Jessica McCaughey is a writer, editor, and teacher living in Arlington, Virginia. She earned her BA in English from the University of Mary Washington and both an MA (English) and an MFA (Creative Writing) from George Mason University. She currently teaches writing and English as a Second Language courses at The George Washington University and George Mason University, respectively. Jessica's work has appeared in The Colorado Review, The Best American Travel Writing (2011), The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Phoebe, among other publications.
The deep red birthmark was the size of a hand, and it covered the upper left side of his face. Its bumps and crevices were deep, as if marbles and buttons had been stuck under the skin from his hairline, over his left eyelid, halfway down his face. His cheekbone was not prominent, but seemed so because of the sharp change in color there, and in texture. Along this bone, the smooth skin became rough and the dips evened out, transformed into healthy, reasonable skin.
The first time I saw Bob, I was sitting in the back booth of Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Fredericksburg, Virginia, interviewing for a waitressing job. He began to walk through the swinging kitchen doors, made to look like those of an old-time saloon, but stopped when he saw us. The shadows made it difficult to get a good look, and so I caught only an apron and a balding head, the remaining hair shoulder-length and white.
“Sorry,” he said, retreating.
“That's Bob,” the manager told me. “You'd be working with him on your lunch shifts.”
“Just the two of us?” I asked.
“It's really slow during the weekdays,” he said, motioning toward the empty dining room, the tacky southwestern-print curtains covering the dirty windows.
“Fair enough,” I said, bored already.
I had arrived in the small, historic town, with its battlefield and plaques stating who had slept where, on a split-second decision, made from my dorm room a few hours away, in rural Virginia. 15 months earlier, two weeks into my freshman year of college, a boy named Chris, who I'd spent time with at home, had been killed in a car accident. Chris had been older than me, good looking and reclusive, with thick dreads and big lips and what seemed like a significant drinking problem for someone in only his early twenties. He was the older brother of one of my good friends, and I often found myself staring at him through the pot-smoke haze of their mother's basement until everyone went to sleep, or to a party, or to hike through the dark woods behind the house. Then, alone, nervous, we would climb up to the roof and wrap ourselves, noses pressed together, in a blanket where we stayed, kissing silently while my friends filed back, assuming we were asleep in different beds, different houses. Just after I graduated, I turned on him, harshly and quickly, when I realized I was unable to imagine him visiting me at college. His ripped flannel shirts, his slow gait.
After the accident, loss and the guilt had flattened me, and in the year that followed, I spent my time either awkwardly drinking beer until I was drunk enough to sleep, or staring, my body curled in a C towards the peach cinderblock wall that butted up against my bed. At some point I realized, I need to leave here.
My parents had recently moved into a new house in Fredericksburg, and I planned eventually to transfer to Mary Washington College, a small liberal arts school there. Just before a semester break, I called and told my mother, “When I come home for Christmas, I'm staying.” I'd live in their basement and work until the school transfer was official. To soothe my mother's fears that I would become a permanent dropout, I promised to take classes at community college in the mean time.
The next week, I carried boxes through their freshly painted hallways and down to the large, finished basement, where I was told not to put any holes in the wall.
On my first day of work, I arrived at Santa Fe at 10 a.m. The place was cold and stank of fried food and a tangy, rank scent I would come to recognize as alcohol rotting in carpet.
“Hey there,” Bob said, emerging from the back booth with a pint glass half-full of coffee, light with cream. “I'm Bob. The cook.” He seemed to look over my head, rather than directly at me, and I tried to keep my eyes on his, below the birthmark.
I introduced myself and he handed me a bright teal polo shirt and a black apron, my uniform.
“Stylish, huh?” he said and shook his head as I held the ugly shirt up in front of me.
I went into the poorly lit employee bathroom, the countertop covered in dirty rags and an over-spilled ashtray, to change. After I came out, Bob gave me a tour, starting with the front tables, which, inexplicably, sat beneath prints of Indian-themed masks in gold frames. We moved through the large kitchen, all steel ledges and bowls, and then walked on into the server's station, a closet-sized space housing the register, intimidating, industrial-sized coffee machines, glasses, and beer kegs, the tubes of which ran up through the ceiling to the attached bar upstairs.
“Here are the filters. Here are the napkins. Here is the credit card machine.”
He spoke quickly and still didn't look at me. I imagined the two of us there, every morning for eternity. Me, trying not stare at his birthmark, his greasy hair, his stained t-shirt. And him, wishing I were someone other than a quiet, 19-year old college girl who didn't know how to make coffee.
Bob walked toward the neon Open sign.
