Imogene Hull waves the cigarette smoke away from her face and peers out the window. The first of the college girlies is arriving. A ’57 Ford station wagon with road dirt on its fenders parks in front of the lodge, and a young woman hops out of the back seat. Imogene knows from her application that Patsy Harner is eighteen, but she looks younger, her feet in the brown-and-white saddle shoes turned in a little, baby-like, her cheeks pink and hopeful. “Conrad, bring me the keys to the waitresses’ dorm,” Imogene yells. The vapor from her breath is a small explosion in the chilly air. She stubs out her Pall Mall and hauls back the six-foot pine bar that secures the front door. Outside, the girl’s parents are admiring the lake.
Echo Lake today is the perfect blue of the turquoise necklaces Imogene sells in the gift shop. Good profit item, marked up three hundred percent over wholesale.
“Patsy Harner, right? I’m Mrs. Hull,” she says to the girl. “Call me Imogene. Conrad, where the heck are you?”
No one appears. Imogene beckons the family beneath the portico and up the lodge’s wide stone steps. “Come inside, and I’ll show you around before we walk over to the dorm.”
The lobby is the finest part of the peeled-log building, with a central fireplace of rough Colorado granite. The four-sided chimney soars three stories to the ceiling, ringed by balconies on the upper floors.
“The City of Denver built it in the 1920s,” Imogene says. “It was designed to look like those billionaires’ places in the Adirondacks.”
“Where are the customers?” Mr. Harner’s cheap oxfords echo on the wide plank floor.
“The season hasn’t started yet.” Imogene flips her hand at an invisible fly. “Another week, maybe two, and our waitresses will be pulling in fifty, sixty dollars a day in tips.”
She steers Patsy and her parents past the empty stools at the snack bar, where she’s unplugged the flashing Coca Cola sign to cut the electrical bill. When she throws open the glass-paned doors to the dining room, the cold air rushes past them like a hungry dog. “Tourists love this room. Doesn’t it remind you of the Rockefellers?”
The varnished pine timbers support a vaulted ceiling, and long, horizontal windows look out on the lake, where the reflection of 14,264-foot Mount Evans trembles in the water.
“We have our own china and glasses; our own monogrammed napkins like the railroads. It’s a first-class place,” Imogene says. Her voice ricochets among the tables, whose surfaces are covered with inverted chairs.
Patsy tucks her white cardigan around her neck. Her eyes narrow behind her cat’s-eye glasses frames. Imogene feels a shiver of unease. The girl, who appears so young and naive, may be hiding a slyness that foretells trouble.
The doors to the kitchen swing open. “Morning, Miz Hull.”
His brown skin shines from the heat of the breakfast grill, and Imogene coughs to clear a knot of desire from her throat. “This is Johnny Mercer, our sous chef.”
Patsy’s brows come together with a where-do-I-know-you look. Imogene has seen others with the same puzzled frown. They don’t realize that if he were white, he’d be Clark Gable’s twin. A young Clark Gable.
“Nice to see you, folks.” Johnny doesn’t extend his hand to Mr. Harner. Even in the West, some whites turn away rather than shake hands with a colored man. “Miz Hull, I heard you calling for Conrad. He’s not here. Never come back to the room last night.”
Imogene works her lips to adjust her false teeth over her aching gums. “Maybe he got stranded in Idaho Springs.”
Johnny wipes his palms on the white apron tied low on his hips. He glances warily at the visitors, then back to Imogene. “His suitcase is gone, and so is Lola’s.”
Worst possible news. Lola, her early-season waitress, has eloped with the handyman. That leaves Patsy-Know-Nothing to handle the snack bar for the tour bus customers until the rest of the waitresses arrive in two weeks. And with Conrad’s defection, there’s no Mr. Fixit to repair the clogged toilet and leaking sink in the second-floor bathroom.
“Be a sport, Johnny, and take Patsy and her folks over to the dorm.”
His sneer is partially covered by his mustache, and Imogene ignores it. Let him take the grief; after all, she’s the boss. Parents are always pissed about the dorm, a two-story cabin with eleven army cots and eleven beat-up dressers. No bathroom.
