I heard the song “All I Need is a Miracle” playing over the radio for the third time that day. It’d been a long shift – a double shift. The line at the door of Joey’s Steakhouse and Buffet said that I wouldn’t be let home early.
“The coffee’s out,” a coworker informed, rushing past, a hot pan in hand.
“Again?” I finished refilling a napkin holder and rushed to the coffee pot. As I struggled to open the new bag of coffee grounds, an elderly woman waved her cane at me, saying that she would pass out if she didn’t get her coffee soon. I held my tongue and finally ripped open the package. Why did I choose to put up with this again? Sure, I was hard up for tuition money, but I could’ve found a job somewhere else.
I had barely pressed start on the coffee machine when a teenage girl tapped me on the shoulder. “Will you bring out more of that salad? I’ve been waiting for about, like, ten seconds and no one replaced it.”
I apologized and informed that it would be a moment while I prepared it. Miss I-Want-Salad started texting and told me to hurry up.
The evening wore on and the dinner rush shrunk to the late-dinner trickle. At last I had time to pick up a broom and clean up those pesky crumbs that inevitably littered the restaurant. I may have tried to keep my polite front on, but I felt exhausted from being the costumer’s punching bag. I wonder what would happen if I just walked out, if I quite right now… Seriously, why I am I even here?
“Hey, Grace, I hoped you would be working today.”
I looked up and grinned at the familiar voice. Oh, that’s right. That’s why. “How’re you doing today, Howard?”
The elderly customer shuffled his way to the buffet bar that I stood next to. “Well, now that you ask, it’s been an odd day.”
I chuckled curiously. “Why is that?” For the next twenty minutes, Howard followed me around as I swept the restaurant and proceeded to tell me about his morning. He had woken up to a freak power outage, he got some mail addressed to his neighbor, and he’d remembered a dream from last night. He dreamt he was a pilot again. “I was just flyin’ the jet, like I always did. I told you I was in the Air Force, right?”
I grinned. “You mentioned it.” About six times. But I let him tell the stories and relive his glory days. A few of my co-workers approached me, but instantly backed off when they who I was talking to. They called his one-sided conversations the “Howard trap,” and most employees avoided it by rudely blowing him off. Once a co-worker pretended she only spoke Spanish to avoid listening to him. I was the only one who didn’t mind his chatter.
Somewhere in the last few decades, Howard the Air Force pilot had changed. Now he was probably in his seventies, he always wore red plaid shirts, and always ate alone. His eager eyes exuded loneliness as if it was written across his face in permanent marker. When I started working at Joey’s and met Howard time, I thought I must have caught him in a talkative mood. I soon came to understand a few things about Howard. First, he was simply a very extraverted fellow. Also, he had enough money to go to a ritzy buffet every day, but he had no one to experience it with. His daily joy was coming into the restaurant and sharing his life with the employees.
“Good talking to you, Grace,” he said after a while. “I’ve already eaten, so I guess it’s time to head out.” He glanced towards the door, but didn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave.
“See you Tuesday?”
“What about tomorrow?” He asked, looking disappointed. “Don’t you work tomorrow?”
I shook my head. “No, sir.” I understood why he always asked about my hours. He didn’t want to be ignored and insulted by my co-workers. “My next shift is on Tuesday.”
“Alight, I’ll be here.” His wrinkled face cracked into a small grin. I watched him leave, his shuffle a little bouncier than it was when he’d come in.
I reminded myself of the real reason I stayed at Joey’s Steakhouse and Buffet. That bouncier step was all I could do.