Patsy reaches across the empty four-top to lower the blinds in front of the bright, west-facing windows. She spots a familiar looking car pulling in, a dark blue Beetle with surf racks and a peeling peace symbol bumper sticker. Sure enough, it’s Bernie who climbs out of the driver’s side just as Cherie closes the passenger door. Beach sunburns are already appearing around the edges of their cut-offs and t-shirts. Cherie has taken off her bikini top under her shirt leaving the wet spot where it’s been. The not-burned part of her chest and neck reveals the ghost of swimsuit straps.
Hurrying to the door as they come in so that she can seat them in her station, Patsy can smell the booze a foot away. Cherie’s skin reflects the sherbet orange and Pepto-pink décor of the coffee shop and both of the beach-goers practically glowed in the bright sunlight.
“Hi, guys, are you back from the beach? I didn’t expect you to come by. Sit, sit.”
“Hey, baby, wanna buy a drunk guy a burger?’ Bernie leans on Patsy as he slides into the booth.
“Did you guys drive in this condition? That road is treacherous when you are sober.”
“Wow, Patsy, your husband sure can show a girl a good time. Hah, Bernie, cancha?”
“Cherie, you’re lit, too? Man, you guys really shouldn’t have driven…”
“Ah, c’mon, Patsy, honey, lighten up, woudja?’
“Okay, okay, scoot in. I’ll get you guys some coffee. My shift is over in less than an hour. I can take us home then.”
“Nah, we’re not gonna stay …we just came by for a little sumpin’ to fill the hole, y’know? Two patty-melts, waitress.” Bernie claps his hands and bellows the order.
Looking around, Patsy whispers, “Be cool. I work here remember?”
A mess and no tip later, Patsy sees her husband and her best friend out the door of the coffee shop. The other lunch waitress, Ilamae, gives Patsy a sympathetic wave as she leaves at the same time as Bernie and Cherie. “See you tomorrow, kiddo. Good luck with this crew.”
The last hour drags by. It’s that dead-spot in the day shift, time to fill the sugars, wipe salt and pepper shakers, balance half-empty catsup bottles top to top on one another to get the last of the last out of the bottom of every bottle. Finally, she’s done.
In the break room, after punching out, she puts her tickets in order, stubs out a cigarette, counts her tips. Stacked like poker chips on the sticky table, they are mostly nickels and dimes, with a few quarters. They jingle and clink as Patsy drops them into her white uniform pocket. There are no bills to soften the fall. At this rate, August’s rent is a mere five hundred tables away.
On the way home, she considers stopping for a quiet dinner by herself. It’s been a long time since someone waited on her. Patsy comes from a tradition of waitressing. Well, not exactly, but her mom is one still, at an identical Denny’s in their home town. Patsy is so grateful for those tips, both hers and her mom’s. They’ve put Patsy through college. She’ll be even more grateful to stop this waitress gig, get on with her life as a grown-up. Who knows when the civil service job she has tested for will even come up? And now, Patsy thinks, God, now, who knows?
. . . . . . . . . . . .
It’s been a little like playing house this last year for Bernie and Patsy in their first year of marriage. While they both finished their degrees, their off-campus apartment on the Main Street Circle, right by the library, has been the gathering place for their single friends.
This summer, their apartment has been a revolving party, exhausting day into exhausting night. Since Patsy was the only one working after graduation, no one cared but her. Cherie has been staying with them for almost a month, talking about -but not doing much- about her future plans. In the last 10 days, until yesterday, as a matter of fact, Bernie’s friend, Jimmy, had been crashing, too. It’s been awkward because Jimmy and Cherie decided to forget their respective boyfriend/girlfriend waiting back in their hometowns and were copulating like bunnies all night, every night on the fold-out sofa bed in the tiny living room.
