January 2, 2009
Teresa thinks she’s probably known Carlos about a year. It feels like a year, anyway, though she can’t be sure exactly how many shifts they shared at the Rose Cafe, or how many shifts equal a day, a year. Today she tries to do the math: one month plus one month plus one unenthusiastic New Year’s Eve. She tries hard, but really, it doesn’t matter. Carlos is dead and he will be dead next month.
The news gets passed around like a show plate. It spreads like a germ.
“Carlos was shot.”
“Carlos was pushed out the window of a ten story building.”
“Carlos was stabbed six times.”
No one knows what happened to Carlos.
Teresa takes a five minute break outside the windowless kitchen door, even though breaks are not allowed. Outside the rush of meaty odors from the kitchen mixes with the sweet sunflowers lining the back parking lot. Carlos! She thinks of the last time she saw him, just two days earlier—sneaking out the door, waving his cool wave. She digs an emergency cigarette from her regulation black slacks and remembers the details: Carlos’ posture, his skinny back, that impossibly thin silhouette.
Inside, Teresa’s tables want someone to take their order. They want more water and soon they will want extra napkins, even before they get their food. Teresa, though, finishes her cigarette and her break. Inhale, exhale: she thinks how Carlos used to tie his apron strings in the front instead of the back. She thinks of Carlos’ hands, Carlos’ knuckles, Carlos broken into minute, comprehensible parts.
Carlos was not Teresa’s lover. They hardly ever spoke.
* * *
Before the afternoon shift officially ends and the evening shift officially begins, the manager of the Rose Café calls a meeting.
Teresa dislikes the manager.
Chad, the manager, loves being manager. He likes giving orders and he is known for liking to give orders. He is short and thin, but he puffs up large. And he can’t help that this latest event excites him a little: it makes him even bigger.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, breath heavy with the soup of the day. “I’ve got some sad news.”
Everyone already knows. Teresa knows. Michael, one of the other busboys, knows. He taps his foot on the table feet. Tap, tap. Rhonda, ten years experience at the Rose Café, knows. She taps her pink acrylic nails against Michael’s lemonade glass. Click, click.
Cindy, Louise, Keisha, all know. They stare at their watches, at the crumb-spattered floor.
“Carlos is no longer with us,” Chad says, and there are no gasps. “We will miss him.”
Teresa feels a sharp burn inside her chest, like a lit match sealing her thickest arteries. She wants to throw her water glass at Chad, turn the tables onto their sides. She wants to demand something, but she doesn’t know what, and really, she is not the demanding type. Instead, she tilts her head back as far as it goes and stares at the finely grouted ceiling.
Chad holds up a white wicker basket and taps it to get everyone’s attention. “We’re going to start a fund in Carlos’ honor,” he says, passing the basket to Brandon. Brandon, a quiet line cook, passes it to Stephanie, a wild-haired waitress, who passes it to Teresa, who gives all her tip money for the day. The basket floats from front to back like so many smells from the kitchen. Teresa is the only one who contributes. Chad never mentions what the fund will be used for and at the end of the day he takes his girlfriend out to dinner at the Red Lobster.
December 31, 2008
“It should be a busy night,” Carlos says, filling up the ice bucket. “Did you see the reservations?”
“Yep—the worst I’ve seen it since Valentine’s.”
“Do you have any plans for later tonight?”
“Nah,” Teresa says, wiping down the counter with a coffee stained rag. “We’ll be lucky to be out of here by 1:00. I hope,” she says, stopping suddenly, “that you didn’t think you’d be out of here by midnight.”
“We close at 11:00.”
“It’s New Year’s Eve.”
“Whatever,” Carlos says. “I have places to be.”
