Skyla’s earliest memory of Thomas was linked with the smell of
beer and the taste of blood. She was waitressing at a Mexican restaurant
that semester, the one over on Brewer Street with the red
tiled roof and the neon sombrero in the window. Enchiladas and
fajitas were a novelty in small-town Wisconsin, where the traditional
cuisine leaned toward grilled bratwurst, Friday fish fries,
and coleslaw. The restaurant did a brisk trade, even if some of the
locals did pronounce the J in fajita and said pollo as if it were a
NASA mission. Skyla worked five shift s a week, five more than
she wanted to.
Every day she intended to quit, but by closing time she’d
change her mind. For weeks she carried a handwritten note in the
pocket of her rust-colored, flouncy skirt. It said, “I, Skyla Medley,
give Las Tejas restaurant two weeks’ notice of my termination of
employment.” The note stayed the same except for the date, which
she crossed off and changed from time to time.
It was the latest in a long series of jobs. Actually, a long series
of everything—new schools, new jobs, new places to live. She was
only twenty, but she’d always been on the move. Staying in one
spot didn’t have many advantages as far as she could tell, but the
constant motion was wearing.
Getting a new job was never a problem. Neither was giving
notice. Skyla wasn’t quite sure what held her back this time.
Somehow she’d misplaced her momentum. For the first time she
wondered what it would be like to build a history in one place.
Still, the thought of quitting Las Tejas never left her mind.
The boss, big Bruno, who wasn’t even Mexican, barked orders
constantly. She hated the yelling almost as much as she hated the
hot plates and the sticky margarita glasses, which were top-heavy.
She found it difficult to hoist the food trays very high and wound
up resting them on her shoulders. The fajita meat was served on
hot skillets that sizzled and spit next to her ear.
The wait staff sat at the tiled tables after hours, drinking sodas
secretly spiked with rum and swapping stories of rude customers
and messy children. They were mostly college students, half of
them young men. The only thing that kept them coming back night
after night was the tips—big wads of bills and handfuls of change.
Skyla was one of the younger ones, and she was so petite that
most of her coworkers initially guessed she was in high school.
And because she was quiet, they assumed she was shy. But neither
was true. She was an observer of life and a college student majoring
in art. The cooks and busboys joked with her, commenting
on her reddish hair and pale skin (“Seen the sun lately, Skyla?”)
but couldn’t get more than a smile out of her. She went about her
business, clearing dishes and warning people about hot plates,
and before long she figured out who was sleeping with whom and
which bartenders were helping themselves to money in the till.
People were pretty easy to get a handle on if you took the time to
watch and listen.
The night Skyla met Thomas, she had just finished her shift .
Business was slow that evening because the Green Bay Packers
were playing on Monday Night Football. She’d lived in Wisconsin
for almost a year and still didn’t understand the natives’ reverence
for the Packers. Time card in hand, she headed toward the back
room, but before she could punch out, big Bruno recruited her
to wash glasses behind the bar. She didn’t mind the washing too
much, but the spongy floor mats were sticky and the air was thick
with cigarette smoke.
She lowered each glass onto a sudsy revolving brush and
dipped them into the rinsing sink before placing them to the side
to dry. The process was so superficial it left her wondering if the
glasses were really clean.
Because her back was to the rest of the bar, Skyla wasn’t fully
aware of what happened next. The sound of the football game muffled
the noise of the commotion behind her. She remembered hearing
a shout and turning to look. A flash of green flannel pushed
against her with the force of a linebacker and threw her several feet.
The back of her head hitting the edge of the bar broke her fall.
It was the talk of Las Tejas for weeks to come. The busboy
with the bad skin liked to tell his version of the story. “I saw the
whole thing,” he said. “That guy in the plaid shirt was huge—had
to be three hundred pounds and six foot five at least. He got mad
when Bruno wouldn’t give him another shot of tequila.”
The busboy paused for dramatic effect. “That little Skyla was
just minding her own business, just washing glasses, didn’t have
nothin’ to do with it at all. Then that guy barged back behind the
bar and crashed right into her.” He slapped his fist into his palm.
“Bam! Knocked her against the bar, and she hit the floor cold. One
of her shoes even went flying. Blood everywhere. It took Bruno
and two other guys to drag that drunk out of there. Then some
guy sitting at the bar jumped over it like a damn pole-vaulter and
went back by Skyla. I think he was a doctor or something.”
Skyla remembered lying on the floor behind the bar and looking
up at Thomas’s concerned face. He appeared as if in a dream,
kneeling above her saying, “Don’t you worry about a thing; you’re
going to be fine.” It was all so hazy and surreal she wondered if he
were an angel, although she’d never heard of one with wire-rim
She was vaguely aware of more yelling and the taste and feel
of blood in her mouth, but it was background noise compared
to Thomas’s reassurances. “Who are you?” she tried to ask right
before she lost consciousness, but her tongue was swollen where
she’d bit it and the words didn’t come out right.