A couple old as mud wobbles to my counter. He scowls like he’s just stepped into dog shit, slaps his check down on the counter, and slides it toward me, message-side up. In a phlegmy voice he growls, “What the hell’s this supposed to mean?”
The back of the check reads, “You are dead already!” Of course I recognize my Marigold’s arcane, Euro-trash scrawl immediately.
I say, “We choose our waitresses carefully from among the graduates of the finest waitressing school in Paris.” I lean closer with my secret. “Many of them have read deeply in philosophy. I assure you this is obviously a philosophical statement.”
The old woman at his side sneers. “Well if this is philosophy, somebody should tell her parents.”
I respond, “They are as heartbroken as you are.” The couple finally leaves and I’m relieved we’ll never see them again. Neither them, nor their family nor their friends nor their professional colleagues. In fact, a whole army of greedy, gaping, chewing, and drooling mouths now will never darken our door. I restrain myself from running to tell Ron the happy news.
My Tiger Lily moves in a nimbus of pale yellow light. Water glasses glitter in her presence, French fries glow at her touch. “Too late already so much.”
She’s come from one of those countries I’ve never heard of, and I’m not embarrassed to admit there are a lot of those. I assume her English will never get any better, which is just fine with me.
We all work together at the Kitchen Knook on 4th Street close to the shopping mall. I’m the late-shift cashier, a very demanding and responsible position, which is why I’m paid so little. Ron, the night manager, explains that the low pay discourages frivolous people who lack the drive and determination to take the job seriously. And he promises me that with another year of this responsibility I could go anywhere, do anything. Smiling he says, “Even president of, like, General Motors, or something.”
Of course I’m impressed, even if I can’t remember who General Motors is. I’ve told Ron we ought to have cool military uniforms. I remind him that people love uniforms, and they love to have their food brought to them by persons wearing uniforms. I explain to him that basically, this uniform wearing is the wave of the future, and we need to be part of the future if we expect to succeed. I remind him that I watch the news, so I know what’s going on. I tell him that from what I’ve seen, eventually all the people feeding us will wear uniforms and this will make us all really happy.
A young, attractive woman places her check on my counter, but she is not smiling. “You know,” she says, “this sort of thing usually indicates serious psychological difficulties.” On the back of her check my Little Petunia has scrawled, “The surface is without substance.”
I respond, “We try to help those who are in difficulty.”
“That may seem noble to you, but you should not inflict such darkness on those of us already entombed.” A tear sparkles at the corner of her eye. She turns and leaves, and my regret follows her like a thick snake.
My Buttercup waits tables, from 4 PM until Midnight. What she does is what waitresses do, and her customers bring their checks to my cash register, a cash register of which I am proprietor. They slide their checks across my counter accompanied by either a fist-full of cash, or a shiny credit card. We don’t take checks, that’s our policy.
Our three other waitresses are named Camille, Ellen and Brandy. Hoping to pump up their tips, each writes a little message on the backs of their checks. Ellen is in law school, so she just writes “Thanks so much!” with a little diamond at the bottom of the exclamation point. Maybe she should change it to a dollar sign. Brandy writes, “Have a Good Day,” and puts smiles in the middles of the “O”s. The horror is that she earnestly means it. I tremble at her glance. But Camille is the worst. Camille writes, “Smile, God Loves you!” and she uses little hearts to dot the “I” and at the bottom of the exclamation point, and in place of all of the “O”s. It must take her ten minutes to draw the thing out. But my Squash-Blossom is different. Where others are mesmerized by the surface, she sees all the way down.
“Stop touching yourself and start touching others,” is written quirkily on the check slid onto my counter by a young man whose acne will be with him until he’s collecting Social Security.
He says, “Women these days are so fucked up.”
I shrug. “Estrogen’s been leaking into the water supply.”
His eyes get large. “You’re shitting me?”
“Drink bottled water,” I say. “It’s the only way to be safe.”