It’s not that bad, Imogene thinks. The girls’ outhouse is only a hundred yards or so from the dorm, and they’re allowed to use the tub and sink on the lodge’s third floor after the guests check out. They should try living in the San Luis Valley like she had when she was their age, in a shack with tarpaper over the windows and one sack of potatoes in the cupboard.
Imogene unlocks her office and raises the window shade. Ten o’clock. Time to make her morning call to Sid to assure him things are fine. Instead of picking up the telephone, she lights another Pall Mall and props her foam-soled shoes on the open desk drawer. What if this season turns out to be as cocked-up as last year? One of the bus boys screwed three waitresses who were friends before they came to the lake. All eleven girls chose up sides, and in the course of the fight, hair dye was thrown, clothing slashed with scissors, and everyone quit. The lodge lost thousands in tour business.
After a while, Johnny comes in and tosses the dorm keys on the desk. “The old folks are gone and their little girl is crying. Thanks a lot.”
“I’ll make it up to you later,” she says.
“Sure.” He brushes her thigh as he reaches for her cigarette pack and taps one out.
“Listen. I need a favor.”
“You don’t have nothing in the bank,” he says.
“I’ll raise your salary. Pay you the same as Richard.”
He holds the smoke in the back of his throat before letting it drift out his nose.
“I need a handyman, and two boys to bus tables. Talk to your nephews.”
“You want more Negroes to work up here in the woods? A colored tourist doesn’t pass through here more than twice a summer.”
Imogene’s chair squeaks as she twists it back and forth. “It’s June. If they don’t have a job in Denver by now, they’re not going to get one. Here’s a chance to earn some spending money.”
“Won’t last a week, and I’ll be in the grease with my sister.”
“They can have the nice back bedroom on the third floor.”
“Why you doin’ this?”
“I’ll have eleven white girls here by July first. If I hire two Negro cooks, two Negro bus boys, and a Negro handyman, there won’t be any funny business.”
Johnny tongues a piece of cigarette paper from his lip. “Is that so?”
Imogene tosses the keys in her palm before tucking them in her sweater pocket. “I want the boys here by Friday.”
Patsy cries as she dumps the contents of her suitcase onto the rickety cot. The room’s details swim through her tears: a wall blackened with smoke from a stubby candle, winter mouse droppings that crunch under her feet, mattresses with sordid stains. Her carefully balled socks and pressed, creased jeans spill onto the floor; a tube of deodorant rolls over the bare, uneven boards and it’s a sad sound, the rhythm of the ramshackle building’s uneven floors and her fading hopes.
She’d imagined her summer at Echo Lake a hundred times as she yawned her way through Somerset Maugham during her last semester in senior English. Beaches, drive-in restaurants, and blond, crew-cut college boys who whistled at her. They’d be blank white pages on which she’d write her new life, leaving behind the old story of the high school wallflower who attended square dances with her parents on Saturday night. In her daydream, her eyesight was miraculously improved, and she threw away her glasses. She flirted, kissed, maybe even—well, anyway. The dorm’s frigid air makes her shiver. Imogene wants her to take the lunch shift in the snack bar, so she snaps the fabric of her new uniform to remove the wrinkles. By the time she’s zipped it over her cotton underpants and nylon slip, she’s covered in goosebumps. Before she leaves, she scoops up her scattered belongings from the floor. A small gray balloon lies under her bed. She nudges it with the toe of her white Ked, then shakes her foot in disgust. A rubber discarded last summer, or perhaps last night before Lola and Conrad eloped.
On the way to the lodge, rain begins to fall, a sullen downpour that turns the path through the spruce trees to mud. She tracks a trail of brown footprints from the lodge’s back door to the snack bar. Imogene hunches over a Coke, her head sunk between her shoulders.
Imogene ignores Patsy’s blood-shot eyes and flushed cheeks. She spends five minutes on orientation. Don’t put too much dressing on the salads. Pay special attention to the men. They tip the most.
“Buffalo burgers are our best seller in the snack bar. Tourists love that Wild West stuff. Once we open the restaurant, you’ll get big tips on buffalo steak dinners.” Imogene winks.
“I thought buffalo were extinct.”
“The City of Denver has a herd at Genessee Park. We buy the surplus animals, Sid and me, and butcher them for our places, here and at Red Rocks.”
“Enough for a whole summer?”
