21 November 2005 | Vol. 5, No. 3
Long before theme restaurants became a blight upon the land, before House of Blues and Planet Hollywood, even before the Hard Rock, there was in my hometown an eatery built of gray wood and deep red eaves that sat where Garrett Road crosses highway 15-501: Darryl's 1890 Restaurant & Bar. The interior was downright crepuscular, but that just added to the coziness and mystery, and for years it was considered the place to snuggle with a honey or celebrate after a ballgame or have your first legal drink. The antiques on the wall were real, not reproductions like you see in chain joints these days. In fact, even the seating was antique: scarred tables from long-demolished hotels and diners, railcar berths, an old-timey elevator.
Oh yeah. The old-timey elevator. What I wouldn't give to see that again.
I bussed tables there for six long months in 1981. The Reagan assassination attempt and alligator shirts and Smurfs and me prepping the salad bar, clearing dishes, topping off water glasses. I worked there because I got kicked out of college after one lousy semester and had to prove I could be responsible. I got kicked out because I was all the time thinking about a girl. Margot was never thinking about me, though, and that's what broke my heart.
What a crew we were, me, a love-wrecked college failure, and three others. There was this guy Begly, who we called Piranha, not because he was small and vicious but because he had a jaw so underslung it looked like an open cash register drawer. Every day for six months I had to resist the urge to reach over and push it shut. Cedric, powderkegs in his biceps and calves and a short-fuse dislike of white folks. He'd just finished three years in the Marines—it was that or marry one of the girls he'd gotten pregnant, and Parris Island looked better than matrimony at the time. He had applications at a cool dozen police departments, said he was just waiting until one came through. And last, Toking Thomas, son of our best cook, Mama Bliss. If Thomas worked a day without a hit or nine off a fat blunt I'll cheerfully read the collected works of Harold Robbins.
Morning setup was my favorite time. Pull the chairs off the tables, lay out the condiment cradles, run a carpet sweeper over any crumbs missed by the night crew. Usually it was just me in the dimly lit volumes of space, the red flocked wallpaper and sconces, the subway car that had room for sixteen diners, the spiral staircase that led to a second level, to the antique elevator.
That elevator booth was the site of our first date, my first ever, back in the fall of 1979. I had Margot by three and a third years but it was no contest in all the ways that count where love is concerned: I was a flyweight to her Ali.
I'd get the jukebox key, make my selections, and hurry through setup so that when "Use Ta Be My Girl" came on I was finished and sitting in the elevator. Those warm tones and smooth "shoop shoops" would fall from the O'Jays' lips and I'd sit there staring at the hurricane lantern that illuminated us that night, awash in quiet lamentation, wondering how I screwed up with her, what happened, and why I seemed constitutionally unable to recover and move on. Every morning at the restaurant during setup there I'd be, lost in the worst excesses of morose thought, so tangled in my recent past that I got caught several times by one of the managers and dressed down. And since I needed a written testimonial from one of them on the subject of my work ethic and all around can-do attitude, I had to eat their shit with a spoon.
Funny, about that night. I sat across from her, taking mental snapshots for the express purpose of future remembrance, but never, during those mornings I gathered wool and listened to the O'Jays before the restaurant opened, could I conjure more than fleeting impressions: her hair tucked around one ear, a pearl gleaming in its lobe; the way her eyes gathered the candlelight and tossed it sparkling through the air. And though I still can't recall the name of her perfume, my nose has always been able to identify the way it combined with her soap to portend groaning sighs, moisture, and tumescence. A hint of anything remotely similar and I get short of breath and my cock snaps to attention, even today.
Cedric eventually warmed up, got to where he said the sight of me didn't make him want to beat hell out of my ofay ass. I said that was mighty white of him and he warned me not to let it go to my head because he could always reconsider. We reached this happy state one morning when I overheard him singing "Here's To You" and joined in. He stopped, looked at me as if I'd pissed in the salad bar, and asked in his delicate way, "The fuck does a white boy know about Skyy?"
I shot back that he shouldn't judge a book by its cover and then we settled in to talk about Zapp, Fatback, Instant Funk, the shows we'd been to, and by the time we'd skated away an hour on the clock, Cedric and I were as tight as an angry young black man and a confused young white guy were ever going to get.