My Rose-Petal always shares her shift with at least two of these other waitresses, along with a revolving door of dark, foreign-looking busboys who pass through so fast I never learn their names. So we have four waitresses for a three-waitress staff. Ron makes up the schedule. He says the task will make him crazy. Apparently, doing the schedule is the hardest thing he’s ever done, even from high school, figuring out how to cover from day to day, week to week. He begs me to pick up the bus-tray whenever I can. These women will drive me nuts, he says, and I’m sure that would be a short trip. But I remind him that busing tables is beneath the responsibilities of the cashier, who must handle money. After all, what is more diseased-ridden in our society than cash, filthy cash?
Ron does not like me and never agrees with anything I say. But he does not want to hire another cashier. His cashiers tend to steal, and he tells me I’m the first in half a decade not robbing him blind. All Ron wants to do is sit in the back-office at the computer and download porn from the internet. He burns the porn onto CD’s and takes them home with him every night and does god-knows-what thereafter. I’m too nauseated to ask.
“The brain atrophies before the penis,” is followed by a smiling sun-face with X’s over the eyes. The middle-aged guy belonging to this check grins as he leans across the counter. “I just took my pill,” he whispers, “and I’ve got a woody like a sequoia. What time does she get off?”
He frowns sympathetically. “Any little thing I can do to help?”
In fact I keep all of these complaints from Ron. He likes my Little Dove even less than he likes me. He thinks she thinks about him. If it wasn’t for the fact that she can carry six filled platters in the middle of a rush, she’d have been long-gone. At closing I count the register while she helps clean up. I lose count every time I look up to see her bending over. I lose count a lot, so this usually takes the rest of the night. Ron comes over to me after firing another busboy. He likes to keep in practice. “Stupid little shit,” he says looking at nothing in particular, and it takes me a second to realize he’s not talking to me. “Any of your creepy friends need a job?”
I tell him my creepy friends are all over-booked. I tell him it seems like people will only hire the really creepy ones. He looks hard into my eyes. “You don’t like this job, do you?”
“I love this job,” I say. “I gave up being General Motors just to work here.”
He looks at me a moment and then he smiles. “My bet is you’re going to be here a good long time.”
I ask, “Is that a promise?” I finish counting, or actually just give up and write down the amount on the slip that I already know is supposed to be in the register.
“Oh yeah,” he says, “that is my promise to you!”
As he walks away I say, “Thanks! Mom will be so pleased.”
I time my departure to follow her out the door. Half a block from the restaurant I say,
“Listen, you have to stop writing that shit on the checks. People get upset. They say things. They think things.”
She shrugs without turning.
I say, “It seems they are not grateful for your subtle generosity.” She has gorgeous shoulders. I say, “If you don’t like gratitude you should be happy every day.”
Finally she turns, her arrogant frown thrills me.
“Do you ever have a good time?” She stops at the corner, her bus is already pulling up. She shrugs as she brings a token out of her pocket. Climbing the steps she does not turn. “Misery is underrated,” she says.
The doors fold closed, her sweet butt framed sweetly in the folding bus-door windows.
Nothing left for me to do but sigh, which I do louder than the bus.
Two women. Young, secretary-types. The taller, older one slides the check toward me like we’re conspirators and this is grade school. On the back of the check my Dumpling has written, “A penis in the hand - better two in the bush.”
“How was your meal today?” I ask with the blandest look I own.
“Funny,” she says, and the two leave giggling. I spend the next ten minutes figuring.
After closing, my Nightingale leaves without a glance back. I hustle to catch up, pull up just behind her right shoulder. Her profile fills me with something I cannot name. “Tell me? Was it the Freud that didn’t sit well, or the Kafka?”
With her firm, long-legged gate she steps on the gas. I hustle double-step to keep up. She turns to face me without losing a step, her grin vicious and wise. “You!” And she says, “You!”
At the corner she turns. A guy is just getting out of a cab. She strides faster, has her hand on the closing door, slips inside and is gone, all before I can say, “Me! Me! Me!”
Two little girls, maybe twelve years old between them, timidly place their check and cash on my counter. On the back I read, “Death is your friend!” I shove the cash back toward them
“Hey!” I say kind of loud and I’m smiling. “It’s your lucky day. You’re lunch was free!
Hope you enjoyed it. Come back again soon!”
