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Fiction: In the Weeds

The sun is setting when I head in for my shift, on a day in late autumn that starts out warm but turns chill as the sun fades—all the seasons in one day. I get in my car in the whitegold light of daytime, and the smell of exhaust in the darkening air makes me a child again, watching my old man head to work: Heavy heart, bad mood. And the light dies while I’m driving, catching in my eyes at a strange angle I can’t escape from. It’s tearing the world apart at the edges as it goes, and it does something to me, too, but I can’t pay attention because I’m trying to see the road, I’m trying to get myself to work.

This world smells of onions and wet rot and stale grease and I know from the moment I walk through the door I’ll smell like this for the rest of the day and beyond. Of course once I get in I shut out the sky, and I start in on the countless tasks I’ve done day-in-day-out for as long as I can remember. If I don’t think about it I’m okay, but if I do I’m likely to kill yourself with the tedium. So I let my mind wander and nobody in the world can stop me.

“I want one of those jobs where you get to point at things.”

You just have to wait. Eventually she’ll explain herself. She’s doing her hair and makeup in the mirror behind the bar.  She lays it on pretty thick. Pancake makeup, mascara, god knows what-all. It’s a complicated process. She starts out ok, but an hour into the shift she’ll be sweating through the muck, black lines streaking down her face.

“Hey, Tom, you know how we have to say, ‘Have a nice day?’” Penny never waits for an answer. “Sometimes I imagine it means, ‘You fuck right off.’” She has a great laugh, from her belly, deep but full of light, and raspy like a smoker, though she hasn’t smoked in a couple years. “You should try it! But you know? You know what else too? Sometimes I imagine it means ‘have a nice day’ and I have magical powers, you know, so that if I say have a nice day, they WILL have a nice day. Like, a really nice day, you know? The kind that changes the rest of your life. And also, you know those ferals? You know how you know they’re feral? They don’t say ‘have a nice day’ They don’t say anything like that.”

“The dogs? The wild dogs? The dogs don’t say, ‘have a good day?’”

“Nooooo. No not the dogs. The kids.”

“No such thing. Feral dogs, feral cats, no feral people.”

“OF COURSE THERE ARE! You fool. Of course there are! Right here in this town. And also? Also in those parts of the world. You know those parts of the world where kids are raised by dogs? You know what those kids don’t say? They don’t say, ‘HAVE A NICE FUCKING DAY!’”

She’s angry now, and she walks away, makeup half done, to put candles on all the tables. She walks the floor, muttering to herself and shaking her head. She lights the candles as she puts them out, though she’s really not supposed to light them until the first customer of the night takes a table. They’re not meant to last very long, these votives, these penny candles.

She tells me she’s not religious, but I know she says a prayer every time she lights one. It turns into a curse, tonight, when the manager yells at her and tells her to blow them all out. The manager is skinny and anxious. Half our age, with good teeth and bad skin. He sidles up to the bar. I know he wants to tell me something or ask me something, he’s bopping and sweating through the polo shirt his mom ironed for him, and he’s making noises like a nervous hamster.

Penny knows he’s trying to talk to me, too, and she’s angry, so she steps between us and shows him her expansive back. Behind her he’s nervously tearing cocktail napkins to shreds all over my bar.

“So, I want one of those jobs where you point at things with a pen.” She takes a pen out of her apron and waves it with a pretty little flourish. “I’ll tap a paper and say, ‘sign here, and here, and here.’ And then I’ll excuse myself and go make copies of things, important things, and leave people sitting in low chairs, leave them to look at all the knickyknacks on my desk. The pictures of my dog and stuff.”

“Your desk.”

“Yeah.”

“You want a job in a bank.”

“Naw, that would be boring, who would want a job in a bank?”

“You could point at the menu with a pen.”

“Naw,” but her face lights up. She almost blushes.

