March 1, 2014 by The Citron Review
We all knew Cheryl was into more than just the cigarettes that she smoked in the alley and the weed that she bought from one of the cooks. She would sometimes disappear frantically into the bathroom in the middle of a rush, and return a moment later sharp and on point. During tourist season, we’d make at least $300 a night in cash, but she was always broke. I hated working with her. “Can you run these drinks for me, honey?” she’d rasp. And then while I was dropping drinks at her table, she’d poach the only sixtop in my section. The manager told me that he was sure Cheryl was running a scam with coupons and loyalty discounts, but he couldn’t prove it.
It was almost sunset. We watched as throngs of tourists ambled past us like a tide. The alley where we smoked was across the street from a bar called Captain Tony’s.
Nowadays, Tony’s is just another crowded shithole that sells drinks in plastic souvenir cups to tourists. When I smoked, I had to listen to Tony’s awful live music: Jimmy Buffett covers, Alan Jackson songs and the like. In the 1930s, Hemingway used to hold boxing matches there, under the tree that grows through the building. That same tree was used as gallows in the 1860s. Key West was a wrecking town, after all, and there were plenty of pirates to hang.
Months after I quit my job at the restaurant and left the island, the restaurant’s manager sent me a link to a page from the Key West Citizen. I watched as Cheryl’s mugshot rendered on my laptop. She was old for a waitress. She had bad skin, and her features were sharp and skeletal. Even for a mugshot–even for a mugshot of Cheryl–it was a terrible image. Her hair was mussed, her eyes hollow. She was washed out under the camera’s flash and flattened onto the page. It turned out she and her husband had been arrested for mugging women late at night:
“[A] 23 year old woman was punched in the face, knocked to the ground, and kicked in the face before her purse was snatched from her grasp…The extensive facial injuries she sustained are going to require surgery.”
“[A] 28 year old woman told police that a man approached her for a cigarette while she was walking home in Old Town around 2:30 in the morning. She turned around, and the man punched her in the face, knocked her to the ground, and stole her purse.”
We stomped out the ends of our cigarettes into the gravel beside the dumpster.
“I’ll just run across the street and grab you a pack of matches,” I said. I knew that what she really needed was a lighter. And I knew she couldn’t say it.
“No,” she said feigning a smile. “You don’t have to.”
“No, it’s no problem,” I said and then walked across the street towards Captain Tony’s.
When I got back, Cheryl was inside by the servers’ station, wrapping a red apron around her slight waist.
“Thanks,” she said, as I handed her the black book of matches with a picture of Hemingway printed on the flap. I could hear the disappointment in her voice.
Outside, the foot traffic had thinned. The setting sun cast long shadows in the shape of palm trees onto the old brick road. A little bit of satisfaction lit up inside me. An orange malice, as I imagined her burning her fingertips, holding those matches under a hot glass pipe, blackened with flame.
Tyler Koshakow edits books and journals for SPIE, the international society for photonics and optics, in Bellingham, Washington. Most recently his short fiction, flash, reviews, and snarky cover letters have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Midwestern Gothic, Bellingham Review, and Hobart respectively. Online at: tylerkoshakow.com