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 http://offcourse.org
 ISSN 1556-4975

   

Since 1998, a journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays edited by Ricardo Nirenberg.


 

"Bye Bye Bertie," a story by Don Fredd.

 

I took a summer job at Parky’s Diner right after high school.  The red neon sign says they’re open 24 hours, but that was put up years ago before downtown Littleton, New Hampshire fell prey to fast food joints just off Route 93.  So Amos Parkman opens at six and knocks off around eight in the evening unless there is a summer music festival or winter carnival somewhere in the White Mountains. 

I had to buy khaki slacks and black athletic shoes.  Parkman supplied tee shirts of various colors, docking my pay five bucks for each one.  A cartoon graphic of his face (bald head, thick glasses and exaggerated ears) decorated the front with a witty “Eat at Parky’s” in bright green script below it.  A baseball cap similarly inscribed completed my ensemble. 

I arrived at 5:30 AM on my first day and had a brief tour of the place.  I remember little other than I was to be teamed with Dorothy “Dot” Latman.  My job was to follow her around, listen and learn.

I had nothing to do for the first half hour.  Dot was a pro, always spending the right time on customer banter while never forgetting there was hot food to be delivered.  By seven it became very busy, so much so that Dot abandoned her mentoring status to handle the crowd.  To help her out I delivered food to tables, walked around with a coffee pot and in general tried to balance aiding the cause as best I could while keeping out of the way of the four other waitresses who were working their butts off. 

My temporary sanctuary in the firestorm was at the far end of the long counter.  The padded seat had been removed, leaving the lethal metal post exposed to which a self-evident “Sit at Your Own Risk” sign was attached.  As the busy diner whirled with activity, I hovered in that area, trying to think of ways to earn my paltry salary.  I spotted a few napkins of the floor near the entrance and was policing the area when the door banged opened.  I was poised to launch into my pleasant, “How many in your party?” and “There’ll be a fifteen minute wait” speech, but a huge woman brushed by me, nearly knocking me to the floor. 

I am five foot nine, but she had me by a few inches as well as a hundred pounds.  She went to open space by the broken stool, stood there and pounded the counter, bellowing for ice water.  At last a task I knew how to do.  She chugged the first glass muttering something about the mother of all hangovers before asking for a refill.  I grabbed another glass, filled it, placed it in front of her and embarked upon my first waitress repartee, “Must have been some party.”

She ignored me, drained the second glass, motioned for a third and asked, “I’m Alberta LeBlanc; people call me Bertie.  Got any aspirin?”

Eager to help my new friend, I’d seen a bottle of something behind the swinging door to the kitchen.  I sprinted back, grabbed a generic Tylenol product and was back in a flash.  She shook out a handful, washed them down with a third glass of ice water and exhaled a sincere thank you. 

“Now, I need coffee.  Just pour it in the glass here.  I like it cold anyway.”

She rattled the cubes in her water glass as my target.  I grabbed the carafe from the Proctor Silex machine and began filling her up with our special house blend.  Within nanoseconds the immutable laws of physics, which an honors graduate of Coos County High School headed for Smith College way down in Massachusetts should have known about, resulted in a loud, crackling explosion.  Hot coffee, cold ice and shards of glass went everywhere.  Bertie yelled “Holy fuck.”  A table of nearby vacationers took cover from incoming shrapnel while others in the diner envisioned that terrorists had finally discovered how strategically important the White Mountains were in bringing down America. 

I grabbed my table rag but it was of little use.  Dot, armed with a roll of paper towels, soon came to my rescue and, when the mess was finally staunched and damage assessed, Mr. Amos Parkman solemnly beckoned me to the kitchen.

He’d been watching me closely and was letting me go.  When I began a stumbled protest, his face got red.  I wasn’t cut out to waitress he yelled.  He stood face to face, like an irate manager telling an umpire how terrible the last call was.  His finger pointed towards the dining room, the scene of my crimes.  My first strike was using a different glass each time I refilled the ice water.  Did I know how much money it cost to wash a glass?  I didn’t and probably he didn’t either, but that didn’t stop his berating me for it.  He lowered his voice to a bellow for my second offense.  Why was I was giving drugs to customers?  As much as I hate to admit it, he was correct.  I knew from school the endless forms that had to be filled out by my parents just so I could take a stupid aspirin.  It was easier to score cocaine at lunch than ibuprofen.   As for strike three, what idiot didn’t know about pouring piping hot coffee into a glass with ice in it! 

