“Why don’t you come over, Helen? You can see the cabinets before and after. There’s a lot of the before. No during or after, as a matter of fact. I’m practicing a lot of patience lately,” hooting laughter tailed, clamoring among the four women at the dinner table. They each in seeming unison put their hands against their mouths to gate the food that threatened to escape. The barks, cackles, and howls ended with long sighs.
Betty ignited another eruption when she added, “I could afford to do anything with the house if I could just get the keys to Dennis’s safe.” The entertainment of the other women urged her further. “It’s almost like he knows I’m searching for them—probably because I’m conspicuous as hell! I ask him every day. He knows I would take charge of the home renovating, and then we would have a mansion—in comparison to the broom closets our neighbors live in. Would that be so bad?! Dennis seems to think so.”
By the end, the four women were coughing and clutching their stomachs.
Glenda, garnished in a frosty attempt at a pixie-cut and painted mauve along her cheekbones, searched her purse that was perched on an adjacent chair for her inhaler. The red and green bells of her bracelet gorged every movement with jiggles. She sucked in the medicine and exhaled an rumbustious wheeze. “We’re getting too old to be this wasted. I’m not complaining, Cheryl. I only ask that when you sneak alcohol into the office Easter party’s punch, you use Grey Goose or, hell, any type of rum.” She gasped on her inhaler again, stifling the incipient giggles, and said, “What did you use this time, anyway?”
“The finest Moonshine from the southern lands! My sisters and brothers-in-law came to visit from Birmingham for the holidays, and it wouldn’t be Christmas if I didn’t share their gift of joy, would it?”
In her flamboyant, arching hand gestures, Cheryl nicked the edge of her dish and sent its contents sprawling across the floor.
The couple who’d just been seated in the booth across from them grumbled and gave her looks of disgust. The woman rose and motioned for the man to follow. She intercepted the waitress running to clean up the mess, apologized, pointed at the four women, and pulled the man’s arm as they left the restaurant.
Helen’s fingers were pressed against her lips, leaving her nostrils as the only escape for her amusement, and snorted. She craned her neck around Cheryl to watch the waitress pick up the noodles and sautéed vegetables with a damp washcloth. Her green strobing scarf slid to the tiles from its coil around a condensed neck. She jolted to catch it and nearly toppled from her chair. Helen caught her weight on the back of Cheryl’s chair. She braced herself in this position while howling in mock fear.
“Goodness, you two! It’s like watching dominoes tip in slow motion,” Glenda cried.
“And if she continues to hold onto my chair this way, I’ll be the last to fall!” Cheryl gripped the edge of the table. Its metal legs squalled along the floor toward her.
Glenda and Betty slammed their forearms down beside their plates. A clatter of glasses and wet slap of lemon-water ended the charade.
“Clean up in aisle eleven!” Betty bellowed.
The four women’s fervent giggles culminated in encore.
They were dabbing at the corners of their thickly outlined eyes by the time the waitress had mopped up the mess and righted the overturned drinking glasses.
“Oh, honey, thank you, but we’ll be needing new glasses,” Glenda said, her pants for composure leaving pauses between words. “These rims have touched the table, and frankly I wouldn’t have touched it if it weren’t for my friend here trying to pull an innocent down with her. Can never be too clean these days, honey.”
Strands of silken jet hair escaped the waitress’s rudimentary ponytail. They swayed to and fro as she nodded to the woman’s remarks. She quickly stacked the glasses inside each other.
Helen cleared her throat with mousey squeaks and said, “Before you go, what’s your name? In all the months we ladies have eaten here, we still don’t know your name. You don’t wear a name badge of any sort, which is fine since this is a little establishment. I’m not trying to pressure you into being more professional.”
The waitress hesitated, briefly scanning the expectant eyes of the four women. She nodded and spun in her chuck taylor knock-offs for the kitchen.
“Um, excuse me, miss,” Betty said. “Are you going to ignore her question?”
The waitress tightened her hold on the four glasses in her forearms. She turned to revisit their squinted gazes just as Cheryl murmured, “Maybe she doesn’t understand English.”
“Bologna! How could she take our orders?”
“It’s easy to memorize an English menu if it means profit.”
“You want to know my name?” the waitress spoke in a low monotone.
Delighted, Helen clapped her hands, the garish bangles on her wrists clanking together, “I knew you could understand us! Wonderful! Yes, what’s your name?”
“Sullen is right,” Glenda scoffed. “The name suits you, dear. Allow me to offer words of wisdom that my old age has granted me. These tables should be bolted down. What if one toppled onto a child? The poor thing would be crushed, and your establishment would have a lawsuit on its hands. And you really must be more cheery if you want more business. We’re the only regulars I’ve seen. It’s no wonder.”
