Georgia still moves at great speeds, talks too fast, spills secrets as often as the tiny plastic cups of tartar sauce that dress the fried fish as it flies from the kitchen. Steaming heaps of haddock, clams, golden scallop nuggets and one, two sprigs of fresh parsley. These are family recipes all, family business, and Georgia tends her post at The Crab Shack with the sharp eye of a ship’s captain and the intuitive gut-love of a mother. They find her six days a week, twelve hours a day, their prodigal daughter returned, and she feeds them. The clientele is nearly all local, loyal, as attached to the woman who runs the place as they are to the grease bed of shucked oysters and oversized onion rings. Her brother, Abram, does the cooking along with Georgia’s two grown sons, Michael and Colin. For the four years I spent at the University of New Hampshire, I've been their only waitress – a feckless college kid with graceless speed.
Georgia left Portsmouth, New Hampshire for the first time at twenty, moved to Reno, Nevada and married Tim Tally, giving birth to two boys within a year and a half. This was 1983 and Georgia had been waiting tables at her parents’ restaurant since she was twelve and precocious, a brown bobble of curls and courtesy – a small-town pride and joy. She fed them and they missed her.
Georgia is a recovering methamphetamine addict. At the time of my employment, she had been clean for eleven years.
“I was one of those housewives that vacuumed for hours, zipping around like a wind-up toy. You know the kind,” she said.
But I didn’t, could not imagine hours of vacuuming. Her graying dark hair came loose from the ponytail, tight curls floating down her back, coating the white collared shirt in stray strands. She was always losing hairs, pens, thoughts. This is what we did at night after long shifts. I ate a salad with scallops and had a glass of wine. Georgia didn't drink, but she talked and smoked pot and talked.
“I was addicted to meth for twelve years,” she said one night.
She swept one hand over the table, wiping bits of fried breading onto the floor. Her hands were swollen, masculine, knuckles large and chapped, nails bitten into straight lines.
“Tim Tally worked long days,” she said, “came home, fucked me, went to bed after four glasses of Jack Daniels. I was up all night doing bumps, baking peanut butter cookies, throwing them out and starting over, rocking babies back to sleep.”
He was always "Tim Tally." Never just "Tim" or "Timothy" or "Mr. Tally." I pictured him ruddy-faced and bowlegged and donning a suede cowboy hat.
Georgia has been back in Portsmouth for ten years, having answered the request of her brother, Abram, and her Greek Orthodox parents. They had pleaded with their recovering daughter to bring their grandsons home, to leave that Tim Tally and his drugs, that barren soil and those wasted, amoral southwesterners. They had sucked her in, fed on her “good, Greek brain, her healthy Mediterranean spirit. Come home, Georgia. Come home and help your brother in the restaurant.” Eventually, she did - a slow, medicated flight over a shifting American landscape, greens and browns and beige melting together and then apart, as if pulled by a centrifuge. She thought those magnificent colors were as close to God as she would ever get. She watched with her forehead pressed to the small rectangular window and fielded tugs from small boys who climbed over their mother’s lap, their little restless fingers wound tightly into her mass of curly hair. She was thirty-eight and had been sober for nearly a year.
During the four years of my tenure, the routine at The Crab Shack rarely changed. On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, I came in for a few hours after my classes to work the dinner shift and returned on weekend mornings to work lunch. Her sons, both in their early twenties now, clanged around in the kitchen until well after the last customers were gone and the tables reset. They scrubbed pots and scraped the shimmery flakes of fish skin from the cutting boards, Led Zeppelin or Neil Young on an old boom box. On the few nights when I left alone through the darkened kitchen, the moon slid through the open door and caught on the stray scales scattered over every surface like silver drift snow. In the stark light of day, though, they were mostly invisible. Usually, the dining room disappeared when Abram flipped the last light switch.
