A girl walked into the bar. I was hunched over, trying to
open a box of Dewar’s without my knife. I’d bent the blade the
day before prying loose an old metal ice cube tray that had frozen
solid to the side of the freezer. The box was sealed up tight with
strapping tape. She waited there quietly, not asking for anything,
not leaning on the bar. She held her purse with two hands and
stood still. I could see her sort of upside down from where I was.
She was on the small side, pale and average-looking, with a big
puffy winter jacket on over her dress. I watched her look around
at the stuff up on the walls, black-and-white pictures of Muddy
Waters and Howlin’ Wolf in cracked frames, a knocked-off street
sign from Elvis Presley Boulevard, the mounted head of a skinny
deer. She pretended to be interested in things so she didn’t have
to look at anybody. Not that there was much of anybody to look
at. It was February, Wednesday, four in the afternoon. The dead
time of the deadest season, which is why I wasn’t in any rush.
The tape was making me crazy.
Before I even got the box open, Cyndi walked out of the
kitchen and headed right for her. “What can I get you?” Cyndi
said. Then I straightened up because the girl in the puffy coat
wasn’t of a drinking age. She was eighteen, nineteen. Could’ve
been younger. When you’d spent as much of your life in a bar as
I had, you recognized those things right away. Cyndi, she knew
nothing about bars other than getting drunk in them. She was
just a girl herself, and girls were no judge of girls.
“Get her a Coke,” I said, and headed over to them. But the
girl put up her hand and I stopped walking just like that. It was a
“I’m here about a job,” she said.
Well, then I could see it. The way she was overdressed. The
way she didn’t seem to be meeting anybody but didn’t seem like
she was there to pick anybody up either. We got plenty of girls
through there. We got the college girls looking to make money
to pay the bills who wound up trying to read their books by
the little light next to the cash register when things were slow,
and then we got the other kind, older ones who liked the music
and liked to pour themselves shots behind the bar. Those were
the ones who walked out in the middle of their shift with some
strange customer on a Friday night when the place was packed
and then showed up three days later, asking could they have their
job back. Those were the ones the regulars always took to.
“You over at the college?” I said, and Cyndi looked at her
hard because she didn’t like the college girls.
The girl nodded. A piece of her straight hair slipped out from
behind her ear and she tucked it back into place.
“How old are you?” I said.
“Twenty,” she said, so quickly that I figured she’d practiced
saying it in front of a mirror. Twenty. Twenty. Twenty. She
didn’t look twenty, but I would bet money that her ID was fake.
It didn’t so much matter in Tennessee. Seventeen could serve a
drink as long as they kept it clear of their mouths.
“Any restaurant experience?” I looked at her hard, trying to
tell her age from her face. “Ever work in a bar?” I was out of those
employment forms. I made a mental note to order a box.
She nodded again. Quiet girl. “Not around here, though. I’m
not from around here.”
Cyndi and I stood there on the other side of the bar, waiting
for her to say where she was from but she didn’t. “Where?”
“East,” the girl said, even though that could mean anywhere
from Nashville to China. East was the world if you went with
it far enough. I didn’t think she was trying to be difficult on
purpose. The way she stood so straight and kept her voice low
and respectful, it was plain that she needed the job. I liked her,
though I didn’t have a reason. Even when I just saw her standing
there, when she put up her hand and for a second it felt like
something personal. I liked this girl.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Fay Taft,” she said.
“Like the president?”
“William Howard Taft.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “My father tried to trace that back once,
but he didn’t come up with anything. I don’t think our Tafts ever
met their Tafts.”
“Only president ever to be chief justice on the Supreme
Court.” I had no idea why I knew this. Some facts stick with you
for no reason.
“He was fat,” she said in a sorry voice, like there could be nothing
sadder than fat. “I always felt kind of bad for him.”
Not very many people who come into bars can talk to you
about dead presidents. I told her she had a job.
Cyndi turned on her heel as soon as I’d said it. Cyndi wanted
two shifts a day, seven days a week. She wanted every tip from every
table in the place. She saw no need in the world for a waitress
other than herself.
“Come back tomorrow,” I told Fay, not looking over my
shoulder at Cyndi, who she was straining to see. “Come in before
lunch. We’ll get you started.”
She wasn’t saying a word. She looked too scared to take a deep
“That okay?” I asked.
“School,” she said softly, like the very word would be the end
of it. No bar, no job.
“So come after class. Just be here before happy hour. That
starts at five. Things get busy then.”
She smiled, her face wide open with relief. For a second that
little white face reminded me of Marion, even though Marion’s
black. This was Marion from way back, when I could read every
thought that passed through her like it was typed up on her
forehead. Young Fay Taft nodded, made like she might say something
and then didn’t. She just stood there.
“Okay,” she said, nodded again, and headed out the door. I
watched her through the window as she went down the sidewalk.
She took a stocking cap out of her pocket and pulled it
down over her ears. The cap was striped blue and yellow and had
one of those fluffy pom-pom things on the top. In it she looked
so young I thought I must have made a mistake. One thing’s
for sure, she never would have gotten a job wearing that hat. It
was gray outside and spitting a little bit of snow that wouldn’t
amount to anything. The girl, Fay, stopped at the corner and
looked out carefully at the traffic, trying to decide when to cross.
I watched too, watched until she crossed and headed up the hill
and I lost sight of her skinny legs trailing out of that big jacket.
“Like we need another waitress,” Cyndi called down loudly
from the end of the bar.
But Cyndi hadn’t been around long enough. She didn’t understand
about the spring, how waitresses take off for the gulf
on the first warm day and leave you with nobody trained. Best to
stock a few girls up when it’s still cold outside, ones who look reliable
enough to last you past seventy degrees.
“I’ll tend to my job and you tend to yours,” I said, going back
to the Dewar’s. Cyndi had a hell of a mouth on her. Maybe that’s
the way they teach girls over in Hawaii where she