Junior saw her the first day of the seminar on the plays of Harold Pinter, and made sure to get a seat directly across from her. Junior was the English Department's only Woodrow Wilson Scholar. He also had a special grant from the Creative Writing Department, so he didn't really need to work. He could be a TA, but why? It cut into his free time. He had a William Morris agent--had since he was eighteen. First story he wrote got published in a collection of the Best Short Fiction, 1966. He's been trying to find a better place to sleep. He doesn't worry about the deadline for a collection of stories, he writes fast. But he does need a place to flop. He also needs some blow.
Junior doesn't have to say a word in this seminar. The famous playwright is teaching. They drink beer together in the afternoon. They laugh together at the foolish things these Mormon kids say in class. They dish babes. The famous playwright has a new lover every semester. He's been married to the same woman almost thirty years. Imagine that. He has a son he doesn't talk about much. The famous playwright likes to gamble. Junior knows way too much to worry about his grade in the famous playwright's class.
Junior starts to think of the beauty across from him two nights a week for three hours a night as The Contessa. He starts referring to her as The Contessa. Pretty soon other men are calling her The Contessa. She is the most vocal and confident of the students even through she's auditing the seminar. She is always prepared and perfectly willing to take on the Mormon grad students. The Contessa makes it easy on the famous Playwright. He only has to get her started and she runs the seminar for him. Soon there is a regular Tuesday night beer drinking group that takes the seminar into the late night. She is often there, sitting beside the famous playwright. Her name is Judith, but he finds himself still talking about her when she isn't there, as The Contessa. Judith doesn't seem to see him. He wonders if she's this semester's lover. He also finds out that Judith is married.
One early afternoon Junior pops his head into the famous professor's office on his way out for an afternoon of shooting smack. But his famous friend invites him to go have lunch with him, "My treat," he says. Junior is disappointed that his high will have to be postponed, but smiles and says, "Sure, thanks."
Strangely the famous playwright takes them downtown to a nice little hole in the wall restaurant called, "The Beanery." It's packed. They stand outside and chain smoke, waiting for a table to open up. It takes almost twenty minutes. But once seated he sees The Contessa walking toward them smiling, with menus in hand. Her hair is twisted into a loose chignon at the nape of her gorgeous neck. She is tall, willowy, graceful. She has pale olive skin, dark hair; she has big almond shaped hazel eyes She's wearing a long skirt and sandals with straps that wrap around her ankles. She has beautiful feet. Is she wearing a bra or not? He's not sure, and so makes a study of watching her across the room. She is flawless and usually a bit aloof, yet now, oddly warm. When she approaches a table she smiles, she seems patient, bends over a menu to point things out. She makes notes, smiles, turns away, and the smile is gone. What remains is a fierce, strong, beautiful woman in rapid, meaningful, fluid motion. Focus is what you see when she's not smiling. She comes back to take their order and calls them by name, "Junior, Henry, who let you boys out?" The famous playwright beams and says, "It's like a visit to Greece, and then having Melina Mercouri wait on you at a small cafe." She smiles and says, "I think more Anna Magnani, but then, who am I?" Junior blurts out, "You're The Contessa." She looks at him then and says, "Junior have you decided what you want?" He leers at her and says, "I'll have a Rose Tattoo." She turns and says over the shoulder, "Play amongst yourselves, and when you're ready to order food, let me know." The smile is gone.
Junior starts hanging out at the Beanery. She is not playful when he's with Whitlock. She smiles perfunctorily and takes their order. States plainly that she gets paid to work here and can't hang out and chit chat with them. Whitlock has a part time dishwashing job at The Beanery and deals drugs a little on the side. Whitlock has heard Junior call her The Contessa, but when Whitlock says it, it becomes The Cuntessa. So now, around the Beanery, she's called The Cuntessa by all the male help. One day when he and Whitlock come in for lunch, she walks to the table to take their order, Whitlock says, "Hi, Cuntessa," and she turns to look Junior straight in the eye and say, 'Thanks Junior, you little prick. Whadda you assholes want?" She smiles without any warmth at all. Junior tips her a twenty on a five dollar lunch.
Junior takes over Whitlock's job suddenly. Now he's working Whitlock's shifts and trading shifts with the other dishwasher to work all Judith's shifts. He does a much better job washing dishes than Whitlock did. He buses her tables and resets them, too.
Sonnets start to appear on the Beanery bulletin board. It's in a public area, and is used mostly as a notice board of rooms for rent, dogs lost, cars for sale. That kind of thing. But when the poems start appearing addressed to The Contessa, she knows who wrote them, and as soon as they appear she takes them down, reads them, and tears them up.
One night in August they were closing up The Beanery, when Junior asks the cook, who has just finished the last order of the night, "Want to take a little break downstairs? I've got smack or blow." Kirby doesn't hesitate, "How much, man?" "My treat." And Kirby is gone for a half an hour. Which leaves Junior and The Contessa alone for fifteen minutes once the last customer is gone and the door closed and locked. So Junior asks her "What do you like?"
