Silky Sullivan’s was located off the Long Island Expressway in the Wal-Mart shopping center and according to our billboard, we treated our customers like family. I was the assistant manager at Silky Sullivan’s and I worked the night shift. I was there after customers gnawed on pork ribs and licked greasy fingers. I was there after they slouched on their barstools, drank more than they had planned on and drove home, eyes fixed on the winding yellow line. I was there for them when they felt wronged because their mashed potatoes were cold, or their drink wasn’t strong enough, or their waitress hadn’t smiled. When we closed at midnight, I would shut myself in the office while the servers wiped down the tables and bartenders melted the ice and the cooks turned on Mariachi music—and eventually—they all clocked out and then it was just me, counting money and locking liquor cabinets and writing schedules and drinking Glenfiddich on the rocks.
After one of our regulars had grabbed her ass, Steph, our newest waitress, never came back. I hired Mary two days later. Mary didn’t interview very well. When I asked her about her last serving position, she said she had waited tables at her father’s restaurant, a common lie for those who lacked experience. When I asked her what kind of restaurant it was, she stared at me.
“What kind of food?” I pushed.
“Oh, um, well you know, meat and fish and stuff.” She twisted the silver ring on her finger.
“What fish did you serve?”
“Salmon,” she said slowly.
“Well, I guess there were other kinds…”
The rest of the interview didn’t go much better. When I talked tip-out percentages, she squinted and bit her nails. She was nervous; she didn’t shake my hand. She bit down on her bottom lip and looked up at me mournfully. I think that’s what got her the job.
Deb Woodruff was my boss. She was a burly woman with a wide, melancholic face and frizzy, thinning hair. She had one of those all-business attitudes and when it came to her appearance, she’d pretty much given up.
I followed her into the office on Thursday and stared at her large, pear-shaped ass as she bent over to pick up a paper that missed the trashcan.
“I see you hired a replacement for Steph,” she said as she seated herself.
“Oh, yes. Mary.”
“No second interview?”
“What?” I felt my face turn red.
“Listen, I’ve looked over the other applicants. She’s the least qualified. You know that as well as I do…”
“She wowed me in the interview, she’s a real, a real people person,” I said.
“I saw her application, Glen. Her father’s restaurant?”
“I’ll start her on lunch shifts,” I offered.
I watched as she crossed one flabby thigh over the other.
“I just want to be sure that we hire fairly and that our intentions for hiring are, well,” she straightened her skirt and looked me squarely in the eye when she said, “principled.”
I felt a heat underneath my cotton shirt rise and swell and become wet and for a moment, I thought I was going to lunge at her, grab her by her frizzy ponytail and ask her if she’d ever felt anything close to desire. I wanted to tell her that I was forty-six and never been married, never even been close; that Rogaine didn’t work; that I was out of soap and used Palmolive dishwashing liquid in the shower this morning and now my balls itched; that I scheduled myself to work Friday and Saturday nights because otherwise I’d spend them alone; and that I go to bed at night with my penis throbbing, begging underneath the sheets for something more than what it’s used to—something more than my tired, hairy hand.
But I didn’t tell her any of that. I said, “Deb, my intentions are always principled.” And I walked out of the office, shaking.
I ended up scheduling Mary to work opposite Deb’s shifts because I didn’t want Deb to see how bad she really was. Mary would get panicked if she had more than two tables at once. She couldn’t master carrying a tray, so she would take the drinks out by hand, two at a time.
I scheduled Mary to work with me on Friday nights, even though I knew she couldn’t handle them, and last Friday as I walked out of the kitchen with a rack of pork ribs in one arm and a New York steak in the other, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt.
“Glen. Glen, I need you,” her voice was frantic.
I turned as servers rushed by me with plates and trays and soup and there was Mary, standing in all of it, biting her bottom lip.
She flipped wildly through her notepad, “I lost table 58’s order. Table 57 hates me and 62 is about to walk.”
It was Sunday night and I found myself alone in the office with a bottle of scotch and Mary’s application staring up at me. I studied the elegant curves of her handwriting, so neat and clean and fresh. I loved the way she looped her letters together, as if they were meant for each other—meant to curve into one another to become one solid word—Mary.
My eyes hungrily scanned her application. I looked at her birth date. She was nineteen. She lived on Tuscany Bend. My eyes moved down to her phone number. I kept looking at the numbers. I said them out loud. I didn’t want to memorize them, but it just happened.
I figured I needed to talk to Mary about the schedule. I needed to know if she could start working Sunday shifts because Darleen had been born again and wanted them off, but it was 3:37 in the morning and I wasn’t sure if she’d be up. I poured myself another drink, spun around on my swivel chair until the fax machine and file cabinet blurred together, and before I knew what was happening I had my Blackberry in my hand and was pressing buttons.
After five rings someone picked up. The voice was tired and muffled and it sounded like Mary but I wasn’t sure. I listened to the voice say “hello?” again. I listened to the breath against my ear. She sighed, mumbled, “Who is this?” I felt myself become hard and I moved my hand against my crotch—then I heard a click.
I walked into the office Monday evening, hungover but freshly shaven to find Deb waiting for me in a wrinkled khaki skirt.
“How was your shift?” I asked as I studied the large blue veins that snaked their way from her thighs to her calves.
“Fine. Listen, I need to talk to you about Mary.”
I felt my face turn red. I tried to make it stop, but I could feel it creeping down my neck. It had crossed my mind that Mary’s call display had given me away.
“Have a seat,” Deb said. “I think you know what I’m about say.”
I stared at her and my eyes began to follow the thin, veiny rivers on her legs. I snapped my eyes back up to hers and nodded.
“We’ve gotten so many complaints. I just can’t keep her on.”
