Feather came up to me just as the early dinner rush was ending. “Listen up,” he said. “I’ve got a huge party upstairs at 8:15, so I need you to look after a few things.”
“What things?” I said.
“Mostly thirteen. I’m thinking thirteen may need a little extra attention.” Feather shook the hair out of his eyes. He was exceptionally, almost touchingly, lazy. “All I’m saying is, I need you to check in on her. I’ll get her order.”
“I don’t get it,” I said.
Feather set his hand on my shoulder and stared at me for a moment with his lousy gigolo face. “You’ll be fine.”
He was always doing this, trying to act all parental, which I knew on some level to be bogus, though I was sixteen years old, working at the fanciest restaurant on earth (to my knowledge) and thus idiotically susceptible.
“Fine,” I said.
I grabbed my carafe and headed for the floor. Through the high windows, I could see the fog rolling in with the dusk, settling over the redwoods. The Hidden Home Inn was at the very top of Tamalpais. On slow nights, I would wander out to the balcony and fish a butt out of the employee ashtray and gaze at the rambling homes below where my classmates lived. Further down the slope was the bungalow I shared with my mom and little sister, a dark smudge beneath the fog. It felt good to be so high up, at the top of something, almost dizzying.
* * * *
The woman at thirteen was staring out the window. Her hair looked like it had been styled very recently. It was bright red and curly, a carefully arranged heap. She was wearing a good deal of makeup, and her lips protruded oddly.
“Good evening,” I said. I held up my carafe, just to let her know that I was going to pour her some water. There was a whole protocol we were supposed to follow, so as not to startle the diners.
“We’re going to need a couple of menus,” the woman said, without turning to face me. “That’s the first thing. I’m meeting someone for dinner. They’ll be two of us tonight.”
Feather was supposed to deliver menus, but he was timing his runs to the kitchen to avoid me. The bus boys often ferried out the entrees and, less frequently, on busy nights, or if the shift manager wasn’t around, or if the shift manager was busy getting coked up in the office, we took orders as well.
The next time I went out I brought her a couple of menus.
“There you are,” she said.
I set down the menus.
“What did you say your name was?” she said.
“Austin? What sort of name is that?”
“Scottish,” I said. “My grandpa was Scottish. He came over from there as a kid,” I added, stupidly.
“Well it’s a very nice name. I’m Charlotte.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I like Charlotte, too. You must get a lot of jokes about spinning webs, huh?”
Charlotte’s Web had just come out, which I knew because my sister had seen it 700 times already.
Charlotte looked up at me, perplexed. In the candlelight, I could see that she was considerably older than I’d thought at first, closer, probably, to fifty than forty. Her neck had deep wrinkles.
“Because of the movie,” I said.
She nodded slowly. “I was wondering if you could get me a glass of wine. Could you do that, Austin?”
“I should probably get your waiter for that.” I wasn’t supposed to handle booze, obviously. But then I thought about Feather, who was up in the office by now, doing bumps off the blotter. “Or actually, maybe, what would you like?”
“A glass of chardonnay would be a blessing,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Coming up.”
“I should wait for George, shouldn’t I? He’ll be joining me for dinner.”
“Okay,” I said. “If you want to wait, that’s fine, too.”
“Oh, Charlotte! Make up your mind! Alright. Why don’t you bring me that chardonnay?” She smiled again and now I could see why her mouth looked a little funny: she had braces on. It unsettled me a little to see an adult woman, probably my mother’s age, with braces on.
* * * *
A few minutes later, I brought out the chardonnay, but Charlotte wasn’t at the table now. I looked up and saw her on the deck, a dark silhouette blowing smoke over the railing. She was much thinner than she had looked at the table.
I’d seen Feather at the pick up station. Before I could say anything, he sang out, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah! You’re a rock star, bro. It’s just a matter of time until this is all just a blurry memory. I’m serious. You’ve got what it takes. No doubt about that. Seriously. I owe you big time.”
He was such a cokehead.
I went back out and brought Charlotte her wine. I thought about asking her if she wanted to know about the specials, but the place across from her was still empty.
Charlotte took a sip of her wine. Her braces clicked against the rim of the glass.
