Thursday, March 24, 2011

family restaurant

Every small town had one.  In the days when people didn't leave town as often as they do now, there had to be a place for the locals to hang out, for the older folk to bring their families for Sunday dinner after church. My small town was no exception. You’ve seen one like it, I’m quite sure. Maybe you got lost one day, and end up in my hometown, driving down the main street with cars parallel parked on both sides. You probably noticed the striped awning below the white sign with red lettering. “Family Restaurant," it  announced proudly. The windows were partially occluded by grease, but the sidewalk in front of the building was swept clear of any offending particles of dirt. Through the window, you could see the photos of hockey teams sponsored by the restaurant, and dusty, artificial plants.

Somehow, I ended up working in this fine establishment.

The uniform puzzled me. Why deck waitresses out in black bottoms and white tops, in a greasy spoon where everyone dines in jeans and their work clothes? Why bother telling the waitresses that skirts are mandatory? I worked briefly in a teahouse, where the chef served fresh scones with double Devon cream and cranberry chutney, and even there, I wasn’t required to wear a skirt. I left that job for a different one, with more hours and the promise of better wages, and instead I ended up looking like an oversize penguin in a French fry wagon.

Black skirts are mandatory, and the shiny polyester hooks on the jagged counter as I sidled past Jimmy, the owner. His eyes never met mine; his hair was greasy and slicked back. Some weeks he trimmed his mustache, and other weeks the hairs dipped past his upper lip and into his mouth. He was a slight man, shorter than me, and he constantly wore a dour expression, broken only by insincere smiles of welcome and departure as the patrons arrived and left, pushing their wallets into their back pockets as they strode out the front door and into the main street of our town.

My white blouse was a shiny faux satin and it gaped in front. I hated blouses and buttons because nothing ever fit right. I tried to fix the gape with pins, but that never worked; there was always a telltale mark on the front of the blouse. Nylons were mandatory, and I was been told that heels were acceptable but I stuck to comfortable shoes. I thought about waitresses from the 1950’s behind lunch counters, effortlessly serving coffee and pie to hungry men who sat on red vinyl stools. I thought about the TV show Alice, where Mel the cook was blustery, but had a heart of gold. The girls at Mel’s Diner wore pink dresses and frilly aprons, so I guess I was better off.

We had vinyl-covered booths and counter service in front. The back of the restaurant looked dark, because of the burgundy flocked-velvet wallpaper and fake mahogany wainscoting. Red Tiffany lamps were suspended over tables surrounded by overstuffed banquettes.  The owner hoped to attract a different crowd in the dining room, people who could afford his hot beef dinners, lamb chops, pork schnitzel. But most of the people who bought those things spent their Sunday Dinner budgets at the fancier place around the corner at the old post office, where the windows were two stories high.

There was always something to do, unless you were in the boss’ good graces, and then you could sit whenever you wanted. I didn't particularly care to be in his good graces, so I filled Heinz bottles with cheap substitute ketchup and  wiped the sugar bowls when it wasn't busy, I mopped floors, cleaned bathrooms and sanitized counters over and over again. I took orders, and tried to remember who ordered what. I brought the tickets to the kitchen where the owner’s nephew made comments in Greek that may or may not have been sexually suggestive.

 I learned to fill drink orders first. There were round plastic trays with cork inlays to catch the drips of liquid spilled by careless hands. I would open a spigot and pour pop into an ice-filled glass half way, and then let the fizz bubble down before I filled the rest of the glass, just as he taught me.

There was so much to remember. Pick up. Walk down the stairs without falling. And always his hands were on my waist as he moved past me, fingers inching lower, accidentally brushing my buttocks once, twice.  He would casually sidle past me to the bar, to serve a favoured customer, to stand at the other end of the counter instead of this one. On that particular morning, coffee was in order for almost everyone, and I grabbed the steaming pot as I walked past the drink station, deftly avoiding both the blank stare and creeping hands of the owner.

My co-workers tittered when Ethel walked in. They didn't seem to notice Jimmy's hands, always creeping, the air full of suggestion, the meaningful looks he gave them under greasy locks. They didn't see anything wrong with the monthly staff meetings where he plied everyone with beer, even the underaged, and then ruminated about the skirts (shorter) and the blouses (tuck them in).  But when an undervalued customer walked through the door, they screeched about like starlings that flocked to the same branch, weeding out the undesirable element for the sake of conformity. Other times they were like seagulls, pecking over a single scrap of hot dog bun from a vendor’s cart.

“You’re newest,” they told me. “You get to wait on her.”

I didn't understand. I’d seen her all my life. She often stopped into the convenience store where I used to work,  asked for “Export A” cigarettes, bought a Coke and a sub, and left again. She always said hello. Always thanked me. Not so tall, but taller than I am. Built like – a man, I guess, with her square frame, her gravelly, cigarette-soaked voice, and her hands, large and rough. Most often she wore farmer green coveralls, winter and summer, and black rubber boots with red soles, winter and summer.  Our town drew farmers from three nearby counties. It was the nearest place to buy groceries for miles around. When they were in town, the farmers picked up the local paper, stopped for a coffee, and heard the news on the bench outside the  Royal Bank. They almost all wore the same thing, except on Sundays; coveralls and black rubber boots with red soles, often with muck and straw clinging to the heels.

