Rian knows her glare is visible to the other customers, but she doesn’t care, half of them are drunk anyway; it feels like the one time her dog, Tank, caught her watching the next door neighbor as she got undressed. Rian’s mouth opens in disgust as the man with the purple pocket square mushed into his deep grey suit eats the bacon cheddar burger she gave him. Minutes earlier, she saw the cook make it with fingernails that had over a month’s build up of dirt and oil living inside them. Whether or not this guy knows what hands made his food doesn’t matter; there must be some sort of endearment to the filth, it is clear this is no fine dining restaurant.
She couldn’t tell what kind of tip she could get out of table seven, but she glances at her peripheral in the mirror behind the bar to make sure her frizzy auburn hair and unplucked eyebrows look somewhat tame. Knowing the diner is going to close in twenty minutes, she needs every single dollar she can pump out. Rian aggressively pulls at her low, ponytail to make it tighter, nearly rips her bright red apron into a bow making sure to accentuate her small waist, and walks over to refill his three quarters empty glass of ice tea.
Rian knows how to put on the diner waitress show and asks, “More tea?” mimicking a slight southern accent and a smile to match; both are unnatural to her. Without letting his primitive stare at the empty plate below divert towards her, she stands with her pear shaped hips cocked to the side and swiftly pours the pitcher as carefully as if she were pouring holy water on a baby. Her light blue collared button down had a practical left pocket holding two black pens and read “Ree” in machine sewn cursive letters on the front.
* * * *
The uniform is supposed to be completed by a pair of white, Servsafe shoes, as instructed by the barbarian of a boss man, Richard. She is hyper aware that the whole ensemble makes an uncomfortable reference to a weird “Make America Great Again” sort of patriotism and decided on her first day to come to work wearing her black Doc Martin, matte leather combat boots. On day two of working at D & S Diner, Richard gave Rian the helpful suggestion that it would be beneficial to her if she would simply unbutton her top a little more like Jen, the other waitress, during the night shift. Consequently, Rian’s doc martins and shirt buttoned to the near top have survived the same black and white tile for about three months now.
The sign in the front of the diner shines a pink neon D & S, fitting a postcard of a dark summer night of Baltimore. Dale and Scott’s Diner was a name created as tribute to the owners, a set of fat bellied, red cheeked twins in their mid fifties still clinging on to the other one in order to create a sense of unique purpose. Most people around here have replaced the twins liking by calling it the “Don’t Shoot Diner” because it sits in a part of town that Trulia.com labels drenched in the red level crime rates. The only technical “crime” D & S really has to worry about is panhandling. Homeless people sometimes light-heartedly, sometimes aggressively, but always desperately ask for money from the customers.
Rian has always been able to hand out a free Coke or coffee to one of the homeless people and over-confidently declare “Have a nice night!” to verbally push out the situation. However, there is one homeless person that Rian really doesn’t know how to deal with and her name is Vera. Vera is a the type of woman that has been through too much shit to hear “I don’t have anything” from some little white girl. Vera knows Rian has money on her, and she has gone so far as to tell Rian her order and half asking, half insisting her to pay for it, which Rian has once done.
Rian replays the time when Vera told her “You do have money to buy me a meal young lady.” as she stares at her Boost mobile phone. It is perfectly cracked to portray what looks like a dog-ear book fold in the top right hand corner and displays the time in digital form, “2:50 AM”. Around this time of night, Rian starts to stress about the walk home. Her rent is due in a couple of days, and she can’t afford to Uber or cab, so she walks carrying a knife that her old roommate gave her when she still lived in Jersey and a walk that transforms her swaying hips to a more masculine swagger.
She thinks about taking a different route home tonight, but becomes distracted as one of her favorite work songs plays. Ella Fitzgerald “Cry Me a River” creates a flashback for Rian, and the swanky, slow jazz beat underlining Ella’s intense vibrato makes her emotional. Rian’s green-grey eyes, glazed in the kind of exhaustion only spawned from working a ten hour night shift, show people with hair extensions, nose rings, non-prescription cat eye glasses, Harry Potter themed tattoos, and colored in eye-brows. Not uncommon to this diner, they are made up of the kind of racial diversity that sits in the front of a catalog for a university, and their healthy combination of laughter and conversation could play out authentically in a long term sitcom. Rian continues to stare at them without an inkling of embarrassment, she misses that kind of human connection.
