One of the things he loves about his cousin is her out-of-the-box, unique approach to life, novel things to try and novel places to go, most often spurned on by reviews she’s read in the Post or on the Web, especially the food and drink reviews. And lately their get-togethers coincidentally happen when their respective lives change, either signaling what’s ready, what will be, a harbinger, or what has been, what has happened, a celebration. Rachel invited Mikey to a Mad Men–themed party in a former dry-goods warehouse in Falls Church, where, in the middle of Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” her then-boyfriend, now fiancé, proposed to her on one knee. Last month, just before Mikey was laid off from his job, it was One-Eyed Billy’s near the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, serving over thirty microbrews, including Barack’s Not Quite Bock with its floral, dry, bitter hops; complexity of bready malt flavors; hints of banana and cloves and honey swirling in dark amber; and pairing well with goat’s milk cheese, roast chicken, and Mexican food. And in September when they got together before Rachel went off to her first real-world job working for a private consulting firm near Pentagon City, she and Mikey ate dinner at The Shire, a Tolkien-themed restaurant and pub, complete with a map of Middle Earth and compass in the bottom right corner, under which lay the words There and Back Again gilded in calligraphy on a tan-green scroll, Smaug flapping his thorny wings in the distance behind the mountains, all hand-painted on the main wall upstairs, the menu chock full of beer from local breweries, including an oatmeal stout from One-Eyed Billy’s, wild-game meats, and multi-colored starches, as well as lasagna, pizza, and chicken nuggets for the “real hobbits.”
So today, on this sunny Sunday in April, the first after a series of heavy spring rains that, along with the slow melting of a recent snowstorm, keeping the sky grey, the flowers and cherry blossoms delayed, and the ground soaked, they are off to one of DC’s favorite drag-queen brunches at Heads and Tails, an open-air sports bar and grill for open-minded people of all walks of life. Mikey is ready for anything, and the more they walk in the light that is charging the morning air, the clouds having moved on, the more he’s pulled into it, a hamster stepping into a wheel.
Brunch in the District has become cutthroat, a Darwinian mode of survival for many of the establishments, as competition and the number of restaurants serving brunch have multiplied over the past few years, and specialty brunches, such as rustic French countryside, Cali fusion, or surf-and-turf, have started to emerge as brunch offshoots scrapping their way to the top. Comfort food and home-style cooking to signal the end of the weekend and to usher in the start of the new workweek isn’t enough anymore, and drag-themed brunches have become the most talked-about and most popular destinations. But H&T has decided to turn it up a notch: The ladies perform and serve, and the positive online reviews are increasing as word spreads about this unique twist. According to Yelp, it’s the best place for laughs, memories, and pie. “A bit pricey,” Katey L. from Dorchester, MA, reviewed, giving it four stars on her trip earlier this year, noting the $45/person reservation for brunch, “but so worth the free first round of mimosas. And the ladies are ah-ma-zing. I loved Madonna, she brought back so many memories of my childhood, and I loved Queen Mary, the only one who sang Broadway classics. She said she ‘blew in’ from Long Beach. LOL. Deffo check it out if you get the chance. Will be back for sure.”
Situated on a corner a few blocks down from a Metro stop, with its neon purple and yellow sign, upstairs outdoor deck, bright white, tear-shaped lights strung from the large canvas canopy’s posts, white painted exterior with exposed red brick and the old rafters from the days when it was a salon in the mid-1800s for DC’s intellectuals, the restaurant’s glass front bustles with activity and glows along the street’s homeless population and LEED-approved buildings starting to pop up between the Afro-Caribbean bookstore, Syrian grocer, and Eat Your Greens farm-to-table salad shop, the second location in the metro area.
Mikey pauses a little longer in the light, feeling it cling to him. He stops outside the heavy oak front door to look at some fliers next to the menu and drink list, both of which are affixed to the outside wall. The Federal Triangle Triangles Sports Club and DC Roadrunners have partnered for a training program for all runners at all stages for a July 4th 10K. DC United midfielder Bart Gomez and goalkeeper John Jordan will be there signing autographs after the home opener on April 11th, and on May 24th, both Jane Ire and Mad Maxie Pad from Capitol Headache Roller Girls of the Atlantic Division will be manning a table out front, providing information, answering questions, and promoting the All-American Roller Girls League. And Don’t Forget Our Delicious Apple Lime Pie w/ Real Key West Limes says the front door’s broad neon-green-and-yellow-letter banner flapping in the wind under the American, District of Columbia, and rainbow flags, all three translucent with the morning light shining through and onto the damp road and the metal grates of the gutters rumbling with thaw.
