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Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Fifteen

Diana began her regular shift at Queequeg’s at 10:00 in the morning, which gave her an hour to get everything ready before the restaurant opened up for lunch at 11:00. On this particular morning there was a disheveled woman waiting outside, who then followed Diana through the open door. Diana was about to tell her that they wouldn’t be open for another hour, but the woman was able to get the first word in.

“Can I get a cup of coffee?”

Diana noticed a few things right off. Her hair was a tangled, wiry mess, and it seemed likely that she was far too young for all the lines in her face. Odder still was the French horn in her left hand. Diana wondered if the woman had spent the night on the street, or in one of the nearby parks, and felt a surge of empathy flow into her like a flock of pigeons landing in a public square for a few pieces of bread. And yet all she could do was answer her as if she were answering any paying customer.

“We’re not open for another hour or so, and I haven’t even started the coffee yet.” She said it with as nice a voice as she could find, but she was sorry for her answer before she even gave it. She also knew that the cooks had probably already started a pot, and felt guilty for lying.

As she put on her apron she watched the woman turn and walk past the statue of Queequeg, changing the French horn from one hand to the other. Strange that she didn’t have a case to go with the instrument. Assuming that she’d found it in the garbage, it had probably seemed like an extraordinary find.

Allen, the manager, came out of the office wearing his trademark, pastel-colored oxford shirt and a plaid tie. He stood with his hands on his hips at the entrance to the hallway leading back to the office and the bathrooms. As she was stepping behind the bar to get started, she looked back to watch him watching the woman go out the front door with her horn.

“Was she in here?”

“Yeah, but I told her we weren’t open yet.”

“She was playing for the rush hour traffic this morning, or at least the people who were waiting at the bus stop.”

“Was she any good?”

“She got a few notes out. Her clothes looked a little funny. She seems kind of a mess.”

Just then they heard an uneven note from outside. Through the window they could see the woman beginning to play.

“That’s just a nuisance. I’m calling the cops,” said Allen, and turned to go back into the office.

“What for? She’s not bothering anybody.”

“She’ll drive away the customers”

Diana was about to ask, “What customers?” but decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble. The woman had by then worked herself into a steadier note, although it couldn’t really have been called a tune. Diana set to work, beginning with the coffee for herself. Allen came out a few times to check on the horn player, who had managed to make a few dollars from some of the people passing by. The police hadn’t show up yet, or perhaps Allen had decided to take matters into his own hands. Diana watched as he went outside and began waving his arms at the woman.

She heard his muffled coercion. “You can’t play here like that. It’s too loud, and we’re trying to run a business. You can’t play here.”

He brought his bulky frame back inside, shoulders pulled back a little more for all the exertion of authority, and stood at the bar with his arms stretched out in front of him.

“That oughtta take care of it.”

Diana nodded while pulling bottles out of the rack one by one, wiping them off with a damp towel. The night bartenders just couldn’t seem to clean up after themselves. She looked past Allen through the window and saw that the woman had picked up her horn again. She gave out a quiet chuckle and Allen, thinking that it was meant in a sense of solidarity with him, started in again.

“I guess we don’t really need the cops. If she comes back let me know.”

“She’s still out there, Allen. She’s just not playing anything.”

The woman wasn’t playing anything, but she wasn’t just standing there either. She seemed to have embellished her presentation with a more visible sense of passion, even if the horn was silent. Her back was arched a little more, and occasionally she dropped one of her shoulders to put a little more effort into a note that never sounded.

Allen realized that his authority was being mocked, but wasn’t sure how to respond.

“Hopefully she’ll just go away soon. I’ll be in the back, but let me know if she starts playing again.”

“No problem. I’ll take care of her.”

No sooner had Allen turned the corner when the woman came back inside, holding out two hard-earned dollar bills and asking again for a cup of coffee. Diana indicated a place at the bar by setting up a cup and pouring it full. The woman put the horn on the bar beside her and leaned heavily on her left arm, holding a thick hedge of hair back and propping her head up at the same time. Diana noticed that her shirt was inside out, and when she came around the bar she saw that her jeans had been put on inside out as well. The front pockets lay limply down her hips, like floppy ears. She talked a little bit about being followed, which, considering Allen, was true enough, although it sounded like a story that had been told many times before. The face was tanned and grimy, and there was a fairly pungent smell about her as well. She had definitely spent the night outdoors.

