4:40. Moira throws back her down comforter and strips off her sweatpants and t-shirt. Digging through the piles of clothes on the floor, she finds the cleanest bra, tan Dickies, Fruit of the Loom undershirt, and button down long-sleeved Oxford. Both of her ties are creased and spotted with unidentifiable foodstuffs, is that marinara sauce, wine, balsamic vinegar? The pink and purple one matches the makeup she no longer wears. She slings it around her neck, fumbling the ends into an uneven knot. After tugging her hair into a passable ponytail, she grabs a miraculously clean, sloppily folded apron and her tip books and runs out the door.
It's all highway driving to work because she lives right off of Highway 27, which is lined with clusters of almost identical tract housing, every single house a shade of pastel pink, blue, or beige. You can tell one "community" from the next by how fancy their gate is, wrought iron or gold plated or spray painted steel, how many stories and pools are on most of the houses, and whether or not they include any apartments. Pine Hills rests stoically in the middle, disallowing apartments, but without the bluster of three story dwellings or an intricate lace pattern on the fence. Highway 27 runs directly into 192 where Carrabba's nestles among gas stations and other restaurants and bars. The new Cracker Barrel across the street has dented their business, though she's not sure how.
Moira thinks less while driving, maneuvering around old people and tourists who insist on doing 55 in the left lane when the speed limit is 65, because they might want to turn left somewhere, at some point. She weaves in and out of the two lanes of traffic, knowing where extra lanes begin and end, which lane to head at traffic lights to zoom past other motorists when the lights turn green. When a slow moving vehicle merges in front of her, she hits her dashboard and screams fucker.
4:58. She pulls into the parking lot, finding a spot near the side entrance where she can sneak out to her car and smoke during her shift. She's barely on time, but she cracks a window and lights another cigarette anyway, breathing in the smoke like it might transport her elsewhere. No one has noticed that she no longer arrives ten minutes early.
Pressure's building in her organs, threatening to rupture her glistening insides with each passing second. She might explode, or implode. She tries not to think. She can't distract herself from feeling her life is a pointless joke, so she tightens her right hand, feels her nails biting into the meat of her palm. Tighter she grips her hand, thinking she couldn't possibly break the skin, but trying to make it tighter, more painful, more present, more of the body and not the mind. But her brain won't shut up. It's saying, one good cut with a piece of glass or a steak knife when nobody's looking.
The last time, she'd sat in the closet of her darkened dorm room grasping the head of a double-bladed Schick Excel in trembling fingers until she made the decision and they quit trembling. She laid the blade flat against the fatter part of her forearm, right below the crook of her elbow, then angled the blade down slightly, each step slow and precise. Her right hand knew what to do, slowly pulling the blade, slowly, to avoid getting caught in skin and snagging to a halt. Steadily, the blade moved down to three inches above her wrist, the safety zone she'd discovered over time, where sleeves wouldn't rise up too far if she raised her arm.
The blade came away, and she breathed in sharply through her mouth, embracing the cold tingle of her flesh for the few seconds before the blood showed hot and liquid on the surface, bubbling up tiny tear drops that turned into tributaries as soon as she added the next slice. She'd been calm, sure of herself, knowing she needed that pain, those wounds to take her out of her head and into the flesh long enough for her feel okay again.
She lets her hand go, but it stays partially curled, shocked. She uses her left hand to pull back her fingers and examine the deep purple crescent wave rising up the center of her palm.
Trudging inside, she weaves through the green metal chairs and tables on the patio, tying her apron on the way. She hopes she's outside tonight. It's always slower on the patio and easier for her to slip away to her car. And you get sent home earlier. Billy's working the bar and greets her with his too big smile. She nods his way, then turns to the computer, mechanically hitting the server clock-in button then entering her code.
The computer won't let her clock in.
