by Carmen Ruggero
part 1 of 2
Early one Saturday morning, in the spring of 1975, Elaine and Dotty, two of the Brown Derby’s veteran waitresses, were getting things ready for the breakfast crowd. Between them, they had more than sixty years of service in the famous coffee shop. And that was all they had in common.
Elaine — she was the pretty one — stood on the seat of one of the red leather booths by the wall. “Hand me the feather duster, will you Dotty?”
“I’m nowhere near the feather duster!” Dotty yelled. “Can’t believe the fingerprints on this glass door from one day to the next.” Dotty’s plump body quivered as she frantically wiped off the greasy smudges.
Elaine, still standing on the red leather booth, observed: “Your ass shakes like Jell-O. Don’t you wear a girdle?”
“A girdle?” Dotty laughed. “What century did you get stuck in, girl?”
“There’s no time limit for common sense. You shake like Jell-O.”
“Girdles make my ass itch.”
Elaine pointed to the picture of Marilyn Monroe hanging on the wall. “There’s dust on Marilyn. She sure was a pretty thing, wasn’t she?”
“Yep, she was.”
Elaine stepped down from the red leather booth, pulling down on her brown uniform as she walked toward the counter. She had changed her mind about dusting in favor of a coffee and cigarette. Full mug in hand, she sat on one of the barstools, and swiveled around to face the wall. She glanced at her bright red fingernails as she took a Winston from the pack inside her white apron pocket. Her blonde curls fell softly across her forehead, as she tilted her head and fixed her clear blue gaze on Marilyn’s picture. She absentmindedly tapped the end of her cigarette on one side of the pack.
“She sure was pretty,” she mumbled lighting her cigarette. She crossed her legs. The hem of her uniform pulled up. “Things change,” she said, shifting her gaze from Marilyn to her flabby knees.
“Yep, back then we didn’t need signs like this one: ‘No shoes, no shirt, no service’,” Dotty said as she stepped into the coffee shop. “Back then, everyone always dressed up nicely. This place had glamour, remember?”
“Yep, things changed. We changed. You think they might change the length of the lousy uniforms — like we never aged, right?”
“I don’t worry about that crap. Here today, gone tomorrow. That’s the way I look at it.” Dotty placed the spray bottle and cleaning rag under the counter, filled a mug with fresh coffee, and cigarette in hand she sat on the stool next to Elaine.
“Don’t you worry about getting old?” Elaine’s red lips quivered — her eyes fixed on Marilyn’s picture.
Dotty’s brown eyes glimmered underneath her salt and pepper bangs. “Nope! I’ve had this job for twenty years, I’m good at what I do, been married for twenty-five, I’m happy. What’s there to worry about?”
“Doesn’t Bernie mind your extra weight?”
“No. He likes Jell-O.”
Elaine twirled her fingers through her blond curls. She raised her head, and looked at Dotty: “I somehow wanted more.” Her smile was almost perfect. “I once met Marilyn, you know?”
“I know; you’ve told me.”
“Sorry. I repeat myself, sometimes. We had stars back then. They gave us dreams...”
“We have stars now,” Dotty sipped her coffee.
No. Now... now we have... ‘a.K.t.o.r.s’.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The actors in those days were magical. Bigger than life, you know? Not like Ace, our honorable head waiter. He’s an a.K.t.o.r.”
Dotty laughed, and elbowed Elaine’s ribs: “Someone asked him if he’d been on TV and you know what he said?”
“Something gross, I imagine.”
“He threw his nose up in the air and said: ‘You’ll never catch me selling toothpaste on screen.’”
Elaine giggled: “Did you notice he’s been wearing nothing but black since he started rehearsing Hamlet? He actually looks good. I figured if he doesn’t make it in show biz, he can always go into the funeral business.”
“You’re nasty, Elaine.”
“Like the movies. Back in the old days, we had movies; we could get lost inside them. You could understand lines like when Clark Gable said: ‘Frankly my dear,’” she mimicked, “’I don’t give a damn’. I remember the audience sighing when he said that. First cuss word ever on screen. Remember that?”
“Yep, I remember.”
“We were young then, but we still remember. That was a line we could understand.”
“Oh yeah? What did ‘fiddle-de-de’ mean?”
“It meant she was a spoiled brat. Everyone knew that. But what’s this we have now? Like that play Ace was in last summer. That... that thing... Waiting for Godot who?! Now what was that? Two guys talking for forty-five minutes like they were killing time; like someone forgot to make an entrance or something...”
“Maybe someone had — Godot... somebody?”
“Maybe.” Elaine patted her hair, making sure all her blond curls were in place. Yep; they were.
