Charlie came with the building.
It was an old joke, but a true one. Charlie had worked on the construction crew in 1976, installing the roof for Uptown Grille and Seafood, the Greek restaurant in North Charleston across the street from the new mall. Of course, it was only then, only when the restaurant was being built that it was the new mall; now it was just the North Charleston mall. Some other mall in the Charleston area, some other mall Charlie would never visit, was now the new mall.
Lukas and Nik, the brothers who owned the restaurant, liked Charlie. He was a hard worker, no one could deny that, and they offered him the dishwasher job. It had sounded like a dream come true for Charlie. At 35, he was already too old for construction work and this was steady employment, merely running dishes through a machine. He wouldn’t have to worry about going back to the temporary construction pool, never knowing if he would have work or what his next boss would be like.
Some of the construction foremen he had worked for were easy-going, letting Charlie get his work done with little interference, but others rode him like they hated him, like they were taking out a long-held grudge, like they were just waiting for him to mess up so they would have something to yell at him about. It was fear of these foremen, more than the promise of secure employment, that led Charlie to take the dishwasher job.
Now, twenty-three years later, Charlie had collapsed into shabbiness along with the restaurant. His hair had thinned and grayed as the vinyl on the booths split and frayed, his glasses had grown to the size of Coke bottles as the windows cracked and fogged, his clothing was stained with grease just like the forest green carpet. But Charlie’s knees were the worst, constantly irritated from all the standing and lifting—carrying heavy racks of glasses and dishes—and his back was beginning to hunch from the constant stooped posture he had to take to scrub out the pots. Only the Vicodin his doctor prescribed gave him any relief.
Charlie had no other choice but to continue working there. There was no one he could go to for help. His parents had passed on years before, he’d lost touch with his remaining family when he’d gone through his hard and wild years as a young man, and the family he’d created since then had shattered, spread to the wind. Charlie preferred it when his son, Adam, was in jail. At least then he knew the boy was safe and being watched over. When Adam was out, he only contacted Charlie for money or a place to crash for a few days or an alibi for the night of a liquor store robbery some crooked cop was trying to pin on him.
Charlie had nothing but Uptown Grille and Seafood. Nothing but the long hours and pain that was slowly crippling him.
The servers Lukas and Nik hired were usually the same—nice, clean-cut college girls or older, matronly women. But every now and then a wild one would get through—if she was pretty enough. Katherine, the new girl, was a dancer at the only fully-nude strip club in Charleston. It intrigued Charlie how she didn’t try to hide this fact, not was even a little shamed by it. She would speak of it like someone would speak about what they’d watched on TV, not with pride or embarrassment, but with matter-of-factness. “I made $300 dollars last night,” she would say with a shrug. The other girls would stare at her, a hard look of envy in their eyes. “But look what I had to do for it,” she would add with a shake of her head. “None of you would do so much for so little.” Occasionally, a girl would speak up and declare that she would, indeed, take off every inch of clothing she wore for $300, at which point Katherine would insist she come down to the club—they were always hiring. No one, as far as Charlie was aware, ever took her up on the offer.
He wondered at her stage name as he watched her ferry food and drinks from the kitchen to the dining room. Was it Starr? Or Candy? Or Kitty? Or maybe she just went by Katherine. As sensible and straight-forward as she was, she didn’t seem the sort to create a persona. No. Katherine would just be Katherine.
Of course, Charlie would never be able to prove this theory of his. He didn’t own a car, had no way of getting to AJ’s Gallery of Girls, and his nights were just as predictable as his days: a short walk up the street after work to the extended stay hotel where he lived for a night filled with TV and the to-go container packed with gyro meat and moussaka he got from the restaurant which he would never finish eating, always leaving a little bit for later just in case.
Besides his clothing and toiletries, the only thing in the room that belonged to him was an old boom box that played only cassette tapes and AM radio. As a last resort, when he felt he couldn’t stand the room for another minute, would he turn on the radio. Baseball games were his favorite, but he tried not to listen to too many, not wanting the experience of hearing someone narrate a baseball game to lose any of its shine.
