Vradin, Chapter Four

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I made a quick detour by Lydia’s window and traded my ones for larger bills. She ran the stack through her counting machine and gave me a mixed cash out of fives, tens and twenties. If the night continued as it had started I’d still be back again and told Lydia so. She was some older relation of Joe’s, and just how they were related I hadn’t quite caught, but she was one of the few people that Joe trusted with the club when he couldn’t be there and, besides, she was a genuinely nice person. She’d fire your ass in a heart beat for breaking Joe’s rules but you’d respect her while she did it.

Carl was waiting for me outside and he chuckled when he saw me. I was carrying my tip box by its handle, and I had had a fun day at the Michael’s craft store picking out weird random things to hot glue to it. There were sea shells and glass stones and pretty fake bling-bling stones along with a silk orchid and pieces of mosaic glass and mirrors. It’s flashy and fun. But that’s not what he was laughing at.

While I love my boots, they are very bad ass boots. Most people who see me in them mistake me for some bad ass chica, or a lady of questionable morals when they realize how not bad ass I am. Therefore, when I have to leave the club, I wear an ankle length sarong style skirt. Tonight’s was in shades of blue and green with ocean motifs in black. He wasn’t laughing at that, either.

Over the shirt, I wore my white faux fur-lined parka. It had these cute little cub ears on the hood. I totally squeed when I saw it, much to Jody’s amusement. I had blushed and walked off, only to find that it had delighted Jody so much that she bought the parka for me.

Well, after that I couldn’t not wear it, now could I?

Carl flicked one of the cub ears. “Going for the white tiger look, are we?”

“Polar bear, more like around here. My car’s this way,” I said, leading. Carl looked like he was going to say something, but I just kept walking. He could come or not on my terms. I was not stupid enough to get in the car of any man I didn’t call friend, no matter how sweet and kind he had been in public. My second step mother had taught me very well that what face a person wears in public hardly reveals the face they wear in private.

With a woman, I had a better than fighting chance of walking away. With a man, well, they’re just that much bigger than me that it doesn’t matter that I’ve been sparring since I was seven. Daddy’s a mixed martial arts instructor and about the only time he seemed to see me was when I was a student in his class. Of course, as the instructor’s kid, I had to be the best (another disappointment for Dad), but I know how fast a boy my size can kick my ass from repeated personal experience. Against almost any girl, no worries. If we’re fighting by tournament rules I’m even willing to pit myself against a lot of guys my size. Trouble is, there are no rules in a real life fight, and nine times out of ten it’s the guys who are going to be scraping. And that’s not counting that most guys are a lot bigger than my size.

So, I would drive in my car with someone knowing who I went with.

My car, by the way, looks like shit and runs like silk. When Dad realized that he had pushed me too far for me to back down, he enlisted his brother Gary in helping me get a ride that would neither leave me stranded nor attract car thieves. Uncle Gary is one of the best mechanics in town, and I am required, on pain of guilt tripping calls from my uncle, to bring the Beast in every three months for a check up. I call it the Beast because it is a 2000 Buick LaSabre. It’s big, it’s roomy, and it’s got what Jody calls a two-body trunk. There are a number of dings, dents, and bumps in the body (nothing I put there) and the paint job has seen better days. The interior is scuffed up, too, but not to the point of being uncomfortable. I have a barely-worth it stereo, which is fine with me. I hate it when people pull up near me in traffic with their stereos pounding so loud that it makes my car shake.

I watched Carl out of the corner of my eye as I used the key to unlock all the doors. He was sucking in his cheeks like he was holding in a complaint, but he just went over to the passenger side and got in. The sound of the engine starting made his shoulders relax and eased some of the tension in his frame.

“Buckle up, bro. If there ain’t no seat belts, this car don’t roll,” I sing-song teased. He shot me a sideways glance, the corners of his mouth turning up, and buckled up.

“So, where are we headed?” he asked.

“The twenty four hour super market a few blocks up the road,” I answered.

“You’re going grocery shopping on your lunch break at eleven at night?” he asked, amused.

I grinned and said, “Not quite, but remember, you volunteered to come with.”

He sighed, a great big bellow of a sigh, and just frowned at me with a confused look.