All night long the Christmas lights from the store across the street shine in the café’s tinsel-trimmed windows. The whole restaurant is in the mood to celebrate. Teresa brings four rounds of martinis to table eleven and even gives free appetizers to the happy businessmen at table nine. She smiles big, full-tooth smiles and laughs at all the customers’ resolution jokes. This is the hardest part of working at the restaurant for Teresa. Everyone on the other side of the check is having a good time, is bringing in the New Year. Teresa has been working at the Rose Café for three years and regrets that she is starting to fit in, to fill her apron. The customers are always a reminder of what she isn’t, and of what she needn’t really spend time celebrating.
* * *
At 11:30 Teresa sees Carlos taking off his apron.
“You outta here?”
“Yeah. Chad says you suckers can finish up,” Carlos says, waving goodbye with his fingertips.
“Wish I could stick around for a midnight kiss, though.”
“Darn,” Teresa says, snapping her fingers in exaggerated disappointment. She smiles and looks up. Sees Chad coming from the bar. He’s walking so stiffly, his body full of purpose and ideas and foreboding. Teresa wants to say something about this to Carlos, but when Carlos sees Chad he ducks out of the door fast. Just disappears. He never got the go-ahead to leave, Teresa knows. He’s seventeen, though, and probably doesn’t need the job. Either way, she’s glad he’s got something better to do tonight than wipe up someone else’s mess.
January 3, 2009
Rhonda pulls Teresa aside as soon as she arrives. Teresa thinks she has news about Carlos—an update on what actually happened, maybe the time of a memorial service.
“Did you get your paycheck?” Rhonda asks, innocent as a customer.
“Not yet,” Teresa says. She turns to the blackboard in back and begins memorizing the special.
“We’re tipping out for the dishwashers now, too,” Rhonda says, hands on her hips.
Teresa has a hard time concentrating on Rhonda’s complaints. She is more concerned with the things before her, with all the ways the day could fall apart.
“What’s a caper?” she asks out loud. She resents the new head cook and this thing he has been doing lately—adding foods to the menu that no one recognizes, charging more for garnishes and sides that no one can pronounce.
Rhonda speaks louder. “I mean, great for the dishwashers, but I’m trying to make a living here, you know?”
Teresa nods. She knows.
“Sorry,” Teresa says, “I gotta go.” Several of her tables are getting anxious already; here, everyone wants her attention. She rushes to table ten, greets the best she can greet. She tells them the special and neither of them asks what a caper is. In truth, Teresa wants someone to complain. The Rose Café hasn’t found a replacement for Carlos and the other bussers cannot take over his shifts without accumulating overtime. The floor is messy with dirt and crumbs and all the customers get their refills too late, after they want their check. All day long she wants someone to ask what is taking so long. “The busboy is dead,” she wants to say. She waits for one of the servers or dishwashers to order a moment of silence. She waits for Chad to call another meeting. She waits for Carlos to show up, surprise everyone, begin his big apology.
* * *
At home, Teresa counts her tips, then counts them again. She places the newly smoothed bills in the cigar box she keeps in the drawer by her bed. She scoops the day’s change into a jar behind the couch.
Her apartment is small and clean. It is a one bedroom on the third floor of an old Victorian house and all the ceilings slant. She likes this, the unexpected way her kitchen swerves into the living room. The way guests duck to get to the bathroom and turn the corners, hunched. Teresa thinks she likes the unpredictable. She likes those slanted walls and she loves getting unexpected big tips, but when Carlos dies it is the fact that she was never able to imagine it first that makes the truth of his death feel so impossible and mean, feel like a trick with a mirror.
Teresa grabs a beer from the fridge. She isn’t hungry after being around food all day, even if she hasn’t eaten. Secretly, she wonders if that restaurant food has a way of seeping in, filling her up pore by pore.
November 16, 2008
The first snow of early winter has fallen and Teresa is sick with loneliness. It feels so heavy, like a thing she could touch. Outside the restaurant a thick layer of snow bends the young silver maples. All the bright annuals in the front flowerbed wait for the distant spring sun and all the customers inside wait for more coffee.
Rhonda calls in sick.