Imogene slides off the stool. “I think I hear a bus out front.”
Patsy spends the rest of the day scrambling to serve the tour bus customers, who jostle each other in a line that snakes across the lobby. She hurries into the kitchen to pick up a trayful of orders and post more on the revolving wheel.
“Call them out for me, girlie.” A man in a chef’s hat with ashy black skin pulls a pan of apple crisp from the oven. “You’ve got to holler or you won’t get my attention.”
He introduces himself as Richard, the head chef, and pats the sweat off his forehead with a scented lace handkerchief. “If you need anything, just ask.”
Patsy watches his lips move. They are very dark, almost purple, his gums, rose pink. She can’t recall if she’s ever spoken to a Negro before today. Not only that, Richard is a fairy. She knows that’s not the correct word, but it’s what girls at her high school called them.
Richard wiggles his behind, and Johnny watches her reaction as he sips a beer stashed above the grill. She feels sluggish. It’s as though she’s burst the sticky pod of her former life, and now her nymphal body is weak and awkwardly folded. She wants to duck her head to protect herself from whatever predator lurks close by.
“Honey, your orders are out.” Richard slides four plates—a BLT, a grilled cheese, and two burgers—onto the counter.
Patsy consults her order pad and scans the plates. “Where’s my buffalo burger?”
Richard whisks away one of the plates. “Johnny,” he says loudly, “You forgot to put the sauce on the buffalo burger.” In a few seconds, he slides the same burger back on the counter drizzled with a teaspoon of thin, red sauce.
By early evening, the tourists have left. The heavy pine bar has been slid across the door. Only a handful of coins jingles in Patsy’s uniform pocket, including a single penny left by a tour bus customer angry because Patsy spilled soup in her lap.
Patsy watches from the snack bar window as the sun sinks behind the Rockies. Their purple mass seems to settle in her chest like a bruise, making it difficult to breathe. At the far end of the lake, light flickers from three tiny fires lit by tent campers. Their helplessness against the weight of the mountains brings tears to Patsy’s eyes. She wipes them on the hem of her apron.
In the lobby, a Wurlitzer throws its neon colors on the wall. She fishes two quarters from her pocket and feeds them into the slot. A record flips onto the turntable, “There’s a summer place, Where it may rain or storm, Yet I’m safe and warm…”
Imogene has built a miserly fire in the central fireplace, and heat extends only a foot or two from the hearth. Patsy tugs a sofa in front of one of the openings and pulls off her shoes. A puffy blister throbs on her little toe.
Imogene has settled into an easy chair. “I remember my first waitress job. I was sixteen, a little thing, working in a dumpy café in Walsenberg. Those coal miners, if I didn’t let them feel me up, they’d spit on the tip before they left.”
Patsy squeezes the blister. As if she’s interested in Imogene’s hard-luck life. The wood smolders. Wind batters the lodge’s huge timbers. She shivers at the thought of spending the evening in the empty dorm.
After a silence, she says, “Is that where you met your husband, in Walsenberg?”
“Sid? Nah. I ran off to Denver with a card-playing man who knocked me up and then took a hike. To feed me and the kid, I worked nights at a speakeasy on Larimer Street. Sid was the assistant manager.”
“Don’t you miss him, living up here?”
“Farther away he is, the better. Sid’s handy with his fists, if you know what I mean.”
The fire collapses into a pile of gray embers. Patsy wraps her arms tightly around her middle, hoping the gesture will repel any more of Imogene’s confidences. The older woman tips her head back and looks up into the shadowy space above them, the great granite chimney slightly lighter in color, almost ghostly.
Someone is whistling a song. Patsy follows Imogene’s gaze and catches a vague movement above them on the balcony. It’s Johnny, his brown skin almost invisible in the dark. The sound settles on them like rain.
“I’m turning in. Be here tomorrow at 7:30,” Imogene says to Patsy. Her voice is breathy.
Three weeks later, Imogene punches the cash register in the gift shop. Customers crowd the lobby as thick as fleas. Four buses and three limos are lined up out front, the last stop before they head up Mount Evans on the highest paved auto road in the United States. Two of her waitresses work the snack bar and seven fly between the kitchen and the recently opened dining room. One of her new bus boys ferries a tray of dirty dishes to the kitchen.
