I'm delighted by the day-shift busboy from RanDom, my go-to sober-day cafe. Even his zits are glorious. Every Thursday, when I’m luxuriating with my black coffee, chocolate croissant, and a copy of the New York Times crossword puzzle, my anticipation builds to a level of delicate discomfort—until the dovetails of my busboy’s jacket wing their way into my peripheral. That released breath of relief is something to savor each time.
RanDom’s manager makes the waitstaff wear formalwear (the cheapest available, I might add) like they’re extras on the set of Clue, or dressing up for a murder mystery party. I have no problem with this tacky indulgence, as long as my eye candy keeps showing up to work. This busboy is a delectable morsel. James Dean eyes and James Spader’s John-Hughes-era build. Hair like Hawaiian sand where land meets water. Definitely taller than my sixty-eight inches. About nineteen years into his transition towards six feet under. I hope he isn’t younger. When he lopes into view, my knees wobble under the table. I squeeze my sullied napkin. Gracious! I’m old enough to be his grandmother (albeit a young one).
I wonder what he makes of me. I’m fooling myself thinking he’s noticed my presence. But wouldn’t he? I’ve been coming here every Thursday for the past six weeks. Surely, he recognizes me … and my generous tips. I’m reminded of a certain Helen Mirren film where she becomes infatuated with her escort. Or is it the other way around? I don’t remember—I spent that night (as many others) consumed by the fever of mid-life crisis romantic longing. (At least I’m self-aware.)
He’s clearing the table next to me, eyes down, head in the clouds. I cast him as the male lead in my private drama-in-the-making; pinching my elbows with the tips of my fingers as I watch him put the bare minimum of effort into his work. I’d love to observe him off the clock; see how any masks he’s wearing, and what he looks like when he removes them.
Two weeks later
At a quarter to seven, Ron pulled up to his usual parking place in the security cameras’ blind spot at the edge of RanDom’s lot. Lowering all four windows of his silver Chevy Impala, he hid a still-smoldering roach in his ashtray. The sun mimicked a window shade as a Rorschach blot of clouds blocked outgoing UV rays.
Ron checked his teeth for rebellious crumbs of sativa flower. There were none to be seen, but he took a sip of days-old bottled water just in case. He shook out a handful of breath mints and popped them into his mouth with the lazy dexterity of a professional stoner. Exiting the car, he yanked his garment-bagged work uniform off the passenger seat and slung it over one shoulder.
“Cutting it a little close to the clock.” Pete, his manager, glared at him from RanDom’s outdoor patio. “You’re supposed to arrive fifteen minutes early so you can change clothes.” He made a show of looking at his watch. “It’s now seven-seventeen.”
“Sorry. Traffic sucked.” Ron was glad for his wraparound sunglasses. “Stop-and-go.”
“Uh-huh. Just make sure you don’t clock in until after you’re dressed.”
“Right.” Ron put his hand on the door handle. “See ya.”
“Wait.” Pete shuffled a handful of just-printed menus. “A strange older lady asked for you by name the other day. She wondered why you weren’t working last Thursday.” He furrowed his blond inchworm brows. “She seems to know your schedule.”
“Weird.” Ron dropped his hand from the door. “You sure she meant me?”
“You’re the only Ron who works here.”
“Right.” He shrugged. “I don’t know anyone like that though.”
Pete narrowed his eyes. “Like what?”
“A customer. No one from my squad eats here.”
“I don’t think she’s from your ‘squad.’ Unless you mean family?”
“Nah.” Ron’s jaw tightened. “They don’t come to town.”
Pete gave him a critical look. “Are you feeling sick? Your eyes are bloodshot.”
“Yeah. It’s allergy season.” The busboy sniffled. “Pollen. I get congested.”
“The clientele doesn’t want to see an employee looking unwell. Take a Claritin the next time you have symptoms.”
Pete checked his watch. “You’re officially late. Better hurry up.”
