“So, well done?”
I roll my eyes, digging my heels into the sole of the too-small shoes that grow hills on my toes. I got here this morning at 7:45 AM, the typical start time for an Opener, and now it’s 6:45 PM with no end in sight. I need the extra money, but I’m starting to wonder if this double shift was a good idea. I’m only a few double shifts away from a pair of shoes that fit. I repeat the reminder in my head over and over, as I doodle a crescent moon into my full order pad.
“Naw,” the sweaty man wheezes, tight fabric choking his swollen throat, “not well done, I just don’t want none of that bloody stuff all in the middle!”
He’s my fourteenth customer today, and coincidentally, sitting at Table 14 – the tiny, lopsided two-top near the kitchen. I study him as he talks, just like all my customers. This is how I sort them. The man at Table 14 is wearing clothes two sizes too small, seems ignorant, and is probably broke. $2.00 tip.
I peek across the aisle at table 12, where my only other customers sit: an older man and his young, cackling woman. Each time I pass their table, the sweet stench of cheap perfume fills my nostrils. The woman is too loud and the man is too impressed; typical fakers. $2.50 tip, most likely with a wink from the man when his exaggerated woman turns away.
I add clouds to my doodle as the irritating man talks; some drifting, some gray, some immovable in the falling sky. I push my pen in patterns like words. I had to master the art of faking it when I started waitressing here 19 months ago, nodding and writing and smiling in perfect syncopation. Back then, it was supposed to be a temporary job. My son, Landon, was just a newborn then, and since his daddy was a piece of shit, I was on my own with no support. I was 10 years old the first time I ate at American Coney Island, down the street from our raggedy house on the west side of Detroit, and my momma used to send me to buy omelettes and cigarettes on Saturday mornings.
Ten years later, when I saw the “Help Wanted” sign in the cracked window two Saturdays in a row (Saturdays at Coney being the only habit I borrowed from Momma), I took the job. The Coney’s always been like a second home, and even though the money ain’t great, it’s more than a single mom in Detroit can make anywhere else. In my group of friends, three of us are single moms, and I’m the only one paying my bills on time.
“And can I get more lemonade,” the man calls out after me, slurping down the remainder of his fourth refill in the last ten minutes.
“Sure,” I beam, then turn on my heels and saunter back to the kitchen, replacing my phony demeanor with a frown.
“I need a steak, well done!” I mock my order to the cooks, pulling one shoe loose and rubbing my swollen ankles.
The kitchen is small and cramped with rubber mats on the floors and stainless steel contraptions jutting out from every surface. I navigate through bus tubs, silverware bins, and half-eaten plates of wrong orders, most likely botched on purpose by the always-hungry kitchen staff.
“Whaddup doe, Esha?” Leroy, the busboy eyes my movements as I turn to slide between the narrow prep stations.
I have my Momma to thank for my too-big butt. Her nickname growing up was Miss Detroit, ‘cause she did small beauty pageants in the city. She even won a tiny crown once, which she kept, though long-broken, on the small desk in her bedroom. As the story goes, she got a lot of attention from boys growing up, which I figure is how she ended up with six kids by six daddies, me being the youngest and the only girl. Later, a drug habit that she started at 16, after having my oldest brother, would claim first her crown, then the house, and finally her life.
“Not much,” I murmur, looking away.
Leroy’s been trying to get my attention for months with no luck. He’s too plain looking, with long hair that he wears braided straight back in cornrows and a smile that’s too nice for a man’s face.
My eyes focus on the one guy here that can keep my attention: Marcus, the head line cook. Marcus is older than the other guys – how much older I don’t know, ‘cause I’m afraid to ask – and he has his own car that he always keeps clean and filled with gas. He ain’t exactly my type, looks-wise. He wears his clothes too baggy and has a goofy grin that reminds me of a cartoon character. It ain’t his personality either that attracts me to him. Most of the time he’s too quiet to even have a personality, and when he does talk, he has a surprisingly quick temper that can morph small talk into a heated debate. But six weeks ago, when my Granny got sick with a flu that never went away, Marcus offered to let me drive his car to pick up her medications and buy her groceries. From that day on, I drove to my Granny’s twice a week, and called Marcus my boyfriend when anybody asked.
