“Listen to this,” said my manager John, holding his iPhone to my ear one bright October afternoon. “You garbage,” drawled a raspy voice. “A garbage motherfucker.” I lifted an eyebrow. He held up a finger. “You haven’t satisfied me in three years,” the female voice said. A smoker. With the wrong number.I handed the phone back to him. “Can you imagine?” he said, his gentle brown eyes glinting with amused horror, his fingertips flying to his throat (a gesture he calls "clutching my pearls".) John couldn’t help his smile. “This woman has been leaving me the craziest voicemails. I don’t know who she is trying to reach but she is letting him have it."
John began sharing these voicemails with the rest of the restaurant staff after close–that magical, floating hour at one or two in the morning when cash is counted, cigarettes lit (though everyone is trying to quit), and notes compared: "What happened with the crying bachelorette at table 52?” “Broke up with him over the phone.” “Too much champagne.” “Maybe he’s better off. I always wonder who is marrying these girls with the pink satin sashes and penis straws.” “Better now than at the alter.” “Amen."
Like kids around a campfire begging for ghost stories, this was the hour we got our dispatches from the woman scorned. We christened her Tina Marie, after a vineyard nestled beside the Russian River, where we got our best Pinot Noir. My fellow cocktail waitress Audrey placed John’s phone in a rocks glass to amplify the sound, and everyone leaned in to hear. "You’re a dog,” said the woman. “And that girl you’re with? She a dog too. But it’s OK. It’s all right. Two dogs make a good dog team.” Finished, she would slam the phone down. We could hear a little jingle: Tina had an old rotary.
“Sounds like Strong Island,” said a barback, leaning on the banquette. The candlelight illuminated the feathers in his hair, his heart-breaking cheekbones, and his latest tattoo: brass knuckles, knives, and guns threaded through a scroll that read “Love Thy Neighbor.”
“Sounds like a bottle of White Zinfandel,” said the only female bartender, a girl who, even with cracked ribs, cranked out delicious, muddled cocktails at breakneck speed, without ever losing an iota of chic. We envisioned Tina padding around her apartment, resplendent in a feathery bathrobe, a halo of curlers, and a veil of Benson and Hedges smoke. She’d have her first glass around noon, and come three o'clock she’d have decided to pick up the phone.
“Dog team!” Audrey high-fived me. We often appropriated phrases into our patchwork lives. We could put a positive spin on almost anything; it was just a matter of emotional survival.
Tina called sporadically, usually every two to eight weeks. “I see you with her,” she growled. “I see you sneaking around. I don’t care. She younger than your daughter, you think she like you? She making a fool out of you. She’s got surprises coming, that girl. She ain’t gonna get a dime. But she’ll learn! I hope you’ll be very happy together.”
Ought we to tell Tina she had the wrong number? we wondered. Part of the problem was Tina’s being an early bird, in her way, and John a night owl. Her calls aligned with his gym and errands, so he was never there to receive them. Also, it didn’t seem to matter to her that this man never called back. She never asked him to. “She obviously needs to get these things off her chest,” he said. Finally, we had to admit we didn’t want the messages to stop. “You taking that girl back to your mother’s house, I see you, I know what you’re up to,” Tina Marie snarled. “She’s gonna be just like the other ones. She ain’t gonna buy you the teeth you need neither." We shook our heads. "Let him know, Tina!” we said. "Don’t you ever darken my door again,“ warned Tina, slamming her phone down.
As October drifted into November, Tina’s sassy edge became blunted. A shadow came over John’s face when he spoke of her darkest calls–calls he wouldn’t share. "There we are, Benny and I, having our peaceful Sunday, and ring ring ring, here comes Tina! ‘I hate you,’ she screamed. Sobbing. Just 'I hate you,’ over and over.” He shook his head. “I hope to baby Jesus Tina finds her peace.”
After the listening sessions, we’d stub out our cigarettes, tuck our cash into wallets and bras, and head out into the night for taxis. Getting a cab in the Lower East Side after a shift is like battling so many zombies of the Apocalypse. This night Audrey managed to pull one over, with a flick of her wrist a blink of her huge velvety eyes, but a drunken bro with pizza hanging out of his mouth lurched out of the darkness. When he reached out to grab Audrey, I came between them. He called us sluts and slammed a fist into the cab. “Kiss my ass you garbage motherfucker,” said Audrey, trying Tina’s incensed feminism as I slammed the door. The cab driver, grateful to take sober people with money to known addresses, added some words of his own, and didn’t complain about making two stops in Brooklyn.
The days flew by. Audrey fled to LA after housing and romance fell through simultaneously. The busboy with the tattoos became an apprentice for a madcap welder in Bushwick. The chic bartender with the cracked ribs became an even chicer manager. As John and I enjoyed a quiet cigarette at the end of the night and marveled about how fast the year had gone, I suddenly thought of our old friend. “Whatever happened to Tina?” His eyes grew bright and his hand gripped my arm. “She’s back,” he whispered. “And she is furious. She sounds great.”