Su Lin looked at the meager dining room illuminated by ceiling fluorescents. It was encased in walls haphazardly painted mint that chipped in the corners. Lunch special menus, smeared with oily fingerprints, were tacked at every booth and table. Braids of red silk daggled from two convex Foo Dogs that hung on the back wall. They captured their observers in fixed stares of ferocity. Su Lin remembered weaving the thick gold and crimson threads to mold the lions’ faces. She had thought their colors would rejuvenate the atmosphere, welcome generous spirits into a barren dwelling, while the bared teeth would ward off any bad intentions.
But the dining room felt just as abandoned now as it had been the day she hung her Foo Dogs.
Su Lin nodded at the women, who were the last table occupants for lunch rush—reminiscent of every afternoon for months. She attempted a curved of a smile, “Yes, ma’am.”
“After the new waters, could we please have our checks? They’ll be separate as always,” Betty grinned, exposing her equine teeth.
Su Lin balanced the glasses to the kitchen. She stepped backward through the thick plastic separating the cooking area from the front prep space, which was directly behind the register counter. Her husband was methodically washing the steel woks and skillets in the sink. Su Lin dropped the glasses in the suds and huffed. She rubbed her temple and leaned against the counter where the drying rack rested. It held seven plates, the total served for today’s lunch.
“Are the white ladies with the up-turned noses still here?” Fu asked, not removing his attention from his task.
“Yes. Can’t you hear their barking? Anyway, they want new lemon waters and their bills. Separate, of course.”
“At least they’re leaving.”
“The usual time, too. At 2, when the lunch specials end. The price reduction was supposed to bring in more afternoon customers. Then, those bitches became regulars. Regular drunks.”
“Maybe we should get an alcohol license,” Fu joked dryly. “Money is money. We’re already stuck with this double mortgage for the rest of our lives. You’d better get the waters out there, and the fortune cookies—remember the last time they complained.”
Su Lin began to procure glasses from the cabinet and decided it’d only be a waste of water to wash four new glasses that will return partially empty. She dipped her hands in the deep sink basin, pulling out the drinkware she’d removed from the ladies’ table. She dried them with a towel. Fu did not object. He went about his washing like a dutiful robot.
Su Lin put the lemon waters on a large oval tray and plucked four plastic-wrapped fortune cookies from the box next to the kitchen entrance.
These women don’t deserve encouraging messages, she thought, distasted by the idea of bestowing any good fortune upon them, whether false or factual.
She exited the plastic divider and tallied the number for each order.
Betty, Helen, and Cheryl were cackling again about some office scandal the asthmatic couldn’t relay through wheezy giggles. She placed the tickets, glasses, and cookies at the end of the table then collected the refuse within her reach.
“Oh, honey? Sullen?” Cheryl giggled. “I’m so sorry, but now I can’t stop thinking about how much your name sounds like that word. Can I call you Su?”
The waitress gave one nod.
“Great! Su,” the woman enunciated the one syllable as if she were trying to sound out a complicated word. “You’re going to give me a new Chicken Lo Mein, right? I was barely able to eat any of it.”
Su Lin paused. Her brows lifted slightly, betraying her deliberate visage of control.
Before she could answer compliantly, Cheryl put her finger up in a shushing gesture, “Ah-ah. If I don’t receive a new serving, then I refuse to pay for it.”
“Yes, I will get that for you as soon as possible. The grill is off, so it will take a few moments.”
“Well, we need to return to our demanding jobs at the courthouse. I can’t wait much longer. Give it to me in a to-go box, I guess,” she waved her away.
Su Lin entered the kitchen and began hurling insults in Mandarin at the women. Then she explained the dilemma to her husband.
He yelled in the same language, asking why she didn’t refuse; the drunk spilled the plate herself, after all.
Su Lin reciprocated the same volume explaining that the woman would refuse to pay and reminding him of his pragmatic comment “money is money”. She blinked at Fu incredulously.
He groaned, pulled a clean wok from the drying rack, and ignited the grill.
Anticipating this table to be the last for hours—maybe the rest of the day—,Su removed the dustpan and broom from the dry foods’ pantry and trudged around the register counter to the dining room. She kept her head low so the women couldn’t meet her eye. Then she went about the pointless duty of sweeping under the small compact tables, around the rickety wooden chairs, and along the edges of the stationary booths. There was hardly any dirt and debris to gather save for two used napkins and wadded hair that tangled with dust in the corners. Su functioned solely from routine and the desire to busy her hands. It gave the illusion of a balanced workload among coworkers and married partners. Her husband perspires over the steaming woks and sizzling grill. It seemed only fair she renew an almost untouched dining room.
