“Thanks for putting us up, Maggie,” called Karen, dunking a bag of Constant Comment tea in a squarish cup of hot water. Maggie was a little old, in Karen’s opinion, to be dressing like a stripper. But that was life at the Wonder Bar. Karen wondered why this bright woman had committed herself to such a dreadful career.
Maggie passed the kitchen table wearing only underpants, carrying a see-through blue blouse.
“Rick has contributed jack shit,” Karen said.
Rick’s rejoinder came from the den, where he was snoring.
“Go ahead say it,” Karen urged Maggie. “You think I made a mistake.”
“I don’t know,” Maggie muttered.
“I couldn’t hack the future here. I mean, are you kidding me? A lifetime on Console’s second shift? Answering help calls from men making three times my salary. Control Alt Delete, dudes, why call me? Please. Give me a break.”
She sipped tea. “Taylor, I mean, he’s a nice guy, wouldn’t hurt a fly, but you gotta admit he’s a dweeb, right?”
“I like him.” Maggie left out the fact that she occasionally fucked him.
“But would you want to marry him and then be dragged over to the East Side every Sunday for the ritual family dinner. His old man and his smoked meats. And the airplane talk! Jesus. Excruciating. Not to mention the daily grind, fifty weeks of night shifts, your two precious weeks off wasted on a boring island across the bay? You know me, you know my dream.”
“The Karen Cafe.”
“Just The Karen. Has more class that way.”
“Little sidewalk tables,” Maggie said, “just like in Paris.”
“Taylor killed that dream. He could have raised the money. His grandparents are loaded. His mother had a million bucks worth of real estate. But Mister Adventure take a risk? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Karen trailed Maggie into her bedroom.
Maggie and Karen talk. Rick snoozes.
“And then when his mother drowned, oh my God, I mean I’m sorry it happened and all, but he went into a total tailspin and it’s not like she was a saint. You know that, Maggie. She was notorious on Poke Island. The bar at Aunt Crabby’s? Yeah. You know, right?”
“Well, I’m not exactly a virgin nun.”
“Yeah, but Liz Sharp was married, supposedly. I think she had a thing for surf bums.”
Maggie worked into that transparent blouse, turned to the full-length mirror, began combing her hair. “If you believe the gossip, I guess.”
“I mean Taylor, he’s like an old man in a young body, he had no promise in him. And Rick comes back from Burning Man, and he’s like, I met these freaks from California…”
Karen flopped her hands to her sides in exasperation. “Okay, it hasn’t worked out yet, but still,Rick … We have a plan. It’s not dead. It just … needs … time.”
Maggie whirled on her. “Look in the mirror and tell me what you see.” She stepped out of the line of sight, and the mirror reflected only Karen. “I’ll tell you what I see. The charming funny little girl I used to babysit, all grown up but still under 30, a beautiful, curvy redhead, with a college degree …”
“… alive with wit and intelligence and … living in a car in California? With a sketchy man who’s never had a job?”
“It’s not a car, it’s a van,” Karen said, and looked toward the den and the sound of snoring.
“I’m driving to work,” Maggie said. “You want a ride?”
Karen rode alongside Maggie in a white Cadillac.
“This,” Karen said, “is not a Maggie car.”
“I’m leasing,” Maggie lied. “I just thought I’d try luxury for a few months. See how it makes me feel.”
Karen didn’t believe it. Maggie had a secret sugar daddy, it was pretty obvious. But who? Maybe the same sugar daddy who owned the Wonder Bar.
“Just as long as he keeps you in style,” Karen said.
They entered the Wonder via a dented steel door that had thwarted fourteen attempted burglaries. In the dim leaked-in morning light, Maggie stepped behind the bar. Karen sat on a stool, slumped like a barfly.
Maggie pulled a glass off the back bar.
“Kind of early, to start drinking aren’t we?” Karen said.
Maggie filled a beer glass with seltzer water and leaned over the bar. “Rehydrating,” she said. “It was a rough night. Okay, kid, let me have it. Short and sweet. Pretend I’m ten years old.”
Karen sighed. “There’s so much money in Silicon Valley. It’s the Promised Land out there. Nobody cooks at home. Everybody’s too busy getting rich.”
“Beehive stock options. They’re just dead digits right now, but there’s another round of VC in the works and…”
“I’m financially ten years old, remember?”
“It’s like a casino out there. You just gotta keep pulling the handle.”
“That sounds like Rick talking.”
“Can I confess something to you, Maggie? I know what Rick is. But I love him. I can’t help it.”
“Okay, back to the Karen Cafe.” Maggie sipped seltzer. “What’s Rick’s role in this dream?”
“He’s got these friends he met in the desert? They kind of have money they don’t know what to do with? If Rick and I get anything going, a taco stand, anything, it’d be like proof of concept, they’d have the money to build it out.” She spread her hands. “National. I’d be executive chef.”
“But for now you’re sleeping in your car.”
“Steve Jobs started in a garage.”
“Rick’s friends from Burning Man, by any chance did they make their money in the drug trade?”
Karen did not answer, because the answer was yes.
“You’re going to hate me,” Maggie said, “but you were a lot better off here, with Taylor. He’s a mama’s boy, but he’s sane. I think he’s still hung up on you. Think about it, Karen. Maybe a family is what you truly, secretly want.”
Karen swiveled the stool, pouted and stared out the window.
Teenage Maggie had met Karen when she was a five-year-old brat: witty, ill-tempered, charming and above all stubborn. Maggie figured every living soul had made at least one Big Mistake, and for Karen that was Rick. Maggie couldn’t imagine what she saw in him. It would be just like Karen to make a bad choice and stick with it in attempt to prove herself right.
“You’re wrong, Maggie,” Karen said. “Not Taylor, okay? I couldn’t sentence myself to a lifetime in the Burns family prison. His dad creeps me out. It was always apparent to me that Mom and Dad Burns politely despised one another. Don’t hate me now, but I was already thinking of an exit plan when his mom disappeared. I knew there’d be an inheritance. I thought, well, this is a really sad thing, but maybe some good can come out of it. Maybe that’s our seed money. Maybe Taylor and I could open a restaurant.”
Maggie looked at her, beginning to wonder.
“You see, my own cafe, that would have been something for me, because everything else was about Taylor Burns. His family. His big job. His condo. What was I? Scrap Yard Slater, just what they called me in high school. When his mom went missing, I knew she was dead, adults don’t just go missing, Maggie. I thought, well, here we go, Taylor inherits that weedy lot on Poke Island and we’ll sell it for a million, we’ll get out of this crap hole. I was thinking, Portland, Seattle, you know, where there’s some hope of life. Shipwreck Bay? It’s a fucking hot dog stand.”
In Maggie’s brain, the synapses began firing. She said: “But as long as Liz was just missing … no body, no inheritance.”
Karen bit her lip and shook her head. “It was fucked up.”
“And you were already making it with Rick, right?”
“The whole thing … well, you know how it happened.”
Two cleaning ladies pushed in the rear door, called “Buena, buena,” and the older one propped open the restroom doors while the teenager headed for the janitor’s closet. Maggie, remembering that she was behind in paying them, headed toward the office to unlock the safe.
As she crossed the bar room she mused: So Karen Slater had a dream and Liz Sharp stood in the way. Liz’s death would send a wad of money into Taylor’s pockets. When exactly, Maggie found herself wondering, did Karen first hook upwith Rick Lowe, a man who was capable of just about anything?
Rising from in front of the safe, cash in her hands, Maggie wondered: Karen Slater, honey, did that loser talk you into doing something evil?