Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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The breakfast rush was hitting its peak when we learned about the dead woman lying not far from Table Four.
Tucked into the corner of our dining patio, Table Four was up against a rustic fence of seven-foot-tall wooden posts sharpened into points, like in an Old West fort. On the other side of the fence were train tracks. If you were sitting at Four and peered through the narrow slits between the fence posts, you would see the dead body under the train.
Across the tracks, magenta bougainvillea blazed against the mission-style Amtrak station, which matched the mission-style mission a block away. The ghosts of indigenous slaves who’d died building the mission were said to haunt the historic street on which our cafe stood. The restaurant was also the house of its chef and owner, Z., and from the dining patio you could see right into the tiny kitchen. That’s his actual kitchen, our regulars would gloat to the friends they’d brought. This was 2003, pre-smartphones, pre-Yelp, when it was still possible to feel like you’d stumbled upon a magical eatery that no one else knew about. Our place seemed designed to inspire possessiveness among our guests, who clutched its secluded strangeness like a found jewel, looking offended whenever we told them how long the wait was.
I understood their zeal. When I was first brought to the cafe by a gloating friend of my own, I felt like I’d been introduced to a soul mate, someone I’d been dreaming of forever but couldn’t describe. One minute the friend and I were driving through carefully engineered suburbia, the next we were on a crumbling street lined with ancient sycamores. On one side was an adobe structure with an antique jail cell in its sandy yard. Across from it sat Z.’s place, a small wooden house, barely more than a shack, a stovepipe protruding from its shingled roof. A gnarled mulberry tree spread a canopy of green over an uneven brick patio peppered with rusty metal tables.
The cafe’s whole setup made you feel like you were just popping in to someone’s humble Southern home for fried green tomatoes. Paper menus, printed daily, let you know that the ice cream was churned out back and the herbs were picked each morning from the garden next to the patio. Charmed guests couldn’t stop exclaiming (The drinks come in mason jars!), and whenever Z.’s cat — a black-and-white colossus called the General — stalked past in his red bandanna, diners would clap.
But the main attraction was Z. A morning customer might be treated to the sight of him banging away on a drum set through his gauzy bedroom curtains. He would pace the dining area with his spiky blond hair and tattoos peeking out from the rolled sleeves of his chef’s coat, the Pogues or the Rolling Stones or Aretha Franklin blaring from the patio speakers. Z. would stop at tables to quiz diners on their musical tastes, flirt with the older women, and berate his freeloader friends who had stopped by for a complimentary meal. We servers were used to him giving us a hard time in front of the customers, demanding that we stop whatever we were doing to get these guys a round of drinks — but charge ’em. I’m not running a charity for drunks. And we would bring Bloody Marys teeming with pickled vegetables, topped with a crab claw gingerly holding the straw, and watch them go bananas.
We served only breakfast and lunch, the average ticket price was astronomical, and there was a two-hour wait on weekends. It was a prestigious wait gig despite the uniform: overalls, in keeping with the railroad theme. Whenever an Amtrak pulled in, first-timers would hop up to get a better look or take a photograph, as if they’d never seen a train before — or, at least, not while enjoying an exquisitely plated duck hash.
Whenever a train came into the station, it would make a metallic commotion like two saucepans clanging together. The morning I spotted the dead woman, the clanging went on and on and on. I noticed it somewhere between collecting the check on Four and refilling the peach-blackberry iced tea on Three. I squinted through the fence and spied something out of place under the train engine: the corner of a yellow tarp. Then a single white sneaker. And beyond it the calf of a leg.
I slipped into the kitchen and closed the French doors behind me. Guys, I stage-whispered, I think someone was hit by the train.
Another server clapped a hand over her mouth, and all three cooks crowded around the picture window. Z. blew past me to the dining patio, stood on a chair, and peered over the fence. Then he turned to the curious guests.
Well, now. He clapped his hands. Who needs a drink?
Z. valued only one thing more than profit: having a good story to tell later. If he lost some of our more squeamish customers in the process, so be it. He disappeared into the house, and a moment later Tom Waits was keening over the speakers about the train that took him away from here. Z. came back and told us to foist free mimosas onto the diners, many of whom were now standing and craning their necks. In addition to taking orders, delivering plates, and refilling beverages, we had to answer their questions:
Is someone really under the train?
