After the lunchtime rush, Jamie almost had the Diner to herself, which suited her frame of mind. She needed time to reflect on all that had happened since she had started working at the Eats three weeks ago. Waitressing was more difficult than she had thought it would be. She had to learn a new language, shout orders into the kitchen as she hurried through swinging doors bearing heavy trays of plates heaped with food. She was constantly moving from one table to the next, into the kitchen and back, to wipe tables spilled with drink and littered with food, to the garbage can with leftovers and dirty napkins.
Jamie glanced at the clock over the counter. Soon the dinner crowd would be trickling in. At first, most of the locals made no eye contact with her. And for days, they continued to watch as she moved around the room.
She knew that the stares were out of curiosity because she looked so different from anyone else in her black lace-up boots, pink uniform, and a fringed vest over it. She thought she was prepared, especially when she remembered what Mike had told her about this town, but the comments were persistent: “What…you’re twenty six years old and still ain’t married? No? Why?” or, “I was seventeen when I got married. By now two kids. A third on the way.”
At times Jamie conceded that perhaps she had made a mistake in taking this job. But she liked the steady and physical monotony of waitressing, of dealing with people who were so different than her.
Then there the other comments: “Those pinko resisters, dodgers from California. Hate them Communists. We went to get our heads blown off; had no choice. No choice except by turning traitor.”
They directed these remarks toward her: “Every boy from my high school class of ’69 who got drafted went to ’Nam, every single one, I tell ya, not a dodger or card burner among ’em. I bet where you come from, the guys were too busy smoking dope.”
And, “Look at you . . . what’s this you wearing, a hippy outfit?”
More often she heard, “I don’t understand what the fuss is all about. Seems to me that all I hear lately is ‘feminism’ this and ‘feminism’ that. I don’t know what it all means and I don’t care. Every person on this good earth deserves his due. What’s wrong with being a traditional woman? My wife never talks about it, and she always seems happy to me. You women’s libbers are just trying to stir up trouble.”
In the midst of the din, Cook often screamed, “I need help in the kitchen,” as he slammed plates on the counter.
Jamie should have told them to go to hell; instead, she placed her hands on her hips and eyed them up and down, taking in their Stetsons, cowboy boots. “Is that the best you can do?” she said at one point. “You want to see which of us can score the most points against the other? Because if that’s what you’re after, I’m not interested in playing. Now, what can I get you to eat?”
Eventually, the questions dried out. By the beginning of the third week, everyone knew where she lived. They found out that she had lived in Hollywood for four years, that this job was only temporary, that, no, she didn’t know how long she would stay. The most amazing thing was that since she’d left Los Angeles, Jamie had no regrets about it.
It got so that she’d ask after their wives and children by name, and they told her about their lives.
“Well, Mary is nursing the youngest. The eldest and middle are in school.”
“Why, thank you. Bobbie here just lost a tooth. Bobbie, take your finger out of your nose right now and show Jamie the hole in your mouth.”
“The Lord is good to us, by golly; my missus is carrying our tenth child. Blessed we are.”
And so on, to each table she went, taking orders, listening to their stories, until she had made small portraits of everyone in her mind.
At first Jamie hadn’t noticed the pair of eyes looking at her. She glanced out the window. It took a moment to realize that she’d seen the young woman walking down the street. She recognized her by the hair – long, black, and shiny. Zoe, was her name. Zoe raised her hand in a gesture of greeting and quickly disappeared from Jamie’s view. The scene unfolding before Jamie’s eyes was ephemeral enough for her to wonder whether she was dreaming.
As she stood there trying to think it through, Moldoun walked in, tucking his shirt into his pants. He shuffled over to one of the tables and sat next to an old man with leathery skin and a toothless smile. Jamie poured coffee into their cups. “Hello, Moldoun. How are things?”
Moldoun scowled. “Rotten. You hear about them boys talking about a strike?”
The toothless old man poked around in his ear with his pinky, examining the findings before wiping them on a napkin. “I reckon it’s going to be dangerous, you know.” He looked all around him as if he expected a reaction to the stunning insight he had revealed.
Moldoun draped his gnarled fingers around the coffee cup and spoke directly to his hands. “I’ll tell you something else; the management don’t give no damn about us. Why should they care? No. They’ll keep pushing us. The bottom line speaks, and that’s that. Did you hear about that boy who got electrocuted? He went to move the buggy’s cable. It was spliced. Charred him to a crisp. So what do they care? Company sent flowers and that was that.”
Moldoun’s delivered his speech without a stutter. Must be one of his good days, Jamie thought.
The toothless old man scratched his tobacco-stained beard. “When machines came and they was laying miners off, I had 40 years in the mines, and they kept laying off. I said, ‘Well, I don’t think they’re going to get me. I got 40 years in the mine.’ But they reached me – that’s right, they reached me. They laid me off too.”
“Aw, that was twenty years ago and you ain’t never going to stop whining ’bout it. Let bygones be bygones,” said Moldoun.
The toothless man waved his hand in dismissal. Jamie took their order and left.
When Jamie returned with their breakfast, Moldoun said, “Jamie, what’s the special tonight?”
“Heck, Moldoun, you haven’t finished your lunch yet and you already have your eyes set on dinner?”
“It’s you I keep coming back for.”
“In that case we’ll have your favorite. Roast beef with gravy, potatoes and cabbage, and fresh dark bread. I’ll even slice a large piece of that apple pie for you. Cook made it from scratch, even though he’s in a foul mood today.”
“He’s in a foul mood ‘cause he drinks too much and runs around with loose women.”
A great confusion of noise emanated from the kitchen. Voices rose to shouting and pots and pans rang out.
“Here we go again,” Jamie noted. She ran and swung the door into the kitchen.
“Angela!” Cook roared. He stood with his back to the enormous stainless steel stove, clutching a knife in his right hand. The overhead florescent light beamed down at them. Angela stood on the other side of the kitchen by the refrigerator with a steady eye on Cook.
“Get out of here!” the cook shrieked when he saw Jamie.
“We should go, honey,” Angela told Jamie, setting her lips into a red pout. “All hell broke loose. He drank himself into a stupor last night, and this is what you get from it.”
“What happened to him this time?”
Angela met Jamie’s questioning eyes. “Beats me. There’s a reason why I call him a ‘drama queen’.”
“Queen? Fuck you! Don’t you talk about me like I’m not here. Get ta’ fuck outta here!” Cook lunged at them with the knife.
Jamie ducked and pushed him out of the way, then grabbed his hand and squeezed it hard. “Drop it,” she commanded. When the knife crashed to the floor, the cook jerked his hand away from her.
Jamie glanced at the plates heaped with food warming beneath the orange heat lamps. “Now, let me help you,” she suggested.
“Get ta’ fuck outta here, before I hurt you real bad!” Cook screamed at the top of his lungs.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Angela, tell this woman that this is my kitchen and that she should mind her own business, not mine.” Cook’s face was beet red. He was breathing hard; his eyes alight with the ferocity of his fury.
“Tell her yourself. I’m not your mouthpiece.”
Jamie looked at Angela and smiled. “Say, Angela, you hear the men are going on strike? I think I might change careers. I hear that working in the coal mine pays very, very well. Are you in?”
Angela let out a huge sigh. “I think I’ll pass on that one, honey. Even though this job sucks, playing with muck is not something I dreamed about doing all my life.”