In they go: Rachel; her fiancé Captain Patrick, Iraq War vet finishing his undergrad degree at American U; Sarah, grad student in international affairs at Georgetown and Rachel’s friend from a summer internship at Dolenz & Hill; and lagging behind but hoping for a real tasty treat this morning, Mikey, Mike, Michael Dennis Tucchi, second-gen Italian-American, hoops fanatic, having lived, breathed, and played basketball for the majority of this life, often being the only Caucasian on a team. Nicknames included White Mikey, M-Dud, and No Game. He had one semi-serious girlfriend between the ages of seventeen and eighteen: Bethany Abrams, Jewish princess. Great hair and body, super smart, but big nose, he always thought of her. Mikey told her he loved her during the last slow dance at the senior prom. Dru Hill’s “These Are the Times.” He never saw her again after she went out of state to Princeton, but that didn’t matter, and neither did her nose in that dress she wore. And today, pushing thirty-five and not exactly dangerously obese, but medically overweight, certainly not zipping around life with lean muscle mass, stuck like a ball between the rim and the backboard, Mikey is four months into his Thanksgiving announcement that he and Melinda have separated, which didn’t surprise his mother, and that he now earns slightly above minimum wage as a sales associate hanging and folding, folding and hanging, and helping customers make cool artistic decisions at Urban Outfitters after a company-wide layoff at BridgeOver, a startup software company in NoVa’s tech corridor that will continue to grow without Michael Tucchi’s computer science degree and three-fourths of the developer department. His supervisor, who maintained his position, helped fuel Mikey’s exit with an increasing concern that Mikey was easily distracted, that a three-step process, mediated by HR, of (1) having Mikey take initiative (“own it,” the report encouraged) and self-track his work vs. personal (i.e., Internet) time; if this didn’t rectify the situation, then (2) having this time automatically monitored by IT; and as a final tactic, (3) removing Internet connection all together from Mikey’s computer did not resolve Mikey’s focus or to create, as Bob Huggins wrote in last quarter’s write-up, “a serious atmosphere of sacredness and ritual at Michael’s work station.” Mikey wouldn’t have put it that way, and after those words sunk their stingers in for a few below-freezing days, he understood it but still didn’t appreciate that Bob threw Mikey under a bus that Bob was riding, helped motor it towards and flatten Mikey, and then drove off into the sunset, paycheck and job and stock options firmly in hand.
So after hitting this series of new lows, he’s doing everything he can to make his life feel that it’s an open suitcase waiting to be filled again with new journeys, the two halves snapped shut, and carried away in another direction, preferably back up, but leveled out at the very least. This is also draining for him, and having hit play again on his once-paused Catholicism, all the prayers and hopes and pleas and asking God or the saints or even the search engines and message boards on CareerBuilder.com tire him out, so much so that he’s reached a point of enjoying what he cannot change at the moment, that he can’t fix everything all at once. Besides, adulthood for Mikey has remained like a giant magnet swinging between his actual life on one side and the heap of movies and sitcoms and pop culture on the other side; picking up scraps from each side as it oscillates; and solidifying fictional and nonfictional events into one giant mass of images, characters, outcomes, and songs.
What’s left of Mikey’s receding hair is brushed back, limbs of dark chestnut brown here and there, a once-thick forest peeking through flesh-colored fog, and he’s a little grumpy this morning, partly because of his hangover. A few hours of solo time after closing the store and five Presidente margaritas at Chili’s did him in last night. The skillet-fresh fajitas and warm tortilla chips with gauc did not soak up anything in the añejo tequila–soaked vat that quickly became his stomach. His liver and sludge-filled intestines feel hand-twisted like a balloon animal, and he’s hoping this morning’s nosh and entertainment will lift his spirits. The warm, bright light flooding the waiting area of the restaurant seems to be helping.
