I keep watch under the ceiling. It’s not really a ceiling. It’s all pipes, vents, beams and wiring. And I’m on my back, on the bed looking up at the innards of the ceiling. Ceiling guts. Listening to the water running through the pipes. And when Pop gets up in the middle of the night to use the toilet, he flushes and water comes pouring down real loud through all those pipes, like a river, and there I am. Lying underneath this river, and I can’t move. I’m stuck at the bottom of a septic tank. Watching and listening and scared to death that one of these days, one of those pipes is going to blow, and I’m going be covered in shit.
So I stare up and keep watch.
I live in the basement. It’s one of those finished basements that was never finished. And I’ve been here most of my life—past the time when everyone’s supposed to be out. And five years past the time my younger brother Michael moved out with his woman Anne. And here I am. Still. Watching the pipes and waiting tables on the Pike.
There’s a curtain separating my side of the basement from my brother’s side, where he used to sleep. We called it the “Russian peasant room.” And he’d fall asleep watching CNN or golf and he’d snore and I’d push back the curtain and reach in toward his bed and give him a nudge.
“Shut up,” I’d say, “You’re snoring.” And he’d roll over and keep snoring. And I’d say, screw this shit and wish that someone two-flights up would flush so that it would drown out the sound of his clogged breathing.
And outside the not-so-finished part of the finished basement, there’s the cardboard construction of a row house. Flimsy wallboard. Refrigerator box, really. And the clutter of all the stuff that got left behind when everyone packed up and moved out.
I’m the last to go. When I go. If I go.
* * *
It takes exactly sixminutesandsevenseconds to walk to the Pike. Another 22 seconds to open the door of the restaurant, walk past the bar, pick up my apron and head to the back bar to clock in. Clocking in is this: “Hi Ro, I’m here. You got any tables for me?”
“Section four, front,” says Ro, “But have a coffee. I just sat ‘em.”
We drink percolated coffee. We pass around the twenty-pack of Virginia Slim Super Slim menthols. Ro and Jeanie and me. Ro and Jeanie stand in front of the mirror by the back-bar, touching up hair, lips; diner-style. Hardcore waitresses. Career waitresses. They never forget the side of tartar. They always remember to bring the steak knife with the Surf & Turf. Their tips always exceed $120 a night. And they never tell the IRS they earn more than fifty-bucks a week. Pros.
Ro, short for Rhonda, tells stories.
“When I tell you that old man was in my pants, I mean it. The sonofabitch chased me around that room every single goddamn day . . . Get this,” she says, “the old shit rents me this room for two-fifty a month, tryin’ to be all sweet an all. So, I ain’t got no place to go and I says yeah, sure. I move my stuff in and it’s, like, real close to where I work so I ain’t got no problem living there. And so I’m there about a month and the Tiffany Lounge burns down – yeah, that’s the one.” She catches me pointing Southward with the tip of my smoke.
“And so I’m living in this dump and I ain’t got no job. So I tell this guy that I ain’t got no money, and he says to me, ‘no problem.’ I’m like, cool, maybe he ain’t such an old shit after all. ‘You can stay for nothing,’ he says, ‘so long as I can use your phone.’ No problem, I say, I can handle that.”
She coughs. Lights another menthol. Applies more red to her lips. It’s slow. We have time to talk before the dinner rush. Jeanie says, “Sugar, you never let a man in your business.”
“Anyway,” Ro says, “he starts coming up to my room and talking on the phone to some guy down in AC. Then he calls Vegas and who knows where the fuck else. And each time he’s asking for cash—telling everyone that he’s broke an’ all. Then, y’know, when he gets off the phone he starts drinking, and looking around in my ‘fridgerator for another beer. And he drinks like a goddamn fish. And then he just ends up sleeping on my fucking floor. Asshole. This was happening every night. Finally I told him to go back to his own place because I wanted to watch TV, or something—anything to get him outta the room. That’s when it starts. ‘I let you stay here for nothin’, bitch, and yer kickin’ me out? Fuck you!’ That’s what he tells me. ‘Fuck you.’” She extends her arm and pops out her middle finger.
I watch her and I wait. The smoke from our cigarettes swirls around us. Smog over Atco, NJ. I can’t see anything but us.
“And then. Oh man. Git this. One night he comes up to me, all messed up, and starts putting his hands in my fuckin’ crotch. I’m like, get the fuck outta here. Ain’t no old man gonna get a hold of my pussy ‘n shit. And with that I packed up and moved out.” She exhales. The host calls her to pick up table 32. “You gotta survive, y’know. You gotta.”
Three of us pull a swing. We rage through the dinner hour like flame throwers. Passing off hot plates of lit and smoking fajitas, steamed vegetables, lobster tails, baked potatoes, with dollops of sour cream and chives until our eyeliners bleed. The kitchen is 112 degrees. The fans turn slowly. We bitch at the cooks for fucking up orders. They bitch at us for not giving them our asses to grab. “Your ass makes the night move faster” Leon says, with a smile, a giant of a black man whose sweat beads drip from his forehead and christens every dish on it’s way out. Jeanie picks up two more stations at last call. “Sugar,” she says, passing me with a tray of martinis, “I’m gonna meet the man of my dreams tonight. I can feel it in my skin.” But I know that’s not gonna happen. Not here. Not tonight. Not that skin. Only regulars left now. Only old martini drinkers and make-up wearers, and trash-talkers and pipe watchers. It’s too late.
* * *
I take the dirt path through the weeds, through the backyards, through the stars to get home. It’s two in the morning. Moving. Looking up. Pegasus is high above a half moon. Andromeda falls northeast to Perseus then to Taurus in the East. Everything’s connected. I close my eyes, pack my bags and leave. I follow the course of Orion only to end up back here the next night. I open my eyes and keep walking. The flat earth rolls me homeward through the stars. To the pipes. Not a very long walk to lie under the flush of a toilet. Not long enough to know it’s time to go.