Authors: Kym Brunner
To God: You make all things possible. Thanks for always having my back.
I deliver a third Bugsy Malone to the old guy at table seven, whose unnaturally dark hair against his wrinkly skin makes him look ridiculous, not younger. He watches me as I lean forward to place his drink next to him, making no effort to hide the fact that he's staring at my cleavage. He rests his age-spot-riddled hand on top of mine, his diamond pinky ring glistening off the stage lights. “What time you get off tonight? I'd like to buy you a drink.”
He strokes my hand twice, making a river of disgust rise up my arm. One look at his smarmy smile and I know he's a rich jerk who's too full of himself to realize I'm only acting like a promiscuous flapper. I'm a breath away from saying that I'd rather stab myself in the eye with his butter knife than have a drink with him, when I stop myself.
Insulting the customers is definitely
on the list of good business practices.
I chomp on my gum a few times, pull myself back into character, and break out the stereotypical Jersey accent we're all supposed to use, “Sorry busta, but we ain't allowed to date the customers.” I slide my hand out from under his, walking away before he sees me grimace.
Luckily, there are only three songs left in tonight's performance of
Gangsters of Love
, our musical dinner show set in the back alleys of Chicago during Prohibition. Once you walk through the doors of The Clip Joint, you'd swear you're in a bustling, noisy gin mill swarming with flappers and mob bosses. Dad's owned the place sixteen years now, making this boozy jazz scene such a big part of my life that if there were a time machine, I would fit right in during the 1920s. An era filled with people who live for the moment appeals to me.
Clarissa, one of six servers on tonight, hustles down the aisle in a yellow Charleston dress with layers of fringe. It's one of the cheap flapper dresses Dad buys in bulk from an online Halloween shop for our waitresses, along with strings of fake pearls and brimless hats. I brush my hand through the beaded fringe on my own dress, a black silk, drop-waist beauty I purchased from a local vintage shop. I just hope these beads don't fall off as quickly as the last one.
“Psstâmeet me in back!” Clarissa whispers, before doing a double-take. “Whoa! Love your hair!” She reaches up and strums my shoulder length bob, her eyes wide with admiration.
“Thanks, Clarissa,” I say, relieved that someone likes it as much as I do. I'll admit that getting my boring brown locks chopped and dyed into a flapper-inspired black bob three days ago was impulsive. But just like the original rebels, I didn't want to look the same as every other girl my ageâlong hair, straightened or curled, or else pulled up into a messy bun. Like my mom used to say, why be a sheep when you can be the shepherd?
Thinking of her makes me send a quick mental message:
Hey, Mom. I followed your advice.
I smirk at her imagined response, “For once.”
I gather a few dirty plates before heading toward the busser station, curious to see what Clarissa wants. We're work friends, but we don't hang out. She's a senior too, but she goes to the huge, laid-back public high school in the city, while I attend the small, uptight, busybody factory known as Chicago Preparatory Academy. Not for much longer, thankfully. Only one week until graduation, I think with relief. I can make it.
The second I lay my empty drink tray on the counter, Clarissa gushes, “Guess what? I just counted and there's only eighteen more days until L.A.!”
“Nice!” I give her an enthusiastic high-five, although secretly, I'm worried for her. Clarissa's super pretty and genuinely nice, but a few weeks ago when Dad gave her a chance to fill in for the small role of the bootlegger named Thelma May, she forgot three of her six lines. In any case, she's off to Los Angeles hoping to be discovered, whereas I'm only hoping to discover that my roommate isn't mean or crazy when I start college in the fall.
If NYU doesn't rescind my admission before then, that is.
The “I'm baaacck!” deluge of doubt floods into my mind, so I shove it to the side and look onstage. Vinny, our best singer, is crooning Al Capone's crude love song, “Getting Hard Time for You,” to his sweetheart, a machine gun resting across his waist in a very suggestive pose. It's a crowd pleaser, but it's also the second to last number and our sign to wrap things up.
Clarissa doesn't waste any time. She taps a few buttons on the touch screen and the printer spits out receipts. I wait for her to tell me whatever it is she called me back here for, but when she doesn't, curiosity gets the better of me. “Soâ¦ was that what you needed to talk to me about? That you only have eighteen days until L.A.?”