I looked at the clock.  It was just after seven.  I was fired after one hour on the job.  If he paid me I’d take home three bucks.  Three pairs of khakis from Lands End and black shoes from Lady Foot Locker had set my parents back two hundred bucks.  I’d probably be docked for the coffee stained tee shirt I was wearing as well as the baseball hat.  I went to the employee’s rest room, took off my Parky’s shirt, folded it, put on my Smith College sweatshirt (to salvage some spark of self-worth) and ignominiously left via the rear door.  At least I hadn’t cried.

I stood in the back parking lot with a big problem.  I had no way home.  My mother had dropped me off then gone on to Lincoln where she worked as a dental assistant.  We lived in Sugar Hill some fifteen miles away.  My dad helped managed a bed and breakfast over in Bethlehem and was long gone.  Okay, I could walk around Littleton, a town I’d known since birth and maybe be lucky enough to have a registered sex offender drive me home.  It was a plan.

I left the parking lot, climbed the steep incline between buildings and made it to Main Street.  I turned right towards the Grist Mill where there was a coffee shop which served as a hangout for a lot of kids.  Then I heard my name called and Dot was trotting down the sidewalk towards me, both arms trying to keep her ample breasts from knocking her out.

“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”

“I was fired.  I’m going further down Main Street to see if I can get a lift home.”

“Parkman fires people every day.  I’ve been canned more times than I care to count.  Don’t pay any attention to the old fart.  Come on back; there are maple syrup pitchers to be filled.”

She put her arm around me in a motherly fashion, and we walked back up the street to the diner.  There was a huge crowd on the sidewalk.  I thought they were people waiting to get in, but it was everyone who was inside when the incident happened.  As I got closer Bertie LeBlanc, the obvious ringleader, stepped to the forefront of the group and led the chant, “Stacey, Stacey.”   With her as my bodyguard, I was ushered back into the diner whereupon she declared free coffee for everyone.  Amos Parkman was nowhere to be found.


I finished out the day without any major damage.  I learned that Bertie was the highly vocal agent for my reinstatement.  In rather graphic fashion she went back to the kitchen and told Parkman what might happen to his testicles if he didn’t relent.  It was also true what Dot said about him. In fact he’d fired Manny the dishwasher just after me.  Manny feigned knowing English (not a difficult task), took a smoke break and went back to scrubbing pots.  The next day I was assigned a mid-morning schedule to avoid the breakfast rush until I learned the ropes. 

I missed seeing Alberta and the chance to thank her for what she’d done.  It didn’t matter because a few weeks later, after proving myself, I was given a battlefield promotion when Debbie Bowman of the morning crew, rather than listen to another Amos Parkman lecture on how to wait tables, told him to shit in his hat.  She then took off her magenta Parky’s tee shirt in front of a packed house and left the premises to a chorus of cheers clad in her bra.

                                        


 

My next encounter with Alberta LeBlanc was something of a shock.  I was serving blueberry pancakes to a New Jersey couple when an extra loud motorcycle pulled up, revving its engine way too many times.  It was Alberta on one of the largest bikes I’d ever seen.  It was day-glo pink with “Bye Bye” in Old English lettering on each side panel.  The rear was labeled “Bertie” in the same style.  But a huge woman on a hot pink bike wasn’t what caught my eye.  There was a man seated behind her.  I’d never witnessed that.  Every couple I’d ever seen on a bike was driven by a man with his female passenger hanging on for dear life.  Add to the picture that the man in this case was no more than five foot four, and I know I outweighed him big time.  His arms were around Bertie’s ample waist.  His hands clutched her breasts.  It wasn’t sexual because her entire front was all breasts.  They were like stalactites growing down from her collarbone to just above her belt buckle. 

New Hampshire has no helmet law.  Bertie’s long hair was tied in a pony tail.  It was like a wind sock which forced her man to lean dangerously to the side to see anything.  He did wear a helmet, but it was several sizes too big so it flopped around.  He looked like a little kid peeking out from behind a closet door.

They dismounted and came in.  Bertie spotted me and headed for my section of the counter, her main squeeze following close behind.  She took a seat near the end. He sat one stool down, the better to provide her elbow room. 

“Long time no see, kiddo.  Parkman treating you okay?”

“I never did thank you for organizing the revolt.  I think you scared him because he never says anything to me.”

“Men think they’re pretty cocky so you have to take them down a peg or two every now and then.  Ain’t that right, Ollie?’

Ollie ignored her, studying the menu like an ancient biblical scroll.  Bertie gave him a playful push.

