In my senior year of high school, my friend Laura and I would take our lunch break at a nearby cafe called the Vienna Confectionery, located on Roosevelt Ave in Seattle. It was a lovely little European place with little tables, frothy coffee drinks and vintage jazz wafting in the air along with the smell of fresh baked bread and salted butter. We always ordered the same thing: a pot of black tea (in silver teapots) and biscuits. Sometimes I'd splurge and get soup.
None of the other alternative kids seemed to haunt this locale, just myself and Laura, which was fine by me, as we always got first class service from the couple of twentysomething waitresses who worked there, and it allowed us to chat them up if it was slow during the lunch hour. They didn't seem to mind that we ordered so meagerly, and they always asked me about my clothes, which were usually vintage finds or hand sewn by myself; Hot Topic did not yet exist.
Laura usually had to rush through lunch to run back to school for fourth period, but I could take my time. I had been an honor student up until my senior year and managed to pull enough credits to allow me to take half days in my senior year, so essentially school was over by lunch for me. I'd often sit for an extra few minutes, slowly buttering my warm, fresh bread and dipping it into my tea, slowly swaying along to Cab Calloway, the coils of the day unwinding themselves from my gut. Roosevelt High School in the 80s was not the easiest place to attend, with the abominable bussing system filling the halls with perpetually pissed off kids from the Central District who targeted the freaks like me for full on body attacks to relieve their stress. I didn't exactly blame them, but getting tossed down the stairs or getting my hair pulled on a daily basis wasn't exactly a ball.
Laura and I made friends with the staff there, and sometimes at night I'd get my dad to take me there for dinner. They had a wicked borscht and a heavenly goulash, and if I had a few extra bucks, I'd buy a bunch of cherry cordials, which my best friend Keri and I would attempt to stuff ourselves to get a buzz, but often wound up nauseated from too much chocolate. The owner worked at nights, and was an older chef from Vienna who married a woman from Seattle and started the cafe with her. Shortly thereafter, I guess the married dissolved, but they continued to run the cafe. With my dad being a natural chatterbox (its genetic I guess) and my gothic, over-the-top fashion statements, we naturally drew his attention, and got pretty friendly with him. He once made a comment about my meager little lunches during the day, and with a wink said, "maybe a job will open up, Julie. I always need kitchen help, you could make a little extra money. You kids like money, right?"
Teenagers in Seattle in the 1980s had limited options for jobs. There were coveted ones, like working at a record or vintage clothing store. There were things like telemarketing, or babysitting, neither of which appealed to me. And then there was restaurant and coffee shop work. Seeing as I couldn't cover enough hours to work somewhere like Last Exit or my favorite place, the B & O Espresso, my only real option was starting ground zero as a dishwasher. It wasn't glamorous, but I would get a paycheck and a meal out of it, and you couldn't get much better than a cute little cafe. Plus, they'd train me to barista, and in Seattle, that'll take you anywhere.
A few weeks after David made that comment, a part time dishwashing job came up on the weekends, and I asked if I could apply. David said not only could I apply, if I could show up the following Sunday evening, the job was mine. The pay was awful, but I did get a share of the nightly tips, a free dinner, and all the coffee I could humanly consume. This sounded absolutely perfect to me.
I spent that weekend doing most of what I normally did, which was ditch my books at the house Friday, wolf down a plate of food, kiss my dad goodbye and disappear into the misty Seattle night for 48 hours to return home disheveled, like a tiny human smear, to crawl into bed and set the alarm for first period Monday morning. However, this time around I decided to spend the day Sunday at my friend Kathe's house, keep my nose clean. She lived fairly close to the cafe and I didn't want to be late to my first day of work.
We hung out and played records that afternoon, but at about four o'clock, I could feel my nerves kick in. I'd never worked a real job before, and I didn't know how busy the night would get or how hard would it be. Kate could sense I was getting a little tense, and naturally recommended I loosen up, I was practically hunching up with anxiety.
"Dude, you totally, like totally, need a hit," she dug into her leather jacket and pulled out a little pipe and handed it to me. It already had a little half burned bud in it.
