Some waiters are serving life sentences. Everyone knows who's more hurt than they are, everyone knows who's going to break next. When someone falls off the wagon, they might show up anyway, they might stumble through their side work and hope the manager doesn't notice their shaking hands.

Of course, managers can fall off too. The day I went looking for a job, George was in his first week as general manager and three days into a bender that didn't stop to sleep. He lifted his cheek from the marble countertop, and hired me. I'd never waitressed before. My first night the owner sent George home to sleep off the booze. One waiter, Bobby, made sure I was doing alright. He recited me an autobiographical limerick: "There once was a man from Pawtucket…"

Kristin lit a menthol in the parking lot behind the restaurant. Exhaling into the late summer air, she scoffed, "Bobby? He's a cokehead and he has a kid. Stay away from that, sweetheart."

When the night's done and the people are gone, the rules change, the music comes on, uniforms fall off, bottles are momentarily pilfered from behind the bar while the GM's downstairs sliding his fingers down rows of numbers on credit card print outs. One waiter, Kevin, passed us all shots of Jack - me, Bobby, Chah-lie the Portagay, bobble-headed baby-faced Alan and little Mikey the busser with dark circles under his eyes. We clocked out. We made it to Hot Club down on the water, where it smells like fish and brown liquor. Bobby offered me a ride home and I accepted.

I awoke and passed my eyes over his body. His skin was summer-tanned and taut. He had clean features and hair so blonde it was nearly invisible. His eyes were slate blue, mythic, the sort of eyes everyone notices. "Have you ever looked into his eyes, it was like the first time I heard the Beatles," Kevin joked, quoting Superbad.

Bobby kept his hand tight on my thigh. "I hate that, when people say I'm a cokehead," he said, "I had a phase when I did a lot of drugs, when I didn't care about anything." He said he was going to be a firefighter soon, so I told my cautious, well-brought-up friends that I was dating a firefighter.

When he'd pull up to my apartment to pick me up, he'd turn on his emergency lights and lean on the horn. I'd come out and he'd be holding the passenger door ajar for me, yelling "Get in the cah!" He insisted on paying, always had a few hundred in twenties folded in his pocket. Once, as we were crossing a puddle-strewn parking lot, he thrust his arm in front me holding me back, and mimed throwing his jacket over the water so I could safely cross. After we made love, he'd shake my hand and introduce himself: "Hi, I'm Bob."

But the bouncers and spinners at clubs and pool halls called him "Cyph." One of the grill chefs at work, ("Matt, call me Splat") had known Bobby since kindergarten, and called him Cyph too.

Tagging's tough, he explained, you only get one try: one bad stroke and the whole piece loses its cred. You gotta be fast, fearless, you gotta wear big pants if you want to steal six bottles of spray paint at a time. He drove me into areas bordered by chain-link and rebar to show me his graffiti, pointing out murals and telling me the stories of the street artists who'd been there, as if interpreting runes of an English dialect I cannot read.

He showed me his portfolio, P olaroids of the letters C-Y-P-H sprayed twenty-feet long on the sides of boxcars and overpasses. The snapshots were ordered chronologically: he grew from a tough adolescent, to a handsome twenty-something, then his hairline receded slightly. A photo of his daughter fell out at the end, onto the hardwood floor. I didn't want to snoop, I put it back in the album. He is an artist, I told myself.

I told Kevin everything. Kevin lived a few doors down from me, worked lunch and brunch with me. He'd puff-puff the hollowed filter of a Parliament Light and light it. He was a sweet, self-proclaimed-wop with a chinstrap beard. He behaved more like a mayor than a waiter. He spoke in catchphrases, shook hands, asked folks how they were doing tonight. He was deep into a quarter-life breakdown, had moved back to Providence and taken a waitering job to prove he was worth less than his mechanical engineering degree, which he had decided would never be used. He carried valium on his key ring, but never took it. He would remove his glasses during a shift when he didn't want to know how slowly, or quickly, time was passing. He called me "doll," and confirmed that "Bob-o is a good guy." I was more comfortable around Kevin than Bobby.

