The Night Regret Came Knocking
Brenda is a plus-size waitress in a sports bar full of mostly well-behaved patrons. She isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but her shape doesn’t dissuade them from gawking when she turns to pull a tap. Yoga pants = tips.
Maxwell is a tall, dignified gentleman with a trimmed gray beard, glasses, slight limp and an affectation for theatre productions. He is also Brenda’s loyal regular.
Brenda teases Maxwell, mostly about his wardrobe, especially the white tennis shoes he’s never without and the seemingly endless pool of saggy jeans and white t-shirts he draws from. She suspects he doesn’t always wash them, but folds or sets them out at the end of each day; it breeds a mildly mannish scent, similar to a day-sleeper’s bedroom if it isn’t aired out regularly.
He’d assembled his usual malfunctioning wardrobe one rainy Monday when Brenda gave Maxwell a generous sideways leer.
“The day I see you in something with a collar is the day I quit everything.”
“The day I stop seeing you in yoga pants is the day I stop coming in to drink.”
“I will never do that.”
“Aww! You care.”
“About brewery workers. I’d hate to see them unemployed.”
Maxwell is one of her best tippers, though even those, she’s learned over the last few years, are easily replaced. Unlike her other regulars, even on the snowiest of snow days Maxwell will still show up if he knows Brenda’s likely to be working. He’s the boyfriend she doesn’t need to commit to, her curmudgeon in waiting, someone she hasn’t dated enough to have had a fight with.
And he’s never given her a reason to start one.
Brenda’s other regulars include a fireman collecting three pensions (‘my buddies wouldn’t want their money going to waste, and they didn’t have any family to collect it for them, so…’), a local rideshare driver who’s become as cantankerous and bitter as the taxi drivers he’s replaced, and a guy who looks like a surfer but doesn’t have wheels; he always arrives on the local bus and tips big in cash that Brenda has no idea how he gets.
There was no one in her life at the moment, unless you count Maxwell and the regulars, but she doesn’t. Rule One of sports bar life: don’t get attached. Not good business, nor a good lifestyle for someone who’d like to eventually marry and have a family. Just collect the tips and keep doing side work.
On that rainy Monday night her boss, Adam, was sporting his usual shaved head, thick beard, hipster glasses and black polo. His look screamed ‘manager chic’ as he handed out raffle tickets, little perforated stubs bearing the word TICKET and a serial number.
During halftime in the Monday Night Football game, Adam would plug a microphone into a wall-mounted PA system and work the room, cordless mike in hand. He’ll encourage youngsters to reach into a fishbowl for a winning ticket. These children know they’re being watched by parents, often with a scowl of you better pick the right one if you want a ride home.
The standard swag Adam doles out are coffee mugs and keychains, hats and banners bearing the bar’s logo or one of the teams in that week’s match-up. Usually, somehow, the team’s logo is rarely to the winner’s liking.
Steelers? I’m a BRONCOS fan!
One evening a disappointed Browns fan won a Baltimore Ravens hat. Disgusted by the offering of paraphernalia from a group he considered traitors, he threw the hat across the room, inadvertently hitting an actual Ravens fan.
Brenda watched Adam freeze, mike in hand, bicep muscles suddenly tense. She’d never seen him break up a fight before, but believed in his natural agility. Maybe it was the shaved head or just his size. That night, though, Brenda floated half-a-step behind Adam.
Everyone breathed relief when the Ravens fan leaned over, picked up the hat, plopped it on his head, nodded the Browns fan’s way and said through a big grin:
“Thanks! And thanks for the team, too!”
The Browns fan decided that the incident would better serve as a teaching moment for his eight year-old son and his son’s best friend beside him, and bought the Ravens fan a beer. That beer led to three more, which led to Adam calling an Uber XL to shuttle both Dads and their broods home in one Ravens/Browns loving truck.
