She hit the button on the smudgy iPhone screen and the CCTV vision rewound to earlier in the night. To the table of four young guys who’d come in for beers and buffalo wings after summer-time college football practice across the road.
Linda, really Belinda but it was easier shorter, started to count. Two there after she handed them the menu’s with ‘Hooters’ splashed all over them; three more there after she put down the mugs of draft Miller. Definitely that cute blonde boy on the end in the cut-off ‘Titans Football’ t-shirt; Linda saw on the tape that she definitely got him. She could tell from where his eyes travelled and the way he leaned out from the table into the aisle to follow her walking back to the restaurant’s kitchen.
Some nights after a shift, she’d take off the white t-shirt and orange short-shorts, have a fast hot shower, and lie on the queen bed in her apartment near the strip mall with the Korean nail parlour and the Mexican-run Chinese take-out. She’d go to the app and start to count up all the “hits” she’d got on the fuzzy, black-and-white footage from the security cameras in the ceiling.
Linda counted her hits the way the other girls counted the cash tips jammed into the back pockets of their uniforms. The number of times the guys she was serving had checked her out.
She might run a total score for the night and see if it beat the last night or the last week. Or, sometimes, she’d average out all her hits across the number of tables served or number of guys served. Or, she could divide the hits between T’s or A’s – tits or ass. Or between young guys and older guys.
Or, if it had been a truly shitty shift with Chef smoking too much weed and running behind on orders, she might look at the females. There were more women that came in than people thought. Some were the Korean chicks with the Army husbands; for them, everything was a transaction including the marriages made near the DMZ. Girls tougher than the men that went to combat in Iraq or some other shithole. “Calculators with cunts,” Linda thought to herself. Others were the kinda girls she grew up with: trailers, tattoos, Trump signs, and oxy to make those fade. The only good part was getting the fuck out, she knew, even if meant being talked into going to Hooters by some half-broken ex-Afghanistan guy showing some interest.
She also knew she wasn’t meant to have the app to access the restaurant’s CCTV system – it was only for management. But after she’d tried being a shift manager for about a year and went back to not even hosting but waitressing, no one had remembered to get her off the system. Trevaughan, the general manager, even knew she had it cos she saw him look at her phone on the sticky bar counter one night – the spying on their movements and their waistlines to “protect the brand, ladies”. But the chickenshit didn’t say anything. Probably wanted a piece of her ass – and knew that it would cost him his job if he ever were to get any.
Linda scrolled through the tape. She was looking for the shaggy grey beard and the John Deere cap. Phil. A regular. He came in about once a week when he came off the road between runs to places like Houston and Fargo. Always sat at the same table next to the window looking out the slushy parking lot where his restored ’78 Camaro was. Yellow with a black racing stripes. Took the menu and then always ordered the same thing: some Buffalo wings with no blue cheese dip and a Mushroom Swiss burger. Diet Pepsi.
Always some kind of book and always a copy of the National Geographic magazine. Yellow border on the cover with lots of pictures.
And when she found him on the tape, about a week ago, it was like it was the half-dozen times before that. She came over and stood really close to the table, her thighs touching its lip. He handed her back the menu and Linda held it behind her and sucked in her stomach muscles. He quietly ordered his food, and she repeated it without writing it down. “No blue cheese. Gotcha, darlin.”
There was a gentle smile on his face like someone sitting alone on a porch who’d just remembered a great day of fishing as a kid with a kind old uncle. He looked directly into her eyes the whole time they ‘talked’, and when she turned to leave, Phil went straight back to the National Geographic. No following her ass down the aisle. Just flipped to some story. When she paused the tape and zoomed in, it was something about brewers growing algae to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Weird,” she thought to herself, but at the same time got frustrated with how science could beat her sex appeal. How she was doing the stuff she best knew how to do, and could not get a hit from Phil.
Linda skipped back to the college boys from tonight and went forward/rewind on that part of the tape to look at the hits again. She pressed pause each time a boy’s eyes landed exactly where she wanted them to; it pushed a button inside her too.