“Who? Oh. Right.”
“She spills things, she has no sense of timing,” she paused, considered me for a moment then said, “I’ve called three of the other applicants and I’ve scheduled interviews with them for Wednesday.”
“Okay.” I said.
My eye twitched and I felt disappointment and anger and longing and hatred and relief that I hadn’t been caught drunk-dialing one of the waitresses and I hated Deb and how jealous she was of pretty girls and I hated how fat she was.
“She was your hire, Glen. So when she comes in for her shift tomorrow night, you’ll have to take care of it, okay?”
“Okay,” I heard myself say again.
That night, I tried to not dwell on firing Mary because I had to get my game-face on. Monday nights were all-you-can-eat rib nights and it was these nights that were particularly soul sucking. For $18.99, Silky Sullivan’s offered unlimited ribs, mashed potatoes, slaw and bottomless soft drinks. It was the best deal in town and it packed the restaurant to the tits. The downside was that greed was rampant. Customers would have plates of ribs in front of them with BBQ sauce dripping from their chins as they flagged down anyone in a Silky Sullivan’s uniform. They were never full enough.
All-you-can-eat was not just a challenge for my staff and me, but it was also a challenge for our customers. In order to feel justified spending $18.99, they needed to see an adequate stack of bones in front of them. None of the waitstaff wanted to work Mondays because even though they were busier than other nights, tips were dismal. Customers didn’t want to spend more than the advertised price and so servers would come storming back into the kitchen, dumping bones into the trash while muttering, “cocksucker.”
Throughout her brief career at Silky Sullivans, I never scheduled Mary to work a single Monday shift. I didn’t want Mary to see this sort of warfare. Mondays made me angry, bitter and on occasion, aggressive. Mary didn’t need to see that side of me. Mary didn’t need to see that side of humanity. Mary was still an innocent.
To make all-you-can-eat nights tolerable, I usually had a few drinks in me—and this particular Monday, the Monday I was told I would have to fire Mary—I started drinking earlier than usual. I would run racks of ribs out to tables and on my way back to the kitchen I would stop by the office, take a swig of Glenlivet 12-Year and return to the kitchen a little more relaxed than before. By 9 pm I was feeling pretty good and I found myself standing up at the front desk, clutching a coffee cup filled with scotch and I was waving and smiling and bullshitting with customers as they staggered out of the restaurant.
At some point, the bottle of scotch in the office ran dry, so I went behind the bar and grabbed another. Todd gave me a dirty look, so I flipped him off. Todd was our bartender and he flirted with the waitresses by squirting them with his soda gun. He was an asshole.
By 11 pm I’d made it back to the office. I was slouched in the swivel chair and I felt my head bobbing forward. I could hear knocking at the door. I knew it was the servers wanting me to count their banks of money so that they could go home, but the door was so far and I remember mumbling my speech to myself. I was telling Mary that she was fired. I was telling Mary that I loved her. I was asking Mary if I could touch her lips.
The next morning I found myself pacing through my apartment amongst piles of dirty clothes and unopened bills and empty beer bottles and at five o’clock, I would be firing Mary.
I took a long shower and I thought about what I would say. I would tell Mary that I loved her. I would tell her how being in love could save me, save us. I would tell Mary that at Silky Sullivan’s we’re like family—that we could be a family.
The “gift” came in a small brown box and arrived at noon. I had ordered them overnight delivery. I opened the box and although they were smaller than they appeared online, they were perfect. They would serve as a peace offering of sorts. A “You’re fired but here are these pearl earrings,” sort of offering. I wouldn’t say that of course, but these days you can’t just fire someone cold turkey. Especially someone you loved.
When she clocked in at 5 pm, Mary’s hair was pulled back in a tight bun. I made my way over to the bar and fixed myself a stiff drink as Todd washed glasses.
At 5:16 there was a knock on the office door. I opened it and there she stood, looking up at me.
“I’m not sure where my section is tonight. My name’s not on the floor plan,” she said.
“Hi, Mary,” I murmured.
I motioned for her to come in. She moved past me and I touched her sleeve.
“Have a seat,” I said.
Mary took the swivel chair and I stood leaning against the desk. I stuck my chest out, ran my hand through my gelled hair and looked at her.
“We’ve been getting some complaints on your service,” I began.
She looked up at me, bit down on her bottom lip, and then I told her. I told her that she wasn’t a team player; that the t is silent in merlot; that she was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Somehow my drink ended up in my hand and I threw my head back and finished it up. I told her that I knew the working at her dad’s restaurant bit was bullshit and I dropped down to my knees and held out the small, brown box.
“Here, take them,” I said. “Pearl earrings,” I said louder.
Everything went black and when I realized where I was, I had pushed her chair up against the wall—I had my mouth over hers and I was breathing into her, breathing, I want, I want. She made a sound and I thought it was a moan of passion but as I took my mouth off hers, it turned into a scream, high and shrill and loud.
“No,” I said, “Shhh.”
I held a finger up to my lips, but it was too late and I could feel the scream vibrating inside me. I moved my hand over her lips, her sweet, red lips that were now parted and quivering and I muffled her scream with my hairy hand. I could feel her lips underneath my palm, hot and wet against me. The swivel chair creaked and groaned as she thrashed about and then there was a pounding on the door.
“What’s going on in there? Open up!” It was Todd.
I still had Mary pinned and she was breathing hard and fast. Her nose was running and she looked at me, panting and breathing and blubbering. I knelt down on the floor, I put my head in her lap, and before Todd burst in after the fourth kick, before Mary sat huddled in a grey fireman’s blanket, red lips trembling as she told her story, before they took me away, hands cuffed behind me—before any of that—she let me keep it there.