A Short Story by Scott Semegran
Simple question. "If you hate this job so much, why are you still here?"
"I have no fucking idea! I really don't! Like it would be better somewhere else, huh?"
Exactly. Like it would be better somewhere else. I worked for three different restaurants in the past year and I hated each one with a passion. Slinging food to the swines that came into those places bred a misanthropic hatred that was dangerous. Extremely dangerous! But I discovered quickly that I was one of many who flocked to this type of work. A haven for what seemed like lost souls or, to put it more plainly, misguided creative types. I was only one of millions caught in the trap, caught in the cycle of daily cash and short work days, caught in high stress and low self-esteem, engulfed in an environment of service and self-destruction. I thought that I needed it. I thought it fueled my creative fire, to say the least. It did more than that. My entire world caught fire.
"I think that every person in America should work in a restaurant for a minimum of three months of their life. You know? Like mandatory military service or something."
"Why's that?" asked one of my server colleagues. He was also a drummer for a local band.
"Because you have to deal with people on this level. This base level where hunger plays a factor in their decision process. You know what I mean?"
"Kind of," said my friend, somewhat disinterested.
"Well, let me put it this way. We're serving people that you yourself wouldn't exactly invite to dinner anytime soon. I mean, look at them..."
I pointed to a table and insisted that my colleague watch as they ate. A young couple sat across from each other at a table a few feet from us. The young man spoke boastfully with his mouth full of food, launching pieces of pasta and sauce on to the table, gesticulating his arms in the air, fleshing his words in a shower of spittle, guffaws, and food particles. The young woman watched as he spoke, clumsily attempting to place pasta on her fork, spilling the majority of her meal from the plate on to the place mat, apologetically grunting as she tried to hide her lack of table manners. It was the dining of the swines, if nothing else. I would hate to be watching myself if I ate like that. The thought gave me chills and upset my stomach.
"Look at them! They are disgusting to watch. But on top of that, we have to deal with people's stomachs, not their minds. When a hungry group of people come in, they aren't talking to us. Their stomachs are. And they could give a god damn fuck that they are rude to us. They're hungry and that is all that matters. They're not even thinking, you know? Social grace and courtesy is never a factor. Gotta fill the tank. Need fuel, consume more fuel. Do you know what I mean?"
"Not really," replied my coworker, watching his tables with more interest.
"And that guy didn't even have to do that to me! Snapping his fingers at me like I'm a..."
"Hey, here comes the manager. You'd better calm down," said my colleague with deep concern, looking busy while doing nothing.
"I don't care."
"You might if you lose your job."
"I don't care."
I looked in the direction my colleague was pointing and my manager was on his way over. And he looked pissed! Really pissed! His piss-red face about cracked me up.
"What the fuck are you doing, Mark!?" demanded my manager. "You don't talk to customers that way!"
"But he was rude to me."
"Come here! Come here!" he gestured, pointing to his feet and stomping toward the office on the other side of the dining room.
I followed my manager into the office at the front of the restaurant. He slammed the door behind me like one to a prison cell and began to steam. His head turned bright red and I noticed tiny streams of sweat running down his neck. I thought his head was going to burst. Imagine that. It inflated from the tight collar around his neck like a maroon balloon.
"I want you to go out back and chill out for a while. Smoke a cigarette or something. But think about what you did. Think about it hard! Because if it happens again, you're out of here! Do you get it!? Fucking out of here!"
"I don't have a cigarette..." I replied sarcastically.
"Take this one and go out back!"
A fucking menthol! I hated menthols! He might as well have given me a cigar or something.
"Now get out of my sight for a while. Someone is covering your tables."
I grabbed the cigarette, his lighter, and stepped out of the office. A small group of waiters hovered outside the door like vultures, listening and gossiping, waiting for some information to be thrown their way. I gave them an ice cold stare. They stopped smiling and the group dispersed. I slammed the front door opened and walked to the back of the restaurant. Finding a crate to sit on, I lit the cigarette and took a deep drag. The menthol irritated my nose. I hated menthols!
