Copyright Dennis Stamey 2015
“Here comes the prodigal daughter,” Bernie declared, then took a long gulp of Heineken. It was his third beer since he got to work and he’d probably down more before the close of business. He wasn’t an alcoholic as much as he was an inveterate beer guzzler and with a gut to show for it. His short stature only emphasized the bulge. Together with his shaggy hair, a bald spot growing on the crown, and his unclipped beard, hiding a receding chin, he looked frowzy. From the front window of the sports bar he watched a young girl running along the shore, her knee-length floral print summer dress flowing behind in the breeze. She reminded him of a specter against the backdrop of sand, ocean, and darkening horizon.
“Chaz, I think I’ll have another talk with her about this being late crap.”
“Leave her alone, Mike,” warned a rangy black guy who was wiping the bar countertop with a wet cloth. “She’s the best waitress we’ve had and probably ever will.”
Chaz, the co-owner and bartender, resembled a young Berry Sanders except he was taller and a lot leaner, too lean to be out on the football field. But his long limbs were perfect for cross country running, something he exceled in during his two years at North Carolina State, the only two years he spent in college.
“That’s right, Mike, leave her be, the poor girl has led a hard life,” said a grizzled man sitting at the far end of the bar. He was eating a grilled cheese sandwich and sipping on coffee. The old-timer wore a black wool Greek fisherman’s hat, a corduroy shirt, and khaki pants. His face was bronzed and furrowed from spending too many years working the sea lanes with the sun reflecting off the water.
“Look Chaz,” Mike told his partner, “we’re running a business. Sometimes we get backed up as hell because she won’t show up on time. Even you’ve complained. I’m not going to stand for that shit.”
“I know, but she’s a hard worker, damn good with customers, and always stays over to make up for being late, even comes in on her off days whenever we ask her. Never complains. That’s the kind of help we need. Remember the other waitresses we had, how sorry they were, especially that girl with purple hair and tattoos who couldn’t keep her hands out of the till? We both caught her stuffing bills down her bra.”
“Destiny wasn’t that bad,” Mike reminded him. “She had a college loan, car payments, rent, and was strapped for cash. Hell, I can’t blame her really. Sometimes you have to take what isn’t offered you. She was smart, really smart, and I wanted to bring her into the business, but you kept insisting that she was such a liability. Leave the personnel decisions to me next time.”
“Hell, the only reason you liked that tramp was because she flirted with you,” Chaz said with a lopsided grin. “Jenny treats you like everybody else, except maybe for Alan.”
“That’s not it. We run a tight schedule here, everybody has to be on time. At least Destiny was never late.”
“Leave Jenny alone now, Mike,” the old man said with a mouthful of sandwich. “She’s a sweet girl. Besides good help nowadays is impossible to find. These young people don’t wanna work.”
“Oh shut up Alan, what do you know running a business?” Mike snapped, taking a sip of his icy Heineken.
“I was a shrimp boat captain for thirty years, remember?”
“Yeah right, managing a crew of drunks and riff raff.”
“Listen, smart ass, those shrimpers were some of the finest men I’ve ever known. Brave men who would ride out a squall standin’ on the deck, go without food or sleep for twenty-four hours, and keep workin’ with their fingers frozen to the bone. Where can you find souls like that?”
“Tell us some of your sea stories, Mr. Bradford,” a man called out from the kitchen. He had been listening to snatches of their conversation.
“Which one, Mario? You know I have a thousand.”
“I always liked to hear the one about the whale that almost capsized your boat,” Mario replied. He was a middle-sized man with an olive complexion, a shaved head, and a wide chevron mustache, born in Matanzas, Cuba. Mario and his parents had come illegally to the states during the 1980’s, defying that stretch of shark- teeming sea between their country and Florida, drifting for days in a rickety fishing boat. Regrettably none of them had prospered very much in their adopted land, finding nothing but menial jobs and limited prospects.
“We’ve don’t have time for tall tales,” Mike interrupted. “Mario is that grill clean?”
Before the cook could answer, Jenny, their tardy waitress rushed through the door, winded and perspiring from her sprint. She was a cute girl with shoulder-length auburn hair, dark eyebrows, and chocolate brown eyes, a natural beauty who never needed makeup. She was a bit taller than average and had a well-toned physique developed from hours of swimming and jogging. Many women would have sacrificed one of their breasts to have looked anything like her. What made Jenny even more appealing was that she wasn’t snooty about her appearance. She was very approachable, but a mite shy, always sporting a bashful smile. The only blemish that marred her attractiveness was a minute scar that sliced across the left side of her upper lip.
“Jenny you’re just as lovely as ever,” Alan gushed, saluting her with his coffee cup.
“And as late ever,” said Mike before guzzling more beer.
“Thank you Mr. Bradford,” Jenny said, her face rosy with embarrassment. “Except I don’t feel so lovely right now. I was up until two cleaning my apartment.”
“Having a man over?” Mike wisecracked. Chaz shot him an angry stare.
“There’s no man in my life. Never has been. But I keep hoping.”
“Hey, you go to a club and I guarantee you’ll have to fight the men off,” Mario remarked.
“I’m not looking for a fling. I’m looking for a man who’ll really love me, love me and just me. I want companionship. But men like that are hard to find. Most of them don’t want a commitment. They just want to flit from one woman to another.”