“Stacey, this here is Oliver.  He’s helping me on a landscaping job and warms my bed up when the mountain chill sets in.”

Bertie was a regular factotum.  She did grounds keeping for some motels and area inns.  If a maid was sick she’d fill in.  She leased ten acres outside Lisbon where she raised veal calves and pigs she was preparing for fall slaughter.  It was a hardscrabble life, and she always preferred to work for cash off the books.  Once a week in season she’d bring in huge tomatoes and other veggies from an organic (or so she advertised it) garden.  Pig manure was her secret.  She was never paid for her produce; instead, I was told not to charge her for food she ordered. 

Oliver pointed to the Mt. Washington on the menu, the biggest breakfast we had.  It featured two of everything plus a side of corn beef hash. 

“Christ, Ollie, what do you think I’m made of?  Give him two scrambled eggs and crisp bacon.  I’ll have a pumpkin muffin and plenty of iced coffee.”

Ollie glared at her.

“What are you looking at, turd brain?  Be happy you’re getting that much.  And go wash your hands; you look like a fucking pit man at one of those ten minute oil change places.”

One of the reasons Bertie was encouraged to use my far end of the counter was her language.  Many tables, especially families with children, took offense.  Dot advised me to keep reminding Bertie to clean up her act, but it was a losing battle.  The look on my face told Bertie that she’d crossed the line.

“Sorry, kiddo.  I forgot where I was.”  She swiveled around to say she was sorry to the table behind her, but they wanted no part of her eye contact and attacked their breakfasts with renewed vigor.  She spun around back to me.

“Ollie is a dumb as they come, but he’s hung like a plow horse.  A big gal like me needs that in a man.   When you come out of your shell and get more experienced you’ll know what I’m talking about.  How’s about a refill?”

 


 

It was tough to leave Parky’s after the Labor Day weekend.  I had other regular customers besides Bertie and Ollie.  It was nice to have folks give up their place in line and wait for one of my tables or a section of the counter which was my responsibility.  That year, on Christmas and Spring breaks from Smith, I came back and helped out.  Dot declared that I looked more sophisticated since I’d had my hair cut short and styled.  Bertie had the opinion that Smith was a college rife with lesbians and wondered if I’d gotten laid yet by either sex.

When I went back the summer after my freshman year, it was nice for a few weeks, but I soon envied some of my classmates who were spending the time taking seminars, visiting foreign places, doing volunteer work such as tutoring inner city kids or digging wells in underdeveloped countries.  New Hampshire was a great place to grow up, but a year at Smith had opened my eyes to many things.

Bertie was the one ray of sunshine in my day.  She was like a trashy novel I couldn’t put down.  She’d tool into town on her pink Bertie-cycle.  Ollie was no longer relegated to “teat hanging” as one of our patrons put it.  Instead a black side car had been added.  He only needed a Nazi helmet before they were dead ringers for German soldiers bound for headquarters with important messages.  

I started their orders when I heard the motorcycle pull up.  Bertie had her usual iced coffee and a muffin (“surprise me” was what she said when I asked what kind).  Ollie was harder to read, but whatever he ordered, Bertie countermanded it.  “Bring him oatmeal and an order of wheat toast.  The man needs more fiber.”

Ollie seemed accident prone.  One week he had three fingers taped together with popsicle sticks for support.  Another time he was without his wire rimmed glasses and had a large chunk of sideburn hair shaved off and a bloody bandage over some stitches.  I never got more than a nod from him when I inquired after his health.  Bertie always answered my concerns with the phrase, “Stuck his fingers (head, arm) where he hadn’t ought to.  He’ll learn.”

The most flamboyant of his injuries required a body cast from shoulder to waist and extended down the left elbow that stuck out at a ninety degree angle to his body, like propping open an old attic window with a piece of wood.  Bertie lifted him out of the side car like he was a five year old and held the door as he maneuvered through it.  She cut his toast up in little pieces and asked if we had any soup yet.  It was then I saw that his lip was puffy and jaw discolored.  “Stuck his nose into where it didn’t belong,” was her response as he gingerly dipped toast into some Italian wedding soup our cook was able to heat up for him. 

                            


 

By late August I couldn’t wait to get back to Northampton.  Sugar Hill, Franconia and Littleton were nice sanctuaries, but it was time to move on.  I had begun majoring in women’s studies but was drifting towards social anthropology.  My roommate had summered in Bolivia and e-mailed me daily about the job she was doing (helping native women with health issues among other things).  I’d always liked languages so I concentrated on Spanish during my sophomore year.  I decided that if she went back to South America next summer, I’d go with her.  Dot and others were like family, but there was little for me to talk about with them.  Books by Borges, Marquez and Octavio Paz were as foreign to them as their chattering on about the Christmas Tree Shop having a great sale was to me. 