It made me giggle. “So what kind of music do you like? Country, rock, jazz?”

“Blues are more my thing, but I also like classical stuff,” he said, eying me like he was waiting for a reaction.

“I can see that,” I said, reaching over to the radio and pressing one of the preset buttons to turn on the classical station. Tapping one of the round knobs, I added, “That’s the volume control. The speakers are kind of cheap, but my uncle made sure the stereo won’t let the sound go so high that it’ll blow them, either. Feel free to set it however high you want.”

The drive over took less than five minutes, and we chatted about inconsequential stuff. Carl trailed me into the store and looked surprised when I took the first sharp left going in and stopped at the in store teller machine. I pulled my bank card out of my slim-line card case (that lived in my tip box while I was on shift), and pulled out the deposit envelopes that I had filled at Lydia’s window from the inner breast pocket of my parka. I had to make my deposit in three envelopes because I had found that anything over a quarter inch thick tended to jam the machine. I snagged a few extra envelops from the stack stocked by the deposit slot, folded them and slid them into my card case.

Carl had a worried look on his face again. I snagged his arm and steered him toward the deli section. “What’s wrong, C-man?”

“Do you always carry that much around with you?” he asked, low voiced and looking around.

I shrugged. “Remember that most of what we get are ones, so it’s not the amount you might be thinking it is.” Joe drilled into us that we were never to tell the clients what we made in tips. He said it either makes them think you should be more accommodating than is legally permissible or they stop tipping all together. A few will tip more because it’s now a competition, but most will stop thinking they’re being generous and start feeling they’re being had. I’m not sure about that, but Joe was the boss, and he had been in the business a lot longer than I had, so I went with it.

That seemed to calm Carl a little, and I had him laughing at some silliness by the time we got through the checkout with salads for Jody and me. Left to her own devices, Jody would skip her meal break and then try to drink it at home. If I brought anything more substantial than salad, she would refuse it. I think if she wasn’t absolutely in love with the strawberry sauce I drizzled on our Monday morning crepes she would refuse those, too. She was very concerned about keeping her figure “just right,” and I never knew quite what she would consider “just right” at any moment. So, salad.

Carl insisted on buying, and I wasn’t going to argue over something that trivial. It made him feel good and that was worth more than the point of pride to me.

I had to park farther down the block when we got back; the press at the club had gotten that much worse. When we got back, I made sure Carl didn’t have to pay a re-admittance fee with a quick word to Jorge and Lydia. He had been looking after me, after all. Lydia gave me a sharp look and I promised to dish details when things were a little less hectic. She gave her nod to it all, and I could tell by the look in her eyes that she would hold me to that accounting. No worries.

I slipped into the employee break room with the salads, put my card case in my tip box (I never left anything in my pockets at Jody’s recommendation) and hung up parka and skirt before settling in to my dinner. I still had a few minutes left on my lunch when I finished so I tidied up around the room. I mean, yeah, I could be all bitchy and wait until I was on the clock, but tonight was just so jumping that no one was going to have a free second to do the wipe down on our table or straighten the coffee station.

Joe walked in as I was finishing up the table. “I thought you were on break,” he started.

Joe is maybe five foot four, five foot five with an olive complexion and hair that’s so dark a brown it’s almost, but barely not, black. His eyes are a kind of pale green meets pale brown color, and he has the kind of face that’s hideous in one light and breath taking in another. He’s square, about as thick through the shoulders as he is tall, and I would not want to be the fool trying to move him once he braced himself. He let his hair grow to a shaggy length, but kept his jaw clean shaven. Occasionally, he’ll grow a mustache, but he usually shaves it off within a week.

I shrugged. “I am, but I just ate my dinner and my Momma Lu taught me better than to not clean up right and proper when I used a space.”

“She teach you better than to fraternize with the clients?” he asked.

Joe can be hard to read. He folds away into a kind of stoicism. Most of the time, I just go with my gut on guessing what he’s feeling, and there was a flavor of disappointment.

“I’m not sure I can get you the long version by the end of my break. Short version, I was avoiding a scene by letting him ride with me on my errands, and he’s enough of a regular that I didn’t feel I was taking a huge risk in it.” I tossed the paper towel in the garbage and looked Joe in the eye. “He’s also the guy that Neveah’s crushing on, and I think part of the reason he did the whole macho man routine was to earn some brownie points with her.”

