. . . a strange fatality pervades
the whole career of these events,
as if verily mapped out before
the world itself was charted.

Moby Dick


I was standing by the master (the slave, another computer over by the coffee, could take orders but not change its mind, switch the catch of the day, say, from dolphin to snapper; I was bussing tables at a Key West raw bar, at land's end), looking out across the Gulf in a dining room packed to the gills, when a table of fifteen male spring-breakers took a pitch and broke into a profuckingfessional rendition of "Vive L'Amour."  They were the Baker's Dozen on tour, Harvard's version of Yale's Whiffenpoofs, barred from doing poor little lambs gone astray but other songs were fine and after the first they gathered around the shucker station and did quite a few, but before we knew there was an ordinary explanation, as Vive L'Amour got underway, I turned to Ashby, waitress of long standing, and said, "Just when you think it's a horror flick, it turns out to be a musical."  She knew what I meant.

Life's cinematic when events wouldn't do in a film, are too implausible by half, when things happen that anyone could write but no one would believe, or when scenes (like in the Cuban restaurant) have central casting written all over them (where waiter, bartender, manager and cook all look the part so acutely as to unnerve).  I'd been seeing Ashby safely home, past Peter the exboyfriend stalking her and one night as we drove away from the raw bar in her white '57 bmw (he could spot it a block away, combing the streets on his bicycle, and the place is so small and circumscribed that this was stalker heaven; he'd show up uncannily, moments after she did; in the car we'd spot him on corners and suddenly head the other way), he came at us on the bike for all the world like he was playing chicken.  She didn't swerve, just gunned it and he swerved and we heard a thump as he kicked a fender in spite and then she had to swerve to avoid a car coming toward us on the narrow street and we flew out to the other end of the island where, utterly freaked, she called her exhusband, who'd been driving the car we nearly hit and had passed Peter seconds later.  It was a small town at lightspeed, on infinite improbability drive.

A night or two later she dropped me off and drove to a friend's house where Peter, waiting outside, raped her, broke her shoulder, convinced her he'd kill her and split.  Another friend found her and took her home, where she called me and asked if I'd go to the waitress meeting (there were no waiters, never had been so I bussed, took the edifying position of working behind, beside and before a staff of waitresses, reconfirming my conviction that I'm most at home in their company and my take on this odd dawning; on a cooler door in a hotel kitchen where I helped cater a wedding reception once, I found taped a clipping disclosing that the groups tipping least are, from the "top," doctors, lawyers and bankers; if the hierarchy of respect so ingrained in the culture, so central, so assiduously preserved and promoted, is inversely correlated to kindness, to decency, if positions accorded the highest esteem this side the Atlantic are more than likely filled by pompous overpaid assholes whose deepseated anxiety over undeserved success and illgotten gain expresses itself in the habitual undervaluation of services rendered, then waitresses as a group are systematically disabused, disillusioned to the penny and better for it, in the gap between a good tip and an insult; another way to put the notion up front, the defect in civility, crack in the golden bowl, is "what every waitress knows"; is it perfume from a dress? no, not at all) the next morning and tell them.  It was late by then so I stayed up and it'd take a while to sketch the factors bearing on that situation.  I knew these women.

I'd given Ashby a key when she first felt endangered and when, as she let herself in one day, arm in a sling, she called out for a familiar favor, on my way to her I put a cd in and punched up Eno's "I'll Come Running to Tie Your Shoe."  She caught it before the line came and grinned and you won't know if the song hasn't touched you what that moment entailed but you can well imagine.  Just when you think it's a horror flick.

It can be Disney with a twist:  a raw bar regular had a birthday one night with helium balloons, one of which he gave to a little kid from up north and soon after the family was seated it broke free and floated to the ceiling, out of reach for everyone to see.  The kid kept looking up at it and the sense of loss spread, dampening spirits and putting me in mind of the time fifteen years earlier when I took my daughter to the children's zoo in Central Park and a keeper gave her a balloon for not being like the other kids.  On the way home, at the corner of the park by the horsecab stand and the Plaza, that one took off and I could still see it--so I gauged the height of the string and asked to use an end of one of the benches, crouched on it, jumped and just missed.  Someone said, "He's gonna get it," and by the time I was positioned on the bench again all eyes were turned, trained.  I leaped, stretched, grabbed it, landed and handed it back, to thunderous applause and from the kid a look that said Han Solo had nothing on me.  As the family left much later the father apologized for keeping the table so long, "but anyone who could do that . . . " and he trailed off.

Several years earlier I'd visited, read in the airline monthly on the way that "if Key West isn't the end of the world, we have the best view."  Like the restaurant at the end of the universe, poised on the brink, rocking back and forth across the penultimate moment, apocalypse nightly.  Paradise was flickering when I landed, accustomed after a week of them to "randomly rotating blackouts."  A turbine down on the mainland left too few watts to light the island all at once, so, perishables being what they are, twohour outages roamed unannounced.  Routine penultimacy.
 
 

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