Job Searching 102: Easy Come, Easy Go

My cell phone shrilled its faux phone ring and I looked at it. Father Owner was calling and I hit answer. “Hey there! I was just thinking of you. Our minds must be connected through the firmament.” I giggled my little self-conscious giggle.

Father Owner let out a small laugh and simply said, “Yes.” He went on with a wavering voice. “Listen, I have to talk to you.”

“Okay.”

“There’s a reason I couldn’t give you the schedule last night. Remember when I said Son-in-Law had a guy in mind?”

“Yes.”

“We talked about it. He won’t let this go. He wants to bring his guy in.”

My belly immediately felt chilly. Three days prior, I was hired by Father Owner as a server in his restaurant, Neighborhood Bistro, and was very excited. On and off throughout my sojourn with The Pie Shoppe, I’ve looked for another job. I kept hoping to work two jobs as I settled into my new restaurant and, assuming all went well, I would eventually and happily let The Pie Shoppe go. I had cold called Neighborhood Bistro a couple of times and loved the place. Father Owner and I chatted and got on well. He had held onto my resume, and some 8 months after my first visit he called me in to meet with Son-in-Law, a co-owner. This meeting went well and they hired me on the spot to start training that night. During the interview, we discussed The Pie Shoppe. Since Neighborhood Bistro operated with a set schedule and the Pie Shoppe had a flexible one, we determined it’d be easy for me to work the two together.

Neighborhood Bistro was set in an Old Town section of a well-to-do neighborhood in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The ambiance was light and cheerful. The entire dining room was sheltered under a large tent. Around the side and back was a tall, vine-covered brick wall, lined with flowering potted plants. The tent connected to a small, old house which had been repurposed into a kitchen, office, server aisle, and bathroom. A large front porch served as the entrance and in the very front was an open patio, nestled against the sidewalk, with large umbrellas shielding the tables from the sometimes hot Los Angeles sun. Inside, strings of lights, artisan lanterns, and candles gave a soft, beckoning glow. All the tables were painted brightly with primary colors. The booths and chairs were cushioned in secondary colors. Tall wine glasses and white folded napkins adorned the tabletops. The menu was eclectic and gourmet, changing seasonally. Father Owner and Son-in-Law co-owned the place with his wife, Father Owner’s daughter. Both Son-in-Law and his wife were trained chefs with a resume of fancy, fine dining establishments from around the country. The food was freshly prepared with an artistic touch. The music, a playlist off their iPod, was lively and upbeat. The family-owned Neighborhood Bistro charmed.

In almost every way, I was excited to replace The Pie Shoppe, a chain restaurant set inside a strip mall. Their corporate environment, where the mandates of the system treated the employee like an object to serve a purpose, was wearing on me. The menu of American comfort food standards, created out of the industrial food complex, was of dubious quality. Ingredients came into the restaurant pre-cooked, pre-chopped, pre-mixed, and frozen to be assembled onto plates by short order cooks. The ambiance was sterile, colorless, and cowardly, made to be the least offensive to the greatest number. The canned internet music was so innocuous as to be distracting.

For two days, I trained with two Neighborhood Bistro servers. The first started as busboy and, over 10 years, worked his way to being an assistant manager. The second was Father Owner’s Son, who was leaving the restaurant to go on an extended traveling adventure with his wife and new baby boy. I was to take over his shifts. From what I could discern in two days, the training went very well and the culture of the place seemed easy-going. All the employees had computer codes to comp and void what they needed off of tickets, a process usually limited to the management as a check and balance to prevent employee theft. Father Owner’s Son assured me that I must’ve been hired because I was like one of them and could be trusted. Everyone was very welcoming, including Son-in-Law. The food was beautiful and my early menu sampling was a party in my mouth.

“He wants to bring him in,” I repeated. “You mean, he wants to hire us both? Try the other guy out too?” This would mean less shifts, which I was okay with since I’d be working two jobs for the short-term anyway.