Diana went back to the kitchen and poured a bowl of soup for her. After setting the soup down next to the coffee she went to the far end of the bar to make a phone call to a local shelter. After Diana briefly explained the circumstances, a woman on the other end of the line told her that they’d had a woman with a French horn hospitalized once already. This must be the same person. Diana asked her why the woman was back on the streets, but the woman on the other end of the line only promised that someone would be around in a few minutes to pick the woman up. Then she hung up. Diana hung up her own phone and watched the woman spooning soup into her mouth, which she had lowered to a point almost level with the bowl.

No sooner had Diana hung up the phone than Allen came out of the office. When he saw the woman at the bar he screwed up his eyebrows and clenched his face. ‘He can’t know how ugly he looks’, Diana thought, interrupting him before he could finish his first word.

“Relax Allen, I’ve already called the police.”

Allen sputtered for a few seconds and then turned around and went to check up on the servers in the dining room. It was close to 11:00 and the restaurant would be open for lunch soon. When it did, the French horn player was still at her place in the center of the bar. The instrument sat on the stool next to her, and the look of her clothes and probably the smell had caused a few of the customers to turn their heads. The woman herself was peaceful enough, occasionally sharing a few of her thoughts with Diana.

A man and a woman from the shelter showed up at around 11:15. The older women in a parka took the French horn player, arm in arm, and led her out the side door. The man confirmed that Diana had been the one to make the call. Diana let a few of the drink orders from the dining room pile up while she tried to find out what else there might be to the story.

“So you’ve seen her around before?”

“Yeah, but usually downtown. What she’s doing up this far I have no idea. It’s such a sad situation. We’ve taken her into the hospital a number of times, but after a day or two they just release her. They say that there’s nothing really wrong with her. They can’t afford to keep her, and she has no family to come and take care of her. So we take her in for a while, but she doesn’t really like it with us, and after a day or two she runs off by herself. I’m surprised she’s coming as peacefully as she is right now.”

“Why are her clothes inside out?”

“Probably a statement of some kind, but I’m not really sure. She says things like ‘The world is upside down!’, and the way she gets turned around so much, I think she’s actually on to something. She needs some serious help. We’ll do our best, but we’re just a temporary shelter for short-term cases. We’re really not equipped or staffed to take care of cases like hers.”

“Well thanks for coming by. My boss was throwing a fit.”

“It’s a normal reaction.”

“I guess so.”

“Thanks for calling.”

At that time of day there was usually some spillover when the dining room filled up. Not much in the way of drinks either, as fewer and fewer businessmen seemed to be having martinis with lunch. Or businesswomen. She usually had to pour a few dozen beers, but for the most part it was just a lot of diet cokes and coffee. The lunch rush was over by 1:30 or 2:00, and form then until 4:00 it was dead. During those hours she took over as the only server for any customers who came in later, helped out with any ordering that needed to be done, and did a lot of cleaning. It wasn’t especially hard work, but she did it thoroughly and consistently, and there was very little left for the evening shift to do except pour drinks.

At around 3:00 her regular customers began showing up. First was often Pete, consistently armed with a stock with new jokes. Many of these, of course, were bartender jokes, which Diana was only too happy to hear and then recycle for some of the other customers. Pete was one of her favorites. Somewhere in his late sixties, good looking, with thinning white hair combed straight back. Many customers came because they had crushes on her, which Diana encouraged up to a point, but she wasn’t sure she could say that about Pete. He played the part of surrogate father more than would-be suitor. Maybe it was all the same.

There weren’t many women who sat at the bar alone; it seems to be one of the few places left in the world where a division of the sexes was still naturally maintained. Not by mandate, of course, and not all the time, but for the most part it was just a fact that most of the customers were men. Her job could be done just as well by a man or a woman (there is no ‘glass ceiling’ when it comes to tending bar), and she wondered if there would be more female customers if the day bartender were a guy. Maybe, but there probably wouldn’t be many less men.

Pete came in as usual, took off his hat, put it on the bar beside him and unbuttoned the letterman-style jacket. Underneath the jacket he was wearing one of what he called his ‘retirement shirts’; this one was a bright blue Hawaiian print with large, tropical fish swimming across his chest, towards the buttons. He ordered a lager. After filling a pint jar she leaned against the bar in her usual manner, right hand on her hip.