Ron ducked into the small changing area adjacent to the sinks and whipped out his uniform. He scooted over to the time clock and punched in. 7:08. Ten minutes docked from his pitiful hourly wage. He finished changing and slid out the door as an elderly server entered. They almost collided.
“Watch it!” he barked. “You’re supposed to say ‘door’ so we don’t run into each other.”
“Chill, dude,” Ron called over his shoulder. “It’s not that serious.” He ambled over to the hostess stand. “Working in A again?” he asked Jessica.
“What’s your name?”
“Do you seriously not know?”
“Your face doesn’t like, stand out.” Jessica rolled her eyes. “I’m too busy to notice busboys.”
“You work almost every time I do.”
She sneered. “So? I have a lot of people to keep track of. You’re not special.”
He almost mumbled an obscenity. “I usually work in A.”
“Then why are you even asking?” Jessica turned her back on him.
He walked away without a retort. The slight buzz he had managed to cultivate during the drive to work was starting to fade. Slouching, he trudged over to the four-tops and two-seaters facing the front windows and waited for the first crop of customers to abandon their dirty dishes.
Poor lamb. He’s discovered a problem with the ignition.
I pull up beside him. “Need some help?”
“What?” He spins around like he’s been caught picking his nose. When he sees me, there is no look of recognition. Just bemusement and annoyance. “Oh. Um, I’m trying to figure it out. Not much of a mechanic, though.”
“Probably a dead battery,” I offer. “Do you want to try my jumper cables?”
“That would be helpful. Thanks.” He scratches his head. “It might take a few minutes.”
“Lucky for you, my calendar is as empty as the plains of South Dakota. Take all the time you need.” I smile. “I’m Gina, by the way. What’s your name?”
“Ron.” He grunts. “Got those cables handy?”
I watch him struggle for a few minutes more until he realizes the problem lies elsewhere.
“Damn. I gotta call a tow truck.” He throws up his hands. “Just my frickin’ luck.”
“I’m sure they’ll give you a ride.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have cash on me. Plus, I’ll have to take a cab home.”
“Surely you can explain the situation to your manager and he can lend you the money.”
“He’s not that kind of guy. He gets on my case for being two minutes late. No way he’d lend me enough cash to cover this.” He makes a sudden, frantic dive for an unseen object in the front seat.
“Did you leave something important behind?” I hide my amusement behind my hand.
He sticks the spent joint into his pocket. “It’s nothing.”
“Tell you what: I’ll lend you the money for the tow truck, then drive you back to your house so you can pay me back. That way, you won’t have to take a cab.”
“Why would you do that for a stranger? I could be trouble.”
“You could be.” I nod. “But I’m a fairly sound judge of character. I’d be willing to wager you wouldn’t take advantage of my kindness.”
“No. I’m not a creep.” He glances toward the restaurant. “I should use RanDom’s phone. Mine’s been missing for a week.”
“No need.” I offer him my flip phone. “It has internet, so you can look up the number of the towing company.”
“Is this a burner?”
“A burner. Like, a phone you use once or twice and throw away.”
“It’s the only phone I have.”
He shrugs. “As long as it works.”
A few minutes later, I’m silently praising the powers that be as the busboy I’ve had my eye on for weeks reclines in my passenger seat.
“Nice car. My cousin wants a Lincoln.”
I grip the steering wheel. “You know, Ron, you have the Crestiest smile I've ever seen. It gets under my skin.”
“Think I could be in a commercial?” He licks his teeth. “I keep putting my name out there. For auditions and stuff. No luck yet.”
“Online. I got a YouTube channel. Building myself a portfolio.”
“You’re an actor?”
“Nah. I’m no good at memorizing lines.” Ron looks into the distance, presumably imagining his name crowned in neon lights. “I’m a model.”
“No wonder, with a face like that!” I wink. “And certainly, your physique is on par with the industry standards.”
“You checking me out?”
“Well … yes.” I nervously titter. “You’re a handsome young man. I appreciate beauty in all ages. Speaking of which, I was wondering how old you are.”
