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.

Advertisements

How to Date Your Waitress

Theatrical Server looked mystified as she counted cash from a bill book. “I just don’t understand,” she mused.

“What?” asked the Manager Server, a young blonde who doubled as Assistant Manager and Server depending on the shift assignment. That day, she was serving. She and Theatrical Server are terrific friends.

The lunch rush was dwindling. I was hiding in the corner of the server aisle, nibbling on some illicit cornbread and listening. To eat unpurchased food at The Pie Shoppe was strictly forbidden by The Owner who considered it stealing no matter how long we worked without a break.

“The guy at 62 kept asking me out. He kept saying he wants to share a slice of cherry pie with me one day.”

“Hahaha! Cherry pie? That’s random. What was he suggesting?”

“Cherry pie came up cuz his mother asked if it was good and I said it was my favorite. That’s what I say every time someone asks me about a pie,” said Theatrical Server with great élan. She was a natural flirt. In addition to working at The Pie Shoppe, she was a lead singer in a band, went to college full-time, had an active social life, and generally burned the candle at all ends.

She went on. “So, he just paid and left me a $3 tip. The bill was $24. He was still talking ‘bout wanting to share cherry pie when he walked out of here. That’s messed up!”

Manager Server said, with a wry grin, “So, you gonna go out with him?”

“No! I don’t get it. That tip’s insulting. Plus he asks me out. What’s he thinking? I would’ve been okay if he gave me just one dollar more. Two more dollars would’ve impressed me!”

“Did you wanna go out with him?”

“Dude! No! That’s beside the point.” Theatrical Server’s pale emerald eyes glittered.

“Maybe he doesn’t know how to tip.” She was still grinning.

“Shit! He doesn’t know how to date.”

Analyzing Mr. Pig Man

“I took Mr. Pig Man’s order since you weren’t there. He’s in your station. I’ll put it in the computer and transfer it to you,” said Perfectionist Server. He’s tall and thin, and his uniform shirt is always dry cleaned, starched and pressed.

“Oh my god! You keep him. I don’t want him,” said Theatrical Server. Her short, dyed-black hair was side-parted and combed diagonally across her forehead, then tucked behind her ear.

“Sorry. I don’t need his dollar.” Perfectionist Server was talking about the tip expected to be left by Mr. Pig Man.

She stamped her foot and shook her hands in the air. “Oh, God! I can’t stand waiting on him! He’s so rude!”

Mr. Pig Man, a regular at The Pie Shoppe, earned his moniker for a variety of reasons. His face resembled a pig, sans snout, with a sallow complexion, beady eyes, and sparse, greasy hair. His belt hid beneath a protruding pot-belly. He ate like a pig, both in quantity and quality, shoveling copious amounts of food into his mouth with sloppy gusto. His ordering was abrupt and squealing, like someone making demands but who was uncertain he’d receive compliance.

As Theatrical Server waited on him, she repeatedly refilled his iced tea. She microwaved his big bowl of potato cheese soup and full rack of BBQ ribs “very hot.” Corn bread sprayed from his mouth as he called for more napkins. Every time he got up to refill his plate at the salad bar, he adjusted his ill-fitting clothes pushed aside by his corpulence, hiking up his pants and pulling down his shirt. His over-loaded salad plates were cloaked with ranch dressing like a snow-capped Mount Everest. He mowed down ribs and fries like they were blades of grass. When he finished eating, the table looked like a toddler made merry there.

When he was ready to leave, Mr. Pig Man sought out Perfectionist Server in the server aisle and gave him the bill book with some cash. “Here’s your money. Keep the change, buddy,” he said in a jovial tone I’d never heard before, waving his hand as he walked away.

“Why did he pay you when Theatrical Server waited on him?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Cuz I took the order?” he suggested.

We both looked at the cash. There was $30 left for a $28.18 bill. His tip was a dollar and some coins. Theatrical Server approached.

“Here’s your money from Mr. Pig Man,” said Perfectionist Server.

I started wiping the pie area counter of crumbs and smears of fruit and whipped cream. “Funny, I never heard him talk like that before, sounding so friendly. I wonder if he doesn’t know how to talk to women. Maybe he’s afraid of women. Or shy. I feel sorry for him. He’s probably never been laid.”

