During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, and editor Sydney Culpepper has set the deadline at September 15th, so get your story in quickly!
"Leaded" is a fun, snarky story filled with relatable moments. The main character is a self-possessed woman adapting to a new job with an overbearing supervisor. Seeing her take on her circumstances with the help of a new, special friend made for a truly enjoyable read. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
I could feel her eyes on me. I finished filling the mugs of people who didn’t even look up at me, and sure enough, Ruby was glaring at me from beside the cash register. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at a new table in my section—as if I hadn’t seen them come in and sit down. Why did she think I was putting the coffee away? I’d only worked at Bertie's for two weeks, but that didn't make me a novice. I'd waited tables lots of other places.
Still, I made double-damned sure that that I put the pots in the correct slots—black in regular, orange in decaf—and resisted the urge to smack Ruby before I went to take the order. I needed this job.
“All set?” I asked. I had on my best eager-beaver smile, pad at the ready.
I willed myself not to tap my pen on the pad. It wasn't the customers' fault the menu was four pages long. Really, who gives people five choices of fried appetizers?
Actually, it wasn't their faults at all. I was already so, so tired of Ruby's bullshit, but, given the circumstances, there was no way to make her stop. Ruby was keeping an eye on me because she felt I deserved it.
But then. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ruby glide by the coffee maker, stealthy, double-checking my double-checked pot placement.
Shit. You mess up one freaking time, serve one guy regular from the orange pot, and nobody lets you forget it. Certainly not Ruby. I kept telling myself that his heart attack was probably caused by the gigantic plate of steak and eggs he was eating, or his fat gut, or his labored breathing, not the caffeine. There was no way it was my fault.
“So, are you all set?” I asked again through my teeth. I hoped I sounded perky and not pissed. I could hear Ruby’s condescending voice in my head: “Perky gets bigger tips.” I needed to calm down, so I focused on the customers.
The table was obviously a work lunch. This is a wide-spot-in-the-road kind of town, so Bertie’s is the only place for lunch that's not fast food. These people worked in some office, maybe the bank or real estate, where the ladies were expected to wear pantyhose, even on a cold-ass day like today when even the fog was freezing, making a bottle brush on my car antennae. One of the ladies had her ankles crossed under her chair, high heels on her feet. I was wearing calf-high fleece boots, despite Ruby’s “suggestion” that we wear black flats to work. In an ice storm? I don’t think so. The skirt-slash-apron uniform was humiliating enough.
I knew their orders before they did. The ladies each had a salad with ironically high-calorie dressing, and the men had a burger or Rueben, one with smothered fries. Diet Cokes all around, like they would help the winter spread I saw before me. As I collected the menus, they forgot I was there and began talking again.
“Isn't this the place where Jerry Duncan had his heart attack?” asked Crossed-ankles.
“I think so,” said Un-done Necktie. He reminded me of my Pops, fat and happy. “That SOB should have known better than to have coffee at a place like this.” He didn't sound like my Pops, though. Pops had class.
“I thought he got real coffee by mistake,” whispered Miss Priss whose hair was in a bun so tight her eyebrows met in the back. “You never know what you’re getting at places like this.”
“Then he shouldn't have had coffee at all,” I heard myself saying. “But, honestly, I think it was the double order of smothered French fries that got him.”
I slammed the menus onto the table and stomped to the bathroom.
Ruby was standing outside the door when I opened it.
“What was that all about?” she asked even though she knew exactly what it was all about.
“Nothing. I'm just having a bad week.”
This is where a decent human being would have offered a word of pity or compassion or something. But Ruby said, “Well, get out of here, and don't come back until you get your act together. You can't cause a heart attack one day and then turn around and insult a tableful of customers another. One more screw up like this, and you’re gone.” She lifted her chin so she could sneer and look down her crooked nose at me at the same time. “Plus, I know you’re cheating the tip pool.”
I put in every cent I was supposed to into the pool, but I could see no use in denying it. Ruby didn’t care if it were true or not. It’s not like it could be proven one way or another.
So I nodded and bit my tongue so hard I could taste blood.
The Raven, the bar across the street from Bertie's, was open at ten after noon, exactly eleven minutes after Ruby met me outside the john. I didn't care if she was watching from the window (she was) as I dodged traffic across the slippery highway that cut through town. What the hell did I care if she thought I was going to go drink in the afternoon? I was—perhaps not for the first time ever—and it was her fault.
I stepped into the murky bar and promptly tripped over a black chair before the door had even swung shut.
“Hello,” called a voice from the blackness. “I'm in the back. Be right there.”
Suddenly, it was real important that I was at the bar and not standing, blind, at the edge of the room. I set the chair up and found my way to the empty bar. I sat just as the bartender emerged with two bags of lemons and limes.