I didn't think about what I did. I didn't think about it at all. It was a daily occurrence, guaranteed, like the sun coming up. And just like the sun going down, here I was again in the back of the restaurant supposedly thinking about my actions. Fuck this place! Fuck it! I thought, over and over again in my head like a chant. My alma mater, my anthem, my philosophy. Fuck this pit! It wasn't worth thinking about. I didn't care one way or the other. All I could think about was how to get out of there, where to go, what to do, and I couldn't think of anything. I was stuck, at least for the present time. And that pissed me off to no extent! It pissed me off to think that the trap had caught me. The trap that was clear to me and to everyone whose eyes I had opened. I felt like the biggest idiot in the world. Practice what you preach, right? It was all a pile of shit and I was sinking in it fast.
Completely disgusted, I threw the menthol cigarette on the ground, reached into my pocket, and pulled out a new pack of cigarettes. Camel cigarettes! Lighting it and taking a deep drag, I crushed the menthol into a flattened pulp. A thin wisp of smoke dangled and vanished from the remains. I imagined my manager on the ground crushed under my foot, his intestines spilling on the asphalt like the strands of tobacco from that pathetic excuse for a cigarette. He was a pathetic excuse for a manager. And I believed that he knew it, too. He just wouldn't admit it. He wouldn't admit that his life was worthless. But I would have been more than happy to tell him that he was worthless. I would have been more than happy to lay it out for him. His stench was the predominant smell in the restaurant. But then again, I didn't want to waste my time. Time was too valuable to me for that. So I smoked my cigarette instead.
Tomorrow was going to be my anniversary. My two year anniversary. I graduated from college exactly two years ago and here I was slinging food again. This was my goal in life. I imagined it vividly and when my father approached me, my black gown flowing in the wind and my hat perched on my head, and asked me what I was going to do, I said, Dad, don't you know!? I'm going to wait tables! A serving technician! And I could see it. A smile sitting on his face and shaking my hand firmly, he replied, Wise decision, son. Wise decision.
The night was cool and the sky was clear and I watched the moon as it dangled in the sky smiling at me. The more I stared, the more it seemed to laugh instead of smile. It laughed and laughed and taunted. I wanted to throw punches. I wanted to grab it from the sky and crush it. But he was my friend. He was the only one that told me that I wasn't crazy. My consistent friend. My smiling, consistent friend. He and the night breeze soothed my temper. The cool air played with my hair and caressed my face. I loved the night and quickly forgot about the incident inside the restaurant. I smoked two or three more cigarettes and watched the sky.
I began to think about everything that led up to this point, how I got back into waiting tables, how I returned to the pit. Six months before, I was working at a different restaurant at night and writing novels diligently during the day. I was content to say the least, working hard, writing furiously, striving for a goal as a novelist, when a friend offered me a job. He was starting his own business, one that I initially had no interest in, and he wanted me to help him get it off the ground. I had no experience in construction but my friend trusted me and knew that I had a level head and gave good advice. He wanted me to help with the business aspect, money, contracts, management. At first, I said no. It didn't fit with my writing career plans. But when he offered a massive salary, one that was completely beyond my comprehension at the time, I couldn't resist. I was only making five or six hundred bucks a month, barely scraping by, dirt poor. Fifteen hundred a week was like a gold mine to me. I quickly dropped everything I was doing, my writing, my job, and dove head first into helping run the business. The rest of his family trusted me, too, and contracts were flying around like golden doves. Sixty million dollar contracts, fifteen million dollar contracts, a million here, a million there, his company was supposed to construct prefabricated homes in Japan and they were going to do it cheaper than any construction company in Japan. Everything seemed set in place and I was going to score big. I quickly saw how this opportunity would fit with my writing career. I would make a bundle for working a few years, quit the job, buy a house, write until I was old and gray. But after a few months of working blind to reality, reality slapped me in the face, hard. I had been working for months, all day, all night, when the roof fell in. He promised to pay me as soon as one of the contracts became liquid and we had all been working for free, basically, for months. The Japanese faltered their commitment, missed the deadline, and all the contracts were thrown into international arbitration. Months and months of court time lay ahead of us and we were broke, completely broke, and I had been living on macaroni and cheese and coffee for four months. Four months! None of my bills had been paid for (we were waiting for the big pay off!) and I got into some serious trouble with creditors, my apartment complex, my insurance, and the list went on and on. I was so fucked! I still am! I needed money badly to pay my bills and eat and I had nothing. A girlfriend of mine found me a job. She used to work at this restaurant. She said it was quick money. And she was right. A quick hundred and fifty dollars a week for busting my ass at this pit! And again, I was slinging food and my father was so proud. So proud! I learned something, though. I learned that everything, I mean everything in this world, is both shit and gold. It just depends how you look at it. I had a contract in my hand, a legal contract, with $60,000,000 written at the top. Can you imagine that?! $60,000,000! It was like gold in my hand. And now, I could wipe my ass with that same piece of paper. It made me want to cry. I almost did sitting out behind that pit while my life seemed to be in complete turmoil. But at least I had a cigarette! Thank god for R.J. Reynolds! And my friend with the business, he's waiting tables, too.
