by Megan Paske
Alice looked down at her scratched up watch—the cheap gift she received for her thirteenth birthday with which she could not bear to part. 5:57 a.m. Damn. Her shift began at 5:30 a.m. She always started with the floor. She swept up remnants of the previous evening’s melee: crimped trash, wilted flower petals, an occasional, fully intact boutonniere. She gathered deflated balloons and soggy cocktail napkins clinging to the sticky veneer of the banquet hall floor, indiscernible from that of a high school cafeteria.
Alice methodically purged the floor of debris stomped upon by drunken dancing feet—shoe scuffs and dirty barefoot prints made by inebriated twenty-somethings. She smoothed over their traces with a few swipes of her mop. The water in the bucket, already becoming murky, resembled toxic, watered-down chocolate milk.
The room smelled of dank hangover. Every hour she walked out to smoke; she never smoked before she started working at the ‘Club.’ She picked up the habit as an excuse to get air. By 6:45 a.m. she was ready for a break—another break around 8:00 a.m. and she might have a chance to share a smoke with Joshua.
Sitting on a crooked wooden bench, back by the dumpsters, she felt refreshed by the morning sun. Her stained black, poly-nylon pants—standard uniform—drew in the early morning light and heated her knees and thighs as she sat, puffing indifferently on her cigarette. She stalled as long as she could; being in the hangover basement, alone, left her slightly claustrophobic. The abandoned party from hours before nauseated her; its ghosts taunted her. “You missed a spot there.” “No, there it is, pick that up.”
She finished her cigarette, stood up and swept stray ashes from her pants. Her white, button-down shirt—also standard uniform—held wrinkles and stains from the previous night. She reentered, bracing herself for her eyes to adjust. Dust particles danced through streams of sun that made it through the small windows in the upper corners of the hall.
The banquet hall was a basement; the contrast between its dark and cornerish hues, and dawn’s pristine awakening, made her uneasy. Though she typically enjoyed her solitary shifts—preferred them to the ruckus of the night before, to the ‘weddings’—the banquet hall now expunged an atmosphere of phony celebration and fetid revelry. It sucked a few breaths from Alice. She lingered, waiting for them to return. Retrieving her equilibrium, she picked up her broom, mop and a bag for the rubbish she collected. She reinserted her ear buds and melted back into her own world. Her slight form worked quickly.
Alice always kept an eye out for ‘things’—items that people lost track of, not noticing their absence. It amused her to imagine who dropped them. A tube of lipstick or a compact mirror: a sloppy-drunk, single woman vying for a shot at the bouquet and a chance to hook up with an ‘eligible’ bachelor. An insurance salesman’s business card: a middle-aged man trying to strike up an opportunity at a new client. A limp, origami crane with one wing missing, molded from a cocktail napkin: a father entertaining his young child next to him at the bar while he gets shit-faced.
That morning she found a ring: small, expensive, worth at least five month’s salary of whomever had proposed. It did not belong to a married woman—no extra band signifying the ultimate commitment. It had been worn on the finger of a young fiancée. Alice imagined her waking up, bridesmaid’s gown in a heap on the floor, going into shock discovering the symbol of her future gone. Should I tell him? Why did I drink so much?
Alice grinned as she mused.
The weddings were the worst. She gladly accepted her Sunday cleaning and brunch shifts with the ‘blue hairs,’ (as Joshua called them) busting in one second after the doors opened at 10:00 a.m. They were as faithfully devoted to their Sunday brunch as Catholics to their Mass: primed for rubbery scrambled eggs, greasy hash rounds, tepid quiche and stale, day-old donuts and pastries.
A younger crowd often accompanied the ‘blue hairs:’ the ‘DIMKs’ (‘Duel Income too Many Kids’—another Joshua-coined term). A half dozen families barged in with their toddlers shortly after the initial rush, insisting on bringing in their own highchairs—the ones the ‘Club’ provided weren’t ‘safe’ enough. Fussy, young gremlins busied themselves pelting utensils, napkins, sippy cups—whatever they could their grubby paws on—all over the floors, beneath the tables, at ‘the wait staff.’
Alice did not mind picking up the brunches nearly as much as the weddings. The wedding table linens were always soiled with crushed, crusty pieces of overpriced cakes—cakes cut into tiny slivers on tiny plastic plates, cakes showcasing tiny brides and grooms with tiny plastic smiles, cakes parading tiny plastic lives to come. Throughout the post-wedding cleaning shifts, Alice often found pieces of the cake toppers, occasionally the full figurines themselves. She pocketed those and any other items she found interesting, with the exception of the expensive ones she knew people would miss—that engagement ring would be reunited with its owner’s fingers as soon as she realized where she lost it. Alice had already brought it to the office with a note for Susan.