“Old enough to drive a car.”
“Old enough to rent one?”
“Surely you’ll procure an alternate set of wheels to use until your car receives a clean bill of health.”
“Nah. Probably won’t take more than a couple of days max. I’ll figure it out. Got a ride from you, didn’t I?”
“How many of RanDom’s customers offer you rides home?”
“What kind of rides are we talking about?”
“Transportation.” I side-eye him. “What did you think I meant?”
He smirks. “I think you’re a kinky old lady.”
“I may be beyond the first blush of youth, but I’m certainly nowhere near my golden years.”
“You’re way older than me.”
I sigh. “This just never gets any easier.”
“I’m not a male escort, or a gigolo, or whatever you call it.”
“What if I said I’m just looking for someone to pass the time with? Would you consider me ‘kinky’ if I were willing to pay for that?”
“Maybe not. Maybe just lonely.”
We ride in silence for a minute or two. I give him time to realize he wants to return to the subject of transactional company.
“So, were you serious about paying me to hang out?”
“You have something better to do than earn wages for being yourself?”
“You really don’t want to do, like, any bedroom activities?”
“Here’s what we’ll do: I’ll take you to my house for an hour or so. We’ll have a snack before getting down to business.” I relish his confused expression. “Chatting, Ron. Relaxing.”
“I’ll still need a ride home later.”
I don’t let my excitement show. “Consider it a bonus of your commission.”
Gina invited him into her pastel pink parlor. “Please make yourself comfortable. I’ll take you to the ATM. But first: tea.”
“Tea? That’s pretty British.” Ron took a seat on the cream-colored couch. The fabric was stiff; the cushion, uncomfortable. He wondered how long ago she had bought this furniture set. It seemed barely used.
Gina leaned against the doorframe. “People take tea worldwide, Ron. It’s not a tradition confined to the UK. Which kind do you prefer? I have Earl Grey—”
“I don’t care,” he interrupted. “Ladies’ choice.”
“A lovely ryokucha. Green tea. It suits you.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Back in a jiffy.”
Shortly after she returned with the tea and shortbread cookies, Ron struggled to make conversation. Gina was polite and encouraging, but he sensed he couldn’t keep up with her. The dialogue between them was stilted. Halting. Forced. It crossed his mind that she might have an ulterior motive.
“What am I doing here?” he wondered aloud.
Gina gave him a calm smile. “You graciously accepted my invitation to tea. Well, not so graciously. I had to wheedle a bit.” She returned her cup to its saucer and clapped once. “I’m ready for my entertainment.”
“I don’t get it,” Ron said through a mouthful of shortbread. “What do you expect me to do?”
“A montage of your poses and expressions. You said you have quite the repertoire in your modeling video portfolio. I’m a lover of live performances. If you do a decent job, I’ll double your fee.”
“Huh.” He gulped the still-steaming tea; winced as the hot, grassy liquid hit the back of his throat. “I’m not really, like, warmed-up.”
“Just do your best.”
“You’re really gonna pay me for this?”
“Consider me your personal patron.” She patted the seat next to her. “Come sit. My vision isn’t the strongest.” She tapped the nosepiece of her glasses. “‘The better to see you with.’”
Ron walked over to where she sat across from him. He perched on the edge of the cushion and warily eyed her.
“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, Ron. I’m perfectly content with the pleasure of your company without the pay-per-view content. Would you like me to call you a cab?”
“Nah.” He cleared his throat. “Guess I gotta get used to this on-the-spot stuff.”
“That’s the spirit!” She fingered the collar of her silky black blouse. “In the professional modeling world, you never know when you might be called upon to strike a pose.”
“Uh-huh.” He avoided her gaze while he went through his practiced expressions. She stopped him after “brooding.”
“You know what would really take this to the next level for me? Speech. I want to hear your voice match your expression.”
Ron folded his arms across his chest. “Most of the time, modeling’s like, silent, though.”