Johnny returned from Denver with his two nephews, Renfro and Marcus, and a cousin who makes a pretense of handling a pipe wrench. There have been no seductions or elopements, and money is coming in good. Two or three guest rooms are rented every night, and Imogene makes an extra buck fifty on every buffalo burger, three on buffalo steaks.
Marcus, the older of the two boys, squeezes through the crowd and leans over the gift counter. “Miz Hull, Bev says to tell you she’s sick. Gone to the dorm to lie down.”
He’s a skinny kid, with black-framed glasses that make him look smart, not sneaky like Patsy. “I’ll fill in,” Imogene says. Bev is the hostess, and in her absence customers have queued up at her podium in the dining room. Renfro is resetting two tables.
“Just five minutes, folks,” Imogene says.
Patsy swings her hip to nudge open the kitchen door, while at the same time bending sideways to balance the loaded tray above her shoulder. Imogene is handing menus to a couple in Bermuda shorts when a crash erupts from the kitchen. Conversation in the dining room stops. A chauffeur at the drivers’ table sets down his soup spoon. “Hope that wasn’t my pork chops.” Imogene scurries through the swinging door and slides on bits of broken crockery. A waitress—who is it, Marilyn—cowers beneath a work table piled with torn lettuce. Untended steaks and chops burn on the grill.
At the order counter, Richard’s lips tremble, and his voice escalates to a soprano: “What d’you mean, you lily-faced slut? Richard’s sweet potato pie gotta have rum.” He swings a carbon steel knife, which gleams like the devil’s eyeball.
Patsy edges toward the counter, using her empty tray as a shield. “Marilyn didn’t mean anything, Richard. The customer’s a teetotaler. She won’t eat a dessert with liquor in it.”
“What does some teetotal bitch know?” He hurls the knife, which plunges into a door jamb above Imogene’s head and quivers in the wood. Flashes of light dance on the kitchen walls. Marilyn utters a high, annoying cry that sends a needle of pain into Imogene’s ear.
“Shut up, kid. Richard, the girls are very, very sorry. They didn’t mean to upset you. Patsy, apologize to Richard.”
Patsy blinks at Imogene behind her glasses. Richard snatches another knife from the counter. Imogene snaps her fingers. “Speed it up, honey. We don’t have all day.”
Patsy concentrates on her tennis shoes, splashed with red drops of catsup. “Sorry.”
Richard’s face collapses, and he begins to cry.
“Now, now, they didn’t mean anything.” Imogene fetches one of the lodge’s monogrammed linen napkins. Richard wipes his nose and straightens his drooping chef’s hat.
Johnny whistles a soft, breathy tune while he removes the knife from Richard’s hand.
Imogene glares at Marcus, the bus boy. “What are you waiting for? Get a broom and mop. Girls, orders up. Marilyn, the salad’s low. Renfro, come and fold napkins.”
Patsy throws her nylon uniform on the bed and hops on one leg while she shoves the other into her pedal pushers. The restaurant is closed, and Bev is driving them to Idaho Springs. If Patsy doesn’t hurry, she’ll be left behind to listen to the owls hoot and the wind blow through the cracks around the windows.
She sprays her hair with Aqua Net. Maybe a college boy will buy her a screwdriver and ask her to dance. She leaves her glasses on the dresser and runs downstairs. Dottie tilts her head over her ukulele, softly picking out a tune. Katie places a seamed red kiss on a newspaper photo of Senator John Kennedy to blot her lipstick. She thumbtacks the clipping back on the wall.
“We’re late. Mario said he’d meet me at The Piano Bar.” Bev is the unofficial dorm housemother, yet she out drinks all of them.
“Imogene sent word if we came by her office now, she’d hand out paychecks,” Patsy says.
Dottie strums a fanfare on the uke.
“Goddamn, why didn’t she do it after lunch shift?” Bev says.
The waitresses form a ragged line behind Patsy outside Imogene’s office. The lights in the lobby are low, and Marcus and Renfro hover over the Wurlitzer. Patsy can tell by their tilted heads and fixed, birdlike gaze they are intensely aware of the white girls with hair curled, legs shaved smooth, fresh underwear against their skin, ready for a night out. Neither of the boys has a car, and Patsy feels a stir of sympathy.
