Plunk, splash, scrub…and I keep thinking, I need to buy an electric razor.
I’m a scruffy guy these days but don’t put it past me to blend in at a preppy mixer this time next week – all khakis and Polo’s, the sporadic Nuvaring. Historically I’m clean-cut, clean-shaven, but my recent venture out West has me going all wolf-man. My manifest destiny brought me here to Portland where the beer runs hoppy and frequently and the women don’t seem to mind a guy with unrefined tufts of hair jutting out of his chin, cheek, and jowls. I’m actually not sure if my destiny brought me here so much as it took me out of New York. Brooklyn was getting stale, or I was getting stale by staying there anyway, and the supposedly overcast but so far so blue skies of Oregon were beckoning. If that’s destiny then I might not know the meaning of the word and I might not know a lot of things actually or certainly don’t, and I’m beginning to suspect this can eventually prove to be an okay state of affairs. Only time will tell and the God-that-I-was-raised-not-to-believe-in alone knows.
Right now I’m washing dishes. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing at thirty-three but there you have it. Life ain’t always what you think it’s gonna be. That much I know for sure. And at least I got the goddamn job and have some cash coming in, some paper in my pocket. It’s a nice café too: big with its square footage, warm in its pine-heavy aesthetic, and more than chill enough if you’re a customer at any rate. For the dishwasher it could be a lot chiller. Nothing much chill about being on your feet for hours on end, bent awkwardly at the waist (the sink is rather low to the ground), while the baristas throw shit in your water and the bakers throw more shit on top of it. I’ve had it up to here with mixing bowls covered in Rice Krispies and marshmallow, silicone mats caked with burnt blueberries, egg saucers with microwaved yolk residue glued to the surface, but like I say I’m grateful for the opportunity.
My break is coming up. I can take it whenever I like but I like to take it late. Makes the end of my shift go faster the more top heavy I set it up. That said I might break a few minutes early according to my usual self-imposed schedule because I’m hoping to connect with one of the customers. The redhead in the corner has been here for at least an hour and has got to be thinking of leaving soon. Either that or her fiancé is about to walk in and join her. I’m leaning towards the former, the latter feels just as likely, and I consider it a worthy venture either way. At the very least, I’d love to learn this chick’s name. Something to scream out in a perspiring panic the next time I wake up at 5am. It’s possible she’s a regular and one of my co-workers already knows her name but I’m not going to ask at this point. Keep it close to my vest, that’s my M.O. Of course I’m not wearing a vest but, instead, a black half-apron which I begin to untie even while I’m still behind the counter. I don’t need to take it off for the ten minutes ahead of me but I love to, I truly love to.
A fresh mug of drip coffee in my hands and my ass cheeks settle down on the stool. There will be no flirting, no extroversions directed at the lovely redhead seated where the eastern side street wall meets the southward-facing main street one. I’m too tired to make the trip halfway across the café let alone to impress. Perhaps a few sips of this warm brew will do the trick, but more likely they will cause me to miss my opportunity or to run furiously, expectantly towards the toilet. It’s all for the best probably – odds are her fiancé is bigger than me. I don’t care much, really I don’t. I need to go to the store after work anyway. There’s an electric razor at Fred Meyer with my name on it.
Eddie, a sweetheart of a co-worker and a female despite her moniker, slides a slice of cherry pie in front of me. It’s my favorite thing we offer on the menu depending on the day and it’s precisely what I need to take my mind off the redhead. It pulls this task off so successfully, in fact, that I fail to notice the squeak of her chair against the linoleum or fail to ascribe it to her chair anyway. I don’t see her rise or head in my direction, and there’s already a (too) big bite of pie in my mouth by the time she arrives beside me. She’s a rather tall specimen, close to six feet, in a black tank top that’s showing off a lovely set of arms flanking a conservative but shapely rack. There are no tattoos on display which would make her an anomaly for the region but something tells me there’s a cutesy tramp stamp hiding on her backside – maybe a starfish or something organic at any rate.
I nearly choke on the cherries when I catch who I’ve just been joined by. It’s surely not my greatest hour and yet, I can’t help but thinking, maybe I can change that. Maybe I have the power to, or any power really would be terrific right about now. But before I have the chance to embarrass myself with a garble of words, she speaks first:
“How’s the pie?”
I want to answer but my mouth is full and, on top of that, I’m lost in her green eyes. I’m lost in her freckles too, of which there are only a few speckled about her cheeks with one prominent one residing adorably on the tip of her nose – just the kind of freckle placement that encourages a kiss. I refrain from kissing her nose and instead put a finger up in the air to request a moment’s patience. She exhibits said patience and remains there by the time I’ve successfully swallowed. This is all going way too well, but I try to keep my cool and not let the situation get the best of me.
“It’s good,” I say, adding, “There should be another slice if you’d like one.”
“Nah, no pie for me,” she says placing a flattened palm onto her tummy. Perhaps she intends this gesture to explain the lack of pie but the tummy looks perfectly firm and it just winds up confusing me a little. “Do you have an iPhone charger?” she then asks. “My phone’s about to die.” So that’s what this is about. I don’t know what I was expecting.
“I have an Android,” I say, “but I’ll bet there’s one around.” With that I turn my attention across the counter and towards the cash register. “Hey, Eddie, do either you or Lana have an iPhone charger?” Lana being my other co-worker on the clock, a tad on the ditzy side but perfectly pleasant and not afraid of a hard day’s labor.
“I do!” she says.
“Awesome,” says the redhead. “I’m expecting a call and I really can’t miss it.”