Are they dead?
And, mystifyingly: Who is it?
Quiet, quiet — listen, Z. commanded so we could hear Tom Waits sing:
What made my dreams so hollow
was standing at the depot
with a steeple full of swallows.
I felt as if Tom Waits were singing about us: our depot, our train. It seemed like the song had been written precisely for this moment.
It was a train that took me away from here
but a train can’t bring me home.
I ’d been hired at the cafe two years earlier, when I was twenty-four and saturated with anxiety that every choice I made was going to dictate the direction of my life. Make the wrong one, and I’d be ruined. My diaries from that time are filled with resolutions (I want to be truly fearless), histrionics (Is it possible to miss your Destiny?), and Rumi quotes (“We have fallen into the place where everything is music!”). I was dragging my feet finishing a bachelor’s degree in theater, though I no longer believed I’d find success as an actress. I was in a dispiriting wrestling match with twenty extra pounds that made me too heavy to be the ingenue and too thin to be the comic relief. Also years of bad skin and compulsive picking had left me with a dizzying dysmorphia: sometimes I saw in the mirror a beautiful woman worthy of anyone’s affections, and sometimes I saw a disgusting beast who would inevitably wind up alone. Many nights I canceled plans with friends, unable to leave the bathroom, where I was slapping my red, ruined cheeks and scolding, Look at you.
I was terrified I’d never be loved — not by the people I wanted to love me — and so I tried hard to be alluring. I memorized Oscar Wilde quotes, lines from poems, and odd facts. I practiced having a sparkling personality — mostly for the benefit of inaccessible men. I spent a whole year trying to seduce a shy musician who, friends warned me, was probably not into women. I didn’t care. I was up for impossible challenges. They distracted me from the things in my life I could not control.
One of those things was my mother’s drinking, which had reached a — What do you call it when your mother shoves you, calls you a fat bitch, and then asks you the next morning if she did anything bad last night (and you say no)? When you have gone to your mother’s place and found a gas burner hissing, an open package of bacon on the counter, and her passed out fully clothed on her bed? When you have spent sleepless nights worrying about the dog she lost when she was blacked out? When her new boyfriend, whose name you’ve never heard, calls you to say she’s taken the car somewhere and he’s afraid she’ll kill herself?
I’d lived with my mother off and on for several years, trying to pay down my debt and save money. Sometimes it was fine. I smoked pot and wrote awful poetry while she drank wine and clacked on her keyboard, bantering with strangers in chat rooms, stopping now and then to read aloud a sassy response. But she was quick to anger when drinking, especially with all my eye-rolling and going places without her. The night she called me a fat bitch, I started sleeping in my car, then rotating among my backseat, friends’ couches, and the occasional treat of a Travelodge. I carried a sketchbook and a diary and acted as if being homeless were some great adventure; as if being displaced and disowned were my choice, and a noble one at that.
Knowing I needed money, a friend took me to Z.’s cafe for brunch — hand-whipped cream! embossed plates! enormous cat! — and suggested I apply for a job there. The servers, he said, probably made double what I made at the restaurant where I was currently working. So I applied and was hired by Z.’s personal assistant and manager, a guy everyone called Bert, a deliberate mispronunciation of his real name. As Bert introduced me around, I noticed that everyone there had a nickname. I couldn’t wait to earn one of my own and was thrilled when, by the end of that week, I’d become Mick.
In the midst of life we are in death, Z. said as he passed foamy glasses of beer to the cooks and dishwasher. (We seemed to be having something of an impromptu Irish wake for the dead woman.) He disappeared into the house, and another Tom Waits song came on, this time about a downtown train. When he returned, he pointed at me: Mick. Train songs for the playlist — go.
I shook my head disapprovingly. This was not how good people behaved. A woman had died, for God’s sake. We didn’t know if she had stepped in front of the train on purpose, or who she was, or if she had family. But when Z. asked you to do something, you did it.
The Clash, “Train in Vain,” I answered. “Midnight Train to Georgia.” “Love Train.”
“Crazy Train,” Bumpy, the sous-chef, said.