No one changes the jukeboxe’s volume, yet the lyrics of the song grow louder to Rian. Harmoniously, everyone here performs body movements that start to seem like they sway with the oneness of practiced choreography. Rian finds it beautiful to watch. She knows what that feeling is like, having a group of other souls around, forgetting about life’s impending troubles that really act as a psuedo-derailment of the ultimate destination: death. Rian has experienced the power of that special connection one can rarely find in a good relationship; it is the power of planning. It is amazing that planning to exist, through superfluous things like lunch dates and parties, distracts the questioning of one to exist in the first place.
As if Rian came out of a psychedelic high, she re-enters the world to see the diner at now three o’clock in the morning in its harsh florescent light. With a hawk-like head swivel, she forwards her attention to the man at table seven clearly preparing himself to leave. She follows his promenade towards the door that quickly turns into a stumbling mess at a safe seven feet back.
“Thanks hon!” he shouts in a duet with the cling of the bell above the door as if to reclaim a sort of normalcy from his drunken stupor. He left Rian thirteen dollars on a check that reads $11.69. She looks at the money and slumps her shoulders to the floor.
“Asshole.” says Rian, just loud enough to feel like she got caught as she flinches at the sound of Richard’s voice.
* * * *
“Ree!” He spews out the nickname forced upon her through his unkempt five o’clock shadow along with a cop like hand motion, directing her traffic towards the upstairs office.
“Yea?” Rian acts confused on purpose.
“Come upstairs for just a few minutes.” Richard always spoke in a way that suggested he had attended court ordered anger management classes at some point; he is constantly repressing what would otherwise be a continuous scream.
In an eight by ten foot office smelling of starch and dust, Rian and Richard stand facing each other in a way that becomes a competition for who really owns the air around them.
“Have you thought more about the manager position?” Richard asks pressing his hairy palms into the desk behind him, directing attention towards wear she could be sitting.
“Yea, I don’t know. I have thought about it. I would only take it if I also got an hourly raise.” Rian turns her head a bit to the right, as if she really wasn’t sure about the reaction Richard would have.
“I hear ya. I do. If I could I would pay you $15 an hour. Hell, if I could, I would give myself a raise too!”
Richard blowfish puffs his body outward, and it juxtaposes how casual he tries to program his next sentence. “Haha, Listen, Ree. I need your kind of bitchy and blunt attitude in the management staff. I want you telling people what to do, they listen to you.”
“Thanks?” Rian wasn’t truly offended by the word bitch, and she would proudly call herself one any given day, but anything that came out of Richard’s mouth felt like a direct attack. Plus, she wanted him to feel guilty any chance she happened upon.
“No, no, no. You know what I mean, Ree.”
“Yeah, I get it. I just really can’t take it unless I am actually paid more money per hour.”
She looks at him and pauses before she finishes with a boastfully sarcastic “You know what I mean, Richard.” Rian said his name in a way that reminded her of how her mother spoke to her little brother growing up, with words coating over a suspicion of the worst.
Rian wanted to quit right in that moment, and it’s a feeling she has acted out before, several times actually. In fact, in this moment she is starting the recognized her theatrical quitting like an addiction that needs to be treated. Her last restaurant job ended in an explosive argument between her and the general manager Jeremy, a pedafile who told the seventeen year old hostess that her yoga pants were inappropriate for him to look at. After a little online research which soon provided his mug shot that was labeled “sex offender”, Rian’s lighter fluid of a temper immediately slammed the door to enclose the two of them in his office and called him a “mother fucking child molestor” while throwing the money she owed the restaurant at his feet.
Rian suppresses her urges out of pure survival for what feels like the first time. “Can I have like four more days to think about it?”
“Tell you what, I will give you five.”
“Alright, thanks. Have a good one.”
“You too Ree, get home safe!”
Usually Rian walks home with her hoodie pulled up, so she can feel cloth around her ears. She likes to play a balancing act between hearing everything around her and muffling the reality; it makes the fear a little more manageable when she can’t feel the hair on the back of her neck raise. In the eighty degree heat, Rian’s red hoodie creates a sauna like effect beneath, making her B cup bra hold enough sweat to squeeze out a glass of salty, body water. Still, she walks a walk that suggests she had a high dose of testosterone injected in her hips and blazes through the first twelve blocks in an uninterrupted rhythm.
