Always remember to tip your waitress is the punchline to a joke I don’t remember. I’m walking out of the arena and everyone is laughing. The comedian, a sweaty image of a man prancing back and forth on stage, says it; always remember to tip your waitress. I’m walking towards the neon exit sign, everyone’s laughing and I just can’t figure it out.
The temperature outside is the cold of winter and everyone quickly zips up their coats as if they are embarrassed about their bodies. “Awfully cold for June,” a woman next to me says. She has hair like the women I’ve seen in American movies set in the fifties.
She turns to look at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “And it’s meant to be summer time.”
Her smile is curvaceous and runs from cheek to cheek. Everyone else ignored her comment and I feel unlike all the other people here who stand and watch their smoke melt in the air. “I suppose June is technically in the summer,” she says, and starts picking bits of food out of her teeth.
“It definitely is.”
A silence washes over us and I am unsure if it is because we are through talking about seasonal weather or if my last remark sounded rude. I think about this and watch her fish around her teeth as if she is looking for treasure.
“I’m Julianne,” she says as she extends her teeth-picking hand for a greeting.
“Malcolm.” I put my other hand out so I don’t have to touch her leftovers.
“Nice to meet you, Malcolm.”
“And you too, Julie.”
“Julianne,” she says, correcting me.
“Could your parents not make up their minds? A tough choice between Julie or Anne?” I make sure my tone tells her I’m kidding.
She stares with oddly bland brown eyes and her facial expression doesn’t change. Like she was struggling with a math problem. She is trying to work me out.
“Wasn’t the comedian riveting, Malcolm?” she says.
The realisation she is here alone is a sudden one. It makes me uncomfortable to think that I’m having a conversation with a middle age women who attends these things on her own. “Did you come here on your own, Malcolm?” she asks. Fuck, me too: middle aged, alone. Except I can only remember the punchline, not the joke: Always remember to tip your waitress.
The taxi rink is filled with standees like me and Julianne. Passers-by who spend the night out and want to drift home. The taxis roll forward in a tidy single file as if they are a line of schoolchildren waiting to have their picture taken. Still, me and Julianne are guarding the back of the queue.
The journey isn’t far but transport costs money, which is a privilege for me, especially after buying a ticket for the show. I open my wallet as if it were a rare book and begin counting what I have. It’s enough to get me the bulk of the way.
A photograph falls from my wallet and is cocooned in a puddle on the floor. Julianne bends down to pick it up and stares at it for a long time. “Is this your wife and child, Malcolm?” she says. I don’t like how often she says my name, like we’ve been friends a long time.
“Yes,” I say. “They were.”
“What are they called?” she asks, still looking at the photo
Does the past tense mean nothing to this woman?
“Shelly,” I say. “And Paul.” A car horn exhales in the background and the noise echoes through the street like wind.
“Malcolm, are you okay?”
“You’re crying,” she says and rests her mouth-fishing hand on my shoulder.
“It is the rain.”
“It’s not raining.”
Silence once again.
We stand together a while and I think about my wife. By the way Julianne’s eyes study the buildings in the distance I get the impression she is as well.
“What happened to your family?” She says this without looking at me. I don’t look at her. As if it’s one of those conversations that happens in a car so we don’t have to face each other.
A taxi pulls up and waits in front like a loyal dog. Me and Julianne watch it together. A child runs across the street and forces a car to brake sharply. A child almost gets hit by a car and me and Julianne are still staring at this cab.
The passenger-side window rolls down. “Hey, lady, you getting in?” The driver says.
Julianne takes hold of my hand and puts her other hand on top of the taxi as she climbs in. I’m not sure if she is steadying herself on me or keeping the touch as a display of affection.
“Goodbye, Malcolm,” she says. The door shuts and the window drops down. “Speak soon.”
“Yes, Julianne,” I say, knowing we have no way of keeping in touch. “Speak soon.”
Tears run down my face like they are scared of my eyes and I watch the taxi drive off into the distance and wish I could follow it.
“Mate, you jumping in?” Another taxi has pulled up. I look around and nobody else is here.
I climb in the front next to the driver and tell him where I want to go. We head off down the main road. The sky is black and there are lots of other cars on the road but I scan them all for Julianne until the notion becomes hopeless and I stop trying.
“You were at that comedy thing?” He asks.
“How was it?”
Always remember to tip your waitress. The joke comes back to me, my temporary amnesia restored. Except, it wasn’t a joke at all. There I was, staring into my wallet at the picture of my family while everyone around me was laughing. “It’s the end of the night folks,” the comedian says as he puts his microphone back onto the stand. “Have a good night and always remember to tip your waitress.”
I’m on my way back to the home where my family used to live. The prospect of having a good night is funny. I laugh.
Always remember to tip your waitress.
“Yeah, it was,” I say as we carry on driving. Have a good night and always remember to tip your waitress. I laugh all the way home.
Jay Slayton-Joslin is a writer from the London suburb of Beaconsfield, England. His work has appeared in online journals such as Short, Fast, and Deadly, Leodegraunce and Postcard Shorts. He work has also been published in the print anthology In Search Of A City: Los Angeles In 1,000 Words (Thunderdome Press). Links to his stories, as well as author interviews he has conducted, can be found on his website: www.jayslaytonjoslin.com.