~This story was originally published in CALYX, A Journal of Art and Literature by Women (2006), under the name Mandy Farrington.
~Selected by Assistant Editor Kenneth A. Fleming
My first morning on the job, I’m melting. The cafeteria floats in my tears. White-aproned reflections swim across the stainless surfaces—counters, sinks, cabinets, doors. Vegetables I’m fixing to slice sweat odors that seem a bit personal.
The woman at the station next to mine—Frances—must be seven feet tall and four hundred pounds. A hair net clutches her skull. If it had leg openings, I could wear it as a tutu. She speaks with determination about killing her daughter. “I’ll slit her throat,” she says. “Wash her blood down that drain.” She tilts her massive head toward the hole beneath my heel. “Norbert can put out her carcass with the rest of the pigses.”
Norbert, with his mane of white hair, looks like God dealing judgment. His pink eyes flicker at Frances, then refocus on the meat slicer.
“Frances, you’ll do no such thing. All teenagers talk back.” That lady’s name is Elsie, at the station opposite mine. Her voice pipes up and down a scale.
“I’m the one brought her into this world. I’ma be the one takes her out.” Frances peels boiled eggs with a single motion per shell. She’d peel her daughter’s limbs the same way. Where I come from, a crime is toilet papering somebody’s trees. Maybe I am overreacting. Sweat makes it hard to grip the knife. When I melt, they can rinse me down the drain as well.
“Shhh,” Elsie hisses and lowers her eyes. Her skin is the color of weak chocolate milk, peppered with dark freckles. She smiled when I was introduced.
“Pick up the pace,” I hear behind me. It’s Kitty, the manager and only white person here besides me. Perhaps she heard Frances and will call the police or something. Steadying my hand, I chop carrots.
I have a scholarship. This job is for fun money. Ridiculous not only because the job is plain deadly, but also because I don’t have any friends here to have fun with. They all went to different schools.
Breathe through the mouth so you won’t cry. You have made a serious mistake.
At four a.m. Janine, my roommate, woke me up yelling, “Put down that phone! It’s your alarm clock, Ho—cut it off!!” She’s had a high time telling everybody what a heavy sleeper I am. I can’t help it the phone plug is on my side of the room and her crazy friends call every hour of the night.
At four-thirty, the campus was dead and dark. I’d clocked the commute at thirty minutes, but running scared shitless, it only took twenty. Street lamps were rare to nonexistent. My mother’s voice made a guest appearance in my ear warning there was a rapist-strangler behind every trash can. I’m too young to die, especially at this point, when my mother’s the only one who’d miss me.
After the carrots, I switch to green peppers. Their stench mingles with the fear churning my stomach. Working with people like Frances is what I came to college to avoid.
“Shape up now. We gotta go.” Elsie leans her backside against the door to the serving line, holding it for the big woman.
“Who you telling to shape up?” Frances bangs a metal tray in the sink. I pray she doesn’t use it to kill the nicer lady.
Elsie shakes her head. “Frances, you don’t need to get in trouble today.” Now her voice is low and firm.
Frances leans over the counter like a fighter hanging on the ropes. Tired stockings pile at her ankles. When she finally follows Elsie out, the room feels twenty degrees cooler.
An athletic lady who makes biscuits (Juanita, I think) mumbles something to Norbert, but I’m too far away to hear. Plus, blood is marching through my ears.
I chop until my shift is over and I can have my free breakfast. I get eggs and a danish—and coffee to wake up for Latin. Sitting alone, I avoid staring at the upperclassmen who eat at this cafeteria. They are too wise to take a crappy job that a freshman would.
My first free moment, I think safety. At the very least I can protect myself on the walk to work, if not from murderous coworkers. Alone in the room, I squeeze the contents of Janine's squirt mustard bottle down the toilet. In chem lab, I wait until the TA is busy helping a pretty girl titrate. Then I sneak to the cabinet and fill the bottle with ammonia. My lab partner looks like he wants to say something but I shoot him a vicious glare. French’s has an amazing range.
In the morning, I will walk in confidence, ready to blind the would-be rapist-stranglers. Bring it on, Frances, you too can meet the mustard.
