Fangs, Butter Knives and the Queen of Hearts, 2015

by Lynne T. Pickett 

I’m going to make it—I’ve got two minutes—oh God, just keep going. My stilettos twist in a sideways skating motion as I spot little trails of liquid in front of me. No matter how I try to balance myself, I can’t. I land, belly-down with my nose pressed into a puddle of gin. The hem of my dress is around my ears.

I close my eyes and pray to God no one sees my hot-pink underwear with the unraveling elastic and the words “sweet cheeks” across my butt. My right arm stretches out in front of me, frozen, with the change I grabbed from the taxi driver, still clenched in my hand.

There is a sound of high and low pitches swelling into a roar—it’s laughter. I raise my head to see the entire waitstaff lined up next to the hostess station, some doubled over, others wiping tears from their eyes. I put my head back down. I want to lick the gin right off the floor, despite the three million or so germs lying in wait.

My left arm begins to rise, then my body follows: Allen is pulling me up. “I punched your time card when I saw you running down the street, no worries. Oh, shit, act like you’re doing something out here, wicked witch approaching.”

The waitstaff scatters faster than the cockroaches in the back kitchen at night.

“What are you doing?” Christina’s thigh-high black leather boots with the pointy toes are dangerously close to my fingertips.

“I saw a spill; don’t want anyone to slip.” I am pretending to wipe the gin up, but since I don’t have anything to clean it with, I give up. I stand up to distract her. I put my hand over my mouth to suppress a gasp. Christina’s outdone herself tonight. She’s teased her wavy black hair so high; one of the patio pigeons might try to nest in it.

“Where have you been?”

Should I say, Oh, I was just lying here on the floor in the entranceway? Probably not. Christina would somehow decide that it was grounds to fire me. I could see her writing out my termination papers: unauthorized falling, lying down on the job, physically inept and incapable of doing the work.

Allen rushes up to us. “Mr. Regular is bitchin’ about the drinks again: watery, he says…need you Ellie, you’re his favorite.”

I mouth a “Thank you” to him as Christina gives Allen a scowl.

I turn to run away but Christina’s fingernails lock down on my arm. “Wait a minute, why are you dressed as a cocktail waitress?”

I bite my lip to the point where I am pretty sure it will bleed. Oh, Hell. I had taken the shift without approval. I wasn’t hired as a cocktail waitress, but I begged one of the lounge waitresses to give me her shift when she put it up for grabs: the shift would pay my rent this month.

Christina growls at me like a rabid pit bull about to attack. “I already have three girls working that area tonight.”

“But I need to cover Lorie’s—”

“I have a girl training with the other two; you aren’t needed nor were you hired as a cocktail waitress. I rescheduled you to work the patio tonight. Be grateful you aren’t fired.” Christina’s red, waxy lips look like a toddler has smudged crayon all over them. Bits and pieces of lipstick crack as she smiles. “I hope you have your uniform with you, if not—”

I feel my chest tighten with rage and take a deep breath. I guess it’s a lucky thing I changed to go out after work a couple nights ago and left my uniform in my locker. I look over at the lounge and I want to collapse into a big ball of depression as I watch the bartenders shaking martini after martini. The windows behind them show a dark gray sky, is it going to rain?

I am on the edge of bursting into tears, but I refuse to give Christina the satisfaction, my words seem to squeak out: “I have my uniform.”

I see Allen behind Christina, mouthing, “What’s going on?”

Christina looks me up and down. “Pathetic. You’re not going to cry, are you?”

I put my head down and whisper, “no.” If I say it any louder, I will cry.

“Go change and make it fast.” Christina turns toward the lounge.

I sheepishly walk toward the stairs. As my foot hits the first step, Christina yells, “Oh, by the way, you can also prep all the butter for the restaurant since your station is empty.” Of course it’s empty. It’s going to be in the low sixties tonight. The piano player starts singing Send in the Clowns, as I descend the stairs. I look over to see Christina singing with the piano player and laughing in my direction.

