For the next two years and seven months, Eva wiped down tables, cleaned and set plates and silverware, and helped wash dishes in the Diamond Diner from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m., six and one-half days a week and every holiday. She ate all of her meals at the diner because they were free as long as she didn’t abuse the privilege by eating too much. Some of the Greek and Hispanic busboys and dishwashers tried to get next to her, but she ignored them or swore at the more aggressive ones until they all understood she was to be left alone. Once, Pedro had pinched her when she had a full bucket of dirty dishes in her hands, and she nearly dropped it, which, if she had, would have gotten her fired. She had grabbed a steak knife from the mound of dirty silverware and held it to his throat, her eyes on fire. She swore at him and vowed to slit his throat if he ever touched her again. Pedro did not speak English, but he understood Eva perfectly and none of them bothered her again.
For letting Eva sleep on her couch, $8 of Eva’s weekly salary of $25 in cash went to Melanie who lived in a one-bedroom apartment above the diner. Melanie had only one rule regarding Eva’s rental arrangement: the couch was Eva’s except when Melanie expected a gentleman caller. Then Eva had to “get lost” for a few hours. Melanie insisted that Eva leave at least a half hour before her date arrived and not return for at least three hours.
To “get lost” Eva strolled the sidewalks (carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone) or went to a movie, or—most often—sat in the library and read. The library was nearly a mile away, tucked in the far corner of a park, and never crowded. Eva enjoyed the seclusion and, particularly, the quiet of the library, which was in such stark contrast to the persistent commotion of the diner.
Mysteries were her favorite books. In three months she had read every Nancy Drew book on the library shelves and several of the Hardy Boys books, but by the end of the year she was reading the mystery masters: Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane.
When the library closed, and if it was too early to return to her home on Melanie’s couch, Eva visited Tony Tenuto in his liquor store, which was right next door to the Diamond Diner. They would gossip about the neighborhood, the tourists, his previous life in Italy, Pete, her boss, and Tony’s landlord.
Eva occasionally helped him stock his shelves for which he would give her a $5 bill. With colorful, broken English, Tony entertained Eva with his stories of “the old country,” and farming and his mama’s cooking and ultimately fulfilling his dream to come to America by working his way across the ocean on a cargo ship as the only cook’s helper on the boat. “Chi fa da sé, fa per tre,” he was fond of saying, telling her that it meant: “He who works by himself does the work of three.”
However, none of this transpired if Tony’s wife, Angelina, was in the store. If Eva saw Angelina when she came in she would say hello, buy some gum or cigarettes, and leave. Angelina made it clear that she did not like Eva hanging around “her Tony” even though Tony was old enough to be her grandfather. Eva understood Angelina’s resentment, and she did not fault her for it.
Old man or not, Eva saw that Tony enjoyed looking at her, and she enjoyed his interest. If no customers were in the store, she would sit on the counter and hike her jean skirt up higher than necessary and then watch him sneak glances at her legs without him realizing she was “on to him.” She would smile coyly and chat away watching him take pleasure in how she looked, confident that Tony would never actually “try anything.” He just liked to look at her, and Eva’s self-confidence grew. She took pride and satisfaction from Tony’s attention. His stolen glances made her feel attractive, important, and most significantly in control.
Pete left the Diamond Diner after about a year and returned to Greece. His brother, Alexander, replaced him as manager. Eva had not liked Pete, and she liked Alexander even less. Alex was about ten years younger than his older brother, even more obnoxious than Pete, and he smelled even worse.
“You stink,” some of the girls would yell at him.
“Shut your trap,” he’d say to them. “I don’t like to over shower.”
The brothers had much in common: crude, cheap, demanding, and unreasonable. Worst of all for Eva, not being a waitress, she couldn’t talk back and defend herself as the other girls did.
That all changed the day Alexander came to her and said, “Hey you, Eva, you want to be a waitress?” It was Easter Sunday, a busy day at the diner, and Eva learned later from Melanie that one of the other waitresses, Peg, had gotten married the night before to a faro dealer at the Sands, and she had phoned Alexander that morning to tell him to “go fuck himself and to stick his job up his big, fat Greek ass.”
Eva jumped at the chance to waitress. The pay was slightly better and the tips were much better. Bussing tables meant you were only tipped by the other waitresses at a fraction of what they took off the tables. As a waitress you took the tips, kept half of them yourself (the restaurant got the other half), and, if you hustled, smiled, and provided speedy service, the tips could be fairly substantial, even in a greasy spoon like the Diamond Diner.
