Ode to My Nice Neighbor

She knocks at my door. I answer.

“I’m a bootlegger,” she said and thrust a gallon jug with a sunny liquor in my hands.

The homemade label says, “Limoncello. Enjoy!” The top looks like a jam jar.

“Cleaning out the house for my move. I found it in a corner, but it should be good.”

I hugged her, “Damn. Now I’m really sorry to see you go.”

She laughed and left just as quickly as she came. “… so much to do…”

“Thank you and good luck!”

I made a lemon drop martini before you could say “Lemonade.”

My dog, Jack, says, "Let them eat steak!"

Dogfucius say, “Love thy neighbor, especially if they make good drinks!”

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Decisions, Decisions

“So, how about some pie, ladies?” I said as I set down a dessert menu. They both groaned and laughed with a huffing wheeze as I organized empty plates, scraped (almost licked) clean, into a stack. This after they exclaimed with wide eyes how huge the cobb salad and blue cheese burger with coleslaw looked.

“Oh no,” said Woman On My Left. “I’m so full! I couldn’t eat another bite.”

I gestured to some indistinct place around my kidney. “Well, you know there’s a special dessert space in our stomachs waiting to be filled, no matter how full the other side gets.” I smiled. “I’ll leave you with the dessert menu just to satisfy your curiosity. Besides pie, we have a white chocolate raspberry cheesecake that’s to die for.” I picked up their dirty dishes and walked away.

When I returned, check in hand in case they were ready to leave, I asked, “Are we having something sweet?”

Woman On My Left said, as if I should stop the presses for some big news, “We decided to share a slice of pie.”

“Great!” I chirped. “Which one?”

They stared at each other briefly. “What kind of pie would you like?” she asked Woman On My Right, frowning with concentration.

The friend deferred grandly. “I like banana cream. But, I don’t care. You pick. Pick any pie.”

Woman On My Left stared at the menu for a few seconds. “Ooh! How about Pecan?”

“Oh, I love pecan,” I said, hoping to rush a decision. It was a busy lunch.

Woman On Her Right’s face scrunched towards her nose. “Oh no. Pecans give me gas. I don’t eat nuts anymore.”

“Well, what would you like?”

“Whatever you like. You pick.”

Woman on the Left furrowed her brows and tried again. “Mmm, chocolate sounds good. How about the chocolate satin pie?”

“The chocolate satin here is amazing,” I said, not caring which pie they ordered. I just needed them to order.

“Oh, I don’t like chocolate. It still gives me acne–and at my age!” Woman On My Right chuckled at herself.

“Lemon meringue?”

“It’s my very favorite pie!” I said, trying not to sound pushy.

“Oh no, citrus makes my stomach acid-y. Gave up oranges and lemons long ago.”

They stared at each other some more. I stared too.

“Razzleberry?” suggested Woman On My Left.

“People love that pie. It’s especially good with ice cream,” I said.

“No, can’t do berries either. Those tiny seeds stick in my teeth.”

Pause.

“Well, what pie do you like?”

“Something creamy would be nice. I like banana cream. But really, pick whatever you like,” said Woman On My Right with a wave of her hand.

Pause. Woman On My Left’s eyes seemed to narrow around a knife point. “Shall we get the banana cream?”

“Oh, yes, that sounds good.”

“We’ll have banana cream.”

My So-Called Double Life

“What else do you do, Dawn? Do you have another job?” asked My Favorite Busboy.

“I write,” I said, a bit reluctantly. I try to stay private at work.

“Oh, really?” he said, eyes bright. “What do you write?”

“I work on short stories and novels. I also have a blog.”

“I love to read. How can I find your stuff?”

“You need access to an ebook reader or computer.”

“Oh. I have a phone.”

“A smartphone?”

“No.”

“I’m afraid you can’t read my stuff then. It’s all online,” I said. Then, noticing his disappointed expression, I added, “Maybe I’ll print out a sample and bring it in.”