I pull my wrinkled white shirt and black pants out of my locker; they reek of garlic and grease. I want to gag as I head toward the women’s bathroom to change. I curse Christina in every way I can think of; at first quietly, but soon I am yelling. I kick the door of the stall open. I feel like my nerves are going to crack. I turn and see my face in the mirror; I am pathetic, look at me. I need to calm down: it was hard enough to get this job, let alone keep it. I just have to stay out of Christina and the owner’s way tonight—especially the owner, his cocaine addiction turns him into a paranoid, crazy man. He shadows the staff until he finds a victim, picks at them mercilessly, usually the person begins crying or yelling and then he gleefully fires them right in the middle of their shift.

I have learned to run away when he shows up. I disappear into the kitchen or the bathroom. Somehow I have managed to work at the restaurant for year, without the owner knowing my name, until a few nights ago. It was after closing and I was waiting to go to the clubs with Allen and some other waiter friends, when the owner walked in to grab some cash from the bar register. He stopped and stared at me—I was wearing a miniskirt. His attention makes my spine go cold. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me whole. Christina showed up and I ran out the door.

I take my long burgundy curls and tie them back so they are barely visible. I wipe off my lipstick and replace it with a clear gloss. I grab a wad of toilet paper and rub off my black eyeliner. I put my dress and heels in my locker and run back up the stairs. The bar and restaurant are completely full but, of course, there is no one on the patio. I make my way to the kitchen as everyone speeds by me. I solemnly pull out eight sets of salt and pepper and sugar caddies for my tables. I dodge the kitchen staff with their trays of sizzling food as I make my way to the walk-in refrigerator, which is about the size of my studio apartment. I can barely reach the brick-size block of butter on the top shelf and knock down a slab of frozen meat and nearly break my foot.

Why do crappy little 24-hour diners give out individual butter packets, but in this restaurant, I have to cut butter chips and put them in ramekins? Christina says it’s more sophisticated but I think they’re just cheap. Maybe that’s where the owner gets money for his drugs.

My black sneakers stick to the suction-cup mats in the kitchen. I feel like a fly, trying to peel myself off a sticky strip. Clouds of steam, smelling of garlic, hover over boiling pots. I feel hot and sick to my stomach.  

I cut the butter quickly—I am almost done when I look up to see Christina’s long fake eyelashes inches away from my face. “You’ll be working next Thursday.”

My knife drops. “On Thanksgiving?”

She picks up one of the ramekins of butter and pushes it toward me. “You’re cutting the butter wrong. It’s too thick.”

Christina begins to strut away like she’s a peacock until her heel gets stuck in one of the holes of the rubber mats. I watch her tug and tug at her boot as I pick up the knife to recut the butter. I feel my arm impulsively rise as I watch the knife leave my hand. A five-inch-wide, twelve-inch-long piece of steel is flying and spinning across the room toward Christina’s back. Christina is bent down, still tugging at her boot and cursing at the mat.

One of the dishwashers walks in past Christina with a tub of dishes, the knife lands right into the middle of the tub. “Holy Mother of Cristo!” He yells.

Allen rushes in to get some desserts from the cooler. I burst into tears. The dishwasher, Luis, is spouting a series of Spanish words I don’t understand, but I have a pretty good idea what they are. Luis picks up the knife and puts it in Allen’s hand. “Chica, mucho loco.”

“I am not doing this anymore.” I untie my apron. Christina, oblivious of my circus-like, knife throwing act, frees her boot and continues on her way.

Allen puts the knife on the food-prep table. “Did you throw—?”

I nod yes, beginning to hyperventilate. “At Christina…I…she is horri—”

“It’s okay, hey, calm down; listen, I’m surprised I haven’t done something like it. Tell Luis you’ll give him five dollars to cut the rest of the butter. You just got two tables. Go.”