“So how’s the day so far?”

“Good enough. Have you heard the CIA is hiring?”

“I can imagine.”

“Yeah, I guess they’re looking for assassins. It’s all hush-hush, of course, but they’ve been having people in for endurance tests, psychological profiles, that sort of thing.’”

“Really? Thinking you might come out of retirement?”

“Oh no, they’re tough. Recently they had three people get through the physicals and they were running them through the final round. After all of the background checks, interviews, and testing were done there were three finalists … two men and a woman. For the final test, the CIA agents took one of the men to a large metal door and handed him a gun.

“An agent said, ‘We must know that you will follow your instructions, no matter what the circumstances. Inside of this room, you will find your wife sitting in a chair. Kill her!’

“The man said, ‘You can’t be serious. I could never shoot my wife.’

“The agent said, ‘Then you’re not the right man for this job.’

“The second man was given the same instructions. He took the gun and went into the room. All was quiet for about five minutes. Then the man came out with tears in his eyes.

“‘I tried, but I can’t kill my wife.’

“The agent said, ‘You don’t have what it takes. Take your wife and go home.’

“Finally it was the woman’s turn. She was given the same instructions to kill her husband. She took the gun and went into the room. Shots were heard, one shot after another. They heard screaming, crashing, and banging on the walls. After a few minutes, all was quiet. The door opened slowly and there stood the woman.

“She wiped the sweat from her brow, and said, ‘This gun was loaded with blanks. I had to beat him to death with the chair.’

Diana couldn’t help but laugh, but at the same time gave him the ‘you-can’t-get-away-with-that-sexist-crap-in-here’ look. She’d given it to him before, and it was a general rule she held with him when it came to jokes about the sexes, or just sex. So she snapped him with the towel she was using to wipe the counter while pausing to think of something to say.

“Y’old codger, that’s something only someone from your generation could come up with.”

“Nah, any generation, you just have to have been married a few years.”

“Or a few times -”

“Oh, that hurts. Maybe you’ll like this next one better.”

“I’d have to.”

“Okay, but listen up,” he protested, shaking his head a little. “I can redeem myself here. This one’s a true story. Heard it from a guy I used to work with.”

“You mean that last one wasn’t true?”

“Probably is, but I heard it as a joke. So is this, but my friend swears it’s true. His son is a medical student over at Harborview; was doing a rotation in the Emergency Room. Some woman called in, fairly upset, because she found her young son eating ants. Of course he tells her that the ants aren’t harmful and there’d be no need to bring her daughter into the hospital. So she calmed down, and at the end of the conversation she happened to mention that she’d given her son some ant poison to eat in order to kill the ants. So he told her that she’d better bring her daughter in to the Emergency Room after all.”

Diana laughed harder this time, and more naturally. “No way! Gawd that’s funny. What are some of these parents thinking? If it’s true, I mean.”

They chuckled together for a moment. “I wish I had another to pay you back with, but I get all my best jokes from you, Pete.”

“Oh I know that, don’t worry about it. That’s all we retired folk do, just sit around and trade jokes. Better than war stories.”

“Well I appreciate that, Pete.”

And she did, too. She actually liked all her customers for what they were, but Pete was definitely one of her favorites. He drank the rest of his beer and smoked a cigarette, standing rather than sitting beside the bar, as was his habit. After a few minutes he stood up and put on his jacket. After zipping up the jacket he waved to Diana with his right hand holding the crown of his Mariners cap.

“Well, I’m off to look at lawn mowers.”

“Way to think ahead, Pete. I’ll see you next time then.”

Always light, always trying to make everybody laugh, that was Pete. But who picks up a new lawnmower in the middle of winter? Mulling it over, she picked up his glass and wiped the bar underneath it as she looked through the window. She saw him climb into the old pickup he always parked in the loading zone in front – it was a truck, after all, and the meter maids seemed to understand it belonged there.

Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    I'm beginning to enjoy the story more. Watch occasional unintentional repetition of words within paragraphs – you notice it if you re-read, especially if you read aloud. Also son or daughter taken to the hospital? Also, I think my uncle's version of the CIA joke is funnier.

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