5:10. A steady trickle of Friday night customers come in. She hates them. It's no secret amongst wait staff that customers are progressively ruder as time inches along. They want everything when they want it, how they want it, exactly, even if they don't know when or how they want anything. They nit-pick and complain. Why didn't you give me a straw? How dare you give me a straw, I can drink out of a glass like an adult! Most of them hate their lives and jobs and wives and kids.
Harry's on the line, traying food. She tells him she needs to clock in. He swings his arms level at his sides, like a flunky making room for a celebrity, trying to clear ample space, while grunting, "Let's go! Let's go!" There are only three tickets on the aluminum counter, and plenty of other people who could tray them, but he's a manager, and a manager is supposed to be the expediter at Carrabba's.
"One second, Moira, let me get this food out first." Harry's a bottle of soda that's been shaken in a paint mixer, even when it's slow, probably because he's not very good at his job. He tries so hard. How did she end up stuck at a place that trains managers for other locations? Her job was stupid enough without having to endure an endless procession of mediocre people who worked their way up to manager of a mid-grade, Italian chain restaurant, all with dreams of climbing even higher some day. Work their asses off for 30 years then retire. That's the plan of each and every one of them. Moira never asks what happens if they die tomorrow.
5:13. She watches Harry tray the food, adding too many parsley flakes with spastic flicks of his wrist, lining up and relining the plates according to the tickets. She wants to step over and do it for him so she can get on with the night. How hard can it be to put the first item from the ticket on the tray, then follow with the rest of the dishes clockwise from the first? Manicotti, Pasta Carrabba, Taglarini Picci Pacci, and another Pasta Carrabba. Easy. He finishes one order, barks at Janice to run it, then yells for someone to get Karen whose order is starting to come up.
"All right, Moira, let's go. It wouldn't let you clock in?" He goes to the nearest computer and clocks her in with his super special manager swipe card, then looks at her for the first time. He shakes his head, dropping his false happy-go-lucky demeanor, switching to his serious, reprimanding, manager tone, "Your apron should be pressed."
"Sorry's not going to cut it, Moira. Make sure your apron is pressed next time. No one wants to be waited on by a server who looks like a bum. I'm trying to help you out here, look, I gave you the Grinder tonight because I know you're good, but you need to look the part too."
"Thanks Harry. I'm sorry. I'll be all ironed next time."
"Ok then, let's go!" He grins again, slapping her too hard on the back.
He always wants to go. Moira has no idea where. He probably wants to go home, like everyone else.
5:22. Moira's side work is the To Go station, so she hides in the dry goods room, folding extra pizza boxes for later. The cardboard is a flat rectangle with dents she deftly folds until a square box is produced, the red and green Carrabba's logo stretched across the top. Maybe she should have done it. Maybe she should have cut herself and called in. It's been years. Only she can see the thin white lines running the length of her forearms. She eyes a box cutter lying on a stack of crouton boxes. Maybe it's not too late.
"There you are!"
Moira drops a half folded box.
"Hey, do you want to take the patio and I'll do the Grinder? I already have patio all set up." Janice beams false camaraderie. She knows Moira is burned out. All the servers know she's burned out. People in need of money for rent or car payments are quick to pick up her shifts or trade their crappy sections.
Moira sighs, bending to pick up the box that landed right by the stacks of croutons, "I can't. Harry specifically gave me the Grinder." She keeps folding.
"So? Tell him you don't feel good and would rather have patio so you can get cut early." Janice cracks her gum, then grins. She's a pretty girl, in a bland, shiny dark hair, makeup that doesn't look made up way, but a shitty server. She never runs her own food or anybody else's unless ordered by a manager, her customers never have full sodas, and she fucks up too many orders to count. Harry wouldn't let them switch, and just asking could get Moira terrible shifts, all patio sections, for a month.
"I really wish I could, but I just can't."
