Featured Fiction by Mary J. Webster.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Wipe the mayo off the dessert menu.
I kneel down and pick the cold fries up from the floor. There were kids here this afternoon. I toss the fries in the bucket under the cutlery station and move on to the next table.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Scrape the pink gum off the underside of the table. I could do this job in my sleep, which is a good thing, since no one who works the graveyard shift is ever really awake.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Hum along to the radio that never ever stops.
Air brakes hiss outside, but all I can see is my reflection in the big glass windows. My eyes are dark and my ankles are swollen from standing for so long. Anyone outside can see me, but I’m just another piece of furniture to them, just a part of the scenery. No, that’s not true… people don’t shout at chairs and scenery doesn’t have a butt to pinch.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Fold the old newspaper up and put it behind the counter so I’ll have something to read at two a.m.
The trucker walks in and flops in the first seat he comes to. His eyes are dark, too. He tosses his hat onto the table and rubs his eyes as I walk over with a menu.
“Can I get you something to drink?” I ask, “or would you like a minute to look at the menu?” My mouth moves independently of my brain, which is taking a nap in the cozy, dark space between my ears.
He shakes his head and mumbles, “You got hot turkey sandwiches?”
“Yeah,” I say.
“Fresh?” he asks.
I think of the vat of congealed, grey-ish gravy that’s been percolating since before I started working here, and I find myself wondering if the spoon is still cemented to the counter beside it. The dishwasher said he’d pry it off before he left for the night, but never does anything to help anyone.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Coffee and a hot turkey sandwich, then,” the trucker says.
“No problem,” my mouth says. I take the menu back and head for the kitchen to wake up the cook.
“Hey,” the trucker calls. “Get me a beer instead of the coffee. It’s too late for coffee.”
“Bud or Moose?” I ask.
I nod and walk carefully through the kitchen, trying not to slip on the floor. The storeroom door is open and the cook is lying on the floor with his balding head on a bag of flour. I kick one of his dirty shoes and he wakes with such a jolt that he knocks over his ashtray. The hot butt sizzles on the greasy floor. He’s a creep, so I never get any closer to him than kicking range.
“Customer,” I tell him. “Hot turkey sandwich.” I go to the beer fridge and pretend that he didn’t just call me a bitch… again.
Back out front, I set the cold bottle on the counter in front of the trucker. I should have given him a glass, too, but I have to wash any dishes we use before I can go home, so I’m trying to use them sparingly.
“You got a bottle opener?” the trucker asks. I raise an eyebrow at him, pick up his beer and touch the sharp lid lip to the edge of the table. I bash my other palm down on top of it and the lid pops off. I pick up the lid and leave him with his beer so I can finish up the tables.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Wipe the ketchup off the window.
The trucker’s watching me. It ticks me off a little, and I wonder what he’s going to say. Every creepy, old man who hits on me thinks he’s the first one to do it. I should have my name legally changed to “Sweetcheeks.” Or maybe, “Hey you!” When I bend over to pick up more cold, squished food, I make sure my butt points away from him to minimize the leering.
“You wanna make a little extra money?” he asks, suddenly.
I look him dead in the eyes and say, “No, I don’t. And don’t pester me or the cook will call the cops.” Actually, I know from experience that he’ll just stand there and laugh when I’m in trouble. “I’ll go check on your food,” I tell him. My brain is fully awake now.
I grab the ratty old mop from the broom closet and head into the women’s bathroom, just to get away from him. I start by flushing all the unflushed toilets, then I plunge the mop into the fresh water and start moping the floors, walls, and toilet seats. The bathrooms always smell like urine, and the vanilla tangerine automatic air freshener just seems to make it worse. The broom closet has a whole bucket full of cleaning products, but they’re all empty and cracked. As I work, I check the walls for new jokes, funny cartoons, and amusing poetry. Someone’s drawn a series of penises, each wearing a different hat. If it wasn’t for the fact that they’re on the wall in the crapper, they’d be considered as some kind of artistic study. I flick a tampon into the garbage can with the end of the mop.
