When the manager on duty, Tom Bogan, tells Mary that Bruce Springsteen is coming in and he’s seating him in her section, she’s not at all surprised. Their lives have always been linked and she knew someday they’d meet. She wasn’t just Mary Rosenthal of Freehold, New Jersey (birthplace of Bruce Springsteen), she was the girl who shared her birthday with Freehold’s hero (September 23rd) and had dated an Evan for over a year before Bruce and Patti Springsteen named their first child Evan; Mary attended Bruce’s college for two years (Ocean County Community), and while he had published a couple of crappy poems in their literary journal, she’d acted in a couple of crappy plays through the drama department. Even her name…her parents, obsessive fans, named her after the Mary from “Thunder Road”, something Mary felt had too much influence over her life. In the song, Bruce comes to whisk Mary away from Jersey, to rescue her, yet he tells her You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright. It wasn’t the most empowering namesake.
Growing up, when something discouraged Mary or seemed beyond her grasp, her parents would point to one of the framed posters of Bruce Springsteen and tell her she could do it. “He’s the same as you, Mary. You have everything he has.” This was meant to be encouraging, yet from an early age, Mary understood that their faith in her had nothing to do with her talents because nothing, not even her name, was hers and hers alone. He was their source of power, and it was against him and his accomplishments that their own lives would eventually be measured.
In Freehold, Bruce Springsteen’s birthday is a holiday. And so close to the legend, you could almost believe in the miracles of Springsteen’s songs— maybe New Jersey really was a place of limitless possibility. Mary’s birthday was, of course, also a holiday and she found herself treated as a star-by-association. People expected great things from her, and while she welcomed these expectations, this promise of specialness, she also resented sharing so much of herself with Bruce Springsteen and had to work hard to overcome the notion that she too would never be seen by anyone, not even her rescuer, as anything more than ‘alright.’ Getting hired at John Paul’s Bistro which, according to The Improper Bostonian, had “the hottest servers in Boston,” certainly helped. Also, living these past five years in Massachusetts, where people didn’t attach the same weight to all things Springsteen, she’d decided her links with the Boss were more creepy than impressive and so she kept them to herself. Yet, how to shed him completely when it was through their similarities that she’d always defined herself?
What Mary says to Tom Bogan is: “Fine. I’ll take good care of him.”
Ten waiters and waitresses smoke cigarettes and fold napkins at table thirty, waiting for Bogan to begin the pre-shift meeting. Between these servers, there are nine bachelor’s degrees— three from Ivy League schools— three MFA’s, an MA, and one Ph.D. It’s comical, these people who spout off sentences like, “Yale, oh please, it’s a chump institution— my boarding school was totally harder,” but now seem so content refilling water glasses and taking drink orders. Mary has learned that there isn’t the slightest link between intelligence and motivation, but still, she wonders whether Bruce will sense their education or whether they’ll just look like a bunch of losers in tuxedo pants and white aprons. She herself has one of the MFA’s (in acting) from Boston University. She tries to go on auditions whenever she can which, lately, isn’t so much.
There’s a sense of anticipation among the ten servers, what Mary imagines a hospital might feel like in the moments before a fleet of ambulances arrive: Saturday dinner is the best shift of the week, and though it’s quiet now, the place will soon be packed. Frank Sinatra (another Jersey escapee) plays lightly over the speakers. On the day after he died, they played non-stop Sinatra. Mary, who worked a double that day, listened to it for thirteen hours straight until it wasn’t like listening at all, but more like being penetrated. It took almost a week for all that cool to wear off.
Mary has worked at John Paul’s for three years. That’s about a 150 weeks, five shifts a week: 750 shifts. Every server folds 50 napkins a shift. She’s never done the math on this, hasn’t considered such an adding up of one’s time, and therefore doesn’t know that the napkins she’s now folding will make for a total of 37,500. If she did know, if she happened to consider the passing months as stacks of crisp white napkins, she’d be frightened and angry, certain that folding 37,500 napkins was far too many for one life.
Will, who’s sitting next to Mary, takes a cigarette from the pack in front of her. Before Mary started working at John Paul’s, she didn’t smoke. She didn’t eat meat. She had never even tried cocaine. She had never stolen anything. She was a member of two different acting groups and took the train to New York City twice a month for Broadway auditions. Again, these aren’t lists Mary herself has made, but if she did, she’d be frightened and angry. Will puts his hand on Mary’s thigh and smiles, showing a meaty string stuck between wine-purpled teeth. Once in a while, Mary and Will have sex.
“You have something stuck in your teeth,” she says. His finger unearths corn.
“Corn,” he says, eating it. Then, “Nice Jersey girl like you, it’s about time Springsteen paid you a visit.”
“It’s still there, Will. Right here,” she touches her own tooth. His finger goes back in and comes out with spinach.
“Spinach,” he says.
“No, it’s still there.” She points to her own tooth again.
“Get it for me.” He opens his mouth wide. Mary isn’t one of those girlfriends who pops zits on her boyfriend’s back, and even if she was, Will isn’t her boyfriend. When she drinks, she lets Will put his dick wherever he wants: isn’t that enough?
She sighs. She scrapes out the food with her index finger.
“Thanks,” he says. “A bunch of us went to the Grille for steaks.”
