part 3 of 3 installments - read PART ONE and PART TWO
5:The waitress Albert remembered stood next to him. She smelled like a sack that held onions; a sack that had gotten very wet then dried miserably crumpled on itself. It was not altogether terrible. Anything rustic was hard to find those days; it was too quickly swept up. No one had reason to exert anymore, so the only sweat anyone ever smelled was streaked with psychedelic drug, frantic and purple and metallic. It all smelled metallic. Albert wondered when he had last gathered a handful of dirt, and was gruffly embarrassed to realize he needed to do it.
“What can I get you?” she asked with nothing like recognition. She held a portable order-taker and wore the ugliest shoes Albert had ever seen.
“Just coffee.” He expected he would have to run a napkin along the mug’s rim before drinking from it. Anger lapped wearily at the dish-washers for being so unapologetically mediocre at their sole programmed purpose.
Her fingers entered the order without her eyes leaving him, but their surfaces reflected every detail of the restaurant in minute entirety, so it was difficult to tell which part of him she was looking at; it appeared to be his left shoulder. “Cream and sugar?”
“No. Could you stop that, please?” She paused from typing, mildly surprised at his deviation from the script. “Thanks. I’d like for you to make it.”
“I don’t follow.” Her eyes followed quite well.
“My coffee. I want you to make it yourself.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Of course, you can. As a matter of fact, I know you can.”
“I can’t make the coffee.”
He sighed a little. He hadn’t expected to have to jog her memory. “You’ve made it before. It was terrible; I complained,” he said with wry fondness.
Her hard little lips tightened. Albert was slightly giddy to see that she recognized him. “I can’t do that,” she said, annoyance putting something like life into her voice.
“It was you. I remember your walk.” He did, too. She swished, like a dancer or someone with particularly long bones. This wasn’t going how it was supposed to, though. He wasn’t nervous, but almost.
“That would have been-“
“-forever ago. I’m sorry, this- oh, this silly old thing.” She beat the order-taker lightly on the table. “I’ll go tell it, then.”
“Frances,” said Albert.
Her hand flew up over her nametag and, for an instant, she looked like someone discovered nearly-naked in unflattering underwear. Then she noticed herself and gripped the order-taker with ten fingers. “Anything else, sir?”
Her coolness made any interest on his part seem lecherous. He suddenly felt old and rather fat. “ ‘Frances’ what?” She didn’t even blink. “I’m sorry.” He both wasn’t and was. “Pardon my curiosity, but I was wondering why they keep you on here. I’ll bet you get that a lot.” Probably she didn’t. The people who knew were regulars, and those who didn’t ate someplace where the booths didn’t leave residue on their pants. “You see that office tower through the far window? The green glass one. It’s funny, really, but I’m the only one left there, as well.” He smiled again, and it took twenty-five years off in a frightening way, but he had an unfortunate habit of wasting expressions on inanimate objects.
She did not care to look out the window, but her face illuminated with a bright, brittle pride, and Albert decided to satisfy himself with whatever he could prod from her, however selfish and chilly it was. “Life took a sizeable bite out of me. I moved out, moved in somewhere else. They’d just begun laying people off and I slipped in a crack- the owner, she liked me. My style- a couple of years ago I had style. Then the customers complained the first time I was fired.” Her fingers and eyes were loosening. “One man, an old man, said I warmed his plate. My fingers. He didn’t want a cold plate from a table –server and he would take his friends, who equal about half of our business, anywhere else if he had to.”
Albert wanted very much to ask her if, surrounded by plastic faces, she felt incredibly human or no longer human at all. “Sentimental,” he murmured.
“Geriatric sop. Do you still want that coffee?”
It really wasn’t fair. He had constructed her in his brain, for three weeks, out of warm and intelligent parts, out of symbiotic bits. Complaining about the coffee had been a mistake; he had done it before he realized it meant she was working back there, sweeping and spooning out grounds and leaving her fingerprints on surfaces. She had been the noble character in a fairytale. She had been the last soldier carrying the message of a siege. He had not expected this diamondlike being whose feet would only touch the ground if she wore heavy shoes. He had not expected to be just another patron. Albert felt like someone desperately covering a cold baby in kisses.