Janine has no time to wonder about missing condiments in the evening. She and her friend Alyssa are sitting on her bed watching the Emmys while I try to sleep. “We just want to see what gets best drama,” she explains as I tuck my head under the pillow. It’s eleven-thirty.
The TV is Janine’s, as is the cloud-and-rainbow pillowcase—she wanted us to have matching bed sets. Her parents are sending her an allowance. The pillow lifts from my head and there are Janine’s big blue eyes. “Hey,” she says. “Oh look, Alyssa! She’s crying. We’ll turn it way down and sit up close. We’ll even cut off the lights.”
Alyssa does this. Then she comes over to stare at me too. I should be nice. Maybe they really do care.
“It’s not that,” I say (and this is only a partial lie). I huddle against the wall and hug the corny pillow. “One of the women I work with? I think she killed her daughter tonight.” Voicing it, I’m not sure I buy the threat, but it holds their attention.
“No way,” says Alyssa.
“Oh my God. What are you going to do?” Janine asks. She’s sitting on my bed now. “What can I do?”
“You should quit.”
“How would that help?”
“Look, people like that are capable of anything,” Janine says. “Yeah,” says Alyssa. “You gotta look out for yourself.”
I sink back down on the pillow. It smells of Janine’s fabric softener. They gravitate toward the TV. The commercial sequence is over. If there were something I could say to keep them listening, I would. Instead, I watch them watch TV.
Sleep is a blink. Mustard bottle in hand, I hit the brick path. In a tunnel at the center of campus, a cold drip of water splashes my head. Oh no! I forgot my cap. Kitty made a big deal over sanitation. She told me the students wear caps (the regular workers are stuck with hair nets) like that was another big perk along with the free breakfast.
I have to go back.
I punch the clock at five-fifteen, sweaty. Through the glass window, I see Kitty’s not in the prep room to see me come in late. Thank God. Frances and Elsie and Juanita are cackling. Norbert shakes his head, intent on slicing ham. Standing on my tiptoes, I can see the drain. No bloody stains that I can tell. When I open the door, everything gets quiet. My face is boiled shrimp. I slip on my apron and tiptoe by Frances to get a bucket of carrots. She groans. Quite noticeably.
I should have called the police. They are probably familiar with her. All these people may be accomplices. Their eyes suck my blood. What if I’m arrested for failure to prevent a murder? I’d be thrown out of school, lucky to ever work a cafeteria job again.
Even Elsie is staring at me. She didn’t seem like an accomplice-type. Of course, they’d have killed her too if she didn’t cooperate. I towel off the carrots and set them on my board. I just want to get my paycheck and have my fun. If my coworkers never speak to me that is fine. I thought Elsie might be nice, but what did I really expect?
Whether it’s that instinct you have when someone’s staring at you, or I’m asking et tu Elsie?—I don’t know, but I finally meet her gaze.
She winks at me.
Bite the lip. Don’t cry. Homesick. Straighten up. Maybe I am going through some kind of delayed puberty hormone change that’s making me fragile.
Frances says, “I hate her smug face. There wasn’t no excuse for that dress!”
“Which one you talkin about?” Juanita asks. Her flour-coated hands are so muscular, you’d think they’re chalked and she’s stepping up to the plate.
“That one does the haircolor commercials. She on that detective show, ‘Highlighting.’”
Juanita throws back her head and laughs. “Frances! It’s ‘Moonlighting.”
“I know it. My daughter says she bet she ain’t got a natural gold hair on her. And I am telling you, sister, I could have lived without seeing that bellybutton.”
“You just sore cause she slow opening her envelope.”
So Frances’s daughter lives! At least she spared her for the Emmys. Last night while I was whimpering, she and her daughter were huddled by the TV like Janine and Alyssa. I had talked myself into believing the threat. As Janine had said, “People like that are capable of anything.”
Giddy with relief, I add, “And what a phony actress!”
Frances and Juanita look as if I’ve just announced I have VD and I’m rubbing canker sores all over the carrots.
