Family Portraits at Newport Beach Restaurants

 

by Victoria Patterson

 

 

 

Dinner With My Stepfather Bill: The Quiet Woman – 1986

Bill has already had one heart attack, and he’s not supposed to be eating rich foods, but he’s taken me to dinner, just us, on “a date”: salads drenched in buttermilk dressing and crispy croutons, filet mignon and rib eye, gravy-soaked mashed potatoes, walnut and chocolate chip pie for dessert, with clouds of ice cream. We sit in a corner booth–always the intimacy of booths, he prefers them–post-meal indulgence, the lacey, votive candleholder speckling the tablecloth with light, the murmuring of diners and the musical clinks of silverware comforting. Now that he’s straddling death and won’t be around much longer, I feel unexpected surges of love. I even let myself eat without worrying about the caloric intake. It’s rare for me to relax about getting fat. Just that afternoon in my AP English class, beneath my miniskirt’s hemline, I witnessed the spread of my bare thigh against the hard plastic chair seat, horrified by how it dimpled with cellulite. But none of that matters here, with Bill.

in-the-cdm-village.jpg

Bill leans back in the booth and lights a cigarette with a match from a book with the restaurant’s logo: An ample breasted peasant–arms at her side, feet splayed–with her head cut off. No wonder she’s The Quiet Woman. Like some kind of threat or warning, there’s also a rudimentary painting of an apron-clad, decapitated woman side-clutching her head like a football, its facial expression docile.

Bill must’ve grabbed the matchbook on the way to our table. Smoking is a big no-no, the worst no-no, and before he asks, I say: “I won’t tell Mom.” He exhales a puff, smiles, moves the glass ashtray toward him, and leans back more. Bulging veins line the backs of his freckled, age-spotted hands, and a Band-Aid stripes across the side of the hand knuckling the cigarette. At his wrist is his chunky stainless steel and rose gold Rolex with a chocolate brown face, complementing his ruddy skin, his golden-red arm hairs nesting the linked band. The check has been paid, the credit card slip on the plastic tray with a couple of cellophane wrapped green and brown striped mints. 

 

He takes another deep drag, pulls his hand away, and I’m soothed by how he’s pacified. His sparse reddish-gray head hair has pushed itself into a Mohawk. I sense that I can ask anything and I want to take advantage since this is rare in my family. We’ve already discussed the basics–my tennis game, his hatred for Barbara Streisand, my grades and future plans. I’ve also broached how he met Mom: He was her OB and he delivered me. Their affair lasted my childhood, until they married when I hit middle school. This (his involvement with my birth and his affair with Mom) used to be a secret. But after I discovered my birth certificate a few years back, it’s now tentatively developing into family lore (“Bill’s the first person who held you,” goes Mom’s positive spin). 

 

Bill and I have even developed a heartfelt comedic routine, me saying that my brother told me that I’d been such an ugly baby–the ugliest baby ever, something terribly wrong, that was clear–and so, as an act of kindness and charity, Bill was impelled to marry our mom. “No, no, no,” he answers, shaking his head, “that’s not how it happened.” Dramatic pause, earnest eye contact, possible handhold. “You,” another sincere pause, “you, my dear, were the most beautiful baby I ever saw.” I eat up the fantasy but it’s short-lived. Mostly I feel shame, especially with my born again Christian father, as if by being born, I originated his wife’s extramarital sex, destroying his marriage and Bill’s thirty-plus-year marriage. 

Bill taps the cigarette with his pointer finger. Ash drops into the ashtray, and he gives a contented sigh. An easy silence develops. I’m not used to being comfortable. I have to drink alcohol to feel this way, like last night, coming home buzzed, Bill in the living room watching the late-night news. Kneeling before him, I apologized: “Sorry, sorry, sorry! For all the times I’ve been an asshole! I need to say sorry, before it’s too late!” He didn’t reprimand me or say, “You’re drunk and maudlin,” instead he said, “Tomorrow let’s go to dinner, just you and me, a date.” 

