W. A. Kirby '10
Tuesday was just one of them days where by five a.m. you’re already behind. I was more’n halfway to the bus stop when I noticed my nametag wasn’t in my purse, and Chuck’d already yelled at me twice this month about not wearin’ it, so I jogged the best I could back to the house to get it. I’d rather risk bein’ yelled at about bein’ late than about my nametag again. Chuck doesn’t like havin’ to repeat himself.
That might seem strange, I guess, but not to me. See, I been here my whole life. I was born only about a half mile from where I live now, down round the knee-bend on River road. Still don’t know why they call it that—Maybe the crick used to be a river, but not since I been alive. Reason I mention it’s cause most people might think it worse bein’ late than not havin’ a bit of plastic with your name on it, but that’s not how we live ‘round here. Here, you can wave off bein’ late by sayin’ the dog got through the screen door again or the bus was late, and that don’t matter. It’s the littler things that get to Chuck. He always says, “Meg, I tell you, Meg, you got to look perfessional when you’re helping the customers.” I tried to tell him that the nametag don’t matter s’long as the food’s good, but he don’t think so, just yells “perfessional” and wipes his nose with the back of his hand and spits in the grease bucket under the grill.
That’s why I wasn’t too worried on the bus. When we got on the highway by the Piggly Wiggly I was actually feeling good about the day. The sun’s comin’ up earlier than usual, and it broke through the clouds somethin’ beautiful. Like how they talk about God’s grace in church on Sunday. I hollered to the bus driver when it was time for me to get off, and I walked from mile marker four down the exit ramp to Chuck’s Stop. You wouldn’t think it’d get business, since it’s about ten miles off the interstate, but for the hauler who knows these parts, our highway is a neat little shortcut round the city, save you twenty or thirty minutes; just enough to get an extra meal in between breakfast and lunch. That’s what they used to call it when I started workin’ here, Shortcut, I mean. That was before Chuck though, before nametags.
When I walked in the back door of the place Chuck was sittin’ on a big pot mixing up the potato salad. He looked up as the door slammed shut, bounced, and slammed again.
“You’re late,” he said.
“Dog got out the screen door again,” I said, and he nodded and stuck his arm back in the potato salad. New girls always ask why he does it that way and not with a big spoon, and he’ll laugh and I’ll laugh and then they have to come in early and mix the salad for the next week. By Thursday, sometimes quicker, they got their arm in the bucket, elbow deep in mayonnaise and celery—it’s just easier that way.
Today was our day, me and Chuck. Most other days there’d be another girl sides me who’d come in early, help get the place ready, but Tuesdays it was just the two of us, me and him. Sometimes they were good days, we’d laugh a little and each have a cup of coffee before the first customer came in, but most times, these days were the worst. There’s a lotta work that needs to be done, and four hands just ain’t enough to do it.
I walked out into the front of the restaurant and flipped on the lights. Same as I left you, I thought and I slipped off my coat and slid it and my purse under the register. I went through my usual, gettin an apron off the shelf in back, puttin the coffee on, takin the till out of the old tobacco can and countin it before puttin it in the register. I mixed bleach and water in the buckets and set some rags to soak, made sure the toaster was plugged in and the muffins were good-side forward. By then it was almost 6:30, and even though I’d come in late I was about five minutes ahead. I looked around to make sure I wasn’t foolin myself, then I poked my head through the swinging doors to the kitchen.
“Hey, Chuck,” I said. He turned half around from what he was doin. “Do me a favor?”
“What is it?” he said, wiping his hands on his apron.
“My legs hurt somethin awful from runnin to catch the dog this morning. Would you do the ice for me?”
There was a second where it looked like he was just gonna ignore me, but he didn’t, instead he said awright and leaned back before taking off his apron. “You gonna come with me?”
