by Jordan Hanson
Steam reaches me through the perforated squares in the screen door as I stand in a narrow alley of tables and chairs, surveying the dining area. I’m already sweating. I take note of the lone grains of white rice huddling at the corners of faux wood tables, among other things. Half-tucked plastic chairs still brim with the heat of human contact, dropped plastic forks are left kicked into corners instead of thrown into the trash, and dots of brown gooey sauce stick, somehow, to the walls I’ll neglect scrubbing for fear of working too hard.
Heavy-lidded customers rest their chins in the nests of their upturned palms. One patron sips a soft drink while mindlessly chewing the exposed end of a translucent plastic straw. The other slurps burnt coffee mixed with powdered creamer and granulated sugar packaged in neon-pink paper wrappers. A baby carrier positioned between them is nudged gently with a pointer finger, lulling their newborn into acquiescence for the minutes between Saturday morning doctor appointments. Their pediatrician’s office is located two floors above the restaurant. Their pediatrician is in high demand, old, with soot-grey hair that sprinkles dandruff onto newborn cheeks. His wife will place their order by the end of the day.
The noodles are boiling. That’s what the steam tells me. When I open the door, sawed-off sides of cardboard boxes lie across a puddle of noodle bathwater no one wants to slip in. I give my general hello, a sing-songy rendition of the two-syllable word I’ve grown used to performing for them. At 7:55 a.m., I’m the fifth one on shift. I shuffle quickly to the back table, gather the money for my register, and walk up front.
Marilynn is taking an order. Next to her is a paper plate with an egg over easy, toast blackened to her specifications, and a circle of corned beef hash. A straw bobs in a Diet Coke, the Styrofoam cup the kind the workers are prohibited from using. She calls the order to the cooks in back: “Bacon one time, eggs scrambled, make it crispy!” then jots it on the back of an old receipt, taping it to the tip of her pointer finger, and palming it like a good luck charm, a luxury she’ll indulge in as long as the line remains shallow. I’m turning on my register as she pierces her yolk with one of her chopsticks. She waits until her toast is soppy with runny, golden goo, then takes a bite, her compact body turned toward me. Sipping her chilled drink, swaying gently side to side in order to relieve her calloused feet from decades of standing moored to a register, smiling at customers, reciting prices, and counting penny tips. I ask her how she’s doing. She smiles. Thick prescription glasses obscure her irises, curled hair droops across her forehead, crumbs like snowflakes dot her upper lip as a word manages to slip through the tiny gaps in her yellowed teeth—“I’m”--and then the head cook, Ben, sends out her plate.
She’s busy, so I take the opportunity to slip to the back. I pass Ben pre-cooking marinated chicken. He asks if I’m hungry.
“I’m all right, but thanks.”
I pass Fely chopping onions on a table leveled with scraps of cardboard. The wooden top is slashed with knife marks and stained with watered chicken blood. It’s the perfect size for Fely. The short base offers just enough leverage for her to grate buckets of carrots and pound bread crumbs into butterflied chicken thighs. I offer to peel her potatoes for tomorrow. She says my name like a thank-you.
I find Rayden by the walk-in, the mother hen of a roost of freezers holding frostbitten loafs of Ziplocked beef, plastic bins of boiled macaroni, and withered vegetables. My friend opens boxes of noodles with a knife left carelessly on a shelf laden with frying oil. Her thin red hair has been looped through the back of a baseball cap; her apron is wrapped around her exposed midriff; her cellphone, a couple of cheap cigarettes, and a lighter rest in her cleavage.
“Did you work yesterday?” I ask.
“Yeah.” She pulls noodle boxes from the top shelf of the walk-in, dropping them a few inches from my feet.
“With who?” I ask.
“Who do you think?”
Knowing glances are exchanged.
“When did you guys get out?”
“Not till seven, shit, and guess who had to do everything herself.” We both hear the phone ringing; we stop talking to watch it trill again, nestled in the receiver. I resolve to answer it if it goes a third time. Halfway through the high-pitched ring, body poised, foot lifted and gathering momentum for a hurried departure, I see Fely wipe her hands on the front of her apron and lift the cordless from its base. I look at Rayden.
“I’m fucking tired, you know,” she tells me.
Fely notices the hushed conversation in the back of the restaurant.
“Rayden! The noodles!” she yells.
