I was out of the waiter game, quit when a chef threw a cruet that just missed my head; oil splattered my new, old tux I bought from a formal wear rental joint. Only an asylum inmate would be able to summon a voice that said I’d bettered myself. I was working at a fast food joint, The Burger General, home of the Five-Star Half Pounder. I’d added eight published poems to my Good Knots chapbook so I wasn’t complaining about work conditions or pay. I kept a few copies under the counter in case I sensed kindred vibes from a customer. Jake Perez, the janitor found one in the trash. If a fry weren’t a bookmark he might have left it but he thought it was a hoot and shared his kicks with my fellow workers before returning it to me. A high school kid working the drive-thru told me my poems were baffling and so was I but she quotes lines occasionally and said her mom gave me a thumbs-up. Columbia University had recently published the freshly greased poem, “Ghost Shipping” in its literary magazine. Octavia’s Ristorante returned in sharp focus. Elise shanghaied my mind.
Even the smoky air is relaxed and relieved. A radio behind the bar is playing a local crooner, Eddie Santino, something about dreams. It’s Friday night. A couple of parties linger in the “cozy and intimate” booths. I served one of them lobster fra diavalo. I worked my ass off for the twenty-percent tip, head of the table man’s fingers snapping like maybe Eddie’s did in his Holiday Inn gig. Just two waitresses work here and that’s a good sign I’m told, means money’s good: a man can support his family. Flo is pushing sixty. I’m sitting next to the other one who is a couple of years younger than me. Elise is a shorthaired blonde on the pudgy side. She has vague dimples and a nose that’s wide but takes nothing away from her good looks. Her eyes are hazel and jumpy. She claims she’s taking a year off from her English Literature studies at Brown University for some lowbrow exposure. It’s been a good night. Employees win a drink on the house. Yeah, an excellent shift: no chef threw a dish at me. We’re both nursing CC on the rocks. I hum along with Eddie’s tune. We haven’t spoken since I gave her my homemade 33-poem chapbook that I autographed, might have screwed up by signing “fondly.”
“Everyone thinks they’re a goddam poet,” she’d said when I presented the gift.
“Any harm trying,” I asked?
“Poets are born, not made, Tommy Boy,” she’d answered. “Besides, poetry is small cheese, Cheez Whiz matter of fact.”
Despite her hostility, I always helped out when the fool host assigned her more parties than she could handle. The cold shoulders I got for my efforts made me label the vines in “Ivy League” poison. A busboy rescued her Good Knots from the garbage. A big mushroom I recognized from chicken Marsala stuck out of its top like a bookmark.
Elise bragged she was working on a revenge novel about an English professor who drove his BMW motorcycle to Alaska to camp in a lean-to, read Dickens and keep a poetic play-by-play account of starving to death. The idea sprang from her affair with a prof that was ruined by a rejected boyfriend, a spoiled brat from New Canaan, CT. He reported the relationship to Elise’s mother who called the college dean. Elise’s lover was fired and the bastard dropped her like a lazy student does a course when he or she learns of a long term paper requirement.
After lighting a cigarette, she held the smoking match an inch away from my nose and confessed she’d set the tattler’s classic MG on fire. His payback couldn’t wait to be meted out in her novel.
After the bartender muted Eddie, I took a chance. “What are your dreams?” I asked.
“Christ almighty, lead-throated Santino prompts a pickup line.” She scoffed and chuckled, “and a lame pitch at that,” she added.
“I tend to be nostalgic for music popular in bygone eras.”
“Too dishwater for me,” she said, “I’m a Doors fan. How old are you anyway?”
“Twenty-three, want to check my I.D.?”
“My granny would like you. Mention your crooner love to Sal?”
“He waited on Sinatra when he was working in Vegas. He treated waiters like shit.”
“Sorry to hear that.” I’d take anything Sal said with ten tall grinders chuck full of Dead Sea salt. That was that. I was going to bring up the trashy fate of Good Knots, but she’d probably blame Florio the gay waiter for ditching it. They were always spatting.
