At the restaurant where you waitress, you have to close out your shift by “ten-pointing your tables.” This means refilling your sugar caddy while trying not to be repulsed as you remember that middle-aged woman who hoisted five packets of fake sugar (three pink and two yellow) over her single glass of iced tea, which is so packed with ice—as per your training—that it probably contained, at the most, a quarter cup of liquid. It means wiping down the table and the cracks in the booth seats, checking the inside lid of the ketchup bottle to scrub all condiment-residue free so it looks brand new each time it’s opened, and it means using a two-foot broom to sweep the carpet under and around your tables.
There’s nothing quite like ending your seven-hour shift hunched over that tiny broom, sweeping futilely at carpet, sweating while your lower back strains, reaching for bits of balled-up straw wrapper in darkened corners, trying to delicately lift on each stroke so you aren’t smearing mashed French fry into the rug as you hustle it toward your pan. As you concentrate on this, you bang your hand against the underside of the table, and it causes you bone-throbbing agony because you have built-up calcium deposits there from your time as an athlete, though these deep, aching moments in your hands are the only lingering evidence.
Now, you know the other waiters just do what they have to. They sweep and scrub and sweat, and they consider it routine, think nothing of it anymore, but you—you can’t let yourself get to that point. You can’t allow this to just become the labor you expect, so you fight to remember your first perspective, you cling to your initial shock at the absurdity, the simultaneous inefficiency and difficulty of the tasks, your incredulity at how low the pay-out was for such hard and demeaning work. You can’t forget because you’re not “just a waitress,” because no one can believe they are, but especially not you, because you’re a “writer.” And you want to say that confidently, like Carrie Bradshaw always did on “Sex and the City,” even though she was writing silly little columns that seemed kinda dumb honestly, but when you’re forced to say it aloud, it still comes out all embarrassed and bashful, too choked up in your dreams to make you feel anything but vulnerable when voicing it.
But all of this aside, you still hurry through your work because after you get everything ten-pointed, it must be approved by the closing shift waiter before a hostess re-seats someone at one of your clean tables, which would leave you stuck there waiting, trapped, raking in that $2.83 an hour, unable to have your section checked while newly-driving teens pour in, giddy with their nascent vehicular freedom, to order dozens of the half-priced late-night apps.
There’s really nothing quite like waitressing to remind you of the insignificance of your existence—well, that and contemplating the cosmos.
At the restaurant, you’ll sit at one of the rarely-used “high tops”—tables that are bar-stool height off the ground—while you wait for the closing shift waiter to sign your slip. Once they do, you can find the manager, cash out, and head home. And home is your parents’ house, where you sleep in what used to be your baby sister’s nursery, and see that your brother, a geoscientist making six-figures for an oil company, has sent a series of pictures to the family group chat featuring “nearby” galaxies thousands of light-years away. And these unimaginable distances are boiled down to silver-soft swirls on the screen, millions of solar systems rendered sand-grain-fine, nebulae blooming within infrared wavelengths of fuchsia and orchid gases that spread in riotous tumbles of color like silk-painted scarves twisting underwater.
And back at your parents’ house, you are able now, to smell the rancid combination of onion rings, lemon juice, and spilled ranch that seeps from your clothes, your skin, your hair, and you realize how insignificant we all are, not just you compared to others, but every person in that dumb restaurant who got so miffed when they had to wait for their food longer than they deemed appropriate, and who looked at their bill and decided not to give their waitress a full 20%, even though that would only have been $4, because somehow, somewhere along the line they decided that they needed it more, or that you hadn’t earned it.
None of it mattered. None of them, of you, of us. And as you flip through the images your brother sent, foreign and familiar, you understand why in movies and sitcoms, men with blue-collared jobs are always shown slumping home to a La-Z-Boy and a beer, because right now you want nothing more than to dully sip a cold one with your feet finally off the ground. And you glance out the darkness of your parents’ window, where the nearby intermediate school that was built while you were away in college, has made it impossible to see the stars. Then you trudge upstairs to the bed you use with its little-girl white-iron-wrought headboard and footboard that your feet knock into while you sleep. And tossing off your clothes, you tumble in, already sweating again in the summer heat, and you don’t shower, or care, or wash your filthy face because what does it matter anyway?
The grimness of these nights is ok. You know that everything seems hard after seven hours of faking pleasantries and servitude that don’t naturally align with your personality. But in the morning, in that fresh light of day, you still have your aspirations, and that’s what’s harder. You still have your dreams and the dreams your family has for you. Your parents’ dreams are manageable and typical, but there are also the expectations of your baby sister, who once wrote a short story for her elementary school class set in the future. And in it, she attends and graduates from the same college you did, and in this futuristic story, you’ve already written a successful novel. And sometimes your baby sister pauses to ask you, your eyes meeting hers over the two separate novels you’re both reading, if you’re ever going to publish a book. And the fear of inadequacy presses against you, at once sharp and dull, like some giant claw, too large to slice open your skin, but more than capable of rending you in half.
And in the dewy, bird-chirping promise of those mornings, you try to force yourself to go for a run, or do plyometrics in the basement, because you miss that college-athlete invincibility you once had, and you’ve never needed to feel strong as desperately as you do now. And you try to take time to sit down with your writing, but you can’t help wondering, who would ever want to listen to you talk this much anyway?