Probably an eighty dollar lunch. Will constantly talks about the trips he’s going to take and the apartments he’s this close from closing escrow on, but like all the servers at John Paul’s, he lives a life of affluence (though, by any standard, the apartment he rents is a shithole). Will hates the people he waits on— these wealthy old Euros and their fake-titted young sluts— yet he mimics their lifestyle. You might think the last thing a server would want to do after work is go to a restaurant, but you’d be wrong. It becomes a need— to purge the excess of others through excess of their own.
It is, of course, a matter of principal. Why should their customers deserve to live like royalty and not them? They’re worthy people. They can appreciate French wines and Cuban cigars and Italian clothes and cocaine, and as long as they show up for their five shifts a week, they have the money. But how difficult it is for them to find the time to audition for movies or make movies, or paint, or study for the GMAT’s or write novels, or do any of the things they tell each other they really do and tell each other they really are.
Will, by the way, is a spitter. One drunk, regrettable night, he told Mary all about it. He spits in the food of customers he most wants to be, or most wants to fuck. And once…well, he couldn’t actually masturbate on the food, but he could do it beforehand, in the container he soaks his contact lenses in, and he learned that jism, when it’s kept out, thins quite a bit and its gloss is hardly distinguishable from the gloss of a vinaigrette. It was information Mary didn’t want, and even as she was hearing it, tried to force it out of her body and away from anything which could lead to memory.
“And did you guys wash down those steaks with wine?” Mary asks.
“Maybe a bottle or two.”
“Or six,” he says, looking disoriented.
She doesn’t ask. Bogan begins pre-shift.
“Welcome to Saturday night, ladies and gentlemen.” The managers always welcome them to the particular day of the week as though the day doesn’t really begin until they announce it. It’s a sinister welcome, and today it feels to Mary as though Bogan was professing to control the very existence of the days themselves— like he could choose to cancel a day if the mood hit him: There will be no Saturday night, ladies and gentlemen.
Bogan talks and the servers fold their napkins and try not to garner his attention, lest they get called on for one of his ludicrous quizzes, which of course, someone does. “So how about if, I don’t know… Kelvin, tells us about our bass entree.” Kelvin has a Ph.D. in Medieval Literature, and for the past nine months has been stalled mid-way through the first chapter of what he calls “a novel of inconceivable worth.”
Kelvin says, “It’s a sesame seared Chilean sea bass served with pan sautéed cardoons, wilted arugula and a sweet potato gratin.”
“And how is that finished?” Bogan says.
“In a red wine reduction garnished with caviar…”
“What sort of caviar?”
“All of the caviar we use here is malossol, which means ‘little salt’ in Russian and is the basic stamp of superiority for the so-called Caspian Sea caviars. This particular dish is garnished with Sevruga caviar, the smallest grained caviar of the Caspian Sea sturgeons— the Chaucer of caviars. The bass is also topped with candied hazelnuts.”
“Or filberts!” Bogan says, a little wildly.
Mary laments that Bruce Springsteen wasn’t here to witness the ease in which Kelvin rambled off ingredients like cardoons, and isolated regions of fish eggs. It’s impressive, she thinks, or maybe just trivial-bordering-on-psychotic. She can’t tell which.
Bogan, as always, says, “Hey people, shall we earn sick amounts of money, or what?” Mary grunts a response, and Bogan gives her a thumbs-up with his cut-off stump of a thumb which, no matter how many times she sees it, strikes her as less than a good omen.
It’s five o’clock: Mary’s first reservation (a ten-top) is coming in at six-thirty, and Bruce Springsteen (and one guest) is coming at eight.
She walks downstairs to get clean linens for her tables and to look at the list. Her name has topped the list for the past four days ever since Cameron Lippy, thirty-six years old and drunk as always, fell out of an open fourth floor window and died, thereby making her the most senior server in the restaurant. As for Cameron, it was a miracle he’d lived as he long as he did. Some of the waitresses, not Mary, cried for a day, but the most profound emotion felt was the practical recognition that the guy at the top of the list was gone, and some of his prime shifts would now open up.
On a very basic level, the list catalogs the servers in order of seniority and notes their schedule for the week. The first thing servers do when they walk into work is check the list. They usually know exactly what their schedule is, but they look at the list because it’s a reassurance that things in the world are as they should be. It reminds them of where they stand. The list is simple, precise, and unchangeable. There are no ulterior motives or cryptic subtleties. If you have been bad, the list will punish and then forgive you. It reflects only a week of your life at a time. If you’re Mindy Simpson and you fuck John Paul behind the curtain in the function room, then you hear his gratitude shouted across your flawless schedule. There are no errors in the list. If it’s written on the list, then it is so.
And what a wonderful feeling— what a perfect case of a pleasure being disproportionately larger than is deserved— when someone above you on the list leaves John Paul’s and you’re able to see your name in its new, higher spot. Mary has seen her name slowly climb to the top, and my god, how amazing (like something sexual) it felt to see so many names below her. Yet, also, how curiously anti-climatic to finally reach the apex. It felt like flying all the way to the moon only to find it really was just a great ball of Swiss cheese. She’s ambivalent, that’s what it is: it was hard work getting to the top— someone did have to die after all— what, with people getting fired all the time or just burnt out, and it was during these times that her high position on the list confirmed she was special. Other times though, the list just said, So you’ve worked at a restaurant for three years, big whoop.