I said this knowing I didn’t want to bring in any of my writing. I think I opened up to My Favorite Busboy because I knew he didn’t have a computer or a smartphone and, therefore, would have difficulty finding me online. I like him and it was a low risk sharing of me.

I don’t like feeling the need to be cagey, but I keep a low profile about my writing at my day-job. It’s not just cuz many of my blog stories are inspired by my day-job and someone may take offense at my observations. I recently published my first ebook, An Encounter With Death, a short story which explores themes of sex and suicide. Those don’t exactly qualify for “office” shop-talk. Discussing the finer points of deep despair or how sex can be a loving, healing exchange between two people are not exactly fodder for snippets spoken while cutting slices of pie.

Hot off the online presses: An Encounter With Death. After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A magical tale of the power of love to heal. Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

Hot off the online presses: An Encounter With Death. After a series of emotional setbacks, Vanessa, is filled with despair. She decides to take control of her destiny, but like her life, nothing turns out as planned. Wanting to meet her maker, she instead has an encounter with Death. A magical tale of the power of love to heal. Available for $.99 at Smashwords and Amazon.

Plus, the day-job is generally not a safe place to talk about my writing or even my personal life. You just never know what random situation or misunderstanding will come to haunt you.

A perfect example of why I feel a need to be so careful at work happened recently. It was a busy Saturday night. I had a full station of 8 tables, two of which had just been sat and were wondering where their waitress was. I had two bill books in my hand with credit cards to run for tables who were anxious to leave. I was standing at Table 54 with four customers taking their order. One woman ordered a gorgonzola salad. “I have a nut allergy, so could you take out the pecans and add extra cheese.”

“Of course,” I said.  I took the rest of the orders, greeted my two waiting tables, got their drink orders, and rushed to the computer. When I wrote up the order for the woman at Table 54, I clearly stated, “NO PECANS SUB EXTRA CHEESE.” After I finished the rest of the orders and ran the credit cards, I looked for one of the managers to tell them about the special order, which I knew was important. We were so slammed, I couldn’t find anyone. I looked into the kitchen window to talk to the cooks. “Hey, guys, I got a special order for Table–”

“Put it on the ticket!” one of the cooks said, waving me away. I had to get back to the floor, and hoped I would catch a manager in time.

Later, I saw the manager delivering the gorgonzola salad to Table 54. When she finished her delivery, I flagged her down. “Did you make sure the salad had no pecans?” I asked.

“The Kitchen Manager said there weren’t any. I didn’t see any.”

Satisfied, I went on with my service. Moments later, I noticed the woman was gone from her table. I dropped everything I needed to do to ask if everything was okay. A dining partner said, “There were nuts in the salad. She had a reaction.”

“I’m so sorry. The kitchen said there weren’t any nuts. Lemme get a manager over to talk to you.” I picked up the bowl, stirred it with a fork, and buried under the field greens were a few pecans blending into the colorfully tossed salad. Embarrassed, I said I’m sorry again and went to find the manager. She handled the rest of the service by writing a report and comping the entire meal.

On my next shift, the Bald Man called me into his office. “I have to write you up,” he said.

“What? Why?” I was honestly surprised.

“If a customer has an allergy, you have to write ‘allergy’ on the ticket.”

“What? Okay. That’s no problem. I didn’t know that. I did clearly state ‘no nuts’ on the ticket. Why are you writing me up? The kitchen screwed up the order.”

“They’re saying they didn’t and it’s probably cross-contamination cause some bits of pecan fell into the cheese container. They–”

“Cross-contamination is a kitchen error. They should never cross-contaminate.”

“No, but they didn’t know there was an allergy. If they did, they woulda gotten fresh gorgonzola from the back.” He looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Why didn’t you tell a manager?”

“I tried! The floor manager and the kitchen manager were nowhere to be seen. They were busy running around doing other stuff. I had to get back on the floor to my tables, cuz it was very busy and I was behind on the floor as it was. I tried to interrupt the cooks and tell them directly, but they wouldn’t stop what they were doing to listen. It was a busy night. You know that. You have the sales figures.” I paused. “And, I didn’t know to write it on the ticket!”

