Taylor let go of Dwayne’s hand and stepped back, making way for Phaedra.
“Here you are, Dwayne. Cheeseburger straight off the grill, no ketchup. So sorry,” Phaedra said, louder than necessary.
She put her body between Dwayne and me, and I took another step back.
“How does that taste? Better?” she asked.
He took a bite. Closing his eyes, he chewed like a wild animal, bread and a piece of onion falling from his mouth. “Yes. Took you long enough.”
Phaedra motioned for me to get busy, and she shot Taylor a look, but I wasn’t sure what it meant.
I escorted Taylor back to his table. He was sitting alone this time.
“Yes, I’m fine,” I said. “What can I get you to drink?”
“I’ll have one of your famous Cherry Cokes, please.”
“Coming right up,” I said through my teeth.
“Hey,” he said, tapping the bottom of my elbow before I took a step, “are you mad?”
I paused, glancing over at Dwayne. “I had it covered.”
“So, you didn’t need to step in,” I hissed.
“Stay out of my business. I don’t need your help. Ever.”
He relaxed back in his chair, unfazed. “Okay.”
I could feel him watching me as I made my way to the drink station.
“I’m sorry,” I said, stopping at the author’s table. “What can I get you to drink?”
She shook her head, her eyes bright. “This is the most fun I’ve had in weeks. I’ll have an orange juice.”
“I’ll have the mango sunrise,” her assistant said.
I nodded and continued my trek. Dwayne held out his cup in front of me, and I plowed through it, spilling tea all over him and me.
Instinctively, I raised my hands, palms out, and stopped on my tiptoes even though it was already too late. “Oh my gosh, I’ll get you another one right away.”
“Goddamn it, you bitch!” he yelled at the same time. His chair complained against the tiled floor as he stood, towering over me.
“All right, now, you’ve pissed me off.” Taylor’s strained voice carried from his seat across the room.
In the next moment, he was next to me. He put Dwayne into a headlock and guided him toward the door.
Each word was mixed with Dwayne’s protests.
Everyone in the room was frozen, staring at Dwayne flailing his arms and trying to push Taylor back but to no avail.
I covered my mouth, and Kirby watched helplessly from her podium. Just before Taylor made it through the door, Phaedra blew her famous two-fingers-in-the-mouth whistle, one that could be heard even in the high school football stadium full of people. I winced at the shrill noise.
The room was silent. Both Chuck and Hector were staring from the window. Dwayne stopped struggling, and Taylor released his neck.
“No one throws my customers out but me!” She marched over to Dwayne, narrowing her eyes. “Did you just verbally abuse my server?”
“She spilled my fucking tea all over me!” Dwayne said, pointing at me.
“This is a family-friendly establishment, and we do not say fuck!” Phaedra said, practically yelling the last part. “Come back when you get some manners, Dwayne!” She turned. “You know what? Not even then!” She looked to Taylor. “Take the trash out, kid.”
Taylor crossed his arms, glowering. Dwayne didn’t put up a fight. Instead, he walked out, ashamed.
Phaedra faced the rest of the café with a bright smile. “Does anyone need anything?”
Most people shook their heads. The author and assistant sat silently, looking so gleeful that I thought they would break into applause at any moment.
Kirby followed me. “Whoa. Shit, that was hot,” she said, turning her back to the side of the room where Taylor was. “Are you rethinking your plan to kick him to the curb before he’s even on it?”
“Yes,” I said, making the worst Cherry Coke ever. I took the cup around the bar and marched it over to him before setting it hard onto his table.
Taylor looked amused, which only made me angrier.
“I need to cancel tonight,” I said.
“Did you forget about a prior engagement?” he asked.
“Family emergency that can wait until you’re off work?”
“Then why are you canceling?”
“Yes,” I said through my teeth, trying to keep my voice down. “You can’t just manhandle our customers like that.”
“I just did.” He leaned back, too pleased with himself. “Didn’t you hear your boss? She told me to.”
I snarled my lip, disgusted. “And you enjoyed it. Because you’re a bully. I don’t go out with bullies.”
“You heard me.” Taylor crossed his arms, the polar opposite of annoyed, offended, or angry.
I had hoped my public rejection would rob him of that smug smile. “Then why are you smiling?”
He touched his thumb to his nose, the muscles in his arm flexing as he did so. “I think you’ll change your mind.”
I took a step and kept my voice low as I said, “Not even if I wanted to, and at this point, I certainly do not.” I spun around and minded my tables.
The pace picked up as the afternoon wore on, and when it was time to check on Taylor’s table, I noticed he was gone, a twenty-dollar bill left behind. I held it up. He’d only ordered the crappy Cherry Coke, so he’d left a seventeen-dollar tip.
I swallowed back my surprise and appreciation and shoved the money into my apron before clearing his table. I took the cup to Hector and then washed my hands.
“Do you think maybe you were a little harsh?” Chuck asked.
“He’s a jerk. I told him I had it handled. He made a huge scene.”
He waved me away. “Dwayne deserved it. Phaedra’s been wanting to kick him out of here for years. Right before you started, he turned over a table.”
The sprayer silenced, and Hector spoke, “That’s not like Mrs. Phaedra to let someone do that and keep coming back.”
Chuck shrugged. “He hasn’t always been like that. His wife left him a few years back. He started drinking all the time. Phaedra’s put up with his tantrums because she felt sorry for him, I guess.”
“And you don’t think Taylor’s a bully for throwing him out like that?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I’ve daydreamed about doing that same thing.”
“But she’s your wife. You’d just be protecting her honor. I get that,” I said.
He pressed his lips together. “You’re right, but you’re wrong.”
“I don’t think that Taylor kid is looking for anything easy. Just the opposite. And I think he knows he’s found it.”