Monday, October 19, 2009

moonshadow: novel excerpt

Now for a change of pace. Following is a brief except from my novel Moonshadow

Songs From the Wood

February 1975

My feet ached and my arm was beginning to stiffen from the weight of the heavy glass door. Every time I leaned into it, my bra strap slid off my shoulder, cutting into the top of my arm. My blouse tugged at the waistband of my pants. Less than four hours into my shift and already I was downright cranky.

Despite the bitter cold, the line waiting to get into the Back Bay Diner wrapped around the side of the building. With almost everyone having been ejected from a local bar at the 2 a.m. closing time, it wasn’t a particularly merry bunch either. They were cold, hungry and not in the mood to be put on hold. But they had little choice, as the Back Bay was one of the few eateries at the Jersey Shore open all night.

It was a normal Saturday night bar crowd for a mid-winter weekend. If it had been summer, the line would have snaked through the large parking lot swelled by Bennies, the locals’ name for summer-folk. Still, it was 2:45 a.m. and the crowd showed no signs of slacking off. They called me a hostess, although the duties on my 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift had more in common with that of a bouncer at a bar. I was the first woman to hold the job, and hold it I did.

The Back Bay was the nexus of the local Jersey Shore social scene, and with the drinking age at 18, the crowd was young and rowdy. The diner was a kind of a last chance saloon, with table-hopping in hopes of landing a bed partner as the rule. I often thought myself housemother to the world’s longest-running frat party. The place did have a few standards, though. Those who consistently dumped eggs on their waitress’ head, were particularly vulgar or refused to wear shoes would find themselves exiled. Since being banned from the joint put a fatal crimp in their social lives, I wielded more clout than my 5-foot 3-inch frame would suggest. Of course, this didn’t stop the line jumpers who were supposedly meeting people inside. By 3 a.m., playing the heavy got a bit old. I was glad I only had the role on weekends.

At 27, I had lived in Bay Harbor for seven years, having barely survived a brief marriage with one of its favorite sons. With Jeff gone, the kids and I lived in a converted summer bungalow within walking distance of the diner. I worked there on weekends, juggling college, kids and mountains of bills.

And so it was that night, business as usual. Then a young man in an olive green corduroy car coat, thick black hair falling across one brown eye, appeared at the door. As he pulled the glass door open, Susan, the formidable 6-foot tall red-haired cashier, drew her hand across her neck in an off-with-his-head motion, the signal that he was among the banned. I raised my arm to bar his entrance just as Susan realized she had mistaken him for one of his friends. He gazed down at me with disdain muttering “Yeah, right,” as he brushed past, a cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth like a character in an old World War II movie.

Obnoxious little punk, I thought. But I was shaken. In the few seconds his face paused inches from mine something happened. The oversized jacket and the mop of thick hair gave off a waif-like look that belied his arrogance. I wanted to grab his hair and throttle him. I wanted to grab his hair. It didn’t take me long to look forward to his coming in. He was always with his friends, of course, Frank, Marc or Warren. They would ask for the corner booth by the door, Don told me later, so he could watch me unobserved.

I did feel his eyes on me, however, the night Susan called the cops. It didn’t happen often because the management frowned on the practice and put a great deal of pressure on waitresses not to sign complaints against patrons, regardless of how drunk or obnoxious. But that night I had come to the aid of a green young waitress being hammered by four drunks in the corner booth across from Don and his friends.

“What’s the problem?” I asked the lead drunk.
“The fucking bitch messed up my order twice. I ordered over easy and these are hard as rocks.” He waved the plate under my nose. “She refuses to take them back again.”

I looked over at the waitress, who was shaking with anger and fighting back tears. I knew she hadn’t messed up the order, that he was too far gone to remember what he had said. I also knew she was afraid to take it back into the kitchen for a second time. Our head cook was a burly man with a foul temper who was not above throwing rejected plates of eggs at waitresses on just such occasions.