"What do you mean what do I like? What kind of a question is that!"
"I brought you a present, and wanted to know what you preferred, heroin or coke?"
"Presumptive, aren't you?"
"I see you step out back to smoke your joints. I know you're no virgin."
"What the fuck do you think you know about me!" This is not so much a question, as an accusation, almost shouted. When Kirby opens the basement door he asks, "Is it safe to come upstairs? Judith shouts, "Why the hell wouldn't it be, Kirby! And don't you ever call me The Cuntessa again! My goddamned name is Judith. Do you both understand? If I ever hear another male employee of this place call me The Cuntessa or Contessa, I'll get both your asses fired."
It was a week before she came back to work. She and her husband, Jack, had gone camping. She didn't seem like the camping type. Junior asked and was told she was taking a scheduled vacation. But still he worked two shifts--almost eighty hours a week. He gave up going to classes. He slept in the basement of The Beanery. This first job in his life was now paying for the blow he was doing in the basement. And his coke supply was making him one very meticulous and fast dishwasher.
Junior was built like Judith. They were about the same height; he weighed a little more, but not much. Junior had a mane of curly black hair that he usually kept in a pony tail when he worked. His face was angular. He had hazel eyes like Judith's, nice eyebrows, too. But his beard grew fast and very black, so even though he shaved every day, the lower half of his face always had a bluish cast to it. He was slight and pale skinned.
When Judith returned to work, he gifted her with an ounce of pretty good pot. She took the gift and said, "Thanks Junior, is this an apology?"
"What did I do I need to apologize for?"
"You got every man in town to start calling me Contessa. I hate it. I want it to stop."
"Didn't you ever see the movie The Barefoot Contessa?"
"Yes. So what?"
"Just take it as a compliment. Ava Gardner is the star, and it's a great story. I think it might have won some Oscars. Anyway, I think you look like Ava Gardner, and you have beautiful feet. It just came to me in a flash of inspiration."
"What are your intentions, with all the flattery and the gifts of drugs, the poems, the busing my tables, the working two shifts to work with me? See, I did notice. But what is it you want?"
"I thought fathers were supposed to ask that question."
"Well, since I'm married, I have to ask this question myself. Or would you rather I have Jack ask you?"
"I want to spend the rest of my life with you."
"And what are your prospects, young man?"
"I'm a talented writer, and I have a William Morris Agent."
"Bring me a story. I want to find out how talented you are."
"At your service. And as long as your sampling my talents, I have others." She lifts one eyebrow and slits her eyes at him and she turns to walk out the backdoor.
The next day Junior arrives with a story. It's called The Gates of Oxford.
Judith reads it on her break as she smokes a joint. It's funny in a dark kind of way. She thinks the main character is based on Junior, but the character is married to a real nut case, and she wants to know if Junior has been married.
When she comes up from the basement where she was smoking her joint and reading, Junior is in the dish room working like crazy getting ready for the lunch rush. As Judith gets to the dish room, Junior turns and says, "Well?"
"I have some questions." Junior puts his hands on his hips and sings, "I'm a little teapot short and stout, just tip me over and pour me out." He does the whole routine with the gestures and coyness of a kid performing for a grown up. She is delighted with this bit of childish spontaneity. She laughs and then says, "Well for starters, what would you call your style."
"That's a real literary style?"
"Are you married?"
"Did the cat live?"
"Was that your child?"
"Nope. She informally adopted the baby from an Indian girl who was going to jail."
"So, she stole the kid."
"And you went along with this program?"
"Well... I guess."
"What does, I guess mean?"
"It means, I guess I loved her, so I guess it didn't matter what she did. She was a speed freak. That didn't bother me either."
"Are you ethically challenged?"
"Not when it comes to love."
"Then why are you no longer with this crazy woman?"
"She left me for another man."
Later that afternoon, Judith's husband and three of his drinking buddies show up at The Beanery, and they're drunk on home brew and irritably hungry. She and Junior haven't set the tables for dinner yet, and are just getting ready to start when this quartet of drunks arrives and loudly demands service. Benny, a friend of her husband's, who spends more time at her house than she does, and never fails to piss all over the bathroom, shouts, "Where's The Contessa?" All four men have a fit of sniggering that isn't quite under control when Judith arrives with the menus and the cutlery. Jack demands water. There are no glasses on the table, and just as she turns to get glasses, Junior comes up behind her with glasses and a pitcher of ice water on a tray for the table. "Oooh, what have we got here, a waiter?" This from Paul, who is almost too drunk to talk. Junior ignores the taunt and goes about his business. Then he disappears into the dish room. Judith says, "You boys have the menu memorized, what do you want to eat?" Jack orders an omelet. This will piss Kirby off, and ruin his end of shift buzz. The other three order sandwiches and fries.