My, it’s hot. In addition, the carrots are not peeled. Yesterday’s had been. I rustle through my drawer for a peeler. No luck. If you rub carrots together so the straggly roots come off, they kind of look peeled.
Kitty bangs through the metal doors pushing a cart loaded with steaming pots. She glances my way.
“You came back!” she yells. “Peel them carrots!” She wags her finger and presses through to the serving line.
Elsie’s face appears at the corner of my station, her hands still shaping burger patties. She whispers, “Check that big drawer over there.” Her eyes are bouncy and topaz.
I stiff-leg it over to the drawer. “I bet ain’t nobody’s hair really that color.” Frances is right. Mine’s kind of honey, but one wouldn’t call it gold.
If a peeler lives in this drawer, it will take me all day to spook it out. I slide the whisks aside, untangle the ring connecting the measuring spoons to the can opener, and rummage through unidentifiable (at least, by me) stainless and acrylic utensils as quietly as I can.
Juanita asks Norbert something about white women and he shakes his head violently. Maybe he’s mute and they are teasing him. The women are hard not to watch.
Suddenly Frances is doubled over. “Cause white women gots red navels!” she hoots.
I turn to Elsie and hold up my hands. “Where?” I mouth.
“I see you are like my daughter,” she says, loud enough that the others stop talking. “If it don’t jump up and grab you, you say it ain’t there.” It sounds like something my own mom would say. My face heats up, but I don’t know if it’s from shame or warmth. Frances and Juanita laugh so hard I think they’ll pee. I hope it’s still about their navel joke.
“Go on. Keep looking,” Elsie says, ignoring them. Her voice is high and girlish. Sure enough, when I look again, I can’t believe I missed it.
By six thirty I’m done with the carrots, the radishes and celery. Kitty bangs into the prep room. She says to me, “I want you to work the line.”
The line. The gallows. Gentle ladies, please tell her I cannot find a peeler in a drawer. I say stupid things. I have a red navel. I can’t possibly work the line. “You can help Frances with the hash browns.”
Frances’s eyes go wide as the hard-boiled eggs. She’s just received a parasite. I follow her wrinkled stockings as if up the scaffold. What else can we do? She demonstrates without speaking. Simple enough. To fry frozen hash browns, commit them to greasy froth between the bars of a steel basket. Set a timer that blares after three minutes. Then plop the tanned, shrunken remains into paper trays that bask under lamps.
I smile at the students in line. They ignore me. We set the hash browns within their reach.
Elsie is next, frying eggs and flipping pancakes.
Soon, Frances points with her tongs to the freezer. “More hash browns,” she commands. I grab a new bag. My plastic gloves are greasy so I start slipping them off. Frances closes her eyes and wags her head side to side. There are only four trays left under the lamps. Even if I get the bag open immediately, we might still run out.
I pull and my gloves slip. I pull and the bag stretches like a grotesque toy man. I pull and the bag breaks. A quarter of the hash browns ejects. Frances rolls her eyes. Elsie walks over to throw a bowl of eggshells in the trash. On her way back, she slides escaped hash browns under the counter with her shoe. Grease splashes as I dunk the potatoes. It melts my glove to my skin in searing splotches. I lower the basket and grease envelopes it with deafening applause.
The last paper tray has been taken. Frances points again with her tongs. The timer—I hadn’t set it! Hands trembling, I set the three minutes. Frances sighs and changes it to two minutes thirty.
Yes, of course, she’s right! She’s brilliant. The hash browns would have burned.
“Where are the hash browns?” A red-haired thick-necked boy speaks from the other side of the line. A tackle, I’m guessing. “I have three minutes to get to class!”
Three minutes. I want to explain about the timer, etc., etc., but he isn’t even looking at us. More students crowd behind him. Maybe we could give them partially fried potatoes.
A noble statue, Frances stares straight ahead, above her customers.
“Fuck this!” he says. He slams his tray on the metal bars and walks out the door. Girls giggle as they move down the line, lifting their trays above his abandoned one.
From where I stand, I’m ashamed. The thought of being rude just to keep on some time schedule.