"Come on, Saltine, get your sorry ass out that elevator and help me bust these lettuces."
Cedric called me that because I'd become his favorite cracker and I let him because it wasn't bad as nicknames go. I'd been dreaming my usual dream of love regained, as well as a new dream—or plan, really, a scheme—of how to make enough money to buy a hellacious new skateboard. The money I made bussing tables, per my dad's orders, disappeared into an account for when I returned to school, so anything extra had to come from elsewhere. I take this now as a sign of the heart's resilience: even in the midst of soul-crushing despair I still made time for the comparatively frivolous.
The triple-wide, triple-deep sinks were full of frigid water and bobbing lettuce heads. We stood side by side, fishing out icebergs, slamming them against the stainless steel sink to loosen the marrow, ripping them into shreds, seizing another, our hands frozen after one or two submersions. As with everything in my life at the time, I related this somehow to my ex. This was exactly the sort of work Margot never had to do, child of private schools that she was, and never would do. Never, I had to admit, because no way would she settle for anything so menial: even in junior high she'd done things like intern with a television station so she could study the reporters and anchors and camera guys. Me at the same age, I was cutting grass at five bucks a pop. Grunt work.
"Damn, bwah, going to let me do this whole bag by myself?" Cedric glared at me.
Nine disemboweled lettuces over by Cedric's sink to my three. Couldn't even make a proper go of grunt work anymore, so I mumbled an apology and picked up the pace. We worked for a few minutes and then he asked how come I was every morning camped out in the elevator listening to the O'Jays. He was sharp, and since keeping it bottled up had so far only got me kicked out of school, I spilled. His face, by the end, wish I'd taken a picture of it: textbook disbelief.
"You fuck her?" he asked, grabbing for another iceberg.
I thought about lying, but figured he'd see through it, then thought to tell him she was underage, but for Cedric that'd be a lame excuse at best—if she was old enough to ask for it, as indeed she had, she was old enough to take the consequences. So I ventured an unadorned "No," trying to drown out the shameful syllable with a series of vegetable whomps against the sink.
"Eat her out? Tell me you at least ate her out."
"Once." But no way could I admit to Cedric how magical it had been: the way she stretched herself along her bed, one knee propped up and flung to the side, the intoxicating smell and how that furry crease took on such a plush slipperiness under my tongue. The involute beauty of it as she unfurled before me. He'd only laugh at such rhapsodizing. And it was pitiful, really, to be still under her spell half a year after getting dumped.
"Well, that's something at least." He stopped mauling lettuce and shook his head. "But damn if you ain't the saddest cracker-ass motherfucker I ever saw. How in the hell can any man let himself get beat down so low by pussy he never fucked?"
I assumed it was a rhetorical question and suggested we get started on the god damn onions. But he was right. How in the hell? A question that plagued me for years.
I'd worked there just over a month when Begly told me about this sales gig called Amway, said I could make big dough like him and his girlfriend if I joined. I almost asked what the hell was he still bussing tables for if the money was so big, but didn't want to be rude. He kept it up, day after day, until I said sure, I'd go to one of the meetings, figuring I could at least sell enough crap to buy my skateboard.
I should've known better. As a salesman, I'd always stunk: sold the least amount of candy in junior high for new football uniforms, gathered the fewest pledges for CROP walks, collected paltry sums for UNICEF. Just couldn't do the necessary sucking up, the bowing and unctuous scraping that came natural to good salespeople.
Begly, his girlfriend Lisa, and I went to the "convention space" of the Holiday Inn downtown—a depressing room the color of crusty vanilla pudding, filled with styrofoam coffee cups and people who spent more than they could afford so as to look like extras on Dallas. Some guy started evangelizing about diamonds and double diamonds but I lost the thread. The people were more interesting: rapt faces like you'd see in church, and I realized this was nothing but a religion of money. I began having second thoughts, but the desire for a bitching skateboard, Tony Alva design rolling on some cool green Snakes, was greater. If I could just sell enough of their cleaning products, that baby would be mine. Amazing, now that I look back on it, how focused I could be on such a simple goal when the rest of my life was in shambles. I signed up, shelled out money for a starter kit, already planning my first sale: to Mrs. Troy, Margot's mom.