* * * *
Nearing her apartment on Madison Street in the West side, she sees a beige, SUV parked directly in front of her building with its flashers on and windows down. Squinting her eyes that have sweat almost completely through a heavy dose of black eyeliner, she sees there is no one in the front driver’s seat, or in the car at all.
“What the fuck?” She whispers instinctively like there is someone next to her, then realizes that she is by herself.
Rian has only lived here for seven and a half months, but she knows that the confidence of someone who leaves their SUV in the street with their keys in the ignition near West Baltimore at four in the morning is the kind that is prompted with a gun. Feeling uneasy, her body tightens and her breath begins to cut its 4/4 timing into a 2/4 march, and she continues towards the outside door of her apartment.
Her first priority is to find her key and magnet its unlocking power to the door with a Wizard of Oz style, lion’s head doorknocker. Her fumbling hands meet the challenge of finding and turning the key while her biceps built from scooping icecream for thousands of milkshakes easily pulls the weight of a fifty pound front door. She pays close attention to the movement in her lower body while running up the nineteenth century spiral staircase covered in cheap red carpeting, but she can barely feel her legs as they practically knee-high three flights of stairs. She can’t help but feel there is someone following her.
Reluctance fills in her hands as she wraps her fingers around her hood and pulls it down; she exposes her overheated doll-pink cheeks to a less humid air. Through a shake vibrating from her spine to her toes, she is finally able to unlock, open, and close the door behind her.
“Phew, thank god.”
Rian felt relieved to be back in her apartment while her energetic, four year old blue-haired, Pit Bull, Tank, greets her at the door. His paws click behind her and her foot steps on the dark wood on the floor creaked as she shuffled to her bedroom. Along the way, she hears what sounds like breathing in the bathroom. Tank lets out a high-pitch, nervous whine that sparks Rian’s paranoia that she is being followed. She quickly checks to see if Will, her roommate, is in the bathroom by knocking on the door.
“Will, is that you?”
Will doesn’t answer. She finds the silence in the apartment bizarre. Will normally permeates a snore that vibrates the drywall between them. Also, he definitely would have answered something if he was in the bathroom; it is all very odd. Eventually, 4:15 AM overtakes her ability to reason the offbeat blood pulsing through her veins. She sleeps for the night on her extra long twin size bed.
* * * *
Rian doesn’t wake up until noon the next day. Usually Will is up by now and is outside, sitting on the stoop, a.k.a. his throne, as he wears the prince crown of the block’s intermediate weed game and practices Spanish on his Duolingo app. Rian walks down the steps towards outside noticing that she is not wearing any pants, but decides her Jersey Shore T-shirt is long enough and her bikini trim is short enough for it to be okay. She peeks her head out the front door and feels the mix of heat and smell of trash day punch her in the face. The back of Will’s head wasn’t there.
Rian runs upstairs and inside the room adjacent to hers in a forcefulness she never has pursued before, Will and her barely converse with each other, much less hang around one another’s living space.
He wasn’t in the room. She took a moment to soak in her surroundings in a slow, 360 degree spin. Will’s walls hung a wide variety of weaponry. He could be a collector if any of the themes made any sense, but mostly he likes to have a lot guns, swords, knives, and any kind of what he would call “defense equipment” around him. Even though there was too many for Rain to really know, she could tell that there wasn’t any missing. There was, however, something new.
There is a bottle of Bombay Sapphire with a pack of matches laying next to it on the floor. It is the same small, stapled cardboard kind that she gets when she buys a the occasional pack of American Spirits at the gas station. Rian considers it curious behavior for Will to drink gin; he normally downs a six pack of Natty Boh as he shouts profanities through his headset while playing Call of Duty.
Rian stops to stare at the bottle and tries to replay the events of the night, as if she could puzzle what the meaning of this is through what has happened to her so far. Instead, her brain acts like a CD with a scratch on it, skipping just as the chorus of a song is about to play.
“Will?” She asks the room. It doesn’t answer.