Hank walks in with the careful shuffle of a professional drunk, silhouetted in the dying light of the outside world like a superhero. His cheeks are red and splotchy in his grey face, and his eyes are lost and watering. We know he’s been drinking all day, we know he’ll drink more while he’s here. We all know he’ll drive away from here, and we won’t stop him. Every bar in America has at least one. He hoists himself onto a stool with a little stagger and fixes me with his boozy smile. He’s wearing khakis and a polo shirt and a red trucker’s hat with MAGA in white letters. He doesn’t need to talk to me, but he will. I know what he drinks, I know what he thinks, and I know the exact words he’ll use to tell me all about it. I know he’ll do it over and over every day until one of us dies or leaves this place forever. He thinks we’re glad to see him, but we’re not, we never are.

I pass through the kitchen to the walk-in. Rosie wears plastic gloves and is up to her elbows in raw meat. Her hair is coming loose and catching in her eyes. How I long to help her brush it away. But I don’t, I pass through without speaking. Her children are just outside the open door screaming about worms. Someone will come later to take them away, her sister or her friend. I don’t know. I don’t know her language well enough to ask her. I don’t know her language.

“What a total prick!” Penny can be as loud as she wants, Hank won’t think she’s talking about him because he believes everybody loves him. The kids’ cries sound like panic and danger and death to me, but Rosie and Penny don’t seem to notice. Penny walks up to Rosie, right up to her, and pulls her hair out of her face and tucks it neatly back somehow. She caresses her cheek and says, “So pretty.” She walks away, whistling, with hands full of lemons.

Rosie’s boy, Isidro, shrieks into the kitchen, slips on a puddle streaked with grease and soap, and lands at my feet. He looks up with real fear in his liquid black eyes, and his mother showers him in angry words I don’t understand. I shake my jar of olives at him, and he follows me to the bar. The feel of his small bird bones surprises me as I help him to a seat on a stool at the end of the bar. Isidro sitting there with his hands clasped in anticipation is killing me. I put some cocktail olives and maraschino cherries and orange slices on a plate and give him soda in a paper cup. Isidro drinking from a straw, so serious and small, is killing me. Isidro stuffing a cherry and an olive in his mouth at the same time, the face he makes, the cherry juice running down his chin, is killing me.

“Where the hell is the other one?” Penny puts her hands in his hair and kisses him on the top of his head. “You can’t leave the other one all by itself, idiot!”

As soon as she’s out the door the manager is by my side, too close, his sour breath hot in my ear. “I have to fire Penny.”

“What the fuck?”

He winces at the curse and takes a step back. I know he’s scared of me. He’s seen me lose my temper.

“I have to fire Penny.” He’s trying to whisper, but he’s nervous and loud, and Hank lifts his heavy head with a sharp happy look in his small eyes. He loves to know a secret.

“Why? For fuck’s sake, why?”

“She gives too much away, she doesn’t sell enough. They think she’s costing us…”

When Penny sets Isidro’s sister on a stool her dress puffs out like a sparkly pink cloud. She kicks her shoes against the post and fights her brother for olives with toothpick swords. Penny, with a hand on each child’s head, looks warily at the manager and questioningly at me.

“You touched hair! You have to wash your hands! You have to wash your hands now.” The manager’s voice cracks and Penny ignores him and walks behind the bar. She stands near me, finishing her make-up and humming “When I’m Gone.”

The little girl takes two worms out of her pocket and sets them on the bar. They writhe in blind panic and the children steer them with toothpicks to the edge of the bar and then start them over again.

Hank shakes his empty glass to ask for another beer and says, “Tom, hey Tom, you should leave here, too.” He makes a chuckling choking noise. “Tom you should leave, too, and go back and finish college. Get yourself a real job.”

“What’s he got now, Hank, an imaginary job?”

“No, you know a real job. A day job. No man should have a job he’s gotta go in at night. That’s bullshit.”

“Yeah, my dad used to say that too.”

“You go back and finish college. You get a real job.”
“I did finish college, Hank.”

“Yeah, that so?”

“All four years.”

“Yeah? You study engineering? You shoulda studied engineering. Get yourself a real job.”

The manager is staring at the worms squirming on the counter. The kids aren’t supposed to be there, the worms aren’t supposed to be there, Penny’s not supposed to be there.

“Yeah, anyway there’s no jobs any more. These Mexicans coming in, they’re stealing all our jobs. I know you know what I’m talking about, Tom. I know you know. These damn lazy Mexicans. Stealing all the jobs.” He gestures vaguely towards Rosie’s children.