“Fuck, the fucking noodles, gotta fucking boil the fucking ten million pounds of fucking noodles—and telling me all that like she’s my fucking boss. Bullshit.”
I smile sympathetically and she waits as I fill a bowl with yukons, then we both head to our stations: me next to Fely, who’s de-boning chicken thighs with a knife she sharpens on a steel rectangle every minute or so, and Rayden next to Ben, who’s sweating from the heat of the flat tops and the four-burner. She notices and gets him his favorite from the front, a Barq’s root beer.
At 9:16 a.m., Renee walks in. Late.
“Aye, you!” Fely shouts, hoisting a large metal pot into the sink for soaking, which makes all of us stare at Renee, who’s walking to the back, eyes closed it seems, to punch in.
“Hi to you, too, Nina,” she says, body leaning against a basket of washed towels and aprons, eyes still closed, ears perked and listening to the tiny screech of her time card being sucked in and stamped. She lets her hand hover above the mouth of the old machine. When the card is finally released, she snatches it and puts it back on the metal holding rack. Nothing more to see here.
“You stay out all night drinking, or what?” Fely asks.
“No, Nina,” Renee says, tired.
Fely lets the conversation end. I watch Renee pull a compact mirror from her purse and nestle it in among a basket of knives kept on the middle shelf of the back counter. Then she grabs a red-handled broom from a greasy back corner of the restaurant and heads for the walk-in. I follow. I need a couple more potatoes for peeling. I want to ask how she is.
The door of the walk-in is propped open with a jug of water we keep close by for a counterweight. I watch Renee crawling on her hands and knees, pulling at the layered scraps of cardboard she replaces each week in order to hide the old disgusting floor of the freezer. She’s muttering to herself, the tight curls she pulled up with her rhinestone-encrusted hairclip are falling in strands across her face. One of the short wedged heels she’s wearing falls off, rolling down the lip of the cold threshold until it lands on its side next to my toes.
“Aunty,” I say, smiling even though her back is turned toward me.
“Honey girl, is that you?” she asks, stopping to kneel and turn her head, hand flinging hair out of her face. Flecks of red lipstick stain the front of her teeth.
“Hi, Aunty,” I say and I smile again so she can see it. “How are you?”
“Honey girl, you hear what happened yesterday night?”
“No,” I lie. “What?”
“Fuck, honey girl, didn’t get out till seven,” she says, blowing an exasperated sigh in my direction.
“Why?” I ask, faking surprise.
“I’ll give you one guess,” she tells me, lips tense, eyes wide, head flicked back toward the grill where I can hear Rayden yelling, “Order’s up.”
I nod, though I know it wasn’t Rayden’s fault. I still don’t know how Renee is, but when I reach past her head to the cardboard box holding potatoes, she makes a smooching sound in my direction. I send my love back. Then we get back to work.
I keep a watchful eye on the growing line. It’s 9:30 a.m. Regulars order their usuals. It’s steady. Marilynn is making the usual mistakes—eggs over easy when they should’ve been sunny, Diet Coke when they asked for a Coke Zero. I don’t have to step in yet. I move on to peeling carrots. Ribbons of crisp orange stain my fingertips. The phone rings and I answer it.
“Heights Drive Inn.”
Static crumbles the male voice slipping through the radio waves. I assume he says, “Takeout order, please.”
“Whenever you’re ready,” I say.
The uncapped Sharpie marker I fish out of the makeshift penholder that used to hold twelve ounces of spreadable butter isn’t working. Feathered lines of permanent black make ghostly impressions of numbers and abbreviations for menu items. I repeat the order and commit it to memory: four specials, two with chicken, two with beef; one fried noodles, five large Cokes. I go up front to find a pen. Marilynn asks if I’ll check the dining area. I rewrite the order and hand it to Rayden. She needs a fucking cigarette.
“We’ll take the trash out soon, you can smoke then,” I tell her.
The air conditioning in the dining area evaporates the sweat I only just noticed beading at my temples. The radio isn’t working. A low static creates an inhospitable ambiance, and I wonder how bad Boss’s lecture will be if I keep it like this. Clusters of bodies occupy booths. Paper plates are left with abandoned remnants of a greasy breakfast that’ll double as lunch. I wipe tables with a damp cloth and notice crumpled bits of straw wrappers dusting the floor like leaves. I won’t bother sweeping yet. Parents rocking crying babies ask if there’s a bathroom.
