I found out from the paperwork he left me to sign that Ledger is paying me way more than what the grocery store pays me.
Because of that, and because it’s just in my nature, I’ve been busting my ass all night. I’ve been reorganizing everything. No one said I needed to, but I wash dishes faster than they come back to me, so between bouts of dirty dishes, I’ve been reorganizing the shelves, the stock room, all the dishes in the cabinets.
I’ve had five years of practice. I didn’t tell Ledger about my kitchen experience, because it’s always awkward to talk about, but I worked in the kitchen when I was away. A couple dozen bar patrons is a walk in the park compared to hundreds of women.
I wasn’t sure how it would feel being stuck back here with Aaron at first because he looks intimidating, with stocky shoulders and dark, expressive eyebrows. But he’s a teddy bear.
He said he’s been working here since Ledger opened the doors several years ago.
Aaron is a married father of four and works two jobs. Maintenance at the high school during the week, and kitchen duty on Fridays and Saturdays here. All his children are grown and out of the house now, but he says he keeps this job because he saves up his paychecks and he and his wife like to take an annual vacation to visit her family in Ecuador.
He likes to dance while he works, so he keeps the speakers turned up, and he yells when he talks. Which is entertaining, since he’s usually talking about the other employees. He told me Mary Anne has been dating a guy for seven years and they’re about to have a second child together, but she refuses to marry him because she hates his last name. He divulged that
Roman is obsessed with a married woman who owns the bakery down the street, so he’s constantly bringing cupcakes to work.
He’s just about to tell me all about the other bartender, Razi, when someone walks through the kitchen doors and says, “Holy shit.” I spin around and find the waitress, Mary Anne, looking around the kitchen. “You did all this?”
“I didn’t realize what a mess it was until now. Wow. Ledger will be impressed with his rash decision when he gets back.”
I didn’t even know he was gone. I can’t see up front, and none of the bartenders have been back to the kitchen at all.
Mary Anne puts her hand on her stomach and walks to a refrigerator. She looks to be around five months along. She opens a Tupperware container and grabs a handful of grape tomatoes. She pops one in her mouth and says, “Tomatoes are all I crave. Marinara sauce. Pizza. Ketchup.” She offers me one, but I shake my head. “Tomatoes give me heartburn, but I can’t stop eating them.”
“Is this your first?” I ask her.
“No, I have a two-year-old boy. This one’s also a boy. You have any kids?”
I never know how to answer this question. It hasn’t come up much since I was released from prison, but the few times it has, I usually say I do and then immediately change the subject. But I don’t want anyone here to start asking questions, so I just shake my head and keep the focus on her. “What are you naming him?”
“Not sure yet.” She eats another tomato and then puts the container back in the refrigerator. “What’s your story?” she asks. “You new around here? You married? You seeing anyone? How old are you?”
I have different answers for every question coming at me, so I nod, then shake my head, and I end up looking like my head is wobbling like a bobblehead doll by the time she stops firing questions at me.
“I just moved to town. I’m twenty-six. Single.”
She raises a brow. “Does Ledger know you’re single?” “I guess.”
“Huh,” she says. “Maybe that explains it.” “Explains what?”
Mary Anne and Aaron exchange a look. “Why Ledger hired you.
We’ve been wondering.”
“Why did he hire me?” I’d like to know what she thinks is the reason. “I don’t mean this to come off in a negative way,” she says, “but
we’ve had the same employees for over two years now. He’s never mentioned needing more help, so my theory is that he hired you to make Leah jealous.”
“Mary Anne.” Aaron says her name like it’s a warning.
She waves him off. “Ledger was supposed to get married this month. He acts like he’s okay that the wedding was called off, but something has been bothering him lately. He’s been acting weird. And then you apply for a job and he just hires you on the spot when we don’t even need the help?” She shrugs. “Makes sense. You’re gorgeous. He’s heartbroken. I think he’s filling a void.”
It actually doesn’t make sense at all, but I get the feeling Mary Anne is the curious type, and I don’t want to say anything to make her even more curious about my presence here.
“Ignore her,” Aaron says. “Mary Anne craves gossip as much as she craves tomatoes.”
She laughs. “It’s true. I like to talk shit. I don’t mean anything by it; I’m just bored.”
“Why was his wedding called off?” I ask her. Apparently, she’s not the only curious one in this kitchen.