Now she's stuck: the Grinder, a tricky station right between the line and the back of the house, with a two-top, eight-top, and the Pasta Bar which seats six people, together or separate. Servers are only allowed to have three tables at a time, unless you're in the Grinder, where you could technically have eight tables if every person at the Pasta Bar was by himself, which never happens. Regardless, it's the busiest section, hence its nickname, and it's where Moira can sometimes lose herself. Only in the Grinder is she ever worked hard enough to forget everything and just run her ass off until it's over. She's not sure if she's glad or pissed to be in the Grinder. It puts her too close to Harry, but also close to the back. If she can get in the swing, the night will go faster and she'll leave with a ton of money, for what that's worth.
6:08. Moira peers at her tables from the entrance to the server station. The generic old couple in sweat suits at her two-top slowly chew their house salads. They requested her by name, but she can't place them, though she pretended to be happy to see them again. Her three-top at the pasta bar is laughing and sharing bites from each other's dishes. Their fresh glasses of House Chardonnay are still mostly full, but they've been taking advantage of happy hour, so she'll have to check back in a few minutes.
She already wants a cigarette, or she wants to flee: it's the same tickling in her throat. She isn't nearly busy enough to quiet her brain. The To Go station won't need restocked for at least another two hours. If she snuck out now, chances are good she'd be sat by the time she got back and Harry would be all over her ass, so she wanders the half empty restaurant, prebussing other people's tables, taking away empty drink glasses and half eaten bowls of spaghetti.
She's emptying glasses at dish when she first notices her finger. The forefinger of her right hand is sliced down the side by her middle finger and bleeding. The cut up skin reminds her of fish gills, as if her finger could now breathe on its own. She braces herself and peels off the loose skin. Fighting the flow of busily flitting servers and not so busy loungers, she wraps her finger in a paper towel and looks for a manager. She finds Lawton in the office where he usually hides and asks for three band-aids. He raises both eyebrows, puckering his thin lips, like she's interrupted very important business for something stupid, but he pulls the band-aids from a locked drawer and hands them over.
She backs out of the office to the To Go station, lines the band-aids up her finger. With the band-aids on, it's almost impossible to bend her finger, leaving her crippled and exposed, afraid customers will notice and recoil, maybe even complain.
6:16. Her eight-top's been sat, five kids three adults. Great. She takes their drink order then discovers there are no clean beverage cups because someone isn't doing their sidework. She doesn't have time to get the cups herself: her food's coming up for the two top and the three is about ready for their check. She scurries to the satellite beverage station. As she pulls down a glass, it shatters in her hand.
Moira stands frozen, dumbstruck, looking at the glass covering the counter, undoubtedly in the ice, and the few shards sticking out of her hand. Her stomach tightens in fear. With broken glass, you can never be sure you got it all, and you never know when a sliver is going to pop out of nowhere to stick in your skin.
She stares at the blood trickling down her hand. There are at least three pieces of glass wedged into her hand and fingers, an inverted mountain piece that's bigger than a quarter protrudes from the fleshy section between thumb and forefinger. Karen comes over, sees the glass, her hand, and tells her to go get the glass out: she'll clean the ice bin. Moira stumbles by the line, holding her damaged right hand by the wrist, like an offering. She has to walk through the Grinder, but none of her customers see the blood trickling down her wrist.
6:27. The bigger than a quarter piece of glass is easy to remove since there are two flat sides to grasp and pull. The gash wells up the second the glass is gone. She doesn't know what to do about the other shards—she doesn't want to damage the fingers of her good hand trying to salvage her right. Lawton is still in the office, so she asks him for help, tweezers or something. He looks at her and shakes his head gravely, "Quit hurting yourself, you're not going home." Then he laughs. "Ha ha," she replies, "Give me the fucking tweezers." Lawton gives her the tweezers, and she stands by the To Go station, holding the tweezers in her left hand and staring at the glass. She's right-handed and doesn't trust her left hand not to jam the glass deeper into her flesh.
Lawton emerges from his lair, "Here, let me help you." Grateful that he's not being a prick for once, Moira holds out her hand.