When the alarm sounds, Frances raises the basket. Together we unload it with slow, determined movements. From between her teeth, I hear, “Ain’t Frances Alonzo rushing for nobody.”
Our bodies crave routine. Interrogators screw up prisoners’ circadian rhythms so that questioning becomes their only routine. They crave questions enough to give answers. Routine is why my body gets up at four o’clock. I don’t answer the phone anymore when the alarm sounds.
Another routine makes life in this prison livable. If I make it to work five minutes early, I can see Elsie’s husband dropping her off behind the cafeteria. He extends his hand across the seats. She squeezes it and tells him good-bye. One day, I want to feel that close to someone. I need to start making friends. Eavesdropping on this couple is my only comfort.
Mornings are cold now. I help Elsie out of her coat once we get in the door. “Ooh—I ate too much,” she says.
“You eat breakfast before you come in?” I can’t believe anyone gets up that early.
“Oh yes, sweetie. That’s my time with my husband. I work nights cleaning at the hotel. Then I leave here to meet my daughter when she comes home from school.” She pats her blouse flat under her apron, content with her own prison-like routine. She is round and smells like breakfast and I want her to hug me. I want to ask when she sleeps.
Instead, I say, “Don’t forget to take off your scarf.”
“I won’t, honey. I’m just leaving it for last. My daughter, Angela, crocheted it. Her first project.” She drapes it on the hook over her coat. The scarf alternates shades of blue and purple with a stylish metallic thread.
Frances is already peeling eggs. I don’t know what time she comes in. Buoyed by talking to Elsie, I work up courage to speak to the big woman. “Frances,” I say, “How is it you can peel a whole egg so fast?”
“It means they ain’t fresh,” she snarls. I should’ve expected that. She’s had a nasty attitude every time she sees Elsie and me together. I feel like I’m stealing her playmate.
Elsie hums as she sets up her station. “My Angela and Frances’s daughter Teresa might come to school here, you know.”
“Shit,” says Frances. She dumps the bucket of cloudy egg water down the sink. “It’s true.” Elsie starts grating cheese. “Teresa is a smart girl.”
“And who’s gonna pay for her to come to college?” Frances’s eyes google out from under her hair net. Her hands land on the counter like slabs of beef that Norbert pounds.
“There’s lots of scholarships,” I offer. “If she’s smart, she’s got it made.” I bet their daughters are plenty smart. Especially Elsie’s.
“Plus,” Elsie points her grater in the air, “Children of employees gets some kind of discount.”
“Shit,” says Frances and stamps into the cooler.
The next time I help Elsie out of her coat, I remember to say something about her rings. They’re from Avon. She has the zillion diamond one my friend sold in high school. Janine and Alyssa are making Christmas money selling Avon. Elsie has another from their new catalog, a wide band alternating white and onyx. Her wedding ring, in contrast, looks like it was shaped from a sturdy paper clip.
“Those sure are pretty rings,” I say. I feel ashamed right away because I’m expecting her to say, like my friends do, “oh they’re just Avon.” I don’t want to draw a line between us. I want to talk to her like a friend. So I lie, “I’m trying to get my boyfriend to buy me some jewelry this Christmas.”
“You have to stay with them a long time before they give you nice jewry. Just wait it out.” She winks and pulls her plastic gloves over them.
I have a crazy urge to run out and catch her husband. To make him swear that he has always treated this woman like the dear she is.
Janine and Alyssa throw a party after midterms. They are the only people I know there. I never realized how hard it is for me to meet people. Who am I supposed to party with?
Elsie and Frances?
Alyssa refills the punch near my post by the chip bowl. “Derek’s roommate wants to dance with you.”
“Well, tell Derek’s roommate he can come over and ask Janine’s roommate.”
He does, eventually. I make a point of hesitating like I need five more chips. There is so much relief in dancing. I feel like a person, even if I am just Janine’s roommate.
Hours spring by as we dance to the same songs over and over. When people start leaving, he asks me to go with him.
The thought of being alone with Derek’s roommate sucks the giddiness of the party right out of me. I tell him, truthfully, I’m quite tired.
