The bells over the door gave a loud jangle as more customers entered the restaurant. Two women, midseventies, toddled over to the booth farthest from the entrance. As they slipped onto the worn out bench seat their bodies creaked more than the splintered old floor. Their silver-blue hair resembled spider’s webs as the morning sun glinted through the pane glass window. One carried a cane that she balanced on the edge of the table. The other hunched forward carrying the history of her life on her back. They gazed at their menus through thick lenses and a magnifying glass. From my seat at the counter I could already guess their order, two decaf coffees with sugar substitute and maybe some poached eggs or blueberry muffins. In a past life I had done this too often.
I watched the waitress exit from the kitchen through the swinging door. She wore the standard uniform of black pants, black sneakers and a polo top with the restaurant name embroidered over her heart. Her apron was cinched tightly around her average-sized waist and some paper covered straws peeked out of the front pocket. Her hair was up and she wore little to no makeup. She carried three plates balanced carefully across her left forearm and another plate in her right hand. With ease she wove around the tables to deliver the undercooked pancakes and overcooked eggs to a family of four. The children ran their crayons off the edge of the picture placemats and onto the scratched surface of the melamine tabletop.
The waitress tucked a stray hair behind her left ear and extracted an order pad and ball point pen from her apron pocket. She paused at the booth in which the two older women sat. A few quick scratches of her pen and their order was taken, committed both to paper and to memory. Another jangle. Another customer. Maybe a regular. The man looked fortyish and had a two-day-old cropping of facial hair. He sat a few seats down at the counter, unfurled his paper. No menu. The waitress gave him a nod and brought over a steaming cup of fresh-a-few-hours-ago coffee.
Bacon ’n eggs. Wheat toast, she said with a smile on her face, but not in her eyes. He nodded an affirmation. The waitress disappeared back through the swinging door.
More jangles. More customers. A wave of people flooded in, filling the tables and upping the volume from a low hum to a consistent buzz. The waitress was alone in her task. It must be unusual for the place to be so busy or perhaps her counterpart had called out sick. She emerged from the kitchen, arms loaded and a frazzled expression on her face. She delivered the food, grabbed a full pot of coffee and made her way to all of the new tables, filling cups and jotting orders. As she did this she dropped off checks to existing customers and gathered pitiful tips that had been tucked under napkin dispensers.
In and out of the kitchen, the waitress carried full plates and empty plates. Back and forth. Non-stop. The patch of wood near the kitchen door was more worn than the rest of the floor. She cleared and cleaned, set and served. People came and went. There wasn’t much thought required for this sort of thing, just a good memory and a fake smile.
She seemed to own both. There were no errors. She knew all their special quirks. Sugar-free syrup. Extra butter. Bacon on its own plate. Half OJ/half cranberry in a small glass over ice. She remembered them all. But I was new and she didn’t know me yet. She refilled my coffee three times, each one with a smile, even though I did not order a scrap of food to accompany the bottomless cup.
When all of the food was delivered and the checks paid, the waitress paused by the counter. There was only myself and two stragglers in a corner booth. They were a young couple, seemed to be early on in their relationship. They held hands between half-empty plates and crumpled up napkins. He seemed too eager and talked too loud. She seemed too uncomfortable and laughed too much. Otherwise they were the same, both young, both blonde, both hormonal. It had been a long breakfast and the waitress had to regroup before the lunch crowd began. With the restaurant near empty, she had a chance to feel the aches in her arches and the burning between her shoulder blades. Her smile faded. Her strong and slender fingers ran across the back of her neck. Stray hairs escaped the ponytail that now drooped lower than it had when I first sat down. She surveyed the modest expanse of leatherette booths and aluminum chairs. There were sugar caddies to refill, artificial maple flavor syrups to remove, menus to replace, lunch specials to be written on the board out front. But first there was this brief moment of rest, this passing reprieve.
The stragglers rose from their booth and left with an over the shoulder good-bye and an overhead jangle. The waitress summoned her fake smile and a convincing wave of her hand. She then began to pull all the breakfast items and place them in a bus bucket. She replaced the breakfast menus with ones that promoted soup and sandwich deals and apple pie ala mode. I fiddled with the check that she placed on the counter before me. A dollar seventy-five. She went into the kitchen again, this time to ask the cook for the lunch specials. Probably corn chowder or a hot-pressed sandwich.
Looking at the check and back towards the door through which she had left, I wanted to give her something that would make her week, but I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t have that kind of money. I opened my bag and pulled out a pen and a twenty dollar bill. On my check I left a note in large bold print. Nothing fancy. Thankyou for your time. I placed the twenty beneath the check and gave my own jangle as I left. She would come back to my spot, expecting two ones. She would look up toward the door wondering who I was and why I left the money and the note. I wouldn’t be there. Her eyes would smile as she slipped the twenty into her pocket, not her apron. For a second, she would forget that her feet ached and her back was sore, forget that her skin felt covered in kitchen grease and that her blouse was stained with ketchup and coffee. She would forget and then, later on, she would remember.