"I dunno, Kate. I don't wanna come off as stupid on my first day," I eyed the bud. It looked pretty dry.
"It's pretty mild, a hit will calm you down. Everything is going to be fine, its not like its rocket science or anything. You stick dishes in a washer and turn it on, and you put them away. You already do that at home. C'mon, jesus," she handed me a lighter. I sighed. Well, she totally had a point. I sat up, shrugged and took a hit and passed it to her. I hardly harshed out, it definitely seemed pretty weak weed.
I checked the clock and realized I needed to get my coat on and get to walking. As I pulled the second sleeve on, another wave of nerves washed over me. God dammit! I must have looked pretty stressed, before I even had finished zipping up my coat, Kathe had the pipe up in my face. I took an enormous toke, and felt like my lungs would scorch. She laughed at me and popped a lifesaver in my mouth, which I nearly spit out in a fit of coughing.
I must have speed walked to the cafe in nervous energy, as I showed up ten minutes early. David wasn't yet in but the cook, a big strapping Bavarian woman, gave me a big smile as she tossed me my apron and had me follow her to the back. My two favorite servers were working, Wendy and Amy, and were busily setting the tables. Behind the bar was Stewart, the head server, cleaning glasses. He nodded at me, stone faced. Stewart wasn't exactly a sunny person. I nodded back.
As the cook showed me how the night's schedule was set and where everything was located, I could feel the buzz causing a little bit of a cognitive disruption, but it wasn't too serious and I could follow her quick patter. But it was a little more than I had expected from that dried up little green ball in Kate's pipe, and I wondered if it was possibly a bad idea to get stoned beforehand, especially as Stewart eyed me with a little suspicion as I fiddled with some of the silverware.
"Nerves, I presume?" I couldn't tell if it was just him being tall or if I sensed him talking down at me.
"It's my first job," I clanked the spoons and it startled me a bit. He sniffed.
"Just pay attention and follow direction," was his dry response. He handed me a wine glass and I put it on the shelf. He spun around and bumped into Wendy. She mumbled something and pushed past him. "You're not even supposed to be here tonight," he snarled at her.
"Well, I'm here, get over it," she snipped and went into the kitchen. I noticed Stewart's fist clench, release, clench. He was murdering the towel in his hand. The door jingled and the first customers of the evening had arrived. I was officially on the clock.
The first hour was relatively uneventful; the place filled up mostly with neighborhood regulars, upper class couples enjoying a low-key evening with a light meal and a pinot noir. David eventually showed, like an explosion, greeting customers like he always did, with big guffaws and clasped handshakes, an occasional European kiss to the ladies. He made his way towards the kitchen, patting Amy on the shoulder as he past her. Stewart, who had pretty much been behind bar all evening, stepped into David's path, clearly tense. "David, you didn't tell me Wendy was on tonight," could hear him say. "We didn't need her tonight. It doesn't make sense to have her here."
David shrugged. "Stewart, its fine. Its a busy night, just chill out."
Stewart's jaw tightened and I could see the muscles pop in his neck. "I'm the head server, she doesn't respect that David. She has no respect. I can't work with her."
David put his hand on Stewart's shoulder. "You're both good employees, you need to work together, okay? Are you okay, Stu?"
"Fine," Stewart was clearly seething. Or was he clearly seething? I was still a little high and couldn't tell if he was being normal or not. David patted Stewart's shoulder and pushed past him to me, patted my shoulder and said good evening, then headed into the kitchen.
At that very moment, Wendy came around the counter with a full tray of dirty dishes. Stewart was standing directly in her path, stock still. Wendy rolled her eyes and lightly pushed at him, mumbling "C'mon Stu, these are heavy."
Everything suddenly went slow motion. Lifting that towel murdering hand, Stewart flung it forward and into the tray of dishes, knocking it high into the air as cutlery rained down clattering onto the counter, plates and tureens following suit, amazingly unbroken as they bounced to the floor, brown goulash gravy splattering along floor. Wendy's eyes widened as Stewart swung back again, making for Wendy's face with the back of his hand. She responded with catlike movement and grabbed at his wrist before he made contact, and down they went, right at my feet, wreathing as Wendy blocked blow after blow, screeching "What the FUCK, Stu, what the FUCK!".
