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

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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.”

Gray is the New Black

I enjoyed the blunt, direct nature of Outspoken Hostess, figuring she was compensating for her youth and size. Petite and pretty, she was the youngest worker in The Pie Shoppe. At barely twenty, she hadn’t outgrown the know-it-all teenager, which she broadcast from a face well below my chin. I never had to guess what she was thinking. Over the three years she’d known me, she offered unabashed and unasked for opinions on my eye makeup, hair, lipstick color, uniform cleanliness, and overall skinniness. Yet, she was charming, like the cute and quirky sitcom sidekick who says all the things the star of the show is thinking but is “too nice” to say. Perhaps I seemed like a lost chick and, as a young mother with two small children, she’d taken me under her wing. Since I was almost old enough to be her grandmother, I tended not to take her too seriously.

It was slow. I was at the hostess stand waiting for customers and staring with longing at the sunshiny day outside, when Outspoken Hostess said, with the slightest lilt from her Spanish accent, “What are you doing after work, Dawn?”

“I don’t know. Why?”

“Maybe you’d like to come for a makeover at my house. My mom can do it for you.”

I looked down at her dark, straight, streaked hair pulled neatly into a bun at the nape of her neck. Two artfully selected burnished tresses framed her round face. My hair was also twisted into a bun. I touched my frizzy flyaways self-consciously. “Uh. Why? Do I need one or something?” Outspoken Hostess and I often shared dry-humored ribbing as well. I figured she was creating some entertainment to pass the doldrums.

“I wanna make your hair darker. Give it some color.”

“My hair already has some color.”

“Yeah, but you need a different color. Gray is not hot. Gray doesn’t look nice. You need to brighten your hair.”

I didn’t want to reveal it, but this hurt. Wrinkles don’t bother me. Neither does sagging skin. I’ve even shrugged off perimenopause symptoms, however difficult they sometimes are. Quite irrationally, gray hair is different. My fading hair makes me feel like a flower withered, dry and drab, and, like a vase full of dead flowers, society seems ready to throw hoary old ladies in the dumpster. Still, the perverse devil’s advocate in me decided to play this game. I said with a grin, “I thought gray was the new black. Lotsa celebrities are going gray. Some of the younger ones are coloring their dark hair white.”

“That’s not gray, that’s platinum blonde,” she deadpanned as if she wondered how I could miss something so obvious. “I’m serious. I’m being real. When I care about people, I tell it to them straight. Just let her do it. My mom can give you a cut, style and color. We’ll do it for free. You just pay for the product. You’d look tits. So boss.”

Tits? Boss? Damn, I felt old. I surmised she meant those nouns as positive adjectives. I believed she was verbally putting her arm around my shoulder, giving me a heart-to-heart. “I’m trying to embrace my gray hair,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster.

“Why? Don’t you want to look your best?”

“Doesn’t gray hair look good too? It’s a color.”

“No. It doesn’t. It’s dull. It’s plain. Think about your man. You can’t get yourself a new boyfriend and then let yourself go. You have to keep looking good so he’ll stay.”

“My boyfriend is encouraging me to grow out the gray. It was his idea.”

She laughed. “What boyfriend would tell a girlfriend that?”

“A good one.” I laughed too. “You wait ‘til you’re my age. You’ll remember this conversation. You’ll wanna embrace your grays too. You’re going to be embarrassed you were so rude to me.”

“No, I won’t. I will look good. My hair will be colored so I will look my best.”

“C’mon, it’s not that bad. A woman can still look good with gray hair.”

Another server, who was also young, was listening in and Outspoken Hostess turned to her. “I’m trying to tell her she needs to color her hair so she can look her best. Don’t you think she’d look good if she got some color?”

I said, “I’m growing out my gray hair to see how it looks. What do you think?”

She startled at the attention drawn to her. Her blue eyes spiraled, like the center of a whirlpool, moving quickly around between Outspoken Hostess and myself. Her mouth opened and closed soundlessly before she sputtered, “I don’t know. I can’t tell. Your gray hasn’t fully grown in yet.” Then she ran off, seemingly as quickly as she could, presumably to check on her tables, but most likely to avoid any more spotlit questioning.

“See!” Outspoken Hostess looked smug.

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.