Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Too Damn Big (a short story)

Judith Blue stands by her Gran Torino in the parking lot and watches as two women scream at each other out their car windows. “Jesus! Will you learn to drive that thang!”
“I was here first.”
“So the fuck what! You can’t drive worth shit!”

She turns and looks at the line of women that snakes out the door and down the sidewalk in front of the small specialty stores that share this rather large strip mall with The Beefeater, the restaurant, bar, and disco she manages for Chuck Smart. Women are beginning to push each other in front of Yin Lee’s Oriental Delights.

“Oh god, what am I going to do now?” She thinks this aloud and the sound of her own voice startles her. A very pregnant woman gives a mighty shove at the woman in front of her, who goes down, hits the pavement on her knees, and as her hands come down on the concrete she screams, “Jesus H Christ!” Judith turns toward the restaurant and starts moving as fast as she can, considering her high heels and the slope of the parking lot. She keeps thinking, ‘I didn’t know this many women lived in Springfield. Oh god, what am I going to do?’ When she gets to the doors she slips past a trio of women standing too close jostling a little against the two men stationed at the door. One of the guys guarding the door whispers in her ear as she squeezes through, “We need more wait staff.” It’s 5PM of a Tuesday night. The show doesn’t start for two hours and the restaurant and bar are packed already, and the only men inside the place work there. Them and the cops guarding the stage in the disco. A couple of months ago she took this job as a lark. Now it's turning into an albatross.

She needed a distraction from the faculty wives parties. When they first arrived she’d amiably gone along with the suggestions that she “participate.” The first abomination was a tea for faculty wives. Full dress regalia. It looked for all the world like the 1950 version of the Junior League, The Garden Club, and the DAR all rolled into one. Like something out of a Cheever story. Then there was the Gourmet Club. What a fucking joke that was. Someone brought a green bean casserole, with canned green beans and Campbell’s mushroom condensed soup. God, it was so sad. After that she knew she had to get a job so she'd have an excuse.

During her interview with Chuck she asked all the questions while Chuck’s girlfriend/accountant Linda, gave her the skunk-eye. Both Chuck and his girlfriend came from Paducha where Chuck’s daddy owns the Caddy dealership. Must be a lot of pimps and drug dealers in Paducha. Chuck and his accountant/girlfriend are in their late twenties and have no idea what they hell they’re doing but seem to have unlimited funds to do it.

She must have been his first interview. When she’s thinks she's through asking him questions, she asks one more. “Do you want to ask me any questions?” He stands up, and giving her his most charming look (which is one raised eyebrow and an Elvis lip curl) sticks out his hand and says, “Welcome aboard.” She shakes his hand and asks one last question. “What do you plan to pay me to make this into a profitable venture?” His left eyelid flutters a little and he says, "A grand a month!” and beams. She says without batting an eye, “Thanks, but no thanks,” and turns toward the door. He says, “Whoa, not so fast, that’s just base salary. If you can turn a profit, I’ll give you 2% and of course, you eat and drink for free.” She pauses for a couple of seconds and says, “I’ll think about it and get back to you.”

“Make it 5%, and don’t hassle me about the changes I want to make. By the way, what’s your advertising budget?” She looks at the accountant who looks at Chuck who says, “Let me know what you need to spend, and we’ll pay the bills.”

“On time?”

He looks at her sideways and says, “Sure. Is that it?”

“No, I need to spend a week or so assessing staffing, supplies, talent. Any changes I want to make, You’ll Okay?”

“You’re the boss.”

“If I find that you have not paid staff, or vendors, or advertisers on time and in full, I’ll quit. Are we clear on all of that?”

“Yes mam.”

Walking to her car she knows she has just made a huge mistake, not asked for enough, got nothing in writing, but what the hell, she can always quit.

When she gets home Henry is there, smoking, drinking straight lukewarm vodka in a half full ice tea glass reading student papers. If you are a lucky student he gets to your paper just before that ice tea glass is empty. By then he doesn’t even bother to read them. He just gives the last four or five A’s and leaves it at that.
“I got a job.”