“Marcus, did you hear me ‘bout that steak?”
I always approach him cautiously, ‘cause I can never predict his mood. He seems happy now though, even humming a bit as he flips a saturated burger high in the air. He takes his time looking up at me, then winks when he finally does.
“What’s good, baby girl?” Marcus always keeps a toothpick in his mouth, which hangs now between his thick, parted lips.
“Did you hear my order?”
I hate the extra attention Marcus gives me at work. Once, I asked him to stop, but that only led to a violent yelling match in front of the entire staff, so I never brought it up again.
“Yeah, I got you boo, well done.” Marcus smacks his lips at the end, looking me up and down carefully.
My smile barely reaches my cheeks before I head across the kitchen to the prep station.
I untie my apron and pull it from my waist – I always tie it around twice to keep it from falling – then set it beside me on the prep station as I work. First, a garden salad for Table 14: 4oz. lettuce, 2 cucumbers, 1 tomato and a small ramekin of ranch on the side. I’m supposed to ask what kind of dressing to each of my customers, but I learned quickly that black customers always choose ranch. And since 99% of the customers here are black – all ‘cept White Mike, who might as well be black – it’s one less thing to add to my too-long waitress spiel.
Welcome to American Coney Island, home of the American Coney Combo. Our specials today are spaghetti and meatballs and baked chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. My name is Esha and I’d be delighted to take your order!
I add shredded cheese to the soups for Table 12, one small pinch per bowl. My manager, Tony, is always on my back about giving out too much food to my tables, and I can’t afford another dock in pay. I was docked half last month, turning my $2.10/hour into a measly dollar and a nickel.
I finish, tie my apron back on, then balance the two bowls on a tray in my right hand and the salad in my left. Just as I push through the swinging doors into the dining room, my cell phone starts to vibrate in my apron pocket. Marcus is here at work, Granny would be asleep by now, so that only leaves one person that might be calling: Landon’s babysitter. I drop the soups and salads off to my tables quickly, barely pausing to hear that the couple needs napkins, and the chubby man still needs more lemonade.
The phone is on its last ring when I smash the green button with my thumb, hiding behind a giant sack of potatoes in the kitchen. Tony would have a fit if he caught me on my cell phone, so I gotta make it quick.
“Hello,” I whisper, darting my eyes around the kitchen as I kneel on something hard and crunchy.
“Esha, this Auntie Monica. You still at work?”
My aunt Monica has been watching Landon while I work since he was born. Monica ain’t the most trustworthy pick for a babysitter, but she’s family and needs the money, so I agreed. And for the most part, it’s been going well, ‘cept that Monica sells weed from her basement. A not-so-booming business that Monica promises to never run around Landon.
“Yeah, I’m still at work. What’s up?” I tap my acrylic nails against the cardboard box beside me, growing impatient.
Monica knows that on a Friday night, I won’t get out until 10 or 11, after cashing out all my customers, rolling silverware, and sweeping all the floors.
“Well, I need you to come get Landon. I got—”
“What you mean, come get Landon? You know I can’t just leave in the middle of a shift!”
My loud whisper catches the attention of Juan, the Hispanic dishwasher that can’t speak English but can flirt in any language. I look up to find that Juan has spotted me crouched down by the potatoes, and offers a slick smile. I make my signature stank face – Juan has to be told constantly that his advances are unwelcome – before returning to my phone conversation.
“That’s what I’m saying,” Monica continues, “you gone have to leave your shift ‘cause I done got in some trouble.”
“Trouble?” My stomach twists at the sound of panic growing in my immature aunt’s voice. “Is Landon okay?”