From behind me, David and the cook burst forth, slamming me into the dishwasher as they tackled Stewart and wrestled him off Wendy. I could hear gasps and shuffling of customers, Amy expertly telling people things were being handled, please sit down, its okay sir, we got this. David had Stewart's thin arms locked into his beefy ones and lifted Stewart onto his feet as the cook helped Wendy up. Stewart tried to kick at Wendy, and David body slammed him into the bar.
"Are you off your meds or something?" David bellowed. Stewart made a kind of weird growl noise. His face was the color of boiled blood sausage, and his eyes were glassy.
"She doesn't respect me, dammit," Stewart managed to sputter. Wendy had gathered her composure, her face also red. "You're fucking crazy, Stu," was all she could say.
"I fucking hate you!" he screeched, and with that, David dragged him out from behind the bar and out the door. The cafe was dead quiet, save for Billie Holiday softly warbling from the speakers above my head.
As the cook and Amy assured the customers that everything would be okay, Wendy asked me to help her clean up the mess and we quietly worked together, my little stoner head making flip flops all the while. Did that actually just happen? Is this normal? Am I handling this normal? Would this have happened if I wasn't high? Did I make this happen? Does this always happen? Can anyone hear me thinking?
"Sorry Jules, he's crazy, I knew he'd snap eventually. This must the worst first day of work ever," she shook her head as she handed me a couple of plates. "Its normally not like this."
"You okay?" I asked her. Amy came around the corner and asked the same thing. Wendy nodded. David re-emerged from outside, alone. "He's gone for good," was all he said, tight lipped, as he and the cook slipped back to the kitchen, muttering to each other.
I loaded up the dishwasher, flipped the switch and spun around to lean back on the counter and drew in a deep breath. I looked around as the cafe slowly returned to normal, then looked at the clock. It was six thirty. My first 90 minutes of joining the work force... I have what, forty more years of this shit?
Like they say, you never forget your first.
It was a warm afternoon; the air hung heavily, a perfumed curtain of honeysuckle and rose and freshly cut grass. The sun was still high and contemplating its evening plunge into the nether, but the season was Summer, and it still had many hours to wile under the domed sky before its perfervid bedding behind the horizon.
Little dewdrops glistened on the child’s brow as she strolled down the sidewalk in a careless amble. If she was overheated, she took no notice. Her hands absentmindedly tugged and crumpled her white cotton skirt’s hem, leaving light marks of dirt and oil behind. Her feet moved slowly and methodically, one lazy step at a time, and her eyes squinted and trained upon the strip of lawn beside her. The grass glowed a brilliant green in the sun, the nooks and crannies exposed within each clump of grass. This particular stretch of lawn was blemished with crabgrass and clover. While not the prettiest bit of green earth, for her, it was ideal. She stopped abruptly and knelt down.
Her little thin hands grazed the blades of grass and clover, probing here and there in an earnest search that would have even the conquistadors of yore garner her respect in her thoroughness. Her face was so close to the ground her shadow partially obscured the light, and she frowned at this dilemma. Still her hands searched amongst the weeds and grass, through the chickweed and crabgrass and clover until finally – ah! – her full lips curled ever so slightly at the edges. Her thumb and forefinger plucked her discovery from the safety of its roots and she raised the stem of the clover up to her face for a closer inspection.
Yes. All four leaves were present, despite a split in one of the lower quadrant leaves. A sense of accomplishment washed over her like a cold spring shower and she stood up, her knees dimpled with the imprint of the sidewalk’s concrete. She looked first up, then down the sidewalk for any witnesses, and assured of her solitude, raised her hand up to the sky, to the sun, and watched the beams of light stream between the four petals like white hot rivers. The sun christened the clover with a halo, and she smiled, its first and only convert.
She had looked for this clover her whole life.
With luck in hand, she strode confidently down the sidewalk, unable to contain herself. Her smile was a rainbow, her eyes were stars. But soon, past the chalk hopscotch grid drawn in yellow and orange, past the overlapping ridge in the sidewalk caused by an massive oak root bursting forth, past the purple and white house with the gingerbread shutters in which a nice old lady passed the time tending her garden and her Bible, past the mailbox, her eyes are cast downward and once again the nagging urge overcame her. She looked at her clover, its stem already bruised from her fingers clutching it too hard. She wondered if her good fortune could beget more good fortune.