Susan only attended the weddings—another reason Alice preferred Sundays. Susan left the Sunday brunches up to ‘the wait staff’ and ‘the cooking staff.’ ‘The cooking staff’ comprised a half dozen grunts whose jobs consisted of spilling ladles of lumpy mashed potatoes, watered-down gravy, and whatever vegetable happened to be thawed out the night before, and pass them along on an assembly line to the chef, Joshua. He finished off the plates for ‘the wait staff’ to dole out to mostly disgruntled customers, but not nearly as surly as the wedding guests.
Alice stuck around after the remaining staff left on Sundays. She and Joshua played chess in the kitchen. Joshua always won. He taught her how to play; he explained she had to lose in order to learn the game. Alice cared little for chess. She liked Joshua’s attention. Within her own life she kept to herself; it felt different spending time with another person. She had not yet considered herself ‘close’ with Joshua, however; their friendship and fondness for one another was growing.
“It’s your play.”
She moved her knight. He captured it with his rook.
“Where the hell did he come from?”
“You tell me. Are you even paying attention?” He scolded her with a broad grin.
She had been paying attention: to Joshua, to his nuances, not his chess moves. She moved her other knight. She held back a smile. Alice kept much of her life from Joshua, suspecting he had more questions than answers, never wanting to find out if he really cared to hear. She never shared the gems she gathered during her cleaning shifts. They remained silent, in her pockets.
She wanted to open up during the few moments she shared with Joshua, but opening doors to others created a spiral of anxiety within Alice’s mind. Questions awoke of how to shut them again if she needed to, or how to cope if they were shut in her own face. She kept Joshua at a safe distance, wondering if he was doing the same with her, or waiting for her to cross the threshold.
“That’s mate.” Joshua toppled her king. “You obviously aren’t.”
Alice brought her stash from her Sunday shifts home to her studio apartment. She had just enough to afford her quaint living space by scraping by on ten dollars an hour, working 30 hours or less a week. She picked up the wedding cleaning shift on Sunday mornings for the extra cash. She managed to pick up waiting tables, or an occasional bar tending shift, on Friday nights when the ‘Club’ was open to the general public. Joshua did not work those nights. The ‘Club’ served a limited menu of bar food (mostly deep fried) the ‘cooking staff’ was more than capable of handling. Alice often wondered what Joshua did with his time on those Friday nights; she never inquired, despite her curiosity and ample chances.
She walked through her door, after a particularly long day. She slumped down on the couch, which dually served as her bed—a dilapidated futon that had made its last move. Any future attempts to relocate it would result in its disintegration into a pile of futon rubble. Its lumpy, unbearably thin mattress had sprung quite a few leaks. Alice did not care. It was hers and she did not have any imminent intent to share it with anyone.
She emptied her pockets, like a tinker sorting her recent loot, on a small painted green, chipping coffee table she had found at the bottom of a driveway. It had been small enough to throw in the back of her 1996 Honda Civic. She cased the place a few times, ensuring no one might witness her ‘dumpster dive,’ then made her move. It was surprisingly heavy, but Alice managed it into the back seat at an angle and peeled out, never looking back.
Every piece of Alice’s life had been discovered and carefully collected. She preferred the nuances of those things others left behind, for which they no longer cared. She resurrected them into something she could use—something she could transform. These ‘things’ no longer just served a function, nor were they left as a neglected bit of another’s life. They become a part of her life. A part of her.
As she decompressed her mind from the day, she gathered her anonymous rubble from the previous evening’s wedding. She always saved the cake toppers for last. She first decided which other items to pitch, and which to save in one of her many drawers or carefully crafted containers. Her favorite items were reserved for the hope chest she had saved from her childhood. When it became too full, she would prioritize the items and find another place within her tiny apartment for the least favorable to go. Sometimes she threw something out.
But never the cake toppers.
Alice carefully turned over her latest bride and groom cake topper, standing with their cartoon smiles atop her coffee table.
“Not too bad, huh Fern?”
The tiny blue and green parakeet chirped back—neither an acknowledgement nor an admonition. Alice kept her around for good luck. And a little company. Other than Joshua, Fern gave Alice the only opportunities for conversation.
If Alice had a full set of plastic body parts from her Sunday pickings, she tried to reconstruct them via superglue to their original fake, happy smiling state. Other times it was impossible and she saved the pieces and continued to collect more until she had enough to, in which she delighted, create cake topper Frankensteins. She glued the head of the groom on the bride and vice versa. She spliced extra arms on torsos and once managed to make a two headed bride. Alice’s wedding voodoo.