Su caught the corner of one of the many loose floor tiles and pulled it toward the dustpan. The small scraping sound brought her attention to her mistake. She swore in Mandarin under her breath and pushed the tile back into place with the tip of her sneaker. Su glanced at the ladies, concerned they’d noticed. But suddenly, she didn’t care. Let their demeaning judgement and disgust drive them elsewhere. They’d already driven most of Su and Fu’s customers out each time they’d graced lunch with their obnoxious presence. Su was certain these women caused the restaurant’s great decline in profit.
Su leaned the broom and dustpan against a wall and used the damp rag from her apron to begin wiping the rusty orange leather booths. As her hand glided over the cracks and pleats of the old material, Su Lin thought back to the nights her and her husband had toiled over amending their authentic Chinese menu into Westernized bland oriental dishes. They had replaced rich soup dumplings, Xiao Long Bao, with bloated Crab Rangoon. Spicy Yu Xiang Rou Si was exchanged for Beef with Broccoli, a dish foreign to their culture. Simple and overly sweet Sesame Chicken filled the absence of the colorful and flavorful La Zi Ji. Su and Fu had been open a mere month before their restaurant’s menu forcefully endured a complete renewal to attract more customers. The rural county-seat city had proved to be unwelcoming of the unknown. Then the couple reveled in another auspicious discovery; lunch specials that included bundled main courses and appetizers. They’d thought these revisions would be their financial saving grace. Undenounced to them however, they would welcome an entitled plague that liked to display wealth while dining on discounted meals.
As she worked her way closer to them at the front of the restaurant, Su overheard them reading their fortunes aloud.
“Your life will soon be removed of a dependency,” Glenda spoke with a questioning tone, truly unsure if she’d read the small paper right.
“A favored gift will soon be plentiful!”
“Oh, Cheryl, I’m glad mine isn’t quite as cryptic. Mine is ‘A long trip is in your future’!” Helen squealed, stomping her feet excitedly.
“Well mine seems pretty clear. You will find what you’ve been looking for,” Betty announced.
“Meaning I’m getting my new cabinets!”
The barking bitches burst into laughter.
Annoyed by their volume of density and desiring to remain invisible to it, Su Lin stopped wiping tops a table away from the women. She retrieved the broom and dustpan and tiptoed past the jeering faces.
Fu had just finished the Chicken Lo Mein. It lay plated on the order-ready counter by the plastic kitchen entrance. He grunted at her, nodded toward the food, and went about turning off cooking surfaces.
Su asked in the braying Mandarin that connoted bitterness if Fu undercooked the meat or at least spit in the noodles.
He muttered something about exacerbating the situation into an unnecessary lawsuit then shrugged.
His wife took this as “get off my back, woman, and do your job.”
So, she moved the dish into the front prep station and carefully slid it into a Styrofoam carry-out container. Her remark had been petulant and desperately vengeful. She couldn’t sabotage what little income they were receiving, never mind sullying the restaurant reputation.
She knew she would reap grief and admonishment from Fu once they were alone.
“Waitress, we would like to leave sometime today!”
Su recognized the nasally voice of Cheryl. She rolled her eyes and closed the lid to the container while swerving around the register counter.
Betty and Cheryl gave her checks folded within the paper of their tickets. Helen and Glenda paid their exact totals in cash and coins. Su glided into the sanctuary nook behind the register to deposit the payments. She watched under her brow as the women adjusted their jewelry and scarves before squeezing into their insulated trench coats and puffers. They were giggling as they exited the premise and didn’t wave or give thanks.
Gratuity is beyond their kind, Su Lin thought, knowing no tip would be awaiting her on the table. She fetched a new damp rag while the pathetic excitement of the women reciting their false fortuities replayed uninvited in her mind. Su Lin sat in the chair Betty had occupied and pulled a small Mandarin orange from her apron. She peeled its delicate rind. The tangy citrus aroma instantly rinsed her senses of unsavory and negative wills, and Su Lin took her time nibbling at the juicy fruit inside before cleaning the remains of the last full top of the day.
A week passed.
The first days harbored a few lonesome truckers and one family of three, but no barking bitches. Each day to come brought in one sometimes two new customers, all smiling and courteous, fairly humble—save for some rowdy children—and gracious.
For the first time in months, the tip jar was half full by the end of each day. Su Lin felt immensely blessed for the reprieve from the four drunks but was sure that very soon they would return. Nerves shook her every day the clock struck eleven, marking the start of the lunch special.
The start of the second week, as Su approached a table of two men, one dressed in a tan button-up, tie, and polished shoes and the other a plaid shirt, ruddy jeans, and boots, she overheard one say, “Well, you heard about Dennis Albrecht and his wife Betty, didn’t you? They were found embezzling thousands of dollars from the county and city then tried to flee the State. Law enforcement caught them at the border but was only able to relinquish half the money.”