I’m relieved when the little girls turn to each other and smile. The one girl says, “Thanks,” as she grabs the cash. The other says, “Yeah,” and they’re laughing together before they reach the door. And I’m relieved nobody is making a big deal.
An hour and a half later and it’s slow. To my Dandelion I say, “We have to talk.” I take her by the elbow to lead her to the back. She shrugs me off, gets to the office door before I do, stands arms folded across her generous chest, and watches me approach like a hot dog watches mustard. I stand as close to her as I can without fainting. “Please leave the kids alone. If you aren’t about to say something nice to a kid, just shut up. How about it?”
The fire in her black eyes roasts my scrotum no matter which way I turn. When I don’t say anything she sneers. “Pot-licker,” she says and then she moves past me like I’m a can of dead flowers. People want to know why I hate my life.
Back at the register Ron comes over smiling like his whole face’s shot with botox. He calls out, “Brandy, cover the register a minute?” He signals me to follow and we walk back to the storeroom. He flicks-on the light and closes the door behind us. He paces back and forth like he’s been constipated for a month. Watching him is about to wear me out. I sit down on a case of catsup bottles. He looks like he’s trying to think about something, and then he steps close and leans forward. “We have a problem.” Then he freezes, stares into my face like whatever I do next will twist my future absolutely. So I do nothing. “We’re missing a can of mayonnaise,” he says. Then he watches me like by knowing this I will now change into something.
“A whole can of mayo, you say?” I squint and dip my head as if I know what he’s getting at. I ask, “Any ideas?” Because I don’t like having-to-think forced upon me. I’d rather that it sneak up on me, like a toothache, until finally I have to do something about it, but all along I’ve been sort of dealing with it in the background.
“One or two,” he says with cultivated inscrutability and then takes a step back, “one, or two.”
He sits down on boxes of canned soup and sighs, rubs his hands together and then along the tops of his thighs. The aura of defeat hovers over him as miasmal as a fart.
To move things along I ask, “One of the gallon cans?” I’m incredulous because it is incredible, and I want to be certain before I continue with this thinking-thing. He nods.
“And you’re sure it’s not misplaced?” I ask. “Because you looked everywhere?” Silence in this case is assent.
“Well,” I say still not grasping the magnitude of our situation, “it wasn’t like it was a can of the good stuff. Can’t be more than a few dollars a can. I mean, we’ll make it up in tips.”
Suddenly he looks at me in a way that I had never expected him to look. As if his face was a box of tools, and this expression was just not included. “You don’t get it, do you?” Suspicion tightens his eyes. “Can you be so fucking self-centered and naive?” He stands, slowly steps forward to bring his face right up to mine so that I have to lean back. “This isn’t just about the fucking money. It isn’t even about any fucking principles. The question I can’t answer is why? And even worse how?” His own suspicion turns to incredulity. “Pick up one of those fucking cans. How you going to sneak one of those out of here? Where the fuck you going to hide it? How you going to carry it so nobody guesses? What kind of fucking bag you going to put it in so nobody says, hey, where you taking that gallon of fucking mayo?”
Before I can venture any stupid guesses he says, “And why? How much goddamn mayo can one family eat, for Christ sake?” He begins to pant, his voice is getting louder, and I’m wishing he brushed his teeth more often. “You can’t put this shit on goddamn breakfast cereal, for Christ sake!”
Ron looks around the floor like he’s surrounded by scorpions. “And if somebody’s snatched the mayo, should we maybe put an armed guard on the tuna?” His face has become very red. “I defy anyone to explain to me why any normal human being would steal a gallon of goddamn mayonnaise!”
Who could imagine Ron is a passionate philosopher? But he’s already given-up trying to find anything out from me. He’s turned and is already reaching for the door handle. So with hardly a twitch he’s opened the door. And there stands my little Flesh-Bulb.
She’s looking a bit cowed though she’s easily a head taller than Ron. He stares up at her a long time. My Sweet Onion cannot return his look. He steps around her and returns to the restaurant. She stands another moment looking at the floor and then she returns to the restaurant. And me? I’m still sitting on my ass, Brandy covering the register for me, and I’m waiting for this head-thing to stop, so much like a blender running filled with steel screws.