“Get your purse from the office. I’m locking up,” Georgia would say, and then evaporate (or so it seemed) through the heavy swinging doors and into the kitchen’s blinding lights and cold steel fluorescence. She would share a quick joint with her son, Michael, and then stomp down the stairs and into the office.
“Smoke 'em if you got 'em!” she might yell out.
In the mornings, we started again. I vacuumed without enthusiasm and Georgia set the tables with blue paper placemats and bendable silverware, water glasses still warm from the dishwasher. She buffed each one before setting it down on the top right corner of the placemat. She filled salt and pepper shakers to the tip top and ran a damp rag over dustless window sills. Downstairs, Michael slipped cans of Bud or Bud Light into his jacket pocket to have during his lunch break and occasionally I found a warm Sam Adams stuffed into my purse at the end of the night. This I would drink gratefully during my walk home.
At ten to eleven every morning, Frank Hurley was always at the door waiting for Georgia to flip the sign and let him in.
“Mr. Hurley, how are you?” Georgia said.
She smiled and strode over to where the old man was standing, one leg still outside. He wavered slightly as he dragged one heavy foot through the door. She took his arm and helped him to his table, always number five, always the first to arrive on a Saturday. He threw his jacket into the booth and slid to the wall next to the window so he could watch for his brother. I came to know the idiosyncrasies of so many customers. I worked five days a week, and the customers at The Crab Shack became as comfortable and predictable as the woman who feeds them. Georgia knows all of their stories, when wives died and children graduated, when jobs were lost and legs broken, mortgages paid in full, their favorite sexual appetites, and the salad dressings they prefer. She brought the old man his cranberry tea. He sipped tentatively for an hour until exactly noon when his brother, Charlie, finally arrived, cane in hand. Charlie had a thin wash of white hair that barely concealed his freckled scalp and the scabs from run-ins with door frames. Though Charlie is younger than Frank, he looked much older. He spent his life scraping asbestos from the peeling walls and crumbling ceilings of tenement apartments in Boston.
While her parents are in Florida, six months of every year, Georgia sleeps in their bed, watches movies on cable television (she doesn’t have cable in her own apartment), works six days of every week and never goes out. She talks on the phone to her only friend, Mitch, who still lives alone in Arizona and keeps various shotguns hidden in his empty mansion. Georgia’s parents’ house is midway between Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Kittery, Maine and Georgia and the boys share an apartment below the main house where her parents live. Michael and Colin are grateful when their mother stays upstairs. They drink beers together and arrive at work early or right on time. They, too, never go out. They are sweet and courteous and often step out from the kitchen to shake hands and say hellos, first wiping their fingers on tattered white aprons.
“How’d they end up so normal?” Georgia wondered one night, staring at the maroon wall that separates the dining room from the kitchen where they scrubbed black grime from the last pots and pans, their aprons soaked through with grease and butter and the liquefied fat from salmon fillets.
Both boys are handsome, though Colin is the better looking of the two. He dates often, unlike his older brother, Michael, whose one brown eye floats away lazily if he's not paying attention or if he's paying too much attention. They are dark-haired and skinny and smile easily. They call Georgia "Mommy" without any hint of embarrassment and sneak her kisses when it's not too busy.
“I never had big goals," said Georgia. “I just always wanted to be a mother, ever since I was a little girl. That’s it. I just wanted to be a mother.”
“And now you are,” I said.
“People need me. It feels good to be needed," she said.
I asked her if being needed made her happy. She said she thought she was as happy as she’d ever get. She folded a placemat into a paper airplane and added it to the collection next to the register. Each one was different. Some had colored wings, red or blue crayon designs, or little pilots that looked like Martians.
“I feel just like a teenager sometimes. Like they should be raising me,” she said softly.
She gestured toward the kitchen where her boys were cleaning up. Since she began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, Georgia learned that drugs like meth stunt you emotionally.
“That’s why I act like I’m twenty,” she said. “You’re left just where you were when you took to the drug.”
