AFTER AUGUST, two
Looking back now, it still seems strange about how it started with Corinne. I was over forty. She had just turned thirty, even if she looked almost like a teenager, still kind of rounded out and baby-fat soft with those big brown eyes and that sleek chestnut hair in a white mesh hairnet. The Florida sun hadn’t dried her out yet. And Florida hadn’t had time to grind down her Deep South conviction that she always was right in whatever pointless argument the waitresses always were getting into. She just kept right on arguing and never backed down. Most of the older waitresses were like me: they didn’t have enough convictions left to break wind with. The younger ones didn’t have her machine-like determination.
She was slow on the floor that first summer, but she was a very thorough waitress. Her style of waiting tables shouldn’t have worked in a Florida tourist trap, but did. She didn’t know how to grovel, or to be elegant. She just found out what people wanted and got it for them like she was happy they had asked. She never missed. Never. When she brought the orders back, they were straight, and they were right. I never had to backtrack on one of hers. I noticed that first about her, I guess. A brand-new waitress who does the job right the first time is hard to find.
Her god-damn small-town uppityness put me off, though. She was certain that no Arabian prince had got off the Coast Line Silver Meteor in Jacksonville and hired Cadillacs to bring his harem to Dawson’s to eat because its fame had spread worldwide. She told the other waitresses they were morons if they believed this same fairy tale prince handed out sapphire rings big as marbles to the waitresses that night.
The other waitresses were just as sure that it had all happened just that way and might again, any night. I asked Dawson about the Arab once, and he just grinned and said it made a great story, didn’t it?
Besides thinking most other women were plain gullible, Corinne was death on men, as men. As cooks or cops or mechanics she allowed that they were all right, if they knew what they were doing in their chosen work. But men as just men, they were nothing. She told everybody that she had married and then dumped two of them in a row, after having a son by each, two different soldiers. One had been stationed near her hometown before D Day, but couldn’t keep it in his pants with all the grass widows around the base and got caught at it by her brothers. I figured D-Day might have seemed pretty tame to him after that. The second was a hometown guy she married after V-J day who turned out not to be the same happy boy who had gone off to the Pacific. She kept the kids.
She would tell all and sundry that her Confederate grandmother warned her when men got that soulful look in their eyes, it just meant they had to pee. Some language. She was a tough number, all right. I figured she was raising a pair of pansies, all right. That was before I knew anything at all about her family situation.
Now this was only a dozen years after the war ended, and way before it seemed like every other marriage in America was followed by a divorce. Corinne was the only divorced woman in the place, the only divorced woman that some of us had ever been around.
She looked to me like the kind of ripe big-bodied woman a tough paperback private eye like Mike Hammer would punch in the mouth and then screw. I liked to read all those twenty-five cent Pocket Books back then. I liked Shell Scott even more than Mike Hammer because Shell Scott had a sense of humor.
But Corinne would have had news for Mike Hammer. She told us that when she was a kid her nickname was Jack Dempsey because she beat up every tough boy in her school, and she hadn’t forgotten how to punch. She was really something. That broad Georgia drawl was a mile wide and twice as sassy.
Her looks and her being a divorcee made her a kind of a target for local men on the prowl that summer, but only once to a customer. I never knew exactly what she told them in person when they made a play. I knew better than to ask them, the way they kind of wilted when she said whatever she said.
I only saw her actually hit somebody once that summer. It was a weekend, late, and a big insurance company crowd from Jacksonville had been meeting down the road, and reserved the entire sea porch.
This guy she whacked was in a nice suit but had been hitting the liquor pretty heavy, and he made a heavy pass. I was at the order window when it happened. I actually saw him slide his hand up her leg under the hem of her white waitress uniform. I was opening my mouth to yell for Dawson when she calmly snapped her elbow right back into this clown’s throat.
He upchucked right in his own lap. Fell over on the floor, coughing and gagging. I thought she’d killed him. She dumped a glass of iced tea on his head and he let out a pretty good howl, so it looked like he would live after all. Dawson was out on the sea porch by then. He got in between Corinne and the customers. Kind of like an umpire holding off a batter who’s trying to get a pitcher who beaned him.