Teresa is willing to take over the extra tables, but there are no extra tables. The three customers in the restaurant are all singles and all of them want to be left alone to sip their hot drinks in silence. It feels to Teresa like the whole world is lonely. Even the phone sounds forlorn, it’s ring a long, uninterrupted song to all the people who won’t answer it.
Carlos brushes against Teresa.
“You’re fine,” Teresa says, hoping he will stop on his way to the dish pit. She wants to talk to someone, wants to hear something that will make the hollow presence of today bearable.
Carlos slips by, keeps walking.
When Teresa was twenty she dropped out of college. She doesn’t regret this, even today when the approaching winter makes every plate she carries heavy with loss and meaning. She could do something else, she knows. She could check out a bunch of books on tape and learn about computers or finance. She thinks she needs something big to jolt her out of her routine, to inspire her to update her resume or get a library card, but she is wrong. What she needs is something small. A tap on the shoulder from the wrong person. A nick from the bread knife in some unexpected place.
January 9, 2009
It takes the Rose Café eight days to replace Carlos.
The new busser’s features are round and dull and they remind everyone who he is not. Teresa thinks he is too young. Plus, he does everything right. He’s the new improved Carlos, Carlos without the attitude. Rhonda buddies up to him real quick. Teresa wonders whom they would hire to replace her. Maybe someone taller. Maybe someone with sharp, angular features who would never forget to fill up the salt and pepper shakers.
The replacement asks Teresa how to clean the coffee maker and she tries to remember Carlos’ system. She can almost see him doing it, can almost place Carlos’ hands on either side of the big machine, taking small parts out of small parts. Why didn’t she pay better attention? Carlos, gone no longer than a vacation, is already starting to disappear. Who will remember Carlos in one month? In one year?
October 2, 2008
One of the customers asks Teresa on a date.
He is older. He is old and Teresa isn’t willing or close to willing. She is flirtatious and even glows a little, but everyone knows this is part of her job. Everyone knows this doesn’t mean you get to ask out your waitress.
“That’s sweet,” she says, holding the man’s check in one hand, a pitcher of water in the other. The thing is, he reminds her of someone she used to date. He has the same kind of loose curly hair and the same long neck. He even has the same small eyes. Teresa thinks how she used to love those eyes, though she cannot remember what color they were on the face she adored. Were they dark like this? Hazel? Really, they could have been blue.
This is the first time Teresa thinks how terrible it is that she cannot remember everything. Even big things. Like love. Like lovers.
The man clears his throat: he is losing his confidence, but he is also used to getting what he wants. “Just think about it,” he says. “You deserve to have someone serving you for once.”
Teresa smiles, drops off the check, says, “Thanks.”
Carlos walks by and hears everything. He teases her for weeks, but doesn’t tell the other bussers, a small mercy.
February 8, 2009
On Sunday, Teresa goes to the Episcopalian church down the street. She is not an Episcopalian, but she is an expert at fitting in.
Inside, the church’s stain glass tells stories that Teresa knows, at least a little bit. When she was in the third and fourth grades she had gone to Sunday school regularly. Even if she hasn’t gone since, those few steady months were enough to get her the basic story lines—the resurrection of dead things, the tough work of following, the hope of a new way. She sees Jesus breaking the bread of his own body, John the Baptist up to his knees in water of purple glass. Staring up at Mary Magdalene’s bowed head she knows that her grief is not special or even reasonable. She sits in the back row and wonders, embarrassed, if she should be at a therapist’s instead.
The music starts and the priest and his helpers file in, a whole line of pomp. The priest is surprisingly young. He looks out of place. He looks, Teresa notices, exactly like a bus boy. Like someone who should help her wipe down the floor.
“Good morning,” he says.
“Good morning,” the congregation says.
“Good morning,” Teresa says.
Teresa loves the sermon, the bus boy priest’s insistence that God is complicated and mysterious and hard and loving. She likes all the kneeling and shared prayers, too, and the way the man in the pew one over keeps staring her way, then bowing his head. She thinks she could learn to be a good Episcopalian—go to church on Sundays, join committees and make cookies for coffee hour. She could be one of those people at the restaurant who insists on taking every Sunday morning off. She could be that committed.
