“Hey, excuse me!”
The waitress turned on one leg, her elbow on her hip, coffee pot in hand.
“Yeah, hun?” she responded.
“Why do you say that?”
Her face contorted into a question mark.
“What you called me just now,” he fired off, “and once before that.”
She was half waiting for a joke. “What do you mean?”
“I just can’t take it anymore! Have you ever thought that the people you call hun maybe don’t like being called hun?”
The waitress paused, and what little humor she had that night melted away. Her mind went to Jenenne, who had trained her when she first started at the restaurant. Jenenne had had a way with all customers, especially the rude ones. She remembered how, after not getting tipped a couple times in a row, Jenenne had leaned in and whispered softly, “all they want you to do is sweet talk ‘em,” with an accent as forced as her customer service. Jenenne had waited for a moment and then leaned against the counter, both of her big brown eyes full circles staring right at her. The waitress didn’t know how to respond at the time, so she just cocked her head, gave a slight nod, and went over to a booth for coffee refills.
She often thought about that encounter while waitressing; the memory hadn’t yet faded. In her mind, the waitress kept rethinking how she could have reacted differently. Eventually those thoughts of could-have and should-have died down, and the two waitresses worked together with worn efficiency. Until Jenenne stopped coming in to work. It wasn’t until her third missed shift that anyone thought something was out of the ordinary. The town had a problem with drugs, so it wasn’t unusual for someone to disappear for a couple of days, but after a while—
The man snapped, contemptuous and rapid, in the waitress’s face. His companion, across the booth from him, cut another bite of his cheap diner steak.
“What?” retorted the waitress a little too fast, trying at once to both break her focus on the memory she had been constructing and yet still preserve it from the man’s incessant snapping.
“Don’t you know it’s rude to demean people?”
“What?” said the waitress, temporarily confused as she pulled herself fully from her fog.
The man began to pontificate. “It’s rude and I. do. not. like. it.” He punctuated his sentence with his arms crossed in a pout.
Jenenne had a way with people. She had called almost everyone honey. And she always managed to say it like the words themselves made the patrons into the sweet nectar of a beehive despite how their smiles, though guarded, revealed taboo desire and hate. Jenenne even had a way of moving gracefully between tables, even after working a double shift. The waitress, newly exposed to the full experience of the callous life her small town provided, emulated Jenenne to adapt—
“...Just because you work here and we aren’t locals doesn’t mean you get to treat us like this...” continued the booth pope from his dinner-endowed pulpit.
“Huh?” mumbled the waitress, pulling herself out of yet another fog.
“Excuse me, Jackie, have you been listening? Your service has been so bad, we’ve been here for an hour and a half already, and we aren’t even going to make it to Pasco at this point,” said the man, interrupting himself to read her nametag.
Jackie stared blankly at the customer for a moment to think about her response, but that was all the time the man needed to begin frantically waving his hands in frustration until he knocked over a small jar of salt on the table in the process.
Jackie pivoted again and quickly walked away. As she did, she felt something familiar start to build at the top of her chest: a small pressure which moved quickly from her stomach to the back of her throat. Her eyelids narrowed in an attempt to hold that small pressure back. She walked by a row of three occupied booths, two of which looked at her in a silent plea for service. Jackie put her hand around her wrist, still holding the coffee pot, and began to wring it as she passed by the customers and entered the kitchen through the swinging grey metal doors. She put the coffee back on the hot plate and started to pace, but it was no use. In just half a second, the pressure moved again. This time it placed itself deep behind her eyes. Her throat begin to tighten. The pressure softly prodded the inner corners of her eyes. She leaned over the dishwashing sink; its large open boxed basin offering ample room for her tears to fall. Jackie hadn’t thought about Jenenne in a long time. But tonight, her memories fell into her mind like water spilled from an unsteady chalice.
There had been a night when the tension had splintered through their world. Jackie had been alone for what seemed like all her life, then she had Jenenne and then Jenenne was gone. The woman had a steeliness which Jackie found comfort in remembering. One evening, things were quiet—until the faint sound of engines roared distantly through the walls and windows of the restaurant. Patrons looked up from newspapers through the glass panes with casual intrigue at first, but as the sound grew nearer, most dropped the pretense of perfunctory curiosity to intently stare at the large group of roaring motorcycles approaching down the highway. A few people in the diner from out of town had their toes crossed in the hopes that bikers would simply pass by. The locals had a thicker skin, but once they saw the more-ominous-than-usual size of the party approaching they quietly began to gawk. The motorcycles pulled into the front of the restaurant and, without much ado, the bikers marched in with such cacophony of sound and sight, road weary yet stir-mad ostentation, that a plain looking family in a back-corner booth huddled together like petite hollow-boned animals, their hearts small and fluttering.