I nodded. Nobody likes to get the ice anymore since our ice machine broke about a year back. Since then, every morning we gotta walk a quarter mile up the road to the pump station and buy us about six bags of ice. Most mornings I do it in two trips and it takes me the last half hour before we open, but on good days—today was a good day—Chuck’ll help, or even do it for me.
We weren’t but ten foot out the door before Chuck spoke up. “Since I’m doing you a favor, you got a cigarette for me?”
I nodded and reached into my shirt pocket for my pack. It was more’n half empty but I gave him one and he stuck it between his lips and reached for a lighter before he spat it out and stepped on it. “What the fuck is this?” he said.
I went immediately for the cigarette, but his boot and the gravel had ruined it. “What do you mean what’s this? It’s a cigarette.” I said, “If you didn’t want it, why’d you ask for it in the first place?”
“You know I don’t smoke menthol, dammit.”
“Well I do, and I aint got no other cigarettes sides these.”
He stared at me for a moment and shrugged. “Get your own damned ice.” And before I could say anything he was back inside. My legs did hurt, and it took me an extra trip get the ice. We opened twenty minutes late because of it. Just one a those days.
When I did flip on the open sign and unlock the door, I was surprised to see a man already waitin in the parking lot. He was heavy, but so were most of the men who came through, except for the occasional bean-pole who was probably skinny cause of his metabolism or drugs and not cause he cared. What was surprising about this’n was he was driving a silver sedan, not a truck or a pickup.
When he opened the door and set the bells to jinglin, I said, “Mornin, hon, sit wherever. You want coffee?”
He grunted and sat down at a corner booth. I went back to polishing the counter while he looked at the menu and out the window. After five minutes, when he set the menu down, I grabbed an order pad and walked over.
“How you doin this morning?” I asked in my tip-voice. I know I do it, every girl who works a table or a pole’s got one.
“Eggs, bacon. No toast.”
“How you want the eggs?”
He shrugged. I took his shortness in stride, writing egg, bcn, no tst on my order slip. “Anything to drink?”
“Do you serve beer?”
I shook my head. “Coffee?” I offered.
“I’ll just have a glass of water.”
“Sounds good, I’ll have that for you in a minute.”
I walked back towards the kitchen and stuck my head through the door, “Hey Chuck, got an order. Eggs, bacon. Scramble em.” I laid the order slip down on the shelf between the kitchen and the front of the restaurant and went back to the counter, attacking the smudges with my bleach rag, trying to get the fine scratches out of the Formica and chrome. It used to shine, back when I first started here. It would catch the morning sun, everything in the place would. The silverware, the register, the counter—it was bright, and more people came through then. People from the town and the city instead of just the truckers. The truckers and this guy who sat, staring out the window at his own car, checking his watch.
When Chuck rang the order bell I took the man his plate, a glass of water and some silverware. I set them down, asked him if that would be all. He didn’t say nothin, so I turned around to see what needed doing.
“You fifty?” he said.
I turned to him. “Excuse me?”
“Are you fifty? You look like you could be fifty.”
He paused, but not long enough for me to talk back at him.
“I’m fifty. Today, actually. It’s my birthday.”
I knew what to say to that. “Happy birthday,” I said.
“My dad died when he was fifty.”
I stared at him for a minute cause I didn’t know what to do with what he’d said. He hadn’t said much, but his eyes were talkin to me, sayin somethin more’n just the words, and I still wanted a tip, so I nodded and said, “I’ll get your food,” like I understood what he was really tryin to say.
He opened his mouth, but the bell on the door jangled a new customer in and I excused myself before he could talk. He sat there another hour, but I didn’t go near his table again, and when I finally got up the courage, he was gone. Slipped out when I wasn’t lookin. All the same, I couldn’t get his voice out of my head. You fifty? Might as well be, guess I look it.
He didn’t leave a tip.
That means I been workin at Chuck’s for thirty-one years. When I got the job I was eighteen, and it was just a way to make money for going to see a movie and for Momma’s pills and the rent. I liked the work but I was so sure I was gonna make it outta here. I had a boyfriend I loved, then a husband I didn’t, and then he died. By then the thought of bein anywhere but here was too far gone, and I just stuck. After he died, I moved back in with Momma, and things were good again, real good for a bit.