She regarded him with a light frost. One of her earrings was missing,
He had wanted to ask her to dinner. He had wanted to touch her. He had thought she was old enough to miss what she was missing. “No, thank you,” he said, and left.
Frances left her shift a few minutes late. She supposed she’d lingered at the tables, in the bathrooms. She had refilled the canisters of flour and milk and powdered eggs for tomorrow’s biscuits. She had wiped the bowls clean. Finally, she had made a pot of coffee, listened to it grumble and drip, and poured it down the drain.
She took off her shoes next to the subway track and set them aside. Her toes curled over the edge. When the 1 AM train approached, she realized the last thing she would ever do was a terrible mistake.
The reporter’s name was Betsey McCullough. Her teeth were not good but her accent was crisp. A quivery teenaged girl, who would have Betsey’s job in five years, patted the woman’s nose with pressed powder and ran a comb lightly through her bangs.
“That’s enough, dear. Enough, I said. Don’t- don’t flatten them.” Betsey saw herself in the monitor, her face one- fourth of its actual size. Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes. The girl hovered with a tissue in her hand. “Could you get me a water, please? Quickly.” She made an O with her lips and trickled it between them so as not to disturb her lipstick.
The heavy, black sound of dance music seemed to shake the sidewalk beneath her heels. Since approaching it, she had not turned to look at the club behind her. It was brick, plain and massive. Long windows with cheap tint stickers pressed to them, bubbling and peeling away. The colored light pulsing behind them like anglerfish’s bulbs in a deep sea. And the infinite figures, crying out and moving together in orgy-like sway. Every few seconds, someone would smash against the window and you could see their face, count their fingers. Sweat streaked the glass and their expression was confused as they re-saw the world. Their eyes scraped out at the streetlights before they allowed themselves to be sucked back inside.
It was almost nighttime.
The cameraman was chatting with an American girl who had fluttered to the lenses like a moth. His fingers idly flicked a silver charm tied into his hair. It flashed and flashed.
“What time do we have, Steve?”
He flinched a little at her voice but didn’t look over. “Three. Take a pill, Bet.” The American girl smiled sharply and stared at Betsey with eyes as dead and slow as waterlogged leaves.
The man she was to interview was a real wild card. They hadn’t prepared together, hadn’t even spoken. It was truer television that way, said her boss, and he was probably right.
Steve ticked the seconds down from five. She ran an emotionless glaze over her face. “Good evening, I’m Betsey McCullough, coming to you live from Baltimore, Mar-“ the man approached from the left and her voice faltered, “-I’m sorry, Maryland…”
“Ssh,” the man said. “Ssh, ssh. You’re so nervous, it’s hurting my feelings.” He smelled like biting down on aluminum foil.
“Here with me is Dan Ludman-“
“Luden, like the cough drop.” Sweat hung on his face and arms like petroleum jelly; he was moving nearer to her by centimeters.
“Excuse me. Dan Luden, a former high school English teacher who lost his job last year
in what’s now referred to as the Automated Revolution, the United State’s answer to-“
“When she looks down her nose like that, her eyes cross,” he told millions of viewers across the globe.
Betsey looked above the camera once, twice. “Mr. Luden.”
Dan crossed his pale arms over his ribs. “I’m just some guy they pulled out of a club, but you can ask anybody. I remember being cold before. You can’t be cold in there. You can’t be alone in there, either.” He threw his arm around Betsey and squeezed until her shoulder made a popping sound. The crew was mesmerized. “You think we’re silly? All one accordion short of a polka band? All mad as monkeys on tricycles? All batty as bow ties?” He gathered himself. “Laugh at us all you want.” He turned to her with a wide dummy smile, close enough to kiss. “Because you can count on us laughing at you.”
She knew she should give her sign-off with raspberry-colored lips and regain control, but all she could hear was the bass beat and thumps against the window. Dan loosened his hold and went, still smiling, back inside.
Caitlyn Waltermire writes short stories and songs as well as acts onstage and film. In her spare time, she plays with flowers.