The day before I was to leave the diner Bertie buzzed in alone.  She was not her perky self.  I put a mixed berry muffin in front of her and she shoved it away.  “I want one of those Belgium waffles loaded with strawberries and don’t chicken shit me on the whipped cream.”

She ate her meal as if guarding it from a gang of hungry orphans.  She didn’t exactly growl when I came to ask if she needed a refill, but her look told me to stay away.  She usually came in before seven and was off to work thirty minutes later.  This time it was after nine when she pushed her plate away and motioned me to settle up.  I always had to write up a check even though she never paid.  Undoubtedly Parkman went through the receipts just to see if her balance of trade (tomatoes, zucchini and the occasional pork roast) were still in his favor.  As I placed the bill next to her she put her hand over mine and said “Take a break and meet me outside.”

It took a few minutes to get Amy Hathaway to cover for me and sneak out to sidewalk.  Bertie was astride the bike lightly tapping a gauge with a screwdriver handle.  I was ignored for a minute then she spoke.

“I guess everyone’s wondering where Ollie is.  I hate gossip.  Flies on shit is what people are.  The TV news is like that too.  I hate being the center of attention; it’s my size that does it.  Midgets have the same problem.  I want to tell you the truth about Ollie and then trust you’ll do me a kindness when they pump it out of you.  The sad fact is that he left me.  Can you imagine the nerve of that loser asshole?  I did things to him that men only dream about while they’re jacking off.  Room, board and pussy—all free.  He gets me drunk the other night and, when I wake up, he’s vanished.  His clothes are gone as is a couple of hundred bucks I kept in a secret hidey-hole.  I was mad as hell and was going to hunt him down, but what the fuck; he’s only a man.  Plenty of them around.”

She was off the bike now, bending down to check the front tire and, when she stood up, I thought she was sweating in the late August heat, but it was tears.  Bertie LeBlanc was crying.  Her whole body began to shudder.  Mucus ran from her nose and was wiped away with a wide sweep of her bare forearm.  “I’m going to sit on the curb for a minute; stand in front of me in case Littleton’s finest go by and want to know what trouble I’m bawling over.  My registration and license aren’t exactly up to date.”

She slumped on the curb trying to get a grip.  I had no idea as to how old she was, but there were plenty of gray roots showing.  “Do you know what we used to fight about?”

I had no idea.  I shrugged but she didn’t see it.  “Kids.  Can you believe that?  Me as a mother and that jerkoff as the father.  The kid wouldn’t last six weeks.”  She paused.  “I was a mother once.  I was fifteen when I had a kid; it was stillborn.  I was so pissed.  The whole town buzzed when I got knocked up, had to quit school because I couldn’t pretend hearing anymore what they were whispering behind my back.  I put up with being called a slut and all the pain and sickness that comes from carrying a baby, and I had nothing to show for it.  I cried for a week then stayed high for a few more.  Then I said, hey, I’m free.”  She looked up her eyes locking onto mine.

“Trust me, ovaries are like a cancer.  You should get yours out as soon as possible.  Having a kid is like being on parole.  You’ve got to do everything for them until they graduate or run away, whichever comes first.  I’ve had more miscarriages than I can count.  The first one was hard because I kind of liked the guy, married but he was top notch bike mechanic, learned a lot from him.  After that I just flushed them down the john without so much as a by your leave.  Tits are kind of a loss leader to getting guys interested so there’s no sense whacking them off.  Anyway, I’ve been thinking about becoming a lesbian, but I’m probably not cut out for it.  How about you; ever get the ‘crotch munchies’ down at that liberal school you go to.”

I decided that now was not the time to defend the honor of Smith College. “I’m dating an Amherst history major.”  This was a lie, but I wanted to avoid the remote possibility of Bertie making a pass at me.

“If he tells you he loves you, run for the hills.  They only say that to get laid.  How’s my makeup.”

Chapstick was the nearest she ever got to makeup so I assumed her sense of humor was back.  I extended an arm to help her up, but she outweighed me, and I ended up falling down onto her. 

“Christ on a crutch, kiddo, trying to have at me in public.  What will the window booths think?” 

We said goodbye.  She peeled out and roared down the street towards Lisbon.  I trudged back into the diner to count the number of spelling errors on the lunchtime specials’ board.  Was “broccoli” really that difficult a word?