The list hangs at the bottom of the stairs behind a locked glass case. Simon, a big, beautiful Southern gay man, is staring at it, unmoving. Mary approaches him, but he’s in a television-like trance, and doesn’t notice her. It’s troubling, this list-induced stupor, so she pokes him. “Honey angel pussy lamb,” he says, surprised. “Are you positively throbbing with power? Top of the list, Mary! Top of the list, and Bruce Springsteen on his way to sample your goodies. I always knew my little angel would metamorphosize into a queen.”
“Queen of John Paul’s,” she says, “what a wicked kingdom.”
“Nobody gets to choose their kingdoms, Mary. One is born into power. All hail the Queen!” He curtsies, gracefully and with dignity.
She kisses the bald patch of his bowing head, and yes, yes goddamit, it is somewhat exhilarating to be number one! She gets any schedule she wants, is practically begged to train new hires, and who else would they trust to wait on Bruce Springsteen? She never makes mistakes, doesn’t write down even the largest order (memorizes everything), and sells more wine and specials than anyone else. Sometimes, she’ll watch the rookies struggling to open wine bottles, dropping plates, forgetting specials, and certainly she feels a certain amount of pride in her own abilities.
This though: tonight she’ll have to look Bruce Springsteen in the eye and say, “I was born on the day of your birth, raised in your town, to your voice, with an identity you created, and this is what I’ve done with it.” It occurs to her that Simon wasn’t so far off with his queen comment (Springsteen’s kingdom is, after all, New Jersey), but is this something she can use to justify herself?
She’d always known she would make it as an actress: it was just who she was. Slowly though, her resolve is lessening; when people outside of work ask her what she does, she’s not sure. It’s as though she’s being asked to describe a creature separate from herself. She knows this creature has some qualities of an actress, but if one doesn’t act, hasn’t acted in a long time, then is it honest to say, I’m an actress? She doesn’t know when it started or whether she can change back, but slowly, slowly she’s beginning to see herself as a waitress.
Mary sets her ten-top with a clean linen and a stack of ten bread plates. She wipes every fork, knife, water and wine glass with a white cloth napkin, but most of the knives and water glasses still have food stuck to them. John Paul’s sells three hundred dollar bottles of champagne yet their champagne flutes are speckled with orange juice pulp from weekend mimosas. Nobody, of course, ever notices. Under the spell of candles, the wine, the chandeliers, how could they? There’s a perceived exclusiveness to John Paul’s which would never allow for something as common or unsightly as food-encrusted knives. It simply couldn’t exist here, so nobody sees that it does. Customers come to John Paul’s to feel a part of something bigger than themselves, something too hip and too beautiful for their normal lives. They love waiting a month for reservations, love being charged a bit too much, being told where to sit, what to drink, where to go clubbing after dinner, and they even love their servers to give them a little attitude. Dinner at John Paul’s is a night spent with the group in high school you were never cool enough to fit in with.
It’s what Mary loves most about John Paul’s: this is a place of pure fantasy. Sometimes, during a busy dinner shift, she’ll think about brightening the lights and turning down the music. Without the darkness and the noise, maybe people would be able to see the chipped salad plates, the scars where all those fake tits were put in, and the dried cocaine stuck to the smiling faces; maybe they could hear the idiots at the bar trying to have a conversation, the sound of the model’s vomit hitting the ceramic bowl, and the bluster of old men flaunting new money at women resigned to cashing in on their firm bodies and unblemished skin.
She looks for these people outside of work, in supermarkets and coffee-shops, but nowhere can she find their elaborate outfits, all the make-up and jewelry, the drinking and drugs: nowhere are there people with such a festive indifference to reality: these people only exist in John Paul’s, they’re not real, and Mary doesn’t see how this isn’t a stage like any other. So she plays along. When people ask her if she’s a model, she says she is. A student? Of course. Is that a California accent I detect? Yes, how did you know? Let me guess, a Sagittarius? Amazing, you must be psychic! A dancer, right? Yes, ballet. Catherine, right? Call me Kate. She’s used to having people write her lines, and these don’t seem any worse than many others she’s memorized and performed.
Her ten-top turns out to be sorority girls celebrating a birthday. They’re all made up and high-heeled, and though they’re less than five years apart in age, they call her Miss and Waitress. A couple of them drink amarretto sours, but mostly it’s diet Cokes and extra lemon for the water. It’s shared salads (dressing on the side), no oil on the pasta, no butter on the fish and one dessert with ten forks— and could you like, put like a ton of candles in it and like, sing happy birthday and everything? Like, sure I can, Mary tells them. Wow, are you guys, like, Phi Beta Gamma? That’s so great! She brings all their food at once, and the dessert before everyone’s finished. She wants them the hell out of her section.
She adds gratuity to their pathetic check— 140 dollars for a ten-top!— and lays it in the middle of the table. Fortunately, the birthday girl shoves Daddy’s credit card in without looking at the total. She picks up the check and runs the gratuity scam Will taught her. Basically, you can hide the gratuity you’ve already added and get tipped twice. There are more scams in the restaurant business than Mary would have thought possible, and even more excuses to justify them: The customers deserve it. The chef’s an asshole. The restaurant makes plenty of money. New shoes would be nice. It’s not like stealing stealing. Mary had excuses for a while, lots of them: she’d try them out like fad diets, swearing by one for months at a time before the discovery of a new, more efficient one. She’s done with the justifications now and has come to accept that this job takes up a large part of her life and the whole experience is much more pleasurable when she’s making a lot of money.
