When Kaylie told Gina she had customers on table thirty three, in the dining room by the street, she would’ve settled for a simple distraction, from the world of her own personal misery. Gina never imagined the next table she served might change her life forever.
Not that she was ever the drama queen. Despite a healthy diet of romance novels and soap operas while babysitting all her younger cousins and sister, Gina had been the quiet one, safely ensconced in the shadow of her vivacious big sister Dixie. In fact, her penchant for caution had won her the affectionate, if derisive, nickname of “Little Mama.” Her conscience activated whenever Dixie and the other “members of the Dead Beat Club” tried to seek out typical high school girl trouble. Besides, as she knew, her parents always seemed to know what was going on, like a gut feeling, and would find out in the end.
But teenagers grow up, and suddenly a world of personal decisions and explorations that owe no accounting to one’s parents opens up. In Gina’s case, this world had swallowed her without mercy.
She had worked hard after high school; her family had to defer college for financial reasons, so to help out, Gina and Dixie worked full time. They had recently joined their brother Ash at Stefan’s, the riverside bar and grill situated on a bank beside the Oostanaula, with Dixie going to the kitchen and Gina training to wait tables, such as the one seated by Kaylie just now.
“It’s Martin,” she said, as she stuffed the menus into their pouch on the hostess stand. So her friend and fellow server would be her next guest. This made Gina smile a little, even if their relationship had taken an ambiguous turn of late. The emptiness she felt inside---the apathy and quiet despair---had been alleviated by his humor and engaging conversation. Unfortunately, another hostess, Connie, had broken the news of the other type engagement---to his girlfriend, about whom she’d heard nothing during the times he’d tickled her and otherwise cheered her up. Connie had relished crushing Gina’s hopes. On top of that, the girlfriend had joined the kitchen staff. Gina had started a friendship with her, though, at the New Year’s Eve party a couple of weeks before.
The awkward situation that followed was shuffled into a mental vault, as Gina walked over to table thirty three. Her kiss with Martin Reimer flashed before her eyes as she rounded the corner. It had been an unexpectedly dispassionate kiss, and one she tried not to regret. After all, her months of miseries before had left her in desperate need of a friend…even one with whom she’d shared some confusion.
“Gina! I thought we might get you,” beamed Martin, as he leaned out of his seat to give her a hug around the waist.
“This is my roommate and college friend, Lewis King. We thought we’d catch up over lunch, and since it’s slow this time of day, we just walked over.”
His friend had curly brown hair flowing over his ears from under his black beret, and expressive lashes flickering over crystal blue eyes. He was dressed in a denim shirt with a hunter’s green fishing-type vest, and his pretty lips spread out into a placid smile as he gave Gina a friendly wave.
“Can’t stay away on your off day?” she bantered. “I may have some silverware for you to roll!”
“I’ll be glad to Bissell your section when we go,” Martin laughed.
“Oh, is that what we’re calling it these days?” said Lewis, arching an eyebrow humorously. The easy laughter between everyone belied the slight tension Gina still felt with her friend. Only the next day after their kiss had he explained that he was getting back together with his fiancé. She pushed this aside again to get their drink orders.
“I think I may have a Heineken,” said Lewis, looking up from his thoughtful perusal of the menu. He was always excited by the sheer possibilities. He hadn’t been spending much on food of late, with his big plans. In fact, this was the subject of his lunch conversation with Martin.
“Oh? Could I see some i.d.?” Gina asked.
Taken slightly aback, Lewis grinned and reached into his vest, digging out a guitar pick and a folded slip of paper.
The pick, she recognized readily; her father often kept them around. He had played guitar a lot during his days as a reverend; Gina had sang lead in the family’s gospel group.
The slip turned out to be his temporary driver’s license, with his old photo stapled to it. She eyed this a moment.
“I’m really not supposed to take anything but a real i.d.” Lewis’ mouth dropped open as she turned to Martin. “Can you vouch for him?” She privately enjoyed teasing Lewis. It was nice to feel a little spark of her old self.
“Hmmm,” Martin said, stroking a blond goatee. “I think this is legit.”
“Give me a break,” said Lewis. “I just had my birthday…you know that! The real one just hasn’t come in the mail.”
“Oh, so this isn’t a real one, is what you’re saying,” grinned Martin, flicking back his long Nordic hair. Gina tittered.
“Well, if you can’t serve me, you can’t serve me,” Lewis said with faintly mocking resignation, as he eased back in his chair.
“I’ll let you slide,” Gina offered, “this time.”
So that’s Lewis, Gina thought, as she placed the order. Martin’s girlfriend Denise’s brother. The one Connie had gushed over the week before, claiming he was her best friend. She had tried to be Connie’s friend, too, but there was a cruel streak and a tendency towards laziness that irked Gina and really, all the wait staff. She was three months pregnant, but Connie used that as her excuse to lean on the podium and do nothing. It was too bad; Gina really loved babies and pregnant women. It seemed almost everything in her life lately that should have been a good thing turned out to have some nasty twist.