The suits from the big insurance company pitched quite an uproar. They claimed Corinne had been leading him on with that honey voice and then assaulted him. This was before 911 and all this modern crap, cops sticking their noses in everything. Restaurants dealt with problems on their own.
When the suits said Corinne had been leading this jerk on, she got ready to whip the bunch of them. I had the busboys out there with me by now to back Dawson’s play. On the Beaches, restaurant people stuck up for each other in those days. Dawson just laughed at them, called them sorry excuses for men, and told them to get out. Not before they paid the full tab, though.
I guess right then I should have known how much I liked her. I took my heaviest Solingen blade when I went out on that dining porch. It was honed like a razor. I liked her, all right, if I was willing to cut a city man over her, but she just didn’t seem like any kind of woman I thought I would ever find myself liking.
But she was good about those first rides home I gave her that summer. It was just a ride home, something I would do for anybody who didn’t have a car. Corinne accepted it just that way. She didn’t get all tight, like she was waiting for me to try something with her. And she didn’t switch it all around and coo at me like she thought I gave her a ride just because she was a good-looking woman. She just accepted the ride, and thanked me for offering.
Out of the restaurant, she’d lean back in the car seat and tell me how she hated that long walk home after being on her feet all night. She said sometimes the public just seemed like one big hungry belly. She said the walk in to work wasn’t so bad, with the sea breeze and the sunlight. But going back in the dark it seemed twice as far, and her arches ached and her legs felt like they were coming off at the thigh joints. She told me once, out of the blue, that I was the second-best cook in the world behind her mother.
I knew about having to walk after long shifts on my feet. I spent a lot of years without a car, too. Or with one that was always broken down, which is almost worst, because you never could count on it. That’s why I appreciated that 1955 Chev of mine so good. In four years it had never let me down once. It was the only expensive new thing I ever owned, not counting my chef’s cutlery.
I told Corinne she should try to buy a car. She told me that she thought about nothing else, but two kids in school with no child support from their fathers took a lot of money. Even living with her parents she never could seem to get any money ahead because she had to put money on household expenses.
She had been doing all right in Georgia. She had a job at an Army arsenal stitching artillery covers during the war years and stayed on through Korea. Then her father retired from the city fire department. He was determined to move to Florida because that’s where you were supposed to retire to back then. She liked the idea too, because her grandmother thought Florida elementary schools were better than Georgia’s. They turned out to be better, Corinne said, so she was glad they had moved even if there were no government jobs for her.
She never complained. Not even about her long walks home at night. The way she told it, they were epic treks like in a movie. She talked about her life like it was a movie, come to think of it, or something for other people to envy. The way she told it, maybe she was right. I know I got where I looked forward to driving her home. I wondered if she looked forward to it, too.
Once, I had been called small and dapper. Lately, I was just small. Maybe an inch taller than Corinne. I caught myself thinking about what I looked like to Corinne and tried to stop.
A few more years of hot kitchens and Florida sun and I would be small and wrinkled, and wouldn’t have to worry about what women thought of me. God, what a place to grow old in! Tourists and retirees can have it, believe me.
Before we knew for sure about Christine’s TB, Chris and I had talked about maybe breaking loose and moving to New Orleans. Christine’s people originally came from around there. I even thought about the part of the West Coast I saw in my post-war Army service. But all that kind of got lost after we knew about the TB. Now I was at Dawson’s and Chris was in the sanatorium, and Sally was with her parents, and the days kind of ran together a lot of the time.
I worked it out once, and figured that since we moved to Florida my life had become too adjusted to tourist seasons. Like everybody who ever ended up on the Beaches, I had seen too many seasons roll by without ever getting rich, and finally without much hope for anything better.
The whole philosophy of the Beaches was just to survive one more tourist season. Just one season that was fat, and then you could say screw it all and get out. Go somewhere with trees whose leaves turn pretty colors in the fall. But too many tourist seasons strung together without the big Quiniella falling on your number and finally it was too late to hope, and you were stuck in Florida for keeps. Since I left St. Pete, I had lived mostly because it seemed like too much of an effort to muster up to die.