I worried the dead woman’s spirit was watching, growing angrier. What curses might she cast upon us? As if he’d read my mind, Z. thrust a beer into my hand and took me by the elbow to Table Four, where we’d stopped seating diners. Thick honeysuckle vines tumbled over the fence, and Z. and I looked at the dead woman’s foot through electric-orange blossoms. He clinked my mason jar.
To her, he said.
Like I said, Bert was the one who’d hired me. I didn’t even talk to Z. until my third day of training. It had been a slow morning, so Bert ordered me to go outside and rub mineral oil onto our new wooden bistro chairs. I was thinking about the possibly gay musician and how, even though he and I had finally become a couple, it didn’t feel like the miracle I’d been expecting. He never seemed to want to do more than make out, and it felt performative, his kisses more aggressive than passionate. I reasoned that it was because he was an introvert. As I worked oil into the wood, I played over and over in my head everything he’d said to me and how he’d said it, looking for evidence that he wanted me. That’s when Z. walked by in his chef’s whites and green sneakers and said, New girl, you’re doing it all wrong.
He took the rag from me, held his cigarette in one corner of his mouth, and with the other corner asked what kind of music I liked.
I was reading a book about the blues at the time, probably in service to being alluring to a man like Z. I said that I’d been getting into Skip James, Son House, that sort of thing. I was still reeling from hearing “Devil Got My Woman” for the first time. He seemed interested, so I rattled off some facts about Charlie Parker, even referring to him pretentiously as “Yardbird.”
Z. invited me to start hanging out on the porch after work, along with Bert, the line cooks, and whatever friends of Z.’s might drop by. I was the only server who routinely hung around; the others were a tight-knit bunch, a few years younger than I was, all insanely hot, with hot-girl things to do.
The wooden porch was decorated with old lanterns and had a thick rope that Z. put up to keep customers from wandering into the house, which they often did: Oh, someone lives here? I felt like we were on a pirate ship, or in a diorama, or in a diorama of a pirate ship. The gang would get hammered on beers and port from the cafe’s larder, bitching and laughing and showboating for each other. I met Z.’s aging punk and skater friends, people he’d known since high school, plus the odd ducks who were drawn to him: millionaires, inventors, musicians, someone rumored to be a disgraced Habsburg. I dyed my hair bubblegum pink and invited my friends to the cafe to show off my awesome new life. I feel like I’m at the center of my own universe, I wrote in my diary.
On Z.’s porch, I belonged. And yet, as the group’s only female regular, I had to keep proving I could hang with the boys. Someone shot me in the leg with a BB gun. I instigated pranks involving lit birthday candles and pantsless chefs. At times I felt it might be possible to go on living like this forever. And when everyone else had passed out or dropped off, when we’d exhausted the shenanigans, Z. and I would play songs and harangue each other to listen to the lyrics: Sssh, here it comes. Z. put on Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here,” his pinched, drunk voice singing, Two lost souls . . . I played the Rolling Stones, “Moonlight Mile.” Him: Nick Cave, “Into My Arms.” Me: Simon & Garfunkel, “America.”
Z. scoffed at that one. Real schlocky, Mick.
I put a finger to his lips. No, he’s trying to tell her something important, even though he knows she’s asleep and can’t hear him. It’s the most beautiful lyric in music.
Beneath my finger, I felt him smile.
My boyfriend had been ignoring my calls or claiming he couldn’t see me: He had to work. He was sick. He was . . . Z., on the other hand, hung on my every word. He called me one night after I’d left the porch and begged me to come back, told me my whole artistic soul depended upon it. When I refused, he said: You have no passion. Do you want your tombstone to read, “She lived sensibly”?
I weathered Z.’s attentions, said out loud that I was having a great time being his friend, but I couldn’t deny the passion with which he pursued me. It illuminated the truth about my hard-won musician boyfriend: gay or not, he didn’t really want me. He’d recently invited me on an overnight business trip and suggested we both take Benadryl in order to get a solid night’s sleep. I later joked to Z. that my boyfriend might have drugged me to keep me from trying to have sex with him. Without a word, Z. disappeared into the house, and a moment later the restaurant filled with Michael McDonald’s voice: I keep forgetting we’re not in love anymore. Z. returned and leaned against the counter, his eyes boring into the side of my face as I sliced lemons, trying not to smile.
I broke up with my boyfriend the following week.