Peg had left her waitress uniform in her locker, and Eva grabbed it for herself, which saved her the expense of buying her own. The uniform fitted well enough, and Eva began waiting tables that very day. Eva found a dime that Peg had forgotten in the uniform pocket; Eva considered that a good omen for her future.
Waitress work was grueling, but after watching the other girls for over two years Eva was prepared for the demanding customers, the hectic, unrelenting pace, and the rude Greek cooks yelling at her to hurry and pick up her orders from beneath the heat lamps.
Eva continued to sleep on Melanie’s couch, and after four months she had saved all of her tip money: over $200. Things were going well until Alexander’s wife took a trip back to Greece with their two children. She would be gone for at least six weeks, Alexander explained to Eva, maybe a little more, and he wanted Eva to visit him at his home that weekend.
Eva stiffened. Now what? He had never suggested anything like this before, although a few times she had caught him looking at her longer than was necessary. It happened after the breakfast rush and before the lunch crowd, so the restaurant was relatively quiet—only a few tables and a booth had customers. Standing just outside the swinging kitchen doors, Eva scanned the room and then turned back to Alex. He was grinning, and she recognized the unmistakable lust in his eyes as he looked her up, down, and every which way.
She decided to smile at him. “I don’t think your wife would like that very much, do you, Alex?”
He laughed heartily. “She won’t know about it, you little prick teaser.”
It was Eva’s turn to laugh before she said, “Well, what do I get out of this visit?”
“What you mean? What, you kidding?” he said, clearly insulted. “You stay a few days in a nice, big house, nice stuff, nice furniture and,” he leered at her, “I give you a big Greek sausage that you can’t get anywhere else: my own homemade, yummy sausage.” His grinned widened. Quickly looking around not wanting to be overheard, he grabbed his crotch as if he were saluting her with it.
“Is that all,” Eva shrugged. “I can get that anywhere.”
“Not like this,” he bragged.
Eva stared at her red fingernails a few brief moments while she thought this over. Alexander was a pig, but he possessed absolute power over her livelihood, and they both knew it. If he fired her no one would come to her defense and waitresses were easy to replace. “Ah, I’ll think it over,” she said nonchalantly. Reaching past him, she grabbed a coffee pot off the warmer and headed directly for the booth across the room.
That evening Melanie sat on her couch, “Eva’s bed,” with her legs propped on a dark stained coffee table, sipping from a bottle of Coke and reading a Vogue Magazine. The television was switched on, but the sound was turned down and the black-and-white picture was fuzzy.
Eva, sprawled on her back on the floor, paged through a Life magazine examining a pictorial retrospective of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Selma, Alabama. Fire hoses were being turned on the Negro marchers, and in other photos white policemen were clubbing defenseless Negroes desperate to protect their skulls by covering them as best they could with their black arms and hands. Eva shuddered at the brutality and an image of Dwayne pummeling Loretta flashed inside her head.
Eva lowered the magazine so she could see Melanie sitting on the couch. “That pig, Alexander, wants me to come to his house this weekend while his wife is gone,” she said.
“Haaa!” Melanie snorted. “That wife of his will brain him with his own skillet if she ever finds out about that. Have you ever seen her?”
“She’s meaner looking than him and her mustache is darker too.” Melanie laughed and took another sip of the Coke.
“Do you think I should do it?” Eva asked.
Melanie stared at her and shrugged. “Do you want to?”
“No!” Eva was emphatic.
Melanie shrugged a second time. “Then don’t.”
“What if I say no and he fires me?”
“Don’t know,” answered Melanie. “I guess you find another job. But, if you’re worried about getting fired, then you’d better do it,” she said matter-of-factly.
Eva cringed. “He’s such a pig,” she said. “I’m not sure I could even do it with him.” She felt trapped, angry, and she wished she owned a club like the policeman in the magazine so that she could bring it to work with her and … and … what? “Damn, pig,” she cursed. “Just when things were starting to . . . Shit,” she said. Stretching out, she stared at the cracks in the ceiling. They reminded her of the ceiling in her bedroom that she had escaped from three years earlier.
“Hey, sweetie,” said Melanie, leaning forward slightly. “Don’t wet your panties about this. You’re looking at this all wrong. Sure, he’s a pig. Sure, he wants to fuck you. But what you’ve got to do is turn it around on the asshole. You fuck him. You take advantage of this situation. Make it work for you. This is an opportunity for you, don’t you see?”
Eva propped herself up on both elbows. “Opportunity?”
“Damn right,” said Melanie. “First, you make him give you some money, upfront, at least $25—maybe you can get $50. Second, you’ll have this over him. You can push him around more if he’s worried you might tell his wife about this. Just so you don’t push too hard.” Melanie reached for her cigarettes and lighter.
