It would be evening, before the rush, when the sun was no longer sweltering but still hot, a ball of fire halfway down the sky. I never saw him coming. Suddenly he’d just be there, and all the boys would have bottles, and he’d be standing at the back of the tent with one too. Maybe watching us, maybe not. Sometimes with a tiny smile, if one of the boys was talking to him. And then after a while the sun would go down and the lights would come on and the rush would start. Inside the tent music would be pumping and outside the crowd would be piling against the night like one massive, muscling body. The people at the front would be staring in, looking at us like we weren’t teenaged girls powdering cakes and salting fries but rather stars underneath those hot lights. Sweat slick, stealing sips of our own beers the boys slipped to us in soda cups, dancing too because we just couldn’t help it, caught up in all that rush.
And the whole time he’d be coming through, taking away the big bills before we got tempted. Some girls were, I’d seen them slip fives in their bras, and they never came back the next day. I wasn’t, didn’t, but still I couldn’t exactly blame them. The boys had it better, working the fryers and mixers and cutters in the back, and they never had to deal with customers. And they got to sit when it wasn’t busy, whereas we always had to stand. They watched us back there, told us he was watching too, from the Hilton across the street. Some said he had call girls up there servicing him while he did it.
I didn’t know how much was true, and didn’t think I cared either. Until one day right before the rush I was back there stocking up on napkins and plates. I didn’t see him coming, didn’t know he was even there until he asked me how my mom was doing. He asked it with his tiny smile, and it felt to me like he already knew, so instead of answering I thought for a while about how she’d be when I got home, all over me like he was a sweet she still had to have even though they weren’t together anymore. Then I said, Is it true, you have a room up there?
That dropped his smile, which made a kind of fire burn in me, but then it came back and he said with a laugh, Why, do you want to see?
Everything went quiet when we stepped out into the street. Or maybe I just stopped being able to hear. The sun bounced off the asphalt into my eyes and ears, and he was like a panther next to me. Going through the lobby was like diving in a swimming pool, and inside the elevator all those mirrors, so that I saw myself from all four sides, my powdery cutoffs, my black bra strap, my body a stranger’s, side-slipping in and out of sixteen. And him in those clean jeans, that t-shirt with a pocket, he was side-slipping too.
Then the elevator doors opened and it was all quiet, money, carpet. His hand was a secret slipping the key card to the door. Inside I turned slowly around like I was taking it in, like I hadn’t been expecting parquet floors and a four poster king, instead of this small dark square. But there was a big picture window. I walked over and there we were, all laid out in miniature. From up there I couldn’t feel the heat or hear the pulse of the bass. We looked like ants, witless, scurrying. Already at the counter, a tiny line was forming.
Do you want a drink? His voice cracked a little on the middle word. When I turned he had the mini-fridge open.
The only chair was by the window so I sat on the edge of the bed with my mini-bottle of Jim Beam. I felt like I was still an ant, had this hard shell all over me. I traced the stitching of his textured bedspread, heard the crack of his seal and the sound of his throat, and kept seeing myself in camera flashes, sliding off the bed onto my knees.
Are you ready to go back? he finally asked me.
And the whole way, down the hall and the elevator and across the street, before the rush swallowed us up again, I kept telling myself that it was what I’d wanted. Not him. Not my mother. Me.