“Have you eaten?”

“NO.” He says this rather too loud for her taste, and she wants to say, “Henry, go fuck yourself,” but refrains for once because she really doesn’t give a shit if Henry’s eaten or not, she’s not cooking for him, so, why engage?

She heads for the shower. An hour later, after the shower, drying her hair, and getting dolled up a little, she grabs her handbag and starts toward the living room. Henry says in his whiniest voice, “Aren’t you going to fix dinner?”

“How astute, Henry. Was it the click click of my high heels?”


“Want to have a conversation, Henry?”

“NO. I want to eat. Are you going out?”



“I got a job, Henry. I told you, but it didn’t seem to register. I thought maybe you’d nodded off. I’d take you to dinner, but I doubt you could walk, and really, I want to see what the dining experience is like for a woman alone.”


“Henry? Are you in there? Why, to what? Are you so obtuse in class?

“A restaurant? Really? Will you bring me something back?”

“Probably not, since you’ll be asleep before I get back. Stay sober and I’ll buy you dinner tomorrow night. Till then there's food in the fridge. Good night Henry.”

As she drives to Beefeaters, Judith thinks about the possibilities. The place is huge. Restaurant seats two hundred. The bar is another hundred . Fire code says the disco can hold a maximum of five hundred. She does not know the population of Springfield, but thinks keeping this place busy is really going to be a challenge. It's Thursday evening, just past 6 PM when she pulls into the parking lot. Stores are still open, but even so, the lot is almost empty. Oh God.

That first week she feels she has located all the major staffing changes she will need to make. She spends most early afternoons meeting with the back of the house—mostly the three cooks, one of whom has Culinary Institute training. They revamp the menu with specials that will not necessitate reprinting menus. Add dessert specials, everything is made in- house, bread, desserts. They work on a new wine list. Not necessarily more expensive, but better. Printing costs will be small. She gets rid of the English serving girl dresses with all the cleavage exposed, and the long skirts that are a tripping hazard, and puts everybody in black pants and white shirts.

She spends her evenings in the bar. They have a cowboy quartet that starts playing at six. She gives them two weeks notice and puts up posters at the University’s music department and an ad in the classifieds of the News-Leader asking for jazz musicians. On Wednesday afternoon she auditions three groups. Hires a band called Entropy. Judith thinks the bands name is pretentious and not apt, since they play quite swinging or soulful Jazz standards but decides it isn’t worth arguing about, since very few bar patrons will have the slightest idea what the fuck it means. She hires a great looking female bartender and keeps the one male bartender who doesn’t hit on her right off. She asks everyone to put out the word that she’s looking for another bartender. She has three cocktail waitresses to start with. She’ll add them as she needs.

Judith Blue is now on a mission to poach talent from restaurants and bars in the surrounding counties since she’s stolen all the good ones in Springfield. She’s left Horton’s alone because it is her only refuge from the Beefeater, so Larry and his staff are safe for now. Henry is too deep in his cups to really notice her absence.

Now she is concentrating on the disco. It’s days as a disco are numbered. Donna Summers is sort of old hat now, and it's time to transition to another incarnation. But what the fuck will that be? The place has a stage and dance floor and is too big by half. One morning in Fayetteville she stops for breakfast at a coffee shop near the the U.A.F campus, and while reading the paper, notices a small piece on page four about a club in Kansas City that sparks her interest. This little club, the Plug Nickel, has made news by offering the ladies a male strip show. The reason it makes any news at all is the huge crowd it draws—all women. Fancy that. She finishes her coffee, puts out her smoke, tucks the paper under her arm and heads for the parking lot. She climbs into her Gran Torino and lites another cigarette before she turns toward Springfield. It’s a beautiful drive once you get past the strip malls that blight the landscape around Fayetteville, Benton, Rodgers, then she’s off the beaten track and on to Cassville, then Monett. Gorgeous farmland, no strip malls here. And she’s thinking all the way home.