No one in my family likes Bill, except Mom. They say shitty things behind Bill’s back–and my grandparents, especially when drunk, right to his face–and everyone makes fun of their 22-year age difference, saying he looks more like my grandfather than my stepfather. 

My brother Scott hates Bill. Scott’s a born-again and lives with our father and stepmother in San Clemente. Our father didn’t ask me if I wanted to move out as well, because boys need their fathers, men more important. Probably for the best, since I can’t fake being born again, and I detest their church with its Christian rock music and the chummy Perry Como-like, khaki-wearing pastor.

After the heart attack, Bill appears older and feeble, his gut cresting his belt buckle, pants sliding down his nonexistent ass. He’s got a smirk-face–a puffy half-smile–and his cheeks drag like they’re melting. His wardrobe a sloppy mismatch of colorful plaids–shirts always partially un-tucked, food stains on his ties–he wears giant, black-framed old people glasses. 

Mom’s sex life flourished with Bill. She more or less told me. But I intuitively understand, something to do with how Bill treats me and my girlfriends differently than most men. Not respect, necessarily, but he doesn’t ogle our bodies, avoid us, or try to act cool. It’s like he knows things about women that other men don’t. He’s levelheaded. When my friend had a pregnancy scare (she wasn’t), I knew we could go to him. My friend had no money, so Bill gave her free birth control pills. No guilt, no shaming. Like without fanfare, he was saying: “Women are sexual. Not only is this normal, you might consider celebrating it.” 

Bill leans forward and stubs out his cigarette, saying, “Hidee-ho, time to go.” He says lots of corny things. When I’m running late, he says: “You’re slower than a turtle with a cane at the side of the freeway,” or when I say something that Bill doesn’t understand, he says, “‘I see,’ said the blind man.” His fingers grip the table’s edge, rising, but he seems to notice something in my face, releasing and sitting back in the booth. 

Teenagers, I know, are supposed to feel immortal. That part of their brain that acknowledges death undeveloped, they act reckless and get in stupid accidents and die. I know this. But I also know that something’s wrong, because I think about death constantly. So much so, I’m freaked out by the sensation of blood pumping though my veins, like how I feel the thump at my temples, or when I press my index and pointer fingers on one of the glands beneath my jawbone, there’s that pulsing tick. I’d rather not be so alive, the flipside being death: A blackness, a void, a nothing. 

My father, stepmother, and Scott, they’re all about the afterlife, Jesus–arms outspread–smiling in the cotton candy clouds. Life sucks here, because it’ll be so good afterward, Heaven making up for this bullshit suffering endurance test. Head-lolled Jesus limp and nailed on the cross makes me not trust God, considering he did that to his own son. Though being born again has stabilized Scott. Before he moved to our father’s and converted, I know that he lurked in the high school cafeteria, leaving microwave burritos on table seats, watching his peers sit on them, burrito explosions. 

I tell most of this to Bill. But I don’t say that the only time I’m not afraid is when I drink alcohol, or when I pilfer those pale blue tablets from his medicine cabinet and swallow them with a glass of water. The directions say one, so I take two, sometimes three. Alprazolam for anxiety, its name like an undiscovered planet. I do my best not to be too greedy and take them sparingly, so as to avoid suspicion. It’s worked so far. When the light brown plastic bottle with the pink childproof cap gets down to three or four, they reappear as if they’re little mating bunnies. 

I’ve always been nosy, and that’s how I came across my birth certificate and the magic pills. I have a habit of quietly opening all the drawers in all the dressers belonging to my parents and grandparents, examining the contents. Fingering the items, as if they’re relics of the love I feel for my family members, and the love I crave from them vibrates through their things: my grandfather’s nail clippers, Grandma’s coral-colored lipsticks and perfumes. But it’s bitten me in the ass, like when I found a strap-on, pump, dildo-like apparatus beneath the silky panties inside Mom’s dresser. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed, and in her drawer, worse than a machinegun or drug paraphernalia. I described it to Scott, who didn’t believe me. I instantly regretted showing him proof, because his face screwed up into a combination of horror and surprise, and he said, “What is it?” I tucked the apparatus back inside its blanket of lingerie and shut the drawer. 

