Apples on My Desk, 2021, by Charlie Engman © The artist
By Andrew Malan Milward
Lil felt it each time she walked toward the entrance of her gym, the strange feeling. Which is to say she felt it six days a week, Monday through Saturday, at 9:30 A.M., give or take a minute or two. Up at 7:45, coffee mug warming her hand by eight as she turned on ESPN, and after an hour or so of watching highlights and noodling around on the computer, she was pulling on her shorts and sneakers and out the door by 9:20, headed for Fitness World, where ten minutes later she’d park, slip her duffle over her shoulder, and just after having hit the lock button on her keychain it would hit her: the absolute certainty that she’d forgotten to put on underwear and shorts and was now about to walk into her gym half naked. It was irrational of course, but also real, the fear anyway. Inevitably, as discreetly as possible, she’d look down to make sure she was in fact fully clothed before entering the building. She always felt foolish, but she also always felt relieved.
Today Lil approached the check-in desk and noticed a new banner pinned to the wall overhead, something to court and motivate the New Year’s Resolutionists who flooded the gym for a few weeks each winter before giving up: loose 10 lbs this january! She imagined a blob of lard the size of a turkey scurrying about the place and debated whether to point out the typo, but she decided to let it be for now, a little something she could grin at each morning. As usual there were three employees in black polo shirts and khakis behind the desk, laughing, slacking, small-talking to pass the time, occasionally swiping a member’s fob. Usually these were young people, high school or college-age kids just picking up some walking-around money. But today, in addition to two regulars, there was somebody new—somebody older, someone who appeared closer in age to Lil’s thirty-two than he was to his coworkers’ twenty-ish—standing at attention before the computer, meeting her eyes.
“Welcome to Fitness World,” he said. He had an apple in his right hand and lobbed it over to his left without breaking eye contact. As Lil shuffled through her bag to find her keys, he lobbed the unbitten apple back to his right hand like he was trying to teach a child the elementary principles of juggling. She found her keys but immediately fumbled them to the ground. Stooping to pick them up, she heard the hollow pop of the apple land in the palm of his hand once again.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she stood upright. “I’m a mess this morning.”
He smiled, just a little and awkwardly, as though it didn’t come easy, or as if he were trying to remember to do so, and he looked at her with the bluest of eyes. She thought perhaps he was a manager, some kind of parental figure called in by Corporate to check on this branch and give it the veneer of accountability, perhaps flex his authority a little by cracking down on the kids’ dicking around. But his nametag just said Jason. No fancy title underneath. He accepted her key chain and scanned the fob that was attached to the ring, then looked at the computer screen where her member profile materialized.
“Have a good workout, Lillian,” he said, handing back her keys. It gave her pause to hear her full name, instantly transporting her back to first days of school as a young girl when the teacher would call roll and she’d raise her hand. Please, ma’am. I go by Lil. Finally the man broke eye contact, his line of vision quickly lowering down her torso and legs as he turned to tell one of his young coworkers to go wipe down the ellipticals. It was just a brief moment, his eyes tracking her body, but it was enough to make her fear of nakedness suddenly resurface, and she looked down to make sure she was still clothed. I’m an idiot, she thought, and shook her head once to rid herself of the irrational anxiety. She said thank you and then went to stow her duffle in the women’s locker room.
It was a good time to hit the gym, after the early morning pre-work rush and before the lunch-hour spike. Lil had three routines targeting different muscle groups and areas of the body that she alternated through so she didn’t get bored, but each day she made time for some weights, some stretching, some cardio. Lil had been a great runner once. She was tall with long strides and stamina that allowed her to run like a gazelle for long stretches. That’s how her dad had always described her gift, like a gazelle. It had earned her several scholarship offers for college, though she chose to stay home in Hattiesburg and run distance on the track team at Southern Miss. She loved that feeling, the long slow burn of just running and running, and she’d kept it up for a few years after graduating, though these days she usually just jogged for half an hour on the treadmill. Recently, however, a friend from work told her about a marathon that would raise money for the new pediatric oncology wing at Forrest General, and Lil thought maybe she’d get back into it, if only to help support an important cause. It was in April, almost three months away. She’d have to start training for distance again if she hoped to take part in it, but there was time for that, so today she just focused on her usual routine.
