“Can’t substitute a milkshake, sorry.” (Jackie Davis Martin)

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Diner

by Jackie Davis Martin

You would have lied, too.  You would have promised the manager to work the entire summer when you applied for the breakfast shift at the diner which had you arriving in the parking lot at six in the morning in a brown nylon dress and white oxfords, to set up the creams and sugars and ketchups, shine the counters, all the easy part until the doors opened and people demanded their eggs over light, over for at least a minute, poached firm, scrambled soft, egg whites only, hash browns, home fries, bacon, make it sausage. You stand there, pen in hand, smiling at fat women who want extra gravy, stringy women who cringe at butter, sliding into padded booths, hour after hour so early –- where do they all come from?

You need the money, driving in the next morning in your washed brown nylon dress, your polished white oxfords, ready to ready the counters, wipe the menus.  More coffee?  Decaf?  Juices? Can’t substitute a milkshake, sorry. They slide in, slide out.  It’s almost mid August, six weeks you’ve done this, and your boyfriend who doesn’t love you as much as he once did is impatient.  Are you coming with me or not?  You’re going to London with him, but you’re also going to the diner, morning after morning.  He’s paying for London; you are paying for your kids’ food and clothes and rent.  You tell him yes, yes, I’ll be quitting any day and you arrive again in your limp brown nylon dress and scuffed white oxfords thinking I must tell the manager I won’t be back, that – that what? – you’re scheduled for three more weeks, maybe tell them you have to have surgery, or you’ve contracted something contagious, anything but that the man you love who doesn’t love you the same will cancel your trip, will return to the woman he had an affair with, tell them anything but that your life will be over if you don’t quit tomorrow. You need time to pack, to please him once again, yes, okay, eggs barely flipped for you and sunny-side for you, I got it, no muffins, just three kinds of toast, and all the while, what will you do, what will you do as you gather quarters, sometimes dollars, from under saucers, wipe down the tables, take off your apron and say to the boss with the oily scalp, I’m sorry I won’t be back tomorrow: my uncle needs rides to the hospital and I’m the only one – I’m so sorry – but, you don’t have an uncle, and you walk to the car, tears streaming with humiliation, a job you cannot return to next summer.  You say to the boyfriend, it’s okay, I’m ready, and he says good then, let’s go, and even though you don’t know where you’re going beyond London, you say yes and never go into that diner again, not even for a cup of coffee.

Jackie Davis Martin’s work has been included in print and online journals and collections, including Modern Shorts, Love on the Road, and Road Stories.  Prizes were awarded by New Millennium and On the Premises. A memoir, Surviving Susan, was published in 2012.  Jackie teaches at City College of San Francisco.

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