I can’t remember our first kiss, if Z.’s stubble scratched my face, what he smelled like. What I do remember, with perfect accuracy, is the way he liked his cappuccino in the morning — in a yellow mug, with half a packet of raw sugar sprinkled on the foam — and the way he’d say, You’re an angel, Mick, when I handed it to him.
We dated for a few weeks (much to Bert’s consternation), until one night, after too many pineapple martinis, things ended badly. I was trying to tell Z. something. We had a shtick: He was always saying, Mick, who’s the loneliest man in music? And I’d say, Hank Williams. And then he’d put on Nick Cave and Johnny Cash’s cover of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” But on this night, floating in a bubble of vodka and sugar, I thought, Jeff Buckley. I wanted Z. to know how Buckley had died: he’d waded into the Mississippi and gotten caught in the current. I wanted him to know about the loneliness of drowning in total, dark silence. I shooed him off the stereo, searched for Buckley’s breathtaking cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I sighed and said, Get ready, then closed my eyes. But Z. wasn’t feeling it. He got antsy and called it boring; he got up to change the music.
The bubble burst. The sugar turned to grit in my mouth. What was I doing here? I’d been cataloging in my diary the drawbacks of my relationship with Z.: He was twelve years my senior. It bothered me how he always said I wasn’t missing anything out there. He’d insist that I quit school and help him run the restaurant. Now, as I watched Z. look for a song to replace mine, I saw who I’d fallen for: A stubborn bachelor who was used to giving orders and having things his way. Who didn’t see me at all.
I panicked. I got mean. I can’t believe I left my boyfriend for you, I hissed on my way out the door, which he slammed behind me.
That night I cried myself to sleep on yet another friend’s couch, scared of the finality of my choice, how easily I’d lost what I’d thought was the best time of my life.
Z. tended to cut off people who had angered him, but he didn’t fire me. (Bert had probably advised against it.) Instead Z. spent the next several months trying to make me so miserable I would quit. I dug in my heels. He scheduled me only one day a week, so I got a second job. He wouldn’t speak to me or look at me, so I became a focused and diligent server. I even did sweaty, menial tasks without complaint. The fact is, I enjoyed that job. I was good at it and liked making people happy. I may have been walking the plank, but it was my plank, and I knew how to stay balanced on it.
One year later Bert decided he’d finally had enough and quit. He didn’t even give notice. Z. called me and said he needed someone to pay his bills, schedule staff — that sort of thing. I could do it part-time and still keep my shifts, so I’d nearly double my income.
After I agreed, he said, Mick, I hated you for a while, but now you’re my favorite. I felt like I’d won some prize of earth-shattering importance.
Being Z.’s assistant was in many ways more satisfying than being his girlfriend. For one thing, I felt indispensable. His accountant taught me bookkeeping, and I found tremendous comfort in the money-in, money-out certainty of math. Plus it was fun, as jobs go: on a given day I might schedule the next week’s shifts, generate sales reports, create Z.’s profile on a dating website, and order his “blues” from a Puerto Rican pharmacy.
I was thrilled to be back in Z.’s charismatic orbit, to once again be a regular on the porch, but without it being so suffocating, so conditional. While I was glorying in my management of Z.’s cafe — and my relationship with him — my mother was beginning to confess to me her fears about her boyfriend, JR: He had moved in with her at some point, and now he wasn’t letting her answer the phone. (I’d thought it was merely an annoying coincidence that he was always the one who picked up.) One day she told me JR had destroyed all her makeup and hair products. He’d removed some critical part from her car while claiming to fix it, so now she couldn’t leave her condo complex. He’d told her he knew where to get a gun at a moment’s notice. She confessed these things over the mobile phone my grandmother had bought her for emergencies. This might have been when I first learned she had such a phone. Had such emergencies.
When I told her she needed to break it off, she said he was bad only when he wasn’t using. I knew it was fruitless to pressure her. My mother wanted desperately to belong to someone. I wondered how, exactly, her desire and mine differed. I still wonder.
Once brunch had wound down, Z. went across the tracks and got the story about the dead body: A middle-aged woman had stepped in front of the train. She was no one we knew. It seemed intentional.