Then you’re working at the restaurant again, and you joke with the young servers there, who are still in high school, or they’re home from college and giddy about their upcoming 21st birthdays, and you listen patiently to their dramas. And the older long-term servers bully you gently for being a snob, for off-handedly using the word “bereft” in a sentence without realizing it was a word no one would know. And they don’t mean anything by it, so you smile and play-pout as they jeer, but the thing is you are trying very hard to keep your mind above, separate, from the labor you do. You strive to ignore your new social place, as a person “below” others, or not even a person, but an invisible, a tool. And your smiling freckled face—which garners “thanks hun” winks from middle-aged men and brief satisfied appraisals from cranky old ladies—becomes, with the arrival of the bill, just that, a face.
And your personhood is reduced down to split-second first impressions, to the two-pronged personality contest/stand-up comedy routine that is, “Attempting to Please Strangers for Money.” And sometimes it’s the nicest people who leave the most terrible tips, and even though this happens frequently, you always feel betrayed, as if mankind has banded together to deceive you, to show how little you can read of the generosity of the human spirit.
And in your head you protest, “but they were so nice to me,” with their kind smiles and their thank you’s, and you just don’t get it, and you try to cling to your earlier indifference, to be detached from it all, but now it’s your third night in a row of having tips that the computer qualifies as “low,” which means you need a swipe from the manager to clock out. And you have to work to convince him too, that you aren’t lying, that your tips really are just low, again, because your character is once more in question, and now he’s wondering if you’re trying to pay less taxes on your tips by low-balling your earnings because surely, you could earn more than this.
And you wonder what’s wrong with you, and how could trying so hard count so little when it seems like you’re doing just as much as the others, and you try to figure out what was it that changed because you remember when you first started waitressing, how you got over-tipped all the time, and you want to know how much of yourself do you have to give and give and give to each table, just to get a normal tip rate in return.
Then you’re ten-pointing your tables again, and the closing server is an adult male who also works in construction and just began serving on the weekends. And even though he’s years less experienced than you, after he checks your section, he’s yelling in your face about two crumbs of food you didn’t get off the handheld computer screen on one of your tables and demanding that you get coffee filters, that you scrub over each screen again until all the smudges are gone. And you’re gazing up at his broad Nordic face, where a purple birthmark curves around one eyelid so he always looks recently socked, and you’re wondering how he got to this place so quickly, to care so intently about these silly little computer screens— which rarely work the way they’re supposed to— to care enough to yell about them. And this saddens you.
So you try to mention something along those lines to him, to see if there’s still a person in there who gets up in the morning and dreams, but he takes your questions as a challenge to his authority and tells you to “stop arguing,” and “do as he says.” And you try to explain that you aren’t arguing, but he’s spent the day doing the same bowing and scraping and apologizing and smiling you have. And you imagine how tired he must be and all the complicated pressures on the male ego, so when he gets so angry he refuses to sign your slip, trapping you at the restaurant until he calms down or you dredge up the energy to be cute and charming enough to forgive, even when this happens, you aren’t upset. And as he storms away, you let your gaze zone out on the back of one of the menus tucked in a little bin against the wall, and you realize you know exactly how all twenty of those lunch special items will combine to get which exact different prices and it saddens you anew, this knowledge, because you wish you had learned something else instead, and isn’t the brain always pruning? And you hope that this information didn’t take away permanent memory space you would have liked to fill yourself.
On your phone, your brother has messaged the family again to let you all know that tonight Mars will be visible with the naked eye. And you think of that planet, so vibrant and red, but so empty when you look closer, and then you wonder if perhaps the Earth seems empty to Mars too. And as you settle in to develop a plan for getting your slip signed, you remember how, while sitting on your parents’ deck that morning, after coming back from what can only be called a “run” in the most generous sense of the word, you watched four different hummingbirds joust to sip from your mother’s sugar-water feeder, their throats an opalescent ruby, mermaid scale wings thrumming loud and alive.
And you think about those hummingbirds, and the crumbs you missed on that one screen, and the entire galaxies of planets looking like far-off dandelion puffs on the pictures your brother sent you, and the whole of Mars turned into a small orange circle in the night sky that you can’t even see because of that intermediate school they built, the one your baby sister still attends. And you think about how all these things, both tiny and large, are all happening at once, and you can’t really puzzle out what it means, but you feel for a moment, like crying. And you feel sure, as you swing your legs at that high-top in the restaurant, that some things do matter, that dust-cloud nebulae, kaleidoscopic in color, matter; that dying stars, exploding for the numbness of millennia, matter; that those four hummingbirds, with their crazy sugar-water-drinking existence, matter—even if you wouldn’t be able to see them from Mars.
Claire Kortyna's work has been published in The Baltimore Review, The Jellyfish Review, The Offbeat, and others. Her essay “Lunar Musings” won Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment’s Home Voices Contest. She is a nonfiction PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati and has an MFA from Iowa State University. She reads for The Cincinnati Review and The Sewanee Writers’ Conference.