This is the worst it’s going to get, Janice thinks to herself. And maybe she’s right. She’s smack in the thick of the breakfast rush, businessmen in tailored business suits at a half dozen tables and gossiping housewives littered throughout the restaurant. Janice maneuvers around the chairs and tables, crammed tight like salty canned fish, and crying babies, too many of them.
Janice looks at the clock. It’s early, only eight thirty, which means this isn’t the worst it’s going to get. Not even close. There will be more. In half an hour, a whole new group of customers will pour in, and these old customers haven’t been fed yet and their coffee is disappearing – a magic trick! – at a startling speed and she hasn’t even taken everyone’s orders. Plus, James is pissed at her. He’s mercurial, the breakfast cook, impossible to predict his mood or whim. Some days, he’s a champ in back, flipping pancakes as fast as omelets and just as fluffy, and the orders come out smooth. Other days, he’ll put out scrambled eggs the minute he sees the order print out and wait five minutes before starting the French toast, which takes at least ten minutes to cook, leaving the eggs cold and the customers angry. He does it to spite her. She knows it.
“Sorry for the wait, folks. What can I get for you today?” Even though her patience is gone and she’s overwhelmed in every possible way, she beams a smile, forces her teeth to shine for the three businessmen who aren’t at all upset at the wait now that she’s there and cheerful and cute as a fucking button.
“Hey, Jan, yeah, I’ll have an omelet with egg whites and spinach, provolone, and bacon.”
“Parmesan or wheat toast?”
“Can I get tortillas instead? Oh, and instead of potatoes, I’ll have beans.”
“No problem, Bill.”
Bill’s a regular. Janice could’ve put in his order without him saying a word, but she always stands there and asks, because no customer wants to be too predictable. They want to believe there’s still spontaneity to their dull lives.
“And for you?”
“What’s the difference between migas and chilaquiles?”
“Hm, well,” Janice hates this question. It’s on the goddamn menu. So she recites it, word for word, exactly like it’s printed, only with a smile that she knows is ironic but no one else does, except other waiters, because they all do it too. “Migas are three eggs scrambled with onions, bell pepper, cheese, and chips, and chilaquiles are three eggs scrambled with chips, then smothered with our salsa and cheese. Then we put the whole thing in the oven for a few minutes to melt.”
“And which would you recommend?”
She hates this question too, but she chirps, “It depends on how much spice you like. Do you like it spicy?” Her smile is coy, and she knows better than to let him answer. “Because migas are mild and the chilaquiles have a bit of a bite to them. And you know what I love? I personally prefer the chilaquiles with garlic. It’s delicious.”
And easy as that, she’s upsold him seventy-five cents. It’s not much, but it’s the difference between a four dollar tip and a five dollar tip, and even though it’s just a dollar, it feels satisfying to get one bill that’s worth more than four singles.
“And, um, I’ll have the pancakes.”
“Whole wheat, buttermilk, or special? We have Elvis pancakes on special today: it’s an oatmeal pancake with peanut butter and bananas.”
“What do you think?” This guy is charming, if by charming she means handsome, if by handsome she means obviously wealthy. His suit is charcoal, paired articulately with a pale yellow shirt and bold blue tie. He’s greying. He has small wrinkles at the edges of his eyes.
“I love the Elvis pancakes. I mean, you can get any of those other pancakes any day you come in here, but the Elvis pancakes are a treat. If you like sweet things. It’s dessert disguised as breakfast.”
“You’re good.” He winks. He doesn’t hide it. He’s flirting. He’s flirting in an obvious way that makes Bill a little uncomfortable. He shifts around in his chair. He doesn’t want his friend to come across as lecherous, not at his restaurant. “I’ll take the Elvis pancakes.”
“Ok, thanks guys, I’ll be right back with some more coffee for you.” And just like that, Janice turns and pumps her butt ever so slightly at Elvis pancake guy. Her emerald skirt flairs. She knows the men watch as she walks off. She counts on it.
