4AM seemed bad enough. Considering that I had to hitchhike from Needles, I set the alarm for 2:30.
Why had I even bothered to go to sleep?
Staggering in at 3:50 I was greeted by the heavenly aroma of fresh brewing coffee. I began to think I might be able to make it through my second day of work after all.
Roy showed me how to set up the booths and prepare my station for the morning rush. He gave me a run through of what to expect as the breakfast rush peaked and waned. It was a welcome briefing and pep talk. He also showed me how to work the register.
“I thought I was just going to be waitressing. Wasn't....”
So I had heard right... “right..Lorraine... going to be handling the register?”
Dale tried to hide his sigh, but I caught it. “Yes. Lorraine will be working the register, but you may need to do it when we open at five and until she gets here.”
“What time is she due to start?”
Roy looked a bit embarrassed. “Well... when we open. But it's never that busy to start and she knows it. She's always here before it gets too busy. So it's best that you know how to work the register until she gets here.”
“I see.” I shot him a sympathetic glare, and I could see in his face that he understood that I knew all about Lorraine without him needing to say another thing. He had no idea how I could know,
I was now nearly certain that it must be her.
When Lorraine staggered in at about 8:20, all my anxieties and butterflies were confirmed.
“Hey hon” she said, handing me her cigarette, more ash than tobacco. “Take care of this for me. I need to use the shitter.” And she staggered off toward the rest room.
I was stunned. Utterly gobsmacked. Some dark part of my mind kept telling me that 'Lorraine' would end up being my mom. But I had never expected her to look so …..worn... so... depleted.
I had also never expected her to look right through me.
She looked a lot better when she finally got out of the ladies room. Though that still wasn't saying much. She still looked very hung-over and pained, and....exhausted.
She sold our home. Everything we owned. And she skipped town with her 'windfall'. I expected her to be living the highlife in Tahoe or Miami or something. How on earth did she end up a world-weary cashier at a tiny greasy spoon in the middle of nowhere?
After her third cup of coffee she began resembling a human, and finally shooed me away from the register.
“Outta my way..... 'Juanita'.... hey, that was the name of our last girl too. Is that like 'Jane Doe' for you people?”
I laughed, thinking she was making a joke. Then I realized she wasn't joking.
“This is what they gave me when I started. The name came with the uniform. I'm...... my friends call me Olive.”
“Well, pleased to meet you Juanita. Cause I sure as hell ain't your friend.” Then she let out a sound that could have been a cough... or a laugh... or even a furball.
OK. I finally realized that this was her idea of a joke. So I smiled politely. Even if my disdain was a bit too transparent.
“I suck at names, so don't take it personally if I just call you 'Hon', hon?”
I shrugged. She had called me 'Hon' all my life. I always took it as a motherly pet name. Now I began to think she just could never be bothered.
As the day went on and the coffee kept flowing – along with pieces of toast and even a couple sausage links off someones tray, the hangover seemed to fade and she started acting a bit more civil.
“So. I remember you saying you're not Juanita.... but dammit hon. I forgot your name.”
“My friends call me Olive.”
“Oh right. And I joked about I wasn't your friend.” I got the impression that at this point even she no longer considered this funny, and shook her head.
“Well. Olive's a right pretty name.” She looked me up and down. Scrutinizing everything. ….seeing nothing. “Really suits you. Exotic name. Exotic girl. You should be Olivia or something. More classy.
I smiled sadly. “Maybe when I'm a middle aged lady. Olivia sounds a bit stuffy for...” I searched for a non-bitchy way to say it.
“...A sweet young thing with her life ahead of her? Yeah. You're an Olive. How old are you sweetie?”
I bristled. She brought me into this world. She ought to know. But she was staring at her own child and she was blind.
“Old enough” I laughed bitterly.
Her smile surprised me. It was warm. And sad. And more than anything, weary.
“Yeah. That's what I thought too when I was your age. Hell, even younger. The world was my oyster. I was going to have it all. I was going to marry a flyboy... see the world... have a life of adventure.” She barked a jaded little laugh. “Well, I got the flyboy. Then his flybaby. Then the damn flypaper. You know how much of the world I seen?” Her gaze bore into me. She formed her fingers into a giant '0'. “All because I was a stupid little tramp and..” then she took the O-fingers and did something rude with the fingers from her other hand.
That was when we heard the bell on the door tinkle as a group of boisterous truckers came in and we had to get back to work. Saved by the bell.