“But these are the best years of our lives,” he whines. “Don’t let them get away.”
I go to my room alone and lie awake wondering whether these are the best years of my life. Why go on living afterward? I try to picture Elsie’s daughter, Angela. A slimmer, bouncier version of Elsie comes to mind. Her hair artistically dressed by her mother each day. I guess she’ll be the first in her family to go to college. I can’t even claim that distinction. What about people who don’t go to college—when are their best years? How do you tell one set of years from the next without graduations and summer vacations and time off at Christmas?
Christmas is coming, finally. Frost glistens on the trash cans where the rapist-stranglers wait. Elsie wears a new silver and gold scarf Angela crocheted. I’m a little bit jealous of that girl.
Frances looks up from her workstation when I come in with Elsie one day. “Good morning, ladies,” she says. But maybe she said “Good morning, Elsie” and I just misheard.
Then Frances asks, “Are you working over the holidays?” Elsie doesn’t answer. She is talking to me.
“Uh, I’m’ll work at the mall where I used to.”
“That’s nice. Folks will be Christmas shopping and all.” She forces her voice higher and softer than it is naturally. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the room. Kitty seems to have turned up the heat.
Elsie says, “Frances and Juanita will be holding down the fort.”
“For whoever’s here,” Juanita chimes in, deftly juggling biscuit trays. Norbert laughs with a coughing sound. Juanita tosses a wad of dough at him.
I imagine them perched on stools behind the line, warming themselves over hot grease, waiting for a customer.
“What will you do?” I ask Elsie.
“I am looking for something part-time,” she says.
On the line, Frances turns to me when some hash browns are down. “Those students ain’t like you. They ain’t friendly.” She says this as if they aren’t there. Which, I guess, is only fair.
“They’re older,” I say, conscious that they might be listening to me. As soon as I’ve said it, I know it’s wrong. Now Frances will think that I plan to be that way one day. She could fry me in an instant.
However, her mind is locked on the season. “I told Teresa all I want for Christmas is the one brooch I seen in the window at Murphy’s. I’ma wear it to church every Sunday.”
I chalk her change up to figuring Santa’s watching her. Or at least Elsie. Whatever the reason, it’s nice to work beside her huge body without as much fear.
Late in the afternoon, Janine gets a call from Derek. He and his roommate want to know if we can help them steal a highway sign.
“What? Why?” I ask her.
“Just for fun. It’s already on the ground. Killing the grass,” she snickers.
I look out the window at the cold gray day. “Can’t they get some guys to go?” “That’s not what they’re after.” Her big eyes stare stupidly at me. “I think Gordon
wants to see you again.”
“Your dance partner. Apparently he was a little embarrassed by the way he acted last time he saw you?” She asks this as if waiting for me to divulge more information.
“I need to study.”
“No, you don’t.”
She’s right, I really don’t. I can’t believe she’s asking me to do something with her and her friends. Or that these guys have asked me. Or her? It doesn’t really matter. Maybe it will be fun.
We meet Derek and Gordon (I already pity his geeky name) outside the dorm and start our journey away from campus toward the highway. Janine and I are wearing coats and gloves. The guys are in t-shirts and they shiver and rub their biceps. Derek’s are big and Gordon’s skinny. I wonder if that is the observation I was supposed to make.
“So where’s this sign gonna end up?” Janine asks.
“Our room first. Then we can trade off if you want it.” Derek says.
“Janine’ll paint rainbows on it.” It’s out of my mouth before I can stop myself. But it’s okay because everyone’s laughing. Even Janine.
From that point the walk seems quick. At first Janine and I walk together, talking and following the guys. Then we merge and I end up walking with Gordon. We exchange the normal information, where we grew up and all. He comes from Charlotte, like Janine and Derek, like everyone in this school, it seems. But he moved there his junior year, so he tells me he doesn’t really feel like part of their group.
By the time we reach the felled sign, we are walking four abreast and giggling. “God, it’s huge! How are we gonna carry that?” Janine says.
