Swing Shift

Best of the Boards
Steve Krause


1.

Her hybrid hummed into the parking lot; it made more noise when she harshly shut the door with more than a degree of anger than it did on the road. Flakes of snow swelled and flurried but did not fall or stick. The sky was gray and uninviting, the parking lot was still and empty, and Enzo’s stood imposing and cold before her.

Kjerstin opened the bar that Friday afternoon because Tim the former-crackhead chef and Mike the current-cokehead main server had both called in ill. Alonzo gave Mike the evening off and called in Kjerstin, who had closed both previous nights and who was supposed to be off. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to work, not that she didn’t want or need the money, but she had a life, had kids, and had another job. She grumbled and growled in dissatisfaction. She sighed, be-aproned herself—that was her special term for it—and put on a “happy face,” which was the only way to greet Alonzo, unless one had a way to shift the blame to somebody else. In that case “Ugly Face,” as Kjerstin called it, was warranted, for it would redirect wrath toward the guilty party. But if the buck stopped with you, don’t tempt fate, she told herself. It was something she never employed at work, for it tended to scare those around her; Anna and Graeme had only witnessed it as victims once in the past five years, and hadn’t made that mistake again.

Alonzo was fair enough, as managers went, though the unwritten and accepted sexism of the job rankled a bit. He had a chart in his head, one closely associated with BMI, and indexing height and maximum-allowed weights. At 5’8″ she was allowed to reach 140 lbs. before she lost her job, though his measurement was less actual weight than it was perception, and so remaining muscular and fit afforded her a few extra pounds. His semi-official rule was that if she exceeded the weight at which she’d been hired by more than 5% she could lose her job.

It was no idle threat; when Alice left for greener pastures the week before it was more that she was being put out to pasture for being perceived as a heifer. “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen,” Alonzo was fond of saying, but he was fond of saying many things, and as long as she brought in the bucks she was certain she would be fine, Kjerstin told herself as she wiped the exhaustion from her eyes and swept her hands over the black apron and the white of her sleeves to remove any lingering wrinkles. When Patrick packed on 25 lbs., though, not an eye was batted. They’d never hired a woman who was over 150 lbs. in the first place.

Female servers were part of the draw, part of the decor, so the reasoning went.

Happy hour would not start for another hour and she would be out and on her way home well after dark but before the evening news. Which meant she’d be lucky to take home a buck in tips. Which meant it was a worthless shift.

As for Tim, she expected to see him in shortly unless he was truly sick and not just hungover. Alonzo was in for that reason; if Tim didn’t show, he’d cover, but if Tim didn’t show and didn’t have a good excuse, he’d also have no excuse to come back in except to pick up his final check.

She poured herself a glass of ice water and made her rounds, checking all the tables. The mechanism of her success was a steel-trap memory, not quite photographic, for such a thing was a mere urban legend, but good enough to keep a half-dozen orders in her mind at any given time. Maybe she could handle more, but as a rule the cautious server never took on more than seven tables; those that did shortchanged themselves and their clients, leading to shoddy—and justifiably so—tips. Seven was usually Kjerstin’s “Hell No!” number, though she’d once covered twelve when duty demanded it and they weren’t that demanding as tables went. The competition was for packed tables. She had settled for worse, for anemic, poorly populated regions of the seating chart, and with Janice sharing the shift with her, the fight for alpha-bitch supremacy would continue.

It was very primatological. Or perhaps just canine.

It wasn’t just the perks of submission and having nits picked out of your fur; it had responsibility, including the protection of the younger females. Janice was a disaster waiting to happen.

 

2.

The reality, though, Kjerstin knew, was that Friday was “amateur night.” The serious diners came in Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays.

Kjerstin glanced around the room and noticed the wine steward. She would have to kill him. Dwayne was drunk again. She glanced at her watch and sighed. Barely a customer had entered; he’d barely had time to get hammered but had managed nonetheless. “Don’t touch my stuff, bitch!” he’d shouted at her a week before over some squabble in the cellar. Why Alonzo hadn’t fired him for his boozing and collection of the choice wines for his own use escaped her. If he talked to her like that again, she’d made it clear, Alonzo wouldn’t have the chance to fire Dwayne. Her first reaction when he’d gotten angry was to laugh, but she had learned that such a reaction usually only made matters worse. Then later the actual annoyance really set in. Perhaps Alonzo kept Dwayne as a balance; management already felt there were too many females around as it was. That she was infinitely more qualified for the steward position, hell, that small dogs were more qualified, barely entered Alonzo’s mind.

The night before she’d opened a $200 bottle of Veuve Clicquot 1991 and a $250 of Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1999, but although she received obscene wine discounts as an employee she was not quite enough of a wine nerd to blow her cash on the fermented grapes; she could only justify the expenditure as an investment, which defeated her main purpose in collecting wines: drinking them.

