So I started writing this novel, oh, 6 years ago? Maybe? I’ve lost track of a lot of things over the last decade or so:) A couple of readers gave me some very positive feedback, but I felt uncertain about the book and let it languish on my hard drive.
However, after preparing The Hour of Fatality for publication, I came to realize that I was being too hard on this novel. It was time to lay perfectionism aside and send it out into the world. So, the story of Anna and Mark will be available at last, in its entirety.
This book was a bit of a stretch to write to be honest. It touches on a lot of things I have no personal experience with, and yet it draws on people I have known and thought a lot about. So this book is close to my heart. One of these days I’ll type it all out and share it here.
But for now, here is an excerpt from the first chapter:
Anna tied her apron around her waist and went through the swinging kitchen door to the dining room. Chuck treated her the same as the other wait staff; maybe he even spoke to her less. He talked with Monique for twenty minutes at a time during the slow after lunch hours, gossiping about their families, their kids, their plans for their off days.
If he tried to gossip with Anna, she’d have nothing to say: no kids, no family. She had no life here, except the existence she was trying to maintain. Preserving the outward appearance of an ordinary young woman already felt like wearing a mask that didn’t fit her face. The whole cumbersome thing could slip and fall away, her carefully constructed life disintegrating and leaving her in the hell hole she had come from.
And sometimes that was the only thing she wanted.
She took a quick look around the empty dining room and went behind the marble-topped bar. She had started waitressing at Powell’s on the Pier last August. It was full of tourists then, people who flocked to the ocean for a respite from the Texas heat. The restaurant itself was suspended over the ocean, held up by three-foot thick pilings. If you stood close to the tinted windows, you could look straight down at the water rushing up the beach. Children loved it. Their fingerprints routinely decorated the glass.
The winter brought a less colorful crowd. Retirees who lived here year round would become regulars, enjoying the view and the quiet atmosphere denied them in the summer. Business people stopped in for meetings over Caesar salad and shrimp scampi. She preferred the winter.
She had never been a waitress before this. Just having a regular job, like everybody else in the world, was still a novelty sometimes. She was surprised to find how much she liked to be useful to somebody. It gave her a satisfying sense of purpose she had never known before. The best wait staff, Chuck said, were the ones that were always there when the customer needed them, and never noticed the rest of the time. It was easy, once she got the hang of it, to drift quietly by, only catching a customer’s eye if they were looking for her.
She learned to be a waitress before she ever came to Galveston. It was Jeff who taught her, at the Halfway House in Houston. Jeff was in charge of the kitchen. He was a big man with thick arms and a blunt nose, dark black skin and white teeth that glowed in his face. He had a smile for everyone, and at first, she disliked him for it. She preferred to be left alone. She was still too raw then, too unsure of what her life was turning into. But one afternoon, when she was sitting alone at the plastic table, pushing her bland green beans around her plate, he invited her into the kitchen.
“Come on in, Anna. Come see the other side.”
Since the only alternative was to sit in the lounge doing nothing, she joined him in the kitchen. “You just gotta’ go with the beat, Anna girl. You see?”
Jeff was always playing music in the kitchen of the Halfway House, on a little radio with a tinny sound: R&B, old school hip-hop, blues. This was how he taught her to help in the kitchen.
“You take the food, put on a fake smile, walk through the door, serve ’em up. If they give you grief, you keep that smile until you git back into the kitchen. You give the next plate your dirty look, and head back out the door.”
She missed him sometimes when she was working at Powell’s on the Pier. She liked the people she worked with well enough, but there was no one here like Jeff.
She waited on the older couple who came in for tuna sandwiches and coffee, and when she was done with the coffee pots, she went around the room to wipe the spots from the tablecloths. She always enjoyed this time of day, when the dining room was quiet. The sunlight flashed on the brass trimmings in the room, and the tablecloths glowed white. It was a soothing place to be at the end of a long lunch rush. She crossed to the far side of the dining room. She had thought it was empty, but as she pushed in the chairs, she heard a man’s voice from around the corner.
“Your family has sure produced some un-photogenic men over the years, but I think you’re the worst.”
She looked around the corner at an extremely short man with curly gray hair and a camera pressed to his eye. She moved to the next table to wipe up the crumbs that had been missed earlier. Now she was able to see the subject of the photograph. A tall man in an oxford shirt and blue coat sat solitary at the table. Almost thirty maybe, and not noticeably attractive at first glance, especially with his forehead wrinkled in irritation. He was looking down at his spotless plate and she peeked at him again. He had honey brown eyes, and a gentle mouth.
