by Stanley W. McFarland
Barry winked at Esther as he dumped the dishes from his table in the soak bucket. “You should have been a nun,” he said.
Esther laughed. “I don’t think they take Lutherans.”
Barry was the last ‘customer’ of the morning. Esther ran a wet rag over the counter, though she would be cleaning it more thoroughly in a few minutes. She wished, not for the first time, that Community Care Center served lunch as well as breakfast and dinner. She would like to stay a few more hours.
“Whew!” said Andrea, the nineteen-year-old daughter of Barbara, the director. “I sure am glad that’s over!”
“You don’t like the work?” asked Esther as she stacked the serving trays.
“Not at all!”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Why do I do the breakfast shift? Cause if I didn’t, Mom would make me work dinner, and then I wouldn’t get any time with my friends.”
“You could move out.”
Andrea snorted. “With what – play money? The only jobs out there are part time – nothing pays enough to get a place of my own.”
“I see,” said Esther, sorry she had asked.
“Yeah,” said Andrea. “If I’m going to be a slave five hours a day, I might as well get it over with early.”
Esther nodded her head, and then placed the trays on the cart with the soak bucket and rolled the cart into the kitchen before Andrea could say anything more about the time of the day that gave her life meaning. Barbara was in the kitchen working the dishwasher. The steam had plastered a lock of her curly blond/grey hair flat against her forehead and into her eyes. Esther parked the cart and pushed the unruly lock back under her friend’s hair net.
“Thanks,” said Barbara. “Everybody happy today?”
“We got a few thank yous,” said Esther.
“No – not from the customers, anyway.”
Barbara lifted the sides of the commercial dish washer – a used gift from Carlotta’s Italian Restaurant when they upgraded to a newer model. A cloud of steam rushed out of the machine into Barbara’s face. She was already red and looked exhausted.
“I could do that,” Esther offered.
“Thanks, but no,” said Barbara. “This thing’s a little temperamental. I know its idiosyncrasies.”
“Alright,” said Esther, rinsing one of the cleaner pans and filling it with water. She added a mixture of soap and bleach, tossed in a scrub sponge and threw a dry cloth over her shoulder. “If you taught me – I could give you a break once in a while.”
“You’re a saint,” said Barbara. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Esther took the pan out to the serving counter. Andrea was sitting at one of the tables smoking a cigarette. She put it out when Esther came in.
“You won’t tell - will you?” she asked.
“You’re not twelve,” said Esther. “Why should it matter?”
“I’m not supposed to smoke in here,” said Andrea. “They passed a law.”
Esther only nodded. She didn’t pay much attention to that sort of thing. She got to work on the serving area, scrubbing from the top down. Andrea stared at her briefly. Maybe she was waiting for Esther to agree not to tell on her. After a while she retreated to the kitchen – returning with the bucket and mop. Esther didn’t recall Andrea sweeping the floor, or even wiping down the tables, but she didn’t say anything. She just worked the serving area – cleaning as if it were an operating table.
After a few desultory strokes, Andrea gave out a deep sigh and leaned on her mop. “What’s your deal, anyway?” she said.
“I mean, you’re here every day. Nobody pays you. Why do you do it?”
Esther didn’t have a ready answer to that question – at least not one she thought Andrea might accept. “Your Mom’s here every day too,” she said finally.
“She gets paid,” said Andrea.
It was true that as director, Barbara got a salary, though it wasn’t the kind of job anyone would take on for the money alone. Barbara took the job for the same reason Esther volunteered – it gave her life meaning, but how could she explain that to someone like Andrea? Instead, she just shrugged and worried a hardened spot of egg off one of the chrome supports.
“You’re gay, right?” said Andrea at last.
Esther looked up. Andrea was smirking as if she had discovered a secret Esther was trying to hide.
“I mean,” said Andrea, “you’re not married – no kids. You don’t even have a dog. Do you have a thing for my mom?”
Now it was Esther’s turn to sigh. It wasn’t the first time she’d been asked something like that. “No,” she said. “I don’t have a thing for your mom.”
“Cause my mom’s straight,” said Andrea, “just so you know. Back before Dad left they used to go at it like wild animals. She made these sounds like…” Andrea started mimicking her mother’s sounds of passion.
Esther bit her lip and said nothing. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream or cry. She finished the soap and bleach wash and went back into the kitchen to get rinse water.
Barbara was rinsing down the last rack with the sprayer before loading them into the dishwasher. Esther waited till she was done before changing out the water in her pan.
“Oh, Esther,” said Barbara, “I’m supposed to be in Fairview on Sunday to talk at the morning services at St. Sebastian’s. It’s an oatmeal and granola day, and I can get everything started. Would you mind closing up for me?”
“Of course,” said Esther.
“Just rinse down the dishes – get the oatmeal and honey off and I’ll run them through the washer when I get back.”
“Not a problem.”
“You’re great – you know that?”
Esther took the rinse pan out to finish the serving area. Andrea was standing by the kitchen door with her bucket and mop. “I hope it’s not me you’re into,” said Andrea. “Even if I felt like experimenting – you’re not my type.” Andrea ducked into the kitchen before Esther had a chance to respond.
Done for the morning, Esther walked down Third Street on the way to her one bedroom apartment and a pile of medical billing to keep her busy the rest of the day. In spite of Andrea’s unpleasantness, there was a smile on her face. She loved volunteering at Community Care.
Esther knew she wasn’t a saint, and she didn’t think she was a lesbian either. She would be lonely without Community Care. It wasn’t the kind of lonely that made her want to get married – or even get a dog. She just wanted to be part of something – to be in a community and be useful. Why did people have such a hard time understanding that?
Barry was standing at Third and Forest, waving the morning paper for late commuters to buy. It didn’t give him enough money to live, but it bought him enough booze to get through the day. She walked across to the median and bought a paper from him.
“Thank you, Sister Esther,” said Barry. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”
Esther smiled. “I’ll see you then, Barry.”