I continued to run into Sam in the break room, a little nook near the slop sink housing a table and a few crates to sit on. She smoked like a freight train, though only at intervals of half-cigarettes. I came to realize the significance of the semi-smoked Turkish blends that dangled from ash trays in the back. After sitting back there with her a few times, I became accustomed to the awkwardness of watching her light half a cigarette.
She was amazed to find out I was an English major. Her eyes lit and she flashed me that expansive smile of hers.
“You’re an English major? Wow, you must read a lot of books.”
I provided her with my manufactured response for everything that was either a lie or something I was ashamed of.
“I’ve been known to partake from time to time.”
She laughed, and we came to bask in the commonality that we were both immersed in On the Road. Kerouac had been my nightly partner on those nights when I was still sober enough to read for five minutes before passing out. This happened on and off for the last two months. She admitted reading the book for four months. I liked that she was taking twice as long as I in reading a 260 page first-person novel.
As with any conversation about a novel both participants have yet to finish, the next five minutes were spent talking about what to expect and what was enjoyed, where the novel was going and when we expected to finish it.
“I’m going home tonight and finishing it,” I said. “Are you in? You and me and Kerouac, tonight.” This was the pull, the rub, if you will, to get her to my place to fool around. I had to admit I wasn’t overly attracted to her, not even moderately attracted to her, but the prospect of laying the mack on a server, at long last, served as my motivation.
The way our break room conversations had been going those last days convinced me her answer would be an astounding “yea,” though her reaction led me differently. Her smile plummeted, and her eyes sank to the half Camel as she snuffed it gingerly out and placed it in one of the cigarette nooks of the ashtray.
“I can’t,” she said, eyes coming back up to meet mine, “I told Leroy I would go to Doug’s party tonight. I’d rather read with you, though.”
Instantly, Kerouac fell away in my mind. “Did you say party? How did I not know about this?” Images of girls wearing only lampshades on their heads and myself with a decanter of cognac flashed through my mind. I pulled again on the square I had bummed from her. “I can’t believe Leroy didn’t mention this.”
“Well, it’s a work party. Doug is throwing it for the employees. I think Leroy said he mentioned it to you. Said he mentioned it when he dropped off that bottle of wine to your apartment.”
I lapsed back to a few nights ago, when I had spilled a quarter bottle of Pisano on my work shirt, and in the frenetic scrubbing that ensued, I had dumped the remainder of the jug on the carpet. I was too embarrassed and too incapacitated to make my way back to the Clark Station. I knew Leroy was coming over that night to get me high, so I hit him up and asked him to make a stop. The rest of the evening was a blur.
“He may have mentioned a party, come to think of it,” I said.
“You can come, too. It’ll be fun—you, me, and Leroy,” she said.
“Yeah, that sounds like a blast. I’d, uh,”—
In a moment of unprecedented silence from the dish tank, I heard the sound of dentist’s drill, accelerated, and an abrupt tapping on metal. Then one of my fellow bussers deposited a tub on the dish tank counter and the cacophony recommenced.
She looked at me blankly.
“Um, I’d love to go. Is it BYOB or should I bring my own cup?”
Her empty gaze continued, “I’m sorry, BYOB, that’s unfamiliar to me.”
“BYOB? Come on, you’re joking.”
“Bee-Yob? That term is unfamiliar.”
“Jeez you’re silly,” I said. Her scientific tone made me a bit uneasy, but I figured she was poking fun at the English major propensity toward dry humor in the face of looking like a fool. My cigarette cherry began to lick the latex of my hand.
I startled, flicking the butt into the slop sink, “BYOB, bring your own beer. You mean you’ve never heard that before?”
“I like to learn things. I like it when you teach me, Andy.”
I was about to lay down the skills again, to say something like, ‘I can teach you a bunch, baby. Like how to go back and take them clothes off,’ but the loudspeaker emitted a glass shattering shriek.
“Sam, you have a table. Sam, table four please.”
“I have to go,” Sam said to me, neither looking excited nor disappointed, and rounded the corner back to the front. Such was the way our break chats usually fared, me about to make a move, and she methodically going back to work at the sound of the hostess’s PA.
At least I had invited myself along tonight, which was promising. I could see us stumbling up the steps to my apartment and collapsing in a big sexy heap on my twin size air mattress on the floor. Nice.
I decided to tack an additional seven minutes onto my fifteen minute break. With no other servers to shoot me down, I fingered through that morning’s papers, stained and cigarette burned. The first five or six pages were usually illegible due to the amount of coffee spillage and burn holes, so I habitually flipped to page eight. The top of the Sciences page provided an interesting picture of a slick-looking Asian inventor dude standing beside a naked, shining, convoluted exoskeleton. The headline read: “Amazing Advancements in Cybernetics.” I reached for my coffee mug, but in the process overturned one of the seventeen other mugs littering the break table, effectively spilling three day old sludge all over the paper. As I reached across the table for napkins, a shiny ribbon caught my eye.
No longer than a pencil and about the width of a swatch of Scotch tape, the ribbon looked to be made of stainless steel or some other metal. Embossed lengthwise was a series of numbers, something like 11001010101011100. It looked like some computer printout. I ran my rubber-gloved finger along the raised numbers, smudging some sausage gravy in the crevices.
Another five or six bus tubs sounded against the steel counter. My bussing partner had had enough of my break.
“Andy, you fucking fat ass, get back to work! Take care of these fucking mush pans.”
Another day, another dollar. I put the sliver in my pocket and went back to work.
* * *