In retrospect, not such a great idea. Begly told me I'd have better luck if I put on a coat and tie when calling on people, said folks respected the authority of your words more if you threw a little style at them, and again I ignored my gut, which knew, in a way my brain seemed to have forgotten, that I feel like a hypocrite when I put a noose around my neck and pretend I'm a suit. I was taking off early from work, and was knotting my tie in the bathroom when Cedric came in to take a leak. He shook his head but held his tongue until I couldn't stand it.
"Some of this shit really works," I said, brandishing a jar of stain remover from my kit. Then, abandoning rationalization in the face of his bemused pissing: "I need some extra cash."
He flushed and leaned against the privacy panel. "Take control of your life, then. First you let this cock-teasing bitch break you down, now you going to join that asshole Begly's get-rich-quick plan. 'Stead of pushing this crap—" dismissive flourish at my kit "—fucking sell off a couple these antiques." He banged his fist against one of the cast-iron farm implements that decorated the men's room. "They'll never know."
Considering where Cedric was in his own life, I felt it safe to ignore his larceny-as-manifesto advice. Mrs. Troy continued to have a soft spot in her heart for me, always making time to talk in those months after Margot, with a suddenness and mysteriousness I couldn't quite get over, dismissed me from her life: I'd go over there during my first, ill-starred, semester of college, and she'd serve up cake or muffins and listen as I described the train wreck that my academic career was becoming, then she'd tell me what Margot was up to and I hate to admit it but I hung on each of her words. I was the most stomach-turning of jilted lovers, but I came by it honestly.
Five minutes into my pitch at Mrs. Troy's kitchen table and I knew it was a mistake. I felt embarrassed for both of us, as I knew she felt embarrassed for me. Still, I soldiered through, spouting the most anemic line of sale-speak ever uttered, and at the end she bought a bottle of tub and tile goo. A pity purchase. If I'd left then, mere discomfiture would've been my lot. I stayed to shoot the breeze, however, maybe in a doomed attempt to salvage my reputation. Her good opinion still mattered to me, even though by that time I'd forfeited the good opinion of a hundred others, teachers and family and friends.
As I was taking my leave, Margot arrived. At 15, she looked like a beautiful 20 year-old; everything about her was mature, from the shape of her body—more curvy than a mountain road—to the cast of her mind. And my God, I never met a more merrily buoyant pair of breasts. For close on a year they were two of my best friends, even the one that bore a set of faint teeth marks around the nipple, trailblazing sign left by a previous beau who had obviously become carried away in his oral ministrations. Suddenly she was there in the kitchen with us, and I could barely draw breath. She skimmed some of the "literature" I had idiotically left on the table, crapola about becoming an Amway "distributor," as if a smart woman like Mrs. Troy would ever stoop to peddle such slop.
"Amway?" Margot said, following me out to my car. "Why're you bothering my mom with this junk? Can't you take a hint?" She spoke slowly, as if to a child, or the brain-damaged: "I'm through with you. Get lost."
At my car—a never-impressive faded green Pontiac that got nine miles to the gallon but could batter a lesser car into scrap metal—I informed Miss High and Mighty that in fact her mother had been persuaded by my pitch to buy one of Amway's fine products, a total distortion of reality but I was desperate. She laughed in my face.
"Don't you know this is nothing but a pyramid scheme?"
I foolishly admitted I'd never heard the term before, so she explained it with all the marvelous condescension at her disposal. By then, however, I'd become mesmerized by her lips and totally missed her scathing diatribe.
Kissing those lips. Sheer ecstasy. That first date we saw Life of Brian after dinner at Darryl's, and during the full frontal scene, Sue Jones-Davies as Judith standing naked in an open window, I was suddenly alarmed by the thought of taking Margot home later, of saying good night at her front door. Of negotiating my first kiss. At the moment of truth I hesitated, but it turned out okay as she stepped in and kissed me, a kiss that lasted an hour and left me trembling. And weeks later, after our acquaintance deepened, shall we say, those lips proved equally adept at sliding up and down my cock. So while she ridiculed me for my ignorance of financial scams, I blinked my way through memories of her mouth as a source of pleasure rather than abuse. There were worse ways to pass the time.
"God," she concluded, winding up for the coup de grace. "Even I know what a pyramid scheme is, you loser."