It is much bigger lying there than it would’ve looked driving by. It has no words, only the symbol for a divided highway. The metal is cold and hard and we each lift a corner. It’s not so much heavy as it is unwieldy. I can hardly walk I get so tickled as we dance along trying to synchronize our steps. Derek repeatedly belts out all he can remember of “Sixteen Tons.”
We make it as far as the wall that separates campus from the rest of the city when Derek yells, “Fuck this!” and drops his corner. We all do the same. I think of the football player with his tray, but remember I’m friendly. I ain’t like that, as Frances said.
While they are talking, I look at the sign, prostrate, no longer the source of fun. I guess if you hung it the other way, it would be the same as the symbol for two roads merging. Derek seems opposed to the idea of bringing back more guys for it. We are just going to leave it here. A highway worker will spot it eventually and have to clean up after us. In my mind, he is an older, sad-looking man like Elsie’s husband. He will shake his head without smiling.
I hurry to catch up with the rest of them for dinner, admitting this is the place where I will fit in. I belong on this side of the line and I can never merge anywhere else.
Maybe because tension at work is lessening, but more probably because I am always up late studying for exams and talking to Janine and her friends, hitting the campus at four-thirty is becoming less routine. I never get there in time to see Elsie’s husband drop her off. In fact, I never quite make it by five.
Fortunately, Kitty’s never in the prep room when I arrive. The mood is jovial. Frances has relaxed, her politeness not nearly as forced as it started. They treat me almost like one of them.
My exam schedule came yesterday. I have one on the very last day, so I am stuck here. All the students’ schedules are different for reading days and whatnot and we never know when to expect a rush on the line—or when we’ll just be keeping each other company. Not that we’ll exactly go caroling together, but I can’t remember why I despised these people.
On the first Monday of exams, Kitty meets me at the cafeteria door. “I need to talk to you.” I never noticed we were the same height. “Come to my office.”
I haven’t seen inside Kitty’s office since I was hired. Suddenly, everything is clear. This will be my last day. Frances was just being nice so I would let down my guard. Then, as soon as I started being fashionably late, she tells on me. This way, she can be rid of me and keep Elsie to herself.
Kitty closes her door. “Sit down.” There’s only one chair. She sits on the desk. “I had to let Elsie go.”
Go where? I’m thinking. Then I notice Kitty’s eyes are red.
“I wanted to get to you before you went in there without knowing what was going on.”
“But why? Right before Christmas?”
“I know.” She pulls a cigarette from her top drawer and lights it. “They didn’t give me any choice. She was upset. Everybody is.”
This can’t happen, I think. How will she get by? She’s the one who hadn’t found a Christmas job even.
“Kitty,” I say. “I’ll quit and she can come back.”
Kitty laughs smoke through her teeth. “No, sweetie. Elsie was manpower. I’m forced to cut costs. She’s the only one I had in a more expensive labor category. She had to go.” She pauses and looks at the ceiling. “That’s it, now. You better get to work.”
I feel physically attacked. The prep room is silent and cold. I pull knives from my drawer and jingle them on the cutting board to make sure I am not deaf.
When I feel like crying for my own mother, I remember Elsie’s daughter possibly coming to school here. “What about Angela?” I ask. “What about Angela?”
Juanita stares at me, sweat beads studding her face. Norbert slices the ham. Frances peels eggs. Each shell drops in the basin with a hollow crunch.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
Dualities have always confounded me, even though I grew up in a time and place of two races and, oftentimes, two states of have. Too often, people in those situations grow accustomed to accepting the world as black or white, have or have not, right or wrong. This story was my attempt to reach into the mind of a person who hasn’t yet begun to take all that for granted.
ABOUT MANDY CAMPBELL MOORE
Mandy Campbell Moore counts “The Other Side of the Line” as her first published story and it marked the beginning of her literary exploration of post-civil rights race relations, a subject she researched throughout her MFA career at Antioch University, Los Angeles. The subject was a main theme in her first novel, A Most Attractive Couple, as well. Mandy hosts the Cirque Salon reading series and teaches creative writing workshops at her favorite independent bookstore, Book Show in Los Angeles. You can find out more about her at MandyCMoore.com.