Ashley finishes scooping the rice pudding into the plastic container. She walks through the kitchen doors to the take-out counter, stuffed in the corner of Harry’s Bistro. She slides the dessert into a small brown paper bag and tosses it to the young mother standing cradled between the thin man with googly blue eyes and Bonnie. Ashley jumps back to the register, almost shouting “How can I help the next person!”
“Aaash-ley” Bonnie says with her daily smirk. Bonnie was always the same in a fitted black-tee and gym pants. She had straight, course brown hair and the angled bangs that frizzed out over her eyebrows were a vestige of her long gone youth.
“Hi Bonnie” Ashley retorted, not even asking about the happenings of the past two hours since Bonnie had last come in to get a muffin. The woman was always in the take-out area. Bonnie stopped in for her muffin before the gym, her lemonade after the gym and then dinner. Ashley was certain Bonnie lived next door but she didn’t care to ask.
Ignoring the tremendous line surrounding her, Bonnie chattered, “I told you I’d be back.” She smirked again, her smile extended from her lips, confused and insincere. Noticing the lifeless lack of attention Ashley was giving her, Bonnie pressed “why so serious this afternoon?”
Ashley was supposed to be off today. But she is at the cash register. And in the kitchen is gray-shirt-and-jeans wearing Meredith, sweating as she ladles the thick brown chili from out of the steaming silver pot and into the white sixteen ounce take-out container for Mr. Googly eyes. Mr. Googly eyes who came in every afternoon to order his chili asking for five sets of utensils. Meredith can feel his blue eyes in oval, wire-framed glasses gawking at her through the wall. Each day when she peaked out of the kitchen, he’d be wearing an off-white button down shirt, ill fitting khaki pants and a name tag dangling from the red lanyard of the auto dealer next door reading: Hi My Name is Fred Galokztin. How Can I Help You? He would stand and stare at Ashley, sometimes complimenting her on her apron.
Ashley was supposed to be getting her nose pierced with Zoë. Instead, her, and her un-pierced nose are ringing-up cobblers and chili’s. Instead, she is at the register, alone in her old white apron fouled by spilled soda’s and too many hours.
The kitchen is a stampede of pot clangs, squealing sneakers and Cuadete! Be car-ful!
“We need more soup,” a waiter demands from the chef, as he sticks his head into the kitchen, into the warm sticky air of roasted food, searing thoughts, and heated bodies.
The slower the soup, the lower the tips and he badly needed the tips, even the soup tips. Without tips… he didn’t know, there must be tips!
Jose is delicately finishing the warm apple cobbler with a sprig of mint. The cobbler is light pink and soft with crumbs scattered on top. The vanilla ice cream is hanging off the side touching the plate. Jose is quietly puncturing this perfect scoop of soft ice cream with the short green stem of the mint. Sometimes he is more delicate with the ice cream then he is with his own children.
The bag in the restroom is ripping, ripping under the weight of a strangers recent vomit attack. The customer has long gone back to his apartment.
The take-out customers are staring at Ashley, waiting. She is an uploading webpage or an ATM machine validating a transaction. The customers wait. They have dogs to walk and lottery tickets to buy. They feel stalled: where is the chili? The rice pudding mother wants to tell Ashley she forgot to include a spoon and napkins in her little brown bag.
The roach under the drain is watching, watching, feeling the pounding of feet on the kitchen floor as people run back and forth to their destinations.
And Mr. Googly eyes is staring at Ashley’s chest and taking up space near the counter though he’s already ordered. He hunches slightly and breathes loudly, his eyes glued.
The soup is low. The waiter is anxious with knees hurting from standing all night. He thinks he will catch the flu from the rapid changes in temperature: hot kitchen, cool air conditioned dinning room. Darting back and forth between hot sweat, cold sweat. He needs the tips for rent, for alcohol, for being in New York in the first place.
A sprig of mint is as familiar to Jose as Mexico. He had been working at Harry’s for fifteen years, poking the same green mint onto the same scoops of ice cream that slid off the same pink cobblers. Six days a week, minimum wage and serious back distress. He loves his children and his family dearly. He is smart, he is capable, he could be somewhere better.
Ilana calls about the crackers and her crying baby. She is calling to say she is coming back to the get the crackers that were missing from her order and that her baby is crying. She never knew that this was motherhood and that it would last longer than three months. She never knew she could feel this tired.
People outside the restaurant are considering the sign, the menu, the line “should we go in?”: there’s the recession, there’s my heartburn, there are those clouds that sort of look ominous but I don’t really know if its rain. The apron is rubbing the back of Ashley neck, the white cord creating a red rash that she would have tomorrow and the day after. The bandana itches at her hairline and her hands are dry and cracked from taking on and off latex gloves all day. Her skin is peeling from her obsessive washing habit to rid her hands from the filth of the quarters and pennies, the one dollars, five dollars, ten dollars, twenties, fifties, hundreds.
Meredith is sweating. She is at the risk of spilling the chili. Her gloves make her hands slippery. She has a boyfriend that says he loves her. She believes him. Manuél, the busser, knows that today he must mop up vomit in the bathroom. This is his job, a piece of his life, a piece of his identity, vomit.
It’s the first day spring is peaking out from winter, smirking at Ashley with its supposed loveliness. The people in the take-out area are waiting with shifting feet and patient smiles. She wasn’t supposed to be at work today. And here at this moment, these people and their children, and Mr. Googly Eyes and his stare, Bonnie and her smirk, the flowers are all together and funneling through Ashley to Meredith and her boyfriend, Jose and his children, the waiters, the roaches. But Ashley was supposed to be off today.
Looking straight at Bonnie, Ashley replied, “It’s busy”.