There was a girl in Italy who Kevin was in love with. She was going to come back for Christmas, he said, and then he'd tell her how much he loved her.

In Cranston, at three a.m., I recorded back-up vocals for one Bobby's friends' hip-hop tracks. Encased in a padded booth and headphones, I riffed I just can't get over you over and over. I could see Bobby in the lounge, sketching out the insignia he planned to tag on the studio wall for Kato. Kato's his head of cornrows rocked with religious fervor when he mixed, his fingers flying over knobs. He pulled my voice onto a screen and dissected it, strained it, made it into something I'm not. The basement studio was buried in the concrete of what had once been a mill, a place of controlled strain and silence.

We climbed from the basement and Bobby pulled his low-riding Honda onto I-95. Ninety, one-hundred, one-hundred-ten. I clutched the strip of cloth across my torso, and didn't say a word. I saw oncoming bends of the road like tidal waves, calm at a distance, crushing at approach.

We got to my place and he said he should probably just drop me off. I wanted to argue with him, convince him to spend the night with me.

He used my bathroom, came out clutching a plastic bag of powder.

"Brunch is hell," Kevin said stamping out the first cigarette of the morning. I'd been up until dawn yelling at Bobby in my mind.

And the weeds came - it's a term that only waiters know. It's when your hands are scooping ice into another pitcher but your body forgets that it's yours, when you can feel the eyes of every person who wants something that you cannot give them -the chicken that's undercooked, the dressing was supposed to be on the side, the table that wants to chat - and at that moment a chef calls you retarded and a bottle of Heinz shatters red onto the floor and somebody asks if you can break a hundred and you fantasize about stripping off your apron and walking out the door, perhaps into oncoming traffic, because there is no conceivable way that anyone could save you from the awfulness that is this job.

"Like death, the weeds must ultimately be faced alone," Kevin said. I suppose it is like what someone must feel as their mortality swirls inside an erring vehicle, or a body of water sucks them under, or, crouched in a bathroom stall they wish the could re-locate sobriety. Or when you realize he's not just a rapper, he's a dealer. And he's not just a waiter or a tagger he's -

"What are you doing?" Bobby called and asked.

"Reading a book."

"You're wicked smart."

Bobby first took me to his house in the dead of the night. He'd said he had two roommates, but by roommates he meant parents. In the big box windows facing the street his mother had constructed an elaborate scene with miniature trick-or-treaters and papier-m̢ch̩ jack-o-lanterns that flickered with electric bulbs all night long. In the morning he warmed my clothing in the dryer, to protect my skin against the cold air in his childhood room.

Nights became this, whispering beneath the drone of his parents' snores. There were two lace-doily-draped sofas, but we'd share one, pelvis pressed to pelvis, watching TV until five or six. I'd think about how I had class at 10:30, but wouldn't mention it to him.

"My mom made all the curtains," he told me. They matched the lampshades. She was once almost Miss Rhode Island, but his father had not let her compete. For weeks I didn't meet his parents, but smelled their menthols and knew the sounds of their sleeping.

One night I was working the booths in the back and Bobby walked in with his little girl. I watched them walk through and sit in my section. I filled a water pitcher and walked over and said hi to them, wearing a voice that was both waitress and coworker, girlfriend and adult around child. She wore a small pink coat, which he took off tenderly and set alongside her on the booth. He ordered her salad with chicken fingers, cut up her food small, told her to sit up straight. They both colored on table's white paper. He tagged C-Y-P-H over and over on the table, and she scribbled messes.

"Starry, say hello," he told her. She was beautiful.

"I've been an insta-daddy once too," Kevin told me over a pitcher at Minerva's (not a great place, but Kevin liked to go there to sweetly accost the girl who took phone orders, his attention obviously rousing her monotonous nights. "How's my favorite Portuguese lady?" he'd ask. She was square nosed but otherwise not unattractive, she would blush). His tone hinted at the fact that he sympathized with me, but he spoke as if becoming an insta-parent is a phase everyone goes through, and I needed to get over myself.

