Jan Priddy, 12/21/2015
Current occupation: beach walker
Former occupations: private and public high school Art and English teacher, college English teacher, quilt store clerk (best reverse income), baker, architectural draftsperson, freelance designer, dog magazine columnist, direct delivery junk-mail rep (most disreputable), artist, record store sales clerk, abused Taco Bell employee.
Contact information: My work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Literary Magazine, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, I live in the NW corner of my home state of Oregon. Until recently I blogged at Quiet Minds. Contact me at email@example.com.
“Well, come on then,” Dad said. “We don’t have all day.” He shoved the driver’s door shut, and headed across the parking lot. Inside the truck, Rob tugged on the latch, and the door opened with a grinding shriek of metal on metal. It was 1957 and the future hadn’t shown up yet. Behind the café the sky had just bleached from pink dawn to hot day.
He caught up with his dad just as the door to the restaurant was about to shut. A glass door in a metal frame, glass all the way to the ground. Inside the air was cool, and smelled refrigerator-cold, but also of eggs and sausages, sweet syrup and cigarettes. Men hunched at tables by the window, and on the padded stools lined up before the counter. Their voices clattered with silverware on plates, cups into saucers.
“Hey, Dot,” his dad called. A woman in a fitted gold dress and striped apron looked up. She had plates of food all over her arms—one in each hand and three more balanced between.
“Hey, Al, how’s tricks?” She spoke between lips holding a filter cigarette. On her feet were shoes like the ones the nurses wore, her legs tan from stockings. She walked to a table by the window, speaking to each of the seated men. Her lipstick was red in a pale face, and a riffle of blond curls crossed her forehead. She gestured toward the stools at the counter with one loaded elbow. Rob had never been out to breakfast before, had never seen this waitress, but he disliked her instantly.
“Two of the usual,” his dad said as he sidled onto a stool. He nodded Rob to the seat beside him. “You want your eggs scrambled or sunny side up like your dad?”
Rob didn’t know what “sunny side up” meant but he nodded back and his dad pulled a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket and struck a match under the counter top. “All right then,” he said and pulled a long draw, blew out the match without taking the cigarette out of his mouth. “Sausages, Robby. Sausages, two eggs, short stack, no orange juice, and I guess we’ll skip the coffee for you.” He looked down at his son, tapped the cigarette in the glass ashtray and called out, “Bring my boy a cold glass of milk, Dot.”
“Will do.” The woman clunked the huge oblong plates onto a table and walked behind the bar counter. She marked on a pad with a pencil, tore the page, stuck it in the rotating clippers of orders, and spun it toward the kitchen. “Two fives, Sunny,” she called to whoever was cooking.
“Is this where Joey had breakfast on his birthday?” Rob asked. His younger brother’s birthday the month before had been the cause of a complete dust up in the back yard. Joey always got the best stuff.
“Yep,” said his dad. “Come here every Saturday for breakfast. You’re coming along to help at the job, so you get the regular too.” He dragged on the cigarette and Rob watched it spark red as paint. “You gonna work hard for me today?”
His dad nodded and attended to his smokes. He looked up and down the bar. “Hey Travis, you still working for Fordham?”
“Hey, Al,” said a man in white overalls. “Nope. Finished that job. Working for Terence Cooper over on the Indian School Road.”
“Yeah. Did the window trim and it’s just the interiors left to paint. They got tile in the bathroom. Flamingo pink.” The other man laughed. “Wanted the walls to match.”
“Talk him out of it?”
The painter shrugged. “Maybe. I’m bringing white and we’ll see if he wants a bathroom looks like a whore house.” He looked down and seemed to notice Rob for the first time. “This your boy?”
“My oldest. Rob.”
“Nice to meet you, Rob. Your dad tell you we served in the same unit?”
“No, sir,” said Rob. His dad had been an Air Force mechanic during the war. He waited for more information, but the men went back to discussing housing projects, stupid foremen and stupider architects. The wait between jobs, working in the heat, and how someone drove a nail through his thumb.
“Dumb as a sack of hammers. I told Cooper he’d be sorry for taking him on, but he doesn’t listen,” said the painter.
“No, they never do.”
Dot reached under the back side of the counter and flipped paper coasters in front of them, poured coffee for his dad, and a glass with milk so cold it hurt Rob’s teeth when he took a sip. He remembered in time to say thank you.
“You’re welcome, son,” the waitress said, and worked her way down the bar, pouring coffee as she went.
Rob sat up as tall as he could to see. Behind the counter were trays of coffee cups upside down, saucers, glasses like the one his milk came in, and smaller glasses he guessed were for orange juice. He wished his dad had asked him. He would have liked a glass of the orange juice, dark like a sunset, moisture beading the sides of a pitcher, also on the ledge. Under the cover of a footed stand were raised doughnuts, some with red jelly leaking out. Another stand held a complete cake, bigger than what his mother made from a box mix, and frosted with wavy chocolate and a fancy bubbly border around the edges. He sucked his upper lip into his mouth and bit at the chapped skin before he remembered he was trying not to do that anymore and spit it out.