“What sort of trees are those out there, Austin?”
“Redwoods,” I said.
“All of them?” she said.
It was obvious she was from somewhere else, back east maybe. I’d lived in Mill Valley my whole life, so I wasn’t too good on accents.
“Did you want to hear about the specials?”
“Oh,” Charlotte said. “I’m having dinner with George, as I told you. He should be along any minute. Maybe I should wait.”
“Right,” I said.
Before I could turn, though, she set her hand on my sleeve, clutched it a little. “Or, well, perhaps you could give me a preview. And then I can tell George. Or, if you don’t mind, you can tell him. You don’t mind, do you?”
So I told her about the specials, some kind of trout in a salt crust and lamb stew with mango and curry. It was that sort of menu, even though the chef, Francois, came in only a couple of times a month, to order food. The rest of the time it was his assistants, who were about my age, a couple of years older, kids who wouldn’t be going to college, with hacked up fingers and a sullen, beaten down aspect. They hated the servers, especially me. The only people who were at all friendly to me were the dishwashers. They were illegals and smiled maniacally at everyone.
“It all sounds so lovely,” Charlotte said. “George is going to be very happy, I can tell you that. You can take that to the bank and cash it, Austin.”
* * * *
It was almost 8:30 now. Charlotte had been seated for nearly an hour. There was no sign of George. I’d brought her another glass of chardonnay and she’d put in an order for an appetizer, the crab cakes. When I brought them, she took a tiny bite of one and made a sound, to indicate how delicious they were, and told me to compliment the chef. Then she asked me to bring her a bottle of wine, the name of which I’d never heard.
When I put in the order, Pound let out a whistle. “I’ll have to go down to the vault for that one.”
Pound had a fringe of hair that circled his head, like a friar, and a pink scar that ran from his earlobe to the corner of his mouth. The rumor was that he’d been in a knife fight with a Hell’s Angel back in the ’60s.
He returned with the bottle. It was dusty, so he polished it up with a dish towel.
“You want me to open this for you, little man?”
“Sure,” I said.
Pound was handling the bottle with uncharacteristic caution. He was not beyond dropping less expensive bottles on the ground, just to show the waiters who was who. “Feather’s gonna kick himself right in the ass when he sees this tab.” He smiled, and his scar smiled as well. “Don’t let him anywhere near that tab, okay?”
“Do you think she’s okay?” I said.
He looked over at Charlotte, who was sitting with her back very straight, staring at her empty wine glass.
Pound was basically a sociopath, but he was also a good judge of character. He’d worked as a bartender for so long that it was second nature. This, actually, was why he hadn’t been fired.
“She’ll be fine,” he said. “She’s got a room upstairs for the night.”
“A double?” I said.
Pound passed the cork from one knuckle to the next. “Why, you feeling lucky little man?”
“She says she’s got a friend coming, this guy George.”
“Yeah, well, we all got a story.” Pound smiled again. “Careful with the sauce, little man. That’s your salary for the summer.”
* * * *
I carried the wine over in two hands and waited for them to stop shaking before I poured. Charlotte gazed at me the entire time. I should have given her a mouthful, to make sure the wine hadn’t turned. But I wouldn’t have known that then.
She took a sip and smiled without showing her teeth. “You’re very naughty,” she whispered. It took me a second to figure out that she was talking to herself.
“Did you want me to clear anything?” I said. She hadn’t eaten any more of her crab cakes. There was just the one tiny bite missing.
“Oh,” she said. “No. No, I think George will like these very much.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come back for your order then.”
It was a Sunday night, so the dinner crowd had thinned to a dull murmur. The fire was still roaring, throwing orange light onto all the cozy wooden appointments. It really was quite a beautiful dining room. Some days I came in early, just to sit on the deck and have a Coke. I enjoyed staring down at the bay, the sun beating silver onto the tops of the waves, Angel Island rising from the sea, and beyond, the yellow hills of Berkeley.
I came back a few minutes later, but Charlotte was on the deck, having another cigarette. Her napkin had fallen onto the rug. I bent to pick it up; it was spotted with grease and curiously heavy. I unfolded the fabric and found the smashed remains of her crab cakes. I looked back toward the deck. The fog had settled in now and so it took me a few seconds to make out what I was seeing. Charlotte was leaning against the window, her forehead a pale spot, staring at me. I felt a shiver down my back and hurried to the busing station for another napkin.
