The bell just rang and Frank’s fried eggs are up with Faye’s broccoli omelet. Marco watches you stumble, these old feet two steps slow. Spattering grease crackles out of rhythm with your creaking joints. You’re the last to hear anything and even you can hear it. Look at him looking at you, swooshing his broom through yolk and shattered glass as if it could’ve been prevented.
Stan at table two needs another iced tea. Refill water at 16 first. Sunday means pitchers of water. Get with it. Gloria in the back booth waves three fingers: more coffee, more OJ, more something. Bell rings again. Or did it. Could be Sergeant Timmy’s oatmeal. You know he likes it hot and you should say it, too, just like that. You know you like it hot, Sarge. Wink at him. And then drop the check at table 5.
It’s just another burner. You need a vacation, old girl, relax and refresh. Read a book. Put in your time off. Hop a train up north. It worked in ’88. Three days in a lawn chair by a pool resting these legs. You’ll see. It’s just a burner. You’re just in a bad way, that’s all.
“Deena,” Marco’s saying, “You okay?”
Nod, lift that tray, and then take a step. Pay no attention to that noise, it’s just frozen potatoes in a hot skillet, the suction from the freezer door, the opening of a coffee tin. Nothing more.
“It’s just a burner, Marco. I’m fine. Really.”
Stan’s holding the glass upside down over his tongue. Get him that OJ, for heaven’s sake. And Frank’s waffles are getting cold and if you don’t fix this soon Faye’s spinach will harden and then they’ll really give it to you. Not that they’ve ever been the giving type. Table 5 needs a check. Eggs and Hashers at $3.59 each and a side of sausage patties, $.99 and two coffees each $.99 and a short stack of pancakes is $5.00 minus half whatever that is, plus the 8.5% for tax, carry the one. It’s $16-something or other. Be a dear and round down. You’ve made a living by rounding down.
Check dropped, grab the food, refill some drinks. You’re clear. It’s just a passing moment, that’s all. Shit, you’ll even have time to grab a cig.
“It’s hot,” Marco says.
“Dear, I’ve been at this since before you were born.”
“Don’t,” he says.
Too late now, so just tell the boys the order again, on the fly. Acknowledge the applause and move on. Take it in stride. Good.
Water to table 5 and pick up the check at 16. Let’s keep our wits about us and move along. Hunch your shoulders, wave to Marco. Sorry, kid. Apologize to Faye for winking at Frank and get him a new iced tea because he’s complaining that it has pulp.
Your feet hurt, you didn’t get enough rest, those damn heat lamps are hotter than normal, the customers are needier, this place is falling apart, the kitchen is understaffed, the sections have gotten out of hand, the hostess double and triple seats, you need a cigarette, a drink, a burner to end this vacation. A vacation to end this burner.
Marco’s shrugging, holding his hands out. Tell him a joke, maybe a story about his old man and about how this place used to be run.
“Your father wouldn’t have left this office looking this way, Marco.”
“You’ve got a pension, right?”
“And Medicare. Social Security. Some savings?”
“I think so.”
“You think so. Either you do or you don’t.”
“Then I do.”
“So that’s it. Suddenly you know? Deena, pay attention. This is important.”
“It is. I am. I’ll be fine.”
“I won’t just throw you on the street, Deena. So tell me that you’ve planned for this.”
“Of course I have. “
“Please. Rethink this. Be a hostess. Or a cashier.”
“That’s not what I do.”
“You’ve always been a stubborn one.”
“So listen up, okay? Listen. If you don’t feel like cooking some days? Come here. On us. From now on. It’ll always be on us.”
“Sure. Thanks, dear.”
Door jammed again, falling apart like the rest of this damn place.
“Come here. Over here, girls.” Their tails brush the back of your knees.
You forgot to fill the water dishes. And turn on the air conditioner. You know better than this. When it gets to be this damn hot out, turn it on low. Keep some air flowing in here, let the little ones breathe.
Stop folding that, Deena. Why bother.
$17.59. The least that little weasel could’ve done was let you finish the shift, given you some room to breathe.
“Here, girls. Look: water!”
Put out a few more bowls. And a few more with food, too. Just in case. This burner’s got hold of you in a big way.
The air conditioner is cracking and creaking. Stop that air from entering through the sides. Get more newspapers and fix that. You know better than this.
We all need some room to breathe.
Take off these filthy pants. We don’t need any stains to remind us of anything. It’s quite clear, thank you, that we’re not in need of any reminders. In fact, throw them in the rubbish. The apron, too. All of it. Let Marco buy you a whole new set once he comes to his senses and calls you back. The least he could do for sending you out in the middle of a shift, even, not letting you say your goodbyes or grab those tips.
The clock isn’t ticking. Do you see it? You’ll need to fix this. It’s probably just a battery, but that hand hasn’t moved in days.
The girls haven’t touched their food. Or the water. Maybe we’re all in a burner.
These legs are just sore. Your head is tired. It’s been a long few weeks, nothing a vacation can’t fix. A cigarette, a drink, a good book.
Let’s walk to the shore. Sit in the sand. Bury these old legs. Sip on a pop. Wait.
Michael Smith is a freelance editor, teacher, and fiction writer. He is a graduate of The Stonecoast MFA Program at The University of Southern Maine. Michael has recently completed a short story collection, Your Former Ex-Lover, and is hard at work on his first novel. By way of Cleveland, Columbus, Boston, and Chicago, he now resides in Colorado with his wife and their English bulldog. His short story, “Last Pay Phone in America,” was featured in an the Spring 2010 issue of the Portland Review. For more, please visit www.bsidesnarrative.com.