My great-uncle Morris worked at the Grand Line Bar & Grill for 39 years. He started washing dishes there when he was seventeen and then slowly moved up in the world. Now he was dying of cancer and the only thing he wanted to eat were Grand Line barbecue bacon burgers, and so we bought him one every night for the short remainder of his life.
Tonight is my turn, so I pull into the parking lot on my way home from work. My head is splitting and all I can think about is scrubbing the tub so I can take a long hot bath with the door locked. Moving home wasn’t easy, but the one thing that never gets easier is sharing the bathroom with two brothers in high school. I grab twenty bucks out of the glove compartment and feel the warmth of the Line embrace me before I even step through out of the car.
I worked here the summer after high school, Uncle Morris pulling strings like a puppeteer, the tugs of obligation leading the manager to offer me a full-time position as a waitress even though I’d never waited a table in my life. I worked harder than I’d ever worked too, taking shifts no one else wanted, the Sunday mornings and the Fourth of July. I wore out the soles of my shoes and lost seven pounds. Every night I counted out my tips and rolled them together with hair band. I stashed the wads of cash in my sock drawer and by the end of the summer, I had enough money to get the hell out of here. Just not for very long.
Now as I walk through the front door, the familiar scent of spilled beer and stove grease sends me right back to that summer. My arms ache with memory. I push my way through the half-sloshed bros and their half-dressed hos cramming the porch, their laughs ringing out into the still night air.
“Hey Leann,” I say to the head bartender, the woman who replaced my uncle a year ago when he fainted behind the bar during a particularly hot night. Leann sent him home and then, with support and encouragement, took over. She was half-Indian, hard on the bottle but easy on the eyes, and she’d shown up from Nevada to talk her way into Morris’s bed before she found her way behind the bar. Their romance was short-lived and passionate, and she edges her way around the bodies crowding the bar to see me ducking some frat-boy’s elbow.
“Shove over,” she yells at him, waving a long-taloned hand in his chubby face. “This here’s V.I.P.”
“What you want, sweetheart?” she screams, and I mouth, rather than yell the word, burger.
“For Morris?” she asks, but I can tell by her face she already knows. “We got it. Nick.”
I nod to show that I understand and squeeze my way through the hot damp bodies of the bar to the kitchen. A band, four males in black t-shirts, all with spiky hair, is setting up in the brightly-lit stage-corner. Microphone screeches and the cringe-worthy clank of instruments and expensive equipment knocking follow me to the kitchen door.
“Hey girl,” Nick calls out when he sees me lurking at the small doorway. Waitresses with raccoon make-up and their hair piled in sticky ponytails glare at me as I effectively block their way in and out of the buzzing kitchen. Nick gestures at the side counter, where a bag marked M waits patiently amidst the chaos of a Margarita Monday. I nod my thanks to him and step out of the kitchen. I wave a twenty at Leann but she waves me away.
“For Morris,” she yells again, his name quickly swallowed by the noise of the bar.
Before I leave, I wait a few minutes in the doorway. Heads bob and feet shuffle. Clear plastic cups catch the hot neon lighting. A few people look my way, wondering who I’m with, why I don’t have a drink, if I’m worth flirting with. I feel strangely outside of it all. When I finally turn and descend the three wooden steps to the parking lot, I feel like I’m walking in a dream.
Growing up, I ate at the Grand Line more than I ate in our own dining room. On hot summer weekends, my mom would order margaritas, no salt, and my dad would crunch through cups of ice before his resolve plummeted and he tipped back bourbon until he felt like he could argue with my mom without losing. I celebrated every birthday here until I legally became an adult. We took our first shots after hours, me and my brothers, with Uncle Morris pouring the shots and calling out the names and us wincing and sputtering through every burning concoction.
“You should get drunk as much as you can before your 21st,” he said, over and over. “You don’t want to waste any time once you’re legal.” He taught me to pull a pint and let me work under the table whenever I needed some extra cash. He broke up brawls, picked up girls I’d gone to high school with, and slid free drinks to his favorite regulars and anyone “having a bad day.” He taught me to remember orders without writing them down, how to flirt with young and old men alike, and how to balance four plates on my arms and hold two more in my hands.
The Grand Line without Morris had once seemed unimaginable. But now I’ve seen it, and it’s doing just fine. As I push the car into reverse and look over my shoulder, I feel a strange pull in my stomach and a tightening in my throat. The day after he fainted and they told him he couldn’t work anymore, my mom was afraid he’d die right then and there. But he didn’t. He just nodded and looked out the window like he couldn’t care less. Maybe the Line didn’t miss Morris, but I sure did.