She forgets about them when she’s called into the office. Imogene flips through a stack of checks. “Here we are.” She sets the check on the desk and hands Patsy a ballpoint pen.
Patsy tries to extract the check from under Imogene’s fleshy thumb.
“Endorse it on the back, and I’ll give you the cash. Saves you having to go to the bank.”
“You’re cashing the checks yourself?”
“Right here. Right now. Something wrong?”
The office is hot and close, smelling of Imogene’s cigarette-saturated clothes. Patsy’s jaws ache and her temples pound. The pressure comes, she thinks at first, from the waitresses outside the door and Bev’s excitement about her date. No, she sees now that it rises from the strength of Imogene’s will.
Imogene twirls the knob on her green iron safe and pulls out a stack of bills. “Forty-nine fifty for the month.” She wets her forefinger and counts out the greenbacks.
They are nearly weightless in Patsy’s hand. “That’s all?”
“After room and board. Plus you’ve got your tips.” Imogene opens the office door. “Next.”
When Patsy emerges, the jukebox is playing “Alley Oop,” by the Hollywood Argyles. Marcus and Renfro dance defiantly in the dim light, spinning and pumping their arms as if the girls aren’t staring at them while they wait.
Patsy waves the two twenties, the five, and the four ones over her head. “This is it. For a month’s work.”
“We were told our salary was a hundred,” Marilyn says.
Dottie is drunk, and she paws the floor with her large feet, about to charge the office door. “Fifty a day in tips, that’s what she told me. My best day’s been fifteen.”
In her head, Patsy adds her prospective summer salary and tips. It’s only half the money she needs to cover clothes and books for her freshman year. She looks out the window where campfires struggle in the blackness. Echo Lake, Imogene, the lodge, the girls, the two dancers, all seem part of an alternate life she has fallen into through no fault of her own. Everything has a hidden face and a sinister dimension. She wants to be home, where life’s events are predictable: her father sprinkles two teaspoons of brown sugar on his oatmeal. Her mother flinches when he slaps her on the back.
Bev’s the last one to get paid, but she doesn’t seem upset about the meager salary. She’s a teacher and has worked here seven summers; the money she earns goes for clothes and bourbon. “Come on, I’m already late.” Bev snaps her fingers.
They crowd into her car, elbows in each other’s faces, feet stepped on. Bev takes the curves down the steep canyon so fast that Patsy suddenly begs her to stop. Alongside the road, she vomits on a thick mat of pine needles.
At The Piano Bar, the underage Echo Lake waitresses use various subterfuges to score liquor. Dottie latches onto a party of tourists who buy her sloe gin fizzes. Patsy wheedles a man at the bar into ordering her two screwdrivers, and then two more. To repay him, she allows him to slide his hand over her bottom when they dance. His face is hot, and her sprayed hair sticks to his cheek. He’s a construction worker, not a college boy, but she’s dizzy with her power to quicken his breath and incite his erection.
The girls close the bar at 2 a.m., breeze into an all-night truck stop for coffee, and roll up to the dorm at four. The chill, peppery air burns in their lungs.
Lights go out in their second-floor room. A mouse skitters between the walls. “I have to pee,” Patsy says.
“Good luck on the long, cold walk,” Dottie says.
“Oh, God.” Patsy squeezes her legs together. After a minute, she sits up. Moonlight darts in the window and paints silver tattoos on her skin.
“Too bad you’re not a man. You could piss out the window.” Dottie lights a cigarette.
“Who says I can’t?” Patsy, her head still spinning from too many screwdrivers, opens the dormer window and climbs out on the roof.
Bev scrambles out of bed. “I don’t believe this. Get back inside!”
The asphalt shingles under her bare feet are slippery with dew. The world is immensely clear, even without her glasses. She sees each pine tree, every twig and cone, the columbine, the hard bits of granite in the soil, the ferocious mountain flies.
Her feet slip down the roof toward the eaves, and the ground blurs. Breathing hard, she scrabbles with her fingers and toes, falls to her knees, grabs the window frame. The girls gather at the window. Patsy struggles one-handed to lower her baby doll pajama bottoms and squats with her buttocks toward the moon. The trickle of urine hits the shingles. The waitresses applaud as she climbs back over the sill. Her pulse throbs in the strong, blue veins of her wrists. She feels invincible. “Nobody shows up for the breakfast shift. Let Imogene wait tables,” she says.
