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ADELAIDE Independent Monthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Mensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

REFUSE
by Kevin Haslam

 

From a small table next to the window, Maggie felt the warmth in her freckled cheeks disappearing. Her eyes floated in their sockets as she probed the dining room for the waitress. When Maggie’s squint hit upon the server, she attempted to flag her down by brandishing her teacup. The waitress disappeared behind the swinging kitchen doors without taking notice. Why isn’t she looking at me? She nudged her tortoiseshell framed glasses up the bridge of her nose and swatted the strawberry blonde frizz from her forehead. Her teacup laid empty for several minutes, and her composure was crumbling bit by bit. Agnes, Maggie’s four-year-old daughter, was unaware of her mother’s agitation. She fidgeted with a clean white napkin that provided her endless amusement in tandem with the clanking cutlery. Agnes was the mirror image of her father, but Maggie found no consolation when she looked into her daughter’s faultless eyes.

The chaos of thought bludgeoned Maggie’s senses. Through each industrious row of Manhattan skyscrapers, she watched as the brunch crowd came and went. Most of them were families with several overlapping areas of pretension. It was a raw, oppressive winter two years removed from Hitler pressing a service pistol against his temple. Each steel tower and glass facade, seen by some as monuments to post-World War II prosperity, forced these families to hold firm their hats, stare down their breath, and come face to face with the reflections of a new world. These reflections remained motionless, and like the frozen puddles sprawled across the concrete, nothing bloomed beneath.

Maggie had a direct line of sight to the second floor of the restaurant. The hostess at the base of the stairs smiled mechanically at each patron who found refuge from the stinging wind in the form of brunch. She wore a long charcoal dress like the robe of a judge, holding up the proper number of fingers to signal the available seating and slamming her hand down like a gavel when the message was received. Maggie was hypnotized by the hostess’ conviction when her attention was suddenly diverted by a curt exchange between a young man dressed all in white, whom she presumed to be a busboy and another waitress whose bitter disposition showed either a poor attitude or a lack of satisfactory tips.

“We’re all outta champagne, doll,” he said.
“What the hell do you want me to do about it?” she replied.
“Well,” he paused, “don’t go offering it is all.”
Maggie was trying to focus on the pale, anxious eyes of the young man when her waitress appeared. She glared at Maggie’s teacup.
“Can I offer you another?” she asked.
Maggie met the blooming verdict in the waitress’ eyes head on.
“Yes—go get me another.”
“Have you decided on anything to eat?” she asked.
“Yes. My daughter will have the chopped egg salad sandwich, and I’ll have—” Agnes interrupted her mother with a shrill whining cry.
“Nooooo. I don’t want egg samwitches.”
“Sandwich, Agnes. Sand—wich. What do you want then? Hmm?”
“Banana Split!”
Maggie’s left palm stroked her right temple and her forehead ran parallel to the floor. Her movements were a perturbed genuflection to patience. For six months she had saved up for this tiny little retreat. Agnes spent most of her time in the care of her obligated grandmother. Maggie’s wages were the only thing keeping the three of them afloat. She wasn’t aware if Agnes was always difficult with food, but she remembered the times when the child’s bawling pleaded for it.
“Give us a few more minutes.”
Agnes let out a hand-covered giggle.
“Mommy, are you gonna have anothuh cuppuh grasshoppers? Ewwwww.” She giggled once more and returned to her napkin, this time fashioning a doll whose spine was constructed from a teaspoon.
“I’ll be right back with your grasshop—I mean tea,” the waitress said with a smirk.
“Fine,” Maggie said, as the waitress turned again. The waitress had a youthful bounce in her gait that Maggie both longed for and loathed. Maggie’s stare scorched the back of the waitress’ black woolen dress as she walked toward the empty bar area. She imagined her own work clothes being sprinkled with champagne, sweet confections, and delicate cheeses rather than their customary spattering of entrails and crimson juices.