“Never been laid? I don’t think sex factors in,” retorted Perfectionist Server, who was organizing the glasses and pulling empty racks to take to the dishwasher. “I mean, fuck sex. I don’t think he’s ever had someone’s arms around him. Think about it. He’s what? Late 40s, early 50s? It’s possible he’s never been held. I’m talking by someone who’s not his mother or sister or something. And maybe not them either.”

Theatrical Server, who was loitering, holding up her money from Mr. Pig Man, looked fascinated and serious. “Well, what about his defense mechanisms? If you put it out there like he does, it’s what he’s gonna get back. You can’t walk around being unpleasant all the time and expect people to hug you. How we act attracts what we get.”

I said, “I don’t think he’s aware of how defensive he is. It could be unconscious behavior.”

Perfectionist Server replied, “Yeah. He was probably raised by people like all the parents we see here all the time, where their kids can run around how they please, drinking soda after soda, screeching, and getting ignored, while their parents sit on their smart phones, texting.”

Theatrical Server moved closer to Perfectionist Server, enthusiastically chewing on the discussion. “That’s so true! These parents don’t get that what they’re doing is creating another Mr. Pig Man. I think it’s sad.”

At that point, we all dispersed from the server aisle to check on our tables. Mr. Pig Man was forgotten.

On Serving Pink Slime

“I would like the BBQ Cheddar Burger, extra cheese and add bacon. No tomatoes, no lettuce, and no pickles. Just the burger, cheese, bacon, and onion ring,” said the woman. Her hair, eyes, and skin were monochromatic brown and vaguely masculine. “Oh, and make the fries extra-crispy. Is there dressing on the burger?”

“Thousand Island. Also BBQ sauce,” I said.

“Extra dressing on the side. For my fries.”

“How would you like that cooked?”

“Better get it well done. Is there pink slime in it?”

I paused. The question put me in an awkward spot. I didn’t know but figured the answer was “yes”. I knew I couldn’t give that answer without repercussions. “We’ll cook the pink slime out of it,” was all I could think of to say. Thank goodness she laughed and stopped pursuing the question.

I sought out the Bald Man. “I’m fielding questions about pink slime. Is it in our burgers?”

“If it is then we pay too much for our beef,” said the Bald Man in well-rehearsed fashion.

This didn’t answer my question and I sincerely doubted we paid top dollar for beef. I’ve watched quality go down and cost cutting go up in the years I’ve worked at The Pie Shoppe. Since the Bald Man had taken over as General Manager, we’ve been squeezing the nickel until the buffalo poops. The food coming out of the kitchen has been increasingly prefabricated. Earlier that day, I watched a cook dump individually frozen, pre-cooked, pre-chunked turkey breast pieces onto a sheet pan. They sounded like marbles as they clattered across the surface, glistening a strange shade of gray. Later they were served in the salad bar. Once upon a time, we freshly roasted turkey breast in-house for our dinners and salad bar. Now the turkey breast comes frozen, pre-roasted, and ready-to-eat in a vacuum-packed bag. So does our “Freshly Roasted Whole Turkey”, which we unwrap then rewrap for takeout Easter dinners. I’ve also watched them dump frozen “Tasty Yams” straight from the freezer bag into the foil containers customers take home.

I said, “I’m not sure pink slime is tied to pricing. I read it was in 70% of our beef supply.”

“That’s all the cheap grocery stores,” he said, his tone sharp and his body stiff.

“Foodservice too. It’s not just grocery stores.”

“They’d have to tell us if there was pink slime in our meat,” he insisted. I wasn’t sure who “they” were.

“What do you mean? Did you ask? I don’t think distributors volunteer the information. The FDA doesn’t require labeling or disclosure. It’s part of the hue and cry.”

His head jerked backwards and his eyes narrowed. The air felt crackly. These kinds of questions and direct conversation made me unpopular with the Bald Man. I knew if I kept it up, I’d likely see my schedule reduced by one shift next week, or find myself closing the restaurant on Monday nights. He punished for his annoyances where it hurt: my wallet. I needed to redirect the conversation, so I laughed a little too loudly and said, “Well, pink slime is only the tip of the iceberg. Why aren’t people asking about hormones, antibiotics, and GMOs?”

