’s alter egos to emerge, but whatever. Sometimes it was unpredictable. Nikki had warned me once however, that things had a tendency to get especially dicey on nights with a full moon. While there was not a full moon tonight, something was definitely in the air.
When I finally got Larry his nachos, they had been sitting awhile and the cheese had
dried so hard it looked fake. “No lo se” smirked when he saw the mortified look on my face as I stared down at the plate.
Larry picked at his order, but drained his drink. In the background “Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap” was playing. Somebody here sure loved their AD/DC.
My customer paid his bill with a twenty and a five, already sitting out on the table. As he rose, Larry fished around in his pocket jingling some change, then produced a fat roll of cash and peeled two crisp one hundred dollar bills from the outside. He silently thrust them into my hand, squeezing my fingers around the wad. Without releasing his grip, he pointed with his free hand to the restaurant across the street. “The same guy has been out there all night waiting on a few tables. He goes inside, he comes out. Nobody’s in a hurry, nobody’s getting fussy. He clenched my fingers tighter in his and said, “Kid, I don't want to see you in here the next time I come in.”
I cast my eyes to where he pointed. The tiny white lights hanging down from the awning of the dimly lit patio reminded me of Christmas back home in Ohio. The glow of the streetlamp on the corner briefly made the scene, the waiter in the white shirt, the white table cloths, the nearly emptied tables; it all looked so warm and inviting like the cozy set of a play inside a small venue.
I didn’t want to take his money. It felt wrong. But the way he told me not to be here when he next came in was like an order.
So I took his money. I did. I took his two hundred dollars, plus he left me all of the change after paying his bill, and I vowed to Larry that tonight would be my last shift.