Her grubby left hand still clutching the clover, she knelt next to a small patch of unkempt grass on the easement of an equally unkempt house of dirty white clapboard and overgrown dogwoods surrounding its stoop. Her right hand lifted up a large wad of chickweed to reveal a struggling patch of clover, some of which was yellowed from the lack of sunlight. An old and ragged bit of clover caught her eye, and with surgical precision she pinched its head clean off its mother stem and looked it over. One of its leaves looked as if a very tiny cat had clawed the edges many years ago, leaving dried tatters behind. But despite the bedraggled leaf, the other three were quite sound. She gasped aloud.
She jumped up and giddily spun in place, her skirt lifting and pin wheeling around her. She drew both pregnant hands together and tucked them under her chin and cawed to the sky. The world tipped and reeled around her and she caught air as she fell backward onto the easement, padded by the ample chickweed and moss. Quite unhurt, she giggled to herself as she clasped her clovers like two jewel encrusted scepters, one for each hand.
She lay there for a time, motionless, listening to the birds coo and twitter, feeling a bead of perspiration drip from the pool in the curve of her throat around to the back of her neck before slithering into the nest of green beneath her. Several strands of hair stuck to her forehead and the heat seemed to beat upon her little body with intensity, but she gave no care. Her lazy smile drizzled itself across her dirt stained cheeks, her skin browned by the sun and the humid earth, interrupted only by the flush of health under her deeply fringed eyes. A lace of daisies crowned her dirty summer hair, each thick tendril entangled with the moss encircling her head. She was a Queen, Queen of the earth, of the summer haze, Queen of the dust and the ants and the flowers and the trees, Queen of the cracked sidewalks, the ones that broke the backs of so many mothers. Anointed with the dappling sunbeams that jittered and pranced about her, she arose at last, ordained.
She walked slowly, carefully, her gaze focused on the treasures set firmly in her two tiny fists. She did not trip, did not stumble; she knew this sidewalk almost as keenly as her own mother, had traveled its broken and worn causeway her whole life, every day, from the moment she could totter and teeter on her two clumsy feet. She walked as if she was carrying a pyramid of eggs, yet her heart was not tense with worry but light and carefree. She passed under yet another old oak tree – several dotted the easements, providing a canopy of green shade – and as she emerged from its webbed and mottled shade, she heard a familiar buzzing sound in her right ear. Unafraid of flying insects, she paused and sought out the owner of the beating wings, and watched with delight as a graceful golden striped honeybee lit upon her right hand, just below her thumb and under the umbrella of clover. It tapped her skin with its black legs as if it were divining for a water well, and spun slowly in a circle. She watched with curiosity as it traveled down to her wrist, carefully feeling its way with its quivering antennae. It paused, lifted its head as if to gaze at her, then in one swift movement it plunged its abdominal spike deep into her skin, barbing her with its hollow stinger. She startled.
As the venom pumped rhythmically into her veins, the bee raised its wings and beat them viciously into the air, pulling away from her skin, simultaneously tearing apart its own body as the stinger held firm upon the swelling of her wound. It departed as mysteriously as it appeared to her, and she dropped the clover, the clawed-up one, from her left hand as the shock of attack left her and the biting pain dug in. Although she had never been stung, she had seen her mother carefully scrape the stinger off her younger sister’s leg last summer, never flinching as her sister wiggled and howled in terror and agony. Now it was her turn to nurse the wound, and to scrape away the pumping sack and its stabbing lance from her wrist, leaving behind a tiny red pinprick set upon a raised lump of white, angry flesh. She mused to herself the tragedy and senselessness of the act. She briefly wondered where the bee had gone to, if it had made for the safety of its hive, tasting the airways it traveled homeward bound, to beat and crawl its way back into the nest, carried by its comrades as it buzzed and twittered its last farewell. She could not fathom why such a gentle creature as a honeybee would attack her without provocation, her mind too young and inexperienced to come up with as convincing a list as the world weary soul could muster. She was fortunate; eagerly does one drink the wine of experience, to know all there is to know, only to find it brings one nothing but suffering. She was still ignorant, a child.