When the large clock above the wall of mirrors hit 10:30, she got off the treadmill, wiped it down with disinfectant, and made her way to the water fountain where she leaned down to sip cold water that was so refreshing, she literally vocalized the Ahhhhhh sensation she felt as she rose and wiped her mouth, as though she were in a commercial. She felt relieved no one had seen her until she realized someone had. Turning to make her way to the locker room, Lil saw him staring at her. The guy who checked her in. Apple man. He was smiling his strange smile. He was shorter than Lil realized, shorter than she, and his hair was buzzed close on the sides and bald on top like a monk’s tonsure.
“Water’s good,” he said.
She wasn’t sure how to respond. It was a subjective statement that nonetheless felt like someone saying, “I breathe air” or “Fire is hot.” So she just smiled and continued on toward the locker room.
“Have a good rest of your day, Lillian,” he called out after her.
After showering at the gym, Lil made the short drive to work, where the lunch shift was about to start. Over the years, she had described her employment variously depending on whom she was speaking to:
I waitress at a big chain restaurant.
I’m a server at this local sports bar.
Technically, I’m not a waitress; I was hired as a model who serves food.
I work at fucking Hooters, no joke.
I’m not a stripper—I’m a Hooters Girl!
A decade ago, at the height of the Great Recession, she had applied when it seemed there were no other jobs. She needed something to pay the bills. And while it was meant only to be temporary and certainly wasn’t where she imagined ending up—she’d been a marketing major—she’d grown to actually like the place and had stayed on all these years, something that was unusual given that most of the other girls left after a year or two, if that. She wouldn’t do it forever—she’d thought about moving into management at some point, or making a clean break altogether—but it wasn’t a bad gig. While there were obvious negatives, they were outweighed, to Lil’s mind, by the positives. For starters, the money was good. While the base hourly was industry-standard abysmal, she brought in anywhere from $100–400 a night in tips, and frankly it was a fun place to work. Laid back, good atmosphere. Most customers weren’t creeps. Plus, she was a sports junkie and there were a couple dozen TVs showing any game you could imagine. There was camaraderie amongst the girls that rarely turned catty. She took pleasure in her seniority, liked being someone the other girls could talk to or ask for advice. She looked out for them and could step in when customers got lewd or rude. And there was the other thing too: To be stared at wasn’t always a bad and unwelcome thing. Of course it could be and often was, but when it was part of the job you’d knowingly agreed and consented to, the power dynamic shifted in your favor and it could feel affirming to be watched and admired, to feel confident and strong and beautiful.
The funny thing was that Lil never experienced her bottom-naked phobia at work the way she did at the gym. She simply put on the required uniform—“suntanned” pantyhose, little orange shorts and white tank top, and dental-white Sketchers—and never thought twice about it.
That day she was supposed to work just the lunch shift but filled in for someone else through the dead afternoon hours and stayed on for the post-work drink-and-dinner rush. When it was slow, she was supposed to play board games with customers or challenge the other girls to a dance off, anything to liven up the place, but just as often she escaped to the kitchen to shoot the shit with the guys in the back of the house. The male employees at Hooters were either managers or kitchen staff, hidden away from view. For the most part, they were all good and decent dudes who didn’t seem to notice that the waitresses were half-clothed. They were there to cook for a paycheck. It could just as well have been the kitchen of Chili’s or Applebee’s.
For a while she watched one of the new cooks, Gavé, who was trying to learn how to shuck an oyster, a popular order given their proximity to the Gulf Coast. On one hand he wore a heavy glove that seemed made of chainmail and in the other he held a small knife, which conjured the strange image of a knight readying to joust with a prison shiv. He kept breaking the shell and having to throw it away, but then Lil asked if she could try. Most people went too hard, jabbing in the knife and trying to pry open the shell. “The key,” she told Gavé after he’d given her the implements, “is to slide the blade in gently at the hinge and then just softly wiggle your wrist. Don’t force it.” She did so and the shell clicked open. She dropped the empty upper lid in the trash and held the lower cup with its jagged carapace and soft gray meat. “Then you have to cut the adductor,” she continued, scraping the knife tip underneath the oyster to sever the muscle that held the oyster to the shell. “And voila. You’re all set.” The oyster sat there in a small pool of brackish water and she offered it to Gavé.