His ex in Georgia had two daughters. He referred to her as "the best lay I ever had." He always gave titles to the girls he'd had: there was "the most beautiful girl in the world," "the only girl I ever loved," "the best girl I'll ever get." He talked about the girl in Italy every day, referred to her as "the girl I'm gonna marry." Sometimes I thought that the girl in Italy did not really exist.

Starry, Bobby and I went to Wal-Mart so I could buy white button downs from the little boy's section, size 16 for $15. White shirts quickly soak up wine, aioli and ink; we all went through them like toilet paper. Starry and I strolled the aisles together, she slipped her tiny hand in mine. One morning I awoke and realized that during the night she'd climbed into our bed.

The Minerva's waitress insisted she was hardly Portuguese; the furthest she'd been away from Rhode Island was Virginia once. Bobby had taken exactly two flights in his life - one to Vegas, for his honeymoon, and one back. Starry had a t-shirt that said Las Vegas. The timeline was never clear to me, but for three months he and his ex-wife had been married. I knew, too, that has wife had been a stripper. It seemed unlikely now that he'd ever take a flight again, "because of the baby." He always referred to Starry as "the baby," even though she was almost four.

Starry danced with silly rolling eyes to songs in her head. She was proud of her naked belly-button and ran room to room before bath time. She demanded we watch her talent shows, that we play grocery store, that she have one gumball now and one gumball later. She had long mermaid locks and her eyes pooled with tears when he brushed them.

For three days Bobby's parents went out of town and I saw his house during daylight. We rose with Starry jumping on the bed, made Folgers and eggs downstairs. He poured her milk instead of juice and she sobbed irrationally. He ironed while she and I watched Curious George. He pulled her little jeans onto her and remarked that she was getting big.

Every time he dropped her at his ex-wife's mother's house for the remainder of the week, she cried. She was very in love with Bobby. Sometimes I felt she was jealous of me. Other times I realized that there was no way he would ever love any girl as much as he loved her.

And then he stopped answering my calls, stopped calling me back. Every minute I would invent another reason to call him, to see if he answered this time. What was the word Rhode Islanders use for submarine sandwich?

I came to Kevin upset. "What'd you expect?" he said, but his tone was sympathetic. "You're young," he said. He called himself "nearly-thirty," though he was barely twenty-five: "Staring down thirty like it's a barrel of a gun." He'd say.

"Cocaine is a marvelous drug," Kevin said. Kev couldn't do blow for the same reason he couldn't work nights: the panic attacks. Every once in a while when we were out, having a fine time, he'd suddenly turn to me and ask if we could get out of here, his face pale and voice low and shaky.

When Bobby came back, three days later, his hair looked thinner and his eyes were small and dark. He was like a stray dog wandering out of a wild stint in the woodwork. He mumbled something about his phone battery. He put on some clean Nikes, held open the door for me, bought me a nice Chinese dinner.

He was back but I'd caught worry. Whenever I suspected that he wasn't calling me back purposefully, my thoughts got mean. I'd scrub Starry's magic marker tattoos from my legs in the shower, vow to delete his number, knowing I'd get it back when he called again.

His mother's front windows were lined with pilgrim figurines, turkeys, and cornucopias of ears of corn and squash weaved from raffia. Starry was still talking about Halloween. She didn't realize it was over, because no one had taken her trick-or-treating.

The easiest way to get Starry to go somewhere was to race. Starry always won the races and Bobby always got dead last, panting and collapsing to her laughter. We raced through the crisp brown leaves at Slater Park Zoo. Fanny the elephant had spent thirty years of her life chained to a barn there, Bobby remembered. He remembered boy scouts, too and his brother-in-law who was fatally stabbed at a nearby bar. The plastic tunnels electrified all of our blonde hair. I wondered if the low-talking thirty-something mothers with state-of-the-art strollers and protective sunglasses thought we were a family.