“I think,” Scott said studiously a few hours later, “whatever it is, it keeps his penis hard, now that he’s old. Men have trouble,” and then he frowned, adding, “You know that they’re sinners and that adultery is a sin, right?” A ping of relief went through me for having an explanation, but I asked him to shut up and leave me alone. 

But I don’t tell Bill these things–I tell him my death fears, adding that I’m worried. Scott, our father, and our stepmother say that if you don’t give yourself to Jesus, you’ll go to hell. It’s worse, they say, than anything you can imagine. They seem certain. A heaviness develops behind my nostrils and I say: “I don’t want you to go to hell.” 

There’s a long pause, like he’s taking me seriously. Then he says he’s not afraid, and there’s no such thing as hell. He’s an atheist, he explains, and he believes in science and facts. 

“When you die,” he says, “it’s over, like this”–he snaps his fingers.

I encourage him to have more angst about death, and about his death specifically, considering he’ll no longer exist. But he’s fine with it. 

“I’m tired,” he says. “I’m ready.” 

I yearn for his calmness and okay-ness with disappearing. I want to fold his self-assurance like the napkin in my lap and tuck it deep inside of myself. His explanation seems more authentic than cotton candy Jesus, but I’m still scared. 

I want this feeling of closeness and ease to last, but I force this thought away, sure that I’m already destroying it. I promise to cherish how I feel right now, our temporary connection, and I make a silent vow: Remember. 

The Bar at Bob Burns Restaurant With My Brother, Scott – 1988

Our stepfather Bill had died from a fatal second heart attack not long before. Yet our widowed mother had ditched Scott and me on Christmas Eve, unexpectedly (as far as we knew–she’d probably planned it) flying to France to meet her French teacher and, as we then discovered, lover, an abusive French misogynist who wore ascots and taught at the local community college. I was eighteen, Scott twenty. At Christmas dinner, our grandparents got progressively drunker and meaner, bad-mouthing our mother for her selfishness, her abandoning us, so Scott and I fled to Bob Burns Restaurant, one of the few places open that might serve us alcohol. 

Bar and Alcohol

We nestled in at the bar. Normally crowded, it was empty. No one but us. I had my fake ID–creatively named Tanya Tanqueray, and Scott rarely got carded. But the bartender, a bar cloth over his shoulder, didn’t ask, simply nodding sullenly when we sat. 

You could smoke inside in those days, and I had a pack of unfiltered Camels in my purse. But I didn’t pull it out, knowing Scott would be upset.

 

Bob Burns was the first restaurant to grace Fashion Island in 1967, alongside Buffums, The Broadway, and Robinson’s. Dimly lit, its Scottish décor favored the color red, and its matchbook logo was a diagonal ostentatious lettering of double Bs. There was a massive entryway fireplace and the sunken dining room was bordered with stiff, black leather booths. 

 

That night, a small Charlie Brown Christmas tree listed near the racks of bottles and the mirrored backdrop, and tinsel and lights drooped from the ceiling. 

 

Scott perused the red-colored binder of overpriced wines, beers, cocktails, and bar foods. 

 

There were TV screens on either end of the bar, the one farthest on mute played the news, and the one closest showed a low-volume subtitled It’s a Wonderful Life. Mid-point or so, Uncle Billy frantically searched for the bank’s money he’d misplaced–the goof–and his raven landed on his shoulder and squawked and flapped in ominous glory.

 

When I returned from the bathroom, a Corona beer with a lime slice plunked in the bottle’s opening waited for me. I’d have preferred whiskey or tequila, which was why Scott had ordered us the lightest beer on the menu. 

 

“What an awful dinner,” he said.

 

 “They could’ve at least pretended,” I said of our grandparents’ bitching. “For our sake. I mean, she’s our mother and it’s Christmas.”