             


 

I spent my junior year, the summer and first semester of my senior year in Bolivia.  My friend and I worked with an organization that helped homeless women (prostitutes) try to change their lives.  Every now and then I’d send a card, especially at holidays, to the diner.  Dot had quit after sixteen years.  She had skin cancer but was doing well.  I didn’t think to ask about Bertie except to mention a big hello to everyone.

I left Bolivia in December.  I’d stayed for over a year.  I was sick, and the antibiotics I was taking were probably counterfeit rip-offs.  The La Paz airport temperature was eighty-five.  When I landed in New York it was in the thirties.  I had a twelve hour layover before catching a flight to Manchester, New Hampshire.  I slumped in a seat, tied my bags to my legs, a habit I picked up traveling around South America, and fell into a deep walking pneumonia-induced sleep.

 When I came to I was stunned to see that I’d slept for five hours.  I also felt better.  I called home, gave them my ETA, pulled out my laptop and began to catch up on all things New England.

The big TV station in New Hampshire is Channel 9, WMUR.  They have a great web page with live and archival video feeds.  Whenever I got homesick I tried to click on them but rarely had any reception in South America.  The big New Hampshire story for the past three weeks was a murder trial.  I was about to skip over it for more interesting stuff when the picture of the defendant looked familiar.  Then it hit; OMG in text message jargon.  There was Bertie LeBlanc in an orange jumpsuit facing a sentencing hearing after having been convicted of homicide. 

The airport WiFi connection wasn’t the best.  There was a lot of jumpiness and freeze frame activity, but I got the gist of the trial that had ended a few days earlier.  Hunters had been out in the woods and one of their dogs came back tail-a-wagging with a human hand.  Fingerprints matched  one Kenny Pickens who was last seen on the back of Bertie’s bike.  She’d been questioned and swore that Kenny had run off.  A cadaver sniffing dog was brought in and a few more chunks of Mr. Pickens were found on her property.  There was speculation that Bertie’s pigs played a role in taking care of the bigger parts.  The key evidence was blood found on Bertie’s work boots which matched Kenny’s. 

At the live feed sentencing hearing, life without parole was a foregone conclusion.  Cameras focused on Bertie as Kenny’s relatives took the podium and spoke of their loss.  They had chained her feet.  No stride was more than six inches.  A large leather belt encircled her waist, her hands manacled to it.  She stared at the far wall, a blank look.  It was as if she was underwater breathing through a straw, and all that was happening to her was on dry land.  When it was over, she’d surface. 

The prosecution made mention of other possible victims, drifters who couldn’t be located.  Investigations were ongoing and photos flashed on the screen.  Ollie was not among them.

  Finally the victim’s friend and relatives finished venting their spleens.  Bertie was helped to her feet.  The judge then remanded Alberta LeBlanc to the Coos County jail to await transfer to a Federal Women’s Correctional Facility.  A few cheers went up.  The judge pounded his gavel and threatened to clear the court.  Bertie was asked if she wanted to address the court.  She ignored the question.  Cameras flashed.  Reporters jostled each other to find a place near the exit so as to toss the usual gauntlet of questions at her.  I could see the headline now, Biker Babe Goes Hog Wild

I found myself muttering profanities at the screen.  A fellow passenger two seats down said, “You looking at the Baghdad suicide bomber footage on CNN?”  I nodded just to shut him up.  I would have given anything to be in that courtroom.  Yes, she was probably guilty, but at least I could have offered some support.  As she shuffled out the door to a waiting van, I desperately wanted to be there for her, to pat her on the shoulder, one human being to another and then.

It seemed like ages ago that she had gone to bat for me.  I had probably helped hundreds of Bolivians, desplazados, in the past year, but that was of little solace right now.  What I wanted to do was go back to Parky’s Diner and stick up for her, offer (albeit feeble) explanations and some perspective of Bertie’s deeds.  For sure, I’d be asked to leave or be stoned to death.  But I didn’t care; it was the least I could do for her.  And then there was always South America when New Hampshire didn’t want to hear what I had to say. 

 


Don Fredd has had fiction and poetry published in over one hundred literary journals and reviews.  He received the Theodore Hoepfner Award given by the Southern Humanities Review for the best short fiction of 2005 and was a 2006 Ontario Award Finalist. He won the 2006 Black River Chapbook Competition and received a 2007, 2009 and 2010 Pushcart Nomination.   He has been included in the Million Writers Award of Notable Stories for 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010 and was a finalist for the 2008 St Lawrence Book Award.



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