Jenenne didn’t even bat an eye, and, with all the amicability she could muster, directed the group into the private dining room, generally used for birthdays and luncheons for miners. The room adjoined the main dining area, and after she had seated them and taken their drink orders, she walked back out to the kitchen and leaned against the bottom sill of the servers window. Though she was only talking directly to the staff, the other patrons listened in. “Brace yourselves,” she said, slapping the longest list of alcohol Jackie had ever seen on the counter next to the register. Her hand still on the rectangular piece of paper, Jackie looked from it to Jenenne's raised eyebrows, which read simply, “are you ready?”
Jackie took the first round of drinks into the private dining room and made it out with nothing more than eyes from the bikers. The second round of drinks included a large hairy hand reaching out toward her. Jackie dodged the assault but was shaken. She didn’t say anything about it once she made it back to the kitchen. She took the third round in. She couldn’t escape the room without being cat called, and as she tried to exit she was blocked by a long, outstretched arm. It darted out, grabbed her, and reeled her into the backrest of a chair. More hands appeared from all corners of the room.
“Hey, baby." The words were carried by an acrid alcoholic puff of breath.
“Let me go.”
“Calm down, calm down.” More putrid breath. It hit Jackie’s face and the thought of it coating her skin made Jackie want to throw up.
“Let me go!” She was close to shouting at this point.
“Come’on, I ain’t gonna hurt you,” he replied, his leather jacket crackling as he reached for his beer.
“Fuck off !” whisper-shouted Jackie under her breath, habituated to not swear loudly at work.
Jackie untangled herself from the biker’s hold and nearly broke into a run. That was the first time she had really felt it, that feeling that began at the bottom of her spine as the muscles in her back involuntarily tensed. The one that moved up past her shoulder blades and into her throat. Its final move was from her throat to her eyes. She could feel it pressing on her tear ducts and she nearly began to run as she crossed the dining room and passed into the kitchen. Jenenne and the two cooks froze as she entered, but as Jackie exited the cooks looked at each other, eyebrows raised, shrugged and continued working, breaking eggs and frying steak. Jenenne looked down, contemplating her shoes for a moment before she let her hesitation out in a burst of breath and followed Jackie. Jenenne peeked out of the back door and saw Jackie finish her first cigarette and begin to light another.
Jenenne felt the same tightness in the back of her throat as Jackie had. Jackie took the first drag of her second cigarette. Jenenne’s tightness moved down to her heart and then into her diaphragm, where it was wrought into anger. Knuckles white on the metal handle, Jenenne slowly closed the door as Jackie’s tears finally ended their festering and emerged in streams down her face. Jenenne pivoted on her heel, looking straight past the two cooks as she passed. She didn’t look at any of the other patrons as she walked solidly, fists still clenched, toward the private dining room. Each step left craters in the ears of the silent, unstirring clientele. The only noise not originating from the bikers and Jenenne came from the sizzle of burning steak in the kitchen as the cooks leaned out the server window, mouths mildly ajar, sedately watching Jenenne’s advance.
Jenenne disappeared into the diner’s annex. She closed two heavy sliding partitions separating the room from the rest of the diner. For a brief moment nothing, then there was a slam, and glass clinked against the polished wood beneath it. Jenenne said something loud but uninterpretable to anyone outside of the annex. The cooks looked at each other, eyebrows lost in their hairlines, and quietly slid the food they had burned into the trash. The patrons in the main dining room collectively tensed, grateful that there was a heavy partition between them and the vociferation. Anger still reverberated through the wooden beams around them all. The very fibers which held the restaurant together shook with Jenenne’s rage.
Jackie had nearly finished the pack by the time Jenenne joined her. Jenenne pulled up a milk crate next to the one Jackie was sitting on. Her knees, pigeoned together, trembled less when Jenenne patted her hand soothingly on Jackie's back.
“It’s alright. You’re going to be alright.”
Jackie continued to tremble, but the tremble began to subside into a shiver against the cold. She breathed. In and out.
“That’s right, just breathe, that’s all you gotta do, breathe.”
Her tears were not big enough to do much more than make minute pools around the drain, unless they managed fall straight down. Had it been two years now that Jenenne was gone? She didn’t remember forgetting. There was an empty glass next to the sink and Jackie began to scrub it. One of the cooks said softly, “there’s no use in giving it that good a scrub, you know we gotta put it through the washer.” Jackie put the glass down in the sink a little harder than she intended. Her arms locked, twin supports anchoring her to the rim of the basin, and she leaned on them. She put all of her weight on one hip. For a moment all she could feel was her own gravity collapsing into itself. Her core shook and she dragged long and deep at the air about her, filling herself with some of it so that she might fill herself with all of it. It numbed her. She took another breath, filled some clean glasses with water, and put them on a tray. She took the tray and walked out of the kitchen and, with steely focus, attempted to help the still hapless-looking people in the booths she had yet to help.
“Excuse me!” said the man from before, bristling.
“Excuse me?” replied Jackie with a meekness which tired her.
“You cannot treat people like this.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Jackie, the honey leaving her voice.