After a while, she plugged the phone into the bedside charger and went to the small galley kitchenette where the pressed timber cupboard hinges were all nearly broken and the only food was protein bars, diet energy drinks and a bottle of olive oil. Pretty much everything she earned she sent back to a West Texas town, her older sister, and a little girl with curly hair who didn’t know her mother from her aunt.
She poured oil into a souvenir shot glass from some old church in St Augustine in Florida, and put it into the microwave oven for 20 seconds.
When it pinged, Linda took the warmed up oil back to her bed, poured it over her hands and pussy, and fingered herself to sleep.
On her next shift, Linda was bussing plates after a table of Indian IT guys. Civilian contractors from the Fort McDonald, the Army base outside of town. They all let their boss do the talking. When he looked at her, they looked at her. All wearing Walmart slacks and light blue business shirts under the big parka’s they kept on even during lunch. They were all scared shitless, Linda reckoned, and she used it to boss-girl them into a $20 tip she let the nerd boss slip into her waistline. It was against Hooters policy for there to be any contact. To protect the girls. Fuck policy, she thought. Girl’s gotta do. Reality. Or, unreality.
As she leaned over to get a plate covered in the carcass of a half-eaten Philly Steak Sandwich, Linda saw Phil’s yellow Camaro fishtail through the melting brown slush into a space by the front entrance. She noticed there were stickers of planes – mostly curling up at the edges from snow and sun – across the car’s back window.
After he’d carefully shaken sleet off his jacket and cap, hung the jacket in the entry vestibule that smelled like a deer hunting stand, and took his regular seat, Linda went over and gave Phil the menu.
“How you goin, Phil? It’s Phil, right? I saw it on your jacket.”
“Right. My jacket. Phil.” He looked directly at the name badge pinned to her shoulder. “Linda.”
“Belinda, really, but I like it shorter. I’m gonna guess your order today, Phil.”
“You are going to guess my order today, Linda shorter than Belinda,” Phil said. He leaned back a little and rested his hand on his National Geographic.
Linda nailed his order and finished with “No blue cheese.”
Phil came forward with his elbows on the table. He was closer to her mid-riff now.
“That is correct, Linda, and I am grateful to you,” he said and chuckled.
“Professional waitressing at its finest, Phil. Hey. You like planes,” Linda said and pointed out the window, getting cloudy from the heating system, at the Camaro.
“That is partially correct, Linda. I like model planes. Build em. Fly em. Race em. When I’m not on the road.”
He paused. Linda wasn’t good with nobody say anything and was about to say something. The man was funny. You’d never know it. He turned and looked out the window.
“Yup, I like model planes. Standing out in an open field, say after harvest with just the corn husks, and sending something I’ve built into the sky. Making it soar. Pulling a single-wing stall into a corkscrew. Or a Hammerhead.”
He looked back at her and his tone got quieter and slower when he started talking again. She had to really listen to hear him.
“You don’t know what I’m talking about, I know, Linda. But just imagine being able, for just a little bit, to control everything and make it the way you want it to be. Not to have to fight. Just fly. Calm. Beautiful.”
“Beautiful,” Linda repeated and found her hand up near a strand of her hair. She’d never heard these kind of words.
Phil paused again. It was like he didn’t need words to hold her.
“What do you like, Linda? What would you do with all your time if you didn’t need to be here at this restaurant?”
Linda heard the question.
She had no idea what to answer cos it wasn’t a 3-in-the-morning, eight Lone Stars later, honky-tonk question. A question from some Gulf oil rigger on shore leave who didn’t really care what you answered as long as it got him ninety seconds closer to a blow job in his Ford pick-up out the back.
And it wasn’t from a conversation that she made up in her head when she was pushing buttons on the security camera app.
And it wasn’t somebody she barely knew on Facebook yelling in capital letters about blue states or red states or Fox News or some other shit.
Linda saw that there were little bits of superglue on Phil’s thick fingers, sticking some of the little hairs together. She already knew he wore no ring.
“I’m gonna have to think about that one, Phil. I’m not really sure I’ve ever been asked before.”
Linda walked back to the kitchen to place his order with Chef. She had about ten minutes before the food would be ready and she would need to take it back to Phil’s table.
She realised that she hadn’t Skyped with her daughter since Christmas.