“Yeah, Hank, are they stealing the real jobs or the imaginary jobs? Someone stole your imaginary job, Hank? That why you got so much time to spend at the bar?” Penny has the air of a woman who has nothing to lose.

“You watch yourself, missy. You watch yourself. The things I know!”

I pour a shot for me and one for Penny. The manager makes a strangled whinny, and Hank winks at us with raw blurry desire. More than anything in the world, Hank loves a free drink at a bar. He’s made millions with his construction business. He doesn’t need a free drink. He wants to belong. He wants to misbehave.

Penny rolls her shot glass on the bar. She looks uncharacteristically thoughtful and even a little sad. She says, “Hey, hey Tom. Suicide pact?”

I say, “Sure, why not.”

As if in answer to my question, at that moment Rosie comes in with her sister or friend to pick up the children. She says, “Thank you,” to me, in English, and all-of-a-sudden the shot rings in my head and I’m dizzy and confused.

Hank says, “Hey, Ruby, tell your brother and his friends I can use them on the site Tuesday. Early, mind! Hermano y tres otros. Site. Mardi. Understand?”

Rosie nods and says, “Yes yes yes.” She ushers her kids away with a protective arm around them, shielding them from Hank. She bends low and cocks her head to listen to their chattering, with a gesture so beautiful I could fall down dead. But of course I don’t. I elbow the manager in his skinny arm because a family has come in and stands at the door looking lost and expectant.

He seats them in a corner and shrugs apologetically at Penny. She takes her time going over to the table, which is not like her. She doesn’t believe in making people wait. But she’s smiling when she gets to the table. She’s the only person I’ve ever met who doesn’t hate waiting on children. She doesn’t hate waiting on anyone.

Rosie’s children are gone, but the worms lie in a drying tangle on the bar. I carry them outside and drop them in wet dark earth. They’re almost too tired to squirm down to a damp safe world, but they find a way. I sit for a minute on the low wall looking out over the town. It’s never completely dark here, because of streetlights and storefronts and the lights from houses, and brightest of all the two gas stations beaming like oases on either side of the city. It feels dark to me, though, tonight, it feels as though the vale below is full of shadows and lies and cruelty and loneliness.

What are you doing?”

“Smoke break.”

“You don’t smoke. You don’t get a break if you don’t smoke.”

“Well that seems like a terrible lesson for the kids.”

“There are customers at the bar! Customers!”

He’s supposed to serve them when I’m away from the bar, but he’s afraid of talking to people and doesn’t know how to make one single drink.

Penny bends her ear to the customers the way Rosie did to her children. She leans over and points to various things on the menu with her pen, and I can hear her thinking “here, and here, and here.” She lights the candle on the table, shielding the children from the flame. She can light all the candles now, and she moves from table to table, bringing light with her. In the flickering glow she is beautiful. The whole damn place is beautiful.

Somebody served Hank while I was gone, or he helped himself, and he’s in bad shape, struggling to stay on the stool. He likes to walk the edge between buzzed and drunk, but he hates to lose all control. He’ll slow down, now, he’ll eat some bread, drink some water; he’ll listen to the ringing confused voices in his head telling him how he feels.

“Not in the middle of a fucking shift.” Ordinarily I wouldn’t say this aloud, but I know its like talking to myself, with Hank struggling to understand, to remember what he knew ten minutes ago. He smiles and nods and looks almost in pain. Behind him I can see the manager talking to Penny. And Penny has a dangerous look on her face, but the manager would never know it because she’s almost smiling.

I’ve worked with Penny nearly six years and I’ve only seen her cry a couple of times. She cries about things on the television; not sad shows, but anything involving big groups of people: parades, the Olympics, footage of political demonstrations. Big masses of humanity make her weepy and emotional. But she never cried during her divorce, she didn’t cry when she cut the tip of her finger off slicing lemons, or when her father died. When she comes back to the bar now her eyes are strangely gleaming, and her mascara threatens to slide down her cheeks, but she’s not crying.