After a while, I heard footsteps from the side of the restaurant. One of the waitresses came looking for me. It was her mission to tell me to go back inside and talk to the manager but she didn't accomplish her mission. She sat down next to me, put an arm around my shoulder, kissed my cheek, and asked for a cigarette. I gave her one, lit it, lit another for myself, and we sat in silence for a few minutes. We watched snakelike clouds slither across the sky. But she quickly interrupted the serenity.
"You need to go back inside soon," she said. She wanted to be a massage therapist. I asked her for a neck rub.
"Yeah, I know. In a little bit."
"What happened in there?"
"Oh... I don't want to go into it again."
"It's better if you talk about it."
"No, it's not."
"It's always better when you talk about things. It's better for your conscience."
"Not this time. I don't want to talk about it."
"Oh, come on." She leaned over and kissed my cheek gently. "Tell me what happened."
I proceeded to tell her what happened at my table. How the man was rude to me, how he snapped his fingers at me when I turned around to walk to the kitchen, how he called me stupid, incompetent, and ignorant, and how he eventually threatened me when he saw that I wasn't going to take it anymore. I didn't have to go into much detail. She had been through it before, too, and she wasn't surprised. She wasn't surprised one bit.
"But Mark," she responded, "You didn't have to tell him to fuck off. You didn't have to do that."
"There wasn't anything else I could do. I'm not going to take that from him or anybody. I felt like cracking his teeth, you know? It would have been great to see the look on his wife's face. I can just see it! Him laying on the ground trying to keep the blood from pouring out of his mouth! Why do people fuck with waiters?! Why would anyone fuck with someone who is responsible for bringing you something to eat? Doesn't he have any idea of what I could..."
"Now, now... calm down. You just have to shut it out. You can't let it affect you like this. Most of the people that come here treat us like shit but you just have to block it out. How do you think we have been able to work here so long?"
"I have no idea. I don't know why you all are still here. Me, either, in that case. I just don't know. It seems crazy."
She continued to rub my neck.
"It is but you just have to bare it. It's just a job."
She was right and I knew it, at least about the job part. But there was something in my mind that just wouldn't accept that as the answer. I couldn't understand how a job could put me in a position where people ignored any kind of decency or respect for me. I didn't want to be subjected to that even though I knew that I had no other choice. There were no other options where ever I was at. I was stuck for the time being. I needed the money.
"I just don't understand why people think that they can fuck with their waiters. Don't they have any idea what we could do to their food before we bring it out to them? I could piss in that guy's soup and he would never know it. I could stick his soup spoon in the toilet. I could..."
"I know. I know."
"I just don't understand."
"I don't think you ever will."
"You know, I don't want to be here long enough to get to a point where I could understand. That's not what I want."
"Well, what else are you going to do?"
"Get published one of these days."
"And you think that'll save you from the assholes of the world."
"Come on, Mark. Be realistic. They're everywhere."
She was right.
"I know. But C.C..."
I was the only person in the restaurant that called her C.C. She was my best friend at work and I loved her to death. I wanted to tell her that I cared for her more than just as a friend, that I thought about her day and night, that I wrote poetry about her when I couldn't sleep, but I never did. I never said one word to her about it.
"You want to hear a poem I wrote today? It's a great one."
"Come back inside, Mark. I don't want you to get into trouble." She stood up and grabbed my hands. "Come back inside, please."
"No! I don't want to!"
"Don't make me! No! No!"
She leaned over to my ear and whispered softly.
"Please come inside."
She kissed my cheek again softly and caressed my hand. She was a good friend to have. One of the kindest people that I had ever met.
"Okay... I'm coming."