Then Chuck came along, and he was a good cook, and I liked him and he said I was pretty. He said it so that even though I knew it wasn’t true I believed him. Even when he said it to all the girls, I believed him. He was sweet to me, and he was sweet to my Momma when I brought him home for dinner, even brought her flowers once. That night was the first time we slept in the same bed, and in the mornin I told him to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake Momma goin out the screen door. Pretty soon after that I moved out from with Momma and in with Chuck. We were happy, and he asked me if I wanted him to ask to marry me, and I said no. I wasn’t gonna do that again.
When Ed died—Ed owned the diner—he left the place to Chuck, said that he deserved it, that Chuck was the best employee he’d ever had. That changed everything. Chuck changed. He fired a couple people he didn’t like and he hired on some new girls and they left pretty quick and he got angry and fired some more people and hired some new girls and they left too, and when I found out why the girls were leaving I threatened to leave and I did for a couple months. I went back to my Momma, but I couldn’t find work, and she had to spend all her money on her pills, so I asked for my job back and Chuck said okay. I didn’t know any better. I guess I don’t need to say it, but it was never the same again. For a while it was just him and me and he changed the name to Chuck’s Stop and he cooked and I served and it worked out all right and we didn’t talk about how it used to be. He even came to the funeral when my Momma died, and said some real nice things about her even though he didn’t know her that good. Things were okay after that, and he hired on another cook and another girl and he behaved himself a bit better and they stayed longer.
Now it’s me and him and a few girls from the town and another boy from town who cooks. His name’s Jason and he shows up at about noon for the lunch rush. He’s got greasy black hair, the kind where you can’t tell if it’s on purpose or cause he just don’t shower much. He talks big, talks with his arms and hands, and he likes to whistle and flirt with the girls, even me. He says I’m pretty. Reminds me of Chuck sometimes.
When I heard Jason come in the back, I was fixin to brew a new pot of coffee. That’s when the day started going really wrong. I could hear him whistlin and then I heard Chuck tell him to shut up, and then there was a crash. I went in the back and I could see why Chuck was mad. When Chuck cooks he likes to keep a bowl full a eggs next to the grill. Says they’re easier to get to if he don’t have to take em out of the carton every two minutes. Jason musta hit it with his elbow, or maybe Chuck did when he turned around to say hello and tell him to shut up, and now Jason was on the floor trying to scoop yolks back into their shells, and Chuck was just standin there, not swearin, just fumin. Then Chuck saw me.
“Meg, did you leave the front unattended?”
“I just came back here to see what that crash was.”
“How many times do I have to tell you not to le—fuckin stop it Jason, it ain’t no good, the eggs are broken, just clean em up and get your damned apron on—how many times do I have to tell you not to leave the front unattended?”
“Sorry Chuck, I just wanted to see what—”
“I don’t care what you just wanted to do, you get your fat ass back to the front and deal with the customers. That’s what I pay you to do. Dammit Jason I said clean up the fuckin eggs! Do not make me repeat myself or I will shove this spatula so far up your ass I could use it to flip your eyeballs.”
I started movin for the door, but I wasn’t goin fast enough I guess, and Chuck put his hand on my back and shoved me, just sayin, “buncha goddamn amateurs. You gotta be perfessional.”
Now Chuck’s a big guy. Not real strong big, but more like kitchen big, if you know what that means, and when he shoved me, I went. I bust right through the swingin doors and tripped myself up a little, and I put out my hand, and that coffee pot I had been gettin ready to fill was just sittin there on the edge of the counter, right in my way. I hit it and it slid. Fell. Shattered. Then everything was quiet. That was the real problem, right there. See, like Chuck just said, he don’t like to repeat himself, and I, well I had done just exactly what had just happened, what had pissed Chuck off in the first place.