This morning’s topper stayed intact, with the exception of a missing arm and half of a veil. Alice preferred the toppers that fell to pieces at previous weddings, the ones she glued together to become the Frankenstein couples. These weddings, the ‘Wedding Cake Topper Suicide Weddings,’ she knew would certainly end in divorce. The tiny bride and groom blowing up and shaking the windows of their tiny houses. The way her family had.
Alice had hidden in her room during the fights and found pieces of her life to pick up and put away into drawers and closets. Most times she found pieces to throw into her waste basket. Bit by bit she left them there until the basket was full: CDs she was sorry she’d bought with her only allowance money, notes from the other girls at school that circulated around until they made their way to her, pens that lost their ink and no longer wrote in her journals.
If she found something interesting in her room—a rock she had picked up at the beach when she was much younger, or an old toy from a cereal box (back when they put toys in the boxes)—she held onto them and placed them in a special compartment of a drawer, or in the hope chest she kept locked with her journals and other oddities she picked up here and there. That hope chest followed Alice around to all the places she lived since the divorce. She was not perfectly certain of the entirety of its contents. She had thought often of sorting through the whole lot, but decided she preferred its slight mystery.
Once Alice’s cake topper reconstructions were complete, she added her new-found wedding party friends to a small shelf that hung near her bed on a wall by the east window. Every morning she woke up, she was greeted by a view of her strange hobby: of what she was doing and who she was, or was not becoming. She needed the wedding cake toppers to distract her through her shifts. Through her life.
Of all the items Alice collected, the cake toppers gave her the most satisfaction. She was stealing pieces of another couple’s ‘biggest day’ without anyone having the vaguest notion their handpicked cake topper stood now in a mutated state upon the shelf of an anonymous ‘wait staffer.’ Alice felt in control of a small piece of something. Often, when she worked the wedding night shift, she secretly eyed the topper, waiting for someone to lose track of it. Almost every couple did.
At 24, she knew she would never have one of her own—a wedding. Even if she met a man, and fell in love—got swept off her feet, there would be no wedding. What Alice hated was the fanfare. The farce. The speeches and the toasts. The wedding cakes were the worst. She hated those goddamned cake toppers. Her shrine to the ones she found (and put back together like Humpty Dumpties) was not out of homage or envy, but irony. Seeing those things, mangled and marred, made her almost giddy with the notion that she knew something all these ‘newlyweds’ did not, nor ever would.
Alice convinced herself she was happy with her simple life with Fern, her collections, her journals and her solitude. Weddings were the opposite of solitude and what they invited in after the fact—the ‘marriage’—Alice wanted nothing to do with. Despite her aversion to the typical ‘American Couple,’ she did wonder at times what it might be like to take a man home with her. What he would think of her Fern, of her sundry collections, her taste in music, and most troublesome, her shelf of Wedding Cake Topper Voodoo Dolls. Those thoughts did not too often plague Alice, but on nights when she and Joshua opined over smokes, she caught a glimmer of what it might be like to entertain letting a man into her life. But then, Joshua was Joshua.
Joshua hated the weddings as much as Alice did. Alice served greedy guests with disapproving looks at the plates she placed in front of them—blaming her for limp green beans, the over-cooked, under-portioned steaks. The grey chicken. And the fish. Not one time had she served fish to a ‘guest’ that he did not demand she send it back immediately. And what was she to bring back in its place? For every plate of fish Joshua prepared, he made a note of how long it would take before he would get it back.
Joshua would throw more paprika on it, add another garnish of parsley and flip it around on the plate. Alice would watch in wonderment when he put his finishing touches on. Drizzling a quarter cup of butter over the whole plate.
“There, this’ll shut ‘em up,” Joshua winked at her.
Most of what Alice had discerned from Joshua in the three and a half years they had worked together was superficial, though she felt a devoted presence of friendship growing beneath his blasé exterior. He had worked as a chef of some sort since he was 18, had a cat named Buster, and an unusual fondness for Monty Python. He busted out from time to time in a phony British accent, reciting from memory entire sketches, reenacting all the characters. Alice had no clue what he was saying or talking about, but he never failed to make her laugh.
Alice was the only one at the ‘Club’ (with the exception of Susan) who conversed with Joshua; that largely came as a direct effect that she was the only one of ‘the wait staff’ to whom he talked. Sometimes she thought he was flirting with her, but no he’s too old. I’m only 24, he’s nearly 38. Would never work. At times she found herself blushing, and fighting the urge to flirt back, if she had not yet already slipped up.