“Yup. Means the city might be able to afford to fix the damn potholes on these roads,” the plaid-clad man said before gulping down more soda and belching.
“Hopefully, but my point is that not even a day after they were intercepted, Helen Grasbom fell from her roof and broke her neck. Rumor is she’s paralyzed from neck down now.”
“Mhm, yep. Heard about that bad luck, too. What in the hell was she doing on her roof in the first place?”
Su Lin surreptitiously stepped in sight by their table, “Ready to order?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll have General Tso’s Chicken lunch special please, and Ralph here will have Beef with Brocolli,” the well-dressed man said.
Su nodded, “Anything else to drink?”
“I think we’re set on fluids for now, thank you,” he smiled up at her.
She nodded and walked past them to another table toward the back of the dining room. The lunch rush had just begun. Two tops held occupancy for now, so Su managed to hear the rest of the men’s conversation.
“She was hanging her Christmas lights and a gust of wind blew her off balance. Imagine that. Paralysis from a silly accident.”
Ralph grunted, “Glenda always said that Helen woman thought of Christmas as some sort of competition. Maybe Jesus was sick of his birthday being made into a lightshow.”
“I’m brought to the essence of my point. Your wife needs to be careful. She works in the County Treasurers Office at the courthouse. I have a feeling there’s some bad juju circulating in that place.”
Ralph huffed, “Yeah. You always get bad feelings though.”
“Have they ever been wrong?”
Their conversation petered into grunts, slurps, and burps. It rose to the topic of the impending planting season and opinions on best field-choice yields.
For the rest of the day, Su Lin’s mind kept returning to their conversation. Her opinion was void of pity. It served those women right.
Three weeks came and went since the conversation Su had eavesdropped, and their restaurant’s income had tripled.
As Su Lin finished filling the metal pans in the front prep area with fresh tarragon leaves, containers of wasabi and duck sauce, and sliced ginger, the front door’s bell chimed. She looked at the clock, its hands set in a forty-five degree angle upward, then to the door. Her gaze locked with Cheryl’s bloodshot hooded eyes, and dismay thrummed Su’s nerves.
The woman did not linger; instead, she hobbled past the wall dividing the register and dining room. Her shoulders hunched. From one hand dangled her purse, and the opposite grasped a flask by its neck. Its glossy steel glinted reflections of the fluorescents. She plopped down on the leather of the booth in the furthest recess, her back facing the currently empty seats. She unscrewed the cap of the flask and threw her head back to take in a couple gulps while she unfurled a newspaper from her bag.
Su Lin was surprised to see no one stumble in behind Cheryl, and then she remembered the two gentlemen’s discussion last month. This sad woman didn’t have followers anymore. Baring no shred of sympathy, Su walked to her booth.
Over the woman’s shoulder, she scanned the newspaper. It was issued last week. A long article encompassed the front page. The title in bold print read Third tragedy to strike Cunder County Treasurer’s Office. Astringency wafted from the woman’s flaking hair, and the stench of stale alcohol leaked from her drooping jaw.
Su swallowed a gag before asking, “Anything to drink?” To wash down your putridity.
“Sullen,” Cheryl slurred, “Do you remember the name of the dish Glenda would order?”
“Sesame Chicken. Is that what you’d like?”
“Ah. Yes. Carry out. I-I’ll carry it out ‘course,” Cheryl stuttered.
Su nodded and glided into the kitchen with the order.
By the time Cheryl’s food was ready and boxed up, several groups of customers had been seated. They all kept a substantial girth from the woman. If Su didn’t urge her out soon, she feared appetites would be lost and tops emptied. She scuttled to the back of the dining room and placed the styrofoam container before the woman.
“For today only, it’s free.”
Cheryl blubbered her thanks and blessings through tears as Su ushered her past the other customers.
“Thank you. Okay, bye,” the bell chimed as Su held the door open. She bowed repeatedly until the woman stumbled across the threshold. She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried to fetch a spray bottle and new rag with which to clean the table.
Su Lin bent over the cupboard below the register. All at once, she heard a deafening shatter and felt the building quake. Screams echoed from the dining room, melody to the blaring baritone of a car horn. Fu came rushing through the plastic separation from the kitchen. Su Lin witnessed shock flush his skin and watched him fumble with the wall-mounted phone.
Over the trumpeting horn, she barely heard her husband holler, “Don’t just stand there! See if anyone is hurt!”
Her heart thrummed in her ears, causing the quick glimpse of Cheryl’s bloody head pressed into her Impala’s steering wheel, of particles from broken mortar swirling in the sunlight, and of splintered chairs crushed against tables to shutter by in slow motion like clips from a projector. Su Lin hugged the wall and inched into the dining room. Her only clear thoughts repeated in her mind, We have insurance and Maybe now we can afford extra workers.