by Adrienne White
I was standing behind the cash register trying not to listen to the dripping silence that enveloped me at the Sizzler in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Just about every 20 to 25 minutes, the machine to which I’d been assigned would make a faint yet tearfully audible sound. Billowing into the silent mist that emanated from the wilting iceberg lettuce, sheltered only by a foggy sneeze guard.
The sound kept me awake in the way a leaky sink or a mouse scratching at your headboard might disturb. I may have otherwise been able to fall asleep standing up; like a racehorse with a knee injury awaiting euthanization. As one would imagine, the dining hall was not a bustling destination. This diner was severely over-staffed, all of us standing around waiting to be put out of our misery.
So many things were gray in this room. Doors, overall mood, buttons on electronics, seat covers, employee morale, and small pepper-like dots on the carpet portraying some kind of dismal pattern. My ill-fitting apron was gray as well, I am sorry to report. But the garment was depressing in myriad ways. I had to sling it over my neck before my shift, like the shackling vest they throw on your clavicle when you go to the dentist. Perhaps not as sterile, but the ritual was equally as prophylactic: shielding me from my hopes, dreams, and ambitions.
Today, we had another horribly sparse customer turnout for the lunch buffet. A rather tall person arrived, presumably a man, with khaki pants and matching loafers. His feet marched softly across the gray-dappled carpet as if he was on a strange yet superfluous mission. Glancing at his watch almost compulsively, he grasped our sad little tongs with swollen fingers and piled about 15 shrimp onto his plastic plate.
At this time I was where I always was: standing idle behind my woesome clicking machine, only to use it intermittently to make sure I still had sensation in my fingers.
The man wearing the khakis now sat in one of our booths rather awkwardly, as it was clearly seating reserved for over ten people. I’d been working here for over 6 months and never seen more than four people in the dining area at once.
And then, it almost seemed to happen in slow motion; a flick of the wrist, a flash of his watch. His pupils dilated and eyebrows furrowed. I could almost hear them in the thickness of such limitless silence. He got up more quickly and with far more volition than I could guess he was physically capable of.
“I have to go!” He gurgled, and was out the door before any of us could think of something to say.
But now, here it lay: a small miracle in the form of a plate of shrimp. Untouched, edible, colorful. More color than I had seen in hours. Orange, pink, glistening. I almost wanted to cry.
Like coyotes under the starlit moon slowly circling their prey, my coworkers and I crowded around this small plate of shellfish, eyes glazing over, swallowing the saliva of lust and ennui.
“You guys want some shrimp?” I asked, my voice echoing into the cavernous hallway toward which this glorious man had made his exodus.
Silently, everyone reached for a few shrimp. Like a symphony: all of us knowing when to reach for the chords of our own audacity. I hadn’t made eye contact with anyone at this job in weeks, but the shrimp brought us a sort of consciousness. Dare I say it brought us the will to feel again? Looking wildly into each others’ eyes and giddy with the current circumstance, each of us now individually had four shrimp in our hands. We all put our shrimp into our front apron pockets for safe keeping.
Now, for the remainder of my 8 hour shift, if I was losing grasp on reality or the feeling of my own skin, all I had to do was reach into the scratchy interior of my pocket to pull out a shrimp. I would look over as I chewed on the sweet flesh of this cooked delicacy and see my brethren doing the same. We didn’t smile, we wouldn’t dare, but it filled the void for now.
Every subsequent shift I had after, I silently prayed for the man in the khakis to come in again: racing the clock for a plate of sweet and pinkish nibble, only to see that he had lost. I longed for him to once again pass the shrimpy baton onto a group of strangers in gray aprons. But until then, I had to hang onto my shell of a memory. It would have to do for now.