My two day unwashed hair is greasy, face dotted in red and white pimples as I stand at the counter with yellow-egg splotches dribbled down my white t-shirt, combined with brown dusty crumbs from the last customer’s toast. I push my black, grease-stained skirt, apron-wearing-hip against the counter. The pocket of my apron holds runaway home fries, escapees from a plate earlier this morning. On my uniform I have all the essential elements of a great Canadian breakfast. If I get hungry later, I can snack on my clothes. I grab the coffee pot that contains the steaming black tar, lean in to ask a customer in my soft spoken, customer-oriented voice, “More coffee?”
I come from a large family consisting of me and my five siblings: Debra, Rob, Joseph, Cynthia, and Brad. I am one of the middle children. Last Saturday night, I spent the evening scrubbing my mother’s bathtub, sinks and toilets. My mother has been recently diagnosed with colon cancer and is in treatment. Cancer and chemo stole my mother’s energy. Cleaning is now an impossible task for her. Our father is gone; the victim of a Christmas heart attack last year.
My sister, Cynthia, called as I was leaving the house to ask a favour. Cynthia is divorced and has crossed the eight-month line. She has started to shop for a new husband. Her husband, after six years of marriage, decided one night he didn’t want to be married anymore and left. It was that simple for him.
Cynthia is convinced that this new guy is “the one” and begged me through desperate tears to babysit her daughter, Kendra. As I hesitated in providing her with an affirmative answer, she began rambling about the unfairness of life: a husband who abandoned her and their child, changing his mind without warning after an agreement was made in marriage and words.
Cynthia proceeded to paint a picture of her date, Henry, like this: countless child-friendly dinners out with Kendra, trips to museums as a family and she spoke at length about a planned trip to New York which Henry will finance. But, on that particular Saturday night, it was just to be the two of them at the Keg Steakhouse. Unfortunately, the babysitter that Cynthia booked for the evening developed a spontaneous case of the stomach flu, a common occurrence for THAT babysitter.
Cynthia’s daughter, Kendra, is a five-year-old, adorable little girl. According to Cynthia, all of my other siblings were busy. Rob was swamped at work managing competing projects for his company; Joseph had a date with his model-girlfriend. The hand model demands Joseph be on time, must not cancel scheduled dates under any circumstances and Joseph pays for all their outings even though they are not in a committed relationship. The youngest in our family, Brad, broke his leg two weeks ago riding his motorcycle on slippery streets which were covered in rain that later froze when the temperature plummeted in the evening. Brad said he wanted just one more ride before the season ended. He can barely walk to the fridge. But, he’s lucky to be alive.
That reminds me – I need to make Brad some food. McDonald’s wrappers littered his apartment intermingled with the odd empty potato chip bag when I saw him on Tuesday. His friends think they are helping. He will be three hundred pounds before that cast comes off.
Debra never picked up the phone when Cynthia called. She never does. To be fair, she works full time as an administrative assistant at a hospital and has two children. Debra is constantly shuttling her children to various extra-curricular activities: piano lessons, guitar lessons, volleyball, basketball or swimming – the list is endless. After shuttling, Debra can be found up to her elbows in soap suds scrubbing the pots and pans from dinner. Kevin, her husband, works full time too, but prepares healthy dinners for his team. That’s what he calls them – a team. After the children are in bed, Kevin will help Deb clean the kitchen.
I secretly think Kevin uses the time in the kitchen as an excuse to be with Debra. I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, Kevin whistling while wiping counters down or drying dishes. (No man is ever that happy to do housework.) But, he will also make soap boobies or a penis in the dish water when Debra isn’t looking. When he has built a sudsy penis, inevitably, Debra will stick her hands in the water breaking the penis in two. On cue, Kevin winces and screams, cradling his private parts in horror. A small smile crosses my face. What a clown – and a good guy.
That left me to babysit. Babysitting and cleaning toilets on a Saturday. I love Kendra, but sometimes I just want to stop. Stop it all. No more working, cleaning, cooking, or babysitting.
But, I know what will happen at work if I stopped. Grumpy, old, grey-haired, wrinkled, cane-wielding-Gertrude will have me fired. She will stroll into this diner, demand her coffee, and when I don’t respond, will tap her cane three times on this black, slippery floor (she says she does it to get my attention) and scowl - demanding to speak to Rudy, the manager. Words like incompetent and inefficient will roll off of Gertrude’s tongue. I’ve heard it before.
