Jack and I arrived in Nameless Small City HANGRY. A breakfast bar each had sustained us through a fraught day of meeting deadlines progressing up the I-81 corridor.
Next door to the hotel sat a Ruby Tuesday. While we prefer more adventurous local eating, opportunity overcame adventure. We left bag and baggage in the car and went to eat before checking in. A nice relaxing meal would see us back to cheeriness.
Ever walk into a place and just SENSE that something was going wrong? We stood at the podium for a few minutes as red shirts (that’s what they wear, just so you know) went around, past, perhaps even over us. But never near us. We grew… annoyed. Meanwhile, the podium phone never stopped ringing.
Finally a little waitress with enormous glasses and a red ponytail came from the back and saw us. With a slightly guilty look, she picked up the phone, dropped it back into the cradle, asked if we’d been helped.
With a sad little nod she turned to another waitress and said, “Get a manager so I can get this computer open.” Then she picked up the ringing phone, said “stop” into the mouthpiece, and dropped it again.
We must have looked startled, because she gave an apologetic smile. “It’s an Ex. He won’t quit calling one of our waitresses.” She led us through to the bar and seated us in a booth near an emergency exit, filling us in on the angry ex as we walked.
She’d broken up with him but let him stay because he had nowhere to go, and he’d just told her he got another girl pregnant. His landlady girlfriend walked away from the conversation, all the way to work–with the keys to her truck in her pocket and he wanted the keys, as well as to talk to her. She didn’t understand, he was a nice guy, what was wrong with her not understanding him? Etc.
We rolled our eyes and pointed to the emergency exit. “He comes in, you let us know, ’cause we’re going out this door.”
Red (as we came to think of her) smiled as she handed us our menus. “Nah. We called the cops. They’ll arrest him if he shows up.” She glanced out the window. “Her mom’s out there now, too. Even though she threw Pam out of their home and that’s why she and this guy hooked up in the first place. Guess Pam’s mom feels guilty now. Finally.”
Off she went to fetch our drinks. We were beginning to think we’d need them.
At the bar sat two hipsters, one in grey, one in neon green. Our first awareness of them was when Neon leaned across and belly surfed the bar, pointing out the next bottle he wanted. The bartender, about the same age as Red, rolled her eyes–and scratched her breast in a strategic location. Her shirt rode lower. Neon got off the bar and sat back down, entranced and compliant.
Hey, don’t judge. It worked for her.
Our food came, and with it more of the story. Ex was aggressive. Could we use the word abusive, I asked Red? She waggled her head. “Well, Pam has bruises sometimes. I told her she could come stay with me if her mom didn’t take her back in.”
Beside us the hipster brothers began yelling loudly at the game onscreen, something about who did and didn’t have balls. The patrons along the row of booths behind us began disappearing. Red noticed us noticing.
“They keep asking to get moved. Y’all are the only ones who haven’t complained about them.” Her eyes flicked behind her. I’ve never seen anyone point with a pony tail before, but Red could. I had the impression this kid could do a lot of things besides run Ruby Tuesday single-handed.
Despite her subterfuge, the boys seemed to sense they were now part of our conversation, because they began yelling for Red to come serve them something.
The scratching bartender appeared. This time, as she bared all in an effort to reach that pesky itch, there was no mistaking the offer being made. Even Neon Drunk got it. The pair headed for the parking lot.
Red smiled at us. “Dessert?”
Something in the way she stood, brave and vulnerable, made me reach out my hand and place it on her arm. “Are you okay? You seem awfully sensible. Do you know what to do if your friend needs help?”
Her answer: “I live out in the country, but I have a knife. If he shows up at my place, I’ll gut him.”
Yes, okay, but I’d been thinking more about women’s shelters and how to get baby formula, etc. Oh, that. No she didn’t know anything in the area.
I’m a member of an amazing group of non-profit directors working on everything from ending gerrymandering to safe housing. I got online and typed, “Long story short, our waitress needs a women’s shelter in Nameless Small City. I’ll google but what else do I need to know?” Five minutes later I had the name of the shelter and its director, plus a list of questions they would ask at intake.
These were passed to Red, who put the info into her phone. She was profuse in her thanks. We smiled at her in turn as through the door at the far end of the room Neon and the Scratcher returned, both having apparently satisfied their itch. Red did not look, but that child had eyes in the back of her head. She rolled them in dismissal.
“Thank you for being so nice,” she said. “Everybody else asked to leave.” She indicated the now empty section in which we sat.
I had to confess. “Just so you know, I’m a writer. And this is so going into a book or blog. No names, promise!” This I added as her eyes flew wide, then went to her name badge. “No one will know it was you, but thanks for helping your friend.”
“Thanks for helping me help her,” Red answered, and went into the kitchen. We never saw her again. The next night we visited Ruby Tuesday, but only Scratch was working. She laughed when she saw us.
“Figured we ran you off for good between those drunk boys and the boyfriend,” she said.
Nah, honey. Life is life. We all have ways of coping. Just don’t let yours land you in Red’s kitchen, looking for baby formula.