 

We catalogued our worst Christmases and agreed that this one would most likely rank in the top three (we’d have to wait to see how it finished). Then we silently commiserated and watched the black and white film while nursing our beers, one of the rare occasions in my budding alcoholism where my intake was limited. Not because I could control myself, but because my brother’s presence combined with my demoralization rendered me passive. 

 

After setting down a wooden bowl filled with greasy salted peanuts, the bartender disappeared. We watched George Bailey–face twisted in disgust–sprint through Pottersville, and I had my usual mixed reactions: Even pre-feminist, I found Donna Reed’s enfeebled spinster librarian a dumb male fantasy. Besides being named for the greedy banker, Pottersville struck me as more lively and authentic than Bedford Falls, a place I’d much rather live, a judgment no doubt fueled by my alcoholism. I knew I wasn’t supposed to think these things, so I kept silent. Scott wouldn’t have liked my speaking out. 

 

Movie ended, I was so weighted with sadness that I leaned my entire upper torso on the bar top, my head resting on my arms like an old, despondent drunk; looking over, I saw that Scott had done the same. 

 

Our eyes met–an echoing recognition of pain. His hand went to my shoulder and he leaned in and moved closer. I understood that he was communicating that our presence together was our great comfort. 

 

We lifted our torsos from the bar. He took my hand and squeezed it. 

 

We had each other. We didn’t have to say anything. It was as if we exchanged our hearts and let them rest inside each other’s chests before taking them back. 

Grandpa’s 84th Birthday at Josh Slocum’s With My One-Year-Old Son, Cole, Mom, Her New Boyfriend, Robert, and Scott – 1999

As we walked inside, Cole lodged at my hip, I spotted a Black man dining with a white woman.

My grandpa was a belligerent, vocal racist. I silently vowed–if necessary–to leave. We’d reached an unhappy truce: he continued to be a racist shitheel–but not in my presence. Newly widowed, frail, alcoholic, volatile, he was drinking even more than usual, smoking again, crying a lot, and openly pining about suicide.

 

Josh Slocum’s, a dark, loud seafood steakhouse and bar, was lodged above the bay on Pacific Coast Highway. Decorated with plastic crabs and lobsters trapped in nets draped in corners, the logo was an old-fashioned schooner traversing the peak of a flattened globe on a discolored-aged map.

Lobster

Our booth overlooked a pier and docks loaded with yachts. The Black man was at a table near us. 

After we sat, Grandpa’s eyes welled and he held my hand.

 

Everyone began to booze up but Cole and me. I eyed Scott’s Long Island iced tea. He ate and drank like a pig at family functions–his way of checking out.

 

Mom wore a purple warm up and her bling: diamonds at her neck, fingers, earlobes, and wrist. She’d met Robert at the Newport Beach Country Club, where he claimed to be a golf pro, though mainly he penciled in golf games at the pro shop. He had large fake teeth, and eyes that looked like they were always scheming. His narcissism displayed itself in a continual flexing of imaginary power. 

 

Robert was my pre-Trump presidency experience, priming and pre-traumatizing me. Bald with a splotched scalp, he had a fluctuating marshmallow fatty physique–in between strange liquid and meat-heavy diets, he gorged on junk foods, losing and regaining the same ten or so pounds. Prostate shot, the preemie diapers he wore created a soft, rounded groin to his slacks. Like an engorged Ken doll or as if his dick were a squishy cantaloupe. 

 

Humorless, the exception being cruelty, the first joke he told me: “Do you know what it means when you putt and your golf ball pulls ‘a Lewinsky?’” “I don’t know. What?” “All lip and no hole.” 

 

Racist and a birther, he lied constantly, or as Mom said, “Robert exaggerates.” A name-dropper, within the first three minutes of meeting him, he said that his daughter, Wendy, my same age, was a lesbian, because in high school she was thrown from a truck bed and her face got scraped off; and by the way, Wendy was with Mike Myers and Will Ferrell when the accident happened. 

