Carl brought his dented green minivan to a stop on the outer reaches of the Kopper Kitchen parking lot, alongside the other employee vehicles. He leaned over the steering wheel and looked into the cloudless night sky, taking one last deep drag from his joint. The roar of a plane shook his car as it made its final descent to the airport. He placed a drop of Visine in each eye and popped a mint Life Saver in his mouth. Carefully, he lifted his costume off the backseat, slipped it in a velvet bag, lowered it into a plastic tub, and covered the tub with a black sheet. He looked at his watch. “Damn,” he thought, and ran inside.
With both her hands on her hips and elbows cocked at angles designed to convey maximum drama, Kate spoke with an air of contempt. “Carl, you’re late again. And looky there, a gift for moi?” She pointed toward his feet. “You still have scarves tied to your ankles.” Carl untied the silky scarves and put them in his pocket, but not before he indulged in a quick sniff of their entrancing aroma.
Kate was the quintessential late night waitress. She was a tad waify, but at least six feet tall, not counting the beehive hairdo that usually leaned a bit to the left. She called everyone ‘Honey,’ and brandished cats eye reading glasses and smacked her gum and blew bubbles when it was too quiet.
Carl duly noted his supervisor’s remark, as any busboy that worked graveyard should, but he didn’t take her too seriously. After all, her polyester suit was the same color as the butterscotch pudding he had thrown up on Miss Rice in the third grade, and it was so tight it would split in some very unfortunate locations if she attempted any serious dancing. To make matters worse, she wore brown shoes with a white belt and her eyeliner was much too dark.
He grabbed his apron and a white paper hat, outfitting himself for a night of clearing tables and sweeping floors. He quickly drew palm trees and camels on the sides of the hat before placing it on his head.
“Carl, honey, are you listening to me? You just can’t come into work late anymore. I know you work until eleven at that, what is it, a hula dancing place? but you have to be here by midnight or I’ll find someone else. Is that clear?”
Carl clenched his teeth and took a deep breath, staring at a mustard stain on Kate’s pant leg that reminded him he had leftover balaclava in his fridge. He suddenly had the urge to push Kate into the deep fryer and watch her polyester suit melt and stick to her skin, making her expire like the Wicked Witch of the West. Kate interrupted Carl’s internal soliloquy. “Carl, helloooo honey. Workplace to Carl. Place that pays you by the hour calling. Anyone home?”
Carl stretched his neck, stomped his feet one after the other, and stuck his tongue out. “It’s belly dancing.”
“What?” Kate answered.
Of all people, Kate should understand. But none of them did. If his passion were ballet, or even croquet they would make allowances and aid him in his quest to follow his dream. But he was the only male belly dancer in the state, and seen by all but the most sensitive audiences, and a surprisingly large number of long haul truck drivers, as pure freak. Maybe he could convey his anguish to the audience with his writhing torso?
He flared his left nostril to the point of discomfort. “I don’t hula dance, I don’t square dance, and I never, ever, disco dance.”
“Oh boy, here we go,” Kate said as she put sugar and artificial sweetener packets in the porcelain condiment caddy.
He continued, emboldened by his recent memorization of his important speech. “Though its origins are still steeped in mystery, due to church repression and academic bigotry, belly dancing was most certainly introduced to the West in the 18th and 19th centuries, when Orientalism was at its zenith. The first ambassadors of this torso-centered craft were skilled artists who depicted their sensuous interpretations of harem life in the Ottoman Empire. During this early period dancers traveled the western world to exhibit their moves at various World’s Fairs, often drawing crowds which outnumbered the technological exhibits we hear so much of today. Unable to withstand its allure, westerners began to study these entrancing dances, and interpret the movements in a uniquely occidental fashion. Despite troubling periods where the art form waned in popularity, I’m happy to report that belly dancing remains a unique and treasured part of the western artistic canon to this day, whether performed by men or women.”
Kate held back a snicker, and said, “Well, Carl Honey, I don’t care what you do when you’re not at this lovely eating establishment. But if you can’t make it here on time every night you should hang up your apron and find another job. There’s plenty of other people around who would be willing to clear tables and sweep floors all night for a full dollar an hour above minimum wage. Take it from me, jobs aren’t easy to come by for people like us.”
Carl started to answer, but instead stared at the ceiling and wondered how they got the gold sparkles into the plaster, and counted backwards, from 14 to one. Soothed by his countdown, he grabbed his bussing tub and headed for a large round table in the corner that had just been vacated by a group of college kids. There were at least five pairs of socks spread around the booth. “That’s a new one,” he thought to himself. He’d take them home for his roommate. He was a bike messenger who collected stray foot coverings he found around the city and was making them into one long sock rope to protest global warming.
Carl tied them as tightly and carefully as he could, into a makeshift rope, and put them in the pocket that didn’t contain the scarves. As he pushed them deeper into his pocket he remembered what his Uncle Fred told him one night at a family gathering, as Carl confided his desire to seek fame and fortune by sharing his naked belly with the world. “Carl, if you love to shake it, then don’t let anyone or anything in the world stop you. I wanted to be a beekeeper, but I didn’t follow my dream because my father told me I would be exploiting insects. Sure, I love being a gynecologist, but not a week goes by when I don’t think about what might have been.“
Carl headed back to the kitchen and exchanged his full tub for an empty one. He looked at Kate, and watched her false eyelashes fluttering in a warm draft rising from the grill, and noticed that her faint moustache wasn’t the same color as the tower of hair on her head. He wondered where else one might discover similar variations.
“Okay, I won’t be late again.”
He headed to the lounge, and danced to an entrancing Middle Eastern beat that only he could hear, as he cleared dishes and picked cigarette butts from the creases in the vinyl seats. As he worked he felt his midsection respond to the music, and noted a few smiling customers.
He heard yells from back in the restaurant.
“My god, she’s a man. I think she’s a god damned man.”
Carl ran back into the restaurant area. Two drunk men had Kate pinned against a wall and were grabbing at her crotch and chest.
“See, I told you the boobs were fake.”
Kate tried to push them away, but they wouldn’t stop. They could barely stand, but had just enough sobriety to keep clawing at Kate.
Carl removed his apron, hat and shirt, and pulled out the rope of socks. He yelled, “Yeah, and I’m a man too.” He began to belly dance, holding the sock rope above his head as he shook his midsection.
The drunks turned and stared, mesmerized by his moves. He danced closer and closer, for a few moments, then threw the sock rope over them, danced behind them, worked the rope down their bodies and pulled it hard as it reached their ankles, dropping them to the ground, both laying on their stomachs. He quickly pulled the scarves out of his pocket and tied their hands together. He sat on one, while Kate jumped and sat on the other.
Kate’s voice was a bit deeper, but still more like Kate than Alex. “Yeah, and now these men are sitting on you.”
The police arrived a few minutes later.
Kate said, “Thanks Carl, honey. Don’t think this means you can be late tomorrow night. Where did you get those socks?”
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Portland Fiction Project
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