The Collapse of a Sad Spirit

“Oh my god, Dawn!” Pixie Blonde said after she clocked into work at The Pie Shoppe. She spoke so close to my face, I could smell her minty breath. “Your voice, it’s so funny!”

“Yeah, I’m fighting a nasty cold,” I rasped in a laryngitic whisper. My cold and a long shift had exhausted my voice. I was ready to go home. It was late afternoon and Pixie Blonde was relieving me. I was the afternoon shift closer and she was opening the evening shift.

“You sound like a man!” She tittered and twirled away, as if she’d just said the most amusing thing in the world. My other co-workers watched, entertained.

I left work feeling surprised at Pixie Blonde’s familiarity and entry into my personal space. She and I weren’t friends and worked together uncomfortably. We didn’t gush, gossip, and giggle together like she did with many of the other servers.

Despite the coolness between us, I found her adorable. Her bright blonde hair was always pulled back with studied casualness, allowing willowy wisps to frame her small-eyed, perky-nosed face. Slightly built, with delicate bones holding together a tiny frame, she looked like she could sprout wings and fly off to fairyland. Her voice was high-pitched, thin, and slightly nasal, like the cry of bagpipes. She was aware of her attractiveness and flirted with the busboys and kitchen staff. Even the Bald Man wasn’t immune to her charms. It earned her small benefits, like the Kitchen Manager illicitly packaging cherry pie filling in to go containers for her to take home.

More than any of the young people working around me, I felt towards her the way a mother might towards a confused teen. Perhaps it was her fragile cuteness. Perhaps it was because her behavior made our 20-year age difference seem double. Perhaps it was the hearsay about her mysterious stomach ailments and bout with rehab. Perhaps it was her random commentary heard over the restaurant rumpus:

“… I never, ever forget any of my sidework. I’m way too OCD for that…”

“… I didn’t used to smoke cigarettes. You wouldn’t think I would since I don’t drink and I work out so much. I started after my brother committed suicide. At the wake, my aunt was smoking and I just picked up her pack and never stopped…”

“… No, I’m not married! What? Do you think I’m old?” Giggle, giggle.

She might’ve been able to sense my parental attitude. I’d once asked her to double-check my sidework, which was her job as the closing server and in her best interests. If I forgot something, she would have to pick up my slack. It’s something we all do. “Just check the sidework list, Dawn,” she said, as she stood around with only one table to wait on. “I don’t have time to teach you your job.” I was pretty sure her prickly side protected something precarious, so I let it go. It wasn’t worth an argument and it was best to maintain a professional distance.

The next day, we worked together during lunch. “Hey, Pixie-Blonde,” I said to her as I walked in.

“Oh my god! Your voice is the same!” she cackled, as boisterous as the evening before.

Pixie Blonde had opened the restaurant and would be cut from the floor after lunch rush, so the lucrative patio and front section of the restaurant was her station. It was sunny and pleasant outside, so the patio would be busy. Later, after she was cut, I would take over the whole floor during the slow afternoon until the evening crew came in. My sales would still be good, albeit accumulated at a slower pace. I was glad to see Server-Manager on duty that day. She provides terrific floor support when it’s busy–not all managers have this skill. My Favorite Busboy was busing. It was looking like my prayer for an easy shift was being answered. I was still tired and weak from my cold.

Pixie Blonde was sat with a few tables in quick succession, including The Owner, who was having a meeting with a client. I watched her bounce and giggle as she took orders, while I made myself a glass of iced tea. As I set the glass in a corner of the server aisle, I noticed she’d been snacking on a plate of cornbread. Crumbs were scattered about the plate and honey butter was smeared on the counter. Such a mess may as well have been a blinking neon sign saying, “I’m stealing food!” What was she thinking? The Owner was in the house. Snacking was strictly frowned upon and needed to be performed stealthily, even when he wasn’t around.

Within a few minutes, I was sat as well, and was entering my order when Pixie Blonde came bouncing over. She thumped at the computer touch screen with her index finger for a minute before she picked up a fork and stabbed the cornbread with enough force to shift the plate and send more crumbs flying. “I’m so hungry. I can’t stop eating!” Off she went, giggling some more.

Business was steady enough in my station to keep me absorbed, so I wasn’t paying much attention to Pixie Blonde’s station, which was quite busy. There was chatter around me about an incorrect order for a table next to The Owner. I looked over to see Pixie Blonde holding a plate of tacos and a woman looking annoyed. The Owner looked equally annoyed. My Favorite Busboy explained to me that Pixie Blonde was arguing about the correctness of the woman’s order.

“Damn. She may as well drop her apron and quit on the spot.” I shook my head, mystified. I knew Pixie Blonde knew better. Something was wrong in her head.

Later, as I was filling some glasses with water for a new table, My Favorite Busboy exclaimed, “Look at her. She’s drunk! Just like last night.”

“What?” I looked over to the fountain area where Server-Manager and Pixie Blonde were standing over a tray filled with spilled drinks. Sticky liquid dripped from the counter to the floor. Pixie Blonde was wiping the mess with a towel, giggling. Server-Manager’s eyes were dark and serious. “Are you sure she’s drunk?”

“She’s messed up.”