Used to being in the background, unnoticed by all the other employees of Uptown Grille and Seafood, Charlie was stunned when Katherine spoke to him one day. “This place kind of sucks, doesn’t it?” Her dark brown eyes bore into him as she cracked a crab leg in half and sucked out the meat.
Charlie looked behind him to see if there was someone else she may have been addressing. “Sure,” he said when he realized it was him. Had she noticed his lingering stares? Did she realize how much of her filled his thoughts? “Did a cook give you that?” He gestured toward the crab leg. “I would hide it from Lukas. He won’t appreciate the kitchen staff giving away crab.”
She stared at him as she cracked open the other half of the leg and pulled out the crab meat, completely intact. “The lady at my table didn’t finish it. Why waste it, you know?”
“You’re eating someone’s food that was sent back?”
“It’s in the shell. It’s not like she touched the part I’m eating. But even so.” She shrugged. “It’s crab, right?” She threw away the empty shell and wiped her hands down her black apron. “I mean, I’m sure it used to be nice here. But, Jesus, this place has gone to hell.”
Charlie looked around for Lukas and Nik and then nodded. There was a rumor they had bugged the kitchen to eavesdrop on disgruntled employees. Charlie doubted it was true—not because it was above the two men, but because the expense would have no return on the investment. Even so, Charlie lived his life as though these listening devices existed.
She crossed to the soda machine, filled a Styrofoam cup with root beer, and walked back to his corner. “How long have you worked here?”
Charlie held a dish towel by both corners and twirled it. “Oh, a while.” He hated to admit to this beautiful, exciting girl how much of his life he’d traded, washing away the food scraps of strangers.
Shaking her head, she bit at her fingernails.
Charlie hadn’t noticed before how ragged her fingernails were, bitten down to the nub. She must put on fake ones when she performed. But who would even look at her hands?
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll last here.” She held her hands out in front of the heat lamp as though to warm herself by it. “I don’t make shit. It’s not worth the hours on my feet. We’re dead as fuck tonight. I’ll be lucky if I clear thirty bucks, and I’ll have to give three of that to the lazy ass bartender.”
He wanted to ask her why she continued working there if she didn’t make any money. Why not just strip and call it a day? But he didn’t want to put this idea in her head, that she should leave. She’d brought a sparkle with her when she’d started there and gave everything in the restaurant a new feel—an acknowledgement that it was all just fine the way it was.
“Do you know what I have to do when I leave here?”
Charlie did, but he shook his head no.
“I have to go stand on a stage, dance around, and take off all my clothes. But most importantly, I have to make these greedy men think I’m doing it because I love getting naked for them and the money’s just a nice bonus. That’s what I have to do to make rent because this place sucks so bad.”
Charlie cleared his throat. “Couldn’t you just do something else?”
She smiled at him, her dark eyes shining. “You’re adorable.”
His heart flipped, even though he knew she didn’t mean that the way he wanted her to.
“I could do something else, but what the fuck is it? Stripping’s all I’ve ever done.” She shook her head as though to shake the thought away. “I’m not like all these other girls here. If I fail I’m fucking homeless, if I fail my life is over.” She shrugged. “Really the only reason I’m working here is so I’ll have something respectable to put on a job application. How long do you think a real job, like a job where you get dressed up and work Monday through Friday, what do you think they would want you to have for previous employment? Six months or so?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “After I put in my six months, I’m outta here like the wind.”
The hostess poked her head in the kitchen. “Katherine, table 42.”
She rolled her eyes. “Dylan got it right, you gotta serve somebody, huh?” She patted him on the shoulder as she left the kitchen. He held his hand on the spot for a long time as though it burned.
* * *
It was two more weeks before she talked to him again and in that time so much had changed for Charlie. He’d gotten a haircut—a proper haircut—one where he paid a professional to do it instead of cutting haphazardly at the back of his head with nail scissors. He’d also spent an entire day off, walking the five miles to Goodwill and back again to pick up three new-to-him outfits, free of grease stains and rips.
But most importantly, he’d bought a brand new bottle of aftershave at CVS. It was a decision that had tormented him—which scent to buy. He didn’t want to smell too young when it was painfully obvious he wasn’t, but neither did he want to smell too old. He’d settled on English Leather because it sounded respectable, but he’d since lost his bravado and had yet to splash it on his freshly shaven cheeks. Still, it made him feel good to see it sitting there on the bathroom sink in the motel room. He was the sort of man who bought aftershave.