“Sorry,” I say.
When I head back inside, the phone is ringing. I answer it. “Fifteen minutes,” I say.
When I make it back to my station, I find a grilled cheese wrapped in parchment paper, next to my carrot ribbons.
“We thought you might like that,” Ben says, shrugging his shoulders up to his ears.
I take a bite. Melted cheese forms a tightrope from my mouth to the bread until I pinch it with my fingers. “It’s great,” I tell them.
We all laugh. The phone rings. Marilynn calls another order.
At 9:55, Boss walks in. We hear the screen door rattle open and watch her squeeze through, her large midsection almost grazing the splintered door frame. A chorus of hellos reaches her, and she reciprocates each one individually without making direct eye contact. She moves slowly, shuffling her swollen feet along the smooth red floor and letting Rayden know she must be over-boiling the noodles because there’s too much water on the floor.
“Put some more cardboard, Rayden.”
“Yes, Boss,” Rayden says. She rushes to the back, poking me in the ribs along the way so we can exchange exhausted glances and silent complaints. I can tell she needs a smoke. I try to let her know I understand, but then Boss tells me to wipe the tables clean outside, so I wring out the same towel I wrung out ten minutes ago before heading back to the dining area to make halfhearted circular motions across the plastic wood grain of the tabletops.
The lunch rush sets in at around 12:30. I’m up front with Marilyn, who keeps calling.
“Next!” to patrons swaying side to side to get a look at the specials. I’m writing down an order until I’m interrupted by a woman holding out an empty cup with a long smile who tells me her daughter had a spill at their table. I go to the back to grab the mop, hoping I’ll go unnoticed by Boss, who’s assembling plates next to Ben and Rayden.
She catches me and tells me the ice needs refilling.
“Got it,” I tell her. I look at Rayden who rolls her eyes at the back of Boss’ head before turning in my direction and mouthing, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” She holds an imaginary one in front of her and puffs it down before reaching her hands toward the ceiling in a plea.
“I’m sorry,” I mouth back. Then I lock myself in the employee bathroom and let the water run until smoke leaks out from the faucet. I fill a bucket and plunge the mop head up and down, up and down before suspending it in mid-air to watch the water drip.
I meet Renee coming out of the pantry. It doesn’t look like she was crying, but the thought crosses my mind. She takes her place against the edge of the sink and starts scrubbing dishes. The phone rings. Renee answers it. Her voice betrays her, tender aggravation slips through customer service niceties, the automatic dribble of “yes sir” and “thank you” and “my pleasure.” She writes the order down but doesn’t press the “off” button on the cordless, meaning no new calls can come in. I pretend not to notice. I walk with her to the grill. I rest my free hand on her arm because I feel like she needs it. She smiles.
“Thank you, honey girl,” she tells me. She leans her head in my direction, and I reciprocate, our version of a hug.
Outside I mop up the puddle of spilled juice. The floor is still slick, so I grab a handful of coarse salt and sprinkle it over the still-damp area, because I don’t care enough to really finish the job. Customers move past me, dumping plates in the trash and telling me thank you.
“No, thank you,” I say, then I smile.
At 1:30, Boss wonders why there haven’t been any phone orders. Renee is by the back counter, holding her mirror up to her face, running a finger along the edge of her lips so she can smear the faded red onto the face of her thumb before wiping it on a napkin. I remember that morning a couple of months ago when she came in late. Her hair wasn’t twisted into her usual bun. She wasn’t wearing any lipstick. Fely asked if she had spent the night drinking.
“No, Nina,” she said. She kept her eyes closed as she punched in but kept talking. “You know Pauly, Nina, he came home this morning drunk and whatever and was hungry for me, Nina, hungry.”
Fely shook her head. “Aye,” she said.
“He won’t let me say no, Nina,” she said in a whisper, almost desperate. I saw two veins poking out on the side of her neck. “You know how he is.”
Fely mumbled something in Filipino I couldn’t understand. Then Renee grabbed the broom from the corner of the restaurant and went to the back, opened the heavy metal door of the walk-in, and dropped to her knees to pull at the cardboard. I had wanted to ask her how she was, but I didn’t.
Now I reach for the phone and press the “off” button before holding it up to my ear, pretending to investigate.