* * * *
I should have said something to Pound at that point. Or forced Feather to deal with her. But I was very young and not much good at identifying my feelings. Besides, this was a good job, the best one I’d ever had. I felt, somewhat more obscurely, that Charlotte was a kind of test, a chance to see if I was worthy of better circumstances.
The other waiters were on to her by now. They were all giving me a wide berth. Feather had cashed out early. He was in his MG by now, speeding down the mountain and howling along to the Eagles’ Greatest Hits, trying to figure out where, on a Sunday night in early August, he might locate some trouble for himself.
I couldn’t avoid Charlotte. Her table was right along my route to the main floor.
“There you are!” she said. “I wanted to ask you a question, Austin.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Why is there so much fog here?”
“Oh,” I said. “That has to do with the ocean, the pressure systems.”
Charlotte made a noise to suggest her fascination. About a third of the bottle was gone.
“It comes in off the ocean and gathers in the valleys.”
This made no sense whatsoever (we were at the top of a mountain) and I was a little disappointed in myself. My head was crammed with facts about Mount Tam, because, like every other child in Mill Valley, I’d spent most of elementary school scrawling reports on the subject. I knew that Tam was 2,604 feet high, that it was home to the rare Calypso orchid, that Tamalpais meant “western mountain” in the language of the Miwok Indians, that these same Miwok believed a lovesick maiden had fallen asleep on the mountain long ago and that, if you looked very closely, you could see her outline against the sky.
Charlotte said, “If I had it to do over again, Austin, I would live in a place like this. I very much like this area. There’s something peaceful here, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve noticed that, too.”
“Very peaceful,” she said.
“Did you want to order something else?”
Charlotte swiveled in her seat. Her face appeared to have grown paler. Or maybe she’d put on more makeup. “I have some good news,” she said, “George has prepared a party for me upstairs, a big party.”
I wasn’t sure what to say. The party on the second level was just finishing dessert, so I supposed it was possible, though I also knew that Tell, the manager, would never book this late on a Sunday. Parties always stayed too long.
“Okay,” I said.
“He’s going to throw a big party, based on my work performance. I’ve gone the extra mile, as they say.” She took another sip of her wine. “It’s like my father always said: hard work never killed anybody. You can take that to the bank, Austin, and you can cash it.”
* * * *
Pound suggested I get something into her stomach, to help sober her up a little. She’d finished her bottle by now.
“How was the wine?” I said.
She said something in French that sounded like a compliment.
“Can I get you another appetizer?” I said. “Maybe a salad?”
“Oh, no,” Charlotte said. “George is throwing a big party for me, upstairs. So I probably shouldn’t eat too much.”
“We have a spinach salad that’s pretty light.”
Charlotte looked at me and her eyes flashed with a rage so sudden I took a half step backwards. Her expression quickly softened.
“The salad is good?” she said. “Is that right? Well, you would know, wouldn’t you, Austin? Why don’t you bring me that salad, then, and another glass of wine? But don’t put too much dressing on the salad. I don’t want to fill up.”
“I can put the dressing on the side.”
“Oh, would you?” she said. “That would be grand. I don’t mean to trouble you, but George is throwing me a big party upstairs.”
Charlotte was speaking loud enough, now, that some of the other patrons were starting to look over. They’d been looking over for a while, actually.
“You mentioned that,” I said, very quietly.
She leaned toward me and smiled, as if we were now intimates. I could smell the wine and cigarettes on her breath. “What do I look like to you?”
“You look like someone who’s just out to dinner, enjoying herself.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s what I see.”
She turned away from me abruptly and straightened up in her seat and just sort of froze there, with her gaze fixed on the window in front of her. It was what I’d seen the black-tailed squirrels do, when you came too close.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bring you that salad, then.”
Charlotte gave no indication of having heard me.
* * * *
I brought her the salad and set it down. We were an hour from closing. The room was emptying out, which was both a relief and a little scary.