“Sounds like you’re looking for somebody to keep you up,” Mike wisecracked.
“He doesn’t have to be rich, he doesn’t even have to be handsome. He can even be a shrimper as long as he’s honest and decent.”
“And there’s none better,” Alan heartily proclaimed, slapping his hand against the counter.
“Honesty and decency,” Mike said cynically, taking another swallow. “Those are traits belonging to the last century. To get anywhere in life today you have to be a little ruthless, a little conniving. If you don’t, you’ll end up on a barstool like Mr. Bradford here with a headful of sorry memories.”
“If I had my life to live over, I’d do everything exactly as before,” Alan told him.
“Why am I not surprised?” Mike jibed.
“So, did you see any surfers out there?” Chaz asked her, trying to reroute the conversation.
“A few, the waves are up but not too bad.”
“I say we knock off early tonight,” Mario suggested. “The tourists won’t be back until this storm hits Florida anyway.”
Mike trudged over to the bar and slammed his half-empty Heineken down on the counter. Jenny rested her elbow on one of her naked arms and put her fingers over her mouth, knowing there was going to be another tirade. Almost every day he went into a rant about something that irked him and it was seemingly getting worse.
“Listen Super Mario, you ain’t the goddamn boss. We stay open until closing, got it? Got it? This last two weeks of August is our dry period and we won’t see business until the World Series playoffs. We need every cent we can get, every goddamn cent.”
Mario wanted to say something back but he was afraid that if he did Mike might fire him on the spot. Either co-owner could have handled his duties until they found a replacement. Jobs along the Outer Banks were hard to find and with the tourist season winding down they would become even sparser. He continued scrubbing the grill with his wire brush even though it was already clean. But Mike wanted it spotless.
Mike looked at Chaz and shook his head. Mike was all bottom-line and cold-hearted when it involved business. He and Chaz had opened “The Place to Be Sports Bar and Grill” three years ago by pooling what little money they had, borrowing from friends and family members whom they promised to repay, and taking out a small business loan. The startup cost was about one hundred thousand, typical for that kind of enterprise. Profits were lackluster for the first few months until they installed a pool table, ran promos such as ladies’ night and wet-T shirt contests, and even hired local bands to perform on Saturdays. Most of it was Mike’s ideas. Of course there was little competition in an area like Nags Head. By the end of their fiscal year they had practically doubled their investment. Mike kept bragging that he wanted to retire by age forty. It was an aspiration that kept driving him and subsequently making him more quarrelsome. To quell his anxiety he started downing one beer after another. For Chaz, who was far more easygoing, it was only a living; if they got rich, fine, if not, it didn’t really matter.
Mike drank the rest of the beer without pausing, belching noisily after he finished. He tossed the empty bottle in a wastebasket, took a rumpled five dollar bill from his pocket, and handed it to Chaz. “Give me another brewski,” he said.
“Anything you want me to do?” Jenny asked nervously, fidgeting with her hands.
“Get that Dirt Devil and clean under the tables. Don’t bother using the cordless vac, I just want a touchup,” Mike ordered, twisting open his fourth Heineken. “After that wipe the tables. It’s past eleven and I expect we’ll have some of the lunch crowd in about an hour.”
Jenny went to a utility room in the back to get the handheld device. Although she had thoroughly cleaned the place after closing time the night before, vacuuming and wiping, Mike was insistent that everything be tidied again before they opened. Usually for quick jobs she used the cordless cleaner. The Dirt Devil was always for spills. As she got down on her knees to clean, she felt she was if the co-owner was trying to degrade her.
“I’ll be glad when that storm makes landfall,” Chaz said, holding a clipboard and making a quick inventory of the liquor. “Of course I pity anyone caught in the middle of that bastard.”
“What’s the name of that hurricane?” asked Alan, scratching the back of his head while he pondered.
“It’s Sylvania,” Mike reminded him. “The biggest hurricane ever.”
Mike wasn’t exaggerating, it was officially the hugest hurricane on record with a diameter measuring well over 1200 miles, bigger than Sandy, not to mention the strongest. It was spawned off Equatorial Guinea two weeks before and had drifted westward, feeding off the tepid waters of the Caribbean, increasing in rapidly in size until it became a behemoth. At first it followed Sandy’s path, pushing through the Greater Antilles as a tropical storm and increasing its energy as it churned toward Jamaica. By the time it hit Kingston, it was a category 3. After levelling whole blocks of the city and splintering outlying towns, it slid northward and bowled through the middle of into Cuba as a category 4. But rather than curving north-northwest like Sandy, it turned slightly to the west, skirting The Bahamas and heading straight for Miami. Meteorologists estimated that by the time it made landfall in Florida, it would be a Category 6, creating storm surges over twenty feet high. The damage could be more catastrophic than that created by Katrina.
“Sylvia was my mother’s name,” said Jenny reflect fully, stopping to momentarily stare into space.
“Didn’t you say that your mother was abusive?” Mike asked, walking toward with his beer, grinning sneakily.
“Mike, change the subject,” Chaz told him.
“She would always hit me with a belt,” she said distantly. “I can’t understand why. I never really did anything wrong.”
“Put all that behind you, babe,” Alan counseled her. “Just put it behin