Gazing toward the television but not focusing on it, Eva wondered if, in fact, she could pull that off. Could she get money from him? How much? Could she push him around after it was over? Was she strong enough? She thought maybe she was, but she hadn’t been put to this test yet. Alex could be terrifying, cruel, and he was her boss.
Eva turned back to Melanie. “How can I ask him for money?”
Melanie harrumphed. “What do you mean ‘how’?” You’re certainly not going to fuck him for free; even a pigheaded imbecile as dumb as Alex understands that.”
“No,” said Eva, “I mean how do I go about it? What should I say?”
“Oh,” said Melanie. She took a drag of her cigarette. “You’ve got to time it right. You wait ’till he’s plenty hot, ready to go. Let him feel you up for a while. Drive him crazy. Put your hand high up on his leg, close to his cock, but don’t actually touch it; he’ll go wild. Wait until that cock of his starts to bulge, really come alive; that’s when they can’t think about anything else, and then you say something like how you wish you had enough money for a new dress or new shoes or coat or whatever. He’ll pay you, don’t worry.”
Eva frowned. “I’m not sure I can go through with something like that.”
Melanie drained her Coke bottle. “Look, honey, girls like you and me, we’ve got no choice.” Using both hands to gesture over her entire body, she said, “This is all we’ve got going for us. Do you have rich parents? Do you have a college degree? Any rich, elderly gentlemen proposing marriage on one knee?”
“No.” Eva heard the gloominess in her own voice.
“Life is about survival, and for girls like us sex means survival; it means security, safety. Sex means success if you know how to make use of it. An angel face like you, hell, you can have a bundle for yourself if you play your cards right. Men go crazy for your type: young, the blonde hair, the big brown eyes, the pouty mouth, smooth skin, good figure, killer legs. Damn, Eva, if I looked like you I’d be living in a mansion in Hollywood with a pool, a butler, and my own yellow convertible.” She scrutinized Eva closely and took a long drag on her cigarette. “Didn’t you ever wonder why in the hell I make you disappear when I’ve got a fella coming over?”
Eva shrugged. “Privacy, I guess.”
“I wish,” snapped Melanie. “That ain’t the reason, honey. If any of those guys caught even a glimpse of you, they’d be after you like a dog after a pork chop; they’d forget I was alive.”
Eva felt her face turning red and wondered if she needed to apologize.
“Sure as hell,” Melanie said, tapping cigarette ash into the tray. “I’m not complaining, mind you; I get my share. I’m just saying, honey, you got that thing that drives men nuts, so don’t waste it, sweetie. Take it from me, it won’t last forever. I used to have it—kind of …” She stared at the soiled carpet. “Maybe not as much as you, but I had it—some. I just didn’t wake up and use it for myself like I should have. Don’t be stupid about that like I was.”
Melanie treated Eva like the younger sister she had never had, and Eva enjoyed her like the older sister she’d never had. Eva liked Melanie’s salty sense of humor, her down-to-earth advice, and her practical slant on life. “You’ve got to be tough if you’re gonna survive in this screwed-up world,” she had lectured Eva more than once. “Like my grandmother used to say, ‘the wolves always devour the sheep.’ Well, honey, I ain’t no sheep, and you’d better not be one either.”
“How long have you been a waitress?” Eva asked.
“Too damn long. Ever since I lost my salon, about 8 years now.”
“Hair salon,” I used to be hairdresser—damn good one too. I have my license and everything.”
“What happened?” asked Eva.
“I lost the business in a divorce to that pencil-dick first husband of mine. But, I’m saving to get it back, and I’ll do it, you just watch me. I had a damn fine business: loyal customers and talented girls working for me. I knew how to run that business too. A lot of owners can style hair, but they don’t know shit about running a business. Not me. You got to be firm but fair. Firm with your product suppliers, your landlord, your customers if they try to take advantage, and firm with your employees. But, you got to be fair too. I never skimped on the treatments, never late with my rent, never bumped an appointment, and I never took a dime of a single tip from a single one of my girls. They earned it, they deserve it. Right?”
Eva nodded and smiled.
“You should be making plans for your future too, honey. Hell, you don’t want to be a goddamn waitress in this crummy dive for the rest of your life, do you? Listen to me, honey, if you’re smart you can make yourself some real money, maybe even fall in with a rich crowd and chummy up with some fat bastards with money to spend on you. Hell, use your head and shake your ass in the right direction and you’ll end up living in a mansion somewhere.” She took another long drag on her cigarette. “I mean, for Christ’s sake, it’s only sex. What’s the big deal?”