Joe stared hard at me, but I didn’t see anything that I had done that would have pissed him off, so I just gave him back a peaceful face. I may have had to pull on my waitressing mantra for some of it, but I had no need to be all aggressive and beat my chest.

“Okay, long story time. I don’t care about the clock. We’ll make that right tonight, one way or the other,” Joe said. There was less a sense of disappointment about him, and more a sense of some frustration.

So, I told him about Neveah crushing on “her mountain”, how Carl and the guys handled themselves in the club, and then running into him at the Pike Place Market, and having my tip box get stuffed and all the rest. By the time I was done, Joe had braced his forehead on the index and middle finger of his right hand and was frowning like he had a headache. “And you think he was trying to win points with Neveah?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Well, yeah. I mean, he’s a nice guy and all, but he’s never been, I don’t know, all that gropy or flirty or anything with me. And Carl isn’t exactly known for his smooth social graces, ya know?”

Joe sighed the sigh of the long suffering. “Okay. Here’s the deal. If I let you off Scot-free I’m going to have the other girls trying to do a hell of a lot more than just make a run to the grocery store. But, I also get that this was a genuinely innocent thing on your part. So. You ever go off with a client again, whatever reason, you’re fired. You’re off shift for the next two weeks, starting right now. You will be back here, working Monday to Thursday, ten to two, for two more weeks after that. Everything works out, you keep your nose clean, you’re back to your regular shift in a month.”

I felt my stomach drop to the floor. I had squirreled away enough that the loss in pay for a month wasn’t going to do much more than set back my college plans, but still that was a serious punishment, and I wasn’t sure what I had done to deserve it. At the same time, it was obvious that Joe got that and still felt he had to hand it down. “I don’t understand,” I started to say, the words drawn out and slow as I tried to wrap my mind around the severity of the punishment.

“I get that, I do. That’s why you aren’t fired. And everyone on the staff with two cents to rub together for brains will get it, too. But if I don’t make an example of you, I’m going to have some of the dumb shits who haven’t yet shown themselves think they can walk out with the clients looking for a sugar daddy. And when that shit happens, my club gets a rep for whoring and I lose the military clients when the CIC and the MPs blacklist us. So, when I’m willing to make this much of an example with you, even the dumb shits are going to know that it’ll be ten times worse for them.”

I felt tears welling up in my eyes and I so hated that. I hated the shocky, cold feeling in my fingers, and the way my insides curled up. Looking Joe in the eyes, however, told me that if I fought him on this, it would only get worse, and the sick sense of being smacked for no damn good reason dried up whatever words I might have come up with. I nodded at him in distraction.

He huffed out a breath and dropped his hands to his hips. “For heaven’s sake, girl! Sit down, breathe. Sure as shit don’t try to drive like this.” Joe waited until I had sat back down and then walked out of the break room.

A moment later, Neveah came in and gave me a great big hug. “I’m so sorry, honey! If I thought there would have been this kind of fall out I would never have pushed you to take Carl with you!”

Her comfort was my undoing and I sobbed great big heaving sobs into her shoulder.

I hate crying, and I had the worst of it out of my system in a few minutes, but that was still long enough to have smeared my mascara and eye makeup all over the top of Neveah’s breasts and across my face. I think at least three or four of our coworkers had managed to cycle by, too, which only made me feel terribly embarrassed. I mean, bad enough that I was getting punished but to be seen being such a cry baby about it curdled my belly.

When I felt calm enough, I promised Neveah that I would be back to pick her up when the club closed, and we washed up in the staff bathroom together. Marie was examining my tip box when we came out and she hurriedly put it down. I narrowed my eyes and made a show of checking that everything was still where it should be. Marie scowled at me. “I’m not the one who tried to fuck a client in the parking lot,” she snarled.

“I’m not the one who’s too damn interested in everyone else’s money,” I snapped back. “And I just let a friend ride along while I ran some errands. I didn’t think about him also being a client. If he weren’t a friend, I’d be out the door.”

