An excerpt from Air & other Stories
All that summer I worked the 5pm-1am shift at Friendly’s – backwards from the rest of the world or at least the rest of the kids in my high school. Then I’d sleep until noon, swim a few laps in our pool, and doze on a lawn chair, the crossword puzzle book tenting my face. Once I woke up to my mother clipping my bangs: “The only time you do what I tell you to do,” she laughed. I wore a headband for weeks.
I loved being a waitress. I was fast, funny, and efficient. I wore the shortest and tightest uniform I could zip myself into and left every night with my polyester pockets bulging with soggy bills and silver quarters.
There was a predictable rhythm to the nights. First came the supper crowds of awkward first daters and young families with whining kids. Then the restaurant emptied, like the tide rushing out, and us girls mopped up puddles of chocolate milk, sorted silverware, drank TAB out of coffee cups and smoked shitty menthol cigarettes. Soon the second wave began, whooshing in drunk teenagers, tired traveling salesman and pairs of chain smoking airplane pilots. They always wore their uniforms and were the best tippers.
Each week was a litany of missing French fries, ripped nylons and bickering bus boys, punctuated by pockets of excitement – the cops arresting an escaped fugitive in the men’s room; a busload of professional wrestlers stranded with two flat tires and signing autographs in the non-smoking section until the tow truck showed up. And once Chris swore he saw Evel Knievel ordering a chocolate chip cone at the take out window.
Around 1:30 after the stragglers were finally kicked out and the booths had a last wipe down, everyone headed home and I headed to Peter’s house. Peter was my friend the insomniac who lived halfway between the restaurant and my house. He left a flashlight in the mailbox for me to use to find my way to his tent in the backyard.
Peter had planned to go to astronomy summer school in Arizona, but a week before he attempted to make hash brownies in his little sister’s Easy Bake Oven and burned down the garage. His parents cancelled the trip. So Peter vowed to recreate his missed adventure and pitched a tent in his backyard. He cut a hole in the roof of the tent for his telescope to watch the night sky and his little sister dragged out a cooler and her Girl Scout sleeping bag for him. It was perfect. He read and mowed lawns all day, ate cereal for every meal and then got out his notebooks and telescope each night to see the stars.
My entrance fee was a drooping butterscotch sundae that I made especially for him before I ended my shift. We’d sit in lawn chairs in the dark, Peter shirtless and in his dungarees shorts and me barefoot in my waitress uniform. The grass was cold and green and the yard was very quiet. Peter would slowly eat his sundae clockwise and I would smoke and watch the spirals float away from my face and disappear into the world. We didn’t really talk that much.
Peter’s astronomy notebooks were filled with rows of numbers and drawings and the names of constellations that sounded like secret spells – Cassiopeia, Corvus, Cygnus, Equuleus. If the night was super crisp and clear, we would open up the sleeping bag and Peter would point out the constellations to me, sometimes taking my hand to trace them out in the sky. Those were the only stars I still remembered years later.
Some nights we would just hang out in the tent and roll up all of my waitress change. Peter kept a coffee can filled with empty paper rolls and I separated my coins into little piles and he would fill the tiny paper tubes and stack them up like miniature Lincoln logs. We listened to his small transistor radio while we worked, mostly to the crazy talk radio stations; chatty divorcees discussing their alien abductions and paranoid old bachelors confiding their plans to booby trap their houses to keep the IRS agents away. One of us would laugh randomly.
The traffic on the interstate grew louder around 3am – tractor trailer trucks mostly – and I would grab my stuff and drive home and crawl into bed. Nobody knew about our nightly visits and even the two of us couldn’t remember how they began. I had been inside the house only once but the dolls scared me. Peter’s mother collected dolls and the living room became her display area. There were big dolls and small dolls, dolls holding the tiny flags of their native lands, orphaned dolls adopted from the bins of the Salvation Army, dolls rescued from the sticky hands of ungrateful toddlers, and dolls that were last minute purchases from airport duty free shops. Hundreds of dolls, all horrible. The first and only time I walked through the room I felt like millions of dead eyes were following me, all those frozen hands reaching out, as if they were all Peter’s mother trying to protect her son in the darkness. That was when Peter started leaving the flashlight out for me.
On the very last night of the summer it was so hot Peter’s butterscotch sundae melted into a yellowy soup before I even reached his house. I found him setting up our lawn chairs in the path of the lawn sprinkler. We both plopped into the seats, scrunching our faces as the water smashed into us, on cue, every 30 seconds, as the sprinkler spun and sputtered in its noisy circle. After 10 minutes of this, my uniform became wet and stiff like a suit of armor, and I begged Peter for a Tshirt to change into. He rummaged for his in the tent and when he handed it to me it was still warm, like his skin. He unzipped my long zipper and I stepped out of my uniform, leaving it like a soggy tube on the grass and pulled the Tshirt over my head.
“You look like a hippie,” I said to him. “When did your hair get so long?”
Peter tucked a wet handful of blonde hair behind his ear. “It just happens. And school starts next week. Will you cut it for me?”
“I have no idea what I’m doing but I’ll try. Can you find some scissors?”
He dragged one lawn chair onto a dry spot on the grass and went into the door of the kitchen. His white back reflected the light from the kitchen ceiling as he flicked on the switch, a bright flash I could see across the backyard. Peter came out with a comb and some orange handled kid’s scissors. “Sorry but these are all I could find – my little sister’s craft scissors. They kind of suck but do the best you can.”
Peter sat in the chair. “Can you see?”
“Not really. I can give you a Braille haircut.”
“Wait a second,” Peter said, as he rummaged around the lawn for a few minutes and came back triumphantly with the flashlight. “Here”, he said as he sat back down and shined the flashlight under his chin.
The flashlight reflected concentric circles of light and shadow around Peter’s head. The scissors were meant for construction paper, not hair, and I had to slowly saw away at small chunks a little at a time. The hair fell and drifted and stuck to Peter’s damp shoulders like a furry cape. I absently tried to sweep some off but it was hopeless.
I felt something strange and soft and insistent brushing against my cheek and looked up to small blurs of white buzzing around. Dozens of moths were surrounding us, swooping into the flashlight’s beam.
“This is impossible. The moths are flying into my face and making me crazy. Shut off the flashlight before I swallow one.”
Peter clicked off the switch and it took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the blackness that soon became grey. We were both quiet and still as we watched the stars in the sky and the fireflies that were like miniature stars hover and dart through the bushes. “Look there, that constellation is Andromeda,” Peter said, as he took my hand and pointed. “See? Andromeda is one of my favorites. A king was told to chain his daughter to a rock to sacrifice her to a sea monster and save his kingdom. But she was rescued by Perseus and they had 6 daughters.”
I could see the chains of stars above us and I could see Andromeda in my mind, chained to that rock. “I can do this,” I told Peter. “I don’t need the light.” And I gently spread out my fingers onto his head like a fan and used them as my guides, as I slowly cut away at his hair, on the last day of summer.
Copyright © 2017 Lauren Leja
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review or scholarly journal.
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