Inside the Book
I recognized his voice from across the room. When I handed him a menu, he looked up absent-mindedly and went on talking to some guys, then did a double take.
“Cookie?” he said.
I tried on the name like an old article of clothing to see if it still fit. It felt like a suede fringed jacket. “Yep,” I said.
“Wow. You look so different.”
“I cut my hair.”
“I’m older,” I said.
“You look exactly the same,” I said. He was wearing a beat-up leather jacket over a green T-shirt, maybe the same jacket and T-shirt he had always worn. His thick black hair was shorter now and curly, skin still tan from summer, small mouth with perfect teeth. He still looked tough and handsome, but in a creepy way, like someone you couldn’t trust.
“Cookie, what the hell are you doing here?”
“I work here. I’d rather you didn’t call me that. My name is Rachel.”
“I thought your name was Cookie.”
“Nope. Do people still call you Rat?”
He laughed. “Nowadays I go by Joey.”
“Okay, Joey,” I said, since this was nowadays.
“Miss?” a voice called from a nearby table. The voice brought me back to where I was standing, in Diana’s Grotto, a Greek diner on 57th Street, with ten tables full of customers. For a moment, I had thought I was in Casa Sanchez.
It took me a while to make it back to Joey’s table. A divinity student had found a fly in his milkshake, and it wouldn’t have taken so long if I hadn’t made the mistake of saying, “So, how much can a fly drink?” Like most academics, this guy had no sense of humor and gave me a lecture on hygiene. It was amazing that knowing as much about hygiene as he seemed to, he would continue to eat at Diana’s Grotto. By the time I got back to Joey’s table, the men he had been sitting with were gone. Off-duty police, from the looks of them, I thought, or plain-clothes. We got a lot of cops in Diana’s; they slumped on stools at the counter with their guns hanging from their belts, sucking down free coffee. Back in the sixties, the sight of their blue leather jackets had always made me nervous, like I’d committed some crime I’d forgotten about.
“So why are you working here?” Joey asked. “I thought you were a college girl. A co-ed.” He flashed his white teeth. “I don’t mean to be nosy.”
“The problem with college is they make you leave when you finish.”
“And here I thought it was a permanent gig.”
“But why aren’t you doing something a little more—”
“Collegiate? Don’t ask.” I slid into the booth next to him. From across the room, Nicky, the maître d’, shot me a poisonous glance. I ignored him. “I like it here.” I smiled a crazy little smile.
“Hey, different strokes.” His eyes swept the room, resting on a mural of a white windmill on an island in the Aegean. The windmill’s blades were crooked. I remembered this eye-sweep from Casa Sanchez, where he had always sat facing the door so he could constantly scan the whole restaurant. His eyes returned to me. “Didn’t I hear a rumor you were supposed to be getting married? Some guy in California?”
“Just a rumor. Glad to hear the grapevine still works.”
I felt someone hiss into my ear. Nicky had slunk up behind me. He looked like a garden gnome in a plaid jacket and baggy pants, reeking of aftershave that had tried and failed. “Rose!” he snapped. He never called anyone by their right name. “What’s in a name?” I always murmured.
“Be right with you.” I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile.
“This is a classy place,” Joey said as Nicky ambled away.
“He’s the owner’s brother-in-law.”
“There is no Diana. She’s a mythological figure.”
“Hey, you want to have a drink after work?”
“Actually, I don’t drink any more.”
“You want to come watch me drink? What time do you get off?”
“Nine thirty. You could come help me fill the ketchups.”
“You know, take the empty Heinz bottles and pour cheap generic ketchup in them.”
“Sounds like fun, but why don’t you meet me at Bert’s? Back room?”
I thought for a moment. This did not seem like a good idea, but I didn’t care. “Okay, why not. So, can I get you anything?”
“You want a side of taramasalata with it? It’s made from fish roe.”
“I’ll pass, thanks.”
When I brought him his coffee, he said, “You’re still a hell of a waitress, Cookie.”
“You’re still a hell of a waitress, Rachel.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Meet the Author