“I don’t fuck with raw shit,” he said.
So she tilted her head back and slurped it right down, tossing Gavé the shell.
That night, her four-hour shift stretched into eight, but she left with $200 in her purse. In the bathroom, Lil changed into leggings and a sweatshirt, said goodbye to the bartender and cooks who stayed on until close, and made her way outside. It was dark and she saw another woman up ahead of her. A waitress from the neighboring Outback Steakhouse, just finished with her shift, too. Lil followed in step, perhaps twenty feet behind, as they made their way to the distant part of the lot where employees were encouraged to park so as to leave the prime spots for customers. The woman was bundled up in a big, black puffy jacket, even though the winter nights weren’t that cold in Mississippi. It was quiet out, except for the sound of their boots hitting the pavement. Lil’s pace was faster than the other woman’s and as she closed the gap between them, readying to pass, she sensed the woman tense. Lil realized that her boots and longer strides made a heavier sound, a masculine sound. The woman was still a few paces ahead and she took her keys out of her pocket, balling the small attached can of mace in her fist. Lil knew the feeling, that horrible sense of being followed, and had done the exact same thing herself some nights when she left the restaurant late. She was inadvertently torturing the poor woman, and she scrambled to find a way to signal she wasn’t a threat. Abruptly, she slowed her pace and called out: “Love those boots, girl.” The woman stopped and turned to find Lil admiring her footwear. She pushed back the hood of her jacket, put her keys back in her purse, and smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
The next morning, Lil went to the gym and saw the usual trio of young folks working the check-in desk. It was so familiar to her routine, so regular, that it wasn’t until later when she saw him that she remembered the weird apple man from yesterday. She was in the free-weight area using dumbbells to alternate lunges and curls when she recognized him. It took her a moment because he was wearing gym clothes instead of his work clothes. He looked so different. He was still short and bald, but he was wearing a tight-fitting tank and she could see the striated muscle bands across his shoulders and arms, the baseball pop and curve of his calves. He didn’t look like some corporate schlub now. She thought of her father, who’d been based out of Camp Shelby for thirty years. That was it. The guy had a military vibe about him, that unassuming yet mutant strength and endurance, like he could drop and do a hundred one-hand pushups on the spot or run ten klicks with a rifle over his head and not break a sweat.
He saw Lil staring and she looked away. She leaned back on the bench and began doing a set of chest presses using the 25-pound dumbbells. She’d plateaued using the twenties and decided to go up five pounds last week. She felt a fire in her sternum and on the last rep her arms began to fatigue and wobble. She thought she might have to drop them, when all of a sudden there were hands under her triceps gently guiding her arms down. Surprised, she let go of the dumbbells, which made a loud clattering sound. Dropping weights was against gym rules and anytime it happened the knuckleheads at the front desk sounded an alarm to shame the guilty person, as they did now. Lil could feel her face redden as she shot up from the bench to find the man standing there.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said. “Looked like you could use a spot.”
She gave him the dead-eyed stare she reserved for when she needed to put a too-fresh customer in his place.
“I was fine,” she said. “I had it.”
He took a step back and apologized, then did so again, and then a third time. Sincerely it seemed, fulsomely no doubt. He looked contrite. Others were staring at them now. Was that too harsh? Perhaps she’d overdone it; he’d only been trying to help after all. “It’s okay,” she said. “You just startled me.” That was the thing: this was the South; manners mattered. You didn’t just tell someone to fuck off, not for that kind of offense anyway; you smiled and told them to have a good day, hoping never to see them again. Which was what Lil did, and as she was about to leave, the man pointed to the bench she’d been using and asked if she was finished with it, could he use it?