But he is a prick. He was probably one of those babies who came out of the womb and immediately pissed all over the doctor. From behind his back, he pulls a greasy wrench that's almost as big as his arm. He uses the wrench to make fake jabs at her hand. "Fuck off, Lawton." He laughs himself into the office. Moira is saved by her pregnant friend Amanda who gently pulls the shards from her hand. Lawton reappears with a giant pair of pliers. She glares as he laughs. Hilarious. She runs her hand under cool water, then Amanda bandages the wounds.
6:32. Now she's really behind. She makes the Cokes and Diet Cokes for the eight top and heads to the Grinder where everyone is waiting for something. She tries to concentrate on catching up, but her mind keeps wondering whether or not she might still have tiny shards of glass in her hand. She forces herself into "I don't give a fuck" mode where people get what they get and that's all they get, and she tries not to worry about tips, reminding herself that most people are going to leave what they're going to leave, regardless of service. Besides, it's the Grinder, impossible to make less than eighty bucks, even on the worst night. On the patio, people pray for sixty.
The old people she doesn't remember tell her, "You're an excellent server, Moira" on their way out. They never noticed her hand and didn't recognize the frantic stink around her head. She lives through the rest of the night on autopilot.
11:54. She arrives home angry she was stuck at work so long. She's exhausted, but also dying to pee. In her rush of waiting, she usually forgets she has bodily functions until things are winding down and she just wants to finish her closing side work and get home. It's always a race from the driveway to the bathroom. Tonight it's a truly desperate situation. She's clawing at her pants as she gets through the front door. She doesn't even have time to turn on the bathroom light. The release is borderline orgasmic and she absentmindedly scratches at the grease that's built up on her jawline during her shift. It's a bad habit, causing a series of small pimples to form along her jaw that never go away. She continues scratching down her neck, her fingers going over that small space where her neck meets her shoulder blade. Her nails stick on something rubbery and slim. She tries to look down, but it's too dark to see, so she tugs at whatever is stuck to her flesh. It won't budge, and she starts to panic, imagining leeches and other nasty, unknown things. She grasps the offending, slippery object between her fingernails and yanks. She curses at the unexpected pain of a long string of skin being ripped from her body. She stands up, turns on the bathroom light, and sees that her white undershirt is quickly turning wet red. The dead flesh is limp and sticky between her fingers, so she throws it into the toilet, disgusted. It lands on top of her wad of used toilet paper. She shoves down the silver handle to flush it away. How the hell could she not have known that was a piece of her own skin? How did she get cut and not notice? She pulls her shirt away from the wound and sees a slit in her shoulder that is deeper in the center to the base. She sticks her shirt over it, pressing a little, deciding to let the blood clot to the shirt and worry about it in the morning.
4:29. Moira sits in her car in Carrabba's parking lot, smoking a cigarette, thinking about getting out of work. Maybe she really will gouge her arm with a broken piece of glass this time, deep and welling, unworkable. She looks at the tiny scabs on her right hand and her fish-gilled finger, then fingers the bigger scab on her shoulder. Has she gotten so scatterbrained? She's always been clumsy, but this was absurd. She tosses her butt out the window, pops a piece of Dentyne Ice in her mouth, and douses herself with a few spritzes of cheap body spray that supposedly smells like Gardenias.
Inside, Karen asks for a piece of gum, so Moira sprints to her car, grabs the gum, and returns to the patio. She lights a cigarette while Karen chews. Janice saunters over to join the avoiding-being-inside-fest. Moira shuffles her keys and chapstick around in her pocket. She hates small talk. She never knows what to say, so she says whatever comes to mind, which is usually something she wants to bitch about. Some people say she's "negative." Her keys fall to the ground behind her with a dull tinkle. She takes a half step back, and her foot glances off a parking block.
She hits the pavement on her back, her hands instinctively breaking the fall, her skull smacking the pavement with a resounding crack. For a moment she lays there, staring up at the sky, wondering when it was that she last looked up, out, away from herself. She laughs. A long belly roll. As if on cue, her coworkers ask if she is ok. She's laughing her ass off, lying on the pavement, brushing tiny bits of gravel out of her shredded palms. She's fine. She's fine.