But he’s mainly grumpy over a text from Sean Weinman, his longtime college pal and go-to buddy in their fantasy basketball league, who said that with OKC’s win last night over the Knicks and the triple-double put up by Durant moves Wein-n-Dine81 past WarEagleInTO for the current standings. Booyah! says the text. How’s first place feel? Just ask me. Mikey’s dry tongue claps on the bottom of his dry mouth and behind his fuzzy, dry teeth. Mikey starts to text back, but Sean is beating him to it, the ellipsis bubbling in the bottom left of Mikey’s phone. You talk to Mel this wknd? bursts the next line, which is fine on one hand because Mikey has always confided his marital and personal joys, fears, and problems with Sean ever since they roomed together at Maryland and came close to defeating Kappa Sig at the beer pong tournament two years in a row, the two years they had to work at Beltway Plaza Mall in College Park after graduating and lived across the street from the frat.
Mikey grimaces at the Melinda question before re-texting. No. She said she was ‘in a mood’ w/ the divorce option but willng to talk “soon” bc I’m a really good example of a country song right now.
Dude, the phone buzzes back, we got that couch in the b’ment. Just say when, Im your huckleberry
will think about it, Mikey replies. R wants me out but wont say.
She still hot. Legal in the South, Sean quickly texts.
GI Joe wants me out like yesterday
ROFL hang in there
In addition to the framed photos of Heads and Tails’ ladies and patrons enjoying a birthday or brunch or a Nats or Orioles game, the interior décor is heavy on sports memorabilia and flat-screen televisions, and all the plastic and glass surfaces sparkle with the morning light, which, as the day has lengthened, has become the centerpiece, a sun in the middle of the room around which the crowd orbits.
The pager in Rachel’s hand rumbles and twinkles, and the greeter leads to them to a long table angled along the main floor. “Your server will be here soon,” she says, as she turns back towards the front door where, seconds later, a group of six has arrived, more behind them.
Several tables are full, and the barkeep is prepping an assembly line of mimosas, pouring OJ, pouring champagne, topping off the glasses with tiny floral umbrellas. Mikey looks around and is, at first, disappointed, because the young Asian woman who greeted and showed them to their table wore a lot of foundation on her face but was not in drag. But then he sees Marilyn Monroe sauntering up to the bar and loading her tray with a mimosa, two bloodys with celery stalks floating inside, and an Irish coffee, and he is pleased. Beyoncé makes her way to the chrome counter separating the dining area from the flame-lit kitchen. She leans on the counter and throws her hands up in the air, one of them gripping an order ticket. “Come on,” she exasperates to the short-order cook re-reading the ticket and shaking his head, steam rising in front of him.
Mikey watches Sarah bend over a chair to pull it out, her empire waist pushing up and expanding her cleavage, and from underneath her blue-smoke eye-shadow, the grad student catches him looking at her two bulges. He smiles, blushing, “Yeah, Sunday brunch,” he croons in a raspy voice and says to her, “I’m technically still married.” By that point his eyes have at least reached hers, and he’s aware that last night’s festivities remain camping out on his tongue and no amount of mint toothpaste or mouthwash could dissolve the odor drifting towards Sarah’s smooth, blunt face. The brunette with square-frame glasses nods, lifting the pencil-eraser-sized mole on her chin into the morning light, a humpback whale coming up for air, and makes a slight snarl on the left side of her mouth. Quickly covering her upper torso with her red sweater, standing up, and moving towards another empty seat, she sits back down, further from Mikey, scoots towards the table, turns to Rachel, her shoulder and arm blocking any and all space between Mikey and her, and asks if she’s heard about Lynanne’s news that Raytheon not only renewed her analyst contract but also promoted her. “No, I haven’t,” Rachel responds, her eyes opening wider as she leans closer to Sarah, but then her eyes give Mikey a look of reproach baked inside disappointment. “She did, so awesome too,” Sarah chimes.
