Sunday, September 28, 2014

On the Corner of Main Street

            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,” Jean said.
            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 and sniping. 
            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 guy?”
            “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.


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Drowning isn't such a bad way to go.

            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 for me.
            “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.           
            Two 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 seersucker. 
            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 the Gulf Coast.  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 fucking die!
            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 drawn Jaws.
            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, laughing mouth.
            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).  “Nice tits.”
            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.