Tiffany is her name. Her broad, over-whitened smile sends a wave of chain-smoker creases rippling across her over-tanned face.
"Thanks," I say, still buried in the grease-splotched menu.
I'm not really hungry. It's work. My first day has been a pretty rough ride. I might've already quit, if this job hadn't come from from my only interview in the six-plus months since the unemployment ran out.
When they called back last week, the kids were at school. I was still in my bathrobe, stuffing a hot check for the water bill into the gas company envelope. How careless of me! I'll get that straightened out ASAP. I promise. But you only get to use that trick once.
I guess it's about the same for everybody. You just do what you have to do. Sometimes it sucks, but it's the only way you survive.
I watch Tiffany walk away toward the next table. I try not to stare, but the signs of a recent accident won't let go of my eyes. Her neck is in a white foam brace, and her right arm is in one of those blue slings they give you in the ER.
I take quick glances at her as she moves from table to table with an awkward, pained gait, refilling water glasses, talking to each patron, calling each one "Hon" or "Honey" or "Sweetie," all the way to the swinging kitchen doors, where her saccharin smile finally dissolves into something less pleasant and a good bit more real.
Her forced pleasantness reminds me of my wife. We all knew the cancer was wicked painful, but Patti would never let on. Right up to the end, she kept a hollow smile under her tired eyes. That's some kind of strength. I don't have it. I can't smile.
Patti's chemo, radiation, and funeral put me into the kind of debt I'll never get out of. Forget about sending the kids to college. It's all I can do to keep a roof over their heads.
Maybe when Tiffany comes back, I'll just order a burger and some coffee. Maybe just the coffee.
Another waitress passes me at just short of a dead run toward the kitchen. Curiosity gets the better of me.
"Excuse me." I hold up a finger.
Her name tag says Barb. Barb doesn't say anything. She just hovers and arches an eyebrow.
"I'm just curious. What's Tiffany's deal?" I say, "I mean, she don't look like she ought to be at work."
"Honey," Barb says, "She ain't got no place else to go. Her place burnt down last week. Had to jump out of a window just to get out."
"Wow, that's too bad," I say, not quite knowing what to say, "I guess she lost everything, huh?"
Barb takes a quick look around and moves in close to share a secret with me. Something on her face tells me it's the kind everybody knows but nobody talks about.
"I guess. Her husband and kid neither one got out. Poor little Lydia was only twelve. A little on the skinny side, but a cute little thing. And smart. They said it looked like her daddy had just collapsed. He had emphysema, you know. And she'd been trying to drag him out, when the smoke got her, too."
My heart sinks. I can't imagine losing my kids. Especially not that way.
"God," I say, as much to myself as to Barb, "what do you do when something like that happens?"
"She's living out of her car," Barb says, "until she can get back on her feet. Larry's letting her stay in the parking lot and use the showers here at the truck stop."
Tiffany comes back out of the kitchen with a tray of food in her good hand and a folding stand under her bad arm. Barb gives me a nervous nod and finishes her power walk to the kitchen.
Tiffany finishes passing out plates to a family in a booth on the other side of the room and returns to my table.
"Did you decide yet, Hon?" she asks with that smile.
"I'm sorry," I say, "I don't think I'll be able to eat, after all."
I pull all the cash out of my pants pocket and put it on the table. A five, three ones, and some quarters and dimes, it's the best tip I've ever given.
"Are you okay, Sweetie?" Her smile shrinks just a little, and her forehead wrinkles. I can feel the genuine concern in her voice.
"I'm fine. Thank you. It's just—" I can't quite get the words out.
I hand Tiffany my card. The color drains from her face. Her smile dilates and freezes. It hovers awkwardly in front of her, no longer really quite belonging to the rest of her face.
"I'm sorry," I say, my voice unexpectedly hoarse, "I'm here to repossess your car."
Yeah. I guess it's about the same for everybody. You just do what you have to do. Sometimes it sucks, but it's the only way you survive.
Huston Lowell lives in a suburb of St. Louis with his wife, three daughters, two guinea pigs, and laptop.
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