“It seems to be working fine, Boss,” I tell her. She knows I’m lying, she sees Renee staring at herself in the mirror, wiping her lips, but before she can say anything, the phone rings. I answer it.
At 2:33, Boss makes a plate of food from the leftovers cooling in metal bowls on the counter and heads to her office. We hear the door close, and Rayden calls for me. Trash time.
I wheel the hand truck into the dining area and set it down with a metallic clang against the worn tiled floor. I brace my hand against one of the open rims of the two large garbage cans tucked into the corner near the kitchen and pull at the shiny black bag, wiggling it free and placing it on top of the other one that’s already tied and waiting for transport.
I place a sticky hand on my hip and notice how greasy my over-sized T-shirt has become.
“You ready?” I ask Rayden.
She feels up her breasts to check that her lighter is still there in her cleavage before throwing me a thumbs-up sign.
We take turns wheeling the hand truck, Rayden handing me the reins as she lights up, me giving it back to her halfway across the parking lot. We throw open the top of the large metal trash containers with a decapitated broom stick and count to three as we hoist over bags filled with discarded food still warm from the stove top and half-filled sodas that drip down our arms, leaving snail tracks.
Now we smell like garbage. I pick a cluster of rice off my shirt and flick it onto the ground for the birds as Rayden and I settle down on a nearby bench.
She takes a deep drag and blows the smoke above us.
“It’s been a long day,” she tells me.
“Yeah.” We become complacent in our silence, except for the occasional “fuck” we let drop from our mouths that the other meets with a nod. In this moment, I’ve never felt closer to anyone. I think about how much I hate this job. I think about how many years I’ve spent here, how I thought I would leave but didn’t. I look at Rayden, who’s been here so much longer, who’s stubbing her cigarette out on the food-encrusted sole of her work shoe. She sees me out of the corner of her eye and laughs. I laugh. Then we get up and go back to work.
There’s an unexpected rush. I’m at the back counter peeling garlic, and Ben is talking about his daughter. The phone rings. The phone has been ringing incessantly. Marilynn is forgetting customers, leaving them stranded in a sea of hungry patrons who are all crossing their arms and shaking their heads. In a minute or so I’ll have to go up front. I’m collecting the skins of garlic that have scattered across the counter, and Ben mentions his ex-son-in-law to the kitchen.
“Used to hit her, you know.”
The metal shelves holding the stacked pans and the running water filling the sink for dish washing and the steam floating from the pot of boiling noodles are fellow witnesses to a confession we almost miss, because Rayden is trying to stop the water from boiling over, Fely is packing away her knives, and I’m wondering, with garlic skins clenched in my fist, if Marilynn is ever going to get the woman wearing glasses her large coffee. Ben’s small frame, all the more inconsequential from the way his stomach curves inward as though he doesn’t want to take in more air than necessary, begins to shake with residual anger. I see Marilynn grab the ice bucket, an excuse to leave the front. I notice Fely wiping her knives dry on a towel, mouth agape. I wonder what to do.
“That little fucker,” Rayden tells Ben. The phone starts ringing. “You know Ben, you know, this old man neighbor of mine used to always tell me these stories, and he’d always give me candy, and then he’d show me his bedroom and he’d and he’d and—” Her voice starts breaking. The phone is still ringing. If it rings two more times, I’ll have to answer it. I watch Rayden wipe her eyes with the edge of her apron. I watch her adjust her baseball cap. I press the “talk” button on the cordless.
“Heights Drive Inn.”
A familiar voice, female, drones in clear and crisp. “I’d like to place a takeout order.”
“Whenever you’re ready.”
“Two specials,” I repeat, committing it to memory. I’ve misplaced my working pen.
“Yes, my husband—the doctor upstairs—will pick it up in twenty minutes.”
I place the phone in its cradle. And when I’ve managed to scribble down the order, I hand it to Rayden, who’s watching the noodles soak in the water. I can see sweat drip down her face, obscuring her tears. I place the slip in the palm of her hand. She looks at me, eyes small and puffy.
The woman wearing glasses bangs the counter and demands her large coffee. I go up front and pour it for her. I apologize, even though it wasn’t my fault.
“I’m so sorry,” I say, offering her some sugar.
Jordan Hanson received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Sarah Lawrence College. She currently teaches high school English in her home state of Hawaii.