“Hiya. Let me put these down, and I'll set you up.”
She set the red mesh bags onto the counter next to her sink and then stepped up on a rolling stool. She was the smallest person I had ever seen. She wiped her hands on her petit black apron and smiled up at me.
I almost smiled back.
“How about you move down here next to the waitress station so we can chat while I prep?”
After a deep breath, I picked up my purse and moved to a stool across from her. “Can I have a whiskey and Coke?” I asked as I balanced my heavy coat on the slippery stool next to me.
“Sure thing.” She poured from a bottle out of the well and finished the drink with a shot from the beverage gun. She slid the glass to me on a white paper napkin—a pro.
“There you go.”
I sipped. The drink stung my throat, the taste of burnt wood so strong I made a face. “Why do I drink this shit?”
“I dunno,” said the bartender. “Wanna try something different?” She turned to look at the shadow box.
“I can't afford fancy drinks.”
“Don't worry about it,” said Tiny-perky. “It's real slow. Let's play.”
She hopped to the shadowbox and somehow carried five odd-shaped bottles over to the bar in one trip, leaping from one stool to the other like some kind of gazelle or mountain goat.
She set them down and poured two big glasses of water and then two tiny shots--one set was for her. “This one's kind of like the stuff you've got there, but better.”
She was right. Though it still burned enough to make my eyes water, the dead tree taste was better. Different, anyway.
Her name was Bea—a name as short as she was—and she was now part-owner of the Raven. She kept pouring these tiny shots of whiskey and bourbon, and honestly, after the third one, I couldn't tell the difference. They were all smoky and alcohol-y, and good. After twenty minutes, I was sufficiently buzzed to have forgotten the greasy spoon across the street. I even allowed myself to laugh when Bea suggested we move on to tasting Tequilas.
“Not for me, thanks.”
“Why not?” she asked. Then her eyes grew wide. “You don't have to go back to work, do you?”
I pressed my lips into a line. “Not me. Not today.”
“Oh, sorry. Bad day?”
“Bad week. I don't want to talk about it.”
“Of course.” She paused a moment. “Once,” she said, “I had this customer...a real asshole. He was buying tequila shots for his buddies and being loud. He started stealing kisses from the girls...some at the bar, some of the waitresses. He was, like, six shots in, so I wasn't surprised.”
“I've met guys like that.”
Bea nodded. “Chelsea, my Friday waitress, said that he groped her, so I waved to the bouncer. The asshole saw me do it, and tried to grab me across the bar.” Bea made a show of drawing her white-handled knife across a lime’s skin before pushing down, cleaving it in half. A grin seeped across her face. “I gave him a shiner. I would have paid to have seen him explain that in the morning!”
I laughed. The image of four-foot-something Bea hitting a drunk guy in the eye made the world better.
“I wait tables,” I said. “I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to sock someone.”
“This job would be great if it weren't for the customers,” Bea said. She poured a shot of bourbon from the nice bottle for the both of us...a full one. “To not going back to work today!”
We clinked and downed our shots.
Okay, I honestly don't remember the exact chain of events here. I remember telling Bea the story of Mr. Heart Attack, and for some reason, she agreed with me.
“A lard-ass like that totally shouldn't have any coffee,” she said leaning her hip on the bar, balancing carefully so the stool didn't scoot out from under her again. “Really, the coffee you gave him is, like, the least likely reason.”
Those words pulled a curtain from my brain, lifted me, wrapped me in a soft love for the world—love for everyone except for my usual list of people to hate. Maybe it was the liquor, but I remember thinking, Here is someone who gets it. I definitely thought Bea was the best person in the universe.
That's probably what led to the two of us standing at the reception desk of the hospital, too hot in our overcoats, with Bea asking for Mr. Duncan's room. I did not understand why Bea locked up the Raven and drove me across town in her frozen white Jeep. I did have a faint hope, though, which caught itself in my back teeth.
The car was so big that she had the seat all the way forward to reach the pedals. I saw her from a little bit behind. Her blonde ponytail was pressed between her neck and her chunky hat’s brim, her eyelashes squinted together against the snow glare outside which haloed around her like an over-exposed photograph. The world could have been sepia-toned, and I wouldn’t have questioned it.
Bea plowed through the slushy streets, fishtailing a little around the corners. The heater was cranked to full, but my teeth chattered, anyway, because the hellish hot air never made it all the way to my body.
She kept saying over and over, “You gotta talk to this guy. C'mon! Apologize, tell him it's not your fault, show him you care. Something!”
“W-w-why?” I didn't know I was shivering until I tried to talk.
“You just do.”
Maybe she was drunk, too.