“Well… no… here’s the thing,” he said, with a hesitant, stumbling voice, like he’d rather talk about anything else in the world. “Last month, my daughter and I made some changes to the restaurant that he didn’t agree with. He’s been upset about it ever since. Now that we have some hiring to do, he’s insisting on his way, even though I’m in charge of the dining room and he runs the kitchen. He just wants to feel like he’s listened to, like he’s been validated.”

He paused, but I didn’t speak, so he went on. “Listen, I’m sorry. The guys that trained you, they like you. I like you. Your experience and personality are a really great fit here. And Son-in-Law can see you’re a strong server. He doesn’t have any problems with you. It’s not about you. He just wants his guy. Personally, I don’t like the guy.”

I jumped in. “You don’t like him and Son-in-Law would still force you to work with him in the front of the house? Doesn’t he manage the kitchen and you manage the front?”

“Yes. I know how it sounds. It’s complicated. This is part of a string of decisions where Son-in-Law is feeling picked on and singled out in the family. I offered to hire both of you and split the shifts but he said no. He wants his way only. In this case, because of what went down last month, I have to give in. It’s a family dynamic thing.” His voice never lost its awkward, I-don’t-wanna-be-here tone.

“Oh, I get it. It’s political,” I said.

“No, it’s family dynamics,” he said, as if I should understand the difference. “Son-in-Law doesn’t feel like he has a voice in the restaurant cuz my daughter and I pushed through a change he didn’t like. So he’s putting his foot down on hiring his guy, with no compromises.”

I sat quietly for a bit and this time he stayed silent too. Then I said, “So, you’re letting me go?”

“Yes. I have to. I am so sorry. Of course, we’ll pay you for the two days of training.”

“Okay. But do you realize you put me in a bind? I told The Pie Shoppe that I have a second job now and I only need a limited schedule. Now I have to go back with my hat in hand and say I’ve been fired already–beg for my hours back. Next week, they only gave me one day. That schedule is set. That’s a significant bite outta my income. I can only hope they’ll give me more the following week. Am I supposed to just be a casualty in your family dynamics?”

I heard a sigh on the other end. “Yes, I know. I am so sorry.”

I believed he was sorry. He went on again. “Listen, I’ve got your number in my phone and I still hope to bring you in. I’ll call you if something happens.”

“Yeah, okay, thank you.” I said. I didn’t say what I was thinking. How would I know I’d be hired for real next time? We talked a bit further as I told him my hours worked and my address so he could mail me a check, then we hung up with an uncomfortable goodbye.

When I went to The Pie Shoppe on my next shift, Server Manager asked after my new job. I said, “Well, my second job that dropped in out of nowhere just as quickly disappeared into thin air.” I gave her the rest of the story.

Her face grew solemn and sympathetic. “It’s probably good you found out about this so quickly. You know, it’s interesting–corporate is a beast and family-owned is a beast. In a family-owned restaurant they make their own rules. In corporate…” She paused. “… well, corporate is corporate.”

“Great. No such thing as a beast-free zone in the workplace.” I laughed and went back to my tables.

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

Dogfucius say, “Man looking to be beast of burden need to be careful what he wish for.”

Bread and Pickles: Death and Dying

I’ve had very few experiences more awful than telling my father, now in late-stage dementia, that my mother died suddenly. He listened to me without comment, staring as he sat in a wheelchair in the hospital room, his padded hospital socks sliding down his ankles and his arms and legs bandaged from cuts and bruises due to multiple falls. The edges of his diaper peeked out of his tennis shorts, a throwback to a time not long ago when my parents played tennis for several hours every morning. Every now and again he’d take a deep breath. I wasn’t sure he understood.

“Dad, are you okay?” I asked. My sister stood by my side, silent, sorrowful. The whites and grays of the hospital room looked stark against the lush greens and blues outside the hospital window where a low hill reached unsuccessfully to touch the Hawaiian sky. He looked at me without speaking, his eyes faraway. “Do you understand about Mom?”

