The girl who used to wait tables at The Source

22 December 2018 07:47

The Source.

Cheeseburger, two glasses of red wine.

I first went to The Source in the early 1970s, when you could eat your alfalfa sprouts and avocado sandwich with a couple of the Beach Boys at a nearby table. The man who seemed to own it was tall and bearded and wore a white shift over white pants with a white turban. The muslin-clad waitresses padding around in their sandals, quiet and humble, as they delivered fruit and vegetable drinks. A few years later, I heard, there was some restlessness within this group of white-robed people which involved one of them being murdered.

But times changed, and the menu, which had been strict vegetarian, now, with a nod to commercial realities, also offered hamburgers, with or without cheese and guacamole or chili. In the early days, the place served only fruit juice drinks, good to go to when drying out, which I did once for fifteen or twenty days, ʻtil Pat and Ronee came over one night with a bottle of tequila.

But now The Source served red or white wine by the glass which went well with the salad and cheeseburger and carrot cake after.

Working there was a beautiful young waitress. Dark hair and eyes to match, with something in them of privacy or loneliness or resistance.

To be in the presence of beauty was enough, I thought. I watched her slim body as she went to put the order in, just a little jut of her buttocks in a skirt of light fabric, as she leant toward the kitchen hatch. She would bring the burger and put it on the table as if that duty was a reluctant one, not quite banging it on the table, but not gently either. And then sheʼd make her way to other tables, take orders and deliver them in the same barely gracious manner. I wanted, if only I could, to take her away from this place, which she seemed to signal, by her remove, was less than what she was, and her beauty at odds with her temporary station. I pegged her as a student or struggling actress, soon to make her mark. A t-shirt over a flat braless chest with little defiant nipples, and a face perfect in its proportion and symmetry, oval, young and guarded, the eyes clearly drawn with a slight uptilt, the small straight nose widening a little toward the nostrils, the mouth, soft with a pushed out lower lip, challenging and amused, except when she was delivering plates, of medium height, with no trace of coarseness in any part of her. Where was she from, I wondered, maybe San Francisco, the rebellion in her had a hint of, maybe, hippie parents, and one day, perhaps, the rebellion would be tamed, not without a fight.

I loved her but never spoke, nothing more than to order the burger and salad and the glass or two of wine, once the place had got a license. I was surprised at my shyness, which I thought long-vanished, and she did not encourage connection.

Iʼd read my book and occasionally catch her eye, but she wouldn’t hold the look for even a beat. Once I saw her smile at another waitress at the serving hatch and it was dazzling, teeth as white as cocaine.

This went on for a few weeks and then I left town for some while, and, when I came back and went again to The Source, she wasn’t there.

‘Is that dark girl here anymore?’ I asked a waitress whoʼd been there before, as though I had an interest in the comings and goings of the people who worked in the little joint.

‘Which dark girl?’ she asked, as though riffling through a mind file of dark girls who didn’t work there anymore.

‘The dark girl. The one who didn’t talk very much.’ The perfect dark girl, my mind said.

‘Cindy?’

‘Maybe.’

‘If itʼs Cindy, sheʼs not here anymore. Lettuce and tomato with that?’

Another person Iʼd wanted to know and now never would.

And then I went away again and then came back, on this evening, to The Source because it served wine and the simple food was good and not expensive.

I sat down and ordered and looked around and there, at another table, talking to a waitress from her time there, was the girl with the dark hair. We were seated so we faced each other across the small covered patio. She noticed me and this time she did not break our look but held it, as if trying to place me in her memory, and then she turned back to the other girl to continue their quiet conversation.

I got my hamburger and glass of wine and chewed carefully so there wouldn’t be any food detritus in my teeth, in case I found a way to talk to her.

The waitress from the other table stood up to go back on her shift, leaving the girl – Cindy? – alone with a mug of coffee or tea, which she looked into as if it held an answer to a question sheʼd silently asked. She raised her eyes and looked at me and stood up and seemed to be making her way to where I sat.

‘Did you used to come here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I thought I knew your face from somewhere and figured it maybe was from here.’

‘From here, yes.’

‘I used to work here and I remember youʼd come in with a book and always order a hamburger with lettuce and tomato and have a glass of wine, or sometimes two. You never said much.’

‘No, probably not.’

Why hadn’t I said much, I kicked myself. Not to not say much again, I said,

‘My nameʼs Michael.’

‘Alice.’