Elvis pancake man leaves her a twenty as a tip. On the back, his phone number. On a napkin that’s all twisted up, “Dinner tonight? Real French food.” He’s cute in that bland kind of way, but he’s clearly got money. She noticed that he drove off in a Jaguar, which is reason enough for her to consider his offer.
She sticks the twenty into her apron and stuffs the napkin into his coffee cup, still half full. She watches as the napkin siphons a different color, and just as fast, she crams a bunch of dirty silverware on top, like no proposal was ever even made.
Janice knows better than to take anything like this seriously. She gets offers like it at least once a week. She never dates customers, not out of ethics or anything, she just doesn’t think it’s worth it. If she plays it right, they keep coming in, they keep leaving her robust tips.
It’s the fantasy they care about.
Must be a fetish: fucking your waitress.
Something about the apron.
Every day it’s basically a fugue: a theme and variations on her very first day opening the restaurant. She gets up between 5:45 and 6am, stumbles through basic hygiene – more or less just brushing her teeth and finding some mode to restraining her hair – picks out an outfit – in the dark, she opens her “tops” drawer and her “bottoms” drawer and removes at random. She puts on bobby socks and her black high top Chuck Taylors and heads out the door. Somehow, she arrives. The car ride is so automatic that she hardly pays attention and doesn’t remember anything memorable, on the radio, on the streets, it’s all hum-drum. She shifts gears without regard, breaks, stops at lights, and it’s all automatic. She unlocks the front door to Le Triplets – a joke because these half-French triplets used to own the place, only two of them have split, moved off to another state, that’s how bad of a break it was – by half past six, walks in, and locks it from the inside. Before she adjusts any of the lights, she turns on and up the Muzak, 80s Hits!, and then the espresso machine. She makes an Americano for herself and an iced capp for Bill in the back. She puts whipped cream from a bottle on his, slides in a straw, and goes to the kitchen to say hi.
She’s there early enough for them to go outside for a smoke. She never finishes her cigarettes, always stops an inch from the filter, the brown camel never disappears into ashen glow, force of habit.
Outside, they talk about nothing but it’s never silent.
Then, she rushes back in, leaving Bill to finish his smoke, to wash her hands and drink her coffee and open the restaurant. First, she turns on the two coffee makers and runs a round of hot water, for cleaning. She dumps them into the sink and makes a total of three pots of regular, one decaf, and one plain hot water, for tea, even though the best water to use for tea is from the espresso machine. It’s the right temperature for steeping. Water from the coffee pot is rarely hot enough, especially after it’s been sitting out for an hour, often longer. Some days though, she’s just too busy to wait that extra eight seconds it takes to walk over to the espresso machine and let the water drip out. Some days, thirty seconds makes a difference, even eight seconds makes a difference, no question about it. Then, she goes over to the tea makers and starts brewing regular tea: one enormous black tea bag plus three small mint teas. Afterwards, she’ll make the raspberry tea. Any other waiter would start the tea before coffee, since it’s for iced tea and the machine takes forever and then the damn thing has to cool off, but Janice does things her way, and that’s that. A quarter til open, the cashier shows up. Three days a week, it’s Brian, a sweet kid but dopey as can be, calls himself Zen unironically, and two days a week, it’s Lizzy, a total punked out attitude bitch but killer at her job. It’s only after the cashier gets there that Janice adjusts the lights. Le Triplets has paneled windows, from about mid-chest to the ceiling. She prefers the natural light, letting her eyes adjust as the sun also rises.
Then, she fills up the syrup containers and takes them to the back, tosses the fruit salad and puts it over a tub of ice, washes off and slices two boxes of strawberries, and by five til open, she unlocks the front door, turns the Muzak down to a tolerable decibel, and takes three small two-top aluminum table and chairs outside. By five after, her six regulars are there, seated at the same table even though they’re all parties of one, and they have their drinks and their orders have been put in. Every day, five days a week, it’s the same. With these first customers, either she knows exactly what they want – so she just waits for them to walk in and nod at her to signal that they want their regular – or they leave it up to her discretion to order something to their liking, which she always does. Janice is the kind of waiter who can tell what anyone wants to eat, what will make them happy and sated, with just one quick glance. She also knows when customers order food that they won’t like, and even more importantly, she knows when not to tell them about their poor judgment or taste.