I should've been able to crack some cruel joke at her expense, maybe about how short she was, or how she still lisped on occasion when excited. That's what guys do when they want to put some girl in their rearview mirror and get on with life, but I just couldn't do it. I stared at her over the open door of my shitbucket car, wanting only to kiss her, beg her to give me a second chance. She was 15, true, but already going places, even I knew that, possessed of talent and assertiveness to burn, ruthless when it came to getting what she wanted, and I stood there in my coat and tie feeling I'd got off the train too soon.
Years and years later I Googled her, found out she did became a TV journalist—clearly having overcome her slight speech impediment—and was immensely popular in the various cities where she'd reported the news, sometimes from the field, other times from behind a desk or via Webcast. She knew what she wanted even way back then and let nothing stand in her way, unlike me who bumbled through the years.
I suppose I was far from the only piece of her life she discarded once it seemed not to fit her overall plan. Somehow I know she's never Googled me, not that there'd be much to read—my career as a middle-school science teacher hasn't exactly garnered me a sparkling Internet vita. In fact, I'd bet money that not once in all the years since we dated has she daydreamed about me, not even the merest reverie, a bitterly galling speculation considering the way she's dogged my thoughts.
So instead of a sharp rejoinder I loosened my tie, swallowed once, hard, and got in my car that was filled with samples I'd never sell, heartbroken all over again. She had a way of making each time seem like the first.
That June I pulled a night shift for Thomas and was muscling a tub full of dirties toward the staircase when I saw a gaggle of girls from Margot's high school sitting in the old-timey elevator, Cathy Erwin among them. Margot's best friend. I tried to stop but she saw me, said something to the table at large, and then all of them craned around to have a look at the unwashed busboy who once dated a member of their ritzy tribe.
Where was the trapdoor when I needed it, the secret bookcase, the Batcave? Still, my destination lay beyond their table, and to go back would be to admit both defeat and cowardice. Calling on as much dignity as a raggedy-ass vinyl apron and a dish full of stinking crockery would allow, I stared straight ahead and pressed forward. Into the breach.
Just as I passed them and felt I'd perhaps made too much of the moment, Cathy spoke. "Margot says hi."
Oh, if only I could take back my reaction! To my perpetual mortification, I stopped and turned with what I'm sure was a look of beatific joy. Worse, I answered.
The collective table smirked. "Kidding," she said, turning back to titter with her friends. They tittered, swear to God, and I stood there like the perfect stooge, flush with the anger of the impotent. Across the way, bussing the remains of chicken cacciatore and lasagna on a double shift, Cedric watched us, shaking his head in disgust. My daily quota of humiliation met and exceeded, I scurried offstage.
Minutes later he found me hyperventilating in the meat freezer while a commotion on the floor drew managers and staff from all parts of the restaurant, some racing past my chilly refuge as if to douse a fire.
"Why you let those rich bitch cocksuckers do you like that?"
I didn't know, except to say Margot and her ilk acted on me like kryptonite did Superman, or the color yellow did Green Lantern. The commotion subsided, then rose again. "What the fuck is going on out there?" I said, not wanting to dissect my most recent nightmare.
A classic shit-eating grin as he informed me that someone had accidentally spilled a tub of filthy, water-soaked, table-swabbing rags, cups of cold coffee filed with cigarette butts, and other by-products of the evening's meals on a table of girls sitting in the old-timey elevator.
"You know the table, right?" he said.
"Yeah, I do," and had to laugh, breath pluming around my head. "Is the clumsy motherfucker who did it going to get in trouble?"
"Nah. He apologized, and the managers are comping the meal, giving them gift certificates, happy-happy shit like that. The chicken cacciatore ain't coming out that silky dress, though. What a shame." He punched me in the shoulder, none too softly. "Next time someone does you that way, it better be your sorry white ass dumping a tub of nasty table scrapings on them."
With the approach of fall, my time as a busboy came to a close. We hung out a couple of times as the summer progressed, most notoriously a trip along with Thomas to catch the Parliament-Funkadelic show in Greensboro: Thomas brought a baggie of Mexican Christmas Tree and I could barely see the road through the haze of the blunts he rolled for us.
