The edge of the gray tub dug into my
thigh as I pressed it against the ice machine.
The magnet that held the flap up had broken off, so I had to use one
hand to hold the flap while I used the other to paw around in search of the
scoop. The lip around the edge of the
tub had crumbled away on all but one side, so I used that side to hold up the tub while
the opposite side threatened to saw its way through my jeans. Finding the scoop, I winced and began
chucking ice into the bucket.
“When you get both of them filled, get
out the salads and then cut the fruit.
Damn! I forgot to get tomatoes,”
She’d been there since six, baking the
bread, and she’d almost forgotten to make more chicken salad. She absolutely refused to let anyone make it
from start to finish – her secret recipe and all that.
“Start the soup in the crock pot, uh,
shrimp bisque today, and get the Dutch oven going for the chicken,” she
barked as she stomped off into the prep area.
“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered and let the flap
fall closed with a snap.
The tubs were a nuisance, all because she
didn’t have enough money to buy one of the refrigerated worktables like at
Subway or in school lunchrooms. The
restaurant across the street offered to sell her one of theirs cheap, but she
her competitive streak wouldn’t allow for that.
No, I had to fill two Rubbermaid tubs with ice and wiggle Rubbermaid
containers of chicken, rice, and egg salads, Dijon mustard, mayo, pimento cheese, and four
or five other spreadables down into the ice.
I took off the lids and slid serving spoons into each container.
There was no proper kitchen. The place started out as a wine store, and
when it became clear that she couldn’t make do on selling just wine, Jean
expanded into a high-end deli/café.
There was an enormous work sink
with no hot water (tisk, tisk), and one industrial oven she used for baking
bread and cookies. Instead of a proper range, she had a two-burner portable cook top, which she was now
giving the evil eye.
“Why isn’t my pot ready? You need to get faster at cutting
the fruit.” She set her travel cup down
and pried off the lid. As I dumped a
handful of sliced honeydew into a plastic bowl, I looked into her cup. I gave a smirk. I liked to imagine that Jan’s travel cup
contained something like the “Mother” used to make vinegar only hers was
used to make a never-ending Bloody Mary.
If I asked, she would insist it was just tomato juice even as the
stinging scent of vodka puffed out and she stuffed a celery stalk and wedge of
lemon into the cup, followed by a few grinds of black pepper. “I have to go get tomatoes.” She threw her hands in the air. “It’s always something.”
“It’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I’ll get the chicken going.”
“You don’t know how much white wine to
put in the water,” she reminded me, and bumped me out of her way. “Go start some cookies.”
“I haven’t finished the fruit.”
“Well after then. Jesus!”
She loved to say Jesus as a curse word.
The fruit was a touchy subject. One morning, she’d thrown a fit when she
found me tossing out moldy strawberries with a dead fly in the container. She told me I should’ve cut off the mold and
re-washed the berries. I think if she’d
told me to dig them out of the garbage, I would’ve jerked off my apron and quit
on the spot. From then on, I made sure
to hide whatever food I threw away under a layer of paper towels.
“And you need to start studying up on
wine so you can make informed sales when I’m not here.”
By this point, it was an hour to opening
at eleven, and she was crashing. It was
best to just nod and do the other ten billion things she’d asked. I would get it all done because the situation
was never quite as dire as she made it out to be. I could focus when she wasn’t scurrying around
I knew that at 10:30, she would go out
for whatever vegetable she conveniently forgot to buy. Then, she would return with the energy only
cocaine can provide and run herd on me and the other two girls working for her
off the books.
While the chicken boiled, I retrieved the salad
greens and baklava from the cooler. I
got the cookies out of the freezer, put them on pans, and slid them into the
oven. I wrote the special on the
chalkboard and swept the black and white tile floor one more time before
unlocking the antique doors and flipping the sign around to announce we were open.
I started out on the cash register, but
once I showed I had a knack in the “kitchen,” I never worked the register again
unless someone bought beer or wine. I
rarely waited tables, even though I wiped them every evening before closing. I spent my time making sandwiches and salads,
chopping more fruit, and keeping the soup from forming an icky skim. I developed a flare for plating
lunches that was both efficient and aesthetically pleasing. Most of all, I learned that I never, ever
wanted to own a café.
When the rush ended at two, Jean would disappear
into the bathroom for ten minutes. Every
day, she came out high and ready to head to the gym, and every day, Hannah
said, “She’s going to give herself a heart attack.”
