05 May, 2010

Between the Rush

Lili sat down with a cup of coffee after the last of the breakfast rush paid and left. They were regulars – an old married couple who didn’t like her. Their son had died in Vietnam and they blamed her because she was Japanese. The dishes were still on the table; but there was no hurry. No one would be in until later that afternoon or maybe even that evening. Tuesdays were slow. The only times that downtown Mt. Arliss were really busy that time of year was on Mondays, because of court day and everybody was across the street at the courthouse. She hoped that summer would pick up like it usually did; but people weren’t buying antiques the way they used to, and there was more to do further up in places like Galena or across the river Clinton where the casino was.

The noise from the kitchen meant that Nikita and Raul were cleaning down and getting ready for lunch service. They would want her to bus the table, but they wouldn’t get onto her about it for a few minutes. Lili’s feet hurt from her worn out shoes and she couldn’t shake the tired feeling from her bones. Because business was so slow, tips had been bad and she couldn’t afford a new pair of work shoes. Maybe when summer comes, she thought. Maybe it will pick up this summer.

Most of the people who came into the restaurant knew Lili because they’d been eating there since even before she started working there; even still, they couldn’t help but stare at her, and they were always surprised when she didn’t sound like an extra from a Charlie Chan movie. It didn’t matter that she’d grown up on an American military base or that she was only half-Japanese and that she happened to take more after her mother than her father. It didn’t matter that she learned English before she learned Japanese. It didn’t matter that her husband had was a local boy and that everyone had known him since before he was born. None of that mattered. People were mostly nice to her, even if they did eye her a little bit. Sometimes the old women treated her with suspicion because they were afraid that she might steal their crotchety old husbands. Lili knew they all thought all oriental girls were geishas because they’d seen it in a movie.

But they didn’t worry as much anymore. Lili was older and was probably not as pretty as she had been when her husband Arley got out of the Army and moved them back to his hometown.

At least Nikita and Raul liked her; they understood what it was like to be treated with suspicion. They were from Uzbekistan. In Mt. Arliss that was the same as being a Russian, so everyone took them for commie spies when they first arrived. But eventually, when enough people met them and heard their story and saw how they loved all things American – they even started calling their french fries Freedom Fries and still called sauerkraut Liberty Lettuce – people accepted them as more or less an equal part of the community. After Arley died, they were the only ones who would really talk to her, and they gave her the waitress job so that she could support herself.

That had been more than 15 years ago; and even though Lili had long forgotten the little bit of Japanese her mother had taught her and she dressed and talked like everybody else, she was still an outsider and she had to struggle more for her tips than young Delores, the single mom who had grown up in Mount Arliss and had been pregnant before she got out of high school. She would have to bring her son with her to work sometimes. Customers almost always tipped her better when she did.

Lili looked up when she heard the bell above the door ring. It was a youngish man – which meant he was in his mid-30’s. He was new to town. People didn’t know what to make of him because his wife worked but he didn’t. He sat down at the lunch counter and waited without saying anything to her. She smiled at him, stood up, and smoothed her dress.

“Do you need a menu?” she asked.

He shook his head and smiled. “Just a cup of coffee,” he answered. There was none of the usual wariness in his eyes. He didn’t look like someone who had a lot of money to tip. And besides, all he wanted was coffee. But she found herself relaxing just a little anyway.

She poured him a cup of coffee. “Cream and sugar?” she asked.

He shook his head again. “No thank you,” he answered.

She left him at the counter and bussed the table, which made her feet hurt. The old couple left a nickel tip for a $10 check. Most people left at least a dollar, but she knew they’d left a nickel because neither of them had a penny, which was the usual form their derision took. Nikita and Raul were talking in the back and arguing about what the dinner special was going to be. The man at the counter wasn’t watching her; he was staring into his coffee, lost in thought.

What does a man like that think about? she wondered.

He finished his cup, without saying another word and left money on the counter. Then he got up to leave. He smiled and waved at her – a nice, polite wave – before he walked out the door. She rang up his coffee. He’d left a small tip. Lili smiled and pocketed the little bit of change.