I took one last drag off of my cigarette and extinguished it on the ground. I followed her like a puppy to the front door. The menacing, wood door frowned at me. I smiled back knowing that the restaurant had no choice but to let me in. No matter what I did, I had to finish my shift. And as I walked through the entrance way and back into the restaurant, I could hear the moon laughing from the sky. I could hear it like the rumbling of thunder.
The lobby was jammed with waiting patrons pushing and shoving their way to the hostess stand. The poor hostesses tried to create order out of the chaotic mass, taking names and designating acceptable waiting times, but that didn't matter. No one cared. And when they weren't looking, families stealthy snuck passed and squatted uninhabited tables. I, too, snuck passed the hostess stand, a grin from ear to ear, and ignored my manager. He had lost his cool. Sweat poured down his neck and soaked the back of his once-pressed shirt. His head was still inflamed and inflated. I knew without a doubt that speaking to him about the previous event would be pointless. So I peered into my section and walked straight for the kitchen.
My name was called by the cook and I grabbed a tray and waited for my food to be set on the line. The kitchen had fallen apart while I was smoking in the back. Waiters ran in circles, confused about what to do and where to go. The hour wait for tables injected a tension in the air that debilitated everyone. The food was taking an unusually long time to be prepared and the waiters were not aware of the consequences that were about to uncoil right outside the kitchen door. My confrontation with that customer was the first in a long chain of events that slowly but surely drove everyone insane. But I didn't care. The customer didn't bother me anymore, the chaos didn't affect me, the unavoidable tension I would have with my tables didn't faze me, and, most of all, above everything else, I felt no pity for any of my coworkers. I just stood there in the middle of it all smiling, not saying a word, just smiling. No one noticed and in the midst of it all, I watched everything as if I was floating ten feet above the ground, evilly grinning and eagerly waiting for my food, a harbinger, the bringer of chaos, the server of death.
After a few minutes, another waiter stood next to me, tray in hand, and waited for his food, too. He was a painter during the day. I snapped out of my violent fantasy when I noticed him.
"What happened at your table?" he asked.
"The guy was a dick."
"Really? What did you say to him that pissed him off so much?"
"I told him to fuck off."
"No shit! I can't believe that! That is fucking great! I wish I had the balls to do something like that."
"Everyone has the balls. It's all in how you let them dangle. I want to fuck his world so bad!"
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet. I'm thinking."
"Put something in his food. Fuck with his food!"
I turned to my coworker and if there was a smile on my face, it was replaced by the biggest shit eating grin I could conjure. He appeared surprised at my excitement. I didn't think that he thought I would take him seriously but I did, as serious as a nuclear war. And even though it was an option that I had already thought of, it wasn't plausible until a third party planted the seed into my mind. And what an evil seed it was!
"Watch for my food, will ya?" I asked.
"Where are you going?"
"Just watch for it."
I walked to the prep room and scanned a shelf that was lined with bottles of cleaning chemicals. I knew exactly what I was looking for. I wanted the bottle of what we called The Pink Stuff. Finding it after a few seconds, I poured a measuring cup full of the rank liquid and quickly walked back to the line. The waiter was still there with a look of curiosity dangling on his face. My food, too, was waiting patiently for me.
"Wha'cha got there?" he asked, though he had a faint idea of what it was. I knew he recognized The Pink Stuff.
He leaned over and sniffed the small glass in my hand to verify his suspicion. His nose rebelled and retreated.
"That's not that shit we use to remove gum from under the tables, is it?"
"Won't that shit kill whatever it comes in contact with?"
"I guess we'll find out shortly."
When the cooks had their backs turned, I slyly drained the chemical into a bowl of minestrone soup and with a soup spoon, I persistently stirred its contents. The spices in the soup camouflaged the smell of the poisonous chemical and the color blended nicely with the red tint of the appetizer. With a smile as big and bright as the crescent moon that waited for me outside, I placed a pack of saltine crackers on the soup liner and garnished the soup with a twig of parsley. The evil smile on my buddy's face soon turned into a look of concern.
"You're not really going to give that to him, are you? I was just joking."
"You could get into some serious trouble."
"I'm looking forward to it."
"I could be seen as your accomplice!"
"No you won't. No one will know."
I placed the soup bowl on to my tray like I always did, placing the rest of the plates next to it in a similar fashion. I raised the tray above my head and left the kitchen.