“Sure,” said Lil. “Just let me wipe it down.” She started toward the spray bottle of disinfectant and paper towels when he told her not to bother, he’d take care of it. “You sure? I can do it,” she said. He still seemed embarrassed and chastened, unable to make eye contact. He nodded, so she walked away until she noticed a shoelace had come undone. Kneeling down to tie it, she stole a look at the guy as he went to the weight rack and hefted the huge sixty-five pounders out of their slot and carried them to the bench and sat down. She could see the sheen of her sweat still glistening on the black vinyl. He hadn’t cleaned it. She was about to say something, but before she could he leaned back onto the bench and began grunting out his reps.
In the days that followed, Lil saw him every time she went to the gym. If he wasn’t working, he was working out, pulling his strange Clark Kent–to–Superman wardrobe swap. She wondered if he ever went home. For a little while after their last encounter he was politely quiet when he saw her, but one day as they passed each other, instead of just smile-nodding as usual she asked him how it was going. It came out reflexively. It was a prolix way of saying hello. So she was surprised when he didn’t just respond “Good, you?” without breaking stride. No, he stopped and began to tell her exactly how things were going for him. He told her about that day’s workout regimen, dipping into scientific and nutritional terms he seemed to assume Lil was unfamiliar with. He told her about someone hitting his car in the lot, leaving a dent but no note. He told her about his sister’s recent wedding. Lil listened to it all feigning interest—face molded into a smile, head nodding thoughtfully—as she millimetered away from him imperceptibly, wondering when he would stop, which he finally did after signing his name on this apropos-of-nothing broadside: “My name is Jason.”
She wondered whether he was on the spectrum but decided it wasn’t that so much as he was just socially awkward, wanting to converse but not knowing how, not reading cues, perhaps a bit nervous from their previous encounter. He looked at her expectantly, and she said, “Well, that sounds good, take care,” and continued on her way. She felt a desire to look back to see if he was staring at her, but her brain voice told her to keep her eyes straight ahead.
Lil tried to avoid him after that, keeping a mental radar on where Jason was in the gym at all times, which sometimes resulted in her taking a convoluted route to a destination if the quickest way might have them cross paths. When she was on the treadmill, he’d often walk by and she could sense him trying to make eye contact with her, but she had her blinders up and would just pretend to be focusing really hard on the television screen showing the tenth consecutive hour of SportsCenter, highlights from the night before that she’d already seen a dozen times. It was inconvenient but not unbearable to avoid him like this, though it was impossible to do when he was working the front desk. Whenever he was there and she came through the entrance, Jason would break from the conversation he was having with the other employees and head straight for the computer to check her in. Invariably he had an apple in his hand, but he never seemed to be eating it. He treated it like a squeeze toy or tennis ball, just tossing it around to himself, never piercing the apple’s flesh with his teeth. “Good morning, Lillian,” he’d say and she could tell how desperately he wanted her to respond in kind, to say his name back, to inch their familiarity forward just a bit more, and because she sensed that desperation she recoiled from it, preferring to simply smile and say thank you with as little eye contact as possible and be on her way.
One morning on the first day of February, she walked into the gym and handed Jason her fob to swipe, which he did, and as he handed her keys back he said, “Happy birthday!” He turned to the other workers as if they might all suddenly burst into song, but they weren’t paying attention. How does he know it’s my birthday? she was wondering when she saw his eyes glance at the computer screen. Her member profile. It must have had her date of birth.
“We’re both Aquariuses,” he said, thus beginning one of his anxious, breathless monologues: “Though my birthday was a week ago. Turned thirty-one and you’re turning, what, let’s see, thirty-three? Your Jesus birthday, haha. I hope you’re going to do something special. Got any plans? My sister and her husband are on their honeymoon. Barbados. But both got sick so they’re stuck in the hotel throwing up. Not exactly romantic. I didn’t do anything for my birthday. I hope you do. Sorry, that was gross about my sister throwing up.”
If she didn’t move soon, he’d just keep running her over with his verbal Zamboni. She started to walk away.
“Here’s a present,” he said, proffering the apple in his hand. “Happy birthday, Lillian.”