On the way out, I tried to hold the door but she froze until I gave up. I was hoping she’d show some ride pity when she saw I didn’t go to the parking lot. I headed downtown and she didn’t give a shit. I was currently taking buses. I had a ’61 Chevy but I never lifted the hood to check on the noise. One of the spark plugs had popped and the engine gave up the ghost soon after. Between lunch and dinner, I find something to do, often take in a movie. I saw The Heart is a Lonely Hunter three times. Elise agreed it was a fine film but ruined it when she taunted I’d probably cried. I didn’t confess I’d come close. I do some cautious drinking at the Drum & Fife or go to the library to read Edgar Lee Masters, my favorite poet. I write in my journal also. I use the typing room. I feed coins to the copier to do my publishing. I argue my chapbook isn’t a vanity production. Some of the poems appeared in USO publications as well as United Seamen’s Service Center Newsletters around the Mediterranean during my hitch in the Navy. The rest were snatched up by U.S. magazines and reviews that embraced the Beat tradition. I submit poems a couple of times a week. I am welcomed by name at the P.O. Lately I’ve been pretty lucky map-wise. I plan to put out another chap when I’m published in every state, just Hawaii, Wyoming and Mississippi to go.
A couple of weeks after she told me about her starving-for-art’s-sake professor, I noticed she was trimming down but not her dress. Men sneaked peeks when she set a tray on a stand, served or cleared. She wore a gold, love word, necklace that swung out as if spring-loaded when she bent to pick up a check inspiring some men to say “I love you too.” Was she reducing for tips?
One rainy night she surprised me by slowing her maroon Buick Electra and beeping. She pulled over and I got in. “Don’t get any ideas, Tommy Boy, unless I tell you to.” She switched off the radio, killing Morrison’s “Touch Me” pleas. She drove slowly to a place I’d never been, a hilltop overlooking the Port of Providence. She extinguished all but the windshield wipers. I could see ships through the drizzle, mast and running lights on all but one. I pointed. “It’s been abandoned since its last trip to Alaska four years ago,” she explained. “The cargo was costume jewelry going, furs that turned out to be badly stitched and diseased returning.” I pictured rats nesting in nutria and mink. The wipers squeaked. Elise turned on the dome light. She stuck out her tongue, placed the necklace word on it then told me to kiss it. I did. She instructed me to get in the back seat and lie on my back. I did. There was no lovemaking. “You are my scale,” she said. “All you have to do is register the loss. Do right by me and you’ll do right in me.” Not another word was spoken until she dropped me off at my apartment. “Dream, Tommy Boy,” was her good night wish.
I continued my weighing duties. I didn’t have to fib my weight loss reports. She was quickly shedding pounds. She bought new aqua rayon dresses, no more peeks. Often she looked dazed. Several times I had to rescue a wobbling tray. Somehow I got up the gumption to confront her. “If you’re doing this for the book, to get an idea of what starvation is like . . .” She stomped my foot before I could finish.