The girls are still talking at sunup, but no one reports for work until lunch.
When Imogene arrives at the snack bar, her husband, Sid, is already at the counter. He crouches on the wire-legged stool, his heavy shoulders menacing a plate of ham and eggs. Imogene leaves an empty stool between them and lowers herself carefully. Late last night, Sid drove up to the lake in his Caddy. His perverse and humiliating lovemaking has left her sore.
She raps the counter with her cup. “Patsy, get out here. Coffee, no cream.”
There’s a distant rattle of dishes in the kitchen. Johnny appears with a carafe. “Marcus, he went over to the dorm, Miz Hull. Waitresses all sick. They ate something bad at the café in the ‘Springs last night.” He pours her coffee.
Cat’s-eye glasses. That pissy-faced little snot is at the bottom of this. The lake is smothered in fog, and the dead stillness restricts the flow of air until Imogene can hardly breathe.
“Anything to eat, Miz Hull? Eggs, French toast?” Johnny uses the hem of his apron to wipe a dot of spilled coffee off the counter.
Imogene shakes her head and watches the movement of his hips as he walks back to the kitchen.
Sid shoves the plate away with a twisted finger he broke years ago boxing. He takes up the argument they began last night. “Leasing the Foothill Pavilion is a damn good move. It’s a money-maker with lots of traffic.”
“I like it here. Quiet. Gives me a chance to catch my breath,” Imogene says.
“I can’t afford to have you up here on your ass. I’ll find someone else to manage this place. Adrian, maybe. It’ll keep him out of jail.”
“He’s got just that one drunk driving rap. Not so bad you need to send him all the way up here.”
“He’ll screw up again.” Sid slaps the counter.
She sits very still; her cheek throbs with years of muscle memory when he hit her often. She relives the impact of that meaty palm, not feeling the blow at first, only the dark obscurity of her vision, and then a tooth falling on her tongue as light as a walnut half.
She exhales carefully, as if an ounce of wasted breath could cost her everything. “We’ve got a good thing here. We’re isolated, and the city auditors don’t come around more than once every two, three years.”
“I want you down the hill at the Pavilion.”
“This is the best year we’ve ever had at the lodge. The way I’ve got things running, it’s a smooth road.” The coffee burns her mouth.
“Think I don’t know what’s going on up here? You and your nigger boyfriend?”
Imogene presses the sharp corner of her fingernail into her upper lip. After a minute she says, “Think about the money. If you pull me off, you’ll have to cancel the order for your new El Dorado.”
“I’m not canceling anything.”
That evening, sparks explode from a pitch-filled log in the lodge’s fireplace and drift up the chimney. Patsy and Dottie wipe the pine resin off their hands and study the blaze with satisfaction. As soon as dinner was over, Imogene drove away for an evening in Denver. The girls wasted no time raiding the shed for her private cache of firewood.
The front door is barred, but the back is unlocked, and soon the other waitresses arrive from the dorm in an envelope of noise and cold air. They mill around the lobby; their faces redden, as though the fire is stirring their discontent.
The weather was unsettled all day. In the morning, clouds churned from the west over the Continental Divide and spilled a cold rain, which cleared after lunch for a few hours of glittering, piercing sun. Now another storm is passing overhead. Patsy punches the buttons on the Wurlitzer. She slumps on the sofa for a minute or two, listening to the other waitresses gripe about the isolation, the tight-fisted customers, and Richard’s tantrums.
Dottie pokes a twig into the fire. She tilts her cigarette between her teeth and lights it with the burning stick. “Hot news, everyone. There are jobs in Estes Park. A limo driver told me at lunch. Let’s all go, and shut this place down.”
“Not me. I’m crawling home to Memphis while I’m still ahead,” Marilyn says.
Patsy tosses a handful of small pinecones into the fire. “I don’t know. Imogene is stealing us blind, but what if the jobs in Estes are already filled? What if the limo guy is wrong?”
“I’m packing up tomorrow and hitchhiking.” Dottie sets a stack of paper cups and two bottles of Seagram’s on the curio shop counter. “Tonight, we party. Seven and Sevens, plus whatever else we can lay our hands on.”