She stared at it a moment, her hand slow to accept it, slow to even process what it was, as if the apple were a foreign object gifted by an alien, but then she took it into her hand and walked straight to the locker room and threw it into the trash. Afterward, she went about her workout, or her body did anyway, but her mind was elsewhere, shaken by the encounter, trying to think back to the membership form she’d filled out so many years ago. What other information had she included besides DOB? Bank account for membership payment? Place of work? Social Security number? A pit formed in her stomach. Home address? She couldn’t remember, but whatever was there, anyone with access to the gym’s computers could see it. She should talk to a manager. That was a perfectly okay thing to do. But say what? Jason at the front desk is too friendly? It sounded silly and overreactive, but it wasn’t. Was it? No, she decided. It wasn’t. He referenced her personal information. He made her uncomfortable. He made her not want to come to the gym anymore. She needed to say something.
Lil was on the treadmill doing a sprint sequence and suddenly grabbed the arm rests and jumped her feet to the frame as the belt continued its furious revolution. She hopped off, not bothering to stop the machine or wipe it down, and went straight past the locker rooms to the back area she’d never been, stopping in front of the office with a name plate that read like bad poetry—sam swearinger, manager—and balled her right hand into a fist to knock.
That night Lil worked until close and then went out for birthday drinks with Chantel and Sara Beth, gals from work. They went to Nick’s Ice House, a favorite dive that was little more than a plywood shack with toilets for barstools and keg urinals. “First round’s on me,” said Chantel as they settled into a booth. “What you want?”
“Corona,” said Sara Beth. “With lime.”
“Corona,” said Lil. “With lemon.”
“Mmm-hmm,” said Chantel, who went to the bar to order. As she waited for the bartender, a neighboring man sitting on a toilet-seat barstool examined her. His face was weathered and ruddy in a way that suggested he not only drank every night but got angry drunk every night. A television above the bar showed a women’s UFC fight.
“Look at these bad bitches kicking ass,” said Chantel. She turned to him. “Think you could take ’em?”
“I’d last two seconds,” he said, and the man’s hard face brightened into a smile. “You sure are beautiful. I’d propose to you if I wasn’t ugly.”
“Oh thank you, sweetie,” she said with the aplomb of one used to compliments and adept at deflection. She extended the ring finger of her left hand. “But I’m off the market.”
“Well, here’s to you,” he said, raising his PBR. “You tell your fella he’s a lucky man.”
“I tell him that every day.”
The engagement ring was real, though a lot of the girls wore fakes at work to deter overtures from customers, Lil included. It took a certain kind of man to be able to handle his girlfriend working at Hooters. The last guy Lil dated said he was cool with it and seemed to be, for a while anyway. Then one day he showed up during her shift. To surprise her, he said. Sweet, she thought, even as an internal red flag went up. Sure enough, after that he started coming in regularly, just sitting at the bar and glowering at any guy who so much as ordered french fries from Lil. She ended that shit real quick.
When Chantel returned with their drinks, the trio raised their bottles in a birthday toast.
“Tomorrow,” said Lil, “I start training for the marathon.”
“Yes!” cried Sara Beth. It had been her idea, but so far none of the other girls had signed up for the fundraiser. “Finally I have a partner.”
“Alright, marathon woman, that’s tomorrow,” said Chantel, eyeing Lil. “Tonight you doing thirty-three shots.”
That night Lil did not drink one shot, let alone thirty-three, but she drank enough to karaoke “Son of a Preacher Man,” enough to bum a smoke from a guy outside warming himself over the trash-barrel fire, enough to leave her car at the bar and Uber home, enough to make a regrettable late-night food decision involving a lukewarm sack of Taco Bell, enough to struggle to piece together the night’s various conversational threads the following morning as she chugged glasses of water and swallowed ibuprofen. She hadn’t cut loose like that in a while, but it was her birthday. Apparently her present to herself was to feel like shit in the morning. Happy birthday to me, she thought, downing another pint glass of water.