“What’s this?” Charlotte said. There was an edge of malice in her voice.
“Your salad,” I said.
“What’s on top of it?”
“Those are roasted walnuts and some gorgonzola.”
She picked up her fork and poked at the cheese.
“You don’t like gorgonzola?” I said.
“You know I don’t like gorgonzola!” she said. “Don’t start to pretend now, Austin. I find it very insulting.” She whacked the edge of the plate with her fork and the room fell silent. “Go,” she murmured. “Take it away.”
I came back with a plain salad.
“Where are the walnuts?” she said.
“I was going to put those on the side. With the dressing.”
“What sort of games are you playing here, Austin? Are you trying to take advantage of my good nature?”
“No,” I said. “I just thought you wanted a plain salad.”
“Well. You certainly are doing a lot of thinking tonight, aren’t you? And where’s my glass of wine? I ordered a glass of wine the last time, did I not?”
Pound, in fact, had told me to cut her off.
“The bar is closed down. We close early on Sundays.”
“That may be so,” Charlotte said, “but you should know that George is throwing me a party upstairs, a very big party. So you should factor that into your thinking, Austin, in regards to the bar and the other matters we’ve discussed.”
She picked up the empty bottle of wine and turned it over and let the remains drip over her salad.
I really didn’t know what to do at that point. Based on her tone, it was clear there might be a scene if she didn’t get her wine. So I went back to the bar and waited for Pound to duck out for his cigarette and poured her another glass, a pretty small one. Then I waited for Charlotte to go smoke her cigarette, and left the wine.
* * * *
It was Pound who found me, hiding out in the supply room behind the bar.
“We got to clear the main room,” he said. “Come on now, little man.”
“Right,” I said.
“Don’t let her freak you out.”
“She’s not freaking me out.”
“She’s freaking you out,” Pound said. “And I’m telling you: don’t let her.” He ran a hand over his pate, as if there was still some hair to clear away. “I’ve seen these types. They feed on fear. You got to be fearless. Just let her run down. She’s almost done.”
“Right,” I said.
I went to clear the last few tables.
“Austin,” Charlotte called out. “Austin!”
She looked up and smiled and began asking me all these questions, like we’d just met at a party or something. How did I like working in this place? What did I want to be when I grew up? She didn’t listen to my answers. Her mind was elsewhere, crackling with the bad chemicals.
“Did I tell you about the big party upstairs?”
“George organized it for me.”
“But it looks like the restaurant is closing.”
“Yeah, we close at ten on Sunday.”
“That doesn’t leave us much time,” she said.
“No,” I said. “It doesn’t.”
“Do you think I’m crazy, Austin?”
“I don’t, actually,” I said.
“Do I look crazy to you?”
I shook my head. “No. About the party, though, is there some chance you might have gotten the date confused?”
Charlotte looked up at me. Her eyes were ringed with mascara now. They looked small and possibly frightened. “Why, I suppose I could check on that.” She pulled a large leather purse from under the table—it was about the size of a mail satchel—and opened it up and pulled out a tattered date book. She dropped the purse at my feet. It was stuffed with make-up and torn postcards and twenty dollar bills.
Charlotte was riffling through her date book, not really looking at the pages, and nodding to herself. I could see a thousand tiny notations, asterisks and exclamation points everywhere.
“You may be right about this,” she said. “I’m going to have to get this checked out. You don’t mind waiting, do you?”
“Not at all,” I said.
She ran her fingers across the tiny black letters and closed her eyes, as if she were reading Braille. I watched her do this for a few minutes, then tiptoed away.
* * * *
At closing time, Charlotte was the only one left in the restaurant. Pound had sent the last waiter home, the cooks were history, and the overnight crew had arrived, cursing in Spanish. Pound was getting ready to do stock.
“I’m going to need some help with the check,” I said. I hadn’t filled one out before.
Pound took the slip, made a few quick swipes, and handed it back to me. The tab had come to more than 700 dollars, thanks to the wine.
I stared at the figure and my hands began to shake again. That seemed an awful lot of money to ask for, from anyone. Pound went back to his inventory, but I stood there until he had no choice but to turn around.
“You don’t want to do this, do you?”
