The windows at Manuela’s family diner had blackened to mirrors from the inside. From the outside, it must have appeared as a playhouse backlit by chrome hanging lamps. My life had just turned into a drama—my preference for comedy notwithstanding. With a dramatic sigh, I pulled off my apron and began to divide tips at the register. When a drunk stumbled in, lured by the golden restaurant lights, I slammed the till shut with unnecessary force.
He fell onto a coffee counter stool, then mumbled, “Coffee,” and added after a moment, “please.”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for the other waitress. I no longer work here.” With that out in the open, I burst into tears and pressed my hands over my eyes, trying to catch them. “Oh, whatever. I’ll get your coffee. It’ll be my parting gesture.”
I grabbed the carafe with the dexterity of a waitress, turned up his brown mug, and poured. “Cream?”
“Yes, please. Thank you.”
“Would you like a menu?”
“Not if it will cause you more pain.”
He was a sensitive drunk, at least. “More pain than being fired after eighteen years of dedicated service? If Manuela were still alive . . .”
“Oh, God. What’s the world coming to? Manuela’s dead?”
“She was ninety-six,” I said. “Did you know her?”
The drunk peered quizzically into his coffee, now beige with cream. “Not personally. Think my grandma knew her. ‘Buelita knows everybody.”
New Mexico was a small world once you’d lived there all your life, and Albuquerque even smaller. “I gave up my youth for this restaurant,” I cried. “I gave up my best years to serve the best chile in the state of New Mexico—Manuela’s special recipe that I grew up eating at her own table.”
“Have a seat,” the man offered. “I’ll buy you some chile.”
I laughed bitterly. “One last time? Because I’m certainly never coming in here again.” I slipped over to the other side of the counter and sank helplessly onto one of the orange swivel stools.
Angelica, waitress extraordinaire and my best friend, stormed out of the back room. “I cannot believe that bitch fired you! Ten minutes late, and she fires you and leaves me alone all night—not that I care about being left alone in comparison to you being fired, but still it goes to show how thoughtless that woman is.”
Another watershed of tears ran down my cheeks.
“Oh, Ella, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right, Angelica,” I sniffed. “This gentleman and I—what’s your name?”
“Anthony and I would like dinner. Green smothered for me, just like usual, and for you?”
“Oh, Ella, if I were you, I’d skip the smothered burrito and order the steak,” said Angelica.
“But Pedro won’t grill after midnight . . .”
“Pedro will do it tonight.” This she affirmed with a flip of her dark hair. She then batted her eyelashes at Anthony. “You want a steak, too?”
“The red-chile enchiladas, please. One egg, over-easy.”
She slipped our order on the caddy and banged the bell. “For Ella!” she announced.
The cook gave me a salute and an air kiss.
“You got fired for being ten minutes late, mi’jita?” Anthony asked.
“Third time late in eighteen years, but that’s the new policy. My car wouldn’t start so I had to walk. Manuela was like a grandma to me, but her granddaughter-in-law hates me and wants to hire her daughter to replace me.”
“Women,” mumbled Anthony. “Her husband have the hots for you, or what?”
“Yes,” said Angelica.
“No, he doesn’t!”
“He flirts with you at all the Christmas parties.” She plunked a bottle of Corona in front of me,
even though I hadn’t ordered it. “Don’t worry, Pedro and I discussed it, and we decided your meal’s on the house tonight. Yours and . . . what did you say your name was?”
“Anthony Carrillo, at your service.”
“Right.” Angelica gave me a knowing look.
As a last supper, the meal was perfect: Pedro grilled the steak just to my liking—juicy with only a hint of red, and he fried the potatoes until crispy and added the perfect amount of green chile and cheese. And for Anthony, Pedro stacked the enchiladas three tall, with perfect artistry, the egg barely oozing its golden yolk over the chile.
At the end of the meal, I hated to say good-bye. I simply couldn’t stay any longer, though, not as a disgruntled ex-employee. I hugged Pedro and Angelica, both of whom had been part of the late-night team with me for years. Even Pedro, not prone to showing emotions, cried a little bit. Then, as if he were my knight who had ridden up on a white horse to save me, Anthony Carrillo escorted me out into the summer night.
“Now what?” he asked.
I looked up at the starry sky. “Good question. I could use another Corona.”
“I could help you out with that.”
I laughed, before choking up a little. There I was, standing outside the center of my universe for more than half my life, and I was gazing into the night with a man who breathed alcohol from the very pores of his skin. It was a redeeming aspect of the universe, the way life caught me like that, staring at handsome men, or up at starry skies and so forth and wishing I could wax poetic rather than simply coasting as a waitress. Losing my job could be viewed as a good thing.
I breathed in deeply—no more tears! “Que será, será.”
“Exactly,” said Anthony. “That’s the way you have to think about life. And you could come work for me.”
“For you?” The man was swaying a little from side to side, but he sounded sober. “And you do what?”
He shakily pulled a billfold from his back pocket, pulled out a business card and handed it to me. It read: Anthony Carrillo, Private Investigator, licensed and academy-trained.
(p.s. The image above is of El Camino restaurant (obviously), which is a diner in my home town, rather than Albuquerque.)