“All…oh…oh…right.”

I turn to Luis but he steps back, terrified. “Ok, ok, si, I do it, bye, bye.”

I try to smile as I approach my tables but my hands are shaking. I order two frozen margaritas from the bartender and then I see him, the owner is across the bar, downing shots. Our eyes meet. His stare is inhuman. I imagine him slithering onto the bar, striking me with his fangs and then dragging me off.

Something clicks inside me and I no longer care what happens. The knife, his demented stare—I am not going to work ten hours on Thanksgiving. I’d be lucky to make thirty dollars. It’s a matter of life or death. Otherwise, I will have to bury my pride forever. I walk over to the owner pretending I am getting cocktail napkins and straws.

The owner nervously clears his throat and gives me a gruff hello.

I pull the tie out of my hair and shake my curls down. “Oh, hello, Mr. Griffin.” I move even closer, keeping eye contact. His eyes are red and glassy. “What are you doing for Thanksgiving this year, Mr. Griffin?”

He puts his hand to his forehead. “I have a crazy uncle in town. His whole family is at my place.”

“Oh, family.” I begin to let tears well up, holding them back. Then I release them in full force. He grabs a napkin, his hand is shaking.

“Thank you. You are so sweet. It’s just that I always go to my husband’s family for Thanksgiving. We divorced a month ago, so this will be my first holiday alone. Christina told me today that I have to work.” I lean in for another napkin, letting my arm brush his leg.

“Take the day off.” His hot breath is near my neck.

“Really?” I see Christina rounding the corner. I throw myself at him and kiss him on the cheek. As I peer over his shoulder at her beet-red face, I imagine her knockoff designer boots shriveling at the toes and her screaming, I’m melting.

I also imagine, my lousy ex-husband, the artist, who thought it was perfectly fine to date other women while we were married, is also melting into the sidewalk, leaving only the rubber tread of his sneakers along with the tattered play script he performs with every new actress he meets.

I put the frozen margaritas down at one table, as a few more people sit down. Maybe my luck is changing. I wipe down the salt and pepper shakers on the other tables and stare at a new shop across the street and sigh—nothing new for a while. I just hope I can make enough tonight to give to the landlord.

One of my tables waves me over and orders double shots. I look around the bar, but Mr. Griffin is nowhere. Allen walks up to me. “Oh my God, there is talk that you got out of your Thanksgiving shift.”

“Yep. I only hope my win won’t be a big loss later.”

“Christina is livid, but she’s also scared of you now.”

“Really?” Things are finally going my way. I walk to the patio smiling and put down the two shots on the table—and then it begins. A few drops of rain, followed by thunder and lightning, and then a downpour. Two of the tables move to the lounge but luckily tip me. The other two tables throw money down and leave. I roll the cart of condiments and silverware inside. Out of nowhere, Christina appears. “The busboys are too busy to bring the chairs and tables in. You will have to do it.”

“I can’t carry that stuff to the basement by myself.”

Christina tries to give me a blank face, but I see the anger in her eyes. “Maybe Mr. Griffin can help you.”

I grit my teeth. “I’ll figure it out.”

“That will be interesting.” Christina hands me the keys to the storage unit and whispers, “By the way, he gets bored with people easily; trust me, you have no clue what you’re in for, good luck.”

I shiver as I watch her leave. Luis runs past me with a crate of glasses. I wave a five-dollar bill at him. “Can you help me?”

Loco Chiquita. I can’t, too busy. Besides, you know the lady will fire me.”

I jump when I see Mr. Griffin resurface from downstairs. He rubs his nose then points at the tables and chairs still out on the patio, screaming at Luis and the other busboys. He then walks over to Christina’s and starts yelling at her too.

Oh, God, was this it? Am I about to get fired?

Christina is next to me in seconds. “Clock out.” She is completely shaken.