‘I thought your name was Cindy.’

‘Why would you think that?’

‘I came in once and didn’t see you and asked if you were still here and the waitress said you were gone and your name was Cindy.’

‘Cindy was the fat girl and one thing I’ve never been is fat.’

Nor was she now, if anything thinner, the collar bones a little more pronounced.

‘Do you want to sit down?’

‘No, itʼs okay.’

I was afraid she would go.

‘You’ve come back to see old friends?’

‘I was just near. I was out of town. Up in the Bay Area for a while and then I had to come to L.A. and I was near and wanted a cup of tea.’

‘Would you like a glass of wine?’

‘I don’t drink.’

‘Oh?’

‘I don’t mind it; I just don’t anymore.’

A time in the wilderness which I knew nothing about, a drinking and drugging time, I surmised.

‘I never drank much anyway.’

‘The way you were brought up?’

‘In a roundabout way.’

‘How roundabout?’ seeking an intimacy of some kind.

‘Just at home.’

So hard to figure out, small clues, but nothing for my detective to grab onto, unless I wanted to be pushy.

‘At home?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you sure you don’t want to sit down, even if you don’t want a glass of wine?’

‘No, I’m okay.’

‘Even if I’m ordering a cup of coffee and I’ll be here a little longer?’

‘Okay, I’ll sit down.’

She, opposite me now, and maybe, I thought, for the first time ever, maybe.

‘Why’d you come here?’

‘I told you. I just wanted to have a cup of tea. I know most of the girls here.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant originally, in the first place.’

‘Just to leave home.’

‘Nothing else? Actress, model, doctor, lawyer?’

‘There are plenty of lawyers and doctors.’

I ordered a cup of coffee and tea for her. She smiled at the waitress who thought she might have been Cindy and said thanks when it arrived.

Her face, though young, had something timeless about it. I put it down to the organization of her features and the way we see beauty in the western world, the proportions perfect, as if from an earlier time. Head, hair framing, the cut didn’t matter, although shorter than before, arched eyebrows, the eyes, they were blue. Iʼd always thought, from before, that they were brown, to match her hair, but no, they were blue going to violet, the nostrils slightly haughty, and the full lower lip, the one above a bit more stern than Iʼd remembered.

‘So you didn’t want to be a doctor?’ I teased.

‘No. I just came here to try my luck, to see what it might be, my luck. I did have some acting auditions, but I didn’t get any jobs. Well, one. I got hired to be in a cheesy movie. Someoneʼs girlfriend. Nudity. Only topless, but I wasn’t hired again.’

‘Why?’

‘Small tits.’

‘Small tits are nice.’

‘I suppose some people think so.’

‘I do.’

‘Thatʼs unusual.’

She sipped her tea.

I wanted to be cautious and beware of anymore discussion of body parts, in case it would alarm her. As I pondered where to go next, she spoke.

‘You always seemed interesting.’

‘How so?’

‘Reading.’

‘Do you like reading?’

‘I always wanted to, but I didn’t do it much.’

‘Maybe the wrong books. Start with the easy ones.’

‘I did.’

‘Maybe I could suggest a few.’

‘I canʼt concentrate.’

‘Isnʼt that giving up a bit quickly?’

‘No, I mean now. I can’t concentrate.’

‘Oh,’ not wanting to make her feel bad for not being able to concentrate.

‘What do you like?’ I asked.

‘I like drawing.’

‘Drawing’s good. What kind of things do you like to draw?’

‘Flowers, sometimes.’

‘Flowers?’

Something sentimental in that, I thought, but that didn’t matter. I said I knew of people who drew flowers.

‘Yes?’

‘Manet, near the end of his life, drew or, rather, painted perfect small portraits of lemons or flowers, roses. Chrysanthemums.’

‘How do you spell that?’

‘Chry – san…’

‘No. Maneh.’

‘M-a-n-e-t.’ I spelt it, but with thinking pauses, as though I, too, wasn’t sure how to spell it, so as not to make her feel bad about spelling, or Manet.

‘Iʼll look out for him.’

‘Most of the ones Iʼm thinking of are in Paris.’

‘You’ve been there?’

‘Once or twice.’

‘I always wanted to travel.’

‘You’ve travelled,’ I said tenderly. ‘The Bay Area, Los Angeles.’

‘That’s not traveling. That’s getting away.’

‘But you went back?’

‘I had to. My Motherʼs there.’

‘You get on with your Mother?’