Monica actually ain’t much older than me, ‘cause Granny had her after my Momma was already a teenager. We grew up more like cousins than aunt and niece, until Monica had a bunch of kids and earned her respect that way, through stretch marks and baby daddies and bridge cards.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s good.” Monica pauses, leaving me to bite off the white tips of two freshly manicured fingernails as I wait. “It’s just, I think I sold something to the wrong person.”
“What you mean, the wrong person?” My whisper turns loud again. “Wait, you been selling weed with my baby in the house?”
I bite down on my lip, hard. I knew better than to leave my baby with Monica, or anyone in my family, really. I was the first to graduate high school out of all of us, which I caught a lot of hell for. My cousins would laugh behind my back and call me “stuck up” or “white girl” ‘cause I didn’t have a million baby daddies or speak entirely in broken English. It wasn’t until I landed a baby daddy of my own that I even earned the respect of anyone that shared my blood.
Besides my Granny. She’s the one person in my family that wants me to be good; to be better. I think she pours a bit extra into me, since I’m her dead daughter’s only girl. After my graduation, she surprised me with a new car – well, new to me at least – which I loved and cherished until the day my future baby daddy totaled it while out driving drunk and cheating on me.
“No, Esha, I ain’t selling nothing with Landon up in here,” Monica stutters, her “tell” since we were girls, which she can usually hide, until she’s either nervous or lying. And I can tell that right now, she’s both.
“Order up in the window!”
“Okay then, what happened?” I massage my temples, dreading the answer but trying to speed things along. I figure by now the guy at 14 is dying of thirst, his overcooked steak turning icy in the glare of a defective food warmer lamp.
“Well if you would let me talk I would tell you. Damn.” I ignore Monica’s attempt at being offended and wait silently for her to continue. “A couple days ago, I sold some weed to a new guy. Somebody I met through Juhbar’s daddy.”
I cringe at the name of my woman-hating, pill-popping big cousin. Monica’s oldest and the pride of the family, despite his two bids for child support nonpayment and a list of baby mamas longer than the alphabet.
“Okay,” I whisper, just as Bree and Nivea stroll past.
The other two waitresses on shift tonight giggle together as they saunter to the prep station, wiggling their asses and tossing their hair for all the cooks to see.
“So, I realized, he wasn’t who I thought he was!” I realize that Monica’s been talking this whole time.
“Look, Auntie Mon, I can’t leave right now. Is Landon cool ‘til I get off, if I try to get out around 9?” I know my manager will have a fit if I ask to leave early, so I’ll have to convince one of the girls I hate to swap shifts with me and take my Close.
“9?” Monica asks, then stays quiet for a while. I wonder what she’s doing in all that silence. I wonder what Landon is doing in all that silence. “Okay, 9 is okay.” And with that, she hangs up before I can say another word.
“Dang Esha, where you been?” I stand quickly and find both Bree and Nivea watching me as I pretend to search for something on the crumb covered floor.
Bree smacks on a wad of bright blue gum that bounces around her tongue, then rolls her eyes toward Nivea, who bursts into giggles. I shake my head and try to ignore them. They’ve only been working here for a couple months, but already are making my life more difficult. Funny thing is, I used to be friends with girls just like Bree and Nivea. I used to pop my gum and swing my hips and look for attention. That’s how I ended up with Landon, and now as a single mom, I feel like I don’t have anything in common with these girls.
“I was just looking for something,” I mumble in response, even though both girls seem to have forgotten even asking a question.
I use the opportunity to shuffle past them to the window, where a plate of spaghetti with tiny meatballs sits beside a gyro in a basket that’s more fries than gyro. The food for Table 12. I grab a tray, throw the plates in the middle, then fill a cracked glass to the brim with lemonade before pushing through the swinging doors.
“Here’s your spaghetti,” I set the plate in front of the woman first, interrupting an overheard conversation about meeting each other’s children.