“I'm a little nervous,” I said as he reached behind a fake plant for the sign's cord. “I've never waited tables before.” It felt embarrassing to tell him, but I was compelled to say it, to prepare him for the fact that I would, I knew, be very bad at the job.
“Aaaahhh,” he said, almost grunting. “Nothing to it. Write your orders down and learn how to make a really good chocolate milk for me in the afternoons. You'll be fine.” Finally looking at me, he laughed and when his mouth settled into a smile I saw that his lips fell slightly lopsided and that his teeth were spotted, dark and uneven.
Over time, between clumsily pouring drinks and slowly delivering mediocre Tex-Mex food, I pieced together Bob's history through a series of conversations. He was 47 and had worked at Santa Fe for a few years, off and on, but gave no explanation of the “off.” He was originally from New York, but had lived all over. He'd been in the Army, but the time had been uneventful, as he'd joined just weeks before Vietnam ended.
“I didn't get no crazy weed. I didn't get no two-dollar hookers. Nothing,” he told me.
Bob had never been married, but he had a son in his early twenties. They didn't talk. I asked him his son's name and he told me “Jason,” which was also the name my parents had chosen for me, my name if I had been born a boy. When I explained this, he was quiet for a minute, and then said, “I don't really like the name.”
He'd worked in the restaurant business almost his whole life, but always in the kitchen, never out on the floor. “Nobody wants to see this face anywhere near their dinner,” he said, while I pretended to pick at a piece of food stuck to my glass. He told me the restaurant kept him in drinks, though.
“I can't work the night shift,” he told me, “because it interferes with my drinking. But the day shift, that's a pretty good set up.”
I laughed when he laughed, but stared at the table. When he asked me questions about myself, I described the person I had been before, rather than the person sitting across from him. I told him I played tennis, and that I loved being outside and seeing bands—generic statements that I hoped revealed the subtext, I am a happy person. At first, I spoke to Bob as I would a teacher, or the father of a friend. Sitting alone with an older man, especially one so strange looking—shifty, even—threw me.
I watched his wiry eyebrows furrow as I sat across from him, pale and uncomfortable with myself, smoking cigarettes and drinking soda from the always-flat tap. I thought about the way, each evening, after work and my community college classes on those nights I forced myself to go, I returned home and walked past my worried parents, down the stairs to climb into my childhood bed. I slept a lot in those months, and ate a lot as well, as though the two activities—essential in moderation—were all I needed. I avoided phone calls from friends, claiming school and the restaurant occupied all of my time. I barely read and could only write vague notes of apology and stories about the feel of fingers touching my face.
After a pause, I said, “I'm not myself right now.”
“It happens sometimes,” he said.
Like any two people spending 40 hours a week together, we developed a routine. We arrived at 10:00 in the morning for prep—chopping and stirring for him, setting tables and carting ice for me—and by 10:30 we met in the back booth for coffee. He spread the newspaper out over the Navajo-print plastic tablecloth and I pulled my schoolbooks from my bag. These things covered the table all day, though most often we held them in front of us only as a comfort. Instead of reading, we talked during our down time. In the beginning, our conversations were gossip about coworkers and regular customers, snippets read aloud from the Fredericksburg Free-lance Star, and stories—easy ones from our past that had nothing to do with blacking out in a parking lot or screaming alone in a car, which took us almost a year to relay. When I had a test coming up, Bob put on his ladies' drugstore reading glasses, took my biology textbook to his side of the table, and quizzed me on the pages I'd flagged. When I missed a question, he said, “Jesus, I thought you were supposed to be one of those smart kids.” When I got them right, he said, “There you go.”
The two of us found strained connections to one another, the way people do when they are missing something important, trying to either pull themselves out of their mind or falling deeply into it. We both liked New York. We liked the same brand of cigarettes. We both dug Hemingway in high school.
We worked well together, busy with tables for a solid two hours or so most afternoons. As I brought back order tickets or picked up food, he'd say, “How's it going out there, honey pie?” From the front of the restaurant, I'd hear him singing classic rock songs along to a salsa-splattered, shoebox-sized radio he kept behind the grill. His voice was upbeat and grainy, dead-on when covering ACDC, but lacking during more sentimental songs, like “Brandy,” one of our shared favorites that the shitty Richmond station played at least four times a day.
When the place thinned out, we ate. After discovering that I didn't like jalapeños, Bob began to set out a large container of the tortilla soup for me before adding the final ingredient each week, taking much greater care to make my food—our food—than he did the customers'. Once a week or so, we turned to hot dogs, sold at the Rec Center across the street for a dollar. Other days Bob brought bread with him from home and made us grilled cheese sandwiches.