Every morning the waitresses lined up for inspection. Two stories above Park Avenue at 18th, the owner’s son fussed over every detail of their appearance and demanded superbly pressed uniforms. Each waitress dressed in a corresponding black outfit. Their well-starched ivory collars and petite pearl aprons provided the only embellishment that distinguished their garb from that of a widow’s dress. Most of them were Irishwomen “right off the boat,” an expression popular with the sundown cocktail crowd. The only splashes of color allowed in their attire were their curly ginger locks. Those who did not pass the daily inspection were treated as refuse and thrown out for the day. For most, this would entail a pilgrimage back over the bridge to the Vinegar Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. No wages were allotted for their effort.

She clung to her unfilled cup and wondered what the waitress’ name was. It was never mentioned, and name tags were not considered proper to the oppressive son of the owner. She knew the waitress didn’t have the nickname “mommy.” Maggie suspected her name might be “Debra” or “Alice.” She suspected that they were all named “Debra” or “Alice.” Her mother had given her the name Magdalene, but her father had always called her “Maggie.” She still condemned herself each time she didn’t see her father’s image in her mind’s eye, but she could always hear his husky Irish brogue calling out to her. He died when she was four-years-old leaving only her nickname, fragmented memories and a lifelong burden for her mother.

“Mommy?”
Maggie closed her eyes as if suspended in a fixed blink. She took the longest breath of her life and pushed up her glasses. When she raised her eyelids, she turned towards her daughter.
“What is it, Agnes?”
“Did Daddy eva go to matnay?”
“Matinee, Agnes. That’s the proper way to say it. Mat—In—A. Why are you asking me that? Huh? I don’t know. No. No, Daddy never went to a matinee. Okay?”
“Did Daddy think Donnel Duck was a silly willy? I think Donnel Duck is a silly willy.”
“I said he never went to a matinee, Agnes. Okay? Now, what do you want to eat? Hmm? We will not keep doing this. So, I will get you a hamburger. Yes. You will eat a hamburger. Do you understand?”
Agnes’ father had been the center of Maggie’s world before the war. She loved him without exception and accepted his proposal of marriage before he could even finish the question. Agnes was growing in Maggie’s belly when he slept his first night east of the Belgian–German border. He used his bloodless hands to dig a shallow trench in the frozen Hürtgen Forest soil. Maggie believed he could do nothing short of walking on water, but not all deities returned from the war.
The waitress attempted to place the crème de menthe filled teacup down on the table, but Maggie snatched it in mid-air. Her displeasure with waiting on Maggie was only slightly perceptible behind her crooked smile.
“Have we decided?”
“Yes. I’ll have the Chicken-a-La-King and my daughter will have a hamburger.”
Maggie was frustrated into a fury when she heard the “Noooooooo” burst out of Agnes’ unruly little lips.
“I don’t wanna hambrrugaaaaah!”
“Dammit, Agnes! You will eat the goddamned hamburger or no matinee. Do you understand? That’s it.”

The waitress stood impassively in the wake of Maggie’s outburst, but her patience was wavering and her scrutiny of Maggie intensifying.

After Agnes’ birth, Maggie got charged with stealing an apple from a Bleecker Street pushcart. She told the policeman who arrested her she had no money, her baby was starving, and she too was deprived of food; however, the merchant wouldn’t drop the charges because he didn’t want the neighborhood shoppers to think he was “duck soup to steal from.” The prosecuting attorney aimed for the maximum penalty of thirty days in jail and a $15.00 fine. Maggie’s wayward mother paid double the fine instead of jail time and offered to share her pocket-sized apartment. As penance to her mother, Maggie stood in for all of her shifts at the neighborhood butcher shop mopping up trim offs and shoveling sawdust onto blood pools. There were few positions available for someone from their neighborhood, especially for women, and her mother knew it. Maggie could not refuse.