In her eagerness to detoxify, Lil jumped right into a long run. She had the day off from work and would celebrate her birthday with her parents over dinner, but before that she was determined to sweat out the previous night’s poison and excess. It wasn’t just the hangover that made it so punishing; she was so out of practice running anything longer than thirty minutes on the treadmill. Her legs felt heavy, her lungs burned, and she could hear the water swishing around in her stomach, but she was determined to keep on. She tried to take her mind off the physical torture by thinking back through the previous day as parts of it began to reemerge from oblivion. She remembered telling Chantel and Sara Beth about the weirdness at her gym and how uncomfortable Jason made her feel. “That’s the worst,” said Chantel, shaking her head. “I feel like half the dudes we serve at work walk around dripping precum.” They’d all laughed, but the situation with Jason was different, Lil realized now on her run. He wasn’t like the men she sometimes encountered at work with their performance of masculine assholery. In some sense it would have been easier to brush off if he’d just said she had a nice ass or something. Whatever he was doing felt different, felt more insidious. She had tried to explain it to the manager, and Sam Swearinger—a woman, Lil was relieved to discover—nodded and listened to Lil’s false starts and attempts and digressions until finally she interrupted to say, “Look, the bottom line is he made you feel uncomfortable. That’s not okay. I’m very sorry. I’ll take care of it. It won’t happen again.”
Lil kept on running, kept on replaying things in her head, and when she finally allowed herself to look at her watch she saw she’d been going over fifty minutes, probably around five miles. It wasn’t so bad now. It seemed she’d eased into the discomfort, the pain leveling off, when suddenly it hit her and she veered from her path into a stranger’s yard to vomit.
In the days that followed, Lil began to alternate her gym workouts with long-distance runs she took with Sara Beth. She told herself this was to prep for the marathon, which it was, but it was also to limit her time at the gym. Both things were true. She still felt weird. One day after her workout, she’d showered and was getting dressed for work when suddenly Lil found herself looking around the locker room, inspecting the ceiling and corner nooks, wondering how hard it would be for someone to plant a camera and whether she’d be able to tell if so. The thought had never occurred to her before.
Whatever Sam Swearinger had done, however, did improve the situation. Now when Lil went to the gym Jason often wasn’t there. And if he was, he’d take conspicuous pains to avoid interacting with her, leaving the check-in area if she walked through the entrance or bolting the other direction if their paths appeared to be converging, never making eye contact. Then one day she realized she hadn’t seen a trace of him in over three weeks. By mid-March it seemed he’d disappeared—gotten a new job or transferred to another location—and she felt relief and normalcy start to return as the weather warmed and winter eased into spring, a transition punctuated by two of her favorite things: March Madness and crawfish season.
Lil would have preferred to watch the basketball tournament in the comfort of her own home, but the money was too good to pass up. At least she could keep an eye on it while she waited on tables. And she wasn’t alone; with games from noon to midnight, the restaurant was packed. A lot of folks who’d never been to Hooters assumed it was just fuckbois and dirty old men, but that wasn’t the truth, or it wasn’t the entire truth. There were also parents who brought their kids, retirees and other couples Lil knew from church, as well as an entire lesbian softball team that liked to come in after their weekly game and take over the place. It was all part of the fun and mindfuck of working there.
Things were so busy that night that Lil didn’t see Jason enter the restaurant. She was posing for a photograph with a group of guys. This happened often—men wanting to document their experience—and while annoying, it was also part of the job. Usually it was fine and happened without incident, but occasionally some knucklehead did something stupid, as when one of the guys in the group of college bros tried to pull Chantel onto his lap for the picture. This was verboten and sent Lil into Mama Bear mode. She stepped right up into the guy’s face and pulled Chantel off his lap. He wore a Southern Miss ballcap and was red-eyed and buzzed. “Look, dude,” said Lil, “don’t be an asshole or we’ll 86 you.” Even this stern warning, delivered with a don’t-try-me seriousness, could be alchemized into flirtation by the magic of booze, and the guys in the group began to hoot and holler, telling her to keep giving it to their buddy, who put his hands up in mock capitulation. “Behave yourselves,” she scolded them and the guys smiled and saluted her.
“Thanks, girl,” said Chantel as they walked away. “That dude got serious fuck-me eyes.”
Lil went to check on her tables when suddenly there was shouting and arms flailing en masse. Lil spun around to find a TV showing a crowd go apeshit in the immediate aftermath of #12 seed Liberty upsetting #5 Mississippi State. Overrun with Southern Miss fans, the bar savored watching their rivals to the north shit the bed in the first round. Lil watched the replay a couple of times, oohing in appreciation with nearby customers, before realizing this result had just royally screwed her bracket. One man wearing a maroon State hat stared into the distance, as if his soul had just evacuated his body, as his wife patted his arm.
