With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I was working at Fanny’s Cafe in Newport, Oregon. I was a waitress with a waitress uniform: white blouse, black skirt, apron. I was twenty.
I worked different shifts. When I was scheduled for the breakfast shift, I came in early and made the coffee. I served eggs and sausage, pancakes and waffles. I remembered what the regulars liked: coffee black or with cream, eggs over easy or hard, wheat toast or white. They liked the table by the window or no ice in their water. They wanted quick service or they wanted me to linger. They wanted peace and quiet or they were lonely and in need of conversation. I had to be a good sport, laugh at their jokes, sympathize with their problems, and smile.
I was used to speaking my mind, saying fuck or goddamn, saying, “Go get it yourself,” or, “Do I look like your maid?” At work I was like a foreigner who’d learned the customs by reading about them in a guidebook. I couldn’t do anything without first telling myself to do it: how to talk, how to move, and what to do with my face and my hands.
A woman named Fanny Nutt owned the restaurant and was the cook. I’d been warned not to work there. Everybody told me, “That lady is just like her name,” and they were right.
My first day of work a man complained. He had ordered the Captain’s Platter — scallops, fish, crab, oysters. It cost twenty-two dollars. After he finished, he came up to the register to pay and said to Fanny, “Aren’t you going to ask me how I liked my food?”
“No,” she replied.
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway. That was some of the worst food I ever ate.”
And she said, “No, it isn’t. It’s the best. You’re just too stupid to realize it.”
Fanny was a hater. If her horizons had been broader, she would have hated the federal government or Mexicans or Arabs, but Fanny led a narrow life, and her hate was confined to those around her: the fish man, the meat man, the soda-pop man, the produce-truck driver, the salesmen, the customers. Most of all, she hated us.
Fanny could be unexpectedly disarming. She’d get you drunk after your shift, so you’d talk. You’d tell her your secrets, and she’d use them against you later. She might throw a pan across the kitchen if you made a mistake. If she heard a customer complain, she’d tear off her apron, slam it on the counter, and rush to the dining area. “Who do you think you are, coming here to my place and being ungrateful and rude?” she’d yell, as if she had sent out invitations and the customers were her guests. Like maybe next week she’d go to their house and eat. “Go back to California, where you belong!” Her first husband was from California — she knew what people from that state were like.
I learned fast and became a good waitress. I could keep track of many things at once, and I had a good memory. Even now, years later, I can run into somebody and remember: Table Nine, roast-beef sandwich, french fries, slaw, Diet Coke with no ice. Even though I could remember my orders until I got back to the cook’s window, I wrote them down standing in front of the customers. Otherwise they got nervous. They figured anybody with a brain that could hold eight full dinner orders, along with substitutions and detailed instructions, would not have a job as a waitress. I also jotted down orders to keep the other girls from thinking I was a showoff. Waiting tables is competitive. We watched each other all the time, to see who was getting the biggest tips.
Gays were the best. Everyone wanted to wait on the gays. Lesbians especially — solidarity, you know. People from the East Coast were better tippers than Oregonians. Ten percent is unheard of out east. Old people were stuck in the past and figured their tip like it was 1960, and French people didn’t tip at all. We watched to see who got what, not just because we needed the money, but because every table was a vote: we like you 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent. It was like American Idol every day.
The waitstaff came and went at Fanny’s, but three of us managed to stick it out: Marcella, whose son had died; Jennifer, who was Mexican, so it was Hen-i-fer; and me. My name is Mavis, an old-fashioned name that was my great-grandmother’s. The three of us were friends, in a way. We looked out for one another. There was José in the kitchen, too. He was the dishwasher, but he spoke almost no English, so Fanny left him alone.
Fanny had a shit list, and we took turns being on it. It was completely arbitrary. One minute you were Fanny’s pet. “Why can’t the rest of you be more like Ralph?” — the waiter with bad teeth. “Now, there is someone with his head on his shoulders. I’m going to make Ralph the manager.” Next it was “I don’t know what the hell’s wrong with Ralph.”
On the first nice day of spring Fanny fired Ralph because, let’s face it, men just couldn’t do the job like women. After Ralph, we were a big, happy family for a couple of weeks, and then Marcella made it onto Fanny’s shit list. Having a dead son didn’t protect her. She’d let food sit in the window too long. Weren’t her tables always the ones that had problems?
“No, Fanny,” I said. “It’s all the tables.”
“You’re just being nice, Mavis. She thinks she can take advantage because of her son.”
At the moment Marcella got fired, I was seating a customer in my section, at Table Five, by the front door. You could hear Fanny all the way across the room, telling Marcella to get out. “And if you think the sympathy card is going to work with me . . .”
It was lunch hour. The place was full. Every table needed something. Menus were closed; fingers were tapping. People waited in the foyer to get a table and have a bad experience. Customers shouted at me and waved their hands and snapped their fingers. They yelled for condiments.
Fanny followed Marcella out of the kitchen wearing her cook’s whites and shaking a metal spatula. “You think I don’t know who’s taking my pork loins? You’re lucky I don’t call the cops!”
“What are you looking at?” Fanny shouted at a man in Bermuda shorts. She shifted her eyes from table to table. “What do you want from me? Look! Just look at them —” She waved her hand to include not only Marcella, standing by the door with her pocketbook over her arm, but also me.