While her sorority girls are crunching ice cubes and hopefully thinking about leaving, she sets Bruce Springsteen’s table with reserve wine glasses, a fresh rose, and a crystal snifter with segments of lemons and limes surrounding the lip. She wipes down the L-shaped corner booth with a clean white cloth and, with another cloth, polishes all the silverware. She wants the crystal and the silver to shine beneath the flickering candlelight. She wants to hear him say, “Wow, this looks really great,” in that gritty worker-man voice of his.
Shannon, a lipstick-lesbian who broke the heart of half the guys at John Paul’s when it was discovered she only slept with women, sits down at Mary’s table and says, “Mary, oh my God, what comes with the lamb shank? I told table fifty-five macaroni salad, but I don’t know now.”
“Gnocchi,” Mary says. “Sweet potato gnocchi with a drizzle of nutmeg cream and caramelized pears.”
“Gnocchi are those big macaronis, right?”
Mary looks out at table fifty-five and at Shannon’s other table, fifty-three. Both need more water, neither have bread yet, and she wonders what other wrong things Shannon has told them. She tells Shannon there’s a menu description at the server station she could look over. Shannon says, yeah, okay, that sounds good, but hey, how about those sorority girls: would Mary mind at all, she can totally say no if she minds, but could Shannon go over to them and maybe try to get a phone number or two? Mary smiles; what does she care?
Mary trained Shannon, advised the managers she was hopeless, but the problem was Shannon looked so good in her tuxedo pants and nobody looks good in the tuxedo pants. Also, her breasts tugged at her fitted button-down shirt in such a way that the gaps between the buttons displayed glimpses of the milkiest white skin. Of course, the managers didn’t know Shannon was gay and that, therefore, they wouldn’t ever have the chance to cheat on their wives with her. (And yes, they’d felt deceived, or at least misled, when her sexual preference came to light because each of them— Bogan, Jeffrey, Lucas, Marcello— held the secret hope that those blessed shirt-gaps were for the titillation of them and them alone.)
After Shannon runs off, Will sits down. He has that tired, angry look he gets when he’s drinking. The bartenders are happy to hook servers up with free booze, and Mary is one of the few people who doesn’t drink during shifts. She tried it a few times, thinking perhaps it would make her feel like she was drinking with the customers and would, therefore, make the experience one of equals, but crouching down in tuxedo pants to drink scotch out of a paper cup felt like something a counselor might refer to as “rock bottom.”
“Double tip?” Will asks, looking toward the sorority girls.
“I think so.”
“Good. Fuck them.” He looks over Bruce’s table: “New candle,” he says, “crisp linen… reserve glasses?”
“Uh huh, and lemon and lime wedges, Mary? Who sets a table with lemon and lime wedges?”
“It looks good,” she says.
“Get a grip.”
“I know, but I grew up his city. My parents would sing me to sleep with his songs, and besides there’s more to it.” He waits. “My first boyfriend was named Evan and he has a kid called Evan and…I don’t know, other things too.”
He coughs and then sneezes. She says, “Your breath reeks of alcohol.” She hands him an Altoid.
“Thanks, Mom,” he says, and to Mary this seems about right. With Will, Mary is something like a mother. She helps him confirm he’s had enough to drink, leads him home from bars, and sometimes, she helps him out of his clothes and, eventually, guides him into her.
“Do you think,” she says, “that we’re leading adult lives?”
“Do you think,” he says, “my breath still smells like alcohol?” and he blows in her face. There’s an older Euro waving his empty water glass in the air. There’s a half-full bottle of Pelegrino on his table, but like Will, customers are often helpless.
“Table seventy-three needs you,” she says.
He turns around, says, “Oh, my God, I hate people,” and goes over.
Mary gets a nine-top of suits. She smiles, showing all her teeth, and after ascertaining they’re American businessmen, tells them in her best Italian accent that her name is Gabriella. It’s so much easier to respond to flirting old men when they’re calling out for Gabriella, or Gabbi.
The men buy everything she’s selling: two bottles of the wine she suggests (90 dollars a bottle), steak au’ poivre for everyone (36 dollars each), and they all agree to start with the appetizer special Gabbi insisted “you owe to your tongues to taste” (16 dollars each).
She punches in their order at the server station and thinks about how people like to be told what to do. How they’ll happily turn over responsibility to anyone who’ll take it. That appetizer she just sold nine of: shad roe over couscous with horseradish aoli. Shad roe is the sack— the sack!— which holds the developing fish eggs. It’s fish womb. People who like liver and sweetbreads and caviar do not like shad roe. Couscous is softened, flavorless sand, and aoli is mayonnaise, but tonight the server who sells the most shad roe wins a bottle of Rioja. There are magic words and smiles which can not only persuade people to order something disgusting, but also convince them they are enjoying it. Mary has learned all about these words and gestures and employs them now involuntarily. Springsteen understands this as well, she thinks: standing there in his tight jeans, guitar slung over his shoulder, he’s convinced the world that in New Jersey, people jumping aboard motorcycles or powerful American cars can simply drive off from factory jobs and fulfill all the fantasies they’re able conjure up. It’s the secret of his appeal, she thinks, his entire persona like a mathematical equation for the American dream: Desire +Escape = Success. She thinks about people she knows in Jersey and scoffs.