 

More than anything he liked to be the center of attention, a big shot, flaunting his wad of cash, literally letting the money clip flop out on the table, or taking the money clip in hand and waving it around. The wealth he paraded came from Mom, which came from Grandpa. 

 

An expert on anything and everything, Robert didn’t read. He lived on trashy television, cartoons, action movies, and Fox News. He collected ceramic golf figurines and displayed them like holy relics in a locked glass-encased cabinet. 

 

Women existed, he believed, to entertain and arouse him. He ogled me. His usual disposition was judgmental disdain, as if I were a stripper that he could jack off to at his whim. 

 

His one saving grace: He was stupid. I needn’t worry about him outwitting Mom for her money. Yet the grifters that surrounded him were dangerous, though Mom seemed to take the credit card frauds and exploitation as a seedy form of entertainment. 

 

But that was all to come later, after they eloped. 

 

This was in the early stages of their relationship, when we were aware that Mom was imploding another thirty-year-plus marriage. But, she’d explained, they were so in love and so happy and they sang show tunes in her newly purchased (for Robert) Cadillac Escalade.  

 

“I’ll leave Barbara the house,” Robert said that night of his impending divorce, lifting his wine glass; and then to a spattering of Mom’s hostile laughter, he added, “It’s got lots of antiques–including her.” 

 

Grandpa kept choking up and reaching for my hand, and Robert seemed jealous. 

 

Needing a break from the table, Cole and I explored the restaurant, observing the pinched, plastic surgery faces, the fake breasted blondes reapplying lipstick in the bathroom, the boisterous and cavalier, new-moneyed edginess at the bar. 

 

Little did we know (I found out later from Scott) that Grandpa had taken his opportunity in our absence. 

 

“What’s that n-word doing here?” he said loudly as the Black diner left.

 

A true sycophant racist, Robert echoed: “I don’t know. What is that n-word doing here?”  

 

(This probably goes without saying, but they used the n-word.)

 

Cole and I returned, unaware. Yet I sensed a menacing, fraught air. 

 

Later a song called “Back that Azz Up” played from somewhere outside, so I looked out the window. 

 

The bay water glimmered in the orange-gold sunset. Unmistakable, Dennis Rodman stood at the back end of a 47-foot phallic speedboat named Sexual Chocolate–the loud music source–which motored its way to the pier. 

 

Like a flower’s tall stamen encircled by petals, Rodman was surrounded by a throng of scantily-clad women. He laughed and gestured wildly, while a crew member docked the boat.

 

Rodman and his entourage dance-walked up the pier and entered, beelining for the bar, the crowd parting around them. 

 

No one at our table acknowledged what was happening. But Scott eyed me with an oh shit look.  

 

On a related note, not long after, Rodman purchased Josh Slocum’s. Following months of excessive noise complaints, fights, overcrowding, and lawsuits, the restaurant shuttered in 2005. Then Rodman blew off back rent and debt for more than a decade, and a $200,000.00 default judgment was awarded against him, right before he left to chum with Kim Jong-Un in North Korea.

 

At some point, Robert excused himself. I watched him angle through the crowd at the bar and snake his way to Rodman. He was glad-handing Rodman, ingratiating himself. 

 

He returned. Before sitting, he clasped his hands to announce that he’d worked his magic. We all needed to prepare ourselves: Rodman had agreed to visit our table to wish Grandpa a happy birthday. 

 

“Bullshit!” said Grandpa, coming alive, as if ready to kick Rodman’s ass. “He better not come to this table!” 

 

Robert’s racism had an exception clause for professional athletes as long as they existed for his entertainment, and he seemed confused that Grandpa’s didn’t.

 

Until, aided by Mom’s frown and Grandpa’s disgust, he wasn’t, and then he left again.

 

Subdued, he sidled up to Rodman once more to ask him to please not come over to wish Grandpa a happy birthday after all. 

 

When Robert returned, Grandpa lifted his credit card as if wielding a knife. 