I leaned toward Table Seven, a family of four. “Ranch, Thousand Island, or vinaigrette?”
“Thieves! Prostitutes! Addicts! Women who shoot their husbands!” Fanny pointed at me. “I got her from a group home in Portland,” which wasn’t exactly true. I’d been living on my own for almost three months by then.
“Soup of the day is clam chowder,” I whispered.
My customers sank in their seats, averting their eyes.
“This is what I get for trying to be nice and employ people who need help,” Fanny shouted. “And this is the service you get, and you’d better just be happy about it.” She turned and stormed back into the kitchen.
I went to Marcella, who was standing by the door. Her son, Wesley, had gone crabbing in Alsea Bay and drowned when he was sixteen. He was all she’d had, which is something you hear and might think you understand, but you probably don’t. I took her pocketbook. “Fuck Fanny,” I said. I set Marcella’s pocketbook behind the counter, gave her my notepad, and pointed to the family at Table Seven.
Three women had seated themselves at Table Six, ignoring the Please Wait to Be Seated sign. Three hands waved in the air. “We are waiting, ma’am. Ma’am!” After letting them wait a little longer, I finally went to their table and described the specials: clam puffs, french bread with brie, turkey fricassee, chicken enchiladas, Lake Superior whitefish. The three women didn’t seem to notice that everyone else in the restaurant was calling for me or that I was looking around, holding up a finger — not the one I wanted to hold up but the one that said, Just a minute. I’ll be right there. They wanted to know what kind of fish was whitefish. Was it cod? Oily? Flaky? Fishy? They yearned for fettuccine. Oh, well, never mind. They’d just have coffee: a double decaf latte, an iced chai latte, and an Americano. They were in a hurry, they told me. I went to Table Five.
“It sure is crazy in here, isn’t it?” the man at Table Five said.
“Sure is,” I replied. Maybe he wasn’t convinced I was actually taking his order, without my pad and pencil. “So what’ll you have?” I asked. “I’ll remember what you tell me.”
“Was that the manager yelling?” he asked.
“Fanny? She’s the owner.” He had officially used up his quota of remarks unrelated to his order. I didn’t have all day.
“And didn’t she just fire that waitress?”
Marcella walked by carrying a tray loaded with fish and chips and beers.
Then he started laughing. Some people act like they’ve got a right to think something is funny when they don’t know anything about it. I remembered Marcella’s son, Wesley, coming around after school sometimes. He liked Chuck Norris jokes: “Hey, Mavis, if paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, and scissors beats paper, what beats all three? Chuck Norris.”
The man at Table Five asked what was good, and I told him the fish stew, and he said that’d be fine.
I’d always had bad luck with guys. They all had something wrong with them, something messed up, complicated, dark. Once, I had gone for a drive with the boy who delivered our fish, but he’d tried to run over a dog, so I wouldn’t see him again. My last date had been with a customer from Waldport. We went out with another couple. The boys sat in the front, and I sat in the back with the other girl, which was fine, because it turned out they were the kind of boys who thought it was fun to yell out their windows at Mexicans. And then there were the really mean ones.
My two roommates, both named Tammy, had differing opinions about all this. Big Tammy said something in me attracted these guys, but Little Tammy said it was just bad luck.
I was giving the man at Table Five his fish stew when the door opened and a family from India came in. A mother and father, two boys, and a grandmother. Red dots were painted in the middle of the women’s foreheads. The kids gripped superhero action figures.
A skinny blond girl came in behind them, and Marcella sat her at a table by the kitchen. She had a book, but she didn’t get a chance to read it, because a man sitting alone at the next table began talking to her. Most people can tell when you want to be left alone, but he wouldn’t take a hint. I overheard snatches of him telling her about his last trip to Portland and how he’d stayed in the Governor’s Motel, and breakfast there was expensive — the cheapest thing on the menu was ten dollars — and it wasn’t as fast as IHOP, either, or Denny’s, and on and on until I came over to take her order. I was tempted to tell him to shut the fuck up. He looked like a child molester. He wore dirty tennis shoes and a short-sleeved plaid shirt. His dentures made a wet, clicking noise when he talked. I imagined them at night, sitting in a glass by his bed. He said to the girl, “Look at those Indians, with those stupid dots on their foreheads.” When I told her the specials, he said a chicken enchilada didn’t sound too good, but maybe a Mexican would eat it.
The blond girl stiffened and began to shake. Her eyes rolled up in her head, her body flew backward, and her head banged on the floor. The man who’d taken such an interest in her a minute before threw money on his table, ran out the front door, and disappeared.
The man at Table Five jumped up and cradled the young woman’s head, holding her gently, while the Indian man carefully gripped her legs. Nobody said anything. I knew I shouldn’t watch, but I couldn’t help myself.
Then it was over. Fanny and José didn’t even know it had happened. The two men helped the girl back up.
“It’s OK. It’s OK,” the man from Table Five said. “You’re all right,” the Indian man said to her. One of the children began to cry. I brought a glass of water to the girl, and she took a drink. She had just wanted to eat her lunch and read her book. Something had gone wrong in her brain, and she had fallen to the floor, and it had lasted only a minute, but in that minute I understood that the man at Table Five was not a dog-killing man, not mean or strange in some unimaginable way. And when he came in again the next day, I sat him in my section even though it wasn’t my turn.