The night she found the wedding cake topper drowning upside-down in a brandy old-fashioned, she instinctively (and as discretely as possible) delivered it straight to Joshua.
Alice proudly presented the cocktail. Joshua looked up from his semi-conscious state of slopping slices of chicken or beef onto made-up plates. He added relish and garnishes in attempt to make the meals appear classier than your average middle class, American wedding. His blue eyes twinkled, peering out from thick, dark eyebrows. He casually swiped a greasy sleeve across his perspiring forehead. The part Alice admired most about Joshua’s appearance was his neatly trimmed, yet unruly beard that reached a good three inches from his chin. Filled in at the sides, it vined all the way up to just below his earlobes. The rest of his coarse, wavy black hair was pulled back in a man bun. Alice had no idea just how long his hair was. She ruminated on his unconventional attractiveness.
“Now that’s a drunk tank.” He reached for an uncooked, still frozen, onion ring (part of the standard bar grub from Friday evenings), and wedged the little plastic smiley couple back in. They bobbed, upside down, in the cocktail. Alice could not keep the delight from spreading across her petite face. “Keep it babe – you might need it later. I heard this wedding’s full of ‘those assholes from Callaway.’’’
Joshua liked to refer to anyone he assumed to live in the area as, ‘those assholes from Callaway.’ Going on the fact that the ‘Callaway Club’ was one of the only banquet halls (not to mention the cheapest) in a town of about 40,000, most of the wedding guests exemplified his verbal effigy. The ones with more money generally sold out and went a few miles north to a more upscale venue, ‘Lakeview Heights.’
She stood, staring at Joshua for a bit. Her fair skin and freckles began to betray her internal reaction to his unexpected, unsolicited term of endearment. She blushed, just as vividly and red as her hair. She could feel the heat emanate from her visage like a furnace, praying that Joshua did not notice her new, spontaneously combusted sunburn. The kitchen lights gave off an unforgiving florescent blaze.
“Oh…” was what came out of her mouth. Babe. He just called me babe, occupied her mind.
Joshua went back to his business, suddenly and seemingly forgetting her presence. She started to skitter off back to the tables when Susan, the head manager, interrupted. Alice thankfully had stowed the glass with her diving newlyweds behind a stack of folded flatware by the time Susan started in with which tables needed attention and where Alice needed to be two minutes ago.
“Now stop messing around and get out there and get your job done. We’re not paying you to swap war stories with ‘the kitchen staff.’”
Joshua openly hated Susan: all four feet, ten inches of her dumpy frame, complete with support stockings, orthopedic shoes, wire-rimmed glasses and a tightly wound grey bun. She might have been in her early fifties, but her getups aged her to at best 65. As the one and only chef, Joshua particularly resented being referred to as ‘the kitchen staff.’ The others dropped servings of potatoes, overcooked veggies, and mealy corn onto plates; he completed the meals with his own flourishes. Alice knew even a Red Lobster would have suited him better than the ‘Callaway Club.’
Alice took solace in the fact, yet unknown reason, Joshua remained as the chef at the ‘Club,’ instead of hunting out a job elsewhere. Joshua was her only refuge there; when they had time to sneak out together, she relied on him as an outlet from the drudgery of ‘the wait staff.’ Sometimes after the ‘Club’ was closed out and the rest of the crew had wrapped up (Alice lamenting she would be back bright and early the next day, picking up after the pigs and rubes) Joshua and Alice would share a piece of wedding cake. Not from the wedding that had just gone down—that would have certainly gotten the both of them in serious shit with Susan.
Each wedding cake had a layer preserved for the couple—not to be sliced or served to the guests. Often, the bride and groom would request it be held over in the freezer until they got back from their honeymoons. Some stupid tradition having to do with keeping pieces of the wedding cake frozen for the first anniversary. When the aging cakes passed their ‘expiration dates’—when the couples forgot to retrieve their sacred fondant covered, baked declaration of their unending love—Joshua fished one out.
Alice and Joshua sneaked back to the dumpster on a particularly dark evening, and shared freezer burned wedding cake that tasted like nothing but fusty, cold boxed cake with crusty icing. It made no difference to either of them. It was free and it was something do. To share. The only light illuminating their ever so slightly besotted expressions came from the ‘Club’s’ dim lamp posts twenty yards off.
“So why Buster?”
Alice could not choke down another bite and handed her slice over to Joshua who willingly accepted it. Joshua seemed forever hungry; his athletic build hinted at an impressive exercise regime. Or excellent genetics.
“The cat named itself.” Joshua, unabashedly licking his fingers, offered no other explanation.