She shrugs. “I don’t know. Leah, his ex, told people they weren’t compatible. Ledger doesn’t talk about it. He’s a hard egg to crack.”
Roman peeks through the double doors, and his presence steals her attention. “The frat boys need you, Mary Anne.”
She rolls her eyes and says, “Ugh. I hate college kids. They’re terrible tippers.”
Aaron suggests I take a break about three hours into my shift, so I decide to spend it sitting on the steps in the alley. I wasn’t sure if I’d get a break, or
what my hours would even be tonight, so I grabbed some chips and a bottled water before I left the grocery store earlier.
It’s quieter in the alley, but I can still hear the bass of the music. Mary Anne came back to chat again earlier and she saw I had pieces of paper towel stuck in my ears to drown out the music while I worked. I lied and told her I get migraines easily, but I really just hate most music.
Every song is a reminder of something bad in my life, so I’d rather hear no songs at all. She says she has a pair of headphones she can bring me tomorrow. So far, the music is the only part of this job I don’t like. That was one good thing about prison—I rarely heard music.
Roman opens the back door and seems momentarily surprised to find me on the steps, but he walks over to the other side of the alley and flips a bucket upside down. He sits on it and stretches his leg out, putting pressure on his knee. “How’s your first night?” he asks.
“Good.” I’ve noticed Roman limps when he walks, and now he’s stretching his leg like he’s in pain. I don’t know if it’s a new injury, but I feel like if it is, he might need to take it easier than he has been tonight. He’s a bartender; they never sit. “Did you hurt your leg?”
“It’s an old injury. It flares up with the weather.” He hikes up his pant leg and reveals a long scar on his knee.
“Ouch. How’d that happen?”
Roman leans back against the brick on the side of the building. “Pro football injury.”
“You played pro football too?”
“I played for a different team than Ledger did. I’d rather die than play for the Broncos.” He gestures toward his knee. “This happened about a year and a half in. Ended my football career.”
“Wow. I’m so sorry.” “Hazard of the job.”
“How’d you end up working here with Ledger?”
He eyes me carefully. “I could ask the same of you.”
Fair enough. I don’t know how much Roman knows about my story, but Ledger did mention he’s the only one here who knows who I am. I’m sure that means he knows everything.
I don’t want to talk about myself.
Luckily, I don’t have to because the alley fills with light from Ledger’s truck as he pulls into his usual parking spot. For whatever reason, Roman uses this moment to escape back inside and leave me out here alone.
I tense with Roman’s disappearance and Ledger’s return. I’m embarrassed I’m sitting outside on the steps. As soon as Ledger opens the door of his truck, I say, “I’ve been working. I swear. You just happened to pull up right when I took a break.”
Ledger smiles as he gets out of the truck, like my explanation is unnecessary. I don’t know why I have a physical reaction to that smile, but it sends a swirl through my stomach. His presence always creates this hum right under my skin, like I’m buzzing with nervous energy. Maybe it’s because he’s my only link to my daughter. Maybe it’s because I think about what happened between us in this alley every time I close my eyes at night.
Maybe it’s because he’s my boss now, and I really don’t want to lose this job, and here I am not doing anything, and I suddenly feel like a pathetic asshole.
I liked it much better when he wasn’t here. I was more relaxed.
“How’s it going tonight?” He leans against his truck like he’s in no hurry to get inside.
“Good. Everyone’s been nice.”
He raises an eyebrow like he doesn’t buy that. “Even Mary Anne?”
“Well. She’s been nice to me. She kind of talked a little shit about you, though.” I’m smiling so he knows I’m teasing. But she did imply he only hired me because he thinks I’m pretty and he’s trying to make his ex jealous. “Who’s Leah?”
Ledger’s head falls back against his truck, and he groans. “Which one of them brought up Leah? Mary Anne?”
I nod. “She said you were supposed to get married this month.”
Ledger looks uncomfortable, but I’m not going to be the one to cut this conversation short on account of his discomfort. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t have to. But I want to know, so I wait expectantly for him to muster up an answer.
“It was honestly so stupid when I look back on it,” he says. “The whole breakup. We got in an argument about kids we don’t even have yet.”
“And that ended your engagement?” He nods. “Yep.”
“What was the argument?”
“She asked me if I was going to love my future kids more than I love Diem. And I said no, I would love them all the same.”