“Ace ever catches you talking like that you’ll catch hell, Elaine! Is Helga here, yet? I’m not setting up her station any more. I’m sick of these waiters-would-be-actors-heaven-forbid-stars who can’t show up for work on time.”
Thank God for small miracles. Ace had just strolled through the front door, as if he’d never heard the expression “preset your station.”
“Good morning, ladies.”
“Good morning, Ace.” Elaine watched him walk past them on his way to the back of the restaurant. She let him just press his hand on the swinging door, and then called: “Ace...”
Ace took a deep breath and turned to face Elaine. “Juliet forgot fifty percent of her lines on our dress rehearsal last night. I’ve got a headache — whatever it is, it better be good.”
“Well, I was tidying things up today, just to be nice to you on account that you were running late, and took inventory of your silverware. You keep 25 of each, don’t you?”
Ace’s nostrils flared: “What’s missing?”
“Oh... I’d say about seven forks and ten knives... and... all the coffee spoons.”
Ace slapped the swinging door open and disappeared into the backroom uttering something loud, incomprehensible and, no doubt, crude.
Dotty shook her head. “He’s gonna get you back, one of these days, Elaine, he’s gonna get you back.”
“He’s an idiot. He could say that line... you know... in bright Technicolor, he could say: ‘Frankly my dear...’ and twenty years from now people would only remember Clark Gable saying it. He’s an idiot actor. He ain’t no star, I can tell you that.”
“So, where is Helga? You didn’t say.”
“She’s in the back. Crying. Got turned down for a part at Universal.” Elaine rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
“Why does she do that to herself? The poor soul can’t act.” Dotty blew a puff of smoke toward the ceiling. “Do you remember that show we went to see down at the Evergreen Theater? She played a silly little rich girl... gosh she was so bad I didn’t know what to say to her afterward. And she kept asking all week long, ‘did you like it? Did you like it, uh...?’ Dotty sipped on her coffee.
“Yeah... I remember. This thing at Universal... well, she was competing against Susan Fox, no less.”
Coffee spewed from Dotty’s lips hitting Elaine right on the forehead.
“Now look what you’ve done, idiot!”
”I’m sorry Elaine... you mean voluptuous Susan Fox? Oh... please don’t make me laugh. Crap! This is too funny... sorry I sprayed coffee on you... now you look like you’ve got freckles... freckles are in nowadays.”
“Yeah. Right. I spent an hour slapping on this make up, I’ll have you know.”
Dotty handed her a paper napkin from the dispenser. “You’re a pretty woman, Elaine, why do you need all that on your face?”
Elaine’s red lips quivered. “I wouldn’t be caught dead without make-up.” She blotted some of the brown moisture off her face.
“How old are you? You couldn’t be more than forty-five.”
“I wish. I’m fifty.” Elaine puffed on her Winston. “This whole damned town is beautiful, you know?”
“Well honey... no. You’re not Marilyn, so quit comparing yourself to her...”
“Yes, you do.” A short silence came between the two women, then Dotty continued: “You’re you, a waitress, and a damn good one. You’re pretty. Find yourself a good man. Be happy. At the end, none of this matters one bit, you know? This place could disappear tomorrow.”
“What? The Derby? Right. Where would they send the tour buses, then?
“To the zoo to feed the monkeys for all I care. I mean it, honey. Anything can happen. We could be out of a job today. All kinds of hell could break loose. What if Hollywood ceased to exist? Here you’ll be: comparing yourself to a dead actress no one will even know then.”
“You keep talking like that, you’ll make me cry.” Elaine put the paper napkin inside her apron pocket unaware that she’d left some of the coffee smeared on her face.
“Just be yourself. There’s nothing wrong with you, sweetie.”
A crowd had gathered at the front door waiting for the place to open. And who should be first in line?
“Oh, oh... there’s John Trusdale. Star for all times — impeccably dressed as usual. Get his orange juice on ‘his’ side of the counter,” Dotty told Elaine. “I’ll get Helga. She’s got the counter today — bless her little actress ass.”
Dotty disappeared through the swinging door. And there was Helga. Tall, skinny, red puffy eyes, roll of toilet paper in hand, blowing her nose out of existence.
“Helg,” she said, “we need you, honey.”
“I can’t....” Helga screeched.
“You must, darling, please...”
“I can’t... just can’t...” Helga’s golden pony-tail shook from side to side.
“John Trusdale is here... he sits at the counter you know... he likes you, and... you’ve got the counter today. Please don’t let us down.”
Helga took a long piece of toilet paper and blew very loudly into it.
“There’ll be other parts, Helg. Susan Fox can’t act anyway; they just like her breasts...”