I don’t pee at work.
“Order up!” I hear through the thin walls. I head for the kitchen. There’s a plate under the warming lamp with a slice of stale, white toast that’s topped with desiccated turkey.
“The turkey looks kinda dry,” I tell the cook as I use the mop handle to bash the gravy spoon loose. It flies across the room and skitters under the deep-fryer. There’s no way I’m going to kneel on this floor so I squat down and use to mop to fish it out. Behind me, the cook spits on the turkey to moisten it. The spoon is covered in dust and hair so I rinse it under the tap before jabbing it deep into the gravy vat to find a pocket of liquid.
I don’t eat at work.
I load the plate up with the slightly lumpy gravy, because truckers like lots of gravy, and carry it out to his table. “Here ya go,” I tell him.
He doesn’t even look at it. “Sorry if what I said came out wrong,” he says. “I just wanted you to do me a favor.”
“Yeah,” I say, as I write up his bill. “I’ll bet you did. You want some dessert? We have pie.”
“What kind?” he asks.
I think of the shapeless, anemic-looking, freezer-burned blob in the display case and try to remember what color of juice was running out of it. It might be peach, but it’s probably apple… or the juice is left over from another pie and it’s cherry.
“Apple,” I say.
“Is it fresh?” he asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Okay,” he nods. “But heat it up.”
“Sure,” I say.
I add it to his bill and take the pie out of the display case. I set it on the counter next to the gravy crud the spoon left behind and I cut him a thick slice. It’s peach. The saucer bangs off the back of the microwave as I fire it in. Behind me, the cook cleans the grill and fan with the same mop I use to scrub the toilets. Little nuggets of wet toilet paper rain down onto the grill. The microwave overheats and the pie turns to soup. I grab a fork and carry it out front.
The trucker is gone but he left a fifty dollar bill on the table. He didn’t eat his turkey. The fifty goes in my apron pocket and his dinner goes in the trash can, plate and all. The pie slides off the saucer as I throw it into the garbage and it leaves a sticky smear all down the side of the trash bag that kinda looks like orange vomit. He didn’t touch his knife and fork, but his napkin is all crumpled up. I’m just about to throw it out when I see that he’s left me a note.
Some guys are looking for me.
When they come, tell them that I ate the turkey and left.
I throw the note in the trash and tell the cook that the guy skipped out on his bill so I don’t have to give him 50% of my tip.
Salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard. A fistful of cream cups in the bowl. Wipe the table. Napkin, napkin, napkin, napkin. Fork, fork, fork, fork, knife, knife, knife, knife. Restock the sugar packets.
I go to the cutlery station, pull out a big cardboard box full of jam caddies, and set one at each table. Strawberry, raspberry, peanut butter, maple syrup, and marmalade.
The radio announcer tells me that it’s 12:30.
Strawberry, raspberry, peanut butter, maple syrup, and marmalade.
The radio announcer tells me that it’s 12:45.
Strawberry, raspberry, peanut butter, maple syrup, and marmalade.
Air brakes hiss and two rough-looking guys walk in. They sit at the same table as the first guy and I give them two menus. “Can I get you something to drink?” my mouth asks, “or would you like a minute to look at the menu?”
“Two diet Cokes,” one says. The other nods in agreement.
“Is Pepsi okay?” I ask. “We don’t carry Coke.”
They look at each other for a moment and then the first one nods. “Yes. Pepsi’s okay.” They open their menus simultaneously and I go get them their drinks. A minute later, I place two miniscule plastic glasses in front of them and pull out my bill book.
“What can I getcha?” I ask.
“Two garden salads,” the first one says.
My brain turns on again. Is that even on the menu? No one has ever ordered a salad before. My eyes glance down to the menu and sure enough, we offer a wide selection of salads. I’ve never taken an order for anything that didn’t come with a side order of fries and/or gravy. I wonder if the cook even has lettuce back there.