His tone was still sharp. “Pink slime isn’t even bad for you. It’s meat. It’s still part of the cow. If people wanna worry about something, they should worry about the chemicals in food.”

I turned and grabbed a couple of glasses and filled them with orange soda and root beer. The subject was dropped.

The Perils of Being Dawn

“The vegetable soup is really good. It’s a light broth loaded with veggies,” I suggested to a woman who didn’t know what she wanted to order and regarded me tensely and warily. Her wide, faded blue eyes set under a widow’s peak and a crown of wispy white hair didn’t look familiar. Yet, I wondered if I waited on her before and forgot to refill her coffee when requested. Or bring extra napkins. Customers often have long memories.

“I’ll have the vegetable soup,” said her friend whose tone and manner were gentler, more relaxed. She smiled her encouragement to the Wary Woman.

“I don’t know,” said the Wary Woman. She stared at the menu, then me, like we were trying to sell her land under the Golden Gate Bridge.

“It’s my favorite soup of the bunch,” I said.

“It is good,” reassured the Relaxed Woman.

“It’s good?” she asked, never losing her edge of suspicion.

“Yes, I love it,” I said.

She studied me for a second, then said, “Yeah, but your name is ‘Dawn’.”

“Yeah?” I wondered what I’d done to offend her.

“That’s the name of my daughter-in-law,” she snorted, waving her hands dismissively.

She ended up ordering the vegetable soup and seemed to enjoy it. After confessing her feelings, she was all smiles. Throughout the lunch, I paid them extra attention. “I’m gonna redeem the name ‘Dawn’,” I assured the Wary Woman.

“Why don’t you just take her place?”

“Well, I’d need to meet him first.” I giggled self-consciously, wanting to pass off the remark as a joke.

She didn’t laugh. “Oh, he’s great. You’d like him.”

“Yes, I’m sure I would. But he might not like me and–”

“We’ll work it out!” she insisted. I laughed again. She still didn’t.

Vanity Plates

“I’d like some black coffee,” said the woman. Her eyes squinted at my chest through rimless bifocals with thick, black, gold-trimmed earpieces. “Look at her name tag.” Rectangle-shaped earrings swung as she turned towards her friend. A geometric pattern woven into her sweater repeated her earring pattern.

“Oh. Dawn.” the other woman responded, with a tone that sank into the seats. Her wrists and neck were draped in gold chains, and her short-cropped gray curls harmonized with the purple rims of her glasses and bright peach cardigan.

“Well, my name certainly isn’t Pie Shoppe,” I quipped, hoping to lift the tone. My name tag indicated both my name and the name of my employer.

“Dawn is the name of my daughter-in-law,” she said with the same tone and shrugged. Then she suddenly laughed. “Her license plate says SUNRISE.”

“‘Sunrise’? ‘Dawn’ sounds so much prettier,” said Geometric Woman.

“I know. ‘Sunrise’ sounds so pretentious and clunky!” said Mother-in-Law. “There are so many DAWN plates out there it would’ve had to be DAWN469. She wanted the name, but no number. Obviously no one else was interested in SUNRISE.”

“I’ve always thought ‘Aurora’ was a pretty complement to my name,” I said.

“Aurora. That’s nice. I like that too,” said Mother-in-Law. “My son’s license plate says SPORTS NUT.” She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Don’t know why they spent that money. Why didn’t they go out to dinner instead?” We laughed with her.

Senior Discount

She sat under a dome of snowy, perfectly coiffed hair staring at her credit card slip and bill.  A red jacket covering a sunny blouse looked pressed.  Her fingers, twisted and white, like exposed roots, held the pen poised in the air.  She maintained this pose for a while and I wasn’t sure if she was confused.  She had come alone, without the care of a nurse, which so many of the elderly customers at The Pie Shoppe had in attendance, so she must have been capable.

I passed her table and she looked up.  “Thank you for giving me the senior discount,” she said, her voice musical and soft.

She mistook me for her server.  I didn’t wait on her and her server was on break.  “You’re welcome,” I said.

“I take the senior discount so I can turn it around and add it to your tip. I want you to have it.”

“Oh! Thank you.  That’s very nice of you.  Not every one does that.”

“Well, it’s nice to be able to do it.” She placed the papers carefully into the bill book and handed it to me with eyes that sparkled under their rheumy glaze.