“So why Fern?”
Joshua eyed her over a heaping plastic forkful of Marble cake, coated in what appeared to have at once been pink buttercream frosting. He shoved it in his mouth with one go, swallowed with another.
“’Charlotte’s Web.’” Alice inspected his expression for acknowledgment. None. “You know, the old children’s story about a spider named Charlotte?”
“You named your bird after a spider?”
“No, my bird’s name isn’t Charlotte. I named her after Fern, the girl in the story who looks over Wilbur, the pig who befriends Charlotte.”
“A girl with a pig who has a pet spider name Charlotte.”
“Something like that. Either way, Fern suits her.”
“I would have gone with Wilbur.” Joshua stood up now, the last crumbs from the wedding cake falling from his black uniform pants. Same as Alice’s.
“My bird is a girl.”
“Buster is a girl.”
“Gotta go babe. You be safe walking home now. You coming in for the morning cleaning shift?”
“Uh, yes. 5:30. I’ll see you when you get in I guess.”
Joshua held the notion that he knew more about Alice than she knew about him: and more than she knew he knew about her. He presumed she was a lonely girl, struggling to get by on a wage that paid half the amount of work she was doing. He had been there. Hell, he was still there. He knew he could get another job. A line cook would be better than this current gig; he stuck around for Alice. They worked together every weekend for three and a half years. He could not let their bizarre friendship go, yet was never able to pinpoint his feelings for her. So he watched her from a distance—a character study for a novel he would never write.
He was not fooling himself; not expecting to sweep her off her feet. Nearly fourteen years separated them. While that provided no barrier to him, he assumed it might to her. Also, his affinity and fascination with Alice bordered on an instinctive protectiveness. She seemed fragile in many ways, despite her obvious strength. He picked up on pieces of her life that she revealed in the short sentences they exchanged over their chess games, cigarettes and pieces of freeze-dried wedding cake. She spoke with her bright hazel eyes—they told him she wanted more than the life she was living.
His own life begged for more, yet a combination of contentment and bitterness held him fixed in a state of indecisive alchemy. He knew how easy he could release himself from his current existence—just pick up and leave. But he stayed for Alice. He had more questions to his presuming answers about her life and the trajectory of the life that lie ahead of her. He knew he was far from the source, the person, who could release her. Yet he stayed, mostly out of concern, partially out of a childlike curiosity. Alice fascinated him. She was far beyond a young, beautiful girl working a two-bit job, mopping floors and waiting tables for unforgiving, disrespecting ‘assholes from Callaway.’
Sometimes he followed her home. He knew he may either terrify or incense her if she found out, but he wanted to keep her safe. He wanted to know where she lived—he found out it was only a few short blocks from ‘Club.’ He waited for her to leave after her shifts, and quietly watched her walk herself home, following from a distance. He wanted to find out how she lived. He wanted to know more than that she was safe, but that she was happy. He believed if the latter was not the case, nor could he do anything to rectify it, he could at least ensure the former.
Joshua stood six foot four inches tall. Almost a full foot taller than his little Alice. ‘Babe,’ he started calling her. Partially out of habit from previous girlfriends, partially out of his genuine feelings towards her. She did not seem to mind, so he kept it up. Secretly hoping for a reaction. Alice never reacted. Once, he thought he caught her blushing, but wrote it off as the intense florescent lighting in the kitchen.
He knew she sometimes picked up a Friday evening shift. Those evenings he fought the urge to show up at the end of the night and follow her home; he knew he already bordered a line between overprotective friend and stalker.
He also knew she worked an extra two and a half hours every Sunday morning. He came in early for his 8 a.m. shifts to steal time to smoke with Alice before he began the meal prep for the ‘blue hairs,’ while she finished cleaning up after the debaucherous farce of a ‘celebration’ of two people coming together in union, ‘until death do they part.’ A tired trope.
Joshua held the conviction that two people declaring their ‘love’ for one another in front of hundreds of people was little more to celebrate than that of buying a puppy and throwing it a birthday party. It is eventually going to die, and everybody knew it. To Joshua, weddings were mere beginnings of long, drawn out divorces.
His own parents gave him no favors: left Joshua stuck in the middle of a battle that lasted until he was eighteen years old. He vowed never to be party to the ‘sacrament’ of marriage. Once he hit eighteen, he made hey and took a few culinary classes for which he had saved over the course of the previous four years. He landed an apprenticeship, worked as a line cook and chef for various chain restaurants, until he eventually threw it in and settled for a weekend gig, living paycheck to paycheck. Alice was part of the deal he had not anticipated. He wanted out of the area and knew he could easily find a job in a bigger city. She changed everything.
