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A Million More Moments Like This

By Donna Jolly

I can see that my next table is hungry. It's a couple, and the woman looks at me like I might be her savior. The middle of the afternoon is slow; lots of time we get people in here who don't have anything better to do than sit and linger over a meal and a glass of wine. I take their order. He wants lentil soup. She wants rigatoni with tomato vodka cream sauce. They both order Chianti.

There's not much to do right now. They are my only customers. I stand by the serving counter and stare for a moment at the flames in the wood-fire oven. I've been in this moment a million times before. I might be here a million more times.

Mom wants me to audition for this reality show where a billionaire has thirteen people working for him for thirteen weeks. He fires someone in each episode. The winner gets a job in his company as an executive. The catch is you can't have a college degree, because he didn't. Experience Necessary is the show, and it's also his catchphrase.

"Look at the kind of jobs you've had," she said to me the other night when I went to my parent's house for dinner. "You've been a golf caddy, a shoe salesman, a caterer, a waiter, and you were an assistant manager in a book store."

"In six years," Dad chimed in, talking over the top of the newspaper. He sat at the table reading, or at least pretending to. Mom and I sat at the island in the kitchen, drinking wine I had brought over from work. The owner, Frank, gives us perks like that. After a really busy day he'll send us home with a nice bottle of something. And there's always extra food from the kitchen, a perk of working in the business.

"What are you saying?" Mom asked him. She tugged at the hem of her velour running jacket, a habit she has when she's irritated.

"All these jobs in just six years. I've been working forty years and I’ve only been at two different companies."

"Oh, Dad." Not again. It's been a good two months since he lectured me. I know the refrain well. You're a smart guy. Don't waste your life. What happened to college? You were going to go to college. Waiting tables is not a career. It's a paycheck.

"Well someone has to say something. I'm sorry." Dad flicked the paper and put it down. "You're 24 for God's sake. Tomorrow you'll wake up and be 34."

"Arnie, that's enough," Mom said. She yanked at the hem of her jacket again.

"All right. I'm just saying."

"That's why this audition might lead to something. If you got on the show, I'm not saying you'd win, but it might open doors. You are a smart young man. You graduated at the top of your class."

"Mom, I graduated 49 out of 450."

"That's something."

"That's just okay. I'm not ready for Harvard."

We didn't say anything for a minute. Mom drank her wine and drummed her long red nails across the base. She looked away from me, staring intently at the refrigerator as if it might have the solution to my career dilemma. There's so much I could have said in that moment that I'd said before. I'm sorry that I didn't go to college. It just wasn't for me. I don't know what I want to do with my life. Maybe I'm just not grown up yet. There's so much that interests me that I can't settle on one thing.

I said nothing. Truth is, I like my life. I sleep late and go out after work with my friends. I have spare time to read the books I check out from the library. I have a small apartment I can afford and I drive the same sensible car my parents gave me as a graduation gift. Even as a kid, when I envisioned the future, I didn't see me as anything particular, like a fireman or a doctor, or even as some guy who sat in front of a computer and entered data. I assumed one day I would figure it out.

"Maybe you’d like to be your own boss," Dad said.

Actually, it was something I’d thought about. There were a few times over the course of my youth that I imagined owning something. As a kid, I thought I might own a comic book store. In high school, a used record shop where vinyl enthusiasts would hang out. A few times in the past year, I've had a notion that maybe owning a small café would be up my alley, even a coffee shop.

"Yeah, I can see me doing that more than anything else."

"Well, I could help you get started in a franchise." He gets up and walks over to the island counter. "Some of them you can start with relatively low capital. It would have to be something people need and want."

"Like what?" Mom asked.

"A sandwich shop. It could be a lunch place. Subs. People like subs for lunch."

"They are filling," Mom said. "I like a good turkey and Swiss sub myself."

I took a sip of wine and tried to imagine me running a sub shop. I thought of the people who would work for me: old people in a retirement job, fresh immigrants from Mexico, pimply kids. My future customers were a blur of office workers on lunch. I could hear the pop/fizz of soda cans opening, the rustle of napkins.

"Still, I think you should apply for the rich guy's show," Mom said, then she added, trying to change the subject, "who wants some coconut cake?"

"Hell, I do," Dad said, and talk of my career, as always, was tabled.

***

I'm staring at the wood-fire oven again. The restaurant is more crowded now. There are a couple of thin crust pizzas cooking inside. The smell of the dough baking merges with the other kitchen scents: garlic, fresh tomatoes, basil, meat searing on the grill. Of all the restaurants where I've worked, this one smells the best. I hope this place makes it. I have a bad habit of seeking employment in places that tend to go out of business. Just once, I'd like to quit a job, rather than be told "we're closing." Frank's isn't always crowded, but there's always someone in here and we do a decent business at dinner.