“I noticed she was strange today. I thought it might be a reaction to medication. But, drunk? It’s noon. How can she be drunk? She was drunk last night too?” As I spoke, I could hear how foolish I sounded. Puzzle pieces started clicking together in my brain.

He nodded as if certain. I felt butterflies swirl around my tummy.

I took the waters to my new table and approached the kitchen window to check on my food orders. Server-Manager entered at the same time and set down the dripping tray of upturned glasses in a bus tub. “Dawn, can you handle the whole floor if I cut Pixie Blonde?”

Actually, I couldn’t. I was tired and my congested head made it difficult to concentrate. The whole restaurant during a rush would’ve overwhelmed me even if I felt strong and healthy. “Yes,” I said. It was the only right answer. “I’ll need your help though.”

“Of course. I’m gonna start transferring her tables to you. There are two new tables outside. Go greet them and figure out what else you can do,” Server-Manager said, as she grabbed two dishes from the window and handed them to me. “These are for Table 14.” The tables in the patio were numbered between 10 and 21.

I went outside and delivered the food to Table 14. I looked around and saw the new tables, as well as two tables with drinks and menus indicating they hadn’t ordered their food. I greeted the new tables, then approached the other two with menus and took their food orders. I went back inside to seek out Server-Manager who was at the pie counter.

Server-Manager was talking to Counter Girl, who had been cross-training as a server. She hadn’t finished her training yet but life was handing her an opportunity before she was ready. Server-Manager looked at me. “Would you like to give Counter Girl the rest of your inside section and you take over Pixie Blonde’s?”

“Yes!” I was relieved. I had 5 tables inside, most of whom were eating or just about finished, and the patio was almost full. It would simply be a matter of fixing Pixie Blonde’s section and finishing my inside tables. Counter Girl could take any new tables inside. I’d still be slammed, but it felt doable.

After I checked on my inside tables, I entered the server aisle where there were two computers stationed together. I had five orders to process and two checks to run. Pixie Blonde was thumping frantically away at the computer screen. I asked her if she was okay. “Do I seem not okay?” she giggled, making an attempt at dismissiveness. I said nothing and abruptly she transformed and grew frantic. “I can’t find my order for table 10!” She reached into an ice bucket where we throw away our receipts and rifled through it with quick hands. “I don’t know where it is. I don’t think I closed it out. Oh! It would be just like me to do that!” Finding nothing to help her in the ice bucket, she turned to me. Her voice cracked and her eyes watered. “Can you help me? Go to table 10 and ask them what they ordered. I don’t want Server-Manager to find out.”

My chest twisted and I wanted to hug her, wipe her tears, and whisper not to worry, that everything would be all right in the world. The reassuring lie never happened. There was nothing I could do that’d make this situation right for her. Even flirting couldn’t save her now. “I’m sorry,” I said, feeling lame. I turned to the computer to process my tables, most of which were formerly hers.

At that point, I discovered that her section was entered into the computer in disarray. Tables were mislabeled with the wrong numbers and I couldn’t immediately decipher what was what. I had to run back outside to mark the food on the tables, then recheck them on the computer so I could relabel them with their correct numbers. I also had to start dummy table numbers just to get certain orders in, later to be merged with the correct tables once I figured everything out. Server-Manager had just arrived at the other computer to process a few orders and transfer more tables to me. She was followed by Counter Girl who was asking questions about the steps of service.

Pixie Blonde never questioned her transferred tables. During this chaos, she stunned me by filling a small cup with soup and standing off to one side to eat. Nobody said a word to her as she quietly ate, including Server-Manager.

Within an hour, I had caught myself up with the patio and all my inside tables were closed out. Lunch rush was waning and I felt like I could breathe again.

Eventually Pixie Blonde’s ordering problem with Table 10 must’ve come to light. Server-Manager asked if I’d done anything with it. I said no. She figured out the order and re-entered it, then Pixie Blonde closed it out when it was paid. As that was the last of her tables which hadn’t become mine, Pixie Blonde closed out her sales, and gave Server-Manager her credit card receipts and cash collected, less tips earned.

“I love you guys. Thanks for all your help!” Pixie Blonde chirped, about to walk away.

“Hold on, Pixie Blonde,” said Server-Manager, “You still owe me $6.38.”

“Oh! Oopsie!” She giggled and studied her checkout slip. “Here it is.” She fumbled some cash and change into Server-Manager’s hand. “Okay. Bye y’all. See ya tomorrow.” A dense silence filled the air.

Later, Server-Manager found the order for Table 10. It was listed on the computer as Table Zero so it couldn’t be processed. Server-Manager deleted it.

The Owner and Server-Manager whispered together after Pixie Blonde left.

The schedule for the following week came out that night. Pixie Blonde wasn’t on it. I had heard she showed up for her shift the next day and was turned away. A week later, she came in while I was working and greeted everyone with smiles and giggles. The door to the manager’s office was closed for about 15 minutes, then she left quietly out the back door.

After she left, I went outside for a quick breather. The hostess was at her stand and told me in a soft, downcast voice that she watched Pixie Blonde ride away on her bike. “… her face staring with lifeless eyes…”

We stood together for a moment as the sunshiny air seemed to darken and become heavy.

A couple ladies approached the hostess stand needing to be sat. I smiled at them. “Would you like to sit inside or outside?” the hostess asked brightly, grabbing menus.

I walked back inside to check on my tables.

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