And it’s been the same way every day for the last thirteen years. Since she moved away from small town Illinois. Since she was eighteen. Same place, same ritual. Janice knows she could do something better with her life, but for the life of her, she can’t. Or doesn’t. What’s the difference if you’ve been waiting tables at the same place for thirteen years, anyway? This is it, her life: the twenties were a blur of sandwiches and omelets. But at least she’s living in a real city, and it’s warm almost every day of the year, so she has nothing much to complain about. When she was a kid, she didn’t think she’d be a waiter, and she sure as monkey’s poop didn’t think she’d be living in Texas, but then her dad left and her mom blamed her – maybe not in so many words but mothers don’t need to explicitly state everything they feel in order for a daughter to understand – and then she kicked her out at sixteen and then she finished high school and jet as quick as she could. She left Illinois four days after getting her diploma in the mail.
In elementary school, her teacher assigned her a pen pal. They kept in touch, all those years, long and loving letters, Mira was the best friend Janice had, even though they’d never met, and so she got her diploma and packed her scant belongings and started driving: San Antonio. The place sounded exotic and bustling. In San Antonio, she’d find a home, a home where she actually belonged.
She thought she’d go to college after she established herself, got her bearings, but then she didn’t. She lived with Mira for a while, until she went off to school. Janice thought they’d be close forever, but Mira left her hometown and so did Janice, and they’d never be close again, at least not in proximity. Believe it or not, Mira moved to Champaign, barely an hour away from where Janice used to live: Normal. Normal, Illinois, what a farce.
Janice thought she’d go into forensics. She thought she’d be a cop. She thought she’d be anything but a waiter at thirty-one. She thought she’d be successful. It’s not that she doesn’t make a good living, because she does, but being a waiter is humbling – every single fucking day she is humbled, practically brought down to her fucking knees – and she thought she’d be something important. But someone has to be a waiter, or else there’d be no more restaurants.
At nine, the owner comes in, but usually, she doesn’t do much more than order people around and shuffle this and move that. The restaurant could be full – twenty tables, just one waiter and one cashier – and even then, maybe she’ll help bus a table or give people coffee refills, maybe. After an hour or so, though, she’s woken up and starts working. At 10:30, two more waiters come in along with a busser, and Janice gets to go on break.
Even though she’s small and short and thin, she eats a full meal, which she knows she’ll regret with the lunch rush, but she doesn’t care. She’s starving and tired, exhausted and only midway through her shift, so she eats eggs for protein and cheese for deliciousness. And she eats quickly, chewing only a few times per bite, to give herself enough time for a quick jaunt outside for another smoke. Good God knows she needs it.
Lunch is busier than breakfast, but they’re fully staffed, so it’s easy.
By 1:30, she’ll be cut and start sidework: rolling a batch of silverware and prepping coffee and tea for the next day. She’ll count her ones and sell them to the cashier for a C-note and some twenties. On any given day, she makes a hundred fifty, maybe two hundred bucks. Not bad for an honest day’s work, if by honest she means perky flirting with men she’ll never sleep with and counterfeit praises to the housewives’ and their ridiculous outfits. Before she leaves, she’ll order a half-sandwich to go – chicken salad on wheat – and a bag of chips, and a few hugs to the staff, because they’re friends, or the closest thing to friends she’s got, and she’s gone, out the door, until she does it all over again tomorrow.
But it’s not 1:30 yet. It’s only a quarter after eleven, and the restaurant is almost full. She only has seven tables now, as opposed to the twenty she had for breakfast, but bodies adjust, just like everything else, and she feels overwhelmed.
