When I worked at my first job, a popular ice-cream chain, a family made me take their son’s plate back because there were pickles on it.
“Oh, we said no pickles,” a middle-aged Sandra-Bullock-wannabe said to me, turning her nose down to peer at me over her glasses.
I stopped in my tracks and felt thrown off from my automated-can-I-get-you-anything else- great -enjoy-mode. I stammered out an apology.
“He won’t eat this,” she said. She lifted up the warm plate of instant macaroni and cheese and almost rolled her son’s hot dog onto the floor. “You need to take this back. He won’t eat anything if pickles touch the plate,” she said.
Her son, probably about four, stood on the vinyl booth seat and leaned on the table with his hands, bouncing at the knee. He looked up at me and smiled. The crusted food around his mouth cracked.
“Sure,” I said. I looked at her son, who started to shade the table in with a broken blue crayon.
He hummed under his breath.
“Thank you so much,” she cooed. I said nothing and sulked into the sticky kitchen.
Sammy and Joey, two thirty-year old dads, stood over the grill. They qualified as the cooks at this restaurant, despite the fact that everything went either on the skillet or in the microwave. I don’t think that restaurant even had pans.
“What do you want?” Sammy asked. He glanced at me between burger flips. “We’re backed up right now. Send whatever it is you need through the machine and we’ll follow the slip when we get to it.”
I told him I needed a plate.
“Why the hell do you need another? Did you drop one?” he demanded.
I explained the pickle situation to him.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “Give it to me.” He motioned toward the macaroni and cheese, which had started to solidify. I handed it over.
He scraped the pickle chips into the trash and wiped the vinegar off on his apron.
“Ta-da,” he said as he shoved the plate back into my hands. I froze for a moment, unsure if this was an after-school special type moment where my deep ethical core, unbeknownst to me until that very moment, would stop me from the deception.
I remembered, then, that I worked at the kind of establishment where getting a job in retail was considered a promotion, an elusive and intangible land where I could be paid regardless of whether I remembered that the Johnny John’s ice cream sundae comes with one banana sliced four ways and chocolate sauce, not hot fudge. But this was not retail, and I’d have to do what I had to do to get mine. I thanked Sammy, shrugged, and took the plate.
I avoided eye contact with my other tables as I returned to Pickle Boy’s booth. His mother was handing him french fries from her plate. She hadn’t touched her turkey burger.
“Here you go,” I said to Pickle Boy. Before the plate hit the table, he grabbed the hot dog out of the bun and stuck it so far down his throat that I began to pray he would choke.
His mother, unphased, thanked me again. I nodded and walked off. An elderly man across the restaurant shook his empty Coca-Cola glass in the air, pointing at it with his free hand.
On my way over to him, I slipped my phone out of my apron to check the time. I calculated about four and a half hours until I could crawl into bed, and about eighteen until I’d need to clock into my next shift.
I was a senior in high school at the time, and though I was in my third month at the restaurant, it had taken next to no time for the drudgery of waitressing to take over my life.
I had, for example, become accustomed to finding dried variations of dessert caked under my forearm in the mornings that I had not noticed the night before. No matter how often we were required to wash our hands, my arms remained covered in confections. Mornings I’d smack snooze on my alarm, wipe the sleep out of my eyes, and notice an assortment of pinks and greens smeared across my skin. I felt disgusted at first, but then I’d remember that the night before I had walked out the door with eighty dollars cash in my hand, and shrug it off. As I got dressed, I would plan what to do in my free hour between the last bell and when I was expected to be at work that afternoon.
When I worked weekends, I’d brood over whether someone would take over my afternoon shift. It was a lot like debating whether I’d skip class because as soon as I let the thought into my mind, it was impossible to let go. I’d scroll through the contacts in my phone and devise just the right tone to guilt some schmuck into working for me that evening.
I’d draft lie after lie in text message:
“I swear I’ll cover you whenever you need it!!! It’s an emergency school thing, I didn’t see it coming!!”
Sometimes I’d ask Janet, the resident restaurant mom who seemed to have worked at the restaurant since it had opened, but she usually said yes and I felt bad about it. Every day she had a new ailment for us to feel bad about, but she was also always doing everybody favors. So, even though she waddled into the kitchen almost every night and asked one of us younger people to refill the drinks on her tables because she was so far behind, or to make her six sundaes so she could catch her breath, she never failed to make me feel like a bad person.
Karen, however, always frantically added up her tips and stressed about rent – something I didn’t have to pay yet. I lived with my then-boyfriend’s family, and like most of my high school peers, my job was to be a student. We were the same age but she dropped out of high school and needed the money more. I felt that we were close because we’d spent a few Tuesday nights covering the entire dining room together, running around like wind up toys, repeating, “I can’t do this,” often in near hysterics.
I’d usually start out with whoever was new and the most afraid to say no to my request, and work my way up from there. But this would only happen after hours of anxiety. I’d convince myself that I would certainly be fired. That never happened, and I guess it was because, unlike the woman they hired after me, I didn’t have visible tooth rot and I was able to do basic math.
Eventually, I was the one that left. A month after my high school graduation, I moved a few towns over and snagged a job in a bookstore – retail heaven. I could wear sandals and I never got my hands sticky.
The ice cream joint closed down three months after I quit. I thanked god for such well-deserved karma. My former co-workers, though, were up in arms. They posted Facebook updates about how outrageous the ordeal was. Apparently, as the closing team wrapped up for the night, the manager, white haired, saggy Mike tottered out of the back office and announced the place wouldn’t reopen the next morning.
The chain was in a financial crisis and was closing stores across the board, leaving employees without compensation or any advanced notice. Such a soul-sucking corporation literally managed to suck the life out of the people who depended upon it. Everything was shut off and the ice cream was left to melt in the early New England Indian summer, as it oozed out of piled up cardboard boxes and painted itself down the parking lot and into the street, dripping down into the gutter to feed the local rats.
About the author:
Monica Erin Busch is a reporter who works and lives on Martha’s Vineyard. She holds a B.A. in Writing and Literature from Emmanuel College in Boston. Her work has appeared in Chicago Literati, has been performed by Liars’ League NYC, and is forthcoming in Ray’s Road Review, as well is Down in the Dirt Magazine. She is on Twitter as @somethingmonica.