After work Z., the kitchen staff, and I stayed on the porch drinking and playing music as the sky turned yellow, then pink, then purple, and the songs turned away from trains and became more contemplative, respectful: Neil Young, “Helpless.” Jimmy Cliff, “Many Rivers to Cross.” Johnny Cash, “We’ll Meet Again.” (Johnny’s wife, June, had just died; he would soon join her.)
We hadn’t meant the train songs to be crass. I think we were just trying to grasp what had happened. I’d thought about it all day as I’d taken orders, picked up plates, made elaborate espresso drinks: the act of stepping onto the tracks to face the train, the effort it would take to stand there while every instinct screamed, Move! Pills were easy enough to get. How had this woman come to hurt so badly that it was better to be sliced by steel wheels, pinned under a hulking, hot mass of metal? Could we have stopped her? Had we passed her that morning as we’d walked, distracted and sleepy eyed, from the parking garage to the cafe? Had we just not seen her as she stood staring at the tracks? These questions were too hard, so we reached for the easier thing: the train.
A train can’t bring me home.
One raucous porch night, not long after the woman stepped in front of the train, Z. let a friend hit a golf ball out of his mouth with a nine iron. I wasn’t there when it happened. After he got out of the hospital, the right side of his face was black and red, and his jaw was wired shut. He decided to dry out, as he did from time to time, and whenever he was sober, we all had to be. Denied beer, the cooks growled at the servers, Z. snapped at the cooks, and everyone was miserable. But this particular episode was underscored by a new level of viciousness, the kind that comes from shame. Outwardly he blamed the friend with the golf club, banishing him from his circle and cursing his name while we cast our eyes downward and focused on polishing silverware.
Being Z.’s number one, I bore the brunt of his hostility. He stormed around my work space with a dish towel, sipping soup through a straw, spitting orders from his caged mouth. Nothing I said or did was right; nothing pleased him. One day I told Z. that I knew he was in pain, but he had to take it easy on me. His face went purple. He pulled his lips back, which made it even harder to understand his cruel words. I was afraid of what I might lose by standing up for myself: the job, the porch, my home these last three years, my hard-won place in Z.’s heart. What if I was just being too sensitive?
I started to cry, that gasping-for-air crying, and the veins in Z.’s neck stood out as he said sarcastically through his teeth, Oh, Mick, I’m so fucking terrible to you, aren’t I?
Yes! I shouted and walked out for good.
Five months after that, Mom asked me to go to lunch, just the two of us. The invitation raised alarms: she never left the house without JR. We met at a breezy place in Laguna Beach, where turquoise waves broke over the sand across the street. After the waitress set down our iced teas, Mom told me that she’d left JR and fled to my grandparents’ house, thinking he could not follow; his driver’s license had been revoked. But follow he had, knocking on her bedroom window in the middle of the night and promising he’d be better if she came home with him. My breathing grew shallow. I thought about driving to her condo with a baseball bat.
Call the police, I insisted. Get a restraining order. Get out of the state.
My mother picked at her lip and sniffled. When had she become so weak? For years I had cursed her anger; now I wished like hell it would come back, that she’d put up a fight. She rested her face in her hands and shuddered. I draped myself over her and said I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to her.
We came up with a plan to refinance her place and secure enough cash that she could leave the state and hide out while I tried to get JR evicted from the condo. In the meantime she was to stay at my grandparents’. I left our lunch feeling heartened. We had a path mapped out; maybe this would be the start of a new life for her. I drove alongside the glittering sea, imagining my mother throwing pottery in an adobe studio in New Mexico, her dog by her feet.
A week later JR was with her at our family’s Fourth of July barbecue, holding a can of beer and chatting with my grandpa.
When I called my mother into another room, she whispered that he was being sweet, and she just wanted to be back in her own home. I felt myself beginning to withdraw, the way I had when I’d lived with her and wanted to avoid a fight. I asked if she’d started the refinancing process. She said yes. We left it there.
The following Sunday my grandmother called: Mom had phoned her the night before, sounding scared. My grandmother had begged her to come over, but my mother had refused, insisting she would be fine. She’d told my grandmother she would see her the next day. Now my mother wasn’t answering her phone. I clamped my teeth together, jumped in the car, and drove twenty minutes to her condo, cussing the whole way. How much longer would I have to rescue my mother, clean up her messes? My body shook with anxiety, but it came out as anger. Not fucking fair.