The steward tended to “lose” bottles; when she came for a pricey one not long ago he couldn’t find it, but several hours later, after her customers had had to settle for their second or third choice—after she’d made the recommendation, knowing what was on the list, and was made to look the fool—the bottle magically appeared at another table.

Kjerstin stretched and looked up at the ceiling. It was so different than the floor, which was hardwood, shiny, consisted of many long panels fit together, and amber-brown; whereas the ceiling, visible by day if not by night when the lights came on, was black and bumpy, traversed by many exposed pipes for heating and cooling and whatever else the innards of the building needed. It reminded her that as snooty as the job was, as snooty as most of the customers were, the wine bar was just some joint in a strip mall, some place in a generic building that had a facade and decorations. It was just the current inhabitant and nothing particularly special.

 

3.

Tim arrived late. He was as cooked as a lard-covered frog in a pot of hot oil. His eyes were so red they almost dripped blood. Instead of sneaking in the back, he came in through the front and pushed his way past a few guests; evidently he’d been dropped off out front by a friend who was in a better condition to drive. Kjerstin almost pitied him; he was a great cook, and but for little relapses, which never involved the things that fucked him up in the first place but did often include other pills or booze, he was making progress. Dwayne, the wine steward, had it in for both Kjerstin and Tim, and she was loath to give him another reason to go after her, but she couldn’t leave Tim to Dwayne’s mercy, or Alonzo’s for that matter, so as soon as she saw him come in she hurried to him and navigated him around pillars and corners, staying out of sight of either danger. She got Tim in the kitchen, while her tables waited, and in an apron and at a table with knives in his hands as quickly as possible. She nodded at an assistant chef, Jorge, glanced around for Alonzo, who was probably in his office, if not patrolling the floor, and sure that everything would be fine for another night, she returned to her tables.

Jon was fucking things up, she noticed. He had the pacing wrong; he rarely worked tables. The key to the gig was spacing things out so the customer didn’t get his or her dinner too close to the salad, for example, but in this case he’d clearly put the order for the dinner in too soon after the salad, as if he were just unloading a delivery of food orders for some magical later dispersal. But as he walked by he twisted an old Hall & Oates tune and sang out the side of his mouth to Kjerstin, while nodding toward the woman at his table, “She’s a sloooow eater…”

Kjerstin almost snarfed diet soda from her nose, and then she heard the brewing of a commotion at the entrance.

Over her shoulder she saw a bulky man in a suit and tie, a bad comb-over, and a trophy wife on his right arm. Kjerstin had served him before and recognized him as a coach at the university. Before him, her back to Kjerstin, stood Taryn, a classic, very attractive, quiet, petite, friendly, and well-adjusted young thing in a committed and well-adjusted relationship. Taryn was being her usual, super-friendly self, though Kjerstin could feel the approach of ice. Taryn looked at the books and told the customer that it would be an hour and a half wait. The restaurant had filled up; an hour and a half, though, might have been pushing it.

The trophy wife confronted Taryn by dropping the classic douchebag ultra-despicable question, “Do you know who we are?”

The small server turned her attention to the spousal unit and replied deadpan after going a few degrees even colder, “I do. But I suppose just this once we can overlook it and serve you.”

The slight went unnoticed by the couple, who were too full of themselves to imagine this little girl might have issued a smackdown, but Kjerstin resisted staying around for the conclusion and instead retreated to the back where she retrieved an order. Much hooting and joy was felt and heard, and the rumor was that the coach had once been cruel to Taryn’s boyfriend. Kjerstin just smiled, pleased that she hadn’t dealt all evening with Janice, and pleased that Taryn had developed a backbone, for it was the alpha female’s job to protect her weaker peers, the responsibility of the appointment.

Her shift was near its end, she had her buck-fifty net, and only one last new table. She approached, and the man, who had been seated by Taryn, lowered his menu and smiled.

“Good evening,” Kjerstin began in a dignified but pleasant tone. “My name is Kjerstin, and I will be your server this evening.” Anna and Graeme should be home and cleaning the kitchen after consuming the leftovers she left out ready to reheat, she thought. It was a family movie night. She could still make it.

“Thank you,” replied the man, gentlemanly and stately. His eyes were large, brown and watery, as if they could penetrate one’s soul and yet were always on the verge of sympathetic tears. His hair, black streaked with gray, was short and curly, and accentuated a brown mulatto face featuring a sharp nose and strong, wide cheeks. He closed his menu. “My name is Leslie, and a colleague recommended this establishment to me since I am new in town. I was hoping you could recommend a dish and a wine.”

His words and voice were smooth and endearing, though like a good tannic wine, subtly dangerous and dry. She glanced at her watch as she adjusted the towel over her arm and her order pad; she could still see the kids, and this one might prove to be a worthy tip.
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Steve Krause is a graduate student in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is completing a PhD on analogy in 18th-century aesthetics.

“Swing Shift” was written in response to a set of Sunday Brunch Prompts. The Sunday Brunch Chats run at 1 p.m. ET / 10 a.m. PT each Sunday.