“That made her angry?”
“It bothered her how much time I spent with Diem. She said when we started a family of our own one day, I’d have to spend less time focusing on Diem and more time on our family. It was like an epiphany. I realized she didn’t see Diem fitting into a potential future family like I did. After that, I sort of just . . . checked out, I guess.”
I don’t know why I expected their breakup to be over something more serious. People don’t usually break up over hypothetical situations, but it says a lot about Ledger that he was able to see his own happiness is tied to Diem’s happiness, and he wouldn’t settle for anyone who didn’t respect that.
“Leah sounds like a terrible bitch.” I’m half kidding when I say it, which is why Ledger laughs. But the more I think about it, the more irritated I get. “Seriously, though. Screw her for thinking Diem isn’t worthy of the same love as kids who don’t even exist yet.”
“Exactly. Everyone thought I was crazy for breaking up with her, but to me it was a precursor to all the potential problems we’d be facing down the road.” He smiles at me. “Look at you being an overprotective mother. I don’t feel so crazy now.”
As soon as he says that—acknowledges me as Diem’s mother—my face falls. It was a simple sentence, but it meant everything to hear it come from him.
Even if it slipped out by accident.
Ledger straightens up and then locks his truck. “I better get inside; the parking lot looked packed.”
He never said what he left to go do for several hours tonight, but I have a feeling he was doing something with Diem. But he could have also been on a date, which unnerves me almost as much.
I’m not allowed to be in my own daughter’s life, but whoever Ledger decides to date gets to be in her life, and that automatically makes me jealous of whatever girl that ends up being.
At least it won’t be Leah. Screw her.
Roman brings a crate full of glasses to the back and sets them by the sink for me. “I’m heading out,” he says. “Ledger said he’d give you a ride home if you don’t mind waiting. He’s got about half an hour of shit left to do.”
“Thanks,” I say to Roman. He takes off his apron and tosses it into a basket where all the other employee aprons have ended up for the night. “Who cleans those?” I don’t know if that’s supposed to be my job. I’m not even really sure what all my job entails. Ledger wasn’t here to train me throughout the night, and everyone else kind of pointed out things here and there that I could do, so I’ve just been doing everything I can get my hands on.
“There’s a washer and dryer upstairs,” Roman says.
“There’s another level to the bar?” I haven’t seen any stairs.
He points at the door that leads out to the alley. “Access to the stairs is outside. Half of the space is storage, the other half is a studio apartment with a washer and dryer.”
“Do I need to take them up and wash them?”
He shakes his head. “I usually do that in the mornings. I live there.” He pulls his shirt off to toss it in the basket just as Ledger walks into the kitchen.
Roman is shirtless now, changing into his street clothes, and Ledger is staring straight at me. I know it looks like I was staring at Roman as he was changing, but we were having an active conversation. I wasn’t staring at him because he was momentarily shirtless. Not that it matters, but it embarrasses me, so I turn around and focus on the remaining dishes.
Roman and Ledger have a conversation I can’t hear, but I do hear it when Roman tells Ledger good night and leaves. Ledger disappears back into the front of the bar.
I’m alone, but I prefer it that way. Ledger makes me more nervous than comfortable.
I finish my work and wipe everything down for a final time. It’s half past midnight, and I have no idea how much longer Ledger has until he’s finished. I don’t want to bother him, but I’m too tired to walk home, so I wait for the ride.
I grab my stuff and push myself onto the counter. I pull out my notebook and my pen. I don’t know that I’ll ever do anything with the letters I write to Scotty, but they’re cathartic.
Ledger is an asshole. We’ve clarified that. I mean, the guy turned a bookstore into a bar. What kind of monster would do that?
But . . . I’m beginning to think he has a sweet side too. Maybe that’s why you two were best friends.
“What are you writing?”
I slam my notebook shut at the sound of his voice. Ledger is removing his apron, eyeing me. I shove my notebook into my bag and mutter, “Nothing.”
He tilts his head, and his eyes fill with curiosity. “Do you like to write?”
“Would you say you’re more artistic or more scientific?”
That’s an odd question. I shrug. “I don’t know. Artistic, I guess.
Ledger grabs a clean glass and walks over to the sink. He fills it with water and then takes a sip. “Diem has a wild imagination. I always wondered if she got that from you.”