As silverware clings on plates and Liza Minelli and Bette Midler appear at two tables on the other side of the room, the fog in Mikey’s head breaks apart a little more, and the bits of broken-up sentience floating in his head float a little closer together, touching just enough for him to realize he’s now directly across the table from Captain Patrick Ochester, six-feet tall, hazel eyes, dirty blonde, twelve percent body fat. Mikey sighs, assuming where and how this’ll end, but his attitude is picked back up by the arrival of the pint-size drink of Diana Ross, welcoming them all and saying she’ll be their server for the first half of brunch, but following that, she and the other ladies will be performing.
Mikey sits up straight when Ms. Ross hands him a menu and tells the table about today’s brunch specials. “How about huevos?” Mikey asks, smirking and hoping for a witty reply.
“Honey,” Ms. Ross exhales, “have we got huevos…rancheros, that is,” and Ms. Ross spins in a tightly wrapped ball of purple sequins towards the coffee pot that her Crossfit-defined arms cradle. “Coffee?” she asks, and all of them say yes to this. “Room for cream? I’ll top you off. Just say when,” she winks at Mikey, who smiles back, blushing and huddling over his menu and downing his first mug.
As Rachel and Sarah pass some breakfast ideas back and forth between them, the Captain drowns himself in the three-tiered menu handed to him by Ms. Ross. Cutting through the eggs, sweets, specialties, a la carte, gluten-free and vegan options and knowing exactly what he wants (2 x 2 x 2), Mike closes his mouth and tries being chipper with fake small talk. “So…Pat…what’s new?” He asks this but then the synapses in his brain reach full connection, firing one clean shot before relaxing again under the weight of residual alcohol and a douse of mimosa, and he realizes he lives with the guy who’s engaged to his cousin, thanks to whom he is not homeless. “I mean, since you know…school or whatever…this week,” his voice fades into a mumble.
The Captain keeps his hazel eyes scanning each line item. After a few seconds, reaching the lower part of the menu, he scratches his baby-face. “Not…too…much,” his staccato breath breaks apart each word. “I had that paper I had to write…turned it in Friday afternoon.”
“Right…” Mike perks up, leaning into the Captain’s hospitable reply and the image popping into Mikey’s head of the Captain riding his official Le Tour, all-carbon Felt on the way to campus in order to drop of this research paper before hitting the road for a fifty-kilometer bike ride before dinner. “Got it all done, huh?”
“Yes, sir, I did,” which the Captain says with more vocal force and rhythm, emphasizing “sir,” looking up at Mikey, and slapping the menu shut. “Hard work pays off.”
“What the f…,” Mikey catches his words and quick-fire temper.
Rachel casts a blue-eyed buoyant look towards Mikey, and smiles.
“Here we are,” Ms. Ross sashays minutes later.
The table nods their heads in approval, as the light pouring in through the windows balloons the room’s brightness.
Mikey looks up at Ms. Ross as she slides his sunny-side-up eggs, two chocolate-chip-banana-walnut waffles, two sausage links, and OJ fresh-squeezed in front of him. Diana Ross made me breakfast, he texts Sean. In bed replies his buddy.
“Cheers, everyone,” Rachel lifts her mimosa, and their glasses clink. “So glad we get to do this.”
“Did you hear back from anyone this week, Michael?” asks the Captain, not looking at Mikey, scooting toast off his plate, and handling it like it was pulled from underneath wet garbage.
Sighing inside himself, but not defeated, Mikey shrugs. “No, but I folded all the Bob Seger shirts when they came in on Wednesday. Had a day to it and got done early.”
The Captain smirks as he slathers his steak with a butter cube and plops his eggs on top, keeping the roasted veggies in their own little circle of oil and crushed pepper. Fork in mouth, the Captain looks at Mikey, sets his fork down, stares a little longer at him and then stares at the edge of his plate, and finally nods, shrugging his shoulders at this information and carving out another piece of steak. “You can do better, Michael,” Captain says. “I believe in you, and I’m not the only one.”
Rachel makes eye contact with her fiancé, wiping her face with her napkin and cutting off her conversation with Sarah. “Something will catch…if you go after it,” Rachel mediates between the two simmering men.