 

Our waiter explained that Robert had already taken care of the bill. 

 

 “I don’t give a shit,” Grandpa said, pocketing his wallet.

 

I carried Cole, leading my family to the door. With a pang of panic, I saw that Rodman was hustling over. 

 

He blocked our exit. “Hey,” he said to Grandpa. By his sympathetic demeanor, I understood that Robert had played up Grandpa’s bereavement.  

 

Bleary-eyed and full of disdain, Grandpa stood about half his size.

 

Rodman extended his hand–“Happy birthday, dude.”  

 

In the pause–while Grandpa considered what to do–along with a myriad of emotions, I was afraid for him. 

 

But with a hint of submission, he shook Rodman’s hand, and I saw his disgust as he did so. 

 

Good deed performed, Rodman disappeared back into the bar. 

 

Thrusting open the heavy wood door with my shoulder and body weight,  Cole and I were the first to exit. 

 

The cool, misty air hit us. We said our harried goodbyes. The valet swung my shitty Chrysler station wagon around. Robert had already paid and tipped him. I buckled Cole into his car seat. 

 

Exiting the parking lot, I knew that I would cry soon. In the rearview, I saw Scott fold himself into his Nissan Murano. Mom, Robert, and Grandpa stood by the valet booth. Grandpa’s head was down to light a cigarette, hand cupping his lighter. 

 

I lowered my window. Sky dark and pinned with stars, the breeze rattled the palm fronds, and the half-moon looked like a tilted bowl.

Newport Beach Yacht Club with Scott and Mom after Robert Died – 2015

Mom insisted we dine at the Newport Beach Yacht Club, also known as Shark Island. For reasons I don’t understand, she was a member. She didn’t own a yacht or a boat. The membership fee includes boat slips for members to park and dine, along with “reciprocation to over 500 clubs all over the country including Hawaii.” Nevertheless she was a member and used her dining points.

Marina

Located on Bayside Drive at the corner near the Balboa Island bridge, across the street from a plastic surgery center, the club used to be vacant. Except for daily AA meetings. In 1990, newly sober and booted from a recovery home, I briefly lived with my grandparents down the street, and I was a regular. We called the meetings Shark Island, as in, "I’ll see you at Shark Island."

I invented a restaurant, its accompanying insignia and merchandise line (akin to Tommy Bahamas), and a lore for the story “Remoras” in my first story collection, Drift

Separated only by an archway from the bar was the Shark Island Emporium, selling resort sportswear, cashmere sweaters, watches, leather jackets, belts, sunglasses, scented candles, even a cologne and a perfume; the polo shirts were embossed above the left breast with a half-inch-sized sleek black shark, and all the merchandise had the logo planted somewhere: it announced membership in an exclusive club that, upon further consideration, wasn’t that select–most everyone in Newport Beach displayed themselves with Shark Island paraphernalia.  

 

Hanging on the wall between the bathrooms–amidst the framed restaurant reviews and culinary awards–was a framed newspaper clipping…It explained that in the late 1800s, before canals were dredged, when the land was still considered uninhabitable, camps of entrepreneurial fishermen (Mexicans and outcasts mostly), went to sea in small boats and caught sharks by harpooning or shooting them as they rose to the surface to swallow bait, and then towed them to shore, where their carcasses were used in the business of manufacturing oil. Along with a malodorous and uncanny atmosphere, the shark remains lying on the sand in various states of rot–from mild decay to skeletal–gave Newport Beach the unofficial nickname of Shark Island.

 

There are moments from Robert’s stroke, his subsequent ten days in the ICU, and his death that I turn over in my mind, but I find it difficult to remember the order in which the events happened. The sequence doesn’t make sense, and the things that do make sense are hard to admit. When I was a little girl, I watched the TV show Dynasty, and that was what it was like: Dynasty-level drama. Multiple incidents of credit card fraud, guns, forged living wills, attorneys, locks at Mom’s needing to be changed, accusations of Mom having murdered Robert, meth-head lesbians, burner phones, illicit texts and phone calls to Robert’s mistress, Robert’s final porno-text to a sex worker, passwords at the ICU to exclude visitors, incompetence claims to invalidate the will, a declaration that Robert hadn’t properly divorced his previous wife. Sordid and complicated, I won’t go into it here.

