I had a date but I was much too early. There was a coffee shop across the street where I could sit at a counter and have a cup of coffee.
“Cup of coffee,” I told the waitress. She made a face like what else is new in this boring, fucking world and then poured me the coffee, piping hot, so black you could dive in and never be seen again. I hated to spoil it with milk except I couldn’t stand it black. The milk wasn’t sour from smelling it but it didn’t stop looking bad from the moment I poured it and then it wouldn’t dissolve, and then only reluctantly.
I missed the waitress. Already I missed the waitress. No sooner do I meet someone and I already miss them. When she came by to switch ketchup bottles, I smiled at her, so she asked me what I wanted. “Nothing,” I said.
I lied. I wanted her. She told me I was wrong if I thought the cruller under the glass bowl was stale. It may look old and filthy, she said, but it was still pretty fresh, fresh despite everything, despite the passing of two weeks, despite people poking their noses into it. Not even the radiation every one was worried about would get through. In all honesty, all kidding aside, it was true. It was still fresh.
How it could be? I wondered. The waitress had to be lying. I would never know. I thought about my date. Should I take her here? I wonder if she’d lie to her, being a woman and all. What was on the menu? If they had meatloaf, I was home free. Girls liked meatloaf. This was my experience.
“How’s the meatloaf? I asked.
“We ain’t got meatloaf,” she said.
So much for the meatloaf, I thought, keeping a close watch on the time. I thought my minute hand was stuck. If only three minutes went by, then what was to stop twenty minutes from having gone by, or thirty, or a thousand? My date may already think I’m not coming. I pictured her ordering pizza and then digging into it with huge bites.
I wondered what the waitress was doing tonight. Me and the waitress. The waitress and I. In my mind I repeated certain key phrases such as “When do you get off?” and “So, When do you get off?” and “Do you ever get off?” and then realized how far away from that I was, like being adrift at sea and suddenly waking to find myself far from shore. There was a vast empty universe between thinking and saying it.
She looked quite good in her blue uniform. Here was instinct. Me and the waitress. The waitress and I. Alone in the house of instinct. We wouldn’t talk about poetry and if she wanted to I’d discourage all thought. We’d go back to her apartment. She would not be living with her mother but in some apartment some guy had walked out on her in. I’d say how clean it was and she’d get defensive and say, “Whatddya expect, a pigsty? Just because I work in a dump don’t mean I gotta live in one too. I bet you think I’m stupid too, so that’s why you don’t wanna talk about poetry. Well, fuck you!”
Then I’d watch her struggle in and out of that uniform day and night, twice a day, this great burden; this something, but I’d watch her with a cold observer’s eye and believe it represented something, something great, some greater struggle, her life, my life, our lives, and then I’d be sure to write about it one day. I’d always recall the struggle. Who the hell asked you to? She’d probably say. And then I’d recall the great sex, simple, honest, pure, multifaceted, frequent and disgusting to the cold observer’s eye.
My mind was back at the counter again. It had risen from its dreams like the steam out of the coffee and settled on the ceiling.
Where was she? Back in the kitchen, no doubt, to be harassed, molested, vulgarized. Each time she reappears she’s like an actress living all the real-life pressures backstage behind her and each time a bit more broken and worn down.
On the other hand, experience gives so much raw depth to her performance. I’d never recognize her without the uniform. Her whole essence is packed inside it. That is everything she is to me.
“Would you like some more coffee?” she asks with the same reluctance the milk had to dissolve.
“No thanks. This is fine,” I say. It is.
“If you say so,” she said, slapping the bill down on the counter and knocking over some left-over glass filled with ice. The ice spilled in my direction but fell just short of the table’s edge.
“Did it get on you?” she asked indifferently, almost as if she were asking whether I wanted the peas or the string beans.
“No,” I said. “And it was only ice, not coffee or anything.”
“That was yesterday,” she said, “except yesterday I didn’t miss.”
We both laughed. I noticed the joyful glimmer of her yellow teeth. I felt a sudden rush of excitement in my bowels like right before a big game.
“Do I pay you?” I asked with a new confidence I would save for my date.
“The cashier,” she said, pointing her finger at a man chopping on a cigar behind the cash register just to the left of where I first walked in , and there was some guy paying his bill as if by example and I could hear the cigar-chomper telling him to go fuck himself.
“Why don’t you just go fuck yourself,” he said with that kind of cigar-chomping confidence and matter of fact pleasure he was made for at moments like this.
“Why don’t you do yourself a favor and go fuck yourself.”
“Oh yeah?” the customer replied. “Well I just hope that one day you’ll have to eat your own food and then see how you like it!”
“Drop dead,” countered the man with the cigar.
“Your mother!” shouted back the customer, smashing his fist on the counter and sending up a little ring from the register.
“Your mother!” The man behind the counter didn’t flinch.
“Get the hell out of here or I’ll call a cop,” he threatened without any kind of anger or hysteria but with that same matter-of-factness which made it all the more threatening.
“Go ahead and call one!” retorted the dissatisfied customer, but rather halfheartedly, already making a move toward the door.
“It’s not me he’ll arrest for trying to poison someone with that soup. No sir, not me!”
The cashier looked at him like a boxer who’s got his man on the ropes, and then said so all the street could hear,
“And don’t come back or it’ll be your balls in the soup next time!”
This last comment stunned me more than anything else. It was the kind of comment one makes when confidence quickens the imagination. The waitress laughed, but it was not the laugh of someone enjoying the cruel fate of another but only the laugh of someone transposed temporarily into a world of pure joy.
“Charlie, you’re panic!” she cried out to the man behind the register. “How in the world do you think of such things? How do you do it? You’re a genius, a poet! Damn, I love you, Charlie. How the hell would I ever get by without you? Damn it, Charlie, there’s no one like you in the whole world. Nobody!”