I tried to keep as busy as I could and avoid any downtime 'chatting' with Lorraine, which really meant her telling me her version of her life's story. I found that almost unbearably awkward. Although I was quite surprised at how relieved I felt that she thought I was a total stranger.
At one point I confronted her about this. “Why are you telling me these things?”
She barked that phlegmy, smokers laugh and grinned at me. “Hon. There's shit you'll tell a stranger that you would never tell your friends.”
“....or your family...” I smiled sadly.
“Oh, GOD no!” Her face went a little pale. “Jesus, if big Joe had any idea...”
“...or his son... Joe Junior was it?”
Lorraine clasped my hands, and looked me in the eyes. “It would kill 'em.”
I smiled back. What she confessed wasn't flattering. But it wasn't earth shattering.
“Oh, shit. I wasn't going to go this far.... I ain't never told nobody this... oh... fuck it. You asked after all.”
I don't remember asking anything and I tried to get out of it, but she wouldn't let go of my hands.
:” can't believe I'm gong to tell you this.....”
“So don't. Why share such ...intimate... stuff with a total stranger?” I thought a moment about whether I wanted to finish my thought out loud. Oh, hell... “especially stuff that's... not really ...flattering. I'll be honest, it's not making you look good. Lots of bad decisions and questionable choices here.”
“I know..” she squeezed my hands tighter and somehow bore her gaze into me even more intensely. “But I sense no judgment from you. I look into your eyes and I see no judgment. Pain maybe...” she laughed. “...same pain I feel when I remember all those bad choices. But no disapproval or blame... just... what the hell's that word? ...not sympathy,...you don't feel sorry for me, and that's a relief... I hate pity...what the hell is...” and she started snapping her fingers as if trying to conjure something from thin air. I couldn't let this go on.
“YES! You get me. You don't judge me. You don't approve... but you don't blame.... you just....see me!”
I let out an involuntary sigh as my shoulders slumped from the weight of N'atapwe's words.
'You will see her but she will not see you.'
I tried to gather my strength for whatever was to come.
Lorraine told me her life's story. Really. From practically her first memory. Once she started, there was no stopping her. She'd shout it across the diner if I was servicing an end booth. No one seemed to care. I guess 'crazy Lorraine' was a fixture the regulars just tuned out by now. I'm sure no overheard snippet would make any sense anyway. But bit by bit, I got the whole coherent story. Whether I wanted it or not. Her mom's neverending search for the decent guy after her own dad was killed in North Africa ... the endless parade of stepdads and cameo siblings that never lasted longer than her mom's frequent failed attempts at 'landing a good one'. Lorraine's rebellious teen years and determination to do things differently. Her mom hooking up with Frank, the burly landscaper and moving them in with him on the reservation. Her tough time at the local school, spurned and despised by the native kids. How she just stopped going and no one seemed to care. How her mom picked one of the better ones with Frank, who was a hard worker, but always angry at the cards life dealt him. And how, though he avoided it, when he would occasionally drink, all that anger and resentment and unrestrained.... passion... would pour out uncontrollably. How she always avoided Frank, but especially when he was like that. And the last time. When she couldn't avoid him. When he came home and she was there alone. With no way out but past him......
Sweet Jesus! I can't believe she's telling me this. How can I make her stop? Then I saw the pain and catharsis in her eyes, and knew that even if I could, I wouldn't be able to bring myself to.
She ran away from home and got as far away from South Dakota as she could afford. Which was the bus to Kansas. That's where she met my Dad, and lying about her age, got him to fall in love with her. She 'landed a good one' as her mom would have said. He came from money. He would take care of her. And she would ...take care of him... after Frank, she never considered her body a temple. It was more like a marketplace or bazaar. She would trade what people valued for the things she needed to survive.
When she told my dad she was going to have a baby, he did exactly what she knew a 'good one' would do. He 'made an honest woman' out of her.
My dad never seemed to give a thought to how quickly it happened. Maybe he thought it proved his virility. Anyway, when his family found out about it, they disowned him. So much for mom's 'set for life' scheme. Dad joined the Army and quickly decided military service suited him, though when his hitch was up, he enlisted in the Air Force hoping to someday fly jets. Mom hated life on the base and the constant moving, so eventually they saved and bought the mobile home as our 'permanent base'.
I stifled a bitter laugh when she got to that part.