I shook my head.
He leaned over the bar and fixed me with a look, somewhere between pity and disgust. “Okay,” he said. “Calm down, little man. I’ll handle it.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks.”
Pound headed out to the main floor. I could see him talking to Charlotte. She was twisting her napkin and letting out a series of little sighs. Pound crouched down, so they were face to face. There was something both considerate and bullying in the gesture. She began rooting around her purse, pulling bills out and stacking them beside her salad. After a while, Pound gathered up the money, talking to her the whole time, in a low tone. Then suddenly Charlotte shrieked at him, a short, sharp sound that echoed in the silence. Pound held his hands up in front of him, palms out, then slowly reached for the money and backed away from her.
“What was that about?” I said.
“No big deal,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Is she going upstairs, now?”
“That’s the thing,” he said.
“What’s the thing?”
“She wants you to escort her to her room.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “No way. I had to deal with her all through dinner.”
“Yeah,” Pound said. “And you got paid for that. That’s the nature of what you’re involved in. It’s called a job, little man.” He tossed a stack of twenties onto the bar.
“How much is it?”
“About 800 bucks, that would be my guess.”
“I’m not taking it,” I said.
“You’ve got to take it,” Pound said.
“No, I don’t. We can put it in the night kitty. That’s what we’re supposed to do with orphan tips anyway.”
Pound grinned. “A real humanitarian, huh? Listen, you handled the table. Am I right? Isn’t that what you just told me?”
“It was Feather’s to begin with.”
“Feather,” Pound said. “Jesus H. Christ.” He began to gather up the money, making a neat stack. It was more than I’d hoped to earn all summer.
“Look, little man, she gave it to you. She wants you to have it. You earned that money tonight, understand?”
“I don’t really want it,” I said.
“Well then, we’ll just leave it here for now. You can decide when you get back.”
“I’m not going to do it,” I said.
“Yeah, you are. You’re going to go over there and do your polite young man routine and walk her up to her room. That’s what you’re going to do. Because the other solution is for me to call the police, and I don’t want to do that, and you don’t really want me to do that, either, little man.” Pound sighed. He glanced at me and touched at his scar, almost tenderly, with the tip of his pinkie. “This is no big deal, just a lonely woman in her cups, okay? Don’t turn it into something it’s not.”
* * * *
Charlotte was glad to see me. She had been gazing intently at her wine glass.
“Austin,” she said. “We must stop meeting like this.” She nodded toward the bar. “Is that man your boss?”
“Do you like him?”
“Bosses can be rather difficult to discipline, can’t they? Anyway, we’re all done with him. I think it might be time for me to retire for the evening.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I could show you to your room, if you want.”
“That would be enchanting.”
She’d made a mess of her place setting. There were scraps of paper scattered everywhere, tissues, aspirin packets, a few lipsticks.
“Would you mind assisting me, Austin?”
She handed me her purse. “Just hold it open, dear. Yes, like that.” She swept her arm across the table and all her junk tumbled in. “Well then,” she said. “Shall we?”
“Sure,” I said.
She stood, a little uncertainly, and hooked her arm in mine, as if we were about to embark down the Yellow Brick Road. I lead her to the reception area of the Inn. Charlotte was in no great rush. She stopped to look at everything: the chintzy Native American art on the walls, the giant redwood pillars in the reception area, the stained glass windows. She had questions about all of this stuff, which I answered, lying when necessary.
On the stairs, she leaned against me, though oddly I felt almost nothing—no flesh, no weight, only the small bones beneath her blue silk blouse. The top few buttons of this garment had come undone and her bra was now visible. Most of one breast lay there, puddled atop the underwire.
I was worried she might want to kiss me. That’s the main thing I was worrying about. Or that she might invite me in to her room for a nightcap. She’d given me this huge tip, after all. Maybe this gave her certain rights. I didn’t quite understand what she was after, that she wanted not to be alone, that this desire was itself far more terrifying than anything my young mind could have dreamed up.
At the top of the stairs, I asked her if she knew what room she was in. She did not. Did she have her key? She did not.
Down I went, to the reception desk, where Pound was waiting. He handed me the spare without a word.