Patsy peers into the empty kitchen. Richard must be in his third-floor room watching television. She sneaks Imogene’s storeroom key, hidden atop the paper towel dispenser, and filches a case of Seven-Up. As she emerges from the storeroom, the case propped on her shoulder like a loaded tray of dishes, she sees Johnny. He watches her while he sets his dinner plate in the sink. “Don’t forget to put the key back,” he says.
Marcus and Renfro amble downstairs in their high-top tennis shoes. Each carries a paper cup filled with beer. They hover over the coins in their palms and feed a few into the Wurlitzer. “There’s a man in the funny papers we all know. Alley Oop, oop, oop-oop.”
The noise swells. Katie yells into Patsy’s ear that the waitresses should go on strike for all meals, not just breakfast. Her cheeks are flushed, and her paper cup is smeared with red lipstick. Dottie opens the second bottle of whiskey.
The boys dance with each other. They claim their own space away from the girls, but Patsy draws nearer. The boys use a free, hip-pumping style. “He’s a mean motah scootah and a bad go-gettah. Alley Oop, oop, oop-oop.” She never has danced this way; she imitates the swing dancing on American Bandstand.
Patsy feels a hand on her shoulder. She turns to see Johnny close behind her. The pomade he uses to straighten his hair smells as strange as an exotic spice. Without his chef’s hat and apron, he seems younger than she thought: his mustache is crisp and black, with no gray hairs, trimmed neatly along his generous upper lip. There is no white flash of a smile.
She is dizzy with heat, liquor, and discontent. Nothing this summer has turned out as she expected. Echo Lake has poisoned her college plans. She’ll have no money for a sorority, where there would be plenty of chances to meet the right blond crew-cut man to marry as soon as she graduates.
Johnny offers his pink, innocent palm to her, so different from the brown back of his hand scarred with hot grease burns. Without a decision on her part, she clasps it, and her feet lead her into the dance. She is stiff, her knees rigid, her arms held protectively against her ribs, her shoulders raised to preserve her distance. His hand is firm and cool.
The needle slides onto “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke, “All day long they work so hard….”
The heat induces her to peel off the white cardigan she’s worn all summer to keep away the cold. Her shirt is sleeveless, and the air tickles her bare arms. She and Johnny bump and fumble and tread on each other’s feet. She follows the familiar pattern of the swing, while Johnny steps to a syncopated rhythm of his own. He sings to himself.
She watches his lips move and wonders if Imogene runs her tongue along them. Some mornings she sees him coming from the old woman’s room dressed in pants and a white shirt, but barefooted.
Another song, and Patsy feels looser. Her back becomes sinuous, her joints juicy. She twirls, bends, rocks on her heels. His pink palm is slightly moist, and she feels the wide spread of his fingers.“She’s not so bad,” he says. “The girls say Miz Hull is terrible, but she’s not.”
“She’s a thief.”
Johnny raises his eyebrows. The girls are eating stolen chips, drinking stolen sodas and warming themselves with wood stolen from Imogene’s private stash.
“She’s a liar.” Patsy’s voice wavers. The waitresses played poker all morning after they called for the breakfast shift claiming to be sick.
She dances, thinking as she moves, how mixed up things have become. Her hopes are blurred, her values seem flimsy. Are her thefts less reprehensible than Imogene’s? If she goes to college only to find a man to provide her a safe life, will her marriage be any less opportunistic than the old woman’s? Her high school years when she had no boyfriend, no prom invitations, and no fat college fund seemed a month ago to have a gloss of tragic drama, but her challenging circumstances are petty compared to Imogene’s: bleak girlhood, false teeth, violent husband.
Patsy remembers Imogene earlier tonight as she rolled out of the parking lot on her way to Denver, her hands firmly on the wheel of her Lincoln, her chin tilted to see over the dashboard.
Johnny turns Patsy left, right, spins her out like a top on a string. Patsy pushes her glasses more firmly onto her nose. She takes a deep breath and seizes the initiative, twirling Johnny under her arm. She can choose. Whether to stay or move on to another job. Whether to attend college in the fall. Whether to marry a blond, crew-cut man.