It was another slow night; they were happening more and more lately. The chain restaurants that had been steadily popping up over the years had leached away much of their business and a certain melancholy had seeped into Uptown Grille and Seafood, like the restaurant belonged to the Old World in an increasingly modern time.
The college girls who worked at Uptown Grille would head straight over to Applebee’s when they got off their shift, still in their uniforms, and eat there even though the food was frozen and microwaved and they would probably have to wait an hour just to get a table and it was loud as all get out. Anything to feel like a part of what was currently happening and not what had already passed.
Katherine came to his corner of the kitchen and sighed as he shut the dishwasher lever and the steam began to rise. “Another slow night?” Charlie asked. He was proud of himself for saying it. It was a perfect, casual question—like he was interested in her, but not too interested.
“Is it a day that ends in y?” she said with one eyebrow raised. “I honestly don’t even care anymore. I just come here to relax if you want to know the truth.” She placed part of one butt cheek on the stainless-steel table. “And I have the night off from my other job. Nothing can ruin my mood. Not even working my ass off for pennies.”
Charlie cleared his throat. “What are you doing with your night off? Heading to Applebee’s with the other girls?”
She grimaced. “What for? So I can eat some nasty chicken fingers some asshole took out of a freezer and dropped in a vat of fat?” She shook her head and bit at her fingernails. “Anyway, it’s not like they would invite me. I’m the black sheep.” She raised her hands and let them fall to her sides. “How ‘bout you? What do you get up to on a Friday night?”
Charlie shrugged. “Probably back to my room to watch some baseball.”
“Where do you live?”
“Sunbridge Extended Stay Motel, up the street.”
Her eyebrows drew close together. “You live in a motel? Jesus Christ, that’s depressing as fuck.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s perfect. I pay one price and I get rent, furnishings, water, electric, cable,” he ticked off the amenities on his fingers, “even maid service.” He nodded at her as though trying to will her to believe him.
“Food’s up, Katherine,” the cook said, and she walked away from Charlie.
On the walk home that night, Charlie reminded himself it wasn’t depressing that he lived in a motel. He reminded himself of this as he climbed the three flights of stairs to his room, resting his knees on each landing before he proceeded. And he reminded himself as he turned on the Braves/Pirates game and settled in to watch. He was still reminding himself that it wasn’t depressing that he lived in a motel when there was a knock on his door in the second inning of the game.
Unaccustomed to knocks, Charlie jumped. He went to answer, assuming it was Adam, probably hard up for cash which Charlie had very little of at the moment. There was sure to be a scene between the two of them—Adam accusing him of holding out and him trying to assure Adam that he was indeed flat broke. Adam telling him that he was a shitty dad and Charlie trying to convince Adam that he’d done the best with what he’d known at the time. And finally, Charlie giving Adam what little he had while Adam raced out of there, his fist clutching the tiny bundle of bills.
He opened the door to reveal Katherine holding a six pack of beer.
“The security in this place is shitty,” she said as she walked in. “They didn’t bat an eye at the front desk when I asked what room you were in. Just told me straight. I coulda been anyone.”
“Katherine,” was all Charlie could say. She was in his room, out of her waitressing uniform, her hair in a low ponytail and no makeup on her face. She looked like an entirely different person. One who was incapable of taking off her clothes for money, one who wouldn’t even consider such an endeavor.
She sat the beer on the desk and pulled two bottles from the cardboard holder, twisting off the tops with a practiced hand and giving one to Charlie while she drank deeply from the other. “Who’s playing?” she said when she came up for air.
She sat on the couch and stared deeply into the TV.
Charlie sat next to her, half off the cushion in case he needed to get up in a hurry. “You like baseball?”
She shrugged. “It’s as good as any other entertainment.”
Charlie nodded and tried to settle back into the couch, watching her for his next cue.
She drank five beers to his one as they watched the next seven innings. She got up abruptly when the game ended. “That was fun,” she said as she brushed non-existent crumbs off her blue jeans. “We should do that again.”
He half shook his head, half nodded as he walked her to the door, not sure what it was she thought they should do again.