A nurse in white shoes and scrubs printed with happy cartoon animals told us where to find him. We unzipped our coats and checked room numbers until we stood in an overly warm, overly dark room, curtains drawn, television flickering to itself, muted. Mr. Duncan was asleep.
I didn't know him. He was a round man, but no worse than anyone who wears a Santa suit at the mall. He snored. His heart monitor ticked the seconds like a hypnotist's watch.
“Let's go,” I whispered.
Bea blinked out of her own trance. “Not a chance,” she hissed and grabbed my hand. She pulled me the last three steps to Mr. “IShouldntDrinkCoffee.” She was weirdly strong, like a low-slung sled dog. “Look at him at least.”
She squeezed my hand, hard, and I shut up. I looked at him.
He wasn't dead. For some reason, that was really important to me. Well, the reason it was important to me was that the other times I’ve visited hospitals, people died. When I was little, I thought I was a jinx. I went to visit Granny in a strange green room, and then saw her next at her funeral. Same for Pops and Auntie Ruth. Hospitals are places where people go to have their clothes stolen, tubes pulled out of their arms and up their noses, and then to die. I held my breath and crossed my fingers whenever I passed a hospital until I was in high school. Honestly, I still hold my breath.
Unwashed graying hair curled around Mr. Duncan’s forehead. He hadn't shaved for the three days he'd been at the hospital, either, so his face was forested by black and white. Tubes sprang from both of his wrists, tethered him to the bed. His thin hospital-green blanket stretched, straining to keep him from ballooning more and floating away. I couldn’t help thinking as I looked at Jerry Duncan that he was going to die, and that this time, it probably was my fault.
Pop, Wheeze, went his nose.
“I need air,” I said, but Bea's grip was firm. How was she so strong? Still, I was bigger, so I just dragged her out of the room. She stopped me in the hall.
“You were supposed to talk to him!”
“Why do you care?” I yanked my hand out of hers and instantly yearned to slip my fingers back into her firm, confident palm. I couldn’t think how to do that, so I stood there not breathing, after all.
She glared at me, crossed her arms, and fused her pale eyebrows into one angry wave. “You need…People need to see that things after…are the same. Even if they aren’t.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“This isn’t the end of the world!” she hissed. “Life goes on! Even, even….”
She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Even assholes deserve a chance to say ‘I’m sorry.’”
“What asshole are you talking about?”
She took my hand, and I breathed again.
“No, not nothing,” I said.
She fiddled with the ring on my finger, the one I bought for myself at the craft fair, a little silver thing with a flying bird holding a crystal in its beak. She turned it round and round, and didn’t look at me. I remembered her eyes were a dusty sage.
“I had a friend. She was little, like me, so they used to throw us in the air in cheer—you know, cheerleading. We were a pretty competitive team. But she had an accident at a game. They didn’t catch her right. It was awful. I quit the team, but I couldn’t make myself go see her in the hospital. So she was a hero on crutches when she came back, but I was a quitter.”
“Did you miss the catch?”
“Wasn’t your fault, then. You didn’t have to go see her.”
“Yes, I did.” Finally, she looked at me. “She was my first kiss. I should have been braver.”
Then a very good picture of Bea kissing her cheerleader girlfriend was in my head. But not for long. Her look took a firm edge.
“But you can't chicken out because I won’t let you.”
That’s when the newspaper photographer found us. He’d been down the hall taking pictures of the Benson Triplets, and happened upon Bea and me debating outside Mr. Duncan’s door.
He stopped to hit on us. “What are a couple pretty little ladies like you doing here?”
Bea told him her revised version of the story. “My friend here is checking up on the guy who had a heart attack at the café where she works.”
I almost stomped on her foot to shut her up, but it was too late. He escorted us into the room, and then he shook Mr. Duncan awake, making jiggly waves under the blanket. “Hey, can I have a picture of you and your hero?”
“Hero?” He pushed a button on the bed, and it hoisted him up. He squinted at me. His head wobbled like it was balanced on ball bearings. His eyes didn't focus for a minute, and never opened all the way because the bags over his eyes sagged like wet tissue paper. Aunt Ruth had bags like those after they pumped her full of IV fluids.
He pointed at me. “That’s a waitress.”
“No, she’s a hero,” the photographer insisted. “She’s the one who saved you in the restaurant.” He shoved me next to him. “I’ll just take a few pictures for the paper. Put your arm around her.”
“I’m not a hero,” I said above the clatter of the digital camera’s fake shutter. Mr. Duncan slung his heavy arm around me and squeezed obediently.
“You’re a good kid,” he said and beamed at me. “You remind me of Annette Funicello. Remember her? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. You’re such a pretty girl, Annette.”