Two housewives come in, they’re friends and dining together but they’re both on their cell phones, chattering away. Maybe even to each other, it’s hard to tell the way people use technology as a substitute for real interaction these days. It wouldn’t surprise Janice at all if they were really talking to each other through a phone rather than face to face, even though they’re there, face to face, at a dirty table, and they look annoyed on their cell phones, despite the smiles that must accompany public outings and perfect housewives, because the table is dirty. There are other open tables in the restaurant, at least three, in someone else’s section, but no, they sit in hers, at a very dirty table, the previous patrons’ half-eaten salad and crumbs of forsaken crust.
“Let me clean this off for you, ladies.” She doesn’t smile. She wants them to recognize their faux pas, but they don’t make eye contact. “I’ll be right back with a towel to wipe this down. Can I get you something to drink?”
One woman, the brunette, raises a finger to shush Janice. The other, the blonde, holds an immaculately manicured hand over her Blackberry and says, “I’ll have a Diet, and so will she.” Janice doesn’t say “Thank you,” or “Sure, no problem,” or any other perfunctory niceties. She walks off, no bounce in her step. When she reaches the fridge, away from any customers’ gossiping ears, she sighs, “Cunt.” She sends the busser – Curtis – out with a towel, two sets of silverware, two Diet Cokes, and two glasses filled with ice. She hears the brunette say, “Um, can you be a dear and just throw out that ice?”
The restaurant is painted a creamy canary yellow. Booths line the windows, and even though they have the most uncomfortable seats in the place, customers ache for the booths. They’ll wait for however long it takes to get one. Often times, they will rush to a booth as soon as previous patrons get up, satisfied. They ignore the waiting list. And it seems like it’s always Janice’s job to tell them to go back and wait until their name is called. Depending on her whim, she can be polite, or, she’ll say, “This isn’t a bar, you know.” And even if they end up sitting in her section, she’ll swap tables with one of the other waiters.
The patrons are all well-dressed, even though Le Triplets isn’t a fancy restaurant. It’s hardly French, the triplets thought it was funny to pretend though. They serve California style food. It’s all fresh and relatively healthy, except breakfast, but even then, they have the option of eggs whites or tofu instead of regular eggs. And not that many restaurants in San Antonio have that kind of choice. The place is adored.
Most of the employees are artist-musician types. Everyone is in a band or something like that. It’s one of the few places in town that welcomes alterna-hipsters, both as employee and customer. That’s what made Janice apply there in the first place. That, and it was Mira’s favorite favorite restaurant, back when she lived there, that is.
Janice takes every other order in her section first, before returning to the women. It’s spiteful and it’s bound to dock her tip but she doesn’t care. Not today. “So, what’ll you have today, ladies?” She puts all her weight on her right foot and hooks her left foot around the vertical calf.
The blonde says, “Can I have a chicken salad sandwich?”
“Sure. On wheat or parmesan bread?”
“Oh, no bread. Can I have the sandwich without the bread?”
“Sure, so you just want a scoop of chicken salad.”
“Oh, um, no. I’d like everything that would go on the sandwich, like all the fixings, but just no bread.”
“Sure. Do you want the mayo and mustard on the side? And I can put the chicken salad on the tomato and sprouts. No problem.”
“That’s perfect. Except instead of sprouts and tomato, can I just have it on a bed of lettuce? And instead of mayo and mustard can I have a little bit of Caesar dressing?”
“So what you want is a Caesar salad with the dressing on the side with a scoop of chicken salad on top?”
“Oh, no, you’re misunderstanding me. I just want some romaine lettuce and a side of dressing and a chicken salad sandwich.”
“Just so we’re clear, can you show me how much lettuce you want?” It’s hard for her not to roll her eyes. She protrudes her teeth into something resembling a smile.
With her hands, the blonde makes a gesture to indicate a size similar to their small salad. Instead crinkling up her nose and squinting her eyes and gaping her lips to indicate disgust—which Janice has been known to do in front of customers she disliked – she shoots off a half-smile, fully knowing that a sandwich costs seven bucks and a small salad costs six, plus the scoop of chicken salad, which is another four and a half, so Missus Picky-I-know-exactly-what-I- want-and-you-better-make-it-just-right-for-me-because- I’m-a-goddamn-princess will be charged an extra three and a half dollars, for no other reason than because she was a bitch to her waiter.