From the bar, Maxwell watched Brenda who was watching as Adam loaded everyone into the black Suburban. He might have slipped the driver a folded tip, then waved and patted the truck’s flank.
She thought the driver might’ve flashed Adam a warning about putting his hands on the pristinely waxed paintjob, might have even muttered a threat common to classic car owners. Instead the truck and its driver went to work, Adam turned back for the double doors of the sports bar, and Brenda watched him stride across the floor, those commanding hands swinging at his side.
It was at that moment, her black cloth apron heavy with tips and her feet sore in her worn-down waitressing shoes, that she knew she wanted those hands on her body – and the sooner the better.
And from his perch near the taps, Maxwell, eyes tweaked to one side, caught the moment Brenda’s hand slid over and brushed Adam’s hip the way a lover might. He’d never noticed the two being lovey-dovey before, hadn’t intercepted any leers or sly grins, didn’t recall Adam having leaned too close to any of his waitresses for corporate’s comfort.
Maxwell leaned a little more on his elbows and swished the dregs of his fourth Coors Light. The domestic was what he drank when funds were running low. It was the final week of January. The holidays and two nieces with birthdays had recently passed.
But money wasn’t the issue here.
“Brenda, check please.”
She tapped a newer manicure against a computer screen and a small thermal printer zoomed out a receipt. “So early tonight. Wow. And the game’s kinda close.”
“Well, you know.” Maxwell lifted one cheek to reach his wallet.
“Is it something I said?” she joked.
Maxwell didn’t answer. Brenda wrote it off that her best customer was focusing on sliding a credit card from a slot in his wallet.
But then he dropped it.
Not on the floor, onto the bar. It clacked atop his check like a fork whose owner had lost their purchase and mishandled something useful.
Brenda reached for the card then slid it through the scanner on the side of the POS computer. She handed Maxwell his copies, his card and a blue Bic ballpoint. She said a perfunctory thanks then turned her back, as waitresses often learn how to do, so a customer can fill out the TIP line in privacy.
Her back was still turned, and he hadn’t said goodbye when Maxwell’s white tennies stopped on the patio. He slid the card back into its rightful slot, began the walk toward his neighborhood and muttered to himself.
“That was my mistake.”
He started walking home. Unlike most of the bar’s usual cronies who drank to their delight then drove themselves home, Maxwell took advantage of the fact that he lived two blocks away.
“Yep,” he added, “my mistake. Again.”
As his gait slowed, he’d made his getaway, in his mind he began to list them all, the girls he’d patronized year after year. Amy. Kelli. Kayla. Shannon, and the list went on and on as he walked. I have a long illustrious history of falling in love with women who don’t have me on their radar. And I come back day after day as if tipping is a form of courtship.
Well, he had changed that tonight. The big ZERO in bold letters would send the message. No doubt there was talk, probably at that very moment, already making the rounds of the staff. Whatever the fallout was, one thing was certain: never again would Brenda welcome him to her bartop.
Only fifty feet from his own doorstep, suddenly Maxwell felt lost.
Or, he thought, maybe that was remorse.
* * *
“The weirdest thing happened tonight,” Brenda said.
Adam was flipping channels. Brenda was indulging in a rare, post-coital cigarette.
“What’s that,” he said. “I mean,” he gestured at her bed, “aside from this.”
“This isn’t weird,” she said. “Just long in coming. Absolutely no regrets.”
“Damn right.” She looked up at him. “You?”
“Not a one.”
She nodded, then tipped some ash into the empty beer can on her night stand. “This has been coming a while. But something tonight, the way you handled the whole hat thing, suddenly I just… mmm-mmm,” she smiled.
“Yeah,” Adam pumped a fist lightly, “guys in authority always get the chicks.”
“That why you became a manager?”
Adam picked up his cell and opened Instagram. “Nope. I just like picking up remotes and putting on random games for all the sports fans that move here from every point of the globe.”