“You had to have known to write “allergy” on the ticket. It’s in the manual.”

“Where in the manual? I never saw it.”

“Well, I couldn’t find it this morning. But still… it’s a part of our training.”

“I was never told, or trained, to put “allergy” on the ticket or I would’ve done it. I’m sorry this happened. I take these things very seriously. I care about people. But, at the time, I thought I did everything I could.”

“Look, this went all the way to The Owner. I have to explain to him that you’re in deep shit and back it up.”

“So lemme get this straight. I’m being written up for failing to do something I didn’t and couldn’t know I had to do. And even though both managers and the cooks had their hands in this problem, I’m being thrown under the bus.”

“Just write “allergy” on the ticket.” He motioned to a piece of paper on table. “And sign here. You can write in the margin that you didn’t know.” He said that last bit as if it was supposed to mollify me.

A lot of lip service is paid to team work and team spirit, but when a mistake happens, the team disappears. Shared, and even personal responsibility, also disappears. It’s one person’s problem. Somebody has to take the fall. I work in the politics of cover-your-ass. These people aren’t my friends.

I have a job to do because I need the money. The money-making opportunity needs to be protected. It’s scary to share my private life with The Pie Shoppe. This sounds paranoid, but any knowledge they have may somehow work against me.

And so, I have a working world and a personal artistic life between which exists a wall surrounded by a moat teeming with alligators. I almost regret my lapse in silence with My Favorite Busboy, even though he is also my favorite co-worker. I would love to share my writing and especially my new ebook, An Encounter with Death, with everyone–put a sign up at work or casually mention it to all, including customers who come in. The more people who know, the better chance I have at selling books and letting go of the day-job. But, I’ll take my chances that this small population surrounding The Pie Shoppe can stay ignorant of my dreams and they will still come true.

Vegas or Kitties?

“What’s on your mind, Dawn?” asked Nosy Server, who whenever there was a silence during lulls in the server aisle would start asking personal questions of whoever was standing around. “You look upset today.” I groaned inwardly at how my face wears what’s on my mind like outlandishly trendy clothes that should never be worn at all. The Bald Man stood nearby listening. It was a slow hour at The Pie Shoppe.

“My cat died and I’ll be picking up her ashes today,” I said with my customary directness for which I sometimes wish had a filter. I’m not very good at waffling around whatever I ought not talk about.

“Oh,” said Nosy Server, looking bored.

“Do you have a pet?” I asked.

“I dated a guy with a dog once. Never had one of my own. They’re too much trouble.”

I turned to the Bald Man. “What about you? Do you have a pet?”

“No,” he said. “I’m not a pet guy. Don’t like ’em, don’t need ’em.” Perhaps he realized that he sounded harsh, or perhaps my transparent face betrayed my dismay, because he laughed like he was supposed to be charming and continued. “Think about it.” He poked his finger in the air. “I couldn’t spontaneously spend a weekend in Vegas if I was burdened with a pet.”

Nosy Server gave a polite laugh.

I didn’t particularly like the Bald Man, but right then he had my sympathy. Both of them did. Puppies and kitties give far more than they receive. Their presence is nourishing to the spirit.

On the day I lost Sonoma, I woke up to her laying on her side, stiff and cold, her mouth drooping open and her little pink tongue hanging over her lip. Open eyes, which had stared unseeing from sudden blindness during her last month, now lacked the luster of life. She looked like she may have suffered in her last moments, breathing her last breath while hanging onto life with ferocity I hadn’t known she possessed. I felt guilty for not calling the man with the merciful syringes to come to my home the day before. My mournful vigil over her final days was fraught with uncertainty over what was best. She wound down slowly, like a watched clock. Yet, the home pet doctor and a life and death decision carry their own guilt. The euthanasia of Napa, her sister, taught me this. Death weighs heavy on consciousness, no matter the circumstance.