After the service, Teresa shakes hands with the priest.
“Good morning,” he says, “How are you?”
Teresa hasn’t been to church in a long time and she thinks it is a real question. She says, “Good morning,” and then, grabbing his purple robe sleeve, she says softer: “I have a friend who died.”
The priest opens his mouth in surprise, but nothing comes out. Teresa waits, one second, two seconds, and then looks deep into his green priest eyes and knows she has made a mistake. She pulls her hand from his arm, rushes through the crowd, blends in to the faithful and consoled.
Teresa is not a total nut job. She knows this is not normal.
August 9, 2008
Saturday morning Carlos calls in sick.
Teresa answers the phone.
“When’s Chad coming in?” Carlos asks, a rough whisper over the phone.
“Any minute, I guess. Are you really sick?”
“Of course.” He sounds so young on the phone. Like a child.
“Where are you?”
Carlos laughs. “At home. In bed, under the covers.”
Teresa hears a mall in the background. Or a video arcade or another restaurant. “Come on,” she says, whining a little. “Just tell me. Are you really sick?”
“Because I need to be entertained. Because it’s Saturday morning and the restaurant is empty. Because when Chad gets here he will make me clean the sticky beverage stand. Corners and all.”
“No, I’m not sick,” he says. He laughs before hanging up.
Teresa tells Chad that Carlos has the flu and the lie warms her all afternoon. She likes knowing this one secret, holding a real confidence even if it is small. All day long she wonders what kind of adventures a 17 year old bus boy chooses, and if Carlos will ever come back to work again. All day long she wonders: where is Carlos?
March 2, 2009
Where is Carlos? Teresa has stopped wondering about the location of his physical body, or even its final condition. Early on, she imagined so many ways of violence—Carlos’ stomach blown open, Carlos’ head with a big, bleeding hole. She supposes if she really wanted to know, she could find out why Carlos is dead. That particular curiosity is gone. What she does want to know is where Carlos’ personality now resides. It seems impossible, that it could just disappear when someone had to work so hard to clean up his body. Surely, she believes, it needs to occupy some space, even if it is the kind of space she can’t understand. Teresa catches herself looking at babies who come into the restaurant really closely. She doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but all these babies make her understand why she should. How she wants to point to something, to recognize some small part of her old friend, somewhere. Teresa thinks: Maybe I should start meditating. Teresa thinks: Maybe I should do more yoga.
She has a lot of thoughts, actually.
* * *
All winter and all spring:
Teresa cannot get over Carlos dying and everything feels like a coffin—each room in her house and in the world. Every move and decision feels thick with consequence. Even her job is heavy with meaning. Each plate she carries feels like gold. Each customer might be the next Christ, coming with a new message.
Teresa looks for Carlos at the restaurant and she looks for him in the grocery store check out line. She looks for his cheekbones, his dark eyes, in all the new faces she passes walking downtown. Teresa remembers Carlos’ long black uniform pants, the way they dragged on the floor. She remembers Carlos’ wild hands, how they always told half his stories.
She looks in every part of the city, each crumbling neighborhood, for Carlos’ slouch, Carlos’ cocked head, his big, teenaged feet.
The restaurant is busy and one of the cooks is threatening to quit.
Teresa is scheduled for the late shift. She arrives a few minutes early and slips in the back for a quick cup of coffee.
The host finds her.
“You’ve got two tables and one of them is ready to order.”
“I just got here. Tell the busser to handle them first.”
“The busboy is new. He doesn’t know which end of the bread knife to grab, and he certainly doesn’t know which table is table six.”
“Fine. Can you do it?”
Teresa looks over at the new guy. The host is right—he looks lost. And a little too carefree.
Halfway through her shift, Teresa bumps into him on the way to the dish pit.
“Hi, I’m Carlos,” he says.