This evening, when she walks in, there are two hung-over, cranky blobs of fried flesh sitting on the sofa and staring at the 13” T.V. screen. All the bonhomie from the early afternoon buzz has vanished. It smells like stale beer and Solarcaine in the cramped room. Nobody has even picked up the dirty dishes from last night’s reverie. A nauseating plate with cigarette butts pushed into a dried up hamburger bun sits on the floor forcing Patsy to pick it up or step over it to get into the room. Insistent music from The Dating Game blares as Bachelor #3 comes out from behind the screen. Cherie and Bernie seem to sink a little apart from each other as Patsy sits by them to remove her god-awful orthopedic waitress shoes.
“Are you two hungry?”
“Nah.”, this from Bernie.
“Nah, not really,” Cherie echoes.
“Anyone coming over tonight?”
“Wanta’ go see a show?”
“Nah.” Bernie again.
“Un-un, my head hurts,” as Cherie scrunches up her forehead to emphasis the point.
“There’s some aspirin in the bathroom cabinet, Cherie. Help yourself.”
In their miniscule bedroom, Patsy pulls off her Denny’s uniform and pulls on her tie-die halter top and hip-hugging bell bottom jeans. She lifts off the hairnet, pulls out hairpins from her bun, unfurls her long brown hair. As she lights a joint, the transformation is complete. Like some kind of hippie superhero, every night she steps out of her phone booth of a bedroom as a changed character.
Leaning out the door, she calls, “So, Bernie, want to hit the sheets early?”
“I’ll come in soon.”
Patsy had been hoping for a little privacy tonight. Bernie has been hard to deal with since the draft lottery, that nightmare pulling of the little plastic capsules with numbers, over and over and over again, from a big glass jar. They had all sat around their living room, listening to the radio announcer droning the numbers, while they got shit-faced on Red Mountain. Bernie’s number was a low one, not a good thing, not a good thing at all. And now, after graduating, he will be called, called to serve in that heinous “conflict” in Vietnam.
The only hope was a deferment, so they had been trying for months to get Patsy pregnant. Bernie then could switch his 2-S into a paternity deferment. But this has taken all the fun out of it. Sex has turned into work. They can’t even laugh about it when Patsy holds her legs up high afterwards, bicycling in the air, giving his “boys” a gravity boost on their way to a chance encounter with her eggs.
“I’m going to grab a bite and read in our room. See you in a minute, Bernie?”
. . . . . . . . . .
Her book dropping onto the floor startles her awake. The late summer light still glows through the high window above the bed. Patsy pulls the Indian print bedspread up over her bare legs and turns on the lamp sitting on the floor by the mattress. She starts to read again, quickly drops off. The next time she wakes, there is only a small pool of light from the lamp creating a circle on the hardwood floor. She reaches for Bernie and her hands come up empty.
She stands quickly, a little woozy, opens the bedroom door, looks around the wall heater into the tiny living room. She can barely make out the outline of two bodies pressed together on the unfolded sofa bed, stretched out long and low. They aren’t moving.
Without thinking, she takes two giant steps into the room, flips on the wall light. First Bernie’s, then Cherie’s blinking eyes turn toward her.
“Wha…What the hell?”
“Oh, sorry,” Patsy flips the light off again.
Sorry? Sorry? Why the hell is she sorry? Why did she say that?
“I mean, what are you guys doing still up?”
“We’re not up. I think you can see we were sleeping.” Bernie’s voice is cranky but somehow sheepish.
“Yeah, why are you sleeping, I mean, sleeping out here, Bernie?”
“I dunno – just crashed, I guess. Jesus, Patsy, what time is it?”
“I dunno. Late. Shit, I’m going back to bed. Cherie, get the hell into your own bed now and Bernie, get the hell in here with me.”
“Oh, man. Calm down, woman.” A note of conciliation sneaks into Bernie’s tone.
“Fucking, ‘oh man’, ‘calm down’ yourself. Good fucking night.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Patsy cannot sleep. She can’t even really think. He’s still out there. She needs to talk to him, about today, about tonight, about the real news, the news that she has been carrying around, waiting for a decent moment. Her breasts hurt. Her head hurts. Her heart hurts. The little pool of salty water gathering in her taunt abdomen hurts, too. She lights a joint to quell the nausea, inhales deeply, holds it, and blows. She blows it all out in a single explosive breath.