I asked her how a twenty-year-old could run a successful restaurant, raise two great kids, tend to a small town like the local therapist, or mayor.
“Well, what else?” she said, as if the script wasn’t hers to rewrite.
The boys stumbled out from the kitchen and tossed their dirty aprons onto the counter, sliding into the booth next to Georgia and me. She patted their chests and kissed each cheek as they grinned and leaned away, tipping back full beers and picking at their fingernails.
“Up,” she said, and they slid out of the booth so Georgia could make them salads and chicken fingers tossed with spicy buffalo sauce, her own secret recipe.
They ate without looking up. Georgia puffed on her bowl of pot and smiled at them. The dishwasher finally stopped its clacking.
The last time I saw Georgia was the day she fired me. She left me a clipped message on my answering machine after I overslept and missed our first staff meeting. I was devastated, inconsolable. I ran the twelve blocks down to The Crab Shack in just my sweatpants and a t-shirt. It was the middle of February and I remember the hairs on my arms standing straight up as I ran, my shoelaces slapping against the white cement sidewalks. When I burst into the restaurant, Georgia was at the register and I could see Abram peeking out from the kitchen, his hand hovering over a plate of pink uncooked fish. I looked at Georgia and we both started to cry -- ugly, choking sounds that startled the customers. She took off, slamming the kitchen door behind her. I gave chase. She had been my friend and I felt betrayed. I was also embarrassed for missing the meeting and this made me cry harder, like a child who falls off a chair and cries from humiliation rather than pain. Inside the kitchen, Michael caught my arm while Georgia slipped out the back door. I knew she regretted her decision and I wanted to grab her shoulders and make her say so, hold her thick hair in my fist and force a confession, demand her love, steal her good graces. I was that kind of kid. I couldn't stand to be disliked and I'd never before confronted anyone about anything.
"She feels like she's losing control," Michael said to me. "She's making an example out of you. There's nothing we could say."
He was talking to me but staring at my chin, the one wayward eyeball bobbing helplessly toward the door. The lights flickered and Abram banged on the metal freezer to make them stop.
"She threatened to leave," Michael said.
He let go of me and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. "She wants to move to Arizona." He blinked rapidly several times in a row.
I remembered Georgia once telling me how the doctor had forbade Michael from ever drinking again. How he had told him that one more drink would kill him, a complication with his severe epilepsy, and how later Michael had stood outside the doctor's office slurping from a can of warm Budweiser he'd gotten from his trunk and kicking at the wall, beer foam sliding down his chin. Georgia had to drag him into the car and lock the doors. "Even then, he cracked the windshield and shook like a yearling all the way home," she'd whispered.
"We had to give her something," Michael said. "She needed to feel in control."
Truth is, I was never a very good waitress. I didn’t care much that Joe Ruggle liked his scallops well done, that Coach Warner likes his Diet Coke in a wine glass. Years later, I'll get fired from another restaurant for pouring the wrong year to a "very important" customer and decide to quit the industry for good. But Georgia pays attention to these details. They matter to her. “People come to The Crab Shack because they crave it," she said once. "It’s no fun satisfying a craving unless it’s just right. Besides, there are enough disappointments in life. You might as well have a good dinner.”
I closed my eyes. When I opened them again Michael was peeling a shrimp. I turned around and walked back through the entrance toward the front door. Mr. Hurley looked up from his plate of broiled haddock but I couldn't stop. As I was leaving, the door flew open from the wind and I heard the telephone ringing and ringing.
Jessica Hendry Nelson's memoir in essays, If Only You People Could Follow Directions (Counterpoint Press), was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program and the January 2014 Indies Next List by the American Booksellers' Association. Her work has been published in The Threepenny Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Crab Orchard Review, PANK, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and named a notable essay in Best American Essays, 2012. She lives in Burlington, Vermont, where she is a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, teaches at Burlington College, and serves as the Managing & Nonfiction Editor of Green Mountains Review. More information at jessicahnelson.com.