The table was set before him but his plate was empty. She watched as he smiled at the camera. Oh. Shorty was right. It wasn’t a smile. It was a goofy smirk.
“No good,” Shorty said. “Try again.”
All he got was a sulky expression that made the man’s face look sullen and dark. “I don’t like having my picture taken.”
“It’s not like the pictures were my idea.”
“Yes, I know.” He picked up his fork and pricked his flawlessly folded napkin with it. “I’ve been living in the jungle for the last three years. Nobody needs to pretend to smile there.”
“You’re back in civilization now, Mark. Smiling is the price you have to pay.”
Her work brought her around the corner and into the same part of the room as Mark and his photographer. She was just about finished, except for the crumpled napkin under the table by the window. She was trying to decide the best moment to duck behind them and snatch it away, when the photographer addressed her.
“Excuse me, ma’am, you don’t mind if I take your picture, do you?”
He was smiling at her in a professional way. He was weighing her up. She felt uncomfortably on display, and wished he would look at something else.
“You want to help us out here for a minute? My name’s Pete Fellows. Photographer. Just pretend to take his order, give him someone to talk to. I gotta’ get this guy to act natural for a photograph.”
“Oh. Um – ” This is what normal people do; they get their picture taken. She looked at the man seated at the table. He was still stabbing his napkin. She waited until he looked up. She would know her answer from the way he looked at her. His eyebrows were crowded together in tense embarrassment, but he smiled at her and shrugged his shoulders at the same time. His eyes were kindness and awkwardness in equal parts.
“You wanna’ help?” he said. “I’m really no good at this. But it’s worth a try.”
“I’m not much of an actor.”
“Stand right here.” The photographer stepped aside and waved his hand towards a spot by the table. “Just be yourself. Pretend to take his order.”
She took her notepad from her apron pocket and poised her pen. “Good afternoon, sir. Would you like the wine list today?”
“No, thank you.” Mark frowned.
“Smile, sweetheart,” Shorty said.
Wait staff have to smile. Happy waitresses get happy little tip dollars in their pockets at the end of the night, so she put on her automatic smile. When Mark looked up at her, there was no more stupid, put-on smirk. It was a real smile.
Click. Flash. “Bee-yoo-ti-ful. Do it again.”
“Ah, would you like to try the imaginary fettuccine? Or would you prefer the non-existent shrimp platter?”
“I think I’ll take the fictitious steak,” Mark said, and he laughed. “Hey, I made a joke. You’re good, you know that? I never make jokes.”
“You’re a winner, sweetheart,” Pete said.
He had been taking pictures the whole time. “Come on outside with us. I need to get some shots on the pier.”
“Oh – ” She looked uneasily over her shoulder at the door to the kitchen.
“Well, she can’t come if she still has work to do.”
Pete rolled his eyes. “You’re practically her boss. Of course she can come.”
It occurred to her for the first time that this man bore a strong resemblance to the portrait by the entrance. He looked just like Jacob Powell, the restaurant’s owner, minus the white eyebrows and deep set wrinkles. He had a pleasant face, old Powell’s dark features softened by diffidence. He seemed ill at ease in his blazer, but his broad shoulders filled out the coat without difficulty.
“Not exactly her boss. But I don’t suppose Chuck will complain.” He turned his eyes her way. “Well, if you don’t mind. This is a lot easier with someone else.”
“It shouldn’t take more than half an hour,” Pete said, in a conciliating voice.
Anna thought about saying no. She was used to playing the part of a waitress, but she wasn’t sure what kind of role she would play elsewhere. Mark stood up. He towered over her.
He made a funny grimace, scrunching up his face, but then he smiled. “Only if you want to. I’m Mark Powell by the way.”
She searched her mind for a convincing excuse, but she didn’t really have one. Maybe this was a safe time to say yes to somebody. That’s what normal people did, wasn’t it? She was supposed to be living a normal life. She had never really had one, and she wasn’t always sure how it was supposed to work, but it probably wasn’t normal to refuse the business owner’s polite and not too inconvenient request. Besides, her shift was technically over.
“I’m Anna. Anna Graham. Sure. I’ll come.”