My heart fills with pride. I love when he reveals little tidbits about her. I also love knowing someone in her life appreciates her imagination. I had a vivid imagination when I was younger, but my mother stifled it. It wasn’t until Ivy encouraged me to open that part of myself back up that I actually felt like someone supported it.
Scotty would have, but I don’t even think he knew I was artistic. He met me at a time when that part of me was still in a deep sleep.
It’s awake now, though. Thanks to Ivy. I write all the time. I write poems, I write letters to Scotty, I write book ideas I don’t know that I’ll ever get around to fleshing out. Writing might actually be what saved me from myself.
“I mostly just write letters.” I regret saying it as soon as I say it, but Ledger doesn’t react to that confession.
“I know. Letters to Scotty.” He sets his glass of water on the table beside him and then folds his arms over his chest.
“How do you know I write him letters?”
“I saw one,” he says. “Don’t worry, I didn’t read it. I just saw one of the pages when I grabbed your bag out of your locker.”
I wondered if he saw that stack of papers. I was worried he might have peeked, but if he says he didn’t read them, for some reason I believe him.
“How many letters have you written him?” “Over three hundred.”
He shakes his head in disbelief, but then something makes him smile. “Scotty hated writing. He used to pay me to write his reports for him.”
That makes me laugh, because I wrote a paper or two for him when we were together.
It’s weird talking with someone who knew Scotty in a lot of the same ways I knew him. I’ve honestly never experienced this before. It feels good, thinking about him in a way that makes me laugh instead of cry.
I wish I knew more about Scotty outside of who he was with me.
“Diem might grow up to be a writer someday. She likes to make up words,” Ledger says. “If she doesn’t know what something is called, she just invents a word for it.”
“Solar lights,” he says. “The kind that line sidewalks? We don’t know why, but she calls them patchels.”
That makes me smile, but it also makes me ache with jealousy. I want to know her like he does. “What else?” My voice is quieter because I’m trying to hide the fact that it’s shaking.
“The other day she was riding her bike, and her feet kept slipping on the pedals. She said, ‘My feet won’t stop flibbering.’ I asked her what flibbering meant, and she said it’s when she wears flip-flops, and her feet slip out of them. And she thinks soaking means ‘very.’ She’ll say, ‘I’m soaking tired,’ or, ‘I’m soaking hungry.’”
It hurts too much to even laugh at that. I force a smile, but I think Ledger can sense that stories about a daughter I’m not allowed to know are
ripping me in two. He stops smiling and then walks to the sink and washes the glass. “You ready?”
I nod and hop off the table.
On the drive home, he says, “What are you going to do with the letters?”
“Nothing,” I say immediately. “I just like writing them.” “What are the letters about?”
“Everything. Sometimes nothing.” I look out my window so he can’t read the truth on my face. But something in me makes me want to be honest with him. I want Ledger to trust me. I have a lot to prove. “I’m thinking about compiling them and putting them into a book someday.”
That gives him pause. “Will it have a happy ending?”
I’m still looking out the window when I say, “It’ll be a book about my life, so I don’t see how it could.”
Ledger keeps his eyes on the road when he asks, “Do any of the letters talk about what happened the night Scotty died?”
I put space between his question and my answer. “Yes. One of them does.”
“Can I read it?” “No.”
Ledger’s eyes meet mine briefly. Then he looks in front of him and flips on his blinker to turn onto my street. He pulls into a parking spot and leaves his truck running. I don’t know if I should get out immediately, or if there’s anything left to be said between us. I put my hand on the door handle.
“Thank you for the job.”
Ledger taps the steering wheel with his thumb and nods. “I’d say you earned it. The kitchen hasn’t been that organized since I’ve owned the building, and you’ve only worked one shift.”
His compliment feels good. I absorb it and then tell him good night.
As much as I want to look back at him when I get out of his truck, I keep my focus ahead of me. I listen for him to back out, but he doesn’t, which makes me think he watches me as I walk all the way up to my apartment.
Once I’m inside, Ivy immediately runs up to me. I pick her up and leave the lights off as I walk to the window to peek out.
Ledger is just sitting in his truck, staring up at my apartment. I immediately press my back against the wall next to the window. Finally, I hear his engine rev up as he backs out of the parking spot.
“Ivy,” I whisper, scratching her head. “What are we doing?”