April 10, 2011

Closing Time

It's been a month now since I met him, the person who changed my life forever. And when I say that, I really think I mean forever. As far as I can see, there's no going back on this relationship. He promises me that he'll never leave me, that his love for me is eternal. I've been wrong before, but boy, I hope this is true. I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself.

It started where I work, the Bluebell Cafe. I've been a waitress there for about four years, which is the longest I've been able to hold a job in this dust speck of a town for quite a while. I usually end up working full days on the weekend with as many hours as I can grab throughout the week. Busting tables, it's not what I dreamed for myself as a little girl. Then again, dreams aren't anything but the fuel that gets us to adulthood, are they? One day the fuel runs out, leaves you stranded in the middle of real life, and you realize that maybe the world doesn't deliver the happiness you dreamed of as a kid. Maybe life doesn't owe you a thing.

I'm not proud of my work, but I'm not ashamed of it either. I do what I have to to pay rent and help keep poor Mom alive. She's the reason I moved to nowhereville to begin with. Her smoking habit finally took its tole, and now she needs me to look after her. Still, the cancer could certainly be worse. She'll be kicking for a few more years I suspect. But the regular hospital visits cost more money than Dad left her with.

It turns out between the medical bills, rent, car maintenance, and other expenses, that I just wasn't coughing up enough money. I did what I could to look for a second job, but never managed to find any. I didn't want Mom to worry, so I never told her that we were in danger of being evicted. She also didn't notice when little things around the house started disappearing. Jewelry, books, the old radio, anything we could spare was sold. I worried. It angered me that I had to sell my home to save my mother, but what other choice did I have?

None of that has mattered since I found the person who is able to meet my every need. Mom doesn't know him yet, but I hope to introduce her to him soon. There I go again, getting ahead of my story. I'd better go back to the start...

It was lunchtime on Sunday, one of the busiest parts of the weekend. My bright blond hair was pulled into a ponytail that stuck out from a black baseball cap. I had a pretty plastic smile plastered on my face, along with makeup and lipstick. Sunday was the best day for tips. I had learned early on that good looks net more money than good food. Sometimes, they could get you more than cash.

My shift had been going since the diner opened that morning, and I was weary. The previous day had been long, stressful, and fruitless. I had come to work with the fragile hope that today would be a better one. About noon, a noisy crowd burst through the doors. Eagerly, all the waitresses looked up, hoping that the group would be seated at one of their tables. I was rather pleased when they moved towards the back corner by the bathrooms, part of my section. Until I saw who they were. It was that church group. They'd been coming here off and on the past few Sunday's. The looks from my coworkers let me know that they were no longer jealous of my customers.

This particular group tended to be obnoxiously loud and disruptive. They may not have thought so, but the perturbed looks shot in their direction from my regulars said otherwise. Why couldn't they be a little more respectful of other people? I wanted to know. Adding injury to insult, they rarely tipped well, deciding instead to leave little paper tracts for me to find. Like those were going to help me pay the bills. Yeah right.

Anyway, I did my best to serve them. After bringing out the food I accidentally interrupted their prayer by asking if anyone needed a refill. The man praying stared up at me for a moment, saying nothing, then bowed his head and continued. "And dear Lord, we ask that you would bless brother Lawrence..." I stood there awkwardly for a bit before another customer waved for my attention. I gratefully left.

Once the church group had eaten their fill, they filed out. I began to clean the table. I brushed the crumbs off and cleared away the dishes, scanning for a tip as I did so. There, beneath the pepper shaker was a dollar bill and some loose change. I counted it out: $1.12. "Cheapskates." I muttered under my breath. The bill for the entire party had come to well over sixty bucks, and all they could bother to leave was pocket lint? Irritated, I turned away, but something caught my eye. A bit of yellow paper stuck out from beneath the napkin holder. I pulled it out and read, "Jesus can meet all your needs." I grunted, shoved the change into an apron pocket, and tossed the booklet in the trash. If Jesus could pay rent and heal my mother, maybe then he'd be worth my time.

A little while later I was taking more orders when an elderly couple sat down at a booth by the window. It was the minister of the church across the street from my apartment. I greeted them. "Hello, glad to have you at the Bluebell today! What would you two like to drink?" The man's soft, raspy voice responded, "Well hello there, sister..." He peered at my name tag. "Samantha! I think two coffees would be fine." "Please," I said, "Call me Sam." His wispy white hair floated about his head like a halo as he bobbed in agreement. "That's fine then Sam."

A little while later the couple had finished their meal and I brought them their check. "Would you like any dessert today?" I asked. The minister did not answer the question but replied with one of his own. "Sam, before we leave, I was wondering if you have any needs we could pray for?"

The question caught me off guard. Measurably so. I don't know if it was because I was exhausted after working two full days. Maybe it was the worry constantly pressing on me that I was going to lose my mother and my home. Maybe it was because the concern the couple showed towards me was the first meaningful human contact I had felt in weeks. But for some reason, I suddenly found myself sitting in the booth with them, sobbing. My story spilled out like coffee: hot, black, and bitter. I shared with them the financial struggles I was facing. I let them know I feared eviction. I told them about Mom. They listened quietly through the whole scene. Then, in surprising firmness, the minister's wife reached over and grabbed my hand, squeezed it. "Oh you poor girl! It's horrible, all these things that have happened to you. But Jesus can help you. Jesus is all you need to be truly happy." Her husband chimed in, "You see Sammy, God promises that he is all-sufficient for us. He can provide the money you need to pay your rent. But you have to trust him. You have to allow Jesus into your heart." I didn't really care about their religion, but I said, "Yeah, I know." He said, "Anytime you want dear, you come visit Saint Luke's, and we'll tell you how you can trust God to be your savior." As the two stood up to leave, the woman squeezed my hand one more time. "We'll be praying for you, honey." My heart sank a little. "Thanks." Was all I said.