Kevin told me about how he was an insta-daddy in Georgia again in the back of his Turismo. He'd bought the Turismo off this kid Barnabe who parked it in the lot behind the restaurant, paid $700 cash for it, which meant he'd given up medical insurance for the rest of the year. It was low-riding, maroon inside and out.

A couple of drinks and we'd go out to the Turismo, turn on eighties rock radio, light cigarettes. "I could do anything to this car," he'd brag, "I could take a dump in it, I could light it on fire. Nobody would care because it's mine. I'd say to them, 'do sumfin 'bout it!'"

He could do anything in the Turismo except drive it. It had no plates or insurance; it sat in a lot shielded by bushes. "Apra il libro," Kevin said, as he propped the trunk open with a tree branch. He was taking Italian classes so he could woo the girl he was going to marry, but the only phrase he could ever remember was "Open the book." We laid in the back and fantasized about driving to Savannah, to San Francisco, to somewhere. Kevin spent most of his time planning escape routs. Glacial tracks of snow melted across the warming glass.

Bobby's mother had four kinds of store-bought pies congealing in the fridge, and instant mashed potatoes stirred with peppered ground beef. He nuked bowl after bowl as he talked, his eyes were small and dark, he said he'd slept through Thanksgiving. "If somebody wants me to take an eight table section, I will. If I have a bag of blow, I'll finish it, even if I don't want it." He said. "I just get bored, I'm just never content with anything." We all think such conditions are unique to ourselves, I wanted to say. "I'm gonna go visit Bill and Bob," he told me, euphemistic AA lingo for climbing back on the wagon. "Hi my name is Bobby and I-I-I-m baaaack," he said chuckling.

He stroked my skin, looked at photos of my childhood home, my dog, my family. He paused at the snapshot of an incarnadine sunset of my grandfather's porch at Lake Tahoe. I told him about the slopes, the cabin, the water so cold you couldn't breathe. I said he could fly out for Christmas, if he wanted. I told him I had a free ticket he could use.

I pictured explaining to my parents, or to anyone but Kevin, what exactly Bobby was. I remembered standing outside some dealer's house at four in the morning while Bobby threatened to kill him. I remembered Starry dropping four nickels into a porcelain piggy bank and saying wishes, "For Chuck-e-Cheese, for Daddy to kiss Mommy…"

He was going to visit Bill and Bob. He didn't have a problem with coke, just coke when he was drunk, so he was going to just give up drinking. He was going to just give up brown liquor, because brown liquor made him violent. He was just going out after work, but just for a nightcap. He was going to a sick show this weekend, could I take his Saturday night shift? If he saved an extra two hundred a month he could get a studio apartment. His parents liked having him and Starry there. He was going to have enough money to start trying to get a firefighting job, maybe June. Maybe next year. He always gained a little weight in winter.

The windows had angels. Bobby slept it off and let me deal with Starry. For the first time, I mentioned to one of my friends at Brown that I was dating a coke addict with a kid.

Kevin wrapped his big hairy body around me. "You know when you're surfing, and you're tired, and you just get that one last dinky wave, and ride it all the way to the edge, that's what you need to do," Kevin told me. He trimmed his beard because the girl was flying soon from Italy.

"How's my favorite Portuguese lady?" Kevin said, and the Minerva's girl blushed, wished us a happy new year. She grabbed us a pitcher before we could even ask for it. "You are an angel, how do you always know what I want?" Kevin said happily and turned to me: "I'm real depressed. Elizabeth didn't come home for Christmas." I told him I had thought that was going to happen. He looked at me with the same stupid eyes I'd looked at him with for so many months, and said, "Really?"

We finished our drinks and then two more and flick-flicked the hollow filters on Parliament Lights. We were sopped in feeling like victims, of getting what we deserved, of having known better. Outside Providence spit out whatever kind of weather it wanted, rain or ice, sleet or slush, the sun gave up and set in the early afternoon.


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