“Let me see what I can do.” As I reached for the plate, he made the mistake of grabbing my ass. That was enough for Susan.
Now, you don’t work at an all-night diner anywhere without getting to know local constabulary, so the sergeant and patrolman who answered the call were friends, especially Sgt. Robert Ryan who worked steady nights. He strutted over to the table, tapping his nine-man-flashlight—so named because he claimed he could take out nine men with its long, weighted handle—against the open palm of his left hand.

“You wanna tell me what’s going on,” he directed the biggest offender with a stern face. It wasn’t a question. “I understand you went beyond verbal abuse and got downright physical with this young lady.” He pointed the flashlight at me and shot me a dead serious look.

I stood off to the side and listened while the jerk rattled on, lying his guts out. But when he insisted I was flirting with him and welcomed the manhandling, I blew up.

“Donkey dust!” I screamed in his face before stomping off.
After seeing the men to their cars, Ryan came back into the diner and pulled me aside, placing one very large hand on each of my shoulders.

“Donkey dust! Donkey dust,” he exclaimed, waving his finger at me. “Here I am, trying to maintain a professional demeanor and your contribution is donkey dust! It’s a good thing you’re one of my favorite people or . . .” He made a fist and mockingly punched me in the face. We burst out laughing.

“So sorry, Bobby,” I gasped through my giggles. “I’ll do my best from now on to keep my colorful language to myself in these situations.”
As the name “Bobby” left my lips, I sensed Don’s eyes narrow. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see him hunched over the table, drawing down hard on a cigarette. Nobody, but nobody, called Ryan “Bobby.”

One weeknight I was filling in for a waitress working the counter, when Don and Marc stumbled in. At 3 a.m., the diner was almost deserted. Surprised to see me, the two settled in at my counter. They were the only customers, so we chatted as they drank cups of coffee and munched on fries with gravy. We started to gossip about one of the older waitresses who always gave me a hard time. As she walked out of the kitchen, I leaned in close. By then I was looking for excuses to breathe his air.

“Now, don’t look, but . . .” I hadn’t so much as muttered the “but” when, in perfect unison, the pair turned smartly to look in the forbidden direction. I was simultaneously mortified and delighted.
Without realizing it, we started looking for ways to touch each other, going so far as to engage in an arm wrestling match at 4:30 a. m. one blustery morning during the lull between drunks and railroad men.
“I bet I could take ya,” I bragged, making a show of sizing him up. As a young girl I had taken down guys twice my size. It was something about the way I was built, leverage seemed to be on my side. And I had learned how to use their own arrogance against them.

“You gotta be joking, woman,” he shot back with a snort.
“Oh, yeah. Wanna feel my muscle?” I said, cocking my arm. He leaned over and gave the obligatory squeeze.
“Not bad . . . for a chick,” he conceded with a shrug. “How much are you willing to put up?” He leaned back in the booth and took a hit off his ever-present Marlboro. “How about . . .” he blew several smoke rings, “you cook me dinner?”
“You’re on. What do I get if I win?”
“I take you out for dinner, at a real restaurant, not here . . . Deal?”

We squared off in the corner booth. At first I could tell he was toying with me, letting his arm fall off to the side. But when he had some trouble bringing it back upright, he realized I wasn’t a pushover and he might really lose. The smile slid from his eyes and was replaced by concentration. I fought hard, I really did. He beat me, though, fair and square.

“So, when’s dinner?”
“You really serious?”
“You really want to come to dinner?”
“You can cook, can’t you?”
“Of course I can cook,” I snapped, hesitating for a beat. “I tell you what. Here’s my number. You call me and we’ll arrange a time.”

Although I thought he was merely showboating for his friends, I took a napkin from the holder, borrowed a pen from Susan and scribbled my number down. I can see his face to this day, as he reached over the table to take the paper from my hand. He was grinning.

ps: If you'd like a look at the rest, I have a few copies available at a greatly reduced price.

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