At eight-fifteen, Bruce walks in. He’s in gray slacks and a yellow button-down shirt. Yellow! He’s even clean shaven, his hair neatly slicked and combed. Mary decides it’s like Bruce Springsteen dressed up as Bruce Springsteen – if Bruce Springsteen had been born in New England and studied international business. He’s with a small boy who has his strong chin and big nose. Bogan ushers them into their booth with theatrical flourish, giving them his disturbing thumbs up once they’re seated. From the table, Bogan comes directly to Mary.
“I just sat the Boss at table thirty-one.”
“I wasn’t sure whether I could call him Bruce so I just said ‘welcome to John Paul’s, Boss.’ And then, ‘Here’s your table, Boss.’ I told him I had all his albums, which I don’t ‘cause I think his music is ridiculous. I don’t think he knew, though. I want to send him calamari, mussels, and vegetable spring rolls. I told him you were our most senior server so don’t make me look like I have, I don’t know, shit in my brains or something.”
“Okay.” She punches in the appetizers with Bogan watching.
He says, “Do you think you could at least pretend you’re a waitress and fill up his water glass and take a drink order?” She looks at him with as much dignity as she can muster and then walks over.
From up close he’s familiar but somehow unreal, like an invented face from a sex dream. She’s not sure she can do this. “Hi, I’m Mary,” she says.
“Hello, Mary,” and it’s like hearing her name the way it was meant to be said. It’s you, she thinks, wanting to bust out laughing and slug him in the shoulder, but also wanting to curl up in the dumpster and die.
“Can I start you gentlemen off with a drink?”
“Can I have a Coke please,” the kid says.
“And a Bud Lite, please.”
“Coke and a Bud Lite.” At the service bar, she watches Marco, the bartender, bent over eating a lamb shank he’s scammed and stashed, and not getting her Bud Lite. A few paper cups sit protectively behind the Rose’s Lime and Grenadine bottles, vodka drinks Marco hooked up for Will, Kelvin, Shannon and a couple of others. Usually, the paper cups don’t come out until much later in the night, when customers are too drunk to notice servers perched over their own drinks. Still waiting— Marco is really going at that lamb shank— Mary decides her parents would never forgive her if she didn’t get them an autograph or something. Maybe she could leave her cell phone on and let them listen to her take his order. They probably wouldn’t be too proud, however, to hear her take anyone’s order, even Bruce Springsteen’s. Every time she talks to them, her father mentions Monty something-or-other who lives in LA and has all kinds of connections in the sitcom industry. Her mother still calls her my little Sylvia Plath, having somehow, inexplicably, concluded that Sylvia Plath was a famous stage actress. They don’t like her waiting tables. (And yes, Mary often thought about telling her mom Sylvia Plath was a writer who committed suicide in her oven while her children slept, but, ultimately, Mary found she enjoyed the relative ease of being compared to, and therefore, competing with, a woman who couldn’t even manage not to kill herself.) “Today Marco,” she calls out, gesturing to her beer order. “Today!”
Mary sets the Bud-Lite and Coke down, starts to tell them the specials, but abruptly stops. She can’t do it, not for Bruce Springsteen. She walks away.
Normally, Mary prides herself on reciting the specials— how quickly she’s able to memorize them, how she brings the food to life, making whatever it is sound as though it’s the goddamn tastiest things she’s ever eaten. It’s a performance, and one she’s good at. Unlike most performances, however, which celebrate a person’s particular talent, reciting dinner specials to Bruce Springsteen feels like it’ll celebrate some fundamental failure. It’s what she imagines the performance of stripping would feel like.
She walks back to her nine-top of businessmen, takes away bread plates to make room for appetizers. She fills up water glasses, puts down steak knives, and pours out the rest of the wine. The man in charge— a man somehow more bald than any she’s ever seen— nods his naked and shining head toward the empty bottle signaling he’d like another. Their bill is at 650 dollars. She thinks she’ll make at least a hundred and eighty off this table.
As she’s punching in the wine, Simon and Will come up behind her.
Simon says, “So, is he as sweet and nasty as he looks?”
“Did he notice the lemons and limes?” Will asks.
“It’s really Bruce Springsteen,” she says, more to herself than them.
“Is that child his son or his boy-toy?”
“Did he notice the lemons and limes?” Will says, louder.
She says, “Will, it’s like eight-thirty and you’re slurring.”
She turns to Simon, “His son, Evan,” she says. “He was born on May 14th, 1988.”
“What are you his fairy god-mother?” Will says, laughs, mumbles something about magic pumpkins, and laughs again.
Mary goes down into the kitchen to get foccacia and olive spread. Chef John Paul, a man of unwavering hostility, is, of course, yelling. His kitchen is a historical re-enactment of a colonization that never took place: it’s what would have happened if Columbia was conquered by a cursing Bostonian tyrant with a fabricated French accent. It’s brown-skinned dishwashers, prep workers, and line cooks slaving for pitiful wages in an atmosphere of uninterrupted yelling.
John Paul, seeing Mary, says, “Hey, you got fuckin’ Bruce Springsteen at table thirty-one?”
“Is he a prick or what?”
“He seems okay.”
“I knew it,” he says, “a prick. Take good care of him though. Don’t fuck anything up.”
“Wait,” she says, “don’t fuck anything up?”
“Don’t get all cunty with me, Mary, just cause you’re top of the list. Yeah, I saw that shit. Congratulations.”
“Thanks, Chef. Especially for that ‘cunty’ part.”