After she left, Charlie paged Sharon who lived one floor below. While he waited for the woman to make her way to his room, he brushed his teeth and ran his wet hands through the wisps of hair on his head, checking his face in both directions. Pulling the front door ajar, he took two crisp twenties from his wallet and laid them on top of the TV. Sharon walked in a moment later and pocketed the twenties without a word.
She slipped off her jeans and underwear and kicked them in the corner, putting her hands on the dresser, her skinny backside to him. The familiar shame washed through Charlie as he entered her. He tried to push it down, think of nothing, think of Katherine even, but the shame persisted, erupting inside him as a punishment.
* * *
Katherine coming to visit him became a regular thing on nights when she didn’t have to work at AJ’s. Always, she showed up unannounced. Always, she brought beer that she largely drank alone. And always they watched TV and she left without much conversation.
Charlie had learned only a bit about her over the weeks. She’d come from Florida, trying to start over in North Charleston, as though North Charleston was to be the place of her great rebirth. Her ex-boyfriend and son lived somewhere in the area and she was trying to get her life together so she could fight for custody of the boy—this child whose name and age she never revealed. But most importantly Charlie learned, only because she told him time and again, that she liked being around him because he was the only man who didn’t look at her like a piece of meat.
So, Charlie had tried to start thinking of her as something entirely different from a piece of meat. He’d tried to start thinking of her as a person with hopes and dreams not too far removed from his own hopes and dreams. And this had made him, though it confused him to no end, to stop desiring her so much while at the same time making him love her even more than before.
That Sunday, he waited for her while trying not to wait, having learned early in life that it was easier not to expect things rather than deal with disappointment. To cut through the stillness of the room, he turned a baseball game on the radio. Sure, he could watch it on TV, but there was something warm about hearing it—getting to picture for himself what the line drives looked like, the motion of feet as a man rounded first, the release of a fast pitch and the bat hitting nothing but air. Sometimes when he listened, he could almost make himself believe his father was still alive and that he, Charlie, was just a boy again on one of those long Sunday drives they used to take.
The game was in the fourth inning when there was a knock on the door. He almost bumped over the radio as he rushed to answer it, like he thought she may leave if he didn’t make it in time. Adam came in, a sly smile on his mouth and patted Charlie on the shoulder.
Charlie’s heart sank as he hugged his son with one arm.
“You’re lookin’ good,” Adam said as he shut the door behind him.
What do you want from me this time? Charlie almost asked him, but held back. Adam was his son and his son deserved the benefit of the doubt. “Are you hungry? I’ve got some spanakopita in the mini-fridge, or I could make you a peanut butter sandwich.” The boy looked too skinny, skinnier than usual.
“I’m good, just came for a visit.” He sat on the couch and turned on the TV. “Anything on tonight?”
Charlie switched off the radio and sat next to Adam, bouncing his knees up and down. “Whatever you want to watch.” This was always how these things started, Adam acting like he was just coming over to see Charlie before pouncing with what he really wanted. Racking his brain, Charlie tried to think of a way to speed things along so that Adam could get what he came for and be on his way.
Adam was still flipping through channels, going to the next and the next before he’d had a chance to see what was on, when there was another knock at the door. “Are you expecting someone?” Adam asked, his eyebrows drawn close together, his eyes still on the TV.
Charlie swallowed as he went to answer.
Katherine barged in past him with her six pack of beer. “Holy hell, you need to get moved to the first floor, I’m sick of those stairs.” She stopped short when she saw Adam.
“Katherine, this is my son, Adam. Adam, Katherine.” Though Charlie knew he didn’t look like a young man, a part of him was embarrassed that now Katherine realized he was old enough to have a son her age, old enough to be her own father. For the first time, it occurred to him that maybe this was the reason Katherine liked to spend time with him—maybe he was some sort of replacement father figure for her. He felt a strange wave of resentment and bewilderment wash over him at that. He wasn’t even a father figure for his own son, why should he have to be one for her?
Adam smiled with half his mouth and sat back on the couch, one arm thrown over the top of it. “Where do I know you from?”
Katherine shook her head in a determined emphatic way, both eyebrows raised. “You don’t know me.”