Charlotte had some trouble getting the key into the lock. She fumbled about for a minute before turning to me. “Would you mind terribly, Austin?”
I took the key and opened the door and stepped back.
“Well,” I said, “it was a pleasure making your acquaintance.”
“Aren’t you sweet?” Charlotte said. She smiled at me. There was a little blood on her braces. They must have cut her lips earlier. I waited for her to step into her room, but she remained in the hallway, swaying before me.
“Thank you,” she said finally. “You’re certainly a young man of outstanding promise. That’s one thing I saw right off the bat.”
“I appreciate that,” I said.
“You are going to go places in this world. I don’t mind saying so.”
She stepped toward me and before I could stop myself I flinched, just enough for her see that I was frightened. Her smile seemed to collapse. I could see that she was engaged in some sustained internal struggle, to not scream or cry or further alarm me.
“I expect great things from you,” she said, haltingly. “Great things. You can certainly take that to the bank and cash it, Austin.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
She leaned forward and gave me a kiss on the cheek, a quick one, though she let the tip of her nose remain against my neck for a moment more and inhaled deeply, as if to breathe in my youth. Then she stepped back and whispered, “Go. I don’t ever want to see you again.”
* * * *
Downstairs, Pound had a drink waiting for me. I told him that was alright, I was too young to drink, but he said I was best to make an exception.
“You did good,” he said. “Don’t sweat the details. That’s what the world does to some folks.”
“I’m not sweating the details,” I said.
“Take your money,” he said. “Buy your mom something nice.”
“Alright,” I said. “Fine.”
I stuck the money in my sock and went out to the deck to clear my head for the ride home. The fog was always heavy in summer, and that night it looked thick as milk. I took a last sip of my drink and hurled the glass over the deck, as far as I could. The fog swallowed it up without a sound. I heard footsteps behind me and wheeled around, but there was no one there, and I ran to get my bike.
The trip down Tamalpais was my favorite part of going to work, my favorite part of life really, in those days; to coast down the insane curves of Route One, with the wind ringing in my ears and the redwoods zooming past. The booze hit me about halfway down, and the simple relief of being gone from that place, having survived Charlotte, and the money in my sock—all this left me elated.
I remember, at a certain point, I got going too fast on a straightaway. I knew I’d have to brake if I wanted to stay in my lane, because a sharp turn was coming up, but I didn’t want to slow down. I was feeling too good to slow down. It was late at night, and the only thing I could see was my headlight cutting through the pearly fog, and for just a second, I no longer felt like a thing made of flesh and bone. I was just a beam of light: ecstatic, weightless, invulnerable.
I didn’t know about anything that was happening up above. I would only hear the story later, from Pound: how Charlotte had gotten up in the middle of the night and prowled the halls of the Inn in her undergarments, whacking her purse against the walls; about the police, who showed up and forced her to return to her room; about how, at dawn, she had walked to the fire station and broken two windows.
I could hear Pound relating the story to the rest of the night staff, loud and cavalier, another loony bird for the files. But when it was just me and him, alone, later on, he grew almost timid.
“You know about my binoculars,” he said.
There was a particular spot, on the rear deck, that allowed him a clear view into the second-story rooms. And he’d been curious, obviously, as to what Charlotte would be up to after the police left. He looked into her darkened room. And then suddenly the light snapped on and he could see that Charlotte was lying on her side, on the bed, her hands clasped beneath her cheek, in a posture of prayer. “She was wearing a black mask,” Pound said, “and she was staring straight at me. It was like she knew I was there. I was so scared I almost jumped the railing, little man.” Only later had he realized that it wasn’t a mask at all. Her mascara had run with the tears.
I didn’t know any of this as I whizzed down Tamalpais on my bike. Charlotte might only have been up above, a lovesick maiden sleeping peacefully on a mountain. If I’d turned and squinted, I might have been able to see her outline against the sky. And down below, there was me, sixteen years old, nothing more than a beam of light veering into the wrong lane at thirty miles per hour, waiting for the car to appear in front of me, which would mean the end of my life. This was the dark velocity of madness, a single wrong turn in the fog, and it seemed to me, at that moment, perfectly natural, perfectly human.