On the way to my section, I observed the chaos as if in slow motion. Kids ran between the tables rabidly screaming, parents barked and swung their palms, couples argued, waiters groped and moped, and off in the distance, the general manager still occupied the tiny space behind the hostess stand pulling his hair and smiling; his nervous twitch flared into an obvious, pathological shortcoming. I floated to my section invisible to everyone, even to the patrons, step by step, watching, smiling, conversation swirling in the air with the chorus of chewing and spitting and belching like a gastral orchestration. And like the day before, I placed the tray gently on my tray stand. And like a few minutes before, I ordered the plates for an easy drop off. The fumes from the bowl of soup waved at me. I stared at the bowl and hesitated for a second. For one millisecond, I felt remorse and guilt. I thought of returning to the kitchen, dumping the food into overflowing trash cans, and asking the cooks for new plates. I ran excuses through my mind of how the customers didn't like the food, how they demanded new plates of different dishes, all the side orders, all the apologies, all the extra work to please the family. I knew that I was a good waiter or at least a decent one. I had always waited like I wanted to be waited on. Low maintenance, little conversation, the food always came out on time because I didn't want the tables to wait. I never wanted to wait for my food and cared little for small talk with the wait staff when I was out at a restaurant. And that's how I dealt with my tables. My manager often told me that I came across as being cold, that I should joke more, smile more, but that wasn't me. The food was my main concern.
I then turned to the customer that yelled at me and the family that waited eagerly for their food. He watched me like a hawk waiting for a mistake, waiting to pounce on me again. I could see his words sitting on his tongue. Fuck him, I thought. Fuck him! The remorse was gone. I picked up the bowl of soup and set it in front of him.
"Finally!" barked the customer.
"Sorry for the delay," I responded in the nicest tone I could muster. I expected his response.
"Just give us the food!"
"No problem," I said sarcastically.
I placed the rest of the plates on the table, one for each of the two kids, and one for his wife. I prebussed the table for dirty dishes, filled my tray, and watched from the corner of my eye how they prepared to eat, their tongues wagging, their eyes bulging along with their stomachs. I picked up my tray from the stand and walked back to the kitchen. After dumping the trash, I took off my apron, rolled it into a wad, slid the tray into the tray holder, and walked to an inconspicuous corner of the dining room. I knew, in my head, that my job was finished. I anticipated the outcome, leaning against the wall with one hand in my pocket and the apron under my arm, my body partially concealed by an artificial bush of some unknown fauna. Fumbling in my pocket, I found my pack of cigarettes. Taking one out, I placed it in my mouth and watched the table. They gorged their food, stuffing their mouths with heaping fork fulls of pasta and wads of bread. I quietly snickered to myself waiting and watching. And before I could count to twenty, the reality of my actions revealed itself. The man keeled over the table, knocking dishes and glasses to the floor, and vomited profusely. The regurgitating reaction of his stomach shocked me. He violently shook slamming his head on the table and fell to the floor, soup spewing from his mouth and snot draining from his nose. His wife and kids screamed and leapt from their seats trying to help him and the first thing that popped in my mind was to help, too. But I didn't move. I didn't help. I was paralyzed with fear and, then, elation. I was completely inspired. There was no turning back on my actions at that point. Apologies would have been of no use. So I decided to leave... for good.
I lit the cigarette that patiently dangled in my mouth and walked past the table. Other hero-type patrons quickly congregated around the helpless man and fought over who was more qualified to help while he thrashed and vomited on the floor. His wife watched me walk by and a tiny tear dribbled down her cheek. She wanted me to help him. I could see it in her sad eyes. I smiled one of those how-do-you-do smiles and stopped momentarily pretending I gave a damn. I nodded my head and then continued passed the table for the exit. As the manager ran by me, I handed him my apron like a football.
"Mark! Where are you going?! Mark!"
I didn't reply. He ran frantically to the chaos, still sweating, and I imagined the corporate procedures running through his mind. I bet he was frightened. I was glad he was frightened. He feared the corporate structure more than God! I slammed the door open and greeted my friend, my consistent, smiling friend. The night breeze was cold and greeted me again with a cool kiss. The streets were empty and the night lights glared brightly. I walked off and didn't look back. I walked off whistling Dixie.