“You want me to freshen that for you, dear?” Gladys’ hand shook. She knew she shouldn’t be talking to the man. Her instinct told her so, but it went against her nature just the same. He was just sitting there, had been just sitting there for the last twenty-three minutes. Not moving, not talking, not even taking a sip of the now tepid cup setting uselessly between his leather-clad forearms, quietly anchored to the edge of the counter.
She’d given him the coffee out of reflex. Everyone who made it way out here wanted coffee. In fact, it was the only halfway decent thing on the menu. But the man had made no attempt to thank her or even acknowledge she’d set the cup down in front of him.
After a few minutes of awkward quiet, Arnie had politely folded up the Classified section of his newspaper and moved away from the stool next to the man all the way down to the next-to-last one at the counter, surreptitiously eyeing him the whole time. Arlene, the new girl, on one of her vigilant patrols through her section, had spotted Arnie’s abandoned pie, furrowed her brow as she swooped down on it and retreated to the kitchen. Neither the man on the stool nor Arnie had complained.
So Gladys had gone back to her other customers, which consisted of a woman in a power suit, Arnie, whom she’d refreshed with a new wedge of blueberry pie, and an older couple on the opposite end of the L of the counter. After Arnie’s pie, no one needed anything and Fred had abandoned the kitchen to have a smoke in the alley, so she’d busied herself with cleaning imaginary crumbs off the counter to keep herself from dwelling too much on the man with the coffee.
At least, she supposed he was a man. Gladys didn’t know anything for certain. He’d bellied up to the counter while she was serving the couple their shared plate of ham omelette and hash browns and thus, hadn’t been able to gauge ‘him’ by his walk. He must have had a motorcycle or else why would he be wearing the helmet?
Why would he still be wearing the helmet? Was a more likely question. It had gone beyond plain old rudeness and had crossed squarely into the territory of weird. But Gladys had taken on all customers falling in the wide expanse between annoying and strange and despite the fact she could feel the constant weight of him no matter what she was doing—currently sweeping up the imaginary crumbs she’d brushed onto the floor while wiping the counter—she could bear it. At the end of the day, she’d prop her toesies up and watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta with a nice cold beer and Doyle curled up tightly at her side.
It had been Arlene’s bright idea to divide the floor up into sections. She’d explained to Gladys, the Spoon’s matriarchal waitress, how it was fairer. She’d divised a simple seating system that would distribute patrons throughout the restaurant that wouldn’t require them to run like racehorses to make sure everybody was served. Besides, the Seat Yourself sign wasn’t very welcoming and they should all have a hand in greeting the customers as they came in.
It had been slow-going at first. Nobody likes change, especially customers, but Arlene had been persistent, gently reminding the folks who had seated themselves that they should wait by the door until someone could usher them to a table or booth. Always with a smile—on her face and in her voice and always in a sing-songy tone of voice followed up with a ‘it’s not a big deal’ and a small wrist wave-off.
But it was a big deal. Despite the tone she’d used with these people, Arlene had been militant in enforcement and had given her speech to people regardless of whether or not they’d been coming in for years or they were first timers and even after the other waitresses had already begun waiting on them.
She was set to begin her first semester at the community college in the fall, using her summer to earn extra cash to save up for the car she would inevitably need to carry her to the job she would have to work to pay for everything else scholarship and student aid couldn’t pay for. Arlene had known Dusty would fall into step with her right away and with little explanation and she’d enlisted her before going to Gladys to tell her of the changes she’d made.
The much older woman had eyed her from above her considerable breasts, but known she’d already been defeated even without the help of timid little Dusty. Arlene had a not-so-secret weapon that she never hesitated to use to her advantage: she was pretty. Blonde and blue-eyed, full-lipped, and round-hipped, Arlene was used to getting what she wanted ever since Bobby Ferguson had given her his entire lunch in the seventh grade simply because she’d asked. He’d gotten a blank lust-look in his eyes when she’d spoken to him that she’d realized a short while later most boys and some men got when she spoke to them, and thus had created a habit of asking in her most pleasant voice for things that she didn’t necessarily always want; simply to build upon a newly realized muscle.
Women, for the most part, were immune to Arlene’s Pretty, and she supposed that included Gladys, but that was also part of the fun to changing things around at the Spoon. On those rare occasions when she couldn’t bat her eyes and smile to get her way, she circumvented that person and took even more joy in crushing the stalwart. This was fun for her in two ways: she got what she wanted and she got to show whomever the speed bump was on the path to her way that she got what she wanted.
There were other girls who no doubt could and did do what Arlene did, but for one keen difference. Those other girls had to rely on their Pretty because they were completely inept at doing anything for themselves. Girls who were pampered by mommy and daddy and never told no for anything up unto the point of murder. Arlene had had the benefit of being an ugly duckling until she was twelve added to the fact her daddy had gone rogue and shacked up with some sweet thing in Maine of all places. After he’d left and was decidedly not coming back, Arlene had vowed to be something so significant, so powerful that the next time her daddy heard anything from her that it wouldn’t be from her directly. She would do something so significant she would reach him by reputation alone. Someday, a by-product of her fame would be her daddy knocking on her door.
But Arlene would have to make sure Gladys first.