Dixie dried her hands off on her apron, smiling broadly. Her arm had burn marks---“diamonds” they called them---from her bad habit of inflicting pain on herself, as did all the cook staff, like it was a “diamond club.” As if being naturally clumsy wasn’t enough! But Dixie was a bright spot. She shared her sister’s dark hair and dark eyes, with a presence that filled the room.
“Hey, I heard Martin’s here!” she said. “You get him?”
“I just put in the order.”
“I’ve got a salad in there for you…need to eat, girl!” Dixie said, patting her thin little sister. Gina smiled lightly and proceeded through the swinging door, where she found her late lunch, with bits of chicken lovingly hidden under the lettuce bed. Along with her consistent exercise habit, Gina had lost almost all of her appetite. In a family of hearty eaters, her dwindling weight had not escaped Dixie’s notice. They each had their own underlying problems. Neither of them said much about what really troubled them. Easier to turn on some music on the drive from home each day and talk about basically nothing. Dixie was always happy to fill the silence.
“So I put in my notice last night,” said Lewis. “I’ll be ready at the beginning of next month.”
“I understand,” said Martin. “Danny and I have made a lot of trips on the road. It can be really good for clarifying your state of mind. He took me to this Ren Fest in Texas, one year…”
A girl in combat boots and an over-sized t-shirt came up to the table to give Martin a hug. Her friend behind her had a similar, punk-rock style. The girl was like a taller, younger version of her sisters.
“Hannah! What are you doing here today?”
“LeeAnn and I are out of school for Martin Luther King holiday!” said Hannah. “I just wanted to come by and bug Dixie and Gina. Maybe steal some onion rings!”
“Well, perfect day then for you to meet my roomie…his last name’s King…”
“Oh!! Hahah!” She extended a hand to Lewis. “I get it. Pleased ta meet ya!”
“You wanted to apply for a job washing pots in the afternoons, you can see Keith,” said Dixie. “I’ve got to get a Swiss bacon mushroom burger on for this gentleman. Where are you two going?”
“We thought we’d catch a movie while we’re in downtown,” said Hannah. “You wanna join us when you get off?”
“Sure!” said Dixie. “I’ll be ready in a bit. Nice seeing you guys…I’ll try to come out before you go, I’m just cleaning up.”
“Here comes my other sister!” said Hannah. “Maybe we’ll all go?”
“Oh, that’s okay,” said Gina, “I took a double shift today.” By now she was often the “star server” who checked others’ stations and got the best sections. Ash had trained her well. She worked more and more these days, pitching in her part for her family. She was done with romantic misadventures. Her sisters were gone with LeeAnn as soon as she delivered Lewis some Heinz 57.
She was back with the burgers and the ticket soon enough, watching Martin and Lewis talk earnestly from afar while she caught up her side work.
Connie came in late after a doctor’s appointment. She settled her belongings, chattering hectically. While she went to the bathroom, Gina watched the boys head for the door.
“Feel free to come by again Thursday if you’re not doing anything,” said Martin, hugging her again. “Denise is off all day. Maybe you two can do something?” He sincerely felt sorry for the confusion he had caused. If Denise and Gina could build a friendship, perhaps it would make up for it in some part. He had a very rocky relationship with Denise of late, but they’d talked over their engagement and reconciled. Perhaps Gina had such a sweet spirit, but how could he give up on all the work he’d put into things with Denise? He banished thoughts of what might have been.
Gina, for her part, remembered her last visit, how chummy everyone had gotten. It reminded her uncomfortably of the encounter that had started her downward spiral. But the shadow of something stranger yet loomed beyond even that. It seemed fear had shaken up everything she took for granted one fall day and nothing had ever quite been so innocent again. She bid Lewis and Martin farewell, noting the faraway look in Lewis’ blue eyes.
After they were in the parking lot, Connie came back out. “It seems like I have to go seventeen times a day!” she declared. Gina thought about telling Connie Lewis had been there. She considered it when Connie first came in. For that matter, Connie had shown her own designs on Martin, until he had neglected to give her the same level of tickling and joking he’d shown Gina. This was behind her “helpful advice” about Martin’s girlfriend, when she had noticed the bit of hope emerging in Gina’s eyes.
Gina tended to think of everyone’s feelings, no matter how sick at heart she felt from the disastrous roller coaster that had emerged with her blossoming love life. This time, she followed a slightly vindictive impulse, which she recognized for what it was. Well, so what, she thought, as she left Connie in the dark about the visitors until they were safely gone. Even a good girl has to get a little of her own back sometimes. It felt foreign to her. But then, she wasn’t so sure how good a girl she really was anymore, after all.