She spreads the word among her staff of mostly S.M.S.U. students, that she’s looking for male dancers, real dancers, for an all female audience. Within a week she has fifty eight names on an audition list. And Beefeaters is buzzing. Business is picking up at a steady rate. Sometimes on Friday and Saturday nights there is a waiting list for dinner and the overflow is enjoying the jazz in the bar. Everybody’s making money and bickering and backstabbing is at a minimum. Even Chuck and the accountant are pleased.

So far the disco is a cavern still mostly empty, despite the sound of Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Gloria Gaynor, and Chic blaring from the huge speakers, the glittery disco ball still twirling in the dimly lit space. She has banned the Bee Gees from the playlist, but there is always a small crowd late at night around the long bar, and a few diehard dancers still making the most of the big dance floor. But the times, they are about to be changing.

For three mornings she holds auditions in the empty disco. There are the dancers, the cocktail waiters, and the female DJ’s all in separate lines. Judith stands on the bar platform and tells them her plan. DJ’s have always been guys, but that is going to change on Tuesday nights. The women auditioning for DJ head to the booth. Dancers are limbering up down by the stage. But the first players in this performance are the cocktail waiters. Sixteen guys begging for ten spots. Mostly college athletes and frat boys, thinking this is going to be easy. They have to audition just like the dancers and the DJs. She is going to turn the night-life gender roles upside down and see what falls out just one night a week for a month. She tells everyone exactly what her intentions are and what she expects of them. She will be the choreographer and majordoma of this whole shebang. An experienced cocktail waitress from the bar gives lessons to the waiters auditioning. They have to be able to carry a heavily loaded tray high above their heads, arm fully extended, weaving their way through closely placed tables, with a certain grace and agility while not spilling a drop. Almost every guy fails his first couple of tries. We're just using plastic glasses loaded with water and ice. The weight is less than it will be, but the balance is what we're working on at the moment

The regular DJ is demonstrating in a showoffy way the inner workings of the booth. Music gets going and then stops abruptly. Judith leaves the bar tournament to the cocktail waitress who will assist the female bartender. These two very competent and charming women will now make Tuesday night a regular part of their schedule. The buxom redheaded bartender Jeannette is filling fake orders and the tall thin brunette cocktail waitress Cathy is loading the trays for these desperate waiter wannabes. Judith heads for the dancers.

This is going to be the tricky part of the whole deal. They needed to have a little sit down. “Hi, I’m Judith Blue. Nice of you boys to show up, but this might not be exactly what you understood from the ad and posters. We are going to put on two shows a night one night a week for an all female audience. Women only. And you guys will be the entertainment.” There is a slight rise in the energy level of this group of attentive young men. They look at one another and smile. “I want to incorporate several elements to this performance, but I know this is a highly religious community, so to be fair to all of you, I must tell you first off, that there will be a little stripping involved. Anybody object to taking off your clothes while dancing and ending up nearly naked ought to leave now. We’re not doing anything illegal, but…” She shrugs, and sits at the small round table at the edge of the dance floor looking at the handsome, eager faces arrayed before her, spread out in repose on the dance floor, languid and muscled young men. Not a sound. No one moves to leave or even shifts his weight. “Is there a choreographer among you?” Three hands shoot up. She motions them over. They take chairs flanking her. “Will the remaining fifty or so of you break into groups of ten or eleven”? She waves her arm in the direction of the DJ booth and shouts, “Keep the volume low for awhile. We need to be able to talk in a normal tone, OK?”

There is a low murmur taking place in every part of the room now, then a large crash as one of the loaded trays hits the concrete floor. Dead silence for just a long moment, then the murmur starts again.

She has a powwow with her three choreographers and sketches out what she wants to see tomorrow, same time same place with some rough costuming. Is this possible? Yes, it turns out, it is.

Everywhere she goes she tells the women, in hushed and whispered tones that they might want to come for a special night just for women at the disco. At the bank, the grocery store, the doctors office, and throughout her strolls through the halls of academe.