She was dropping off a fresh round of beers for a group when she saw him sitting alone at a table. Jason. She stopped, feeling the ill ease move through her, watching him inspect a menu in profile. Sara Beth had seated him in Lil’s section, not realizing who he was. She thought about saying something, asking one of the other girls to switch and take the table but decided against it. This was her turf. She’d not be intimidated. She’d not be made uncomfortable. She approached and welcomed him to Hooters with no sense of recognition or familiarity whatsoever. To her relief, he played along. He didn’t make eye contact, did not say “Thank you, Lillian,” just thank you.
“Do you know what you want to drink?” she asked. “There’s a special on select beers.”
“Just a water,” he said. “No ice, please.”
He wore black joggers, the cuffs of which were hiked up to his calves, with red sneakers and no-show socks, a gray hoodie. When she returned with his water, he ordered off the healthy menu, a grilled chicken sandwich and steamed veggies. That was the menu the girls were supposed to order from in order to get their free work meal, but Lil had raised a stink about it to their manager and now they could order whatever they wanted. Fuck steamed veggies! Most of the time she just wanted to get down and dirty with some wings. Over the next hour Lil checked on Jason a couple of times, refilling his water, before dropping off his check. He paid with a debit card but left a twenty-dollar bill as a tip. Way too much for the $10.93 his meal had cost, but big tips weren’t uncommon there. She certainly wasn’t going to turn it down. She said thank you for coming in and soon he was gone.
Lil stayed until close that night, even hanging around a little longer to watch the end of the last basketball game, sharing a beer with the manager as Gavé cleaned up the kitchen and put food away for tomorrow. When the game was over, she said goodnight and exited out the side door. There was a car idling nearby and she figured it was someone’s ride until the tinted window lowered as she passed and she saw Jason. She froze, staring at him. He’d left over three hours ago, but here he was. Had he been there the whole time waiting, watching her go about her shift from the parking lot? For a second she considered turning around and going back inside—that’s what her brain voice was saying—but decided against it. She felt, suddenly, enraged.
“Hi, Lillian,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“Did you get my tip?”
“My tip. I left you a twenty.” She pretended as though she didn’t remember. She told him she split tips with the other servers and the kitchen staff. “That was meant for you,” said Jason. He reached for his wallet and took out another twenty-dollar bill. “Here.”
“What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“I want you to take this money.”
“I don’t want it,” she said. “I don’t deserve it.”
“Oh, you deserve it.”
“No, you’re not okay.”
“You need to leave.”
It was unsettling how composed he was, how measured, how unlike his previous nervous, spastic digressions. He’d prepared for this moment, had probably been practicing exactly what he was going to say to her these last few hours. Lil started to walk away, but he told her to stop, which she did when suddenly the back door of the restaurant opened and Gavé walked out from the kitchen with a bag of garbage slung over each shoulder. He threw them into the dumpster, turned around, and then saw Lil. He stopped for a second, staring at her and then at the car, then raised his chin at Lil and went back inside.
“You should go home, Jason.”
It was the first time she’d said his name to his face and she regretted the slip. She could tell it pleased him.
“Is that where you’re going, Lillian? To your home?”
Lil began to walk and the car inched along beside her. The rage that had steeled her initially was vanishing, replaced by fear and cold.
“Please leave me alone,” she said.
“You weren’t very nice to me tonight. Maybe I should tell your manager.”
“Maybe I should say you were unfriendly to me.”
She tried to quicken her pace.
“Maybe I should say you were rude.”
“Maybe,” he said, veering into her path so she had to stop, “I should tell your manager you made me un-comfortable.” He shifted into park and got out. Lil was frozen, a runner no longer able to run. “You work at a place like this and don’t expect people to look at you, to talk to you, to take an interest in you? You should be grateful. You think they’re gonna do that in a couple years after you squeeze out a few kids and get fat and old?”
He told her to look at him and she did.