“And would you like croutons or parmesan cheese with it? Your lettuce, I mean.”
“Oh that would be so perfect. You read my mind!”
“Well, that’s why they pay me the big bills.” She fake laughs. Both women follow suit. “And for you, ma’am?”
“I’d like a turkey sandwich.”
“On wheat or parm or no bread at all?”
“It’s a sandwich,” the brunette says acerbically. “Of course I want bread. Which one is healthier? Like fewer calories.”
Janice doesn’t say anything for a minute. Who wouldn’t know the answer to that question? She restrains the sarcasm that wants release and very badly. She says, dry as unbuttered bread, “The wheat.”
“Well, wheat then.”
“That comes with mayonnaise, mustard, tomatoes, and sprouts. Is that ok?”
Janice can’t believe the blonde is so much more high maintenance than the brunette. She was sure at first glance that the brunette would be the handful, that she’d be the one with the ridiculous order, food that she herself could never prepare or expect anyone she respects to. More than a decade of being a waiter, and sometimes, Janice is still wrong.
“And would you like it toasted?”
“Is that better?”
“Sure, if you like your bread toasted it is.”
“And chips or pickles with that?” Here it is: the upsell. Fall for it, fall for it.
“This Diet tastes funny. Can I have another one?”
“It comes out of a can, ma’am. It’s not fountain drink.” Janice shouldn’t be arguing with her customer. But she was right after all, a simple victory, but the bitch really does prove to be a handful.
“Well then, I’d like a new can. One that tastes normal.”
“Sure thing.” She swipes the can into her hand and saunters away. The restaurant is unsettled with all the chatter and eating. This is part of the thrill: survival. She’s endured way worse. These women are amateurs. Janice pours the Diet Coke out in the sink, tosses it into the recycling bin, and tells the busboy to bring that brunette bitch a new can, Coke, not diet. “Tell her that’ll fix the nasty taste if she complains, ok?”
Every day, it’s basically a fugue, as in fugue state, as in she disassociates herself from herself, puts on her Jan the waiter face. When she isn’t working, no one calls her Jan. She actually hates it, apocope, the dumbest of poetic devices, which any normal person would call – wrongly – a nickname. Her name is Janice, and she wants to be called Janice, except for when she’s working at the restaurant. Then, she’ll let whoever call her whatever if it means getting a bigger tip. When she’s working, she’s all cheery as an inane Disney princess who doesn’t know how fucked she’s about to get before she arrives at the happily ever after. After work, she’s a wannabe poet, brooding and scrawling in a blank notebook – no lines, Jesus, lines are so confining! At work, she wears kiddie thrift store shirts that any elementary school student would wear. They stretch tight against her tits, which are not insubstantial. At work, she wears skirts from Urban Outfitters: hip and stylish. After work, she wears black, usually a t-shirt, skinny jeans, and a hoodie, all from American Apparel. Her status as a poet can be signaled through her dress alone. That, and her Moleskine notebooks. She even changes her glasses. At work, pale blue oval wire rim, and after work, thick white rectangular plastic. She is two different people: Janice and Jan. One makes the money, the other makes something like art.
Even though she’s all smiles at work, Janice is stormy. Because poets must be stormy. She hasn’t gone to school for it or anything like that, but she’s read through the entire poetry section at the local bookstore. She likes the newer stuff, sure, but there’s something just too exposed about it, like poets ought to write in metaphor, not so literally. What she loves is the Modernists. Give her Eliot! Give her H.D.! Give her romance and a world assundered by war! The poetry published today is just too safe. And too easy.