She giggles, rolling her eyes. “Whoops, I forgot! Hank texted me about a party at his friend Kyle's house.” She glances my way as she grabs the receipts. “Want to come with?”
I almost blurt out that I'd love to when I remember the warning the judge gave me. I nudge her over and start printing my receipts. “I don't know, I uhâ¦”
“There'll be a lot of hot guys there,” she coos, elbowing me.
A party full of hot guys sounds amazing, but given that Clarissa is the bubbly actress type, I doubt our definitions of hot guys are anywhere close. She's probably into buff show-offs who can make their pecs dance, while I only want to meet a guy who is interesting, intelligent, and into meâwhat I call my three “in”variables. Insanely handsome would be nice of course, too, but that's not a deal breaker. I keep telling myself he's out there somewhere. Maybe even at this guy Kyle's house. Sadly, a girl on probation has no business going to a party.
Not wanting to talk about my recent stupid mistakes, I blurt out the first excuse I can think of. “That's sweet of you to ask, but I'm super tired tonight.” I sigh loudly for effect.
She stares at me as if I just admitted to killing a puppy. “Tired? It's Friday night, Monroe. You can't go home!” She puts her hand on my arm. “Besides, you'd be doing me a big favor if you came. Hank said the football team showed up and there's hardly any girls at the party, so
come?” She looks at me all doe-eyed, like she really wants me to go.
Being asked to a party because I'm female is only marginally better than being asked so I can be the designated driver. Not to mention that football players are only a hair above stoners on the evolution chart. On the other hand, my entire high school is out dancing their butts off at prom at this very moment, while I'm stuck here at work because the dean, a.k.a. Dickhead, revoked all of my Senior Weekend privileges. So heading to any kind of party sounds better than going home to watch
reruns until I fall asleep on the couch.
Still. I'm sure I shouldn't go. Definitely not a good decision.
“Okay, I'll go,” I hear myself say. As soon as the words leave my mouth, the familiar fingers of regret crawl up my spine. What are you doing? Take it back!
Clarissa claps excitedly. “Great! Meet me at the door at 9:30.” She tucks the last receipt into the black bill holder and slaps it shut, hurrying off to distribute the checks before I can tell her I changed my mind.
As the cast performs its last number, I place the bills next to my customers, ambivalent about what to do. There'll be alcohol at the partyâa liquid grenade that has gotten me into trouble in the past. But as long as I don't reach for that pin, I'll be fine. And what are the chances
party I was at would get busted? Normally I'd say between slim and none, but given my shitty luck, the SWAT team is probably getting dressed in full combat gear right now, waiting to bust me. I laugh at my own joke. Okay, okay. Even I recognize that's not true.
As I walk from table to table getting signatures and collecting my tips, I let a sliver of hope break through the sludge of the past few weeks. It'll be nice being with kids who don't know me, who won't ask a million questions about
day at school. If Mom were still alive, she would have given me a hug and reminded me that what didn't kill me would only make me stronger. Turns out her death two years ago didn't make me stronger, but it did almost kill me. I chase the pity party away with a brisk walk to the register. No time for that.
When the customers have cleared out, I wipe down my tables in a hurry, hoping I'll have time to freshen up. Halfway through my routine, I find a man's wallet. I look inside and smile. Looks like Creepy Old Dude's going to have a hard time buying drinks for any girls tonight. I slip his wallet into my pocket and make my way to the kitchen with my dish cart.
On the way, I pass Dad's pride and joy, a display case filled with Lucky Luciano's gray flannel pinstriped suit and black hat. Even though Dad already has six glass cabinets full of cool gangster stuff like Al Capone's cigar cutter, John Dillinger's hat, Pretty Boy Floyd's bulletproof vest, and Carlo Gambino's blood-stained shoes, he's always on the lookout for more. I'm excited to find out if he bought anything at the gangster memorabilia auction he went to this evening.
I drop off the last of my dishes in the kitchen before running to change back into my street clothesâblack capri cigarette pants, white lace top, and black suede heels. Perfect for a party. Who knows? Maybe I will meet someone tonight. That could maybe even sorta-kinda make up for missing prom. After I freshen up my makeup, I still have about fifteen minutes until I need to meet Clarissa. I'm about to text Dad to see how the auction went when I see that his corner office is lit up. When I walk in, he's sitting at his big antique desk, checking his e-mail. A cardboard box is in front of him, piquing my curiosity.