He told her she was a tease.
He told her she was a cunt.
He told her he’d like to skull-fuck her face until tears came out her eyes.
No, he hadn’t said those last things. His voice inside her head had.
“Lillian, do you hear me? Don’t you have anything to say to me, Lillian?”
She opened her mouth, not knowing what would come out, when she heard someone else’s voice saying her name. Lil and Jason both turned back to the restaurant. Gavé was standing there. He had the metal glove on his left hand, the shucking knife in his right. He looked at Jason and then at Lil. “You forgot something,” he said, motioning with his head, “inside.” Lil hurried away from the car, blowing right past Gavé and straight into the restroom where she sat in a stall and tried to stop shaking. When she’d pulled herself together, she flushed the toilet even though she hadn’t peed and washed her hands, then walked back to the kitchen where Gavé was storing tubs of food in one of the massive silver fridges.
“You okay?” he asked, drying his hands with paper towels.
“I think so.”
“I don’t know what was happening,” he said, “but it didn’t feel right.”
“It wasn’t,” said Lil. “Thank you.”
“Who is he? Your boyfriend?”
“He’s just some guy from my gym who . . .” she started, but couldn’t find the words to finish.
“He’s gone. I checked while you were in the bathroom.”
“Do you want to call the police?”
“I don’t know if I need to.”
“I think that’s a sign you need to.”
“No, not yet.”
“You could come hang at my place for a while,” he said. Their eyes met, communicating something uncertain. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like—”
“Could you follow me home, please? I just want to make sure he’s not waiting for me.”
“Sure,” he said. “Gimme a sec.”
On the short drive back to her townhouse rental, Lil watched Gavé’s headlights in her rearview. When they arrived, she didn’t see any sign of Jason’s car, but just to be sure she asked if Gavé would come in for a minute.
“Want a beer?” she said when they got inside.
“I don’t drink, but some water would be cool.”
She thought of Jason ordering water with no ice all night. She filled two pint glasses from the Brita and turned on ESPN, which was showing highlights of the day’s games. After a minute she hit mute and told him the whole story of what had happened with Jason. Gavé listened, sipping his water, as she periodically went to the window to look outside. She saw nothing, no signs of the car.
“You sure you don’t want to call the police?” he asked. “What this dude’s doing isn’t cool.”
“Not now,” said Lil. “Maybe tomorrow. I don’t know. I’ll think about it. Maybe this was the last of it.”
She changed the subject and they talked about their brackets for a half hour before she said it was cool for him to go.
“You sure? I can hang awhile longer if you want,” he said. “I’ll sit out in my car.”
“No, it’s fine. He would have shown up by now if he was going to.”
It was scary how confidently she said this, having no idea if it was true. Gavé rose from the couch and told her to plug his number into her phone, which she did.
“Call me if you need me,” he said. “Any time.”
She felt such gratitude for his decency that instinctively she stepped toward him to embrace but stopped when she saw him take a small step back from her. He held out his fist for her to bump, which she did, like teammates, which, in a way, they were. It overcame her, this feeling of sad relief, as it often did. Why? Why did she feel it, this thankfulness, this appreciation, at the exact moment she realized a man neither wanted to fuck her nor kill her? It was awful. She smiled, said she’d see him at the restaurant tomorrow, and Gavé was gone.
That night Lil lay in bed with her phone charging next to her, listening to the sounds of the night. It would take her awhile to fall asleep, to come down from what had happened. She tried to think about good things. She thought about the crawfish boil she’d be enjoying that Sunday with her parents at their church. She thought about the next round of games in the basketball tournament, would the likes of little old Liberty and Murray State be able to continue their runs, or would the natural order of things restore itself and see the favorites like Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina advance? She thought back to college to some of the meets she’d won, the All-Conference plaque she’d been given senior year. She imagined a month into the future when she would be running in the marathon with Sara Beth and hoped she’d earn a respectable time and raise a lot of money for the hospital, for the sick kids. She heard the tick of the stopwatch her coach used to hold in her hand to time Lil as she ran her endless laps. There, alone in her bed, Lil closed her eyes—tick, tick, tick—and saw herself running. She was forever running.