‘I had to. Why did Manet do flowers?’

‘He was sick. He had syphilis. In those days, no cure. He was dying, but he couldn’t stop, but he could only paint small canvases. He didn’t have the strength for anything bigger. He couldn’t concentrate for too long,’ I finished, smiling, including her in not being able to concentrate with the great French artist.

‘I understand how he must have felt.’

Her sympathy was bridging a century or so, and I was glad to be educating her about one of my favorite artists.

‘Bay Area, Los Angeles, Bay Area. Have you had a chance to go many other places?’

‘Burbank.’

‘Burbank?’

‘I flew into Burbank this time. It was cheaper.’

How does she manage, what does this beautiful girl do about money?

‘I needed to come here. And so I came in as cheap as I could.’

‘Why?’

‘Why what?’ she asked with the smallest hint of exasperation.

‘I didn’t mean “why” like that, just why did you have to come here?’

‘I just did.’ She looked into her cup, as she’d done at the other table.

Something had changed and I didn’t want it to. I was talking to her now, starting to get to know, however slightly, this perfect beauty.

‘How long will you be here?’

‘As long as I have to, although maybe not too long. The insurance has just about run out.’

‘Insurance?’

‘I didn’t have any from waitressing. My mother had her insurance, I was included, but it’s almost gone.’

‘Why do you need insurance?’

‘Iʼm not as young as I was, I guess.’

She said this with no blitheness, but rather as a hard fact, and not just a commonplace expression of a regular fact.

‘How old are you?’

‘Twenty-two.’

‘Twenty two? Thatʼs nothing,’ I said from my vantage point in time, 20 years older and a bit.

‘Itʼs old enough.’

‘Why do you say that? What do you mean?’

Outside, the Los Angeles evening which had been a little grey and darkening when I came in, now started to fulfill its promise slipping a few tears of rain onto the outside pavement.

‘Twenty-two is plenty old.’

‘Itʼs just at the beginning.’

I spoke with some force because itʼs what I believed.

‘Beginning?’

‘Yes, just the start of your life,’ I said, to counteract a kind of melancholy I felt had developed in her, and twenty-two was too young for that, more appropriate for someone my age, or older.

Again she looked exasperated.

‘I had a brain tumor.’

‘A brain tumor.’

‘Yes, they cut it out. Thatʼs why my hairʼs shorter. They shaved it, but itʼs grown back. It was much longer when I worked here.’

I remembered, but had put her new cut down to stylishness.

‘Do you remember?’ she asked, with something in her tone which was pressing.

‘Of course I do. But itʼs nice this way too.’

‘Not my choice.’

‘And…?’

‘And, I donʼt know. Thatʼs why Iʼm here. A different hospital. Theyʼll do something again. Theyʼre not sure if itʼs come back or not, or if itʼs just some scar tissue. My mother heard it was better at the place here. And so I came down.’

‘Did she come too?’

‘No. Itʼs hard for her to travel.’

‘Oh,’ not wanting to go further into what was her history, and maybe a bad one at that.

My heart wasn’t bold anymore.

How is it we think we know or understand a new person, and then find that her past and present, and secrets and private turmoils and griefs, are not what weʼd ever expected, and what can happen to beauty, of face or body, or mind, and how can we ever heal it, or kiss it better, and how, if weʼre not truly close, intimate, might we want to absent ourselves from it?

She picked up her cup and finished her tea.

‘Well,’ she said, ‘Iʼd better be going. Iʼm staying with the girl I was talking to, and sheʼs getting off soon. Iʼll say goodnight.’

She rose and put out her hand to shake. I stood and shook her hand.

‘Donʼt look so worried. Iʼll be fine, really, Iʼm sure. Iʼm young, like you said.’

She balled her fist and gave me a sharp punch on my right arm. And for the first time, she smiled. Her teeth were small and even, but there was something worryingly grey to the enamel, but she was still beautiful.

She went to stand at the kitchen hatch with her friend. I gestured for the check. The friend brought it. I paid and left a generous tip on the modest amount, even with the wine and extra tea.

As I went into the street with the light drizzle, I put my hand up, as a wave, to the girl with the dark hair and the blue violet eyes. She was not looking my way.

I went back to The Source once or twice more, but never saw her again, and found another place to eat, although I often thought of the handshake – her hand, without weight, the bones as thin as a chickenʼs, and as evident and sad as those of someone very old.

© Michael Lindsay-Hogg