Brenda took a last hit from her Black Mild then dropped the butt in the can. It hissed.
“Speaking of sports fans, Maxwell stiffed me today.”
“Really. Kind of a surprise. But for the record,” Adam added, “he’s not really a sports fan. He’s a You fan.”
“Seriously. You never noticed?”
Brenda thought a moment. “We’ve joked about it. What did he say the other day? Something about ‘if you stop wearing yoga pants I’m gonna stop drinking.’”
“What’d you say?”
“I said I’d hate to see brewery workers unemployed.”
Adam scoffed. “He won’t stop drinking. He’ll just move it somewhere else.”
Brenda sighed as best that her stinging lungs would allow. Had she offended him somehow? The moment of regret was there only a moment, then she disconnected. She turned over in bed, her back to Adam. He set his hand on her bare behind, like palming a basketball.
They fell asleep that way.
* * *
Maxwell woke in the middle of the night to the dog barking.
Usually the Shepard stayed quiet all night and slept happily curled atop the bed beside its owner. So when Maxwell woke to the dog downstairs letting out a deep warning, Maxwell climbed from under the sheets and felt for the bat beside his bed.
He knew better than to cock the bat over his shoulder. That was Hollywood. A good fighter would have time to hit you before you got off a swing. He held the bat properly, like a batter ready to bunt. One good poke to a burglar’s gut and Maxwell would be back in charge of his castle.
The dog stared at the front door. Maxwell crept closer. Had he not heard the doorbell? He took gentle footsteps. He didn’t see a silhouette behind the glass, backlit by streetlamps. He took a few more steps; the dog let out one more woof, panted, and sat. The dog looked over his shoulder at his owner.
“Good boy Zane. Good boy. Who is it?”
The dog woofed.
Maxwell got to the wall and flipped the light switch that would set the porch ablaze in Edison’s finest. He waited. Still, nothing moved.
Maxwell went to a drape and leaned it aside. No movement from a person, animal or passing car. The night seemed perfectly still.
“What is it Zane? I don’t see anything.”
Maxwell waited and watched. But nothing moved. He let go of the drape.
“C’mon boy. Let’s go back to bed.”
But the dog laid down. He set his head on his front paws and kept vigil.
Maxwell tucked the bat under his arm. He climbed the stairs again. Drowsiness was overcoming him, quickly.
“Suit yourself boy. I’m going back to a nice warm bed.”
The dog stayed. Maxwell soon slid under his sheets. He wouldn’t be able to sleep though; maybe it was the absence of the dog or – no, it was something else.
Regret, he thought. That’s what it is. Regret has finally caught up to me.
He could go back to the sports bar tomorrow night, Brenda would probably be working again, and tip her double. But it wouldn’t erase the bold letters. He could say he’d been drunk. She’d know better, but maybe she’d let him save face.
Though only sixty-two, Maxwell could feel the exhaustion special to those reaching the ranks of the elderly creeping into his bones. He pulled the dual comforters closer to his neck, sealing in his body warmth. Damn dog, waking him up. Making him think.
And thinking is just what he did. He was only sixty-two, and if there was one thing he’d had in his lifetime it was opportunity. He’d had access to plenty of women. He’d married twice; divorced one and lost another to cancer, but through it all he’d always had either a good girlfriend, or at least the potential of one. There was always someone in his orbit that he liked and who liked him back, who seemed moments away from relationship status.
And he’d let them slip away. All of them.
Maxwell sighed with a grunt and threw the sheets aside. He went back down the stairs, to the door. He expected the dog to launch forward when he flung it open. But as he unlocked the deadbolt the Shepard stood aside, waiting beside his master’s hip. Maxwell scanned the street. Squinting with his weakening eyes he watched the sidewalk, the trees, the porch, the night sky. Still, nothing moved.
“Ain’t that just the way it is,” he patted the dog’s head. “By the time you get around to answering the door, no one’s there anymore.”