In that quiet—me almost on the floor, the glass everywhere—in that quiet everything stopped. Then two things happened at once: I went to my knees to get the glass before it hurt somebody, and Chuck burst through the kitchen door and grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through the back and out into the parkin lot.
“Stop it stop it stop it,” I was shouting, smacking at his hands, but he was stronger than me. He let me go and I fell down and I don’t know what he said cause I was just saying I’m sorry over and over again.
“Get up,” he half shouted, and I got up. “What the fuck were you thinking breaking the fuckin coffee pot like that, shit, how stupid are you Meg? How goddam stupid? Buncha fuckin amateurs.”
And I just said I’m sorry that I wasn’t thinking, I was startled and I was sorry, and it wasn’t my fault, if he was gonna hit someone it should be Jason because Jason made him mad first. But then Jason was there too, and he helped pick me up off the ground and brushed the gravel off my knees. “You okay?” he asked, and I felt bad for sayin that Chuck should hit him. Chuck was smoking a cigarette and looked calmer.
“Shit,” he said. “Go make sure the customers pay before they leave.” I got up and hurried to the door and he yelled to clean up the coffee.
When I got back to the front, no one would meet my eye. I cleaned up the mess, and then I went to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and I did not cry.
By three the lunch rush was over, and Chuck and Jason were in the back cleaning the grill, feuding and not talkin about it. I’d done my best to keep my nose out of the kitchen. When Chuck gets angry he gets real angry. A few years back he popped a girl in the eye cause she was mouthin off at him. She told her momma and her momma told the police, and the police told a judge who made Chuck go to meetings every week for two months. They said he had an anger problem. Now I’ve known Chuck for longer than anyone a those people, and seems to me that if someone has an anger problem like Chuck does, the last thing you’d wanna do is tell him that he’s got an anger problem—it’ll just make him angry. But Chuck musta knowed how serious it was, because he behaved himself and went to the meetings and even called up the girl and her momma to say he was sorry, I heard him do it. After six weeks of his “sessions” they said he was cured. But I know Chuck, and he was angrier than ever. That’s why today, I was keepin out of it.
At three thirty, Susan’s momma dropped her off so she could help me close. She was a skinny girl with ratty bangs and shoes that used to be white. I saw her in the parkin lot, her momma parked where the silver sedan had been this mornin. Susan’s momma was yellin at her, and she was ignoring it, walkin away with her head high. She came in through the front, still wearin a backpack, and chewing gum with a snap and pop and a casual “Hey” as she tossed her things under the counter next to my purse. She went in the back to grab an apron and I knelt down to pick up her books that had spilled out when she threw her bag on the floor. I looked at them one by one, Chemistry, Geometry, somethin called The Old Man and the Sea. I turned them around in my hands, flipping the pages before put them into her pack. I didn’t know what they were about.
“What the hell do you think you’re doin goin through my things?” I turned around and Susan was standin there tying her apron with a scowl on her face.
“I was just puttin your books back, they spilled and I didn’t want them to be ruined.”
She rolled her eyes and muttered somethin under her breath before she skipped off to help a man sitting in a booth. I stood up slowly and brushed my knees. I watched Susan’s smile as she wrote the man’s order, and watched him watch her as she skipped away. She gave me a grin that said she knew he was lookin, and what was I gonna do about it, then she called the order back to Jason. There was somethin in that girl that hated me.