When I got there, the door was locked, and the blinds were shut. I rapped on the window. No whining from the dog. No car in the lot. A neighbor peered through the palm fronds on her balcony, a cigarette quaking between her fingers, and suggested they had probably gone camping. She said they sometimes did that after a fight, to dry out. Something else I hadn’t known about them — that they ever attempted to dry out. If this were the case, I wanted to think that my mother was the one to suggest it: that, like Z., she had decided to take control of her life.
The neighbor guessed they’d gone to a stretch of beach nearby. I called the campground, described her car. Nothing. I felt like I had been holding my breath and wouldn’t exhale until I finally saw my mother. And when I did exhale, it would be to let out a tremendous scream. I would tell her I couldn’t do this anymore, that I needed to save my own life and couldn’t be her savior. But was I even capable of making good on that threat? The thought of what might happen to my mother if I wasn’t there for her terrified me as much as the thought that I might never get away from her pain, her addictions. These twin fears lay side by side, the tracks upon which I’d been moving for as long as I could remember. When I followed them to their logical conclusion, it was this: I was never going to belong to myself. I knew only how to react and adapt to her and to others like her. I could fill a dozen diaries with anxiety and hope about who I might become, and it wouldn’t change a thing.
After two days of calling the police station produced nothing, I phoned a locksmith and made up a story to get into her place and have a look around. What did I expect to find? Clues, I suppose.
What I did find was that my mother was never going to move to New Mexico and get sober and become an artist.
She was there, buried beneath blankets. Her hand sticking out. Her oval fingernails stained dark brown with blood. And that exhale, that scream. It was tremendous.
You need things for a funeral: photographs, a dress, music. The investigators cleared the scene after a few days. JR turned himself in, confessed it all. I went to my mother’s place, gathered her CD collection into a box, and, box in hand, climbed the three steps onto Z.’s porch. He let down the rope and pulled me into a hug.
Jesus, Mick, he said.
The patio clinked and clattered with the weekday lunch crowd. The servers left their tables to cluster around me, sniffling, their embraces smelling of biscuits. I don’t know if the diners noticed the shift in mood as they enjoyed their cornmeal-fried-chicken salads and six-onion soups. I don’t know if they’d read the headline in the local paper, on the front page of the Metro section: Slain Woman Found In Home. If they did read the article, they knew it was her daughter who’d found the body. They saw my name. Would they recognize it? Didn’t she work at Z.’s?
Z. put a drink in my hand, and we sat with our feet on the porch railing. He showed me how the nine-iron scar near his nose had healed to a bright-pink line.
I told him I wanted his help making a playlist for my mother’s memorial service. We went inside and stacked her CDs next to the stereo: Hendrix, Creedence, Leonard Cohen — all music we might have played together on the porch. This seemed important for him to understand.
I wish I could tell you that Z. stayed with me; that we put on album after album, clinking mason jars to my mother’s memory and trying to outdo each other with our song choices. I love my friend — my messy, big-hearted terror of a friend. I’ve had recurring dreams about him and his restaurant as I’ve moved from state to state, job to job. His cafe is still the one place where I’d thought I truly belonged and could always return to.
Here’s what really happened: Z. showed me how to use his music software, and then he excused himself, saying the boys in the kitchen were in the weeds. Before he left, he told me the patio speakers were off — I could turn them on if I wanted. Then I was alone, the chatter of affluent diners coming through the sunlit windows.
Alone, I flipped through my mother’s music. Alone, I lined up discs in a queue. Alone, I wrote track names in a notepad and switched on the outside speakers so they all could hear — Z., the guests, the servers, the swallows — as I answered death with songs.
I read Erin McReynolds’s essay “Train Songs” [February 2020] and then, as is my wont, checked her bio in front. I was struck by what seems to be a relatively modest list of previous publications. I hope this trend does not continue. This person can flat-out write!
The most interesting moment in Erin McReynolds’s relationship with restaurant owner Z. was when she broke up with him [“Train Songs,” February 2020]. The moment when infatuation gives way to reality in a relationship can often be difficult to notice. We don’t want to admit failure or think about being alone. But McReynolds knew in an instant that Z. was unable to give her what she needed, and she ended it then and there. Brava!