By the following Monday morning they are ready for a dress rehearsal. She has ten well-trained waiters in black shorts and white wife-beater T-shirts, wearing white tennis shoes on their feet. She was tempted to make them wear high heels, just for the object lesson, but decided against it in the end. Her DJ is not only a hot babe, but she has great taste and timing. Judith’s strippers are dressed up and ready to go. The only thing missing is the audience, but it all works flawlessly in practice.

By six, the restaurant is full and the bar is overflowing. Women all over the place, and the excitement of anticipation is palpable. Conversation is decidedly more animated this evening. Judith surmises that without the sobering influence of the menfolk, the women are a little more uninhibited. She opens the disco doors and there is a near stampede from the bar. Women are running for the tables up front. Oh my god. Judith has the first of what will be many moments of dismay this evening. She stands inside the huge room and watches it fill in minutes. Her waiters are in full swing fast. She slips into the stock room behind the disco bar and uses the wall-phone to tell the boys bar-tending in the bar to come into the disco and assist the waiters at either end of the bar. This frees the two women bar-tending to mix drinks for the female customers three deep the length of the disco bar. Oh shit, this is not going to work as planned, there are just too many of them. Not one single ad and this is what has happened? There is a half hour to go and she already senses the chaos that might ensue if the bar fills with men waiting for the end of the shows and the emerging women. She checks with the wait staff in the restaurant. All the waiters agree that they will help out in the bar or disco when their tables empty. The waitresses express their displeasure at being left-out. Judith says, “Check your pockets at the end of the night and then tell me how left-out you feel.”

The show is perfection. But it is not the show that concerns Judith, it is the audience. This is like a fucking rock concert. Women are screaming and jumping up and down, throwing their panties. Waiters have come to her saying women are pulling their shorts down when they bend to take an order. These guy are getting groped. What the hell’s going on here? She gets goose bumps on the back of her neck. But gives a quick demonstration on how to squat at a table to take an order so as not to get ones shorts pulled down. This does not however solve the groping behavior. These guy are going to get groped. Nothing she can do about it now.

There are obviously things to be worked out, but there is no denying Judith is on to something here. Just what, she is not sure. She decides right then and there to do a fashion show on Wednesday night. She wanders into the bar and sees a milling mob of cocktail drinking men. They are waiting almost patiently.

After a month of strip shows with an ever growing mob of women and the men who follow them, she has received television news coverage as far away as Kansas City. Now she gets a visit every Tuesday evening from the fire marshal to make sure they do not exceed capacity. Two burly cops flank the stage. Boys are coming out of the woodwork begging to cocktail for free, claiming all kinds of experience. But the crowd of screaming women of all ages and in all kinds of conditions, like hugely pregnant, or swooning and falling from the arms of their chairs where they stand to get a better view? This she cannot deal with. So, once the first show starts, she heads for Horton’s for a drink and a quiet dinner.
They hold a seat for her at the bar and a table in the dining room. She loves the piano bar. Johnny plays jazz classics so soulfully.

The minute she's seated at the bar a dirty martini is placed in front of her by a smiling bartender named Bill Bailey who always winks at her. Everyone up and down the bar looks at her and they all smile. The gorgeous waiter named Tom blows her a kiss when he comes to the bar to pick up an order. This is more like it. She eases out of her jacket and crosses her legs, letting one black open toed high heel dangle from her toes, rocking slightly. Johnny swings into "Straight No Chaser" and she smiles and nods at him. He winks at her too. A tall blond man in his early twenties walks up and wraps his arms around her from behind. She takes a deep breath and nearly swoons he smells so good.

She longs to leave Chuck and Beefeaters, the screaming hordes of women, repressed too long and full of pent up rage and randiness. Her success is a monster she can no longer control. She's made more money than she imagined she would. It's socked away in her own account.

She longs to leave the sinking ship that is her third marriage. Henry is on his way down. He'll probably drink himself to death and she knows there is no way to stop him. She doesn't participate in Henry's drinking. He takes no pleasure in it. He's just getting drunk. Henry's started to stink.