I felt like a complete fool the rest of the day. None of the other workers said anything, but I knew they had seen me breakdown. In front of customers. On a Sunday afternoon. It was utterly ridiculous, what I had done. Inexcusable. I chided myself for being so dumb, and did my best to focus on work.

The diner usually closes up around 11:00 on weekends. Because I have been working there for a long time, the responsibility of closing shop usually falls to me. I didn't mind it this time. Although it had been a long weekend, I was not eager to go home. The night provides a measure of peace, when the customers peter out and there's a chance to unwind slowly. The lights dim, the pace slows, and the world has a chance to let its breath out.

I took my time wiping down tables, sweeping floors, and putting away the last of the dishes. In the corner, the TV was playing a rerun of the afternoon's football game. I had put the sound on mute, so the action all occurred in silent choreography. That's why I jumped when the noise on the TV suddenly crackled to life. I had been bending down behind the counter, putting money into the safe when I heard it. With a yelp I slammed the door and straightened up. A man was sitting in a booth, his back to me, watching the game. On hearing my shout he turned around. "I'm sorry Ma'am, did I startle you?" His voice was pleasant, a mellow baritone. Embarrassed, I said "Oh, no you didn't sir. You're fine. I was just... I didn't know I still had any customers." He put one arm over the back of his seat and looked around. "You don't." He observed. "Just me."

It felt awkward talking to the man from across the restaurant, so I approached his table. "It's 10:30 sir, we close in a half hour, just so you know." It was a stupid, professional thing to say, and I regretted it the moment the words left my mouth. Before I got the chance to come up with something better, he asked "Are you okay, Sam?" My heart faltered for a beat. "H- how do you know my name?" He must have seen the bewildered look on my face, for he immediately burst into laughter. "How indeed! You do know, don't you," he managed between breaths, "That you are still wearing your name tag, Miss Samantha Aratin?" My shock broke down into laughter when I realized my mistake. Previous formality forgotten, I bantered with him. "Mister, that's two times in as many minutes that I've managed to make a fool of myself. I'm afraid we're not off to a very good start. I've had a rough day, alright?" The man smiled. "It's nothing I'll hold against you, I promise. My name's Jack." He extended his hand. I took it; then sat down across from him. The man had such a pleasant, disarming personality. I felt myself drawn to him.

Suddenly I remembered his question. "So how did you know I was upset? Was that obvious too?"

"Oh, no. Not really. It's just that when I came in for lunch earlier I couldn't help noticing you crying."

"You saw that?" I asked. Jack reached up to turn off the noise on the TV before moving his hand down to my shoulder. To my surprise, I didn't mind it there. "Kid, I think everybody saw that. But don't worry," he added when seeing my distress, "It's why I came back."

"You mean you... what? Why?" I could not believe him, was no longer sure I should trust him.

"Listen," Jack said, "I couldn't help overhearing your story. Your Mom, your house, your car. It sounds like you've fallen on hard times, Sam. I know what that's like." I said nothing, because I didn't know what to say. So I dropped my gaze to the tabletop, the coffee stain in one corner. Jack continued, "I'd like to help you, if that's alright. I'm not rich, God knows that, but I do what I can for others."

I looked up, faltering for words. "Jack, I- That's so kind..."

"Samantha, you don't have to give me an answer yet. Maybe we could talk over it during lunch sometime. Do you work tomorrow?"

"No, I have Mondays off. Lunch tomorrow would be fine. I mean, great."

"Alright then, and not here! I know a great place up north we could go to instead. And this time," he grinned, "I'll be sure to warn you before screwing with the TV!"

I found myself grinning back. It was the first real smile to touch my face in a long, long time.

I've known Jack for a month now. His friendship has been invaluable to me. It is a relationship I think we both see becoming something more. Funny thing is, I found out not long after meeting him that Jack is bisexual. He's had boyfriends and girlfriends both before meeting me. What's funnier is, I don't mind at all. In fact, I think it's a little exciting!

I promised myself once that I wouldn't get tangled up with relationships ever again. But Jack, he's... different. He has real compassion for other people, and not just for me. I admit that it may seem like he was using kindness to take advantage of me. I thought that myself at first. But two weeks ago, when we were walking through the park in town, he stopped to spin some kids around on one of those carousel things. They enjoyed it so much that we spent the whole afternoon with them, our date forgotten. Just yesterday, Jack was late coming in at closing time. He usually drops by the diner around 10:30, to keep me company and help shut down. I admit I was a little upset when he showed up at 11:10, just as I was locking the doors. Until he explained that he had been helping pull a man's car out of a ditch with his pickup truck.

Jack's just like that, kind to everyone he meets. Speaking of which, he's anxious to meet my mom. I haven't introduced them yet because I'm not sure what she will think. I wasn't sure what I thought of Jack myself at first, but what he did last night settles it. I'm so lucky that he was there for me when I needed a true friend. Between you and me, I think friendship is just the beginning.


Wesgrey said...

This one is very good. It flirts with a story and gets us somewhere that we can hope is good. Well written and so far very intriguing.

Mark Zellner said...

Thanks Wes! People have often asked for a sequel to this one - you might have insinuated that by the "so far" - but actually this is meant to be a self contained story. Glad you liked it!