“He’s in a better a place,” was what Scott said that night. The fifteen years he’d been married to our mom, Robert’s satellite of loved ones had stolen money, scammed, and used her. Yet it was the simplest thing to say: “He’s in a better place,” as opposed to, “Thank God he’s dead.” 

 

Sparsely lit with a patron base of older white people (lots of walkers) and their extended spawn, we sat at a table near the fireplace. Multiple TVs played golf and football. 

 

The Newport Beach Yacht Club has mediocre to terrible food, tasteless and generic Americana décor, nubby carpets, and a spectacular view of the Balboa Island bridge and the bay. The logo is a rippling red and blue yacht flag, a white "N" at its center with Newport Beach Yacht Club written in cursive below, framed in a coat of arms.  

 

Scott was on his second Long Island iced tea, and he kept telling me how good it tasted. Taking advantage of the buffet, his plate was piled with meats and potatoes, and two smaller plates with pasta salads, assorted melon chunks, and thin slices of ham. 

 

I’d ordered fried artichoke hearts and they looked like fuzzy turds. Gritty, slathered in the accompanying aioli, they tasted like garlic-coated sand. 

 

A grizzled, stooped, eagle-faced man entered and stiff-walked by our table, followed by younger versions–his son and daughter–with the same eagle faces. 

 

Vacant-eyed, Mom barely ate, her cottage cheese, wedge salad, and sliced tomatoes mostly untouched. She wore her bling and a cream-colored sweat suit, and she drank alternately from a glass of red wine and a hot Lipton’s tea. A saucer plate was adorned with hefty, unused lemon wedges. 

 

When the bill came, she asked me to calculate the tip and sign her name and membership number. 

 

We walked past the bar to leave, and an elderly jazz ensemble was setting up in the corner. 

 

Mom handed the young valet her ticket stub. He hustled away. 

 

The three of us waited at the front. Dark now, the air smelled faintly of gasoline and seaweed. 

 

No one spoke, like we were waiting for someone to tell us what to say.

 

The valet pulled Mom’s mahogany-colored Porsche Cayenne around. He was exiting the car when another man–very drunk–stumbled from somewhere at the side of the restaurant and came between us. From the car’s headlights, I saw that the man’s lip was bleeding. 

 

We recognized each other from Shark Island, as in, I’ll see you at Shark Island, and in a surprised greeting he said: “What the fuck!” 

 

The valet, clearly alarmed, explained that the man–I’ll name him Joe–had recently been fired. He called to the other valet to get help, saying something like–Oh God, he’s back, oh shit, hurry.

 

Ignoring the commotion, Joe seemed intent to discuss AA’s shortcomings with me. I explained that we were just leaving, and that now wasn’t the time. 

 

Joe looked at me sadly and with great confusion, as if trying to manage and somehow articulate the thousands of thoughts and emotions rotating inside of him. “Nah,” is what he came up with, shaking his head. “Nah–nah, no, no, no.” 

 

He paused. With great vigor, he scratched the back of his head with both hands, further disrupting his hair.

 

The valet and two kitchen workers emerged and moved toward him. 

 

He side-eyed them and yelled that their boss was a dickhead and that they all knew it, and that all bosses were dickheads, it was all fucked up, and that the best thing was to fuck them before they fucked you. 

 

Before he ran off and disappeared into the night, his attention returned to me. With a glimmer of our former camaraderie and a clear fondness, he encouraged that I “get the fuck out of this soul-sucking place.” 

Raised in Orange County, Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four, The Little Brother, and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. A second story collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow, arrived in 2018. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program.

Victoria_Patterson_Portrait_THN_001.jpg