One morning, he forgot to bring the loaf, and sent me to his apartment, just a few blocks from the restaurant. The door was unlocked and, walking inside, I immediately smelled stale smoke and feet. The small living room was windowless, and I walked carefully around the empty beer cans and industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper, identical to those in the back room of Santa Fe. In the kitchen, I grabbed the bread off the counter. When I saw two roaches in the sink, I screamed and ran.
Each day at 3:00, an hour before our shift ended, Bob asked for a glass of chocolate milk. The day we ran out, I crawled around the sticky floor looking in unused cabinets for another bottle, then called into the kitchen to tell him. He snapped at me, saying that it was my job to keep track of the condiments. Within a half-hour, I noticed that he was shaking as he pulled the baskets from the fryer, and then as he lifted a cigarette to his mouth while we waited for the second-shift employees. When they arrived, Bob talked me into going upstairs for a drink with him. After one shot of peppermint schnapps, the shaking stopped.
One morning while I made coffee I told Bob that I'd spent the previous evening walking along the river with the night cook, a blonde, quiet guy in his late-20s.
“Not a good i-de-a,” he said in a sing-song tone.
“Why?” I asked.
“Just trust me on this one, my dear,” Bob said, wiping down the long steel shelf between the grills and cutting boards.
I spent the next six weeks ignoring the advice, and drinking beer on the night cook's couch while he played the guitar, and waiting outside of apartment buildings while he “ran in to grab something.” He must have left his hat, I thought. Or, Maybe he's borrowing a book. When he came out, red and wide-eyed, I pretended that he'd had an espresso.
Seeing us leave work together, Bob would make eye contact with me and then shake his head, and I would ritually pretend not to see him. Inevitably, I walked in on the guy with another girl, both of them high on cocaine. The next morning at 10:15 a.m., I stood in my stained Santa Fe polo shirt, crying by the dishwasher. Bob looked at me and then disappeared for a few minutes, returning with a rum and coke from the empty bar upstairs and a paper towel to dry my face.
“He's a shithead,” was all he said, standing next to me as we both stared out the back door of the kitchen into the cobblestone parking lot.
In the three years we were close, Bob had only one girlfriend, a late 30-something woman who called herself Pumpkin. She was small, but loud, with a scratchy voice and a vague history. She was a great waitress, liked by the customers, and capable of setting down the steaming fajita plates without squealing from a fresh burn the way I did each time I served them.
By the time she was hired, my life had begun to improve, even if the changes hadn't quite registered with me yet as important. I was only waitressing a few days a week, working my remaining shifts as a bartender upstairs. The night cook had left, abruptly, to go to rehab. And, most importantly, I had been accepted to Mary Washington and was taking a full course load, finding myself fascinated by the books I was reading and the ways I was learning to read them.
Despite the fact that her name was Pumpkin, the more I worked with the new waitress, the more I liked her. After their shifts, she and Bob began sitting at the bar together while I stood behind it, and I watched her flirt with him, pulling at his hair, teasing him about his age. He pretended to see her as a nuisance, but soon she was spending nights at his house, and within a few weeks they talked about getting a place together.
“She's crazy,” he said to me, “but she's a good girl.”
Then, suddenly, she gave a few days' notice to the manager, and told me she had to head back to California. When she left, Bob said he had known it wouldn't last.
“They don't stick around, my dear.” His hand rested over part of his face, the shadow of it covering the birthmark, so that he looked only like a sad, but unmarked, old man.
On slow nights, weeknights, Bob often sat with me, drinking at the end of the bar and talking, either to me or to other customers, who always took to him easily. I thought of him as my own personal bouncer on the nights my manager took off early, leaving me to close up, although by that point I was probably more capable of protecting myself than Bob was.
Late on one of these nights, I walked in on him in the employee bathroom, and saw him hunched over the counter with a rolled up dollar bill.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh,” and shut the door.
When he came back to his bar stool, he looked embarrassed, so I only poured him a new beer and asked if he minded if I changed the channel to TNT, which was showing “Overboard.”
“Sure,” he said. “I like that Goldie Hawn.”
I began checking out apartments for downtown, closer to both the college and the restaurant. When I read aloud a listing for a rental in what Bob thought was a bad neighborhood, he got into my car after work and demanded that I show him. I drove to the place, down a few miles from the restaurant, past the train station, finally parking in front of the building. Bob pointed to the closest street and said, “See that corner? I've bought crack on that corner.”
“What?” I said. “What? Is that supposed to be a joke?”
“No joke,” he answered, looking out the window instead of at me.
“You've done crack?” I asked. “Crack, as in crack-crack?”
“Everybody does it every once in a while,” he said.
“They absolutely do not,” I replied.
He leaned out the window. “But what I'm saying is that you're not moving here.”