The beginning of an 18 year journey.

Outside, a morning mist grayed the trees and sky. I turned off the heater, which had been set up to keep her warm in the autumn chill hovering about the house. As prepared as I was to find her laying there, the sharp ache of her passing hollowed out my being, like a gutted and carved pumpkin. She and her sister purred on my lap for over 18 years. They came into my life before I bought my first cell phone or sent my first email. They witnessed two career changes. They moved with me from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. They watched my heart break, and love again, then break again, love, break, love, break, and love once more. They were my intimates, constant companions in a life filled with change. The loss of Napa earlier in the year was soothed by Sonoma, now laying on a cream-colored blanket. I could barely accept they were both gone.

It took almost a week for me to throw away their litter box. I hadn’t been rushing to get rid of all-things-kitty, and their toys and favorite blankets sat around where they were left. The kitty food container, and what was left of their food, rested on top of the fridge. But the eyesore sitting next to my toilet, all dusty and poo-stained, seemed clearly doomed for the trash. What surprised me was how the unpleasant nightly ritual of sifting through litter, carried out approximately 6,753 times over the lives of my kitties, had embedded itself in the normalcy and beauty of my life. They were consummately clean, never once doing their business outside of the box. The task was unlovely, but it was performed lovingly and was a privilege of their presence. I miss the litter box terribly.

Precious memories.

Every so often I see Sonoma out of the corner of my eye, a ghostly glimpse of her sitting patiently at my feet while I tap away at the computer. In the past, if I took too long to notice her, a little paw would rub my leg to let me know she was there. And if that wasn’t good enough, she’d meow incessantly until I picked her up and put her on my lap. If I briefly left the computer without picking her up, I’d come back to find her laying across my keyboard, something she knew I didn’t like. Negative attention was better than no attention. Of course in her final months, all I needed was the paw-rub. She eased the loss of Napa, which in turn made me realize her time was short. Every bit of attention I could give her was given.

When I wake up in the morning, I sometimes imagine Napa is still sleeping between my legs, her favorite place. She had a way of settling into my lap where her eyes, a passionate blue, almost violet, would soften and deepen as expansively as an endless twilight sky. They were loving and dreamy, and made me feel like I was her whole universe. She knew how to relax into bonelessness, her purr rumbling like an outboard motor and her breathing billowing her whole torso. It was quite unlike the shallow chest breathing I see afflicting many of us with worries tightening our stomachs. My kitties embodied how to live in the moment and just breathe.

Napa and Sonoma put love above food in their hierarchy of needs and would stop eating to luxuriate in my pets. When I held them, they would cling; when I needed to set them down, they masterminded passive resistance, becoming dead weight, far heavier than their dozen pounds. Both expanded my heart into an understanding of love which made our often cruel world feel like a soft place to land. They were as separated from me as a fish from a tree, yet they taught me how to feel connected. In a universe where two little creatures could fill my heart to overflowing, how could it be rooted in bad? How could there be a heaven better than the moments I spent cuddling in the furry warmth of their affection?

My Baby Girls’ gifts were everlasting.

Yin Yang Kitties: they taught me about life and death.

I looked at the Bald Man squarely and said, “If you had a pet, you might think they offer more than a weekend in Vegas.” He frowned and I walked away. It was probably better to have kept my mouth shut, but I often can’t help myself.

Reading, Wine, and a Dog

“Would you like another Chardonnay?” I asked. My regular’s glass was a quarter full. He doesn’t like to wait long between glasses. It was late afternoon and not very busy at The Pie Shoppe.

“By the time you pour that glass, I’ll be ready,” he said with a smirk. He comes in almost every day. Roly-poly, balding, and bespectacled, he always sets up a hardback book from the New York Times best-selling fiction list on a reading stand to peruse while he sips four glasses of Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. Today he had two books, one two-thirds open on the stand and one waiting near his pudgy elbow.

“That’s a lot of reading for one Pie Shoppe visit,” I said.