“Sure,” I say. I take the menus and hurry into the kitchen. I clip the bill into the order roster and spin it around for the cook to see. The cigarette falls out of his mouth and smolders in the grill.
“Do we have lettuce?” he asks.
“We must,” I say. “The burgers are all supposed to have a piece of lettuce in them.”
The cook taps a fresh cigarette out of the packet he keeps in his folded up sleeve and lights it on the grill. “Yeah,” he says, “but I never bother putting it on.” He opens the big fridge and stares at the defrosting cuts of cheap meat. There’s no lettuce within ten miles of that fridge. He shrugs and points to the tray of dehydrated turkey. “Tell ‘em we just ran out of lettuce, but that we’ve got lots of fresh turkey.”
I roll my eyes and plaster my best smile on as I head back out front. “I’m sorry,” I tell the two guys, “but we’re fresh out of lettuce. Can I interest you in a hot turkey sandwich, instead?”
They exchange glances and the first one says, “We don’t eat turkey.”
“Okay,” I say. “How about a nice cheeseburger. It’s the cook’s specialty.” It’s true. Hiding burned meat under cheese is what he does best. “Or eggs on toast, maybe?”
“Is there any turkey in it?” the second man asks.
“No,” I tell him.
“Then we’ll have the hen fruit,” he says. “I mean eggs. We’ll have the eggs.”
I nod and head for the kitchen. “Two orders of eggs on toast,” I tell the cook. He rolls his eyes and fires up the grill. “They’re a couple of jokers,” I say.
“Just make sure they don’t dine and dash this time,” he snorts. Cigarette ashes fall into the eggs and he stirs them in, along with the bits of mop string and toilet paper that drift down from the fan.
“Yeah, yeah,” I mumble as I head back out front to keep my eye on them. They’ve finished their drinks so I offer them a refill.
“We’re actually looking for a friend of ours,” the first one says.
“Yeah?” I say.
“He was here earlier,” the man says. It’s not a question.
“There was only one guy in here tonight,” I tell them. “He ate a hot turkey sandwich and he left.”
The men look at each other for a moment. “He ate the turkey?” the first one asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Really?” the second one asks.
“Yeah,” I repeat. I pick up their glasses and head for the kitchen.
“It can’t be him, then,” the second guy says to the first.
Air brakes hiss and the cook and I look at each other for a second before we run out to the dining area. The men are gone and they didn’t pay. We burst through the front doors but there’s no truck in sight. No rumbling engine, no lights, nothing. The cook swears and storms back inside but I pause to look at the few stars that are able to outshine the lights on the off-ramp.
I turn to go back inside, but then a loud jake brakes echoes through the parking lot. I look up to the highway and the off ramp, but there’s nothing there. An air horn blasts and a tractor trailer swoops down from the sky and rolls to a stop in front of the restaurant. The air brakes hiss and the driver kills the engine before he climbs down to the ground. I’m a little freaked out, but not as much as the time a crack head robbed us at knife-point… or the time the road-tripping, frat boys molested me… or the time I had my wrist broken when the hockey players brawled… or the time the roof caved in above the grill and started a huge fire… Aliens? Hell, so long as they don’t piss on the bathroom floor, I think I can handle them.
The trucker’s eyes are dark with fatigue, like he’s been driving for a long time. He shifts his feet and looks me over until I realize I wasn’t supposed to see what just happened. “You still open?” he finally asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
“What’s the special?” he asks.
“Hot turkey sandwiches for the locals, eggs on toast for the out-of-towners,” I tell him. “We’re out of lettuce, but I’ll get some in for tomorrow.”
He grins. “Great, ‘cause I hate turkey.”
“I know,” I say as we head back inside. I’m gonna make this guy pay upfront.
For more of Mary J. Webster’s work, visit her website at http://www.maryjwebster.com/.