A priest comes to my register smiling, slides his check toward me with his cash. I see her handwriting and tremble. I turn it over to read, “Sleep with God!”
The priest says, “Your staff has a rare and subtle sense of the world behind the mask. I shall return often.”
Panic grabs my throat, I suppress the scream and manage to whisper, “That would perhaps not be wise.” The priest’s smile disappears, as his eyes get large. Leaning closer I say, “Our manager is a Satanist, and he would say anything to corrupt you.” I drop my voice to add, “He would even lie to you.”
The priest is about to turn. I touch his sleeve and add, “Pray for our souls.” The door closes and he never looks back.
About a second later Brandy steps up smiling. “Let me know if you need me to cover for you.” Her voice is so bright I put on sunglasses.
“That’s generous of you, but I can’t possibly burden you with this enormous responsibility.”
I pull another girly magazine from the rack and lean back as I open it.
When I look up again I’m surprised to see Brandy still standing there. She cranks her smile up another level. “I hear Ron’s got you on some kind of inventory duty or something. About the tuna, I mean. It’s a little slow today. Maybe I could give you a hand.” Now I’m looking for the hidden camera. These places always have hidden cameras even though they usually don’t work, but if we have them, they must be really well hidden. So I ask, “Did you wait on that priest?”
Brandy experiences a panic entirely out of proportion to the question, which relieves me completely. “No,” she says, “that’s what’s-her-name’s table. Why?” As if she doesn’t know.
“Did he complain?”
“No, worse. He was so impressed he threatened to bring all his priest-friends here. Does that make any sense to you?” I look at her real hard, a sort of highlight and underline to the point.
She turns and scans the room as if help might arrive any second. She shrugs before she turns back again. “I guess some old guys find her type charming. Don’t ask me. Old guys are always so obvious.” There’s nothing to that with my name on it, so I let it drift. After another minute she drifts too, and I’m relieved.
A withered and old woman about four feet tall staggers to the counter, slides her check
Across and says, “What the hell’s this shit?” My Little Cauliflower has written, “Sex is death.”
“Words to live by,” I say hoping that if I don’t look at her she’ll evaporate.
“Know anybody needs to get laid, give ’em this.” Then trembling, she scribbles a phone number at the bottom of one of the take-out menus stacked on the counter. She doesn’t wait for me to answer, but it takes her four minutes to walk to the door. When she’s gone I fold up the menu and shove it into my back pocket. I know that one never knows.
A heartbeat later Ron’s standing beside my shoulder. “You know who that is?”
“Don’t know who she is, but I know what she wants.”
“She’s maybe old and crazy but she’s rich as they come.”
“Then, here!” I say and pass him the menu. “She’s waiting for you to call.”
He looks at the menu with widening eyes. “You shitting me?”
“Would I shit you?”
He grins. “That’s why I let you work here.” He walks away lips muttering the phone number like he expects to remember it.
Walking behind my gorgeous Petunia as she makes her way to her bus I say, “Your English is getting so much better.”
Walking fast she shrugs without turning.
Perhaps my little Artichoke is a secret poet. Her way with words is so elegantly awkward.
Or perhaps she simply speaks as she thinks. Thinking and speaking so rarely coincide, but perhaps my Apricot Jelly has discovered some secret. And perhaps if I’m earnest and determined she’ll share that secret with me. We reach her bus stop and I’m about to peel off toward my apartment but she turns to me. “Every day is coffee. How is that? How is that?”
I’m stunned. No words, her eyes are black icicles in bright sunlight. And for the first time ever, she smiles. Her teeth are bad but her smile is brilliant. By the time my brain remembers I have a mouth and the muscles in my jaw unlock, she’s already climbed the steps to the bus and has gone. When I get home I make a note on my calendar, it’s that sort of thing.
Later in the week we’re really busy, a convention or something, I only find out after the fact, but ninety percent of our customers are female and almost all of them are young, some sort of convention. For the entire evening rush, Ron’s running in one direction and looking in the other. Beaming with his natural-born idiocy, he can’t get to these tables fast enough. He’s even carrying platters and busing tables, an explosion of activity that demands to be commemorated with a photograph it’s so unlikely. It’s Brandy’s day off, just Camille and Ellen and my Sweet Plantain, and we’re all stunned by Ron’s enthusiastic participation, though for different reasons and to different degrees. Ron’s one of those hiding-managers; don’t bother him unless the register’s short or there’s blood on the floor. My little Star-Light maneuvers around Ron like he’s a pile of dog shit. Even Camille finds his participation remarkable, so she makes a remark.