Chuck hired Susan a few months back when her momma brought her in and said she needed to be workin so she would stay outta trouble. Chuck looked her up and down, asked how old she was, and handed her an apron. I spent a week tryin to teach the girl how to use the register and how to grind the coffee, that you need to shut the door and lock it at night and to count the till before it goes back in the can. She never really listened, but would slouch back on a stool and draw on her shoes. Once, when I was showin her that she had to wipe down the tables between customers after someone had complained, I heard her call me a bitch, and I grabbed her by the ear and marched her right back into the kitchen before I told her she needed to shape up or I was gonna tell her momma. But she told her momma first, and her momma told Chuck, and Chuck told me to keep my fat ass outta where it didn’t belong. So I shut up and did my work and tried not to worry about Susan. Chuck liked Susan, said he liked her for two reasons. “She’s easy on the eyes,” he said, “and easy on the customers’ eyes. Real perfessional. Always wears her nametag. She brings ‘em back for more.” When Susan heard that she’d just giggle and pop her gum and skip away. She was always skippin.
I wanted so bad to hate her and her dirty fingernails and her pretty young face. I wanted her gone all the time, and I know she felt the same way about me. Some days I’d see her scream at her momma and slam the car door and I’d wonder if I ever acted like that to my Momma. Other times she’d come in quiet as a lamb, walk straight into the bathroom and come out smellin like cheap gin, and spend the rest of the day with one eye half closed. She’d come in with boys who would sit in a booth all afternoon, never orderin more’n one cup a coffee, or she’d tell Chuck she was sick, and I’d watch her get in a car with some friends, then give me the finger as they sped out the parkin lot. But as much as I wanted to hate her, as much as I wanted to be rid of her, I couldn’t.
I couldn’t because, every so often, when her friends were sittin in a booth and the afternoon was slow, I’d hear her talk about college, and New York City. They’d be loud, makin a mess of salt and pepper, drinkin creamers like shots, and laughin at me, and I’d look over and see in her eyes somethin familiar, somethin that I used to see in the mirror before I went to bed. Somethin desperate, somethin far away and over the horizon, like the sun but bigger and brighter. Then she’d catch me starin and make a face and the look would disappear, and she’d laugh and her friends would laugh, and I’d go back to work.
This was not one of those afternoons, and all that I could see in her eyes was meanness. When I started closing down at five, we hadn’t had a customer in over an hour. Chuck was in the back takin inventory, and Susan had disappeared somewhere, probably down to the pump station or in back to smoke a cigarette before her momma came around to get her at six. I undid all the things I’d done in the morning, and felt again that I might as well just leave them done instead of do them and undo them every day.
I swept up and dumped the bleach buckets and took the decaf coffee pot, which I was usin instead of the one I broke earlier, in back to wash it out. I swilled what was left of the coffee around and dumped it down the drain, waiting for the tap water to warm up. I washed it and I turned around, but musta turned too fast or something caught my foot, it don’t matter, what does is I almost fell and when I reached out to catch myself on the counter, I dropped the coffee pot for the second time, and it cracked and splinters of glass skittered across the floor. I looked up and Chuck was standing right there, and I opened my mouth to tell him not to yell and before I got my words out he smacked me. With the back of his hand, twice. He didn’t yell, just stood over me while I sobbed on the floor. “Clean this shit up. If you don’t bring new ones tomorrow so help me God I hope it’s cause you’re dead.” Then he was gone. I looked around for Jason or for Susan, for anyone, I didn’t care who. I tasted blood, my lip had been split by his middle knuckle.
I rushed myself into the front of the restaurant, past the counter and into the bathroom. I pushed the door open and there was Susan, bent over the sink, her skirt around her waist and Jason’s pants around his ankles. I stared blankly and she screamed get out and I did. I ran out the door to the parking lot and didn’t stop until I couldn’t breathe and my heart felt like exploding. My legs hurt.
I wanted to go back, to walk right into Chuck’s Stop, into that bathroom, to grab Susan and shake her till she listened. I wanted to smack Jason in the mouth, and pull Susan by her ear back to her momma. I wanted to scream and shout and cry till my throat wouldn’t talk. I wanted to say get out get out get out. Don’t be here thirty years workin at Jason’s Stop, taking the bus and dying a day at a time worryin about nametags and a dog you don’t own. I wanted to say this to her, but I wanted even more to call back to another girl, call in a voice no bigger than a whisper, get out.