“Oh, I read very quickly. I’ll finish this one and be a quarter way into the other one before I leave.” Later, it turned out he wasn’t bragging in vain.

“Guess the Chardonnay helps.” I laughed.

With his third glass, he expects a slice of cornbread. “Center cut. Please make sure it’s very fresh.” If he’s really hungry, he’ll order the turkey dinner or pot roast to be enjoyed with the fourth glass. It was a hungry day, so he ordered the turkey, extra gravy on the side, melted cheese on his veggies. “And I’d like to order a top sirloin to go.”

“That’ll be a nice lunch tomorrow.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my friend’s dog. I’m dog sitting for a few months.”

“Oh. Must be nice to be a guest in your house.”

He laughed. “She is man’s best friend. I don’t know what to feed her.”

“I’m sure a pet store would have something.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t sound convinced.

“How do you think she’d like her steak cooked?”

“I think she’d like it medium rare. How do you think?”

“Well, I like my steak rare. You know, still mooing. But I’m not a dog.”

His face scrunched at the idea. “Maybe medium’s better. Yes. Medium.”

“Okay. It comes with loaded mashed potatoes. Do you think she’d like that, or maybe just a plain baked potato?” Loaded mashed potatoes come with bacon, chopped green onions, sour cream, and cheddar cheese melted together on top.

“Hm. I’ll take the loaded mashed potatoes. What are the veggies?”

“They’re the same veggies you get. A medley of yellow and green squash, carrots, broccoli and onion. You want that for her.”

“I think maybe she wouldn’t like the broccoli.”

“I can order it without broccoli.”

“That’d be good.”

“Great. Thank you.” I rushed off to place his order.

My dog Jack says, “Let them eat steak!”

As I gave him his fourth glass of Chardonnay, I said, “It’d be cheaper next time if you buy the whole bottle.” A bottle of wine is just under 5 glasses.

“Yeah.” He smiled. “But that would be so indulgent!”

Charm Above Circumstance

Another boring day at the office?

The Pie Shoppe had another couple hours left before closing and I was feeling crabby. There were very few customers to wait on. Ahead on the to-do list was cleaning the server aisle, where sticky pie fillings and greasy pie crust crumbs managed to get onto everything. The unstimulating, corporately designed decor, with its drab brown tones and dreary furnishings, was weighing me down. I was bored and wanted to go home. Feeling sorry for myself, I greeted my new table.

“If your name is ‘Dawn’, how come you’re working at night?” His face was merry and the wrinkles around his eyes crinkled flirtatiously. He sat with two white-haired ladies.

“Working at night keeps me off the streets,” I quipped back, hoping my current crankiness didn’t put too much edge in my voice.

“Do you work late?” he asked.

“I’ll be closing the place.” Sadly, I wanted to add.

The older of the ladies asked, “What time do you close?”

“We close at 11 p.m. on Saturdays,” I replied.

“What if I came in at 11 p.m.?” she asked.

“I suppose if you walked in the door at 10:59, you’d get served,” I replied, still hoping my annoyance didn’t show.

“Yeah. With a bunch of spit in my food.”

“Ha!” I laughed in spite of myself. “There might be some surly spread on your burger and fries.”

The dry humor didn’t stop, especially with the gentleman. “I suppose I need to tap a spring to get more water around here.”

“It’ll be fresher and better tasting, then,” I said.

At the end of their meal, I accidentally gave them the wrong bill.

He waved me over. “There’s a problem here. I want to pay this but I don’t remember drinking a root beer.”

I apologized and gave them the correct bill. “You’ll probably like this less since it’s more.”

“I’m still waiting for my rootbeer,” he said.

“I’ll bring your rootbeer.” I smiled and winked. “And pour it over your head.” Their mirth was contagious.

“Dawn, go away, you’re no good for me!” He sang the oft-sung-to-me song charmingly off-key.

“Stop it,” said the younger lady, smiling. “You’re making her nervous!”