He wanted to ‘fix’ her before she ‘broke.’ He wanted to show her life could be more than what she was making of it. He had no knowledge of her childhood, her dreams or even her interests outside of ‘work.’ That mattered little to him. Alice embodied the mistakes Joshua made—or better, she embodied the potential of making those same mistakes.
One night, during one of the most drunkenly rowdy weddings he had experienced at the ‘Club,’ he picked up on something he had never seen in Alice. If Susan could not rattle his plucky little red head with the big hazel eyes, he thought no one could. She entered the kitchen with a typical fish return. The look on her face told him she was either spooked, or irate. Or both.
“Same complaint…please do your thing. Paprika, butter, etc.” Alice did not even make eye contact.
“Okay,” Joshua squatted down, lowering his towering height so he was mostly eye to eye with Alice from the other side of the counter.
“But you need to tell me first what the hell is going on.”
“Oh, nothing. There’s just a guy…”
“What guy? What’s he saying to you? What’s he doing?”
“Nothing, really it’s nothing. I can handle it.”
Alice grabbed the plate. She threw the paprika on it, grabbed some melted butter and poured it on herself. She stalked off. She was not mad at Joshua, he knew that. But her agitation struck him hard. He quietly followed Alice out the kitchen entry and watched from a crack in the double-sided swinging doors.
Alice’s grace was remarkable: her thick curly hair pulled back into a knot, her petite frame weaving in and out of chairs, bending down slightly to ask if guests needed anything else. She stacked baskets, plates and utensils onto trays; a few spare forks fell to the floor. As she bent down to pick it up, he saw him.
Clearly inebriated, a young man—suit jacket too tight, signs of a beer gut, and hands the size of Susan’s—grabbed for Alice. He stopped her as she was in the middle of bending, by extending his left arm out in front of her waist. Her tray with its baskets and plates fell to the ground, creating a commotion, which, instead of alarming guests, irritated them further after their mediocre meals. Without so much as a side glance of the man that had intentionally tripped her, Alice took a knee to steady herself, picked up her tray, fallen utensils, and baskets, and headed straight for the kitchen.
Joshua saw red. His eyes fixated on the young man who continued his pursuit of Alice, following her right back to the kitchen. Alice did her best to ignore her new fan, when Joshua came out of the kitchen and made a move to get in between the two of them.
“Just what in the Hell do you think you are doing?”
“Ah that?” The man, incredulous, circumvented Joshua and attempted to wrap his arm around Alice’s tiny waist.
“Ginger and I were just getting to know each other, isn’t that right sweetheart?”
Alice evaded his advance and uttered a quiet but firm, “Excuse me.” She shoved her tray at Joshua, who took it without question. She turned and headed straight for the bathroom.
“You look at me.” Joshua towered over the drunken boor, fighting the urge to wring him by the neck. Even through his ire, Joshua could not help but notice a bleached-tipped faux hawk. The young man disconcertingly resembled a bloated Justin Bieber.
“You touch her again, you say anything to her again, and I will find you after this is all over and you’ll wish you had never even looked at her.”
The beer gut Bieber snorted. “Who are you? Her father?” His voice slurred now, as he swayed side to side.
“Get out of my face.”
Alice’s harasser eventually left Joshua. Joshua stayed close to the side of the kitchen for the rest of the evening. He frequently checked out from behind his counter to ensure Alice was far enough away from Bieber so that he could not get another dig at her. What Joshua did not know, nor could demise, was that although he was at a distance, Bieber continued to yell to Alice.
“Hey Ginger, how ‘bout you and I have a dance? C’mon…just one lil dance?”
Eventually Alice abandoned her post. By 11:00pm most of ‘the wait staff’ typically would leave. It was already 10:45. Alice traversed the dance floor where the tables had been, ignoring Bieber’s continuous advances, and ventured back to find Susan. She pulled her aside, explained the situation and asked if she could leave a few minutes early.
Susan surprised Alice with her immediate and genuine response.
“It happens. And I expect you in promptly at 5:30am tomorrow.”
Alice left, carefully retracing her steps, dodging her Justin Bieber lookalike. Joshua noticed her departure, and not bothering to remove his apron, hurriedly grabbed a frozen cake, two forks and a pack of smokes. He darted out the back. As Alice crossed the parking lot; Joshua caught up to her. He startled her by gently laying one of his sizable mitts on her left shoulder. She gasped and whipped around, taking a step back with her left foot and drawing her fists up.
Someone taught this girl self-defense. Joshua nearly dropped his entire stash of cake and cigarettes.