Adam looked from Charlie to Katherine and back again. “Your name ain’t Katherine. What is it?” He lifted his chin up at her. “It’s…something. What is it again?”
She put the beer down. “You know, I can’t stay tonight. Just wanted to stop by and say hi.”
Adam got up from the couch, crossing the small room quickly with his long legs, and grabbed her by the wrist. “You don’t have to go. I didn’t get a chance to get to know you the other night, we can get outta here. Go talk somewhere. Or we could stay right here. You could do a little dance for me.”
She wrenched her arm from his hand. “Look. I don’t know you.”
Adam smiled as though he knew some great secret. “You know me. That whole thing was a misunderstanding.” He reached for her again and Charlie swatted the boy’s arm, batting him away. Adam looked to Charlie, a surprise across his face, and then laughed. “Calm down, Dad, I just want to get to know your friend, here. Katherine.” He said Katherine like it was a joke.
Though Adam towered over Charlie by a good three inches, Charlie still tried to pull himself up to his full height, angling his head upwards a bit. “You need to leave.”
“I need to leave?” And then louder. “I need to leave? Why doesn’t she need to leave? Do you even know what kind of person she is?”
Charlie nodded once. “She’s my friend.” And this statement, those three words seemed to determine something, shut and lock the door for all time. The hope that had fizzled and churned inside Charlie for all those months, since she’d first walked into Uptown Grille and Seafood, dried up in a moment. She was his friend. Nothing more. It was a fact. What was he to do with facts?
Adam’s eyes shifted, his body seemed to lose fight. Leaning in close to Charlie, he whispered, “Any way you could loan me a couple of bucks before I go?”
Charlie opened the door. “No.”
Adam cracked his knuckles. “Just a couple bucks. C’mon, I haven’t eaten in days.”
Charlie held his breath deep in his chest for a moment. “You can come bus tables tomorrow night if you want to earn some money. Lukas and Nik won’t mind. They’ll even feed you.”
“C’mon. Those guys are assholes. They hate me.”
“Sometimes you have to put up with assholes.” Charlie paused after saying those words. They were the best advice he’d ever given in his life. If only he’d had that advice twenty years before. It always seemed like it was too late to know what he needed to know.
Adam’s eyes shifted over the room. It was the first time Charlie had stood up to his son. For a moment, he wondered if Adam would do something violent and crazy, but the moment passed and Adam just pointed his finger at Charlie. “Fuck you,” he said and walked out the door.
Charlie shut it behind him and looked to Katherine, who stood still. Then she moved abruptly, as though breaking free from a mold she’d been put in—pacing the room, her arms gesturing wildly. “My money’s always from where it’s supposed to be from. My money is clean. I’m not like those other girls at AJ’s.” She took a breath, her voice shaking. “Him,” she pointed to the door, “and all his little punk friends need to fucking realize that.” She pushed the hair from her face. “My money is clean, I don’t care what anyone thinks.” And then a whisper. “My money is clean.”
She paced until it seemed she was paced out. He turned off the TV, but the silence in the room quickly became thick. “Do you want to listen to a baseball game on the radio?”
She rubbed a hand down her face and then shrugged. “Sure. Whatever.”
He turned the radio back on and sat at the two-person table, patting the seat next to him. Pop fly to center, the announcer said and it brought a feeling of calm over him. “Why don’t we look through the classifieds in the newspaper while we listen? I’m sure we can find you a real job, a job that’ll help you to earn enough money to get your son back. You’ve been at Uptown Grille long enough, I suppose, for it to look respectable on a job application. You’re a great girl. Someone’ll be lucky to get you.”
The game went on as they circled ads and made a list of her skills. The Braves were down five runs in the bottom of the eighth, but they still had the ninth inning to come back from behind and Charlie believed a comeback was possible.
Hollie Sessoms is a feature writer for Tybee Beachcomber and has had short fiction published in Sheepshead Review, Digital Papercut, Fish Food Magazine, Thick Jam, and Brawler Lit. When she’s not writing, she enjoys getting lost in the woods, trying to get her heels all the way to the floor in downward dog, and embarrassing her teenagers by dancing the floss. Once, when she was young, she saw an orca breach in the ocean off the coast of Alaska.