I’m sure Gertrude doesn’t really need the cane. I suspect she carries it as a weapon to beat unsuspecting victims, (no one would be suspicious of an old, defenceless woman) or to trip innocent people as they walk down the streets for malicious fun.
Does anyone see me? I am a thirty-six year old, University-educated woman. I only completed University through student loans and hard work. I am not smart. I’ve been told. While the other wealthier, brilliant, students clubbed on weekday and weekend nights, I sat in my room studying text books convinced it would get me somewhere. And here it is. I am like the 1980’s, red rose wallpaper on these walls.
I am just part of the old decor.
I’m circling the black, grunge-ridden floor of this diner with red sticky booth seats. I watch as Allison wipes the syrup from her blonde, blue-eyed, toddler daughter’s face. I check my other customers; Brian and Dan are in expensive grey business suits today and both wear their lucky Italian ties. They discuss another sub division planned in the area. Family and careers are juxtaposed in this world. I have neither.
Am I just a waitress, cleaner, cook, babysitter? I’ve covered all the domestic roles except the one I really wanted: to be a mother. After multiple miscarriages and a visit to a fertility specialist she said your odds of successfully conceiving a child and caring it to term are less than 20 percent.
I’m losing on all the front lines.
In terms of career, how did I end up here? Failure again, is the correct word. In my past, I have held several administrative positions at companies with each company folding faster than the one before. There are signs when a company is in a downward spiral: employees diminish through lay-offs or resignation, vacant offices increase, funds for necessities such as office supplies decrease, and there are many, many, closed door meetings. I bounced out of each company quickly, locating a new opportunity shortly before my pink slip arrived. The last time, I was not so lucky.
Unemployed - it sounds like a dirty word: worthless, undesirable, down-sized. I was off for a few months and then everyone, with the exception of my husband, told me I should just take anything. Family and friends said: certainly you can wait tables as you did in University. Some money coming in is better than no money. My husband was the exception, encouraging me not to settle too quickly. But, after a few months enduring relentless, you could always work at McDonald’s jokes (why does everyone think that joke is so damn funny?) I took a waitressing job. Here I circle, one year later.
This is the middle of my life where I should have most of my shit together. And yet, I have nothing – no career, no children and no house. I am biologically deficient in every way – not smart and unable to reproduce. If natural selection is always at play, it has determined my genes to be inferior. How can I argue?
I circle. If this were the end of my life, I would hope at my eulogy, I would be described as a good and kind daughter, wife, sister and friend. Oh God - please don’t say, what made her really happy was cleaning, cooking and serving. I swear, I will come back and haunt that person. All joking aside, my real concern is - does anyone know who I am?
I blink back tears as I place the coffee pot back on the burner. I want a different life, but how do I make it happen? There are bills to pay, family and friends that depend on me. I want to change my life, but how? How much of my life do I give to others and how much am I entitled to? What is the ratio? 90/10? 50/50? 30/70?
I know part of how much I give depends on how much I offer. But, I wonder – if I took care of me first, was happier, healthier and less resentful, wouldn’t I be able to help others more?
Or is that just the selfish? What happens if I took the $15,000 in my RRSP’s and travelled for a few months to relax and think about what I want to do with my life? I hang my head down and put my hands on my face in an effort to hide the tears that swell in my eyes. Physically, emotionally and financially bankrupt; I am spent.
I have other plans. Here’s an example. What if I used the $15,000 in RRSP’s to buy property on the outskirts of the city in the hopes in ten or twenty years a developer will purchase it for a subdivision? As already proven, the area is in a boom phase for residential building. It would be a long shot. I know. But I might be financially secure in my later years.
I hate this job. I should quit right now. Walk out those doors today and find a Monday to Friday job that pays more than the $19,000 I made last year, tips included.
If I quit, do I include the waitress position on my resume if I want another administrative role? Is it true that it’s better to do something versus nothing? Or, if I left it on my resume, does it demonstrate to potential employers that I lack ambition?
Who am I kidding though? I wouldn’t quit on Rudy. Rudy, the owner, defended me against cantankerous Gertrude when she declared me incompetent, shuffled my shifts around to accommodate my mother’s sudden and various medical appointments, and I am always called in first if another waitress calls in sick. He’s a wonderful boss. I know I’m lucky in some ways.
As I uncover my face, I see her white hair. GERTRUDE. How long has she been sitting there?
“Hello dearie,” she says as her head is tilted and she taps her cane three times on the floor. “Where’s my coffee?”
I grab a cup and saucer and pour the morning brew.
“Is there something wrong?” She asks in her squeaky, kind, grandmother voice.