“Jesus Joshua. You scared the hell out of me.”
She eyed the cake and smokes, and smiled.
“Let’s go to our spot. I could use a little Joshua right now.”
They sat on their bench, smoking and eating the stale cake. She recounted her evening to Joshua. Bemoaning Bieber’s antics, particularly his insistence on calling her, ‘Ginger.’ Then from the back entrance of the banquet hall came a familiar sounding, tanked-up voice.
“Ginger—hey where’d ya go?”
“Good lord, this guy just won’t let up.”
Joshua started towards him, but Alice grabbed his arm.
“It’s okay. Just let him come.”
He approached them both; looked from one to the other, then down at his feet.
“You got something to say?”
Alice stuck her face two inches away from his nose, having to step on the tips of her feet to reach it.
“Yeah, uh. You and I should,” he trailed off.
He quickly turned around and walked back to the wedding. His buzz killed, he obviously realized he had made a fool of himself and. Without the guise of Alice’s obligatory customer service, it became clear to him she was no pushover.
Joshua looked at Alice in bewilderment. All these nights he had followed her home, he had no concept of her own ability to take care of herself. He mulled over his new discovery of his odd little friend. She grabbed his hand. He interpreted her unexpected gesture as an opportunity.
“Well look, do you want me to walk you home? It’s no trouble really.”
“You want to walk me home?”
Joshua paused, looking her square in the face.
“Well, to be honest, I usually do.”
“What the hell are you talking about Joshua?”
Alice dropped his hand, still holding in her other, her neglected cigarette. Its ashes grew until they fell off in a pile on her pants.
“Ouch, shit those were still hot.”
“Please don’t be mad.” He sounded like a begging child. “Sometimes after weddings, I follow you home. To know you get home safe. I know it’s seems weird. But there are a lot of assholes like that.”
Joshua stammered, failing to find a way to justify his intrusive behavior—a betrayal to his only friend.
“I can take care of myself.” Her words came out in a hiss.
“So I saw.”
Alice’s face tightened, her humor became unhinged. Her pupils dilated to the point where only a thin line of amber revealed the usual warmth of her eyes. Anger slowly drained her face to alabaster, until her freckles revealed its only remaining color. She looked Joshua dead straight into his now shameful gaze. Through the entire conversation, Joshua’s infatuation with Alice grew stronger, until her beauty became nearly unbearable to look at. He looked at his feet wearing the same expression her drunk fan had moments before. He hoped for her to say something. Anything. He sheepishly looked up.
He should have seen it coming. Alice slapped Joshua across the face. He slowly raised his hand to the place she landed her assault. Despite the cushion of his substantial scruff, it smarted: half out of physical pain, half out of self-pity. She left him standing alone in an empty parking lot: his uniform stained from the evening’s meals, cigarette ashes and pieces of an abandoned, anonymous wedding cake.
Following Alice home had been a narcissistic fantasy. He was no hero to Alice and never would be. She did not need a hero. Alice did not need him. His selfish actions had been protecting him, not her—providing him a sense of purpose, feeding his ego and pride.
With one slice of her hand, Alice had provided instant clarity. She possessed everything she needed for safety and protection. Alice was not going to fall to pieces, and if she were to, Joshua would not be the one to pick them up. Alice could collect herself up, perfectly well enough on her own.
Alice put in her two weeks. For a few weeks, she searched through temp agencies for an administrative position until she got a hit. She found one that would put less stress on her feet, and less unabashed harassment from drunken Biebers: a safe, ‘nine-to-five’ job.
Alice tried to convince herself her decision had nothing to do with Joshua, however; after the night he made his ‘confession,’ she knew she needed to move on. Not because Joshua had revealed colors he had hidden from her. Not because he had exposed an overbearing, overprotective side of himself. Not because he had betrayed her trust. Not because he had perhaps become too close and misinterpreted her feelings for him. Hell—she, herself, did not have a clue as to where her feelings for Joshua began and where they ended.
The truth became more complicated than that. She did not slap Joshua out of rage, but out of disbelief—dismay that he could hide something from her so brazen, yet so intimate. She might as easily have embraced him that night. Instead she chose the easier route: disengage and move on.
She needed another angle at life. She needed to prove to herself she was capable of taking care of own being. She craved more than the fantasy world she created, had always being creating: collecting random ‘things’ that had once belonged to others, fixating and creating Frankensteins out of abandoned tokens for which no one else cared. Alice realized the night she slapped Joshua, she was missing pieces of herself. She needed to find them elsewhere. She needed to be whole again.