“It’s true,” I said. “I’ll go home and cry myself to sleep tonight.”

She said, “Well, tomorrow will be the dawn of a new day!”

They paid their bill leaving a generous gratuity. I didn’t see them come in so as they stood up to leave I was startled to see the gentleman struggle to set himself upright on two canes. His face twisted with pain as he balanced himself. Then he looked up, saw me, and instantly brightened, “You have a nice rest of your night, now.”

“Thank you. I hope you do as well.” I said.

He slowly lurched out of the restaurant with his two ladies tottering behind.

Who was I to feel sorry for myself?

Passages

I stood at the hostess stand and one of my regulars, The Wife, walked in with a man who resembled her husband– same handlebar mustache, same slightly wild, side-combed hair, only they were sandy-colored instead of gray.

“Hi! I haven’t seen you in forever,” I greeted with a big smile.

She smiled too. “Have you met my son?” she asked.

“No, I haven’t had the pleasure.” He and I shook hands then we walked towards a booth in my section. “Where’s your husband? Parking the car?” The words tumbled chirpily out of my mouth, even as I suddenly sensed what was next.

“He passed away a couple months ago.” She sounded calm.

My chest collapsed. My eyes stung. Death’s hooded presence was looking over my shoulder again, his scythe hollowing out my heart. I was still reeling from the recent loss of my cat. The Wife’s loss of a lifetime love, whose union was represented in their middle-aged son, and his loss of his father seemed incomprehensibly painful. All I could manage was, “I am so sorry.”

“Thank you,” she said, recognizing compassion in my moistened eyes.

As they settled into booth, I asked, “Would you like your extra-hot decaf?”

“No,” she said with a tiny shake of her head, “I’ll just have water.” She’d never just had water before.

I looked at The Son. “I’ll have water too,” he said.

“He looks just like him,” I said to The Wife.

She puffed up proudly. “You think so?”

“Oh yes. I almost thought it was him when you walked in.” I was happy to make her happy. But, as I walked away, I looked back to see her sparkle had dulled like lead, and her ash-colored hair hooded her crestfallen face.

When they were finished, he approached me at the server stand with the bill book open, exact change for the bill on one side and a $5 bill–a generous tip–on the other. His father paid with the same style. I thanked him.

He stared at the front of the restaurant, a wall of windows and a door leading into the patio. The parking lot blacktop glistened darkly under the midafternoon sun. “He passed suddenly. A bleeding ulcer. I had lunch with him the day before. The next day he was gone. We argued at lunch. I didn’t get to say I’m sorry. I didn’t get to say goodbye.” The words were stated blankly, numbly, as if they were said before and often, but the repetition hadn’t eased their poignancy. Then he looked at me. “Life changes. It always changes. We can’t fight the changes.”

My mind floated to my cat. She was put to sleep in my lap by a home pet doctor’s needle. I had to fight the rising force in me to jump up and rip the needle out of the gentle hand, whose owner was invited into my home to do exactly what he was doing, to scream out, “Stop! Stop! You can’t murder my cat! I won’t let you! Please stop!” Instead, my scream stuck in my throat in a bilious lump. My hands caressed my kitty as they had for all her 18 years, while tears dripped off my chin in steady rhythm. She was ill and had suffered enough. Any alternative was more suffering and little hope for much else.

Her surviving litter sister took it better. We all spent the morning huddled in bed, their purrs a continuous hum. As her sister ceased breathing, she moved restlessly about. The body was laid to rest in a cat bed to be picked up later by the crematorium. She sniffed her sister softly, then licked her gently, like goodbye kisses. She laid down to share the bed, as if she was still alive to snuggle, until the body became cold and stiff. She got to say goodbye. I got to say goodbye. I got to say I’m sorry.

No, we can’t fight the changes.

I said, “He will always be with you. He is with everything now.” I hugged him spontaneously, though I’d only just met him, then hugged his mother, who joined us at that moment. We said no more and they turned to walk slowly out of the restaurant.

Me and My Sweet Survivor