It’s just a trick, I tell myself. Don’t fall for it. She doesn’t care. “Absolutely nothing,” I say with my head raised and a reassuring smile.
“Good. I was concerned I would lose the worst waitress that I’ve ever met.”
I stare at her dumbfounded, purse my lips together as my jaw locks up. God, I hate her.
Gertrude smiles at me, her eyebrows are raised as she tastes the black, caffeinated, poison.
Now that her brain is on, there will be no end to her comments. Trust me, I know what I am. She doesn’t need to point it out.
Gertrude places her coffee cup down on the saucer and stares at me for a long moment. The smile evaporates from her face as she drops a card on the counter and pushes it across to me.
“I give you a hard time Tammy, because I know you can do more than this. Maybe you’re tired or lazy, or possibly both, beaten down by life’s complications. But, don’t waste your life away. My daughter, Pamela Radder, works for an employment agency. You should call her. I’m sure she can find you another job better suited to your education and skills.”
My mouth gapes open as I stare at her in disbelief. I hesitate for a moment wondering if she is playing some awful joke on me.
Gertrude’s eyes are steady, lips have narrowed, shoulders and jaw have tightened. She looks serious.
Softly she says, “Listen, I’ve lived a long life - and mostly a good one. I was married to a wonderful man for forty years.” Gertrude take’s a deep breath as if she’s about to go under water. I watch her grey eyes get misty like a foggy day. Then, she exhales and the fog dissipates.
She continues, “We have two beautiful, successful children who take care of me now. I am also blessed with three grandchildren. But, just like you, I went to University then settled into low-paying jobs after graduation. My husband, Daniel, was in a car accident shortly after we were married and we had two small children to feed at the time. I worked anywhere to pay the bills.”
Gertrude chokes on more tears that have gathered again at this memory. Her voice is thick. She is drowning. The tears fill her lungs making it difficult for her to breathe, let alone talk. I know. The same thing happens to me when I talk about Dad.
With more determination she clears her throat with greater force, sits erect, pushing the painful memory back. She continues, “Daniel eventually recovered and became a successful businessman. After he was better, I gave up on any chance of having a career, too tired by footsteps I had already taken. My husband was a modern man for our time and he encouraged me to pursue the things I talked about when we first met.”
“He sounds like a wonderful man,” I say, not knowing what else to say.
For a moment I think about my husband. He was the only one who told me not to go back to waitressing. He said I could do more.
“Yes,” she says. “He knew me better than I knew myself. I was a fool who flatly refused to think outside the box, as the saying goes nowadays. I regret not listening to him. Life is short and time is finite. You will eventually run out of time.”
I am experiencing too many feelings in this conversation: confusion, anger, sympathy and sadness. Just like Mount Vesuvius, there is red hot lava boiling up in my head. An eruption is inevitable. I suddenly snap at her, “You said I was incompetent!”
“You’re alright as a waitress. But I know you’re unhappy. I wanted to give you some incentive to find a better job!”
Gertrude pauses and looks down at the counter for a moment. Then, she raises her head, as her eyes meet mine, she sighs, and says, “I was trying to get you fired. If you lost this job you would be forced to find something better. I’m sorry, I was wrong. I should have just told you that you could do better. You’re a smart girl Tammy. You deserve more.”
She pauses, eyes locked on me. “I heard about your father, your mother’s illness, and your brother’s accident. It’s a small town and everyone talks. But no matter how hard it is, you should always push forward even when the deck is stacked against you.”
With a sudden, widening, lop-sided smile, she adds, “You don’t want to turn out like me, do you?”
A snort of laughter erupts from me. Then, my face flushes hot with embarrassment. My laughter is an admission of guilt; all those unkind thoughts that I had towards Gertrude. Oh god, I’m an ass.
I place my hand on top of hers and quietly say, “No, I wouldn’t want that.”
I bite my lower lip and pause for a moment to consider her words. I hesitate as the card stares back at me, beckoning me to take a chance. I consider my other options. They are zero. I pick the card up and slide it into my apron.
I turn around and reach for the coffee pot on the burner. I ask Gertrude, more gently than ever before, “More coffee?”
“Yes, please.” Gertrude says with her chin raised, sparkle in her eye, as she beams at me with a look of satisfaction.
Penelope Sophia Hawtrey's writing experience has been limited to writing research papers when she attended Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After University, she worked in a series of administrative positions in the private sector until she transitioned to the Public Service four years ago and currently work as Clerk. She has several other ongoing writing projects but remains unpublished at this time.