She was loud and confident, shooting the shit with the other farmers she met, and sometimes ate with. I knew her farm; had seen her truck parked at the end of her laneway. She lived on the Winterton road, in a place where the creek had cut a cleft into the hillside. On the property there was a big old yellow-brick farmhouse. The fields and yard were well cared for, and there was a barn in back of the house, like almost every other farm on that road. Beautiful horses grazed her fields, horses that wandered and galloped under her watchful eye.

So what if she called herself Hal and her name was really Ethel? If my name was Ethel, I’d change it too. So what if she lived with another woman – that was the rumor. A dyke, the girls called her, and giggled behind their hands at her like she was  about to proposition them, run her hands subtly around their waistlines as she passed them in narrow spaces. I approached her with trepidation, waiting to be swallowed whole, so fearsome did the other girls make her sound.  I felt afraid, even though I knew her, even though I was aware that there was really nothing to fear. I was conscious, as always, of my shiny skirt and squeaky shoes which betrayed my inexperience, my newness in this place.

“Yeah. I’ll have the breakfast. Two eggs over easy, bacon, white toast,” she said, before I could pull out my little notepad and look official.

“Would you like coffee?”

“I sure would, ma’am.” She looked at me with a twinkle in her eyes, clear and blue. Her face was dark tanned, her skin rough and uncared for. She turned back to the man in the booth next to her, and continued their conversation about the hole in the roof of his barn, and whether or not he could fix it himself.

What’s the big deal? The other girls were smirking at me.

“Oooh, she likes you. If she really likes you, she’ll leave you a big tip.”

I didn't get big tips. I was a lousy waitress. I hated this job. I was only putting in time until I started college in January.

The two girls I worked with were lifers. One worked there because she left school at sixteen to have a baby. She used to be in my class, before she dropped out. She was nice enough, but I never knew her well. She was always flawless-looking in high school, with perfectly blonde hair and big, blue eyes. The fatigue she felt in every bone in her body was clearly visible. The rings under her eyes, her sweet smile, and the redness of her fingers should have drawn her more tips than the older girl, but they didn't.

The other one was waiting to marry her fianc√© when he graduated the next year from Lakehead University.  She was always angry. She took all the regulars, flashed her big fake smile at them, and was always ready with a joke. But as she served, she swore and muttered and mumbled under her breath at the same people she just smiled pretty at. She got the tips. Most of them.

I wanted to ask my old school mate, “Doesn’t it creep you out when Jimmy….?”

But nobody talked about it. They might fawn over the local vagrant with strong family connections. They would greet the mayor with a welcoming smile. They'd go out of their way to serve hot chocolate to a cement-plant bastion for a twenty-five cent tip. But they fought over who must serve Ethel, just as they argued over who must serve the residents from the Community Living Centre. And they took the owner's advances as a matter of course, as the price to pay for the privilege of working here.

When other waitresses moved with grace, I was awkward in my role. I stumbled over nothing. My larger-than-average body took up too much space. Perhaps that's why Jimmy’s hands were always touching me, gently moving my soft curves aside so that he could pass, brushing just a little too close. I preferred working on the days that his wife was there, as taciturn as she could be. And I noticed that when his daughters were working, they were not subject to the same treatment as the other staff.

I poured Ethel's coffee, and I carried her cup to the corner booth, near the front window. Her green cotton cap was sitting on the table now, and there were bits of straw falling out of her short, untidy hair. She was no different than the other farmers we served, who frequented local establishments complete with the tools of their trade. They'd been mucking out stalls and milking. Nobody paid any attention to their attire, or to the mud they tracked through the front door, because local merchants were conscious of the need to retain their steady business. But Ethel, a farmer, with the same boots and hat, was considered a pariah, an eyesore, an embarrassment to the community.

I slide the cup onto the formica table. “Thanks dear,” she said to me, without looking up.

My shift was over. But the other waitress pleaded with me to stay a bit longer.

“Can you finish Ethel's table before you go? She really creeps me out.” So I did, serving her breakfast and clearing away the dishes, waiting as she lingered over her coffee. For my trouble I pocketed a three dollar tip, almost as much as my hour's wages. And I learned something about what the others might think of me, should they discover the secret of what I did last year, when I was a counsellor at an all-girls summer camp.

The owner watched me from his station at the till, lowering his eyes so that we didn't connect in that way. Always watching, shaking hands with my father, smiling widely for the mayor, sweeping the store front on Main Street as the important people walk by. He shoved his fingers in his pockets and jingled his keys as the young single mom, her face flushed and warm with effort, moved to the counter to fill a drink order. He sidled past, with his hands on her waist, and brushed against her in the narrow passage between the lunch counter and the service area.


MakingSpace said...

Wow. So THIS is the writing you've been doing. Riveting. Thanks for sharing it.

Camlin said...

You're welcome. Thanks for commenting - it makes my day :)

Kalisis Rising said...

I love this - I read it yesterday on my blackberry (I can't comment from it) and I loved it then. It's even better the second time around.

I hope you share more.

Melyss said...

Love this story. Looking forward to the next.
This is great work Camlin, keep it coming.

small town dyke said...

This is awesome.. love it!