I run down the stairs and clock out, moving as fast as I can. I’m completely soaked. I change quickly into the dress and heels I wore to work. As I run up the stairs, I see Mr. Griffin leaving ahead of me. Thank God.

I wave good-bye to Allen and wait until Mr. Griffin gets into his chauffeured car. He leaves and I run across the street and duck under the canopy of the store I was looking at earlier.  A car suddenly slows down and the window lowers. “Your legs must be freezing in that dress. Get in. We can get something to drink that will warm you up.”

His car must have made a U-turn. I’m in deep trouble. I try to think as fast as I can. I lean into the window, knowing the dress will lower and show the top of my breasts.

“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it, Mr. Griffin, but unfortunately, I am going into this store to pay off a coat I have on hold. “Have a happy Thanksgiving with your family.”

He pins my arm and pulls me close. Call me Winston. Happy Thanksgiving, to you too, Ellie and when you get back, I insist on getting those drinks.”

My heart is in my throat as he pulls away. I hover, trembling, near the store doorway, which makes the bell ring. The shopkeeper appears.

“I was just closing up. Can I help you?”

I shake my head no and start to leave. “Don’t you have an umbrella?”

“No. I’ll just have to run to the subway.”

“In those shoes? You’ll probably slip.”

I nod. “Yes, probably.”

“You can borrow an umbrella and bring it back the next time you’re around here.” The woman was being so kind. I start to cry.

“It’s just an umbrella, my dear.” She puts her arm around me and pulls me into the store. “I was going to look at my fortune—business could be better—but if an umbrella makes you cry like that, then you definitely need your cards read more.” The woman lays a set of tarot cards across the counter.

She shuffles the cards. “Pick out five.”

 I close my eyes and pick. I don’t know what to think, but at this point, I am willing to listen to anything.

The woman lays out pictures of swords, horses, knights and queens. “Did you know swans mate for life?”

I shake my head no.

“The cards tell me that you, my dear, are like a swan and you feel as if your mate has died. Do you see this card with the knights? It shows new suitors, but I see danger. Be careful. See the snakes at the bottom of the card? They are poisonous. There will be suitors who can lead you into terrible trouble.”

 As she lays down the cards, she grabs a red velvet scarf and wraps it in tissue paper. “Wear this and remember you are the queen of hearts. Perhaps this will help you believe in yourself and help you retain the strength you’ve been letting go.”

She holds out the bag and the umbrella. I feel embarrassed. It’s too much. “I can’t take the scarf too.”

“Pay me a dollar. It’s an exchange of energy. A visit from the queen of hearts changes my luck too.”

I hold back more tears as I hand her a dollar and take the umbrella and the scarf, “Thank you.” I feel wobbly as I walk down the subway steps to the train. The train doors open and as I walk to a seat, I feel the familiar skating sensation of my shoes as I slip and fall onto the floor.

An arm picks me up and hands me the umbrella and the bag with the scarf. “Here you go.” The man attached to the arm smiles as I sit down. “Are you okay?”

I search his eyes for danger. “I have no idea.”

“Shopping early for Christmas?” He is looking at the red velvet poking out of the tissue paper.

I nod yes, not knowing what to say.

“I just bought this poker game for my brother.” He holds the box up. On the outside is a picture of the queen of hearts. “Unfortunately, I have to work Christmas this year; it’s really rotten. How about you?”

“I have no idea. Does that game come with cards? Maybe your cards can tell me.”

 


Lynne T. Pickett

Lynne T. Pickett grew up in a small town in the mountains, a corn field her backyard and a story lingering around every corner. Lynne has a degree in broadcast journalism from Syracuse University, NY and a professional certificate from Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre School, NYC. Her claim to fame: she was Madonna’s stunt double in the film Bloodhounds of Broadway, that’s her leg on the swing kicking down the old man. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Diverse Voices Quarterly, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, moonShine Review, The Broken Plate, The Tower Journal, The Griffin and Limestone Journal.

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