“Perhaps another few minutes,” the waitress said. Maggie fixed her gaze down towards the carpet, gritted her teeth, and never separated them when she reiterated her order.
“I will have the goddamned Chicken-a-La-King and she will have a hamburger. Do you understand? Now, bring me another one and put it in a teacup again.”
“But you haven’t even finished this one. Besides, we’re all out of the crème de menthe for your grasshoppers. That’s the last of it.”
“What do you mean you’re all out?”
“I mean we have no more. The bartender just tossed the empty bottle.”

“Then why did you offer it in the first place? Don’t go goddamned offering it if you know it will run out. Do you understand me? You can’t offer me something and then just take it away. That’s not how things work,” Maggie said. Why is she looking at me like that? Her trembling hands inched upward as if hailing the angels to bear witness. “I was offered a life once. And now I pull the covers over my daughter alone. Every night alone. I’ve pulled those bed sheets over my daughter’s shoulders hundreds and hundreds of times alone. I said yes to his offer inside a hollow, frigid church. I waved at him from the shore and smiled like all the other idiots. We all gathered together there along the gates. Each one of us dressed in our tailored chiffon coats. Our hip bows and floating scarves whipping one another senseless. And when the first whistle blew, I didn’t dare to rip him off that ship. I threw my carnations into the air like all the other wives. I smiled. I waved. And I watched those flowers fall into the water and drown. Do you understand what I’m saying to you? No more. Get me another cup. Go get me another. Get it!”

“Please, keep your voice down. I’m sorry. Really, I am. I’m not trying to upset you here. Honest. I’m just letting you know the crème de menthe is all gone. There’s nothing I can do about that. How about I get you something—”

“Get it! Go find some. I don’t care how you do it. Pull it out of a top hat for all I care. Go knock on every door in goddamned France. Storm the beaches of Normandy again if you have to! Are you hearing me, Debra? Hmm?”

“I­—I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry. We just have none left. And my name’s not—”

“You don’t know what to say? For starters, stop telling me there’s nothing left. You’re not in a position to say no. I’m not one of your matching outfit dimwits. You fill the cup; I empty the cup. That is the order of things. See? You don’t get to take my cup away. Do you hear me? I will not be denied, Alice. You’re not the judge and jury. You’re not the gatekeeper. All of you clones putting food on every table beside your own. None of you are the gatekeepers. See? The gate is blown to hell and you’re the goddamned debris! Are you listening? I will not be made smaller. Never again. Not by you or anyone else. I will not be drowned out!”

As Maggie fluttered in anger, her glasses fell down her nose, ricocheted off of Agnes’ napkin doll and came to rest somewhere on the floor. The murmuring of the brunch crowd came to an abrupt halt. The varied nature of judgment was a wondrous thing that immersed everyone. Every eyeball in the restaurant transfixed on Maggie. Her furor ceased.

Capitalizing on the momentary distraction, the waitress folded the bill and laid it down on the table next to the teacup. Maggie pressed her moist fingers flush against her scalp and watched as a blurry silhouette of the waitress backpedaled away from the table. Her wedding ring felt cold against her skin. She could make out the dull outline of the hostess pointing toward her with just one index finger uplifted. Maggie knelt down, slunk her head underneath the tablecloth and crawled around on all fours groping about for her glasses. She nodded her head as if she agreed with something or someone else beneath the table.

Before Maggie could entrench her fingers in the carpet fibers and find her bearings, Agnes jumped down from her chair to help her mother—the deafening “crunch” displaced the air in her warm, sticky lungs.

 

 

Aboutbthe Author:

Kevin Haslam is a writer and communications professional. He was a paint salesman before shifting to writing where he earned an M.A. in English at Morehead State University. He resides in Cranston, Rhode Island with his wife, two boys, and Daisy Buchanan—a Saint Bernard who indeed can be located in the tub on most occasions­. Kevin can be found at www.KevinHaslamAuthor.com

 

 

 

 

 

     
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