On the way to drop off the foccacia, she picks up Shiny-Head’s wine. She sets down the foccacia and olive spread at Bruce’s table, tells them she’ll be right back, and opens and pours out the wine for the businessmen. Their appetizers are on the table and everyone is eating.
“How is everything, gentlemen?” she asks.
“Great, Gabbi, thanks” they say, eyeing her like animals approaching a salt-lick. Shiny-Head tells her to bring two more bottles of wine. She rings it in and goes back to Bruce’s table.
“I like this bread,” Evan says. “Very tasty.”
“You’re Evan, right?”
“How did you know? Did you tell her, Dad?”
“I didn’t tell her. Mary must know some things.”
Mary just smiles, says, “Anyway, can I answer questions about the menu? The steak au’ poivre is great. The sweet potato ravioli is good. The tuna is excellent.” Bruce orders the steak, Evan the ravioli.
At the server station, Bogan tells Mary that the restaurant was going to pick up Bruce’s tab, but tables forty-five, seventy-one, and fifty-three want to buy him a round of drinks, four more tables have tried to order dessert for him, and Crazy Jack (self named) wants to send him a bottle of Kristal and pick up his tab. Crazy Jack is a lunatic drunk who recently sold his software company for a hundred million dollars. He tips the bar over a thousand dollars a night, crumpling hundred-dollar bills and throwing them onto the floor and into trash cans for the bartenders to dig out. Mary has never waited on him because he only requests the three or four servers who kiss his ass (and fuck him, if you believe the rumors) the most thoroughly.
Bogan says, “I suppose it’s your table, though ultimately it’s my call, but what, hypothetically would you suggest we do, assuming you had the power to decide what we do, which you don’t?”
“Tell the other tables his tab is already taken care of, and I’ll give the bill to Crazy Jack.” Bogan nods somewhat crazily and walks down the stairs, probably to his office where he’s stashed all sorts of bottles that nobody is supposed to know about (servers appreciate Bogan’s alcoholism: some of their heartiest drinking takes place while Bogan is bingeing in his locked office). Mary scans the bar, finds Crazy Jack with three martinis lined up in front of him, the three olives the only thing he’ll eat tonight. He’s shouting at his adoring freeloaders, something nobody other than Jack would get away with. Jack is also the only person in Boston for whom bartenders will pour a double (doubles, of course, are illegal in Massachusetts, while in Jersey, in a bar anywhere near a factory, it seems all they pour are doubles). When Jack eats an actual meal in the dining room, his presence brings with it a storm. Servers have gotten into fist fights over the privilege of having Crazy Jack at their table. She thinks about this storm— the flirting and praise, the ceaseless activity— as a tornado which sucks everything and everyone toward it: she believes such a storm accompanies anybody of great success.
Bruce and Evan eat their free appetizers in the midst of their own storm. Evan is doing most of the talking, and while Bruce is probably aware of the bidding war his presence is causing, he concentrates on his son. Both of them are smiling, and to Mary, it’s an enviable smile. Evan though, is so happily chattering away, Mary doesn’t think he’s aware of the pressure he’ll someday feel to outdo his father – to walk into a restaurant and create his own bidding war – but he will. It occurs to her how similar she and Evan are. To grow up under Bruce Springsteen is to live uncomfortably within your own limits (though at least he was given the name Springsteen, and, of course, the money). She thinks everyone in New Jersey, and especially Freehold, was given the hope that Springsteen’s success offered, but none of the tangible things they’d need to get them there.
From the coffee station, Mary watches Will and Kelvin at the service bar drinking deeply from their paper cups. The coffee boy, a lanky seventeen year old named Timmy has his own paper cup, which one could almost believe was his usual coffee with fourteen sugars, were it not for the way his young eyes darted across the restaurant like a gazelle in lion country before each sip taken. Mary wonders what the hell Marco was thinking giving alcohol to little Timmy from private school who hopes to someday study history. Shannon’s sitting at the bar in her uniform sharing a drink with the drunkest sorority member, a tiny thing with a great mouthful of white teeth. One of her tables is waving his check presenter in the air hoping someone will take his money, and eventually a Colombian bus-girl making no money will take the check presenter and search for Shannon through the kitchen, the bathrooms, the function room, and the back alley where servers and kitchen workers sometimes smoke pot, eventually giving up and returning the check presenter to the table where she got it. Bogan, returning up the stairs from his office, trips on the top step and falls over. Mary helps him up and gets a vodka-infused thanks in return. It’s disturbing, all of them with their little paper cups like children, the dark-skinned bussers doing all the work, and these beautiful, affluent people on the verge of a breakdown, each of them just barely keeping it together. It always seemed funny to Mary— it was a lively, odd place to work. Tonight though, she feels embarrassed, like bringing a boyfriend home to meet her crazy family. She’s hyper-aware of every wrong thing going on in the restaurant.
She hopes Bruce Springsteen isn’t seeing any of this.