Sure, she’d come at the older woman with Dusty in tow, wielding the threat of ‘But Fred said it was okay’. Fred was chief cook and the owner of the Spoon’s nephew. Gladys had been waitressing here for a hundred years or so and needed to be brought down a peg in Arlene’s opinion. Besides, the system was to her benefit, really. She got to stay behind the counter instead of swooping all over the floor to wait tables. Under Arlene’s system, waitress A opened and handled the whole floor for two hours until waitress B came in. Waitress A rotated to the back, while B took the front and waitress C ‘floated’, coming in an hour before the lunch rush. Gladys was always waitress C in Arlene’s scenario and rather than floating she manned the counter. It was really for her own good because she had really bad feet and had to wear orthopedic shoes.
If there had been an actual dinner rush then Arlene would have devised a system for that too. But as it stood, by the time lunch was done the Spoon had probably seen at least eighty percent of its patrons for the day and A and B, or rather, Arlene and Dusty would leave around one o’clock and three, respectively. The system worked perfectly with the three other part-time waitresses. The only hold-out had been Gladys. But hold-out was the wrong word—agitator was more like it.
Arlene was vigilant about keeping the floor as tidy as possible. She had a personal philosophy of no table remaining unbussed for more than five minutes after a customer had left. But she was hesitant in enforcing such a rule because Dusty was as slow as molasses and if anything, when her dirty tables piled up that meant her having to shuttle her overflow of customers to Arlene’s section.
And Dusty had almost always asked Arlene to take the front section, expecting it to be just too much for her and Arlene would either accept or deny the switch depending on whether or not she felt like it while keeping her own shift, which meant she still left first and had the better section for the rush.
Arlene had just passed by the man in the leather jacket with the little plate of half-eaten pie. She hadn’t known whose it was and had spotted Gladys glowering at her for some reason. The man in the leather jacket was weird. She’d seen him just sitting in the exact same position a half dozen times with the cup of coffee Gladys always insisted on pouring for people before they even ordered it. She reminded herself to speak to Fred later. But the man in the leather jacket still hadn’t taken off his helmet. And worse still was the leather. It had to be at least eighty-five outside and not only was the jacket zipped all the way up, but he had on leather gloves to boot.
When she came out of the kitchen her mind was already made up to use her Pretty to get the man to leave. If he were creeping her out, what must he be doing to the other customers?
“Excuse me, sir?” she slid up alongside him, not touching but clearly a few inches inside of his personal space. The coffee must have been ice cold because all she could smell was the leather material of his jacket and the copper of the metal zipper. “Any minute now we’re going to start getting a flood of customers coming in and maybe I might be able to get you cashed out so you can go ahead and go before we get too busy for ya?
He didn’t answer. He didn’t even turn his head to look at her. Another man sat at the counter a few stools down.
Maybe he hadn’t heard under that helmet. Maybe he’d fallen asleep? Arlene didn’t know, she’d never ridden on anything requiring a helmet. Didn’t you wear those things with motorcycles? Arlene stole a peek outside before looking at the man again. Nothing in the parking lot but cars.
She chanced a step closer and reached to tap him on the shoulder to get his attention when Gladys in her peripheral vision caught her eye.
The old woman shook her head, pulling a towel taut between her hands as if she could vanish her considerable bulk behind it or she was anticipating a charging bull any moment. Whatever she wanted, it seemed urgent. Arlene was hesitant at first, but seeing Gladys wanted something immediately—wanted her for something immediately—all the more reason for Arlene to ignore her and continue her current course of action. “Excuse me,” she said again with a little more force. The man continued ignoring her and Arlene saw Gladys gesticulating from the corner of her eye.
Arlene relished a challenge and this particular customer had just been upgraded to one rather than a fish to be catalogued and abruptly ignored from the ocean of the annoying Arlene dealt with on a daily basis. In moments like these, she became even more charming. She leaned in, opened the floodgates of Pretty, batting her eyes as she laid a hand on a leather-clad shoulder.
Arlene immediately pulled back, swiping her hand on her apron. Something was wrong. She frowned, looking down at her palm at something wriggling there, but was so far invisible.
“I’m sorry,” she said to no one in particular, for reasons she didn’t know and retreated. A wave of nausea passed through her and her bowels clenched. She felt decidedly unpretty at the moment. She glanced up briefly at Gladys whose worried look had a decidedly different tone to it suddenly.
“I think I need… I think I need to go home.” Arlene’s brain had configured the words and she’d made conscious effort to speak them, but they were foreign constructs coming out of her mouth. She had a detached, miles away feeling, the smell of a burger on the grill growing closer as she weaved behind the counter and pushed through the double doors to the kitchen. She studied the scent in a curious manner, not because she didn’t know what it was, but because she found herself able to focus in on it with complete clarity.
“You okay?” Gladys asked, stopping her just inside the kitchen with a hand hooked into the crook of her arm, turning her a hundred eighty degrees. It took Arlene a moment to focus on the words and the woman in front of her. Again the words were familiar, but she found herself working to translate them into something she understood. Arlene nodded slowly.
“I just… wanna go home.” Gladys nodded.
Arlene realized with utter certainty she was in shock. She’d never been in shock before, but knew it in the same way might recognize the word ‘ubiquitous’ upon first reading it. Now that that was out of the way, she turned away from Gladys, sliding her arm easily out of the older woman’s loose grasp and looked at the burger Fred was currently mashing down to a fine patty. Smoke squirted out of the sides and the scent of it blossomed even greater in her nose. He turned to grab a bun to and Arlene had to resist the urge to reach out with her bare hand and scoop it off the grill and eat it.
“I wanna go home.” Arlene fled to the breakroom.