“Well, my life didn't turn out exactly like I planned. Actually nothing like I planned. Here I was living in a place that wasn't much different than what I left on the reservation, my man was off god knows where having adventures being a flyboy, and I was stuck in this trailer with the rugrat”
“Yeah!” She laughed. “Joe Junior ….my idea not his. Though he liked it when I mentioned it. I figured it was one more reason he'd never question it was his. Did cause problems though. Living with two people with the same name. So they became Big Joe and Baby Joe”
“Baby Joe?” I never knew that.
“Well, so long as he was a baby. We thought about changing it to 'Little Joe' ...y'know, like on 'Bonanza'? But Big Joe figured that would cause problems too, and we'd have to change it again when he grew and was no longer 'little'” she laughed to herself “never shoulda worried about that”
I bit my lip.
“Anyway, Big Joe just called him 'Junior' or 'Boy' or something...”
(...it was 'Son'...)
“And I started calling him Jody, like that cute little kid on TV.”
I couldn't resist one little jab. “You mean Jodie Foster?”
“No!” She laughed. “She wasn't around then. That little boy on 'Family Affair'. He was the only Jody I ever heard of. Mine was just as cute. And at least as well behaved. Still, kids are a handful, no matter how well behaved. Have to drag them along everywhere... no life of your own... and with his dad always off doing his...
“Flyboy stuff?” I smiled sadly.
“Yeah.” she laughed. “Well, he was a handful. Big Joe finally made a truce with his family. He never asked for their forgiveness, but he insisted that they not hold it against his kid. Their grandson.”
“And he never even knew he wasn't m....” shit! “He never even knew he wasn't the boy's real dad”
“That's where you're wrong. He WAS a real dad. He loved that kid. Tried to teach him everything he knew.... not that any of that worked. He even crawled with his tail between his legs back to his damned family to plead for a better life for his kid. And he got them to pay for boarding school. On the condition that they never have to have anything to do with their bastard grandson and he and the boy forfeit all family claims.”
“He did that?” I looked to be tearing up, but I was holding back an emotional Lake Meade.
“For his …..son...” she looked at me. I could see in her eyes she was pleading for forgiveness. For absolution. All I could give her back was compassion.
“So. Jody's off at school being raised right. Big Joe's off around the world being a flyboy, and finally I'm free to live my own life for myself for once.”
“So everybody wins.” I said, trying to pretend I bought into her 'happy ending'
“No. That's when life sneaks up from behind and hits you with a pipe.” She told the story about getting the letter from Washington. About forwarding it to Big Joe's parents, figuring they would find out sooner or later, and at least that way they would step up and take care of their grandson. How she knew she never was a good parent, being a child when she had a child. Figuring that they were strict and cold, but they were rich and would raise the kid better than she could, judging by how Big Joe had turned out. So she sold the double-wide and set off to live her life. Only to find the money didn't last nearly as long as she expected, her decision making hadn't improved over time, and soon she found herself looking up her mom's childhood friends... her godparents, Daisy and Roy who took her in long after any obligation to do so had expired.
I thought about her version of things. And I thought about my experience. How I was sent 'home' from military school after word of my dad reached them. No doubt when my grandparents pulled the financial plug. Being told I was 'on leave' to go home and attend to my mom during this family crisis. Only there was no home. And no mom. And thought of all the strange twists and turns that brought me here. Sitting, hearing the confession of the woman who looked me in the eye and could not see me.
There are no adequate words.
“So..” Saffron beamed, how was your first day of 'WORK!' saying it with an alarmed expression I instantly recognized from Bob Denver's 'Maynard G Krebbs' character on the old Dobie Gillis TV show. That broke the ice and I let out a relaxed laugh for the first time that day.
“Oh my God. I can't begin to tell you.”
“And more importantly. What did you get us to eat?”
I looked pleadingly at Roy, who smiled indulgently and rustled up some bread, milk and vegetables that wouldn't make it until the next day anyway. He also generously threw in some eggs.
“Omlettes!” Rain squeed.
“Gotta give Max something to do while his women are out there making ends meet.” I laughed. I waved goodbye to Roy as we headed for the door. “Same time tomorrow?” he nodded and smiled.
Lorraine blocked me at the door.
“Real treat to meet you Olive. I'll see you tomorrow morning”
I raised en eyebrow. “eight... eight fifteen?”
Her face fell like an ashamed child. “5 AM. Promise. Hell, for once I'm looking forward to coming to work” I could tell by the tone of her voice that this was a surprise even to her.
Looks like this was going to be the start of a ….weird... relationship.
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