“Mute, perhaps. But never silent.” Gina clasped her hands. “I’ll say the words I want to hear, and you say them back to me like an echo. Understood?”
He thought of the expense of repairing his car and sighed. “Go ahead.”
Gina’s voice was strong and clear. “I’ve always wanted to be famous.”
“Come on!” Reflexively, he jumped to his feet. “This is nuts.”
“Think of reaping your reward, Ron. Think of fattening that nest egg. Think of obtaining your ticket to freedom from the drudgery of manual labor.”
“Fine.” He sat back down. “I’ve always wanted to be famous.”
“Look into my eyes when you speak, please. And make your facial expression match the words,” she reminded him. “I’ll say the next line: Little did I know, opportunity was just around the corner.”
He fumbled, but managed to repeat the sentence through a yawn. "Little did I know, opportunity was just around the corner."
“When I least expected it, I met my fortune-maker.”
“This is beyond weird. Is this like, a scene from a movie?”
“Funny you should ask.” Gina reached behind the couch and produced a handheld camcorder. “I was just about to introduce you two.”
Ron shrank into himself. “You act like it’s a person.”
“The lens sees you. Watches. Records. It’s my second sight.” She chuckled. “Third, if you count my eyewear.”
Ron’s focus fell on a group of framed portraits hanging on the wall above the couch he’d originally sat on when he’d entered the parlor.
“Who’re all these dudes?”
“The guys in the pictures.” He raised his finger to point but dropped it back to his side. “You got a lot of grandsons?”
“Not a one.”
His gut churned. “I gotta go. Thanks for the …” He struggled for words. “… help.”
“You aren’t in any shape to go anywhere, Ron. Look at yourself.” Gina angled the camera so he could see the live recording on the pop-out screen. “You’re practically unconscious.”
“The money,” he murmured. “You said you’d pay me.”
“Of course.” She stood up and disappeared from view. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lambs’ tail with your fee.”
“Hey,” Ron mumbled. “I don’t feel so good.”
“Oh, dear,” Gina called from the other room. “Are you allergic to wheat? The goodies you ate were not gluten-free.”
“No.” A creepy image of the smiling Gina biting into a cookie came to him like premonition. “You—put something in the tea.”
“A dash of milk and a swirl of honey, to be sure,” her cheerful voice called out. “And a generous does of ingredient I like to call ‘sleepytime.’ If you must know, it’s extra-strength CBD tea, mixed with a horse tranquilizer and a pinch of a muscle relaxant for good measure.”
“Why?” Ron’s voice sounded like a slowed-down record. “Why’d you trick me?”
“I already informed you, dear: I’m a patron of the arts. I paid you to be my private exhibition. I picked you out of a very special lineup to be my next star. Didn’t you think it was odd how I happened to be there when your car mysteriously wouldn’t start?” Her titters seemed to bounce off the walls.
Ron rolled off the couch onto the floor. Crawling away from the couch, he pulled handfuls of carpet like a crab and dragged his noncooperative body inch by inch towards the door.
Gina’s voice came from somewhere behind him. “I know you said you aren’t an actor, but I beg to differ. The way you’re slithering reminds me of a much less nimble Mr. Grinch.”
Gracelessly lunging, he reached for the umbrella propped up beside the nearest table. Easily side-stepping his flailing limbs, Gina pushed it out of his reach.
“No, no. That’s not in the script.”
Weakly, Ron thrashed. His hands opened and closed. “I don’t want to play.”
“We’re all players. Each one has their part. Have you figured out yours?”
“I was supposed to—”
“Busboy Ron, I’m sorry to inform you that moonlighting as a budding YouTube star while working days at the café is no longer an option. But rest assured: many stars hit their mark after they depart.”
A sharp heavy, cracking noise like a golf ball thwacked with a driver accompanied a catastrophic blow to the side of his left temple.
She’s making scrambled eggs, Ron thought. The better to eat me with …
Then it was lights out.
Some boys think they want a cougar. Or a sheep. Unfortunately for them, I’m a wolf.