Before going to bed, no little girls pray to become waitresses when they grow up. They pray that they’ll be president or a doctor or a nurse or an astronaut or a lawyer, even the occasional firefighter or ambulance driver or paramedic, but never a waitress. Janice was no different. When she was little, she wanted, more than anything else in the whole wide world, to be detective, just like her daddy, before he left her and her momma. Her daddy was the best detective ever, he solved thousands of cases, but when he left, he forgot his badge, which was tin and light and didn’t even have their city name engraved in the shield. It said, “Detective #1,” and that’s exactly what he was to her: the bestest detective ever. Her momma didn’t say anything after he left, just that he was gone and probably wouldn’t come back. Janice was thirteen then, maybe should’ve known better, had more common sense, but this is way things go sometimes with little girls and their daddies: they have to believe.
Janice wanted to be a detective, but when it came time to start at the police academy, she didn’t make the list for new cadets. She was sixteen and pretty and way too young to become a cop. Her momma didn’t say anything then either, just that she should move out and soon and probably not come back. It wasn’t that her mother was mean or uncaring. Janice just romanticized her deadbeat drunk of a husband so much that it hurt, literally, it hurt her mother to look at her.
“Ok, Momma, ok,” and then she left, just like her father, with only what she was wearing. Luckily, she’d started waitressing earlier that year, at a dive two blocks south of her house, for spending money and food, basic necessities, so she had a car – a beat up 1985 Toyota Corolla, it didn’t even have a CD player or automatic windows – and a little bit of cash and enough brains to go to the cheapest motel in town and ask for a discount if she moved in permanently.
At 1:30, the restaurant is supposed to be slow enough that Janice can be cut. But today, for whatever reason, they can’t, and now it’s a quarter after two, and she can’t take their ineptitude any more.
“I’ll have a Caesar salad, but I only want the white part of the lettuce.” The woman is stout and very Jewish. As if to play into stereotype, her family never leaves more than a two dollar tip, and that’s if the waiter does everything they demand. Janice has only waited on them once, and they left no tip at all. They made an argument to the owner that they were unsatisfied with their service, and their meal, that if anything, Janice should have to pay their tab. Which is to say, they have a—reputation. Usually, they come on the days Frank works, because he can deal with them, and Wednesday is his only day off. Usually, they walk in and Frank doesn’t even have to swap tables with the other waiters. That’s how bad they’re hated. It’s the attitude and the tip. One or the other would be manageable – hell, one or the other is expected – but both, well, no one can handle them but Frank and he’s not working, so here’s Janice, still working forty-five minutes after she should’ve been cut, fifteen minutes after she should’ve been in her Corolla, blasting David Bowie and smoking a cigarette, and there’s no one else to wait on the Steinbergs but her. And they sat in her section.
“I know how you like it, Missus Steinberg.” She says it without attitude, more like resigned suffering.
“Well, Jamie, last time you mucked it all up. My salad was full of the darkest greens. So I’ll say it again. I only want the whites.”
The last time Janice waited on them was four and a half years ago. Apparently, the old hag has an infallible memory. And, it’s an outlandish order.
“And I want the wheat roll toasted, in the oven.”
“Yes, ma’am. No problem.” It’s a problem. Jacob, the salad guy, he won’t pick out the whites for her. Janice’ll have to stand at the Caesar salad bowl and pick out the white pieces. Not quite needle in a haystack but seemingly just as tedious. She’ll have to turn on the small oven and wait for it warm up and put the wheat roll in – just one fucking whole wheat roll – and toast it. “And for you, Mister Steinberg. Do you want your usual?”
“How do you know what my usual is? Who are you?” His hands rise up to his ears. He shakes his head. “I’ll have a small Caesar, no croutons, cheese on the side, tossed. And a wheat roll, also toasted.”
Janice knows his order, not because she waited on him four and a half years ago – which she did, sure, but her memory isn’t half as good as the old hag’s – but because she’s heard Frank ask Jacob to make the salad ten thousand times, and every time, he’s pissed to make it. “Ridiculous,” he mutters. And Frank would tell him to be watch his “attitois,” a stupid running joke in the restaurant. Why is corniness funny?
“And for you?”
“Wait,” Mister Steinberg cuts in, “did you hear my order? I need confirmation.”