It smelled like Mr. Duncan had not brushed his teeth in three days, either. I pulled as far from him as I could, my heart banging. I couldn’t breathe again.
“Come on, Annette, give him a kiss,” the photographer said.
Funny thing, that's what my mom said each time she brought me to see someone in the hospital. And I did, every time. I put my lips on their nearly-dead faces and let them hug me in their nearly-dead arms. I wasn't doing it this time.
Also, Mr. Duncan’s meaty, hairy-knuckled hand was sliding under my coat. I tried squirming away, but he was suddenly strong. Then he was cupping my breast through my cotton-polyester uniform. His thumb flicked my nipple.
I tore away from his grip and headed for the door. I crashed into a nurse who was coming in with a tray of medication.
“Who the hell are you people? This patient needs to rest.” She was such a pillar of authority that not even the photographer argued. We all stepped into the hall, and he slid away down the hallway, poking his head into every room he passed.
I watched him round a corner feeling woozy and manhandled and shaky. I could still hear Mr. Duncan breathing, and I realized that five minutes ago, I had felt sorry for him alone in his dark room with his wheeze and his tubes and his unwashed hair. I did not feel sorry for him anymore.
“Feel better?” Bea asked.
No! I thought. Because of me, that asshole is going to die thinking he’s felt up a Mouseketeer.
But Bea was smiling, her eyes tight, her face struggling not to pucker up with anxiety.
“Yes,” I said to her. “You were right.”
The tension melted, and her face pinked. She took my hands in hers. “I’m so glad.”
So, you see that the picture in the newspaper article taped to the white board in Bertie’s break-room is misleading. Jeff, the cook, stuck it on the board next to his shopping list and Ruby’s snide little notes to the waitresses.
The picture shows Mr. Duncan in his hospital bed, arm slung around me, smiling. I look like a trapped squirrel. Bea is grinning like she’s just won the lottery. In the caption, she’s identified as my “friend.”
I’m identified as a “hero.”
The picture made me smile later that week as I shrugged into my coat at the end of my morning shift. Ruby was still flustered by it all; Jeff had told her to give me more work and better tables because all the publicity had brought in more customers.
I stepped out into the cold day. I liked the way the afternoon sun sparkled on the snow as I crossed the slick street and stood at the front door of the Raven.
On the drive home from the hospital, Bea had made sure I knew when she was working this week. “I'm opening Wednesday,” she had said. “That is, if the barflies waiting now don't lynch me. Maybe you'll drop by?”
Her Jeep sat in the side parking lot, twinkling with frost all along its fenders. But I stood out there in the diamond-spangled day that was a rainbow short of being too beautiful to be just a Wednesday. It's freezing, I told myself. Go home, idiot. Go home before you screw this up, too.
Still, I stood there.
I had been thinking all morning of this book I read in high school. The only thing I remember about it is the end where the guy sits outside his former lover's window. They had been apart for twenty years and could finally be together, all he had to do is go upstairs, but he decides to leave without seeing her. I remember being really pissed at him for wasting her like that.
But I just stood there staring at the Raven's heavy wood door, examining the windowless panels.
Then I remembered that I was across the street from Bertie's. I spun around, and, sure enough, there was Ruby framed in the window, arms crossed, scowling. Ruby, who follows me around, counting my infractions like a bored meter-maid.
I resisted the urge to flip her off as I stepped into the warm, dark bar.
Bea's bouncy greeting reminded me of the cheerleader story, and I smiled.
Later, I settled in to my second hot toddy. I had asked Bea to make me her signature drink, and this was perfect, just like her: warm and fuzzy, but with plenty of kick.
“You know,” she said. “You could come work for me. I need a good manager.”
She glanced at me, almost shy, from under her long blonde lashes.
“I tend to have antagonistic relationships with my bosses,” I said. I waited to see if she caught that I wanted to have different kind of relationship with her.
After a beat, Bea said, “What do you mean?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said.
“Ruby's a bitch.”
I smiled. “True,” I said. Then I leaned over the bar and stage-whispered to her. “Today I waited until Ruby slithered back into the kitchen for something. Then I put caffeinated coffee in both machines. The orange and the black.”
Bea's eyes grew wide, and she put her hand to her mouth, laughing.
“Why?” she managed to say between giggles.
“I think perky customers are the key to better tips, not perky waitresses,” I said.
She kissed me first, I swear.
Maren Bradley Anderson is a writer, teacher, and alpaca rancher in Oregon. She teaches English at Western Oregon University. She fills her days caring for alpacas, playing with her kids, and reading books that make her laugh. She has written two plays for the Apple Box Children’s Theater, and her writing has appeared in The Timberline Review, Alpacas Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. Her novels Fuzzy Logic and Closing the Store are available online and through your local bookstore—just ask them to order them for you.