He doesn’t appear to be. A few customers approach his table and shake his hand. Servers bring him free drinks sent by their tables. He and Evan are all smiles. People outside of Jersey seem to regard Bruce Springsteen as something of an iconic joke, yet here, in this restaurant where famous musicians and movie stars come in all the time, he’s causing about the biggest stir she’s ever seen. It’s so like him, she thinks, to take over the only kingdom she has. Mary feels Simon’s big hands on her shoulders, kneading them gently. Together, they watch people swirl wine and spill coffee and blow on soup; they watch them make jokes and noise; they see Will and Kelvin leave the service bar and drift toward them, probably coming for espressos to counter their vodka. Slurring, Will asks Mary if she and Bruce have a date later. She tells him to die. Kelvin asks how Mary’s night is going, but before she can answer, he begins talking about that book he’s never going to write. She tells him to die. Simon asks if she needs a hug and she takes it. Bogan appears and asks them if they think cavorting in front of guests is a sound business move. Mary walks away and, when she’s sure he can’t hear, tells him to die.
Mary’s nine businessmen have finished eating so she goes over to pour out their wine and clear dishes. They watch her with a mixture of lust, awe, and mockery as she balances and stacks all their dishes along the length of her left arm. “Wow!” they say. “Impressive!” She recognizes that her own pride in her plate-stacking ability can only mean bad things. She puts their dishes in the bus bucket, fills up water glasses, crumbs the table, and sets down dessert and after-dinner drink menus. She checks on Bruce’s table, where their dinners have just been dropped off and is told that everything is wonderful. In front of Bruce sits one blue martini, two Bud-Lites, a Sam Adams, a glass of champagne, and a glass of red wine. Evan is surrounded by five Cokes and a chocolate milk. Mary clears a few drinks away, knowing they’ll never finish them all. Bruce winks and thanks her.
Shiny-Head calls Mary over and stares at her breasts. “We’ll take nine of them,” he says.
“Two’s not enough?”
“Cognacs,” he says, pointing to the menu. “Nine cognacs,” but he continues to stare. A slap in the face, she thinks. What could make more sense than a slap in the face? She imagines her hand’s imprint blotting out the reflection of herself she sees on his head. Slapping, however, isn’t part of the script. There isn’t a waitress alive who would slap a man with a nine hundred dollar tab. Servers always joke about whoring themselves— how the only difference between them and a prostitute is the penetration. They flirt and show skin, and if the tab is big enough, allow their butts to be patted and their tits “accidentally brushed up against.” So now, with this middle-aged bald man staring at her, what she thinks is that not-slapping is part of the performance, the only performing she’s doing these days, so she might as well make it good.
Bogan says to send Bruce three desserts. His eyes flutter on his face. He can barely get the words out. It’s ten o’clock and he’s wrecked. She hopes he stays away from Springsteen. “And coffees,” he says. “Send the kid an espresso, something to wipe off his goddamned smile— Jesus, I hate kids!” Mary nods encouragingly, then orders Bruce a coffee and Evan a hot chocolate. The businessmen have another round of cognacs, leer some more, and eventually Shiny-Head hands her a company credit card. Normally, she wouldn’t scam on such a large bill, but tonight she feels like she’s owed something. She’s not sure if it’s this particular table, or all the tables in all the preceding years, but somebody owes her something.
They tip twenty percent, and on top of the twenty percent she already added, she makes three hundred and ninety dollars on the table.
It’s calmer downstairs at the dessert station, silent even, until Will approaches her. “So, do you?” he says. “You two have a date?” His face is flushed and he’s sweating.
“What are you talking about?”
“Bruce Springsteen. Are you guys going to a drive-in together or something?”
“You need another mint,” she says, and gives him two. He throws them toward the trash though and, walking away, tells her she makes him so sick he could just spit; and then he does, right on the floor. The pastry chef, a bearded, paunchy man who almost never speaks, says, “What the hell’s going on up there tonight?”
Mary shakes her head. She doesn’t know.
Desserts in hand, she walks back upstairs. The music has been turned way up. She can see Will at the server station staring down Springsteen. She’s not sure whether Springsteen even notices Will, even as Will begins yelling, “What’s up bitch! You ain’t my boss, Boss! What’s up!” He’s pushing out his chest and getting all worked up. Mary walks in front of him, hoping to block him out, and drops off their desserts. She can hear Will yelling behind her, and behind his yelling all the other noises of drunk people talking, and the clinking of glasses and plates, and music, music which is Bruce Springsteen, she realizes, Born in the USA, not one of her favorites. Is this music, played at such a ridiculous volume, Bogan’s idea of mockery or praise? “You wanna fuck her, Boss?” Will is saying. “Fuck her then, you bitch!” Bruce and Evan though, they’re oohing and ahhing over the desserts: a chocolate bread pudding, banana eclairs in hazelnut sauce, and coconut sorbet scooped inside of brandy-poached pears. She can hardly stand it: the cleavage everywhere, the bass turned up far too loud, Marco pouring too-strong drinks in his too-tight T-shirt, Will yelling.
She sets down the desserts, says, “I am so sorry for everything.”
Bruce just laughs— probably has no idea why she’s apologizing— and he and Evan dig in. Behind her, Bogan is talking and pointing at Will, these two drunks having it out, Will yelling and Bogan shushing and pointing. And then Will tosses his wine key to the ground and throws his apron into a bus bucket and walks out the door.
People are always quitting or getting fired from John Paul’s— it’s as much a part of the place as the curtain in the function room behind which so much sex takes place, and where, right now, Shannon is having her first taste of the toothy sorority girl. Will had been at John Paul’s for over a year. His leaving will open up a bunch of great shifts, and the newer servers will be pleased.
Mary, watching Will leave, had felt neither sadness or pleasure. It was something like jealousy, though it only lasted a moment and was gone before she could identify exactly what it was.