When Judith walks into the kitchen, Kirby is already bitching. He's cleaned up and is planning on leaving the second the evening shift comes on, which was due to happen in ten minutes. "Fuck! Man!"
"I didn't invite them Kirby. I'm not exactly thrilled myself."
When she takes the rowdy group of drunks their late lunch or early supper, they grouse about how long it took to get their food. Benny says, nastily, "Tardiness doesn't help get you a big fat tip."
"Benny, you cheap bastard, since when have you ever tipped?" Judith turns from the table and heads for the back door to await her replacement and have a smoke.
As she passes through the dish room, she says to Junior, "Sorry for the assholes." Then she pushes the back door open, and heads outside to suck down a quick cigarette. Her lighter doesn't work. "Shit!" She turns to head back inside as the door opens and Junior comes out to join her for a cigarette. He has kitchen matches in his apron. He whips one out and strikes it with his thumb nail close to the end of her cigarette. It explodes in her face and the burning tip hits her open, startled eye. She drops her unlit cigarette and puts both hands to her eye. It burns wickedly. He is horrified and tries to get her hands away from her eye so he can see it, but it hurts too much, and her eye is streaming tears. "We need to get you to an emergency room."
"That would be a good idea, but I can't see to drive."
"I'll drive. Got your keys?"
"No, they're in my purse in the basement. Grab my coat, too."
He's back in seconds with her coat and her bag and they head to her old Chevy sedan in the parking lot behind The Beanery. He opens the passenger door for her, and she gets in. He rounds the front of the car and is seated behind the steering wheel in a couple of seconds. She's still rummaging around in her bag for her keys. She grabs the wad of keys and finds the Chevy's ignition key. She hands the keys to Junior and puts her head back against the head rest. He can't find the keyhole. She grabs them out of his hand and inserts the key in its slot. He turns the key and the car lurches forward and dies. She say, "Put the clutch in, and try it again." He says, "I don't know how to drive a stick shift."
"Fuck. Get out and go back inside and tell Jack I injured my eye. Tell him I did it with an exploding kitchen match. I'll be home later. And then just ignore those assholes, they never tip anyway."
Holy Cross is close, and it's a hospital where her grandfather used to be Chief of Staff. She drives mostly one handed, with the other hand covering her injured eye. She comes to a stop in a parking slot outside the emergency room. When she gets inside, the waiting room is empty. This is a good sign that she won't have to wait long. When she checks in, she drops her grandfather's name. She only has to wait a half hour. They check her eye, rinse it over and over, then put some ointment in it, put a patch over it, and write her a prescription for more ointment. She thanks them and heads out to the parking lot. Jack is leaning against her car. "Well, how's your eye?"
"Not too bad. I have a prescription. Will you take me by the pharmacy to fill it?"
"Sure, I'll drive you. Benny dropped me off."
"Why does Benny have to treat me like shit?"
"Benny likes you, you know that. He's just teasing."
"Benny's an asshole."
"Well, I'm not that crazy about some of your friends, either."
"My friends don't spend all their time at our house, pissing all over the bathroom. Next time Benny pisses all over, I'm banning him from using our toilet."
"Where's he going to piss?"
"In the gutter, for all I care. Maybe he should piss before he gets to our place, and not stay so damn long."
"You're sure being a bitch."
" My eye hurts. My feet hurt too. I'm tired, and you knew I was a bitch when you married me. And just for the record, I don't like being called the Cuntessa or the Contessa, so tell your fucking friends to knock it off."
"What bug crawled up your ass?"
"Maybe you and your friends and your drunkenness, have crawled up my ass, as you so poetically put it."
Judith uses the burned eye as an excuse to stay home a day and sleep. She sleeps a deep cottony sleep round the clock. A sleep like she imagines death. A nothing. A nowhere. She knows this absence of feeling. She has finally detached and drifted off. In her dreamless sleep, she has come to the understanding that she can take no more. Next time she wakes to pee, she eats some yogurt and a slice of toast, sips a cup of tea. Then she starts packing. When she has the essentials in her two bags, she takes them to her car and locks them in the trunk.
Next day is payday at The Beanery. She goes in and works her shift as if nothing has changed. Junior is already there. He asks how she is and she says, "I'm fed up, that's how I am."
"What are you fed up with?"
"Are you shitting me?"
"Well, for starters, my asshole husband and his posse of drunks, this place, this town. I'm leaving tonight after my shift."
"What do you mean, leaving?"
"I'm packed and leaving, at 4:00. And keep your damn mouth shut about it." She pushes past him and down the stairs into the basement, puts her crap in her locker and heads upstairs with her apron.
After her shift, when she thinks Junior and Kirby are downstairs getting hammered, she calmly walks to her car. She decides to head north toward the Idaho border. She figures she'll stop for the night in some small Idaho town and then make her decision whether to head East or West.
©2009 Peggy Pendleton