“Yes, sir, I heard your order. I even wrote it down. You’d like a small Caesar salad, no croutons, tossed, cheese on the side, with a wheat roll toasted in the oven. Is that right?”
“Oh she’s good. I like this one,” he tells his wife, and Janice watches as her eyes roll, a clear affront, but at this point, it doesn’t matter. She just needs to survive for long enough to escape. Maybe she’ll call that businessman after all.
“And for you?”
“I’ll also take a small Caesar, dressing on the side, cheese on the side, extra croutons, no bread, with one extra side of dressing.” It’s the daughter. Sometimes she comes in, sometimes she doesn’t. Usually, when she comes in, she brings her three demon brats with her. They go wild with the toilet paper in both bathrooms. Then, they turn on the faucets and pretend it’s a sprinkler. Lucky for Janice, today it’s a party of three, and three Steinbergs are enough.
“Ok, great folks, I’ll be back in a few with these salads.” It’s late, and she’s not sauntering or flouncing or floating. Her steps are heavy with exhaust and anticipation. She doesn’t want to tell Jacob the order, but he’s a sweetheart and she doesn’t have to. He knows. He saw them come in, and she looks up at him, a stainless steel island between them, her eyes glassy. He’s handsome and tall, sometimes he waits tables and all the teenie-boppers want him to come over. He doesn’t flirt and he still gets a flagrantly good tip.
Jacob saw them come in, and as a gesture of kindness – or maybe sympathy – he turned on the oven for her and he picked out the whites from the large salad bowl and he prepared everything in advance, while she was still taking the order. All she has to do is put the rolls into the oven. He smiles at her and his teeth are white and straight. He’s young and youthful, still in college, and Janice is practically a cougar in a cub’s nest. “Oh, Jacob, you just fucking saved my day.” It comes out a sigh, a song.
Five minutes later, she gets the sign from the owner that she’s been cut, finish out her tables and start sidework. After the busy day, she knows she’ll have a double batch of silver to roll, and sure enough, Tomaz, the dishwasher brings it out: a double batch. He’s a kick – small, old Mexican man, he wears platform shoes, he’s so short. He puts bus tubs full of dirty dishes, heavy with waste, on his toweled head and shouts, “Coming through! Give the little guy a chance, no one ever gives the little guy a chance!”
It takes Janice thirty minutes. She orders her half sandwich and takes off her apron: two hundred twenty dollars. The Steinbergs left her a five. But she doesn’t flee immediately to her car. She walks towards the kitchen, rolling up her apron, shuffling through the crap in her messenger bag. She stops at the salad station, leans her lean body on the metal island, and says, “Thanks, bud. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know.” His eyes are a vicious blue. His brown hair makes perfect ringlets. If it’s something Janice falls for every time, it’s blue eyes and dark hair. He’s more than a foot taller than her. It’s clear that he doesn’t know how attractive he is, which is fine by her.
“Wanna grab a coffee later?”
Jacob shrugs. “Sure.” He’s coy and beautiful. Janice feels pathetic, like she doesn’t know how to flirt, like she doesn’t have a chance with a guy this young and available. “I’ll text you, ok? I have class until eight. But I know a good spot.”
Eight is a little later than she was hoping. She does the math in her head: eight o’clock coffee for two hours, and if things go well, she’ll suffer tomorrow. And tomorrow, she knows, will be the exact same as today, she will have to rise before the sun and watch it, from behind the sheer windows, rise and rise.
“Eight works for me.”
She puts up her hand for a high five. Their palms graze and then it’s over.
She walks out the back door, lights a cigarette and sits on the stoop. She pulls out her phone and looks at it for three exhales. She flips it open and dials the number on the twenty dollar bill. She presses the green button.
“Hello?” His voice is curt but velvet.
And Janice hangs up. She will go home, shower, and write a poem about all this. It will be bad, full of mixed metaphors and silly allusions, and Jacob will think it’s profound later tonight, he will.
LILY HOANG is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What's Possible: Writers on the Avant-Garde and Accessibility. She teaches in the M.F.A. program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head and Prose Editor for Puerto del Sol.