I wonder if the call is from her fiancé then kick myself for being negative in the face of such good fortune. I spend the entire time Eddie takes getting the charger wondering what I should talk to the redhead about while Eddie’s getting the charger. She returns before I’ve spoken another word.
“Here ya go,” Eddie says, handing the charger over.
“Thanks,” says the redhead, “I promise to return it.” She turns around and heads back to her corner. I watch her crouch to access the outlet beneath her table. It would be an awkward position for most people’s bodies but I’ll be damned if it isn’t downright flattering in this instance.
“Ever seen her before?” I ask my co-worker.
“She’s been in here a few times,” Eddie says.
“But you don’t know her name?”
“Nope, don’t know her name.”
I’ve worked here a month already and have never seen the redhead before now. Most of my shifts so far have been with Eddie and we’ve talked a good deal throughout them but never about women, dating, relationships or anything remotely personal. She seems intrigued by this glimpse into my deeper mind. People often express an interest when I peel back one of my layers as there are admittedly a great many layers to be peeled. I tend to keep private things private and never wear my heart on my sleeve or that’s my claim at any rate.
I finish with my coffee and pie and head back to the sink before my ten minutes are actually up. The bins where people bus their dishware are piled high with plates and mugs, and I want to make a dent in them before the study group at the center table decides to move on and adds to my chores. As I load the sanitizer, I glance back at the redhead. She’s buried in her phone, now charging, and I can only assume that she’s receiving texts – broad, romantic texts, I imagine, from her well-hung hunk of a fiancé. I turn back to my duties, shutting the door of the machine and switching it on, but promptly return to the redhead. Whatever she’s reading on her phone, it actually doesn’t seem to be sitting well. She’s hunched over it in a defensive fashion and her skin tone is changing, becoming closer in color to that of her hair.
A wave of initiative washes over me. I want to go up to the girl, inquire what’s wrong. I want her to unburden her soul. I want to ingratiate myself to her by displaying compassion and I want this all to end in a warm embrace. So I pick up a cup saucer in each hand and dunk them in my dirty soapy water. This return to my task doesn’t get her off my mind, however, and for the next twenty minutes or so I check in on her regularly. Her body language remains distraught and I allow myself to imagine what might be bothering her. My favorite explanation has her fiancé catching gay and moving to Peru with a young tan farm boy. The more realistic alternative has the printers screwing up the font on their rehearsal dinner invitations. Whatever the actual details, I certainly don’t wish her the angst she is currently exhibiting.
The redhead’s had Eddie’s charger for about half an hour by the time the front door swings open and a douchebag rushes in. Fiancé or not, I know immediately that this is the guy I’ve been imagining even before he approaches her corner table. He’s in his early thirties like yours truly but wearing a leather jacket over an apparent wife-beater and carrying a motorcycle helmet under his right arm. It occurs to me that I heard no sounds of a motorcycle from outside and I’m briefly amused by the possibility that the helmet is merely an affectation, a stud-friendly accessory to intimidate uppity dishwashers who don’t mind their own business and crush too easily.
When he shows up beside her, the redhead seems surprised and it’s clearly not of the positive variety. His posture, the look in her eyes – it all spells trouble. Before I know it, his hand is on her wrist and he’s yanking her to her feet. That shit don’t fly in my café. I’m on the other side of the counter in the blink of an eye, at the corner table in two. This guy is notably larger than me, particularly in the shoulder region, and I use this to my advantage, hooking my arms around the bulk from behind but then he elbows me in the stomach and sends me flying. A hard wood chair knocked on its side cushions my fall, and I direct my next words to him from my new location on the floor.
“You have to leave,” I say. “Right now.”
I sound so assertive that I actually impress myself but the horizontal position does little to reinforce the intended gravitas. To my credit, he concedes or at least seems to be conceding based on the fact that he’s already dropped his hold on the redhead’s wrist. It actually seems to me that he shocked himself there, sending me flying as he did. Chances are he didn’t come in here today planning on making a scene, and my presence most assuredly turned it into one – other patrons are staring at us and Eddie has just arrived to my aid. She helps me to my feet and I still haven’t broken eye contact with the douchebag. When eye contact is broken, it is he who does the turning away. It’s a small victory and I’ll take it, seeing as how I’ve already been knocked down, but he still hasn’t left and that’s what’s on my mind right now.
“Well?” is all I say.
And to my amazement, this works like a charm. His shoulders slump, his head bows down, and he makes for the door. It’s stunning. I am stunned equally by the utter silence in the room. Everyone present in the café – and I’d say there are at least fifteen customers in addition to the staff – has paid audience to my triumphant success. Most importantly of all, this includes the redhead herself. In fact, I look to her and when I do, she’s looking back.
“Are you okay?” I say.
“Are you?” she says.
It’s not the response I was expecting. Surely I deserve to feel good about my accomplishment, the whole standing my ground thing, and her question manages to cut me down. Even more to my chagrin, she doesn’t wait for me to answer and instead begins packing up her things. I am dumbfounded as she next heads for the door, presumably in pursuit of the very same douchebag I had thought I’d rescued her from. What kind of a recompense for a display of chivalry is this? I struggle in the moment to remind myself that I really can’t be bothered with the redhead this evening – I have a razor to purchase.
I turn to my left and Shelby, my boss, is standing right beside me, all dreadlocks and hippie funk. “Good work, Chip,” she says.
That’s my name, by the way: Chip.
(c) 2014, Michael Schiff, All Rights Reserved