Lydia’s voice cut in before either of us could say anything more. “I warned you, Marie. I catch you with anyone else’s tip box, whether something’s missing or not, and I’d have to let you go. Why did you have to put me in this situation, sweet heart?”

Marie paled first, a look as painfully stricken as I had just finished crying out. Then a blazing light filled up her blue eyes, rage twisting her features into something truly hideous. And it was all directed at me. What a fucked up night this was turning out to be. And it had started out so well. I just all of a sudden felt so damned tired.

“Lydia, nothing is missing or out of place. She was just holding it up, and I’m feeling kind of sore and I took some of that out on her,” I said. Jody elbowed me in the ribs.

Lydia just shook her head and moved up next to Marie. “I’m sorry, dear, I am. If Joe and I didn’t know you as well as we did, well, there’d be another story to tell, but we do, don’t we, Marie?” Until she said Marie’s name, I thought she had been talking to me. Marie stuck out her chin and lower lip in a look that screamed two-year-old’s temper tantrum.

“I was just looking, like she said. I didn’t open it; I didn’t take anything,” Marie snarled at Lydia.

Lydia just sighed and looked Marie in the eye with this weight of disappointment. “But you broke my trust. I put my word to it, Marie. I can’t go back on that. Pick up your things. I’ll walk you to the front and we’ll cash you out.” Turning to us, she added, “Neveah, you’re wanted back on the floor. Clare, dear, stick around a moment. You did promise me details tonight.”

Neveah hesitated until Lydia cocked an eyebrow at her, and then she hurried off. I didn’t blame her. There were times when it felt like Lydia’s disappointment was the absolute worst thing you could bring down upon yourself.

Marie gathered up her jacket, tip box, and purse and pulled on loose sweat pants and a tank top over her uniform while Lydia watched on in silence. After they left I, too, gathered up my things and made ready to depart, but I waited for Lydia. The thumping of the music in the club increased while I waited, signaling that our guest stripper for the night, usually a porn star promoting her latest video, was coming out for a spin on the big stage.

Lydia returned about the time the music was turning down for announcements. She looked at me with kindly, sad eyes and asked simply enough, “Tell me about it, why don’t you, dear?”

And I did, going through the long story again. She asked me to clear up a point or two, but otherwise just listened. I was crying again before I was through, and she came over and hugged me.

“Are you set to make it through this?” she asked at the end.

“You mean, money wise? I’ll have to dip into my college savings, but I’m not going to leave Neveah hanging for the rent,” I answered, wiping at my face. I had washed off the mascara in the bathroom, so at least I didn’t have to worry about more make up stains.

Lydia gave me a surprised look. “You actually have savings? Well, that’s at least a relief! And what were you planning to take in college?”

I laughed at myself and shook my head, not really sure what was funny, just that something felt like it should be. My head was messed up, I guess. “I’m getting my lower division classes out of the way while I get ready to transfer to UW for a Computer Engineering degree. I need a lot of my general ed classes still, but I’m most of the way through the core classes at Tacoma Community. Another two or three quarters at the rate I’ve been going and I’ll have my Transfer Associates.”

She looked at me with a mix of sympathy and delight, her hand rubbing my shoulder blades as she eased back from the hug. “You know, I think you may be one of only a handful of girls who’ve worked for Joe that actually were going to college and not just telling everyone that they were planning to. It makes a difference, you know. I’ll see what we can do, but please don’t get your hopes up. Joe and I, we’re both pretty firm when we’ve set our word to a thing so I won’t promise you anything.”

I patted her arm. “It’s okay, Lydia. Joe explained why he felt he had to be so … ‘firm’ I guess. I just–. It just sucks that it’s me, but it’s his business and his rules, and if we’d thought about it maybe we’d have seen the same thing Joe saw before he pointed it out. Give me a day or two and I’ll probably have talked my way into seeing it from Joe’s point of view, ya know?”

Lydia gave me a final rub on the shoulder and stood up. “I’ll talk to Joe. Don’t expect anything, but I’ll at least talk with him.”

“Thank you.” I took a deep breath and shoved up from the table. “I’ll be back to pick up Neveah when the club closes, but I guess you have my number, and if nothing else comes up, I’ll see you in two weeks, any how.”