The hospital room where I visited Bob was painted peach, with a framed print of flowers in a pale blue vase hanging just to the left of the machines that monitored his heart and breathing. I don't recall how I learned that he had been admitted or who drove him there. I just remember, vaguely, that he hadn't been able to breathe. There was a lung issue. They would not let him smoke. He did not want to talk about it.
It was spring and I looked periodically out the window into a sunny, generic courtyard. Even though neither of us cared for it, we watched a NASCAR race on a small TV mounted in the corner of the pink hospital room for a half hour until I left, claiming that I had to study.
When he came back to work a week later, I asked if he should, in fact, still be smoking.
“Yep,” he answered, and ran his hand across his forehead.
My parents had met Bob three or four times, stopping by the restaurant for lunch, and liked him, imagining him—as I liked to—as a sweet older man who looked out for their daughter. When they asked me what was wrong with him, I described a fluke health issue, vaguely. Nothing about drinking. Nothing about a 50-year-old man doing cocaine in the bathroom. I described a tragic injustice, which, in some ways, it was.
A few weeks before my college graduation, on a Friday night, I walked the perimeter of the bar collecting glasses. The music was loud and I'd been working all evening while Bob drank, and when I passed him, I rolled my eyes. He sat with his roommate, Scotty, and a few other men, but didn't seem to be paying attention to them, staring, instead, out the dark window toward the street.
“Hey,” he said when he saw me. “C'mere.”
I walked over, a tower of stacked pint glasses teetering between my hands. He put his hand on my wrist.
“You're the best,” he said, slurring. It was one of only a handful of times I could actually tell that he was drunk.
“You, too,” I said, trying to get back to work. He pulled harder at my wrist.
“No, really,” he went on, loudly, trying to be heard over the music. “You're the best girl . . . the best one. You're my favorite.” His breath was strong, beer mixed with schnapps mixed with cigarettes.
“You're the best one, too,” I said sarcastically. “I'm going to drop these glasses, though. Let go.”
His hand tightened. “Sit them down,” he said, trying sloppily to stand up, using my arm for balance. “I'm not kidding,” he went on, “you're my favorite, honey pie. Give me a kiss.”
He leaned into me and I jerked away, stunned, and almost dropped the glasses.
“No,” I said. “You're being ridiculous. Sit down.” I tried to laugh, but it came out forced, an obvious defense. He leaned in again and I pulled away, sitting the glasses down awkwardly, quickly, to push him back by the shoulders. His friends had stopped talking and stared at us.
“Cut it out,” I whispered, the same way one might reprimand a misbehaving child in public, with as much quiet force as possible. I picked up the glasses and made my way back behind the bar.
The next day when I got to the restaurant, I walked by him to hang my coat.
“I owe you a grilled cheese,” he said, tying on a dirty apron.
Emotional rise and decline is difficult to gauge when one is in motion. We don't see ourselves approaching a lift or falling, but we can see who else is at a similar depth, whose feet have dug into the ground a few inches above or below our own in the side of a hill. One is hiking up, struggling, another heading back to base. Paths cross unexpectedly, randomly. We find ourselves making eye contact for just a second, just before we slip or muster energy we thought was lost, spent in sadness or spread too thin across years of indifference, or wasted, shattered like taillight glass into the side of a tree.
The last time we spoke was a Wednesday afternoon. I had moved a few months after graduation, and a year had passed. I was sitting in my cubicle proofreading pages of meaningless numbers in Arlington, Virginia when my phone rang.
“Hey, Jess,” I heard my father say, “I've got one of your friends here.”
He had run into Bob on the street and as they talked, Bob mentioned that he hadn't seen me in a while. My father is as shy as I am, and avoids awkwardness, spectacle. It was out of character, but for some reason he called me on his cell phone while they stood there in the street and then handed it to Bob. When he got on the line, he complained about the restaurant owner, my former boss, and asked me about my job. He told me I wasn't missing a goddamn thing, but that I should stop by and say hello sometime. He would cook for me. We'd have a rum and coke.
I didn't hear he had died until months after it happened. I was standing in my hallway holding a bag of hamburger buns and a stack of paper plates, with eight friends waiting in my back yard by the grill. A former coworker called and after a few minutes of halted small talk, I asked about Bob. She paused, and I knew. It had been a month ago, she told me. Possibly two. She hadn't attended the funeral.
I put my phone into my pocket and stood still for a few minutes. When I walked outside, I didn't tell anyone about the call, only handed over the plates and sat down beside the table, covered in corn and fruit—fresh foods, clean smells. It was still light outside, but just barely, and the back yard had a reddish glow. I drank until I was sick, staring over the houses at the skyline, while the bright sun set completely, and became smooth darkness.