“Your Mama?” He hadn’t referred to my Mom as “Mama” before. It was always “Mother” or “Mom.”

“Yes, Mama died.”

“What did she die of?”

“Cancer.”

He sat for a moment and took a deep breath. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“Yes.”

“I’m getting used to the information,” he said. At this stage of his illness, his mind had good days and bad days. Luckily, this news was given in a fairly lucid moment.

“Yes, it all happened very quickly.”

We all were silent for a long moment. He stared off as we watched him. After a deep breath, he said, “You girls are in a pickle.”

“A pickle?”

“You’re cut loose now.”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re trying to figure out what to do.”

“What to do?”

“Yes. About the pickle.”

He sat still, receding into himself for a second, then said, “You’re thinking about the pickle.”

“Yes. We need to figure out what to do about the pickle.”

He paused again, then said, “The pickle is conditional.”

Conditional? Did the dad of my youth just peek out to say our current problems were based upon multiple interdependent factors? This was reminiscent of my cerebral upbringing as the daughter of a university professor whose life’s work was quantitative analysis of politics, international relations, and the causes of war. When we were kids, he would’ve used the complex terminology, “… multiple interdependent factors…,” in speaking to us, as opposed to, “… a lot of related things….” My dad didn’t believe in dumbing down the language for children and was proud of being an intellectual, now obscured behind the thick curtain of dementia. Not long after hearing our sad news he also talked about what he had for lunch that day, mentioning with the same lofty assurance, “The salad is conditional.”

My dad was essentially correct: my sister and I were faced with multiple interdependent pickles. He needed skilled 24-hour care. Up until that week, my mom had been caregiving by herself. She refused to move him out of his home, saying it belonged to him. Her desire was to die in her own bed, and she wanted no less for her husband. But her heart had been worn from the nursing she wasn’t trained or temperamentally suited for and broken from witnessing the gradual loss over five years of the only man she ever kissed. For two years, she let a secret cancer grow in the same place where worry and anxiety fester: her bowels. I think she hoped the malignancy would eat her pain. By the time my mom could no longer conceal the symptoms from my sister, it was too late. She died a couple weeks later.

There was no time for grief. We suddenly faced the need to take over my parents’ concerns. We had to scour our family home to piece together their finances, arranging for my dad’s care and my mom’s affairs. We were completely unprepared.

After hearing the news, I flew to Hawaii the next day to help my sister with these pickles. I stayed for two weeks in our family home, now empty, save for shadows and echoes of our family story. Digging into the dusty corners of their home of 42 years also gave glimpses into their inner life which our shyly limited conversations could never bear.

My sister and I were exploring the refrigerator, sussing out what had gone bad. My mom’s body had given out on her a week before and the fridge had barely been touched since. I pulled out a half loaf of bread stored in a used and cleaned bag, printed with “Bean Sprouts” and some indecipherable Chinese characters. “Is this from one of your favorite bakeries?” I asked.

“No. Mom made that.”

“Oh!” I breathed, suddenly feeling reverential. “Mom’s homemade bread.” This I intoned while carefully refolding the bean sprout bag around the bread and placing it back on the shelf, certain I would be eating it later. Memories flooded and tears flowed. I hadn’t had her homemade bread in over 30 years, not since leaving home for college. In fact, over all those years, I’d had precious little of my mom’s cooking, which so defined my childhood and our relationship.

Despite her growing tumor, my mom must’ve surprised herself by dying. Her refrigerators–there was one in the kitchen and one in the laundry room–were bursting with homemade dishes she clearly planned to eat and a myriad of fixings for new meals. Next to her death bed were a stack of recipe clippings ready to be organized into a basket of file folders resting on stack of cookbooks, also next to her bed. When we were growing up, her mothering was not prone to displays of affection, physical or verbal, but she made every mouthful of food we ate at home from scratch. Even my school lunches, diligently packed, were the envy of my lunchmates. Her nurturing came through nourishment–it was how she loved, how she connected to others. Within the aloof barriers of my mom’s behavior lay the deeply tender heart of one who saved a set baby teeth from a long ago pet in a jewelry box, and a set of baby clothes belonging to my sister and me, neatly folded in her bedroom closet.