“Look, at this point I’m just happy I have something,” Mikey sighs. He leans back and looks at Rachel who is stirring almonds into her oatmeal. “Actually…,” the synapses in his brain reloading thanks to a fresh batch of caffeine, his second mimosa, and a burst of warm sunlight on him, “I’m all right where I am. I’ve accepted that this is just how it is for now.” Mikey grins, cutting into his layer of eggs, sausage, and pancakes, chocolate chips and maple syrup oozing down. Behind him the window shades buzz as they are automatically drawn, and the artificial lights over them dim. The greeter leaves her podium by the front door and tightens the window shades more, as best as she can, but the light finds it way into the room through the narrowest of openings.
“And now,” booms the PA speaker, “let’s welcome the loveliest ladies in the District, starting with a classy lady everybody knows, Miss Marilyn Monroe! Any birthdays out there?” One hand goes up in the grey light, a pudgy middle-aged man with glasses, and Ms. Monroe points her ballroom white glove to him and sings happy birthday like he was JFK, eventually sitting in his lap and kissing him on his cheek. The man claps and laughs, turning back to the rest of his table, who are snapping photos, clapping, and laughing along with him.
“Let’s give it up for Marilyn Monroe!” After the crowd’s clapping dies down, the PA continues, “And now how ‘bout a lil’ country for your morning meal!”
And out she saunters, tall, disproportionately top-heavy, and says, “Hoo-ee, I think need a partner for this little number.” And Dolly Parton shakes her perfectly manicured shape in her yellow dress and tapping the tips of her bedazzled cowboy boots to her song’s intro that’s looping until she is ready.
“I so know this song,” Mikey says loudly but not rudely, buzzed, confident, unaware of how loud he says it, but proud that he knows it, facing his cousin and the Captain and nodding to Sarah who refuses to acknowledge his existence.
Ms. Parton glances over at him and drifts his way, a canary sparkling in the spring light, humming and laughing and glowing. She puts her hand on Mikey’s shoulders that are pumping up and down like a pumpjack. His brown eyes grow large. “What’s your name, good lookin’?”
“Uh, Michael. Mike. Mikey,” he qualifies one more time.
“Lots of names there,” she giggles, teeth aglow. “You know this one?
“Yeah I do,” he replies, almost offended that Ms. Parton would even ask such a thing.
“Well, come on then, good looking, sing with me,” she beams and shares the mic with him in this light that continues to break into the room, the sun nearly at twelve o’clock, pouring in over them all from the open-air deck above, this light that can’t be ignored so that the things within it are glowing like buds on trees, that the eyes cannot look anywhere else but into that bright space. And they begin to sing about something going on that can’t be explained, pain going away because peace is becoming known, so much love and connection that it requires no conversation, the world rolling along, no one in between, nothing standing in the way, islands in a stream.
Is this it? a small hopeful part of Mikey sits up inside him. Are you my angel with a sign? he wonders, looking at Ms. Parton who, at this point, wrestling back the mic, completely ignores him as she retakes command of the song, her over-bleached hair curling and lifting like wings in the light behind her. Have I found you or have you found me?
And the light expands in Mikey’s thoughts of what could be, what could happen next, what could come of what’s happening in front of him, suspended in this very moment, that he could quite possibly make a career as a Kenny Rogers impersonator, moving to Atlantic City or Vegas or wherever he needs to be, or that he could start a Kenny Rogers–themed restaurant featuring the best brunch on the Eastern seaboard, thanks to The Gambler, a cheeseburger omelet with all the fixings and seasoned hand-cut sweet-potato fries on the side. He looks at Ms. Parton again out of the corner of his eye, squints at her, can’t help but wonder if she is indeed a messenger, that maybe she’s bringing something just outside of food and drink to him, something just for him that won’t change much but will change a little over time, once he finds its purpose and gets it going, something that won’t make him happy but happier, that he’s this close to precision, a minimal requirement to begin, and it is everything.
About the Author: William Auten is the author of the novel Pepper’s Ghost (Black Rose Writing, 2016), and his work has appeared in District Lit, Drunken Boat, Notre Dame Review, Origins, Canada’s Saturday Night Reader, Sliver of Stone, SunStruck Magazine, and other publications. He has work forthcoming in Red Earth Review and Sequestrum and has read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review.