It was somewhere between the fifth and eighth rendition of the “birthday song” when I began to see the appeal of a tight noose and a wobbly stool. That’s what this job did to me. I prayed to the chain restaurant gods to put me out of my misery, but all I heard instead was the firework-like pops of sizzling meat and the chefs’ philosophical debate over which one of the new girls had the fattest ass.
I sat on the milk crates in the kitchen and scrolled through the social media feed of my ex acting school classmates and hate-liked as many of their photos as possible. This one got a gig in a commercial. That one got a stage play role. Another somehow got a role in a big-budget film. In the group message, they asked how my luck was going. I responded with the truth. “I think I may have found my most challenging role yet.” They sent back happy faces and hearts. I responded with “thank you” and enough exclamation points to emphasize my happiness.
Then a sinister sound low below the chefs’ passionate debate grew louder, closer, like the music in slasher-films right before the victim’s throat got slit and the carotid artery splattered against the curtains.
“Alright, Diggity Dog customers!” The manager and crew continued to shout and clap their hands. “We have a special birthday guest today!”
I closed my eyes. “Fuck me.”
I filed in and clapped along. “Happy happy birthday! From our crew to you!” And with each mangled verse of the song, what little pride still lingered evacuated my body.
It was at this moment when I realized I wasn’t lying to my friends; this was my most challenging role yet: a 20-something post graduate with a useless degree and a job in the hometown he practically sold his kidney to escape. And I was nailing it.
“Welcome to Diggity Dog where our franks are as pleasant as our customers. What will you be having today?”
I smiled at the four-top table and passed out the menus with vigor. I nodded as they ordered but watched our mascot through the window on the sidewalk spin an arrow up and over his head like a helicopter, letting people know we had a special going on: two franks for the price of one. That damned arrow worked better than the Pied Piper, but instead of attracting kids, it summoned all of the plant workers and foremen and their overly made-up wives, along with their gaggles of children who somehow always turned their food into a mosaic on the floor.
The parking lot was full with F-150s and jacked up trucks with confederate flags hanging from the back. I would guess there were more rifles and AR-15s in the parking lot than the weapons cache at our Sheriff’s department.
At dinner once, one of my classmates asked, “Is your hometown like ‘Friday Night Lights’?” We were at our favorite restaurant, which sat atop a skyscraper that sliced through the clouds in the sky. The glass buildings across the way looked like pitch-black monoliths, like giant Carbonado diamonds, with the exception of squares of light that came from individual rooms and offices.
I sipped my twenty dollar drink. “Yea, I guess it’s like ‘Friday Night Lights,’ except fewer black people.” She and my other friends laughed, and one made a white hipster comment about how quaint it must be and how they’d love to visit one day, just to see one of our antique stores. Or to see the stars in the sky. But there were no stars in those skies; a constant orange tinge from the gasoline plant’s flames loomed over the town night and day.
I told them no, they didn’t want to visit. My town was nicknamed “Bermuda” because no one ever left. One of my friends put an arm on my shoulder and said, “That’s not true,” and shot me a corny, soap-opera gaze. We laughed and toasted a night that was foggier than the early mornings over the New York waterfront.
That was a year ago. Now, I was back home, where the Confederacy and football were kings, where bonfires often replaced house parties, and when there were house parties, they were thrown by those whose parents could afford two-month vacations in Europe. The type of parties where I’d be the black fly-on-the-wall and every group would swat me away and whisper “who invited him?” The type of parties where the few black people who were there huddled up off to the side in their letterman jackets. I wasn’t permitted into that group either. I was the “faggot” in the drama club.
Bermuda is a place I spent many years trying to escape. I applied for a “Minority In The Arts” grant and took out student loans so I could find myself in a city of millions. And I did it. It required thousands of miles, six figures, and four years. I chiseled out the person who I always was and made friends, had girlfriends, and went on misadventures in the city. I stayed in an apartment with rickety floors and cockroaches big enough that we considered asking them to go half on rent with us.
It was hard to accept I wasn’t there anymore. As I take this table’s order, I wish I could take back the joke I made about people never leaving Bermuda. If that were true, I would never leave this fucking hellhole ever again, and I’d be doomed to spend the rest of my life clapping and singing happy birthday songs to the very people I tried to escape.
A woman with snow-white hair sat at one of my tables. She wielded sarcasm like only Baby Boomers could, using a smile to dampen the stab of her patronizing remarks. I wanted to remind her she shouldn’t expect five-star service from a place with ten three-star reviews and several food safety violations, then I remembered the lengthening zeros in my student debt balance and shut the fuck up. “I’ll take it back, ma’am.”
My next table wasn’t much better. Two baggy-eyed parents clung to their cups of coffee as if they contained the water from the Fountain of Youth and allowed their kids to scribble with red crayon on the walls. My tongue-biting and forced courtesy only netted me the loose change from the bottom of their jeans and a dollar older than the coffee we served. I accepted the “tip” with a smile.
I ambled to the kitchen with another dissatisfied patron’s dirty dishes in my hand. Then I heard it.
I froze. The old nickname excavated old memories I had buried under expensive therapy and four years of distance. I turned to see a table full of people from my high school days.
“Darius ‘Squirt’ Miller,” he said again. I stood like a sentry as he flashed his smile at me. My body reacted like he was an apex predator baring his teeth. While I stayed in character, I placed the dishes in a bin near the kitchen entrance and dragged my body towards the table.
He asked, “How you been?”
“You’re a big-time actor yet?”
The memory of my stint as “Dead Guy #3” on Law & Order came to mind. “I do all right.”
The wrinkles under his eyes and his stray strands of remaining hair read like the life-lines of someone who had their vitality and motivation sucked dry after years in a town that eats people’s souls and shits out withered clones. He raised his arm to shake my hand. “Well, that’s good to hear, man.” Muscle memory told me to flinch, but I tightened up and gripped his hand in return before I walked away.
Some last words were said to my back. “It’s good to have you back in town, Squirt.”
I walked away and sped up once I was out of eye-sight, throwing my one-second finger up at my tables, flashing my smile, and letting them know I’d be right back. I went into the restroom where somebody stood in front of the faucet. I hid out in a stall and waited for the hissing of the faucet to stop.
When the door opened and closed, I took one deep breath, balled up my apron, and screamed. I screamed into it like it was a vacuum in space that could swallow my frustrations, like it was an endless void where I could deposit my angst. The apron muffled my shouts, but my throat strained. I belted and belted until I felt Bermuda’s sharp talons unleash itself from me. I got up when I heard the door open again. I walked out and straightened my apron.
When I got back to the floor, the table of ex-high school classmates was clear. I was directed to a new table by the hostess; they looked like truckers. I clutched the menus and, for a moment, pretended as if I was back in art school. I closed my eyes, whispered my lines, and asked myself what the character’s motivation was: not to be broken down again by the antagonist, this town.
I took out a pen and notepad and smiled at the truckers. “Welcome to Diggity Dog where our franks are as pleasant as our customers. What will you be having today?”
Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower