Counter spy

I waitressed in the restaurant of nothingness where the menu was a work of fiction. There was no Coke. There was no bleu cheese. There was no dinner salad and there never would be.


Maria Dolan
August 6, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Midway through college I came home in the summer and slipped into my brother's job waiting tables at a diner called Celia's, in our old neighborhood. Patrick had sized the place up fast, and wanted to move on. My new job required no application, no interview. I just showed up for one of Pat's shifts.

"It's easy," my brother tells me. "Just make sure you get your paychecks. She still owes me money."

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It seems that at one time, not long ago, Celia's was a bustling business, and the menu remains a Scheherazade of delights. But no matter how clearly its copy tantalizes -- juicy burgers piled with savory toppings, the owner's exotic Filipino specialties, milkshakes and pie and fancy cakes -- none of these pretty pictures on the menu are ever actually available to customers.

Celia herself breezes in every couple of days, always in the same gay, tropical-print visor, to take a $20 bill from the till and fix herself a double order of Chicken Adobo. Sometimes her children call, and she hustles behind the counter to get the phone. After a minute her face is screwed tight with irritation.

"Hang off the phone!" she yells over and over into the receiver as they complain and fight. I wonder why she doesn't just cut the line herself.

Usually, though, it's just me in the dining room, our 16-year-old cook in the kitchen, and sometimes a dishwasher loitering out back.

"I'll have the Bleu Burger" a customer says, as I hold my hand on the red vinyl back of their booth. I am steadying for another unhappy transaction.

"I'm sorry," I say, "but we're actually out of bleu cheese right now. I'm really sorry."

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"Oh, shoot," he answers, "Meg, you order."

Meg looks at the entree side of the menu, at the eternal, obsolete list of specials, and my hand cradling the order ticket seizes up.

"I'll have the turkey special."

I know that there is no turkey special. There is no special at all, ever. I excuse myself anyway, while the customers look over their menus at each other, in silent consultation. I walk back to the cook, playing flip-the-spatula, fixing himself the last strips of bacon, and try to think up the perfect consolation meal I can suggest that will keep them from leaving in a huff. I consider sneaking out back. Eventually it is my sense of duty that returns, and faces them. "Well, what do you have?" they ask.

The next time Celia comes in I tender, as always, a list of food we've run out of, or never had, which I'd appreciate if she could someday procure. Ice cream, for instance, or Coke -- for those customers unwilling to change their soda preference, simply because it is overstocked -- to Mr. Pibb.

I work here four afternoons a week, and it feels like an eternity.

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The last time I was a waitress I was 9 or 10. My brother, two years older, began to invite over boys from across the street and next door, and they came in the evening to play cards, sprawling at our round dining room table. While they set up I stood in the kitchen, rigging together a makeshift apron. An apron, the kind of thing disdained by my mother, several years divorced and deep into her feminist grad-student days. I rushed up to the table after they were all seated, the breathless waitress overburdened with customers.

"Can I take your order?" I said, holding a piece of scratch paper and a stubby pencil on a copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy," or "Our Bodies, Ourselves." One by one they said what they wanted: Joel from across the street, with all the sisters, asked timidly; Douggie, the boy next door who had a doting mother, bellowed from his wheelchair, head lolled against the top of his shoulder. My brother, with princely nonchalance, nodded his round head in agreement.

"Water," they ordered, and I scratched it down. "On the rocks."

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As essential to Celia's as its haphazard management are the regulars I serve at the counter each day. They are from just down the street. They are all men, all coffee drinkers, drawn to our cafe for the bottomless refills, or perhaps for the anonymity -- the barstools in back where their wives will never find them. A cloud of cigarette smoke blooms in their corner. There are men who stare into nothing, men who occasionally talk to each other, newspaper readers and gregarious men, who seek any line of conversation.

"I'm just a sassy guy, aren't I?" the bald man asks me, each word stretched slowly out as if he is set on the wrong speed.

"Bless us oh Lord for these thy gifts ... " the guy who went to my Catholic grade school, 25 years before me, intones into his cream of broccoli. After he says grace he follows me with his eyes as I walk back and forth to the cash register in front of him, aroused, I imagine, for a brief moment with the laziest tail end of lust. He soon slips back into the haze.

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I am in a haze, too -- of pleasantness. I answer their questions. I refill their coffee when they call me over, and even when they don't.

Some days Bill comes in to Celia's to see me. I met him in a class at the local university when I was home the summer before. For those first months I thought he was beautiful. His skin was golden and smooth, and his hands -- What hands! -- were bigger than they should have been, as skillful and strong as paws. I wanted to be with him all the time. He was the first boyfriend since high school I felt that carnal about, and I liked it, the way sexual hunger, like an appetite for food, finally was something certain I could steer by, there to be indulged or overcome.

When I was a kid, my mom had given me a book on my astrological sign, and I'd studied it closely. A female Libra, it reported, was "a delicate flower." I'd pictured myself this way, easily blown around, nervous and fragile. It had also said I was indecisive, and again I'd known that's how it was, me dickering until fate stepped in.

This new craving was definite; seemed lucky for me, born under such fragile stars.

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Only this year I'm not sure how I feel.

At Celia's I maintain the facade that we are a working establishment. I send the dishwasher out with money from the till to replace the dressing, corrupt in the broken prep cooler; I return to our young cook the orders that look especially dire; I pluck the listless tomatoes from the tops of dinner salads before delivering them to my few tables.

One night I plan to write a story called "The Law of Inertia." "My life -- how much duller will it become?" I write in my journal.

There is one other regular in the restaurant, who takes a seat of his own at a table in the center of the dining room, set for 5 and rarely taken. He is usually surrounded by a sea of empty booths. I am told he has Alzheimer's, and he stares blankly at me when I ask for his order. He is small, hunched in on himself like someone conserving energy. His round head is adorned with only a few wisps of hair, and his face looks as soft and mutable as a child's. I feel sympathy for him, even while my patience ticks irritably away. Was he once a strong man, I wonder, thick-haired and decisive? He has such a hard time remembering what he wants, and, when he does, getting it out.

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"I-I'd like" he stutters, looking up at me with startled eyes, and with his mouth slightly open, as if waiting for the end of his sentence to emerge. "I-I'd like." It is always the same thing, coffee and a cookie, and it seems so sadly un-nourishing that I always wait for him to say it, hoping that perhaps he'll change his mind, forget, even, and try something better. "A-a-coffee?" he finally warbles. "A-a-nd a cookie." He looks at me blankly again when I bring him what he's ordered, as if I could give him anything, and he'd accept it. Later, when I deliver the bill, he just opens his wallet, and I count out the change and pennies myself.

I don't know why Celia is so casual about letting her restaurant go under. Sometimes I detect a trace of shame beneath her usually inscrutable, slot-playing expression, as if she is seeing the place for a minute through my eyes. Then she goes on cheerfully out the door, tilting her head up to look from under the visor at me, and promises to bring my paycheck tomorrow.

Eventually even the local, occasional customers see through my thin scrim, its upbeat picture, to the disorganized props behind: the dishwasher lopes through the dining room dangling a Safeway bag from his fingers, Celia enters and yells into the phone, George at the counter nods off to sleep. Then no one comes. Only the hapless tourist from New York or Cleveland, in search of something without sun-dried tomatoes, might give us a try.

"I'll have a cheeseburger"

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"Sorry, we're out of cheese right now, but what about one of the other burgers?"

"Can I get a Coke?"

"Would you settle for Mr. Pibb?"

Later I clean the table and find nothing, or sometimes, when they feel sorry for me, a crumpled dollar for my elaborate efforts.

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And still I stay on.

As the customers at Celia's, that sinking ship, bail one by one over the course of the summer, the counter men hold fast to their nailed-down bar stools, gray soot from the cigarettes they never put down scattered around the black plastic ashtrays before them like ancestral dust. Their hands tremble as they lift the cheap coffee to their lips. "Bless us oh Lord," they say, and "how 'bout a warmup?" "I-I-want ..." hangs in the air.

I go to the park for an astronomy class, to count one night's shooting stars. Bill agrees to come with me. That evening we walk from my house down to the park where I spent half my childhood. I'd thwacked tennis balls around with all sorts of friends, but mostly I'd roamed a lonely thatch of trees and shrubbery by myself, lost in my vague dreams. Where we walk now is dense with trees, but for one open field that slopes downhill, where we spread out a blanket and lie back to stare at the sky. Bill falls asleep quickly and I stay up, keeping a bored watch. After a while I look over at him, gawk, really, at his pretty, sleeping face. I look at the sloping planes of his cheekbones, at his white eyelids and the tendons in his neck, taut as bowstrings. Why not touch him? I wonder. But I don't dare do a thing. I lie back and the stars are shooting now. I make hatch marks in my astronomy notebook, keeping track.

Only this to add: how I looked then. Pleated skirt, long hair, indirect gaze. My arms folded before me protectively. A few too many curves, I thought, and I wore black.

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A new guy sits at the counter one day, younger than the rest but just as hopeless, an old-fashioned salesman in search of a job. He is small, dressed in a dark suit and a thin shirt, partially unbuttoned. He looks perhaps 34. He is silent for awhile, then talks aloud with himself about the price of a lunch plate, the possibility of economizing with a dinner salad. (I want to say: don't waste time choosing, guy. There is no lunch plate. There is no dinner salad. I wipe a spot on the counter instead.) He orders soup, then peppers me with stories of his endless search for work.

He speaks in staccato, nasal bursts. "It's a crazy job. It's crazy!" he says. "You go in, you gotta say to people, 'Hey, you wanna buy an alarm? There's been a lotta crime lately.' Then, you know what they do? Then they say, 'Fuck you,' and then you gotta say, 'Fuck you' back, and go to someone else and say the same thing." He looks down into his bowl, waving the empty cellophane of a saltines packet above him to indicate the hopelessness of other people.

After he leaves I sweep into my hand his tiny tip, a small mound of change hardly worth pocketing. He comes back and talks to me, and drops off change, for three successive days. I begin to invent tables that need cleaning and salt shakers to fill, in order to stay out from behind the counter.

One afternoon, moments after I bid him a relieved goodbye, he calls. "I'm at a pay phone down the street," he announces. Then he asks me on a date. I say no; I don't even waver. I hold his quarter tip in the palm of my hand, in awe of his bravado; relieved, a little, at my own. "How can he have thought ...?" I marvel. I am disgusted, but impressed, too, with the way he's called for me, and expected me to come.

It is almost the end of the summer. I am taking a class in Medieval literature, and I begin to do my homework in a booth near the kitchen, glancing up occasionally from "The Age of Bede" or "Beowulf" to survey the empty tables and the static backs of the men lined up along the counter. The coffee pot perks away, filling the back of the restaurant with a stale smell. Outside I see people wandering in the sunlight on our busy, commercial street, and sometimes they look in the window. They take in the empty booths and me, traveling with monks on "The Voyage of Saint Brendan," then move quickly along to a place with some hope.

I'm in retreat right now, but there's hope for me, too.

Sure, I'm 21 and still uncertain, so Libran I believe my own astrological fate, to be delicate as a flower, blown by every strong wind. But at least I have begun to ask, What do I want? Sometimes some soft answer of my own rises up inside me and I can speak for myself and say just what it is. Sometimes I slip. I open my mouth and someone else has to count it out for me, decide my change.

"Water on the rocks!" I hear Douggie howling, pressing his double-jointed fingers down on the oak table until all the pink has left them. "Water on the rocks!" The others join in, laughing hysterically, hammering their fists on the table. "Water on the rocks! Water on the rocks!" and finally I'm wondering, is this really it? I just need to come out again from the kitchen, to refill their glasses with my pitcher?


Maria Dolan

Seattle essayist Maria Dolan wrote "Learning to Love the Abyss" for Salon Wanderlust in December 1997. She is at work on a book about urban nature.

MORE FROM Maria Dolan

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