Once upon a time, I wore these.

Once upon a time, I wore these.

She especially loved baking. Cakes, cookies, muffins, pies, in all varieties, and bread. All kinds of bread–white, brown or black, sweet bread, sourdough bread, oatmeal bread, molasses bread, yeasted bread made from potatoes or banana, braided breads and long french loaves. The house was constantly filled with the scent of fresh yeast and browning flour. The aroma of bread baking reminds me of home. We never ate “balloon bread,” as she referred to commercially prepared loaves, her nose high in the air. The image of dough sitting in a Pyrex bowl underneath a dish towel, rising “until it’s double,” is baked into in my brain, like razor cuts baked into a crusty loaf. Through her I found a love of cooking and food. It’s one reason my day job waiting tables is (kinda sorta) palatable.

A profoundly independent woman, my mom refused proffered help from my sister and me in the caregiving of my dad as his dementia moved from mild to severe in the last couple years. She would accept no assistance even as she knew she was dying. It didn’t matter that she was letting herself go, she couldn’t let him go. Through it all, she cooked for him, making him gourmet meals even after he ceased to be able to identify what he was eating. In cleaning out the refrigerator/freezer, we found two pans of mushroom gravy, two varieties of leftover cooked rice, strawberry jam bars, orange jello surrounding a fruit medley, peanut butter and chocolate chip bars, drop biscuits, fresh cut fruit, meatloaf, meat drippings for more gravy, fresh veggies and fruits, spaghetti sauce with mushrooms, banana bread, and more, so much more. I was fed with lovingly prepared meals for my entire two-week trip and barely made a dent in her Sub-Zero.

My Mom's Bread

My Mom’s Bread

The half loaf of homemade bread was the highlight–her most basic, white loaf. It had been in the fridge for a couple weeks and was stale, but divine as toast, with a sweet caramel crunch and pillowy texture. I ate it with melted butter and the last of her homemade strawberry jam. I topped it with eggs fried sunny-side up. I grilled it in her cast iron skillet with cheddar cheese ’til it was crunchy and gooey. Her bread was the first thing I could eat after an unfortunate bout with food poisoning–plain, dry, and healing. Every morsel was savored and I felt the hand of my Mom in each bite.

The pickles still continue while my dad marks time in a nursing home, slowly dying. By contrast, my mom died on her own terms, a chosen path where she wanted to leave this world with her mind intact–something she was painfully aware was being denied to my father. We saved her ashes to be spread with her husband of 52 years in the bay they viewed from our family home. Her legacy is one of love, though she would’ve had difficulty expressing it in words. She brought two girls into the world and gave them a profound love of cooking and soft, sentimental souls. My mom still nourishes, though her spirit has moved on.

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

Dogfucius say, “Half a loaf is better than no bread.”

Postscript: My Live-In Gentleman Caller gave me a half loaf of homemade bread on our first date. It was crusty, chewy, with a lovely sourdough tang. My friends joked his earlier date got the other half. I later found out his perfectionism forced him to withhold the half that got burned. Though we dated several months before we kissed, I believe he had me at half a loaf of homemade bread.

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.”

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.

Random Customer Feedback

One of my customers recently filled out a comment card for The Pie Shoppe:

Food: “Fair”

Service: “Excellent”

Suggestions? “The environment is relaxing and I like the way the light comes in the big picture windows. The food wasn’t bad, just a little bland. Someone in the kitchen needs to be a little less generous with the grease. The music isn’t too bad either, just turn up the volume a little. Dawn was very pleasant and outgoing. Very knowledgeable about food. She made a lame date bearable. I need to be done with online dating. There may be Plenty of Fish out there but so many of them swim in brackish waters. This one needed to be spiced up more than the food. I may come back, hopefully with better company.”

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.