The other girls went home at three,
leaving me to the deal with the few stragglers that came in for a late lunch or
early dinner. It never failed that just
about the time I put everything back in the cooler and mopped the floor, the
town sculptor came in for dinner. He was in his mid-twenties, a gilded prince of a man-boy with a smile to set girls' hearts a-flutter, and he knew it.
“I’ll try not to get any crumbs on the
floor so you don’t have to sweep,” he’d say.
“How is your roommate?” He always
asked. “Is she still dating that older
“Yes, although I don’t think you can call
it dating,” I said.
He always waited until fifteen minutes to
closing to ask for a Red Stripe, and then he’s say, “I guess I’ll have to drink
it fast. Come over to The Pottager sometime.”
I mumbled curses under my breath as I
locked the front door behind him and went to get the broom. I made myself a go-box, grilled chicken with
Swiss and a side salad with black olive feta dressing. After double-checking the lights and the alarm,
I locked the back door and walked two blocks to my apartment. All in all, it wasn’t too bad for $4 an hour,
tax-free, plus tips.
I was ten, back when I spent enough time in the sun to turn a deep, golden brown.That summer I had a Minnie Mouse
swimsuit.It was red with white polka
dots that the sun’s rays could penetrate, so I had a silver dollar-sized polka
dot tan under my suit.
My parents borrowed my
uncle’s boat and took my brother and me to visit our neighbors, who were also
borrowing a boat and a house from a relative.
My mother pulled my hair back in a ponytail to keep my scalp from
getting sunburned, snapped my American Lifeguard Association certified foam
rubber life vest into place, and tugged tight the adjustable straps around my
rib cage. I despised the thing, but if I
wanted to swim without adult supervision, I had to wear it.
My neighbor’s daughter, an
only child, is three years younger than I am.
As children, I took it upon myself to act as a big sister to her. So it was that, while I was teaching her how
to do tricks off the boat dock, I nearly drowned.
I did a pencil – into the
water pointed feet first, arms overhead, and hands overlapped as if to
dive. I went deep, and the water forced
the vest up so that my arms were pinned against the sides of my head. When the vest did its job of bringing me to the
surface, my eyes weren’t even above water.
I think I managed to rock enough to scream once before I swallowed as
much lake water as my stomach could hold.
I kicked and wiggled until I made it to the dock ladder only to realize
that my legs were too deep to get a foot on a rung, and my hands were useless,
as they were still sticking straight up.
Then, I ran out of air.
I felt hands grab my wrists
and pull me out of the water so that I floated through the air and land
nimbly on my feet. The vest was off, and
my neighbor’s father pounded me on the back as I heaved and vomited lake water
all over the dock. I shook violently and
then burst into tears as my terrified mother came sprinting down the gangway
“Don’t ever make me wear that
again!” I screamed at her.
For eight months after that,
I suffered through expelling all the parasites I swallowed and their
cysts. The funny thing is, the lake in
Gonzoland is one of the ten cleanest lakes in the whole country.
years later, we were back on the lake, in a pontoon boat this time, and my
brother was kneeboarding. Like any
competitive sibling, I wanted to as well, but my puny little girly arms weren’t
strong enough for me to haul my disproportionately long legs out of the water,
adjust the strap, and Velcro it while holding the rope. I was also terrified of losing the rope and
being unable to get my knees unstrapped.
In an attempt to be sweet
and dig himself out of whatever hole he’d dug to get grounded, my brother
devised a way to affix me to the board. Wearing
the life vest of doom, I hunkered down, leapfrog style, and he strapped my
knees to the board. “Stay like
this. Hold on to the rope. See this?”
I looked down to see where he slipped the end of the strap under my left
foot. “When you get tired, just move
your foot. The strap will come free and
loose on your knees. Then, you can let
go of the rope and ride the board on your belly till we pick you up.” Sounded like the perfect idea, and it worked,
except that first time.
I took off fine, but when my
father slowed the boat to haul my brother out of the water, the board flattened
out and the nose dipped.
Flippity-dippity, y’all. I went
face-first into the water, and the buoyancy of the board popped it up so that I
did a seal. (A gymnastics stretch where
you lie on your stomach, push up with your hands, bend your legs at the knee,
and touch your toes to the top of your head…and yes, I was a gymnast until I
got too tall.) My knees did not come
free of the board, and it smacked me in the back of the head. I arched my back and dog-paddled, taking
gulps of air when I could.