“Thank you,” the woman smirks, a smidge of red lipstick decorating her front tooth.
“And for you, the gyro deluxe combo.” I smile even bigger when I place the food in front of the man. It’s all about strategy and patterns as a waitress.
“You let me know if you need anything, hon.” I smile sweetly, using a pet name that I’ve learned is safe with any type of woman.
And it works. The woman flashes a look at the man as if to say, See, I told you she was good, before nodding and biting into the pasta swirled around her fork. I turn with a smile, which I keep planted on my face as I head across to the guy at Table 14, who I expect is mad.
Sure enough, his face is twisted into a scowl when I arrive at the table. I set his lemonade refill in the middle of the table, grabbing three empty cups in the process.
“What’s taking so long for my steak?” he begins, before I have a chance to try and smooth things over.
“Sir, a well-done steak takes a bit longer to cook, so—”
“Naw,” he interrupts, “I told you I ain’t want no well-done steak!” His voice builds as he talks, until his words are sagging mountains and people are peeking in our direction.
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant.” I shake my head at myself, mad that I let my conversation with Aunt Monica throw me off.
I don’t usually make mistakes, especially this kind, which will most likely cost me half of my $2 tip.
“I been asking for a refill all this time, and you disappeared off somewhere…” The man rambles on but I tune him out.
I look around the half-empty Coney Island; the couple at Table 12 offers me looks of both sympathy (him) and mistrust (her, now); Bree and Nivea poke their heads out from the back and giggle; Tony walks my way with a teetering tray in his hands.
Oh shit, Tony is walking my way.
“What’s going on here, sir?” Tony asks before he’s even fully made it to the booth.
In one swift motion, he drops a pile of napkins in the middle of the table, refills the man’s already half-gulped lemonade with a pitcher from his left hand, then twirls and sets a plate of well-done steak and potatoes with his right. Finally, his signature ‘on-the-house dessert’: a melting ice cream sundae with a half cherry on top.
“Umm, well,” the man stumbles, marveling at the feast on the table in front of him, “it looks like there’s no problem, now.”
And with that, he picks up fork and knife and begins the tedious process of slicing through and chewing a steak that’s been cooked too long, just like he likes it.
I turn from the table and shuffle to the back before Tony can stop me, leaning slightly to one side to avoid the pinch in my right baby toe.
I pass Leroy at a table with a rag in one hand and a full bus-tub in the other. He’s already dropped two in the dining room this month plus a tray of food, and looks shaky again now. Plates and glasses and silverware clink together as he shifts his weight. A few customers look up from their dinners to spot the noise, but most of them just keep eating and talking and pretending we don’t exist.
That’s the magic of the restaurant business. People go out to experience something they can’t experience by staying in. Whether that’s good food, good ambience, good company; they want it to be exactly right. That’s what we deliver every day and every night: the perfect meal at the perfect place.
And hell, this is just a Coney Island in Detroit. I bet it’s even wilder to be a waitress at a fancy place like those Italian restaurants downtown that open wine at your table with corkscrews and put napkins down on your lap for you. I went to a place like that once, when my tired baby daddy took me on a date. But once he saw the menu, he realized that we were only “in the mood” for salads and water. We spent the rest of that night fighting about stability (my side) and support (his side). Eventually, he won.
I trail Leroy as he struggles back to the dish room. If he drops even a spoon in the dining room, Tony will be on all our asses, and I don’t have time for that tonight. Especially with all this drama with Monica.
I still need to switch shifts, which will be even harder now since the blinking red clock above the “HR corner” reads 7:54 PM. That means the dinner rush is over and now we all just wait for our customers to leave, so that we can too. Unless you’re a Closer. In that case, you have another hour or two ahead of you. Tony uses a three-Closer system: one waitress, one cook, and one dishwasher. Since Juan is the only dishwasher, he always serves that role. At some point I thought he might complain about having to close every night, but he never does, just scrubs pot roast stains from cheap dishes while humming love songs “en Español.”