For all that, we weren't friends, each of us heading in different directions: me back to school, Thomas most likely to prison on a dealing charge, and Cedric either to life as a cop or a succession of dead-end jobs like the one we had that year. Circumstance and funk music brought us together, but not even those powerful forces could overcome our divergent trajectories of race, class, education, and the opportunities that resulted thereof.
Before I quit work, though, I did swipe the hurricane lantern, perhaps in the hope that by rendering the tableau of our first date incomplete it would stop haunting me. Sold it to an antique shop in Asheville, bought my deck, and broke it that October grabbing bodacious air on an ollie out of an empty pool, my single moment of Christian Hosoi radical excellence. Sitting on my battered ass amid the shards of my board, I had to laugh at how the weed of crime had really and truly given birth to majorly bruised fruit. And still the elevator, that night, that girl, hollowed me out and filled me with regret, desire, hate, love. I couldn't shake her.
I stayed sad for years, result of my great error in generalizing Margot's talent for cruelty, which she practiced without restraint on me, to all women, and wallowed in the purest distillate of sorrow that ever dripped from love's alembic until a tall blonde Valkyrie rescued me. Unlike Margot, she never played games with my heart, and, in one of my rare good decisions, I married her. We've traded stories, as couples will do, of past romances, and she can't for the life of her understand why Margot had such a deep and long lasting effect. All she sees are the myriad ways Margot had of making me feel small, the taunting phone calls during our intermittent breaks from each other, the deeply hurtful remarks about my lack of manners and intellect, the final, never explained, dismissal. The truth, though, is that Margot was the first person, parents included, who believed I was something other than ordinary. Until her, I never felt confident or special, and even if later she did her best to annihilate that confidence—pretty damn successfully as it turned out—I continued to love her for the warmth of her regard and for the chance she took on me, a terminally shy boy of seventeen.
Periodically, by which I mean every night for a year after the breakup and with oh-so-gradually declining frequency afterward, I wondered what happened, if I might've made things work, the usual questions we plague ourselves with at three in the morning, sometimes because we're taking stock, other times just to feel that ache, the one that comes from lost love or from the one whom we loved who never reciprocated in kind or the one who forgot us with terrible ease and moved on. I'd long been a master of the three a.m. greatest hurts revue.
Darryl's waned in popularity, the usual fate of restaurants in a city growing more cosmopolitan by the year, at last going bankrupt, and only then did I realize how long since I'd eaten there. The elevator that a broken heart once compelled me to sit in each day for a spring and a summer was now a memory riddled with error and inaccuracy—had we sat in chairs or on benches? Did the grille-work surround us on two sides, or three? I wanted one more chance to walk through those dim rooms but too late: the fire department intended to burn the building as a training exercise.
There were only a handful of us who gathered to watch the restaurant burn, and I think we were all shocked at how quickly this cherished place, once a fixture of the city, collapsed to smoking rubble. Children and new arrivals would never know of its existence, their mental map of the city filling in this real estate as a vacant lot, a place for farmers to sell pumpkins in October and fir trees in December.
For me, though, it was the last piece of a past on which my first love had been built: the movie theaters and skating rinks and malls where we hung out and went on dates, all had been torn down over the two and half decades since and replaced with new malls, salons, coffee shops, the city shedding its skin and emerging entirely different from the one I'd known. Had Margot been in town, Darryl's importance as the site of our first date would never have crossed her mind. There would've been no Hollywood moment where our eyes meet across the flames and we catch up, mending our differences, apologizing for old injuries. It was up to me, and my peculiar obsession with the past, to witness this final obliteration. I'd taken Cedric's advice and never again let anyone treat me the way she had, but still that original pain endured, shadowy but persistent. Now, so many years later, as a stiff breeze fanned the smoke through our thick summer air, I felt that lonely, lost period of my life vanish with it, rising skyward like an offering to heaven.
About the author:
A chapter from Tripp Reade's novel-in-progress, The Dark Backward of Time, won the Spring 2002 Blumenthal Writers and Readers Series contest, sponsored by the North Carolina Writers' Network, and was subsequently read at the North Carolina Literary Festival in April 2002. His stories have appeared in Timber Creek Review, Sandhills Review, Spout, Slow Trains, writeThis, Dead Mule, and Skive.