Someone yelled my name, and
my brother came back in for me. I threw
up water as he swam me to the boat where I crumpled into a ball on the
Astroturf-clad decking and wept that my brother tried to kill me. I had a sore back for a week.
A summer later, I got back
on the kneeboard. My brother decided
that, if I rode too far back on the board, the nose would stay in the air when
my father slowed to get him. Every few
years or so, in a birthday card, he’ll write, “I love you, Sis, and I’m really
sorry that I almost killed you at the lake.”
I wish he’d apologize for convincing me to stick a radio adapter to my tongue
while it was plugged into the wall.
At age fourteen, I
accompanied my church youth group on a mission trip to Myrtle Beach. It was the first year my mother let me wear a
two-piece swimsuit, and I had this adorable number in black and white
For most of the teens on the
trip, it was the first time they had visited a hard sand beach. They were used to the sugar-white beaches of
I’d visited before, so I wasn’t wowed by the fact that people rode
bicycles or pushed wheeled carts full of frozen lemonade or Dippin’ Dots on the
beach. (Why the hell are those things so
good?) What does wow me about the
Atlantic are the remarkable contrasts in low versus high tide, wave crest
versus wave trough.
I spent the better part of
one afternoon, while in my awesome swimsuit, wave hopping with a group of about
ten girls. When I tired, I decided to
head ashore for a frozen lemonade. I
timed my exit, so that I could hop with the waves, but I miscalculated. One caught me in the side of the face,
ramming water into my ear and shoving me to the sea floor.
Hard sand, hard sand, nothing to dig into so I could pull
myself. Every time I tried to stand,
another wave knocked me back down, pinned me, sucked at my thighs, and dragged
me away from the shore. Try, try, try, I heard it in my
head. [That cute boy you like] hugged you yesterday. That’s worth fighting for, right? My cursing gene hadn’t blossomed yet, or
I would've been thinking, Don’t you
Then I thought, God, I’m going to drown out here. I’ve nearly drowned twice, and it’s going to
happen again. The black fingers of
unconsciousness crept into my vision, and then, I washed ashore. I had a wedgie from Hell and sand burns on my
knees, toes, and palms, but as I coughed and retched and crawled away from the
water, I thought I must be part cat.
No one saw me, and I didn’t
tell anyone. I just wrapped myself in my
towel and prayed and thanked God that the blood from my wicked abrasions hadn’t
Sweet sixteen and back at
the lake at a friend’s parents’ lakehouse for some debauchery. I wore my blue and white polka dot two-piece.
(I have a thing for polka-dots.)
My hair was long, down to the bottom of my shoulder blades, and A.C., the
boyfriend of a friend who christened me with the nickname Shelley, kept tugging on it
and then looking away innocently when I would turn to confront him.
Several of us floated on life
vests, and I threatened to burn A.C. with my lighter if he
didn’t stop pulling my hair. Then, he
shoved me off the life vest, sinking my drink.
“Damnit, A.C.,” I shouted and
swept my arm toward him so that I sent a wave of a splash into his open,
Before I could re-situate
myself on the vest, he grabbed me by the shoulders. I began to yell at him, but he shoved me
underwater – no air in my lungs and mouth open.
He put his feet on my shoulders and used all the power he could
generated with his six feet, six inches to jettison me down…deep, deep where
the water is still fffrrreeezing even in August.
Crawl up, I thought, remembering some lifeguard training about
paddling up to the surface. I could see
it, dim in the green water. I thought
about all the corpses at the bottom of the lake, and how they never ever found
anyone who drowned in it, and how it was the perfect place to dump bodies for
that very reason. So I crawled, but I
since I had no air, I didn’t make it far.
“Fuck, Shelley!” A.C. screamed as someone hauled me bodily out
of the water. More coughing, more
warfing (if I may borrow from Ren and Stimpy).
When Abe had jerked me up by
the arm, the water rolled my top down around my waist. Hooray!
Add embarrassment to the list.
“Somebody, give me a beer,” I croaked and slipped myself
back into my top.
No lights. Maybe I didn’t get close
enough to the barrier between life and death to see them, if they exist. I remember the water, the panic, the futility of fighting, and an absence of pain, until after the fact.
As a sophomore in college, I read Black
Water by Joyce Carol Oates, and I wrote a journal entry on those
experiences. I collected them together for the first time, and for the
first time, I connected with a dead girl. That made more of an impression
on me than any of the four near-drownings.