“Yep,” Ace interrupted on his way out. “Those sag after a while, you know? Then no one will give her the time of day and then they’ll have to notice your talent...” His eyes fixed on Helga’s chest. “If you’ve got one.”
“Oh... no...” Helga began crying loudly.
Dotty knew she’d stuck her foot in her mouth, but she had to get Helga out to the floor.
“Oh... there, there, Helga; there’s nothing wrong with your breasts, honey.”
Helga crossed her arms over her frontal elevation the size of two Spanish olives.
“Oh, don’t listen to him. He’s got a feather up his ass, or something.”
“But he’s right,” Helga cried, bracing herself. “Except that by the time her breasts start sagging, I’ll be too old — I’m already twenty-three!”
“Well,” Dotty was suddenly serious. After all, there’s only so much one can say, or do, to try and help a person. This is not my problem. Helga would just have to get over it in a hurry. “Let me put it this way: John Trusdale is here. He sits at the counter. You’ve got the counter today — he gives us hell on account of you, you better run for your life, missy!” Having said that, she pushed the swinging door and walked back into the coffee shop which by now was full to capacity.
“You’ve got section eighteen through twenty-five. It’s full already.” Elaine was carrying a tray with three Spanish omelets, three bacon and eggs, six orders of toast, and a toasted bagel to booth seventeen.
“Okay, who had the omelets?”
“Here!” Three hands went up.
She put the omelets down, and before she got to the bacon and eggs, a well meaning individual, not knowing what was required to balance a tray, took his order from it causing the whole tray to drop.
“Oh... I’m so sorry,” said the man. “Really sorry, Elaine.”
“No problem,” she smiled. “MARIO! CLEAN UP!” She rushed back to the cooks’ counter. “Oscar, I need three more orders of bacon and eggs.” She took the paper napkin she had placed in her apron pocket and wiped her upper lip.
“You’ll have to wait your turn — got fifteen orders ahead of you.”
Please, Oscar; a customer just dumped my tray... please...” She tapped her foot.
Oscar narrowed his Armenian eyes. His olive moon face glimmered with sweat. He puckered his small fleshy lips. “I’ll squeeze you in,” he growled.
“Thank you, Oscar.”
John Trusdale’s diamond ring sparkled under the light as he caressed Helga’s hand. “Don’t worry honey, those breasts will sag in no time at all... silicone, you know. Meanwhile, can you get me a western omelet with the works, a double side of bacon, and wheat toast with margarine on the side, and make sure it’s margarine, not butter. I’m watching my cholesterol.”
“That was... ah... a western o-m-e-l...” Helga sulked.
“Omelet,” John finished her sentence.
“...and double order of...”
“...a side of wheat toast...”
“... with margarine, not butter.”
“Your counter is full to the end, Helga dear.” Elaine brushed past her.
“Oh, Elaine, have a heart. The girl’s having a tough time.” John pinched Helga’s arm: “Now you rush that order, sweetheart, I’m hungry.”
Dotty approached the cooks’ counter to place her order. “Three scrambled with Canadian bacon! — Elaine! Kay Ballard just walked in.”
“So she did. She always sits in Ace’s station. She likes him.”
“I wonder why?” Dotty narrowed her eyes.
“Who knows, maybe she likes sour faces; who cares?”
“Look at him. Why does he always pucker his lips when he smiles?”
“That’s his intellectual constipated look. He thinks that’s how fine people smile.”
“Okay Elaine,” Oscar slapped the order on the counter. “Here you go... try not to drop them this time, eh?”
“I didn’t drop them! The customer...”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah...” Oscar gulped from his Coke bottle and pulled the next order off the spindle, at the same time.
Elaine ran her hand up the back of her head checking her curls, dabbed her upper lip, stuck the moist napkin back in her apron pocket, picked up the tray, and headed back to booth seventeen where three people were about to dislocate their necks looking for their eggs to arrive.
“Here we are: three bacon and eggs right off the grill.”
“Get us some more coffee will you, honey?” One of the men patted her hip.
“Coming right up.”
Elaine made her way back to get a pot of coffee trying her best to dodge the gaze of starving patrons. Not my section! They’ll have to wait.
Someone sitting at the end of the counter grabbed her arm. “Sweetheart, can you get me a chocolate sundae? I’ve been waiting forever.”
“Yes, I’ll take coffee to booth seventeen, first. Then I’ll fix your sundae.”
Helga was still trying to decipher John Trusdale’s order.
“Helga, your counter is still full. And I’m not making no damn chocolate sundae.” Elaine spewed the words between her teeth.
“I’ll get it.”
“Oh, Dotty! Let her carry her own weight.”
“I’m waiting for my order... no sweat.”
Copyright © 2008 by Carmen Ruggero