Marcus is the cook closer tonight; I know ‘cause when he saw that we were both scheduled to close, he winked and made a joke about getting the place ‘real clean’ in front of the other cooks. They laughed; I frowned and walked away. I bet he won’t be happy to hear I’m trying to trade shifts, ‘cause he likes when we work the same schedule. I decide not to say anything to him until I get it all set. I spot Nivea prepping beverages on an oval-shaped tray, and head her way. She always seems like the cooler one in the clique, so maybe I have a shot.
“Need help?” I ask Nivea, forcing my sweetest, dripping smile.
I think she can immediately sense my fakeness, ‘cause she just shakes her head and stoops to pick up her tray. She has eight drinks to deliver, which is the max that can fit on a tray. And even that is a stretch. If your balance is thrown by an inch or you set the glasses down even a second too fast, the whole thing will collapse. The best strategy is to get the tray up on your shoulder and resting on your palm so you can use your body weight for balance. Nivea does this now, refusing my help even as the tray shakes, dips, and finally stabilizes on her sagging shoulder.
I trained Nivea two months ago, when she first started working here at the Coney. I thought she’d be cool at first. Yeah, she was younger, but she seemed to care about her job and was even funny sometimes. But then she met Bree, and for some reason that meant I was out. Which didn’t bother me much, until I needed help with something.
I follow Nivea to her table and, against her will, help her pass out drink refills to her table: a group of obnoxious guys that yell about sports and watch every girl’s figure that passes by.
“Let me know if you need anything else!” Nivea smiles at her table – this one will make a good tip, probably 7 – 10 bucks depending on if it’s one check or split – then tosses a look my way that very clearly says, what the hell do you want?
“Nivea, I was wondering, could you take my close tonight?” I spit it all out quick, like it’s one long word.
She marches to the back, huffing at each step, and I follow. I know my chances are better while she’s alone, and I can smell Bree’s powder-scented body spray close by.
“I can’t tonight,” Nivea starts, “I got plans.”
If she was with Bree she probably would’ve chuckled right then, but since she’s alone her start of laughter falls flat on my ears.
“Please? It’s important. I gotta get my son.”
I hate to beg, and I especially hate to talk about Landon at work, but I’m desperate. Bree usually seems annoyed when I mention him, but Nivea always perks up, like she’s one of those girls that secretly dreams about wedding dresses and babies.
My plan works, as Nivea’s expression softens at the mention of Landon’s name. I go for the kill.
“Plus, if you take my shift, I’ll roll all your silverware and mine. And take that Open on Sundays that you hate, for two weeks.”
Nivea purposely hardens her expression, but I know that I’ve won. I smile and nod my head as a thank you, afraid that if I act too grateful, she’ll take it back. I notice as I walk away that she twists her hips more than usual as she strolls past Marcus, and I wonder if I’ve made a mistake putting the two of them together. It might be good for us though, to have some space. Lately it feels like he’s suffocating me, but I don’t say anything ‘cause I don’t want him to take his car away.
I almost forgot about the debacle with Table 12 until Tony’s shrill yell brings me back to reality. From one thing to the next.
“I’m sorry,” I start as soon as he approaches, “I know the customer is always right and I should’ve handled things better.”
Two of his favorite lines, which I spit back to him now, perfectly memorized and rehearsed. The customer is always right. You could’ve handled things better. In my dreams, Tony recites those words over and over as I serve up burnt meat and clichés.
For the second time in a row, my plan works.
“Don’t let it happen again,” Tony shouts as he retreats to his tiny office behind the kitchen.