“What’s he doing here?”
“As little as possible.”
“Doesn’t he know even how to carry dishes?”
“Like the rest of us, he knows as little as he can get away with.”
“Something’s going to happen,” she says.
“Something always does.” I know I’ll be proved right, but I’m surprised at how soon.
The collision happens when I’m not looking, but the sound wakes even the comatose. And before the last glass shatters, the stream of venom from my little Buttercup’s sweet lips is terrifying Ron shields himself with his server tray. Fortunately, my Sugar Cube has reverted to her mother tongue, so no one understands what she’s saying, but none of us needs a translation. Women at the tables giggle and point, terror, and embarrassment alternate in Ron’s eyes like lights on a billboard.
My little Lollipop’s pale face is red as a sunset, and then to all of our surprise, big, bright tears appear in her eyes. Its then my heart shatters like another dropped glass.
In the next instant Ellen appears with broom and dustpan muttering about lawsuits. My little Nectarine is sobbing, tears glide down her cheeks, and I struggle to resist running over to lap them up with my tongue.
But Ron suddenly recaptures his self-importance and sense of disproportion and explains to my Love-Doll that she’s fired.
Without a thought beyond a determination to spare my little Pop-Tart any more embarrassment I decide to tell Ron that I quit, and then describe to him how deep into Hell I know he’ll fall. And I’m ready to do this. And I promise myself I’ll do this, just as soon as I can step away from the register.
But somehow my hands have become cramped around the edge of the counter. Somehow they’ve escaped my control and have conspired to hold onto the counter-edge. Do they know something I don’t? Do they understand something that has completely escaped me? Do they recognize something about me that I ignore at my own peril? Have they learned something from working here that I’ve forgotten, or worse, never even recognized? Just clamped onto the edge of the counter, and I can’t make my hands relax.
Suddenly and to my surprise Ron’s standing immediately beside me. “You put up with this shit every day, you deserve a raise.” And then he mutters into my ear a number.
He’s breathing hard so I’m pretty certain he’s serious. Frozen by greed and cowardice, perhaps, my left hand, the faithless hand, the treacherous hand, the hand that can’t be trusted, devious, cynical, and cruel remains gripping the counter. I call upon my trusty right hand, but clearly it has entered into a conspiracy with the left. My hands in remorseless grip of the counter are listening to Ron and they like the sound of his number. My hands are thinking about my landlord and my checkbook, and how good it feels to wrap themselves around a mug of cold beer. And thinking this they begin to think how they would miss all this. So my devious, treacherous hands betray me. As they so often have in the past, they do as they wish and not as I want. My hands are content to watch my little Pudding-Cup tearfully gather her things, exchange her apron for her overcoat, and then walk to the door. But worst, most dreadfully, most terribly, my hands smile derisively as my Tulip-Blossom steps out the door without even a single, vicious glance back.
When Brandy comes in the next day she makes it clear to Ron she believes my Succulent Rasinette was dealt with too harshly. Ron fires her before her coat’s off. She looks hard at me as she leaves, but no tears for her. She’s tougher than I’d guessed. By the dinner-rush two new waitresses are plying our victuals; women who’ve been yelling at cooks and filling water glasses since Nixon was president. A reassuring stability has emerged, refreshing in its inconsequentiality.
My hands are ecstatic with money play, but my heart remains unemployed.
About The Author
In addition to the novel Master Siger’s Dream, recently published by What Books Press of Los Angeles, A. W. DeAnnuntis’s fiction has appeared in: Silent Voices, The Armchair Aesthete, Timber Creek Review, Lynx Eye, Los Angeles Review, Yemassee, First Class, Pacific Coast Journal, Short Stories Bimonthly, Luna Negra, CrossConnect, Mind in Motion (where he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize), and many others.