by kathleen maher
pictures by rhoda penmarq
At eighteen I lived in New Mexico and waitressed at a creperie, although the menu included huevos rancheros and even bagels. I lived on tips, barely managing to pay my fourth of the rent.
Leroy, the cook, sometimes liked me and sometimes not. I needed him to like me. Because if he forgot my order or covered the crepes with thick, unheated cheese sauce, the customers blamed me.
My memory for who ordered what with which never faltered. In one hand I could balance eight beverages on a tray and in the other carry four full plates.
Leroy liked my “look at me” attitude. Customers admired my “hustle.”
When my tips ran scant, Leroy nudged the sombreroed owner, deconstructing pie-a-la-mode in the corner, to pay me the difference. The owner and Leroy shared a venture in auto parts. Leroy bragged about being a local racketeer.
“You mean raconteur?”
“So now you’re French, CeCe?”
“Raconteur is a storyteller. Racketeer is an extortionist.”
In hindsight, that’s probably when he didn’t like me: when I corrected his vocabulary.
“Forget storyteller,” he said. Leroy had stature--big man about town.
What he meant was that he and his buddies were rich builders, hot shots.
Sometimes, when he liked me, he invited me to accompany him to their haciendas. Because, he said, they liked guys with pretty, young girlfriends.
At these places, several pretty girls always lolled around a swimming pool. Beautiful rooms, great music, usually a garden. If Leroy invited me, I accepted.
One hot afternoon he had business with Geoff. “Wanna come, CeCe? Has to be right after work.”
Ordinarily I stopped at home, changed into a sundress, and grabbed a bathing suit.
That day Leroy didn’t have time to spare. So I hopped inside his four-wheel drive along with another “racketeer,” Chet.
Leroy drove really fast. Bald, fat Chet ranted so much his spit flew. Then he paused, sizing me up. “She ain’t a safe bet, Leroy. Geoff said just us--remember?”
Leroy glanced back at me, grimy from work and silly in the degrading prairie dress waitress’s uniform. “CeCe, we’re letting you out.”
He sped off the highway. The jeep bounced, flying across the desert. Grit in the air stung my skin. “Out?” I asked. “Out where?”
“Where you won’t get in trouble.” Leroy and Chet snickered. The jeep flew off road for half an hour, thereabouts. Then Leroy forced me out. I was too stunned to register them driving away.
Alone in the vast flatness like another planet, I didn’t dare panic. I didn’t dare anything. Red dirt surrounded me without interruption for as I far as I could see. No rocks or tumbleweed, no bleached wood or bones. Nothing but unchanging horizon, 360 degrees.
If I screamed, my voice would not register. If I moved, the air wouldn’t stir. I was lost in a void. Lost, I believed, forever.