I spot Marcus out the corner of my eye as I head back out to the dining room. I know I should talk to him soon, but not yet. First, I check on my tables. Guy at Table 12 happily smacking on his charred meat, couple at Table 14 barely eating ‘cause they’ve started arguing. I can only pick up bits and pieces, but I assume it’s the same thing any of the Coney Couples argue about: money, weed, or other women. I call them the Coney Couples ‘cause the men are the type to take their dates to the Coney, and the women are the type to accept.
I do a table touch at both tables – refills, napkins, smiles – then head to the server station where piles of napkins sit beside a rack of dripping wet forks and knives. Rolling silverware is the worst part of being a waitress, and now I’ve agreed to do double. I roll twenty-five pieces – lay napkin down, dry silverware, place knife, place fork, tuck and roll – as I stand there watching the restaurant go from full to empty. One by one they leave, until soon the only tables left are my two and Nivea’s loud guys. Bree’s tables are all gone, so she sits beside me rolling her share of the silverware. We roll for minutes in silence to avoid having to talk to each other. I try to think of something to say to this girl who is probably, underneath it all, so much like me. But I can’t think of anything, besides bringing up her flirting with my man.
I jump up quickly and run to the kitchen. My tables will be ready for their checks any second now, but I gotta tell Marcus about my shift swap before he hears about it from someone else.
But when I lock eyes with him across the food window, I know I’m already too late. When Marcus is angry, his already-red-trimmed eyes seem to blaze, and now they are tiny pools of flame.
The first time I saw his angry streak was about a month ago, and it caught me by surprise ‘cause we were right in the middle of laughing when it happened. Still to this day I don’t know what triggered it, but he sprang for me out of nowhere, yelling and spitting until tears crept from my eyes. Since then, I learned his triggers and avoided them, ‘cause every episode became worse than the last. Just a week ago, when he was angry with me for leaving his gas tank low after taking Granny groceries, he punched the wall beside my head until the wall splintered and his fist bled for days.
“Marcus, I’ve been looking for you.” I know it’s the wrong thing to say as soon as I say it, but it’s too late to take it back. “I mean, I knew you were back here in the kitchen, of course,” I try to clean it up as his shoulders tense, “but I just got stuck up front with my guy at table 12—”
“Your guy?” Marcus interrupts, shooting flares from his flaming eyes.
“No, not my guy,” I stammer, “I meant the guy sitting at my table, he was upset about—”
This time it ain’t Marcus that interrupts me, but my phone vibrating in my apron. I squeeze the button on the side to silence it, but it starts up again as soon as I do.
“One sec,” I mouth to Marcus, instantly regretting the decision to turn away from his wrath.
But the call could be Monica, and Landon could be in trouble. Nothing Marcus could do would stop me from answering that call.
“Hello,” I whisper, dodging quickly down the long corridor to the single-stall women’s bathroom at the end. I pinch my nose as I lock the door.
“Aisha Simms,” speaks a deep unfamiliar voice on the other end.
My hands tremble.
“Yeah, this is Esha. Who’s this?”
“This is Officer Towns from the Wayne County Police Department.”
My heart drops to my knees.
“Are you the parent or guardian of Landon Simms?”
Someone knocks on the door.
“Yes,” I whisper.
The knocking is louder now. Beating.
“We need you to pick up your son, ma’am. He was in a home that was a part of a raid this evening.”
Marcus’s fists burst through the wooden door, throwing splinters into the air like confetti.
“Esha, open this door!”
I hear the unmistakable squeak of Tony’s cheap shoes on the linoleum. My tables must be ready to cash out, and quick, friendly delivery of the check is the best way to ensure a good tip.
I hang up the phone, straighten my apron, and push past seething Marcus to drop off the checks.
Kai Harris is a poet and novelist originally from Detroit, Michigan, now residing in Nashville, TN. She earned a BA in English Language & Literature from the University of Michigan, and an MA in English, Creative Writing from Belmont University. She is a college English instructor, a lover of fiction and chocolate, and a mother of three awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter @AuthorKaiHarris.
Header Image: Creative Commons, photo by Lee Coursey