An order comes up for one of my tables. It's a pizza for a couple that has been fairly quiet, just sitting at the booth, staring out the window. She's drinking water, he's sipping a beer. I take the pie to them, and, as I'm sliding it onto the table, the woman chooses this time to tell the guy, "I'm pregnant."

I actually freeze. Then I realize what I'm doing and finish putting the pizza on the table The guy looks up at me as if to ask me what he should say. While I'm there, no one talks. The woman looks down at her plate. I finish my business and walk away, forgetting to tell them to enjoy their meal.

On my way back out from the kitchen, I sneak a look over at the couple. Now is the time I'd walk over and see if the food is good. The conversation is intense. He is not happy she is pregnant. Maybe he is not the father and he knows it. Or maybe he is and that's the problem. She doesn't seem all that happy to be pregnant either.

I walk up to my next table just in time to hear one woman say to the other, "I woke up naked in the bartender's bed and long story short, I'm not drinking anymore. Oh hi," she looks up at me and smiles. "On that note I think I'll have water with lemon."

"Martini," the other woman says, and the two ladies laugh, sharing a joke that I'm somewhat in on. That's the thing about being a waiter, you catch snippets of private conversations. For repeat customers, you get to know them better than they realize.

At table seven, two graying men discuss retirement funds. Table four is giving off bad vibes. A guy sits alone and talks into his cell phone saying, "don't you hang up on me again." I'd like to give away table eight. It's a mother, a friend, and a bad kid. The child has been crying since they came in. Management says we can't do anything about it. The few times we've been in situations like this, the parents always get mad when you say something. It's like the most important rights in the room belong to their kids, that the other diners’ pleasure doesn’t matter. I look over at the table with the pregnant woman. The man is watching the crying kid intently and wearing a look of misery.

I take my break and walk outside. The fresh air feels good. The restaurant seems like a bleak, hopeless place today. Maybe the feeling is leftover from the conversation with my parents the other night. It's the oddest sensation, waiting on these strangers, their lives going on right in front of me. I'm a part of it, but on equal footing with the silverware and tablecloth, or the chairs they sit in. I'm invisible. I serve. Every moment lacks the ability to waver.

***

There is a long line of people auditioning for Experience Necessary. The line wraps around the block. I shove my hands into the pockets of my only suit and wonder why I'm here. I mean, I know why I'm here: Mom. She wouldn't let it go. Even Dad finally said, "For God's sake, just do the audition so she'll quit nagging." I don't know what kind of questions they ask, but I have my resume and I guess I'll just talk about my experience. I don't really want to do this, but I don't know what I want. Maybe I want to discover the reason I've ended up here: 24, a high school graduate with no direction. I was a good kid. I made good grades. I was somewhat popular and still have a lot of friends. But they are the same friends I've since school, and as their lives grow larger, our friendship occupies less space.

I wait in line for hours. It's a nice day and I strike up conversations around me. Most people, I discover, have a burning desire to be on the show because they are fans, and they, of course, think they will do a good job for the rich guy. I tell them, when asked, that I'm not such a fan, that this is something my Mom wants me to do and she wouldn't leave me alone. This raises eyebrows. I decide when I audition, if they ask, I will give a different answer. "I want this job!" I will say. "I've always wanted to work in this organization."

But I won't get on the show. I lack the desire that these people have. The important thing is to go through the motions. Keep living life and hoping that something sticks that's worthwhile. If I stumble, maybe I’ll be lucky and stumble into something good. Tomorrow I'll be back at Frank's, taking orders, serving people, staring at the wood-fire oven and wondering what it's all about and why I'm here. And then the next day will be the same, until my luck changes, and I do something else.

 

 

Donna Jolly's short stories have appeared in Stylus, the literary journal for Millsaps College, Nexus, The Blanche Review, and several other journals. She studied creative writing at UC Berkeley, and has been a copywriter and marketing/PR professional since 1993, in San Francisco and Las Vegas. Donna has edited and written for trade journals and written all forms of print communications, from press releases, pitch letters, brochures and white papers for financial firms, to slot tournament invites, video scripts and national ad campaigns for casinos. In addition, she has published numerous articles in consumer magazines across the country.

Photo "Waiter (Motion Blur)" courtesy of Brendan Gogarty, Cambridge, U.K.

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