She starts before the sun rises and sets out for the shop because the dough has to be made and the coffee started and the chairs set up and the customers always arrive before she’s ready.
The store is small but does good business and she can wear what she wants and the pay sucks but the management leaves her alone and these days, let’s face it, you take what you can get if you want to survive.
She wants very much to survive.
By six o’clock the first commuters are standing in front of the doors with their travel mugs and their lousy tips and their iPods full of audiobooks that will take them all the way to The City.
She thinks, If I’m not careful, that’s what will happen to me.
Another hour, another hundred bagels, fifty with cream cheese, some with butter, some without.
The orders, they go on and on.
Do you have any non-dairy margarine? I’m vegan.
Is this the only coffee you made today? It’s too strong.
Are you going to play this music all morning? Do you have something else? I don’t like it.
Her co-workers joke behind the counter. One is stoned, but still works very quickly which is something she can’t comprehend; when she gets stoned she just wants to go to sleep. The other is four months pregnant and knows that she probably shouldn’t be on her feet all day but the father-to-be is long gone and no one cares about your problems when the rent is due.
A screw fell out of her glasses this morning and she’s trying to get by with a tiny safety pin to hold the arm in place and she hopes that no one will notice and probably no one will but it’s driving her crazy and making her a little self conscious especially now, when the guy she kind of likes comes in to buy his usual: Cinnamon sugar bagel, toasted, butter, to go. She doesn’t know his name, but he’s nice to her and always tips, but only for her. Only if she’s working the register when he orders. The safety pin feels like it’s twenty feet high as she takes his money and smiles and watches him go out the door to the rest of his day. His job. His life.
Someday she’ll leave too.
By noon her feet are killing her but the lunch rush is in full swing and now sandwiches have to be made and the soda machine syrup is low and people are complaining about the slow service and the heat and traffic and their jobs and their spouses and the war and the president and that’ll be $5.95 thank you very much have a nice day.
She knows that the secret to life is right there on the tip of her tongue but three different guys want to take her out tonight and she doesn’t really like any of them but it’s better than sitting at home staring at the walls and there’s a movie out that she wants to see anyway.
She hates going to the movies by herself. Seeing the happy couples on their dates. Holding hands. Sharing popcorn. Sodas.
Midafternoon she sells a box of bagels to a Palestinian man who makes a comment about how ironic it is that he’s buying food from a Jewish business and no one is worried about him blowing himself up. He leaves and she wonders what that must be like, to live in constant fear of someone walking into the store where you work and blowing up. It’s a hard concept for her to grasp. Too distant from her world, like staring through a telescope the wrong way.
The afternoon, it goes mostly like this:
Clean the counter and wipe up a spilled chocolate milk that some kid knocked over before crying for another one that her dad bought her to shut her up and collect the newspapers from this morning left laying around in crumpled piles with photographs of the war dead splashed across page one like an ad for a new car and check her cell phone to see if anyone called (not that she’s waiting for that guy from the other night to call back because that would be pathetic and no one did anyway) and back to the counter to wrap up the mayonnaise and the hot peppers and the cold slaw and the sprouts and take a break but don’t smoke a cigarette because she’s trying to quit but fuck it have one anyway and get mad because she had one and go back inside and try not to look at the clock because time crawls when your waiting to get off and it seems to her like she spends her whole life watching the clock and waiting but she doesn’t know what for.
But it’s right there.
On the tip of her tongue.
Kevin Jones’ work has been featured in The New York Times, Ink Pot, Prime Number, r.kv.r.y., and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.