She gasped: her clover! She looked anxiously about her, but it did not lie upon the gray cement. The easement near her feet was riddled with grass clippings and shadow, and she felt the strangling pressure of alarm building within her chest and she knelt down and grazed her fingers across the tips of the grass blades. Green upon green, it was quite impossible to see such a tiny, unassuming little clover, and she could practically taste the salty tears riding up into her eyes and eyelids. Had she been a less determined child, she should have sat herself on the bumpy cement and cried for herself. Instead, she dashed the waterworks from her eyes with her free, uninjured hand and leaned deep and squinted hard.
She drilled her vision into the earth, and it paid off in time. Her eye caught sight of the tattered leaf belonging to her clover as it perched quite comfortably upon a dandelion leaf, itself the victim of a push mower blade. Gingerly she grasped its bruised and limp stem, slowly exhaling as she did, her heart still pounced and beating itself upon her ribs with great impetus. She raised herself back upon her two feet, looking at her treasures with relief, the sting almost a thing of the past despite the undeniable swelling pronounced against the wrist bone. All was not lost.
Her smile now recovered, she continued her journey upon the cement brook that would lead her to a hive of her own, shuttered by yellow painted shingles and peeling white window trim. She had a pressing book, a gift from an elderly aunt, half its pages filled with bluebells and honeysuckle and the furry yellow dandelion heads from the lawnmower clippings she liked to sift through in the compost bin. She had a special page, a page still empty, right in the middle of her book, for her two jewels. She had waited a long time to add to this page, and she sucked on her lower lip in anticipation. It was Coronation Day, and there was much to be done for this special occasion. Dollies and bears were to be brushed and lined up according to size and rank. Lemonade was to be served in pink plastic teacups. The duvet cover was to be spread and smoothed, and Mommy was to be summoned for this occasion, for it was best if the moment were shared with another.
She daydreamed of what dress she should wear: the yellow one with the pinafore, or the green one with polka dots? She did not notice the light tickle upon her skin, the sweet touch like the curious fingers of a sylphic breeze, until it went from a light caress to a stabbing pain and she cried aloud. Another honeybee, perhaps the sister of the first, had landed upon her left wrist and violently plunged her stinger deep into the skin, a cascade of venom and pain following. The child’s urge was to wave her hand about wildly, tossing the bee this way and that until it was flung up into the ether, but instead, she raised her wrist to her eyes. The bee was still lodged into her skin, stumbling this way and that in an effort to dislodge itself, no doubt signing its own death warrant in the process.
Acting quickly, she placed her other clover into her left hand, leaving her right hand free to perform an emergency rescue towards her assailant. With the steeled nerves of a surgeon, she carefully slid her pinky finger under the belly of the bee, it responding by biting her fingertip with its slender mandibles. Using her nail she gingerly pushed against the pierced flesh, lifting upwards to unhook the little insect. It took a few tries before it finally extricated itself from the whitening wound, and with several anxious flutters the bee flew off, intact, saved by a compassion it could never understand.
The pain thundered through her, drawing moisture to her eye, but she was tough as radishes and held back the torrent of tears with the perseverance of a wooden-shod girl sealing a crumbling dike with her one finger. She looked at her two identical wounds, fresh and ripe as they were with nerve-wracked venom. Her hands shook with the adrenalin, her own body’s antivenom, her hand still clutching the clovers. She opened her skirt pocket with her fingers and watched the two clovers tumble inside, and only when she was assured their safekeeping did she let go of her pocket and clasp her hands together and to her breast. She could feel them throbbing against her warm wet skin where her collar was unbuttoned. She suddenly became aware of the heat, of the sweat, of the heavy air and the limpness of everything around her. She looked about her for a moment, and with the exception of the crickets whirring, it was still and quiet. She smirked coyly herself, an explanation unfurling its banner within her mind and quenching her spirit with its draught like a cold honey mead.
A Queen does not like another Queen in her midst…