The night she was cheerier than ever, nice, non-stop civil, things turned ridiculous. She parked the Electra on the hill as usual but there was no back seat time. She gave me a flashlight to clip to my belt, took my hand and walked me to the pier. With her free mitt, she was Spiderman and the mooring line was web thread she shot. She manipulated her puny self along the drooping manila to board the ship. How did she have the stamina and strength? I reckoned if there was an easier way she would have found it. I could see the name of the vessel on the hull thanks to a dull dock light, “S.S. Fairbanks.” Yes, I followed. We had sex on the deck in front of the helm. She took over scale duties. I thought I was going to crush her. She held on as if I were an extension of the mooring line. I helped her up; no report on my bulk. She staggered to the helm, and shouted knots and engine RPM references right out of Navy deck hand experiences I’d shared. “Whales off the starboard beam, Sawyer Glacier at relative bearing zero-three-zero.” She worked in some D-Day. The SS Fairbanks was a landing ship at Omaha Beach. I’d be sure to get a companion piece for “Ghost Shipping” out of her craziness and by God I got to thinking of going back in the Navy. We made lust on the captain’s swivel chair. On our feet again, she yelled, “Reseat me usher!” She directed me to spin her as if she were a tyke on a playground ride. I obliged. I had to hold her steady after helping her off, “Dizzy, dizzy, me,” she sang while leading me to a stateroom. I dropped the flashlight and it died. When I stooped to pick it up she nearly fell on my head. I shook the light to life. I shined the beam along the walls and onto the bunk and what I saw hell jolted me, a skeleton! Elise bent down and kissed it. I gasped. “Just Halloween décor; scaredy-cat,” she teased. There was a book with a blank silver cover, maybe a log, on the pillow. “Nice souvenir,” I said placing hand on it. She elbowed me. “Mind your own business.”
I nearly lost my grip monkeying to shore. Elise got back lickety-split. Was there some superhero device she possessed? More to the point, what possessed this peculiar woman? The night had cleared. A slip of moon stenciled the sky and I thought to myself it should be insanely full. I acted my routine back seat scale role after we climbed the hill to the car. Christ, we were as sweaty as acrobats after a performance in Death Valley. I fell asleep but woke with a start when Elise bit my nose.
It was a month to the day after the French fry bookmark incident that I heard from Elise. She’d been out of my life for three years. The package that wouldn’t fit in my P.O. Box was her novel. The cover was a grey background with a dayglow skeleton wearing a mortarboard. The title was No Hard Tack. The dust flap mentioned an Italian restaurant called Lucretia’s, a motorcycle trek to Alaska and the existential journey of a professor and his most remarkable student, blah, blah, blah. The SS Fairbanks was the SS Juneau, a luxury liner. Nothing of me noted. She autographed the title page, “For Bommy Toy, couldn’t have done this without you.” She was a stick woman in the photo, fur stole. I drew a mustache and goatee on her. I checked on the publisher, Brow Sweat Books at the library, a vanity press as I’d expected. So confident that I’d be in those pages, I guess it was vain meeting vain yet I considered dropping her book in a Goodwill collection box or a dumpster.
A week later I bought a pint of peach brandy, sat on the rocking chair in my furnished studio apartment. I tuned the radio to an easy listening station. Eddie Santino, live from Howard Johnson’s. The floorboards creaked as I read. The starving professor named Brogan wasn’t composing any death journal in the Alaska wilderness but he was aboard the SS Juneau. Elise was Eliza. I was Homer, a compulsive gambler, conman, and dirty limerick writer who attempted to stowaway on the SS Juneau to cheat at blackjack. Homer was on the run from loan sharks. He employed the same boarding method as mine in Providence. Eliza didn’t expect a three-hundred-pound man to make it across the mooring line but Homer insisted. He made it halfway. “Hey Elise, Homer is two of me.” Santino sang the dreamy Octavia’s song. I dozed. The book fell off my lap onto the floor and woke me. The way it landed resembled a roof torn from a house by a tornado. I never picked up the volume again.
No Hard Tack became a best seller, first in Brow Sweat Books history. A movie is in the works. I’m out of the fast food game, a laundry worker now. The owners of the SS Fairbanks decided to scrap it. The skeleton they found wasn’t Halloween décor at all. It was real, a prep school teacher who committed suicide. Good Knots was under the book on the stateroom bunk. Not a deck log or anything nautical but Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edward Drood. There was an empty bag of Cheez-Its, a dead rat on top. My lawyer (Brown grad) says no jury would believe emaciated Elise was a grave robber. The novel would be written off as circumstantial evidence. My poetry is on hiatus. I’m going to try to write a tell-all, might have my one-thirty-eight pounds noted prominently on the cover. I’ll call it Dreams Away. I’ve got five years and my cellmate’s sister is a literary agent. So he says.
Image: Google images.