Joe hung in the line to Bourbon & Toulouse for 15 minutes before making it to the register to order. He had just lost his job waiting tables at a restaurant downtown and fancied treating himself. His manager had sat him down, told him that she was cutting his shifts. “Last in, first out, you know the gig.”
Standing in line, Joe imagined he looked quite rough to a stranger. A duffel bag stuffed with clothes and running shoes flanked him like an obedient dog. He counted change from the bottom of his book bag, handed a pile to the man behind the counter. He collected his food when they called his name. The woman who’d been behind him sat down at the table next to him, tucking her long coat behind her knees. She smelled of cigarettes and perfume.
“Anyone sitting here, my babe?”
Joe’s mouth was full of gumbo, so he gestured for her to take the seat. She introduced herself as Ms. Morris, then bowed her head in prayer for a moment before tucking in.
She pushed neat piles of chicken étouffée and rice onto her fork and chewed with her mouth closed. When she dragged her fork out of her mouth, the pale pink of her lips rolled out in contrast to the red lipstick she had on.
“Just yourself? Joe said.
She finished what she had in her mouth; he could see her washing her tongue over her teeth. “We all eat alone, my babe.”
Joe watched the television in the corner near the ceiling. Kentucky were playing Evansville. It was the end of the third quarter; things were close.
“Go get us a couple more on me, my babe. We’re in for a game tonight.” She handed Joe a $10 bill. It was clean and firm, like it had been washed and ironed.
Joe returned with two bottles of Miller Lite sweating in either hand. “Will these do?”
She held it a pinch from her mouth, so the beer lapped out in foamy gushes.
When the fourth quarter started, Joe explained that he’d lost his job; that’s what he was doing here on his own before he had to go home and tell his girlfriend the news.
He told her he was studying journalism and was supposed to be reading the book that was on the table next to the empty beer bottles. He wished he’d lied and said something more noble like medicine or elementary education. She sent Joe for another round.
“This is the best service I’ve had in years,” she said when he returned with two more bottles.
She was out of her seat, shouting at the T.V., pointing to a replay.
“Can you believe that?”
Joe wasn’t much of a basketball fan, but he played along. “They play like they’ve got stones in their shoes.”
“That’s exactly it!”
When she sat down again, she cozied closer to Joe. Her breath was short and labored. Joe guess she was about the same age as his grandmother.
Joe fetched another round. “I’ll get this one.”
He felt a bit red in the face now, he didn’t drink usually, which was why he figured was the real reason he’d been the first to be let go from the restaurant—there’s a certain culture in the service industry that you have to keep up with if you wanted to get along.
When Joe came back, Ms. Morris was gone. She’d left her plate and a smattering of empty bottles behind. He watched until the end of the game, drinking the beers, hoping she’d just gone to the restroom. He thought about asking the woman across from him to go check the bathroom.
Joe shoveled his leftover gumbo into a Styrofoam to-go box, polished off the dregs of the beer, gathered the napkins and plastic cutlery on the plates to toss.
He shouldered his bookbag, grabbed his duffle, and picked up the book he had planned to read. He felt the shape of something between the pages, like a bone out of place. Inside was $200 in ten-dollar bills, all as brittle and green as the next. He didn’t count. Joe knew what sums of money looked like.
Outside, he took in some cold air, looked for a sign of her. Cars blinked by but none of them looked like they could have been Ms. Morris. Joe worried about the idea of her driving home. Flickering on the windowsill was an ember attached to the end of a cigarette. He couldn’t be sure it was hers. He picked it up anyway, dragged on it and walked away down the street, thumbing the gap between the pages of the book where the money was nestled.