Bruce and Evan eat all three of the desserts.
“So good,” Evan says, slightly pained.
“Everything was really excellent, Mary. We’ll take the check whenever.”
“Yeah, right,” she says. “There’s a line of people waiting to pay your bill. That guy over there,” and she points to Crazy Jack, who’s clutching his head in both hands, “he eventually won the honors.”
Bruce tries to act surprised, but he’s a terrible actor. The worst actor. In his feigned look of amazement, Mary can see that this happens to him everywhere he goes.
“Well,” he says, nodding at Jack with affection, “that’s very nice of him.” Again, Mary can see that while Bruce isn’t exactly insincere, these are words he’s said so many times they no longer have any meaning. He couldn’t hide a thing, Mary thinks. Unlike her, he couldn’t ever take on the role of someone else. And in the obviousness of his act, she can tell that this was put on for the benefit of Evan: he was trying to teach his boy something about graciousness, but the years of fame had worn away his own capacity for it. He looks so old, and awkwardly dressed. It seems strange that this is the man who has a fire-truck dedicated to him in Freehold, “Born to Run,” painted across its side.
She says, “I’m here because I went to grad school at BU— I’m an actress— but I’m from Freehold. I used to eat pizza at Federici’s, and breakfast at Sweet Lew’s. I’ve heard those are your favorite two places. My first boyfriend was named Evan.”
“Really?” he says.
Evan says, “I’m not your boyfriend…but I will be.”
Mary and Bruce talk about Freehold, how it’s getting so much bigger, nicer, and how each of them liked it better before all the bigness and niceness, and Evan says Freehold is greatest place in the world (Yeah, Mary thinks, if your father is Bruce Springsteen). She’s impatient with the conversation, though. She doesn’t care about all that’s been torn down in Freehold and all that’s recently gone up. Also, she’s angry that in talking about Freehold, she feels such a fondness for it. She interrupts him. “I was named after the Mary from Thunder Road. When I hear your music in my parents bedroom, I know not to disturb them. You and I have the same birthday.” It feels so confessional to admit these things, as though their similarities were something she’d stolen from him, and required forgiveness. Bruce though, doesn’t offer any forgiveness, nor does he seem uncomfortable: he doesn’t acknowledge the oddness.
He says, “So what’s an actress doing in Boston?”
“I only graduated a year and a half ago,” she says, but it’s a good question and she hears the inadequacy of her answer. Nowhere in any of his songs did those people hop into American cars and cruise down the Jersey Turnpike on their way to Boston.
“Well,” he says, standing, “happy belated birthday.”
“Yeah, happy belated birthday.”
He thanks her, tells her again how wonderful everything was. He holds out his hand to shake, and she gives him a hug instead. She hugs Evan as well.
Mary walks away and puts Bruce’s check in front of Crazy Jack. It takes him awhile to focus. She tells him it’s Springsteen’s. He looks at her finally, from her face to her breasts, to her hips. “You take good care of him?” She forces a smile. He pulls out a baseball-sized round of cash and peels off a chunk, which he stuffs into the check presenter, smashing it as flat as it’ll go. He strokes her hip, pulls her toward him, kissing her near the ear. She takes the check presenter and thanks him. Walking by Bruce’s table, she picks up two twenties Bruce left and puts them in the presenter as well.
Downstairs, Mary locks herself in the disgusting staff bathroom. If you’re at the top of list, people don’t want to see you open a check presenter with hundreds of dollars in it. Also, you don’t tip-out the bussers, food-runners, or bartenders on your scams, or on the drunken generosity of Crazy Jack, so it’s none of their business how much is inside. She looks in the mirror and tries to see what she must have looked like to Bruce Springsteen, staring for some time, the bathroom insulated from the restaurant’s noise. You met God today, she thinks. It’s a funny thought and she laughs, but like Bruce’s feigned surprise, she isn’t convinced by the reflection of laughter.
She pulls apart the cash and counts over six hundred dollars. The check, minus the free apps and desserts came to just sixty dollars. She’ll make over nine-hundred dollars tonight, almost three times what she’s ever made. She clutches the money, but it’s another case of ambivalence. There’s the sense of accomplishment, more cash in one night than most servers make in a week, but she also knows it’ll never get any better: she could work here for ten more years and never have another night like this. It’s the feeling that, though she met God today, all he could offer her was nine hundred dollars.
It always seemed like such bullshit, the romantic picture of New Jersey Springsteen painted, but she sees now how fully she, as an aspiring actress, bought into the dream. She didn’t take it far enough, she can see that now: she is in Boston after all. One might as well pursue acting in New Jersey. She thinks about all the lame excuses she’s made not move to New York City. It’s so laughable, all that self-deception, and she suddenly sees very clearly the things which need to be done. It’s like being shown a map of the way her life should go, and all she’ll have to do is follow it. But right away she can feel this discovery fading, as though she’s just woken from a dream, the details of which grow fuzzier with each passing second. She looks through her apron for a pen, needing to write down what she’s found but knowing she never carries one. Somebody pounds on the bathroom door. She can feel her certainty slipping, so she closes her eyes as she does when memorizing lines of script. Don’t forget this, she tells herself. Don’t wake up and work the brunch shift as though nothing had happened. You don’t belong here. You aren’t Bruce Springsteen, but you aren’t a waitress either. You can escape.