“Oh, hi. Teresa. Look could you get some extra water to table nine? And start to clear table eight?” She doesn’t tell him these are the tables in the north corner. It is a small and pointless test.
“Sure, no problem.” Carlos smiles, a big smile, a smile for the movies.
And Teresa is annoyed a little bit. She really is. Carlos is smiling, smiling, smiling, and her feet hurt so bad she fantasizes about collapsing.
Later, Teresa sees Carlos talking to Rhonda. They are both leaning with their elbows on the bread counter, two comrades in a high school clique. Rhonda’s apron is slung over her shoulder, Carlos’ hands are tucked inside his pockets. Teresa stands stiff and wishes she had that kind of casualness about her. She wishes she could make friends fast and take off her apron even before she clocks out. She thinks about how she could quit tomorrow, forget about her worn out body and worn out personality. She thinks how she could quit tonight.
“Hey guys,” she says, a fake cheerfulness rising in her voice.
“You look tired,” Carlos says.
“I am tired. And quitting. Like, immediately.”
“You always say that,” Rhonda says, grabbing her purse from under the counter.
Carlos looks at Teresa and then nods toward the register. “If you’re quitting anyway, we could always grab the cash and run.” He even winks.
Teresa smiles to his half smile. She closes her eyes and gives it a thought. When she finally looks back, she thinks already how Carlos has too many smiles, how they all suggest he knows something that no one else knows.
Teresa is getting one of the customer’s coats out of the closet when she sees another coat stuffed in the corner. It’s the start of summer, and so hot out only the oldest women wear coats at all. The closet is empty, except for this other coat that Teresa recognizes instantly, this old part of Carlos, this blue down vest with its broken zipper and torn pockets.
Teresa takes it off the hanger, pulls it to her face, and searches for some scent. Somehow, it doesn’t smell like the restaurant. It doesn’t smell like Carlos, either, Teresa thinks, though truthfully she doesn’t remember what Carlos smelled like anymore. She puts the coat on, shoves herself into a sitting position, and remembers a time when Carlos was wearing that coat. They were out back sitting on cartons, sneaking a break. It was November. Or October? The dates are starting to blur, all her memories of Carlos are fading, graying, turning to empty space in her brain. She cannot preserve Carlos and it is such a grief. She fails to remember Carlos’ smile, Carlos’ mouth, Carlos’ breath.
He offered her a drag then. She took the cigarette, inhaled deep, left behind a tiny lipstick ring. “Gross,” Carlos said when she handed it back. Teresa laughed. She remembers laughing. Another server walked by and dropped a wine bottle on the way to the dumpster. The smoke from Carlos’ exhale rose and the glass on the asphalt echoed, maybe even the moon was out that night, and anyway, Teresa remembers this single moment, this feeling, perfectly. And this memory means something to Teresa. She mistakenly thinks it will linger.
Teresa pushes her way out of the closet and leaves the restaurant. One of the cooks waves as she walks by the kitchen, a funny, unknowing wave. Outside, Teresa doesn’t even feel the heat; she wears Carlos’ coat all the way home.
It is a long walk.
When Teresa finally reaches the front door to the apartment, she instinctively reaches into Carlos’ pockets. The moment her fingers reach the vinyl lining she realizes her mistake. She knows the keys are in her purse, but something hopeful rises in her heart as she considers for the first time that Carlos might have left something behind. An old receipt. A mysterious phone number. A clue. Maybe, she thinks, she could create a new memory of Carlos, right here, even when he is gone. Maybe she could reconstruct a tiny part of his life and bring him back to her life.
Her hands are so small and she is grasping and grasping nothing. This will be it. This will be the last true memory she has of Carlos, this futile, excited search inside his old pockets. Carlos’ first day, all those lonely shared shifts, even the night outside with the broken wine bottle, the cigarette and made-up moon, will fade years down. But she will always remember Carlos’ coat, how empty it was, how that emptiness bore an understanding she could finally touch.