There was nothing quite like a linoleum slab freshly spritzed with liquid gold. Mr. Mirrors Multi-Surface Faux-Laquer was Shirley’s munition of choice. It was perfect - projecting an iridescent, dewy pool of anti-bacterial goodness. And when applied at the hours of dawn, the creeping lean of Pacific mist shattered the disinfectant with perfect sun. It was delicious.
Or at least she thought so.
A double shift from Midnight to Midday was not a coveted one. The cruncher of working at a twenty-four-hour establishment meant great exhaustion but steady occupation. Shirley didn’t mind though. She would take overworked joints if that meant some glimpse at heaven.
She often bathed in the ordinary - y'know there's a serenity to it. Something like a perfectly parked car - quietly nestled between a line of streaming vehicles. About a sandwich carefully crafted - its crust tediously removed for a picky child. She enjoyed these moments the most. Not in the suffocating sound of the kitchen bell during peak dining, but in the smoothness. The opaqueness of her five senses left still with a fuzzy setting. There was no other time quite as blurry as first light at the Triple Fish Diner.
Max was usually the first to disrupt her peace. It was at six in the morning that he too found refuge. It wasn’t much a place of meditative tranquility, but a retreat from a menagerie of one angry wife and five velociraptor children. His peace was work. His idea: work so hard that the flurry of action numbed the conscious from trailing. When your hands were covered in pancake batter, hopscotching between burners, it was easier to forget anniversaries.
In this way, the two shared remedial pleasure, but Shirley was careful to keep balance. It had been years since she had found any romance, besides the amorous glare she shared with the rising sunlight. It wasn’t like she was in love with the place, just enamored. So caught up in the picturesque landscape of assorted condiments (always in squeeze bottles - no glass here) and wooly booths that she couldn’t help but drift.
The seat second from the last booth was the best observation deck. She knew she wasn’t alone either. There’s a reason Normal Rockwell wasn’t just some freak inanimately in love, but an appreciator too of the fine mystique of a tranquil workplace. Maybe you could call it nostalgia.
Shirley came from a line of diner royalty. Her mother was a real 50’s-looker - clad in checkerboard dresses, bobbed hair, and crimson lipstick - she too made a show of the place. You might call it the shortcomings of show business. Trek to the mecca of Lost Angels, stumble - maybe fall - and find your dreams plopped in the Pacific Northwest. Her mom really had it, but the diner seemed to be her final stop. Maybe all great things do end here.
Shirley may not have had the head-spinning allure of a cocktail server, but she certainly was a better waitress. She started taking full shifts at sixteen - off the books of course. School didn’t matter much when you had pocket cash. She wasn’t that cool for it either, but if you could afford a full tank of gas you didn’t need company.
For a time she would drive. Drive so far up and down the serpentine, coastal highways that she’d just disappear. The school would call, but her mother never answered - she wasn’t home either. If not gallivanting the diner, usually the back seat of some guilty adulterer. But that didn’t matter in the car - windows cracked, sun peeking, warm and cold to reality.
Would she leave? She could keep going right now - sixty miles in one hour - she would be out of the state in half a day. She could surely make it on her own. Any establishment would die for a precocious waitress, ordained in holy food service. Work for a few years and break free. Not less than her mother, but more. Maybe not in television commercials or silver screen showings, but something. She could buy a diner - start a franchise. ‘Shirley’s Scrumptious Snack Shop’- that’d show them. She could train the greatest workforce of servers the West Coast had ever seen. A drive-in too! Think of the overflowing lots, glowing with blinding light from burning hoods. Now that would be a sight, a real luminosity deserving of awe.
But who would take care of dad? He was fragile and she knew there wasn’t much left. Cancer was a bastard thing, especially in a loveless marriage. Especially when your wife didn’t care much for you - only around because a juvenile mother ought to have someone. It was easier too when you could offload responsibility to an overworked corpse - dead before the diagnosis.
She would never make it five hours without turning back. On occasion, she would turn around, drive for a bit, shutter with regret and swivel back north. It was a cycle she knew she would never leave, she couldn’t for the sake of him.
So make the most of it she thought. Drown yourself in that Norman Rockwell mirage. There has to be more to everything when it’s all you got. A crumbling metallic tinker box could be nirvana. It could be a reprieve. Just focus so tightly on the silent parts - the daybreaks that forced you to talk to yourself - that’d you fly.
Fly she would, up, down, and around the colonnade of red-topped stools. Past the ice cream machine that needed fixing and the bookcase of municipal advertisements. But never out, always in. Inside a prison - not the bad kind - maybe just the type that forces its inhabitants to enjoy. Not fiery Stockholm Syndrome, but relief.
Even when he died and a parade of working-class warriors stumbled to a stony hill, she stayed. More cemented than he was - ten feet below - but peaceful. Not because she could escape, but because she couldn’t. Too trapped now, too happy now. She would get a place of her own - no reason to burden herself now with the last roots of a family - but always back to her oasis.
No longer full of break-free temptation, the kind that pushes you into that car and away, so close - full of daydream non-consequentialism that you might throw it away. No more minimum wage servitude and parental insanity. Your mother shouldn’t be your worst enemy and your father the only tenderness you feel for her floured face. It was angst that was her enemy now; the fear that she might just build up enough courage. So walk to work, don’t even parody the idea of an automotive escape pod. Your legs will do just fine - you’ll even get to walk past him. His headstone two-dimensional to the rest - your paycheck could only pay for so much - and ignore. It’s a good reminder - a test really. If you could remain postured, even while brushing up against the swollen gates of his inescapable existence, you’ve won.
She was not ice cold, perhaps the opposite. So in tune with reality that she could ignore it. These moments would last forever until they didn’t. Until the break of silence was no longer freedom, but the substitution of taking orders and cleaning tables. If you couldn’t get lost in anything, you certainly could get lost in the magnitude of it all. Work and serve, not like her mother - not for the stares of googly-eyed patrons - but for the occupation, the principle of existence.
It’s interesting how someone could be so in their own head, but so operative - something like a cog. The way it's nothing but a hunk of twisted metal, but part of some mechanical operation that ends up serving power to the entire Eastern Seaboard. Now getting extra sugar for gummy elders was no summation of an almighty task - or maybe it was. Maybe it served Shirley - provided her with a mechanism like a levee, teetering between flood and victory. It was a battle, wasn’t it? A real conflict of continued repression. The thing that builds up until you release - or explode - into shattered fragments of what you once thought was impregnable. It seemed Shirley was getting there, though her self-subjugated oblivion was the last levee to break. The only thing still holding against a cocktail of jealousy, hatred, and spite.
Perhaps she was bitter. That good-for-nothing magazine sat there. Eyeing her - egging her on. She had tried to ignore it. Tune it out with a mountain of reflective cleaner. It had to be brighter. More illuminated with its waxy cover and bold letters. Revlon did widen its demographic when it finally decided to show a wrinkly beauty.
Shirley hated her, not for her cruelty, but her liberation.
She had escaped.