At the sound of shot glasses on the bar Hank lifts his head so quickly he nearly falls off his stool. Penny gives him a considering look and then sets a third glass on the bar with a gentle click.

Hank, hopeful and doubtful, sweating and swollen, looks like a child on Christmas morning.

“You’re looking at that shot glass like my dog looks at my egg sandwich.” If you knew how much Penny loved her dog you’d understand that this is almost affectionate, and might be the kindest thing she’s ever said to Hank. He follows my hands as I pour the shots, and he follows Penny’s as she slides the glass across the bar to him.

Penny raises her glass and says, “No more waiting.” And then drinks it in one go and slams the glass on to the bar.

I say, “Have a nice day.” and do the same.

80 proof tears of joy stream down Hank’s face, and he holds his shot in trembling hands. “Friends!” he cries,  “We’re friends.”

We all watch as he happily drains it. We all know that this is one shot too many. The effect is instant, and he half-stumbles, half-falls off his stool, hand clutched over his mouth. He’s out the back door, and judging from the riotous noises, he’s careening through the garbage cans.

The manager rushes behind the bar, but there are people at the door, too, and he looks from Penny to me in a pleading panic. He needs our help, but he just fired Penny and he knows I hate him for it. Food to run, plates to be cleared, Hank sloppy drunk outside. The couple that just took stools at the bar look like they’re going to order complicated drinks and tell me they’ve had them better in bigger cities. But I can’t move. Everything is going in slow motion—maybe it’s the shots, maybe it’s my mood. You have dreams, if you work in a restaurant, you have these dreams where everything is urgent, but you can’t move quickly, and you’re miles away from everywhere you need to be.

Time stands still and I look at the manager’s sweaty pimply face, and Penny’s face, dripping mascara and with the wry smile that I love.

“I quit.”

The manager exhales with a burst of shocked laughter, and he can’t inhale again. He can’t draw breath. He waves his hand and tears fill his eyes. Penny hits him on the back and says, “There there, kid. There there.” At her touch he takes a ragged shaking breath. She rubs him on the back and he says, “Don’t touch, can’t touch! Inappropriate.” The tears spill onto his cheeks, and he wipes his face on his shirt. “You can’t, Tom. You can’t leave me. Not Now.”

“Aw, child, he’s only joking.” Penny punches me, hard, on the arm. But I can’t say what she wants me to, because I’m not joking. I’m dead serious, but I don’t know if I’m being honest. I don’t know if I’ll show up to work tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll finish this shift. “He’s just kidding, kid. Everything is going to be fine. You just run that food while it’s hot and we’ll take care of everything else.”

“After we have a smoke break.”

“You. DON’T. SMOKE!”

“Just a minute, love.” Penny wets a bar mop and follows me out the back door, singing “The sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day.”

Hank is lying on a low wall with his head resting in a bed of flowers. “What a pretty picture,” says Penny. “We should make this into one of those precious moments figurines.”

He must have puked behind the dumpster and made it halfway back to the restaurant, but he’s done now, snoring and smiling. Penny sits next to him and takes off his trucker hat and puts the bar mop on his forehead. He grabs her hand and rolls over so that she can’t pull away without waking him.

And we just sit without talking, listening to the clanking yells from the kitchen and the quieter laughing murmur from the restaurant itself. The night is damp and cooling. The shadows of people flicker in the small kitchen windows, all in time with the cold winking lights of the cars in the town below.

I want to say something of comfort to Penny about losing this job. I want to sound practical and reasonable. Rosie steps out of the kitchen and sighs and wipes her forehead on her apron and adjusts her bra. When she sees us she startles and rushes back inside.

“Penny,” I say, “Penny, what can we do about this darkness that surrounds us?”

Penny pets Hank’s hair, for all the world like she was caring for her own sick child. She says, “What we gotta do, what we gotta do, Tom, is get us one of those engineering jobs. One of those real jobs. That’s what we gotta do.”

A truck pulls into the parking lot with its brights on, flooding us with light. And the small winged things flock in a frenzy towards the beam, and follow it to the streetlight and then beyond, to the heavens. They won’t live long in this chill air.

And the manager opens the door and stands in a rectangle of warm inside-light.

And Penny laughs.

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