“No chocolate cake for your breakfast,” Dot said from behind the counter. She grinned. “Saw ya’ lookin’. Don’t think your dad’s giving you cake for breakfast. But just you wait, you’re gonna like what you get.” She put before each of them silverware wrapped up tight in a twist of paper napkin.
She slid a bottle of catsup in front of Rob’s dad. Behind her, coffee poured out of a machine into another glass carafe, one of three half full of coffee. Men at the tables called out for more syrup or catsup, clean napkins, refills on the coffee. Rob watched her leave the counter, top off coffee, stack glasses and cups and gather dirty dishes onto a tray emptied of clean cups. So far she hadn’t stopped walking and she talked nonstop to whoever was closest, her smile nonstop too. Someone in the far corner table must have told a joke because all three men barked laughter into the chill air.
Thring, thring, the man in the kitchen ran a black-painted bell, “Order up.” Rob saw two huge oval platters on the ledge leading from the kitchen.
Dot swung the platters from the ledge to right in front of them. It was more food than Rob had ever had on a plate all his own, yellow, white, golden, brown, a twig of green.
His dad pounded the catsup bottle until it dribbled onto his eggs, handed it to Rob. He poked the point of his toast into his reddened eggs, and then sopped up the yolks. In his other hand, his fork cut pancakes. A cigarette burned in the ashtray and between bites, his dad rubbed his hand across his chin and drew smoke, tapped ash, and called hello to men coming in the door.
“See that man with the green shirt?” his dad gestured with his loaded fork.
“The one who just sat down?” Rob turned to see a gray-haired man in a neat white shirt and bolo tie.
“That’s him.” His dad took two bites, chewed and swallowed, sipped coffee. “Meanest man in Arizona,” said his dad.
“I can hear you, Svensson.” The voice was not shouting, but it was loud and it came from the Meanest Man in Arizona.
Rob rested his fork on the edge of his plate, and looked again past his dad and then up into his dad’s face. Both men had cigarettes in their mouths. Neither looked at the other.
“Don’t think I can’t hear you.”
“I’m only saying what’s common knowledge,” Rob’s dad said to the kitchen.
The waitress stepped from behind the counter with two glass carafes of coffee. “You boys just take it slow and easy. Too early in the morning for this.” She topped off the cups of all the men at the tables, emptying one carafe and pouring from the other with her left hand. There didn’t seem time to do it so fast. “And watch your language,” she said.
Rob leaned all the way forward to see around his dad and met the eyes of the Meanest Man in Arizona. The waitress was pouring the man’s coffee, talking in a voice Rob couldn’t hear.
“Fine,” said the Meanest Man in Arizona, and he swung around on the stool, stepped down, and left without his breakfast.
Rob noticed how quiet the café had become because right then people began talking again. All the noise of the café went right on once the glass door sucked shut.
“Why is he mean?” Rob asked. He could see the Man climb into a pickup and back out of his parking place.
“Laid off his entire crew last Christmas.”
His own dad was always laid off over Christmas, and Rob opened his mouth to say as much.
“A month at Christmas. From the Monday before Thanksgiving.”
A week without work was something his dad planned for. His mother cried last New Years because there was no food in the house and she couldn’t go shopping until payday.
“He went fishing up in Minnesota. Jack Perry had to borrow from his sister to pay his mortgage. Isn’t that right?” His dad turned to the man sitting on the other side of Rob.
“So they say,” said the old man in a plaid shirt, hands thick and rough as carved clay curved around his coffee cup. He looked out from under graying eyebrows and sucked his lips in.
“Men need to work,” said his dad and turned his gaze back to the kitchen.
An order came up from the kitchen and the bell rang again. When Dot returned she leaned her hip against the ledge behind the counter and lit a fresh cigarette, tipped one foot onto its toe and grasped one elbow with her other hand, smoking the way girls did, the cigarette pinched between her index and middle fingers. Lipstick made a pale mark on the filter. When Rob glanced up at her eyes, the waitress winked. Rob looked down at his plate, and forked a hunk of pancake and sausage into his mouth, struggled to chew without choking.
“Pack us up two lunches, Dot,” said his dad as he poured more syrup over his pancakes, big as dinner plates.
“You’re not going to give that to your boy, are you?” she said as she set another syrup pitcher in front of Rob. “It’s blueberry syrup, Honey,” she said to him. “Give it a try.” She winked, and turned back to his dad. “Peanut butter and hard fried eggs for Rob here?”
“Whatever you say, Al.” She shrugged, but then she turned to Rob. “ ‘Course if you was to say you’d rather I put blackberry jelly alongside your peanut butter, I think I could manage that. And maybe a hunk of chocolate cake?”
Rob looked from his dad, who faced straight ahead, chewing and holding his coffee cup with both hands, to the waitress. Back again to his dad, who said, “Fine by me, son, but you’re missing something.” He swiped the last bit of his toast around the plate and then talked while he chewed. “Go ahead and give my boy and me some cake in our lunch.”
“I’ll have what my dad’s having, Dot,” Rob said. “Thank you.”