She told Joshua on her last night. He acted surprised, though each of them knew that amongst ‘the wait staff’ and ‘the cooking staff,’ news of her leaving already made its way to the only chef in the establishment. Unlike the last time they locked eyes, hers burning his with her silent reproof, she now gave him back the glimmers of Alice he loved.
She finished her shift late that night. Susan collected her uniform. Alice had changed into her own clothes. She strolled towards a few of the remaining ‘wait staff’ in pair of slightly-too-large jeans, cinched at the waist with a wide belt, a black t-shirt tucked in and a jean jacket—something that might have come straight out of an 80s teen movie. Joshua stole glances of her as she made her quick goodbyes. His goodbye was the last.
Her smile revealed pained dismay, as though she suddenly realized she made a mistake, but there was no way to undo it.
“Bye Alice.” He could not take his eyes off of her. He had never seen her put together in the way she was now. The collection of all the pieces he had never thought he would witness.
After the last light in the hall was out, Joshua made his way to the parking lot, fishing his keys out of his dirty work pants. He stopped short. Alice casually leaned on his car, smoking a cigarette. She had let her hair down. Mounds of auburn curls spilled over her shoulders, reaching halfway down her back. Joshua lost his breath, unable to process for a moment, the extent of her beauty.
Alice started to walk towards the road that led to her apartment. Joshua faltered, unable to discern the exact intent of her casual command.
She urged him on with the impatience of a five-year-old. Joshua still had not moved. Alice came back to him, grabbed him by the hand and led him out of the lot.
“Doesn’t look like you need much protecting anymore.”
His mild protest was more out of self-preservation than that of reticence or resentment. He wanted more than anything at that moment to be with Alice—in any capacity, for any length of time, be it a mere half-mile walk.
“Maybe I just want the company.”
When they reached her apartment, Joshua tried to act as though he had never laid eyes on it. He looked at Alice expecting a snarky retort. Instead, she smiled and grabbed his other hand. Both of his hands in hers, he tensed. He quietly waited for her next instruction.
“Want to come in? I have something I want you to see!”
“Joshua, that wasn’t exactly the response I was looking for, but it’ll do.”
Still holding his hands, she half calmly led him up the stairs. Letting go of him, she quickly unlocked the front doorway and they walked down a dimly lit, too narrow hallway. A mild tang of take-out and body odor clung to the walls.
“Sorry about that.” Alice blushed. Joshua now had proof—she was a blusher.
“No worries. Every apartment hallway smells like this, or some version of it.” He could no longer hold back his grin.
She smiled at him. By the time they reached her door, her demeanor had made its complete transformation back to Alice: the girl with whom he had shared cigarettes, had devoured nasty cake, had discussed the inklings of their lives they were both comfortable enough to share.
He now knew Alice had not been afraid to open up. Joshua had been afraid to receive her. Part of both of them knew it. Whatever remained on the other side of that door, he knew revealed the rest of Alice’s world that, like the clothes she wore now, she had judiciously kept from him.
She quickly opened it and let them in. She flung her jacket on her futon, inspecting the condition of her own apartment. He hung awkwardly at the entrance. All 400 square feet of it screamed of Alice—her character revealed on each of her carefully chosen pieces of furniture, everything that hung on the walls, or rested on shelves, her journals, books and sketches strewn about on the counters and chairs. Alice’s life welcomed him in, along with a friendly chirp from Fern.
Alice made her way to the bird, cooed a hello and stroked her delicate chest feathers through the cage. Joshua felt more at home than anywhere he had been for the past decade. Alice had become his home over these past three and a half years, and now he recognized why. Her young life held more fulfillment than he ever experienced before in any human being.
He finally entered into the apartment, shyly shutting the door behind him. Alice smiled at him.
He noticed them before she pointed them out: The Frankenstein cake toppers, The Wedding Voodoo dolls, lined up just so, to provide an illusion of dancing. Alice looked at Joshua eyeing her creations. She saw the wide smile spread across his face, not a doubt in her mind about what he was thinking.
“Do you like them?”
“I love them.”
“I’m never getting married.”
“Neither am I.”
Megan Paske lives with her husband in Neenah, Wisconsin. She studied Journalism at UW Madison and was published in various newspapers as a columnist. She and her husband co-authored a story in “Marathon and Beyond.” Her fiction writing has been featured in “The Fable Online,” “Buck Off Magazine,” and will be included in January issue of “Forge Journal.’
Her other writing includes writing includes her personal blog, Live My Mad World, and several, yet-to-be published poetry chapbooks, many short stories, and a creative non-fiction memoir of her life and struggles with Bipolar Disorder.