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American Fiction

It was only a coffee. Could it have been any simpler? Decaf with skim milk and Stevia. They didn’t have Stevia; they only had Sweet n’ Lo. No big deal, she’d said. Fine, the waitress replied. Fine, again. Why had she had to say fine twice?

           Jenn wasn’t that hungry, and she told the waitress as much. The waitress asked twice, Can I get you anything else?  And twice Jenn said, No thank you. Twice. The first time she said it with a smile. No thank you, I’m not hungry.

           The waitress looked down at her and asked, “Are you sure? You look as if you could use some meat on your bones.”

           Who was she to say such a thing, though Jenn.  Here’s this biddy with some ancient blue waitress outfit on, down to a lacy apron that held pens and order pads, telling her she could use some meat on her bones. That woman certainly doesn’t need any more meat on her bones! And who wears eyeglass chains anymore?!?! She looked like someone behind a 1950s Woolworth’s lunch counter.

           The waitress walked to the kitchen, but not before looking over her puffy shoulder. She smiled. It was a catty smile. Meow, Jenn thought. Jenn picked up a menu from its stand to see if, maybe, there was a minimum charge, as if she had to order something she didn’t want. All she wanted was a moment to herself before the job interview. She wasn’t great at interviews, she knew that. Isn’t my resume good enough for them?

            She’d come in early, deliberately, to give herself some time. A little time, that’s all, to comport herself. Imagine having to order more than a simple cup of coffee in the middle of the morning in a coffee shop of all places. But there was nothing about a minimum. There was a list of muffins. Homemade muffins, the menu boasted, hot and fresh. Maybe she was hungry. Maybe the coffee would help her decide.

           A chunky girl who could have been the waitress’s daughter brought her the coffee on a tray with a small milk pitcher, an old-fashioned metal thing with a lid that flipped up and a pile of sugar packets. Here you go, missy, she said. A fresh pot! Jenn looked at the tray and then at the waitress. “I asked for Stevia. This is sugar.”

           The waitress could have rolled her eyes. “We don’t have Stevia, only Sweet n’ Lo. Do you want that[AL1]?”

           “Yes,” said Jenn. “Yes, that’s what I asked for.” The waitress said she was sure Jenn had just asked for Stevia, which they didn’t have. Jenn apologized and said Sweet n’ Lo would do just fine. Why am I apologizing? That woman should do the apologizing!

           The waitress went through the swinging doors to the kitchen. She was gone for an inordinately long time. What is she doing in there? Just get some Sweet n’ Lo. Jenn heard talking and was sure someone said something about “that woman at the counter.” Then laughter. At long last, the waitress came out, a small Lucite box in her hands with sugar, Sweet n’ Lo, and, yes, Stevia. “Look what I found,” said the waitress. Well, isn’t she pleased with herself?

           “But you said you didn’t have Stevia,” said Jenn, an edge to her voice.

           “Apparently we do,” said the waitress. “That’s the last of it, I’m sure.”

           I just bet you are, thought Jenn. They probably have tons of it back there.

           Jenn added the Stevia to her cup and stirred. One, two, three. She always stirred six times. Six was her lucky number, but at three she heard more laughter from the kitchen and thought she heard her name. How dare they laugh at me? Then it occurred to her they couldn’t possibly know her name. She’d never been in this town let alone the coffee shop.

           An older man she hadn’t noticed spoke up from one of the booths. “I’d love to know what’s so funny,” he said. “I could use a laugh.” He was wearing blue overalls splotched with grease stains. A formerly white name-tag with the word “Sully” etched in red thread was on a breast pocket. “You’d think they had some comedian in there,” he said. “I hope he’s clean. I don’t like the blue stuff some of these clowns do. Not my style.”

           Jenn swiveled on her stool. “Are you talking to me?” she asked.

           He looked around, exaggerating the effort. There was a smirk on his face. “I suppose I am seeing as how no one else is here.” He looked at her for a moment too long then lit a cigarette with an old-fashioned steel lighter. Zippo came to Jenn’s mind before she said, “I don’t think you can smoke in here. I don’t think you can smoke indoors anywhere.”

           The man shrugged and took a long drag. Drag. When was the last time I used the word drag? “I just mean I don’t want you to get in any trouble.” The man nodded, dropped the cigarette on the floor, and ground it out with his toe. “No ashtrays anyway,” he said before he got up and walked out. Most of a corn muffin was left sitting on a plate.

           Jenn still had a spoon in her coffee cup, which was cold by now. She called out “Miss” several times before the first waitress came out. “Sorry, but my coffee’s cold. Can I get a fresh cup? Decaf, remember?”

           The woman lifted the cup. “Doesn’t feel cold to me,” she said before spilling it into a sink behind the counter and refilling it from a pot with a green plastic spout on its edge. She looked over Jenn’s shoulder. “Say, what happened to him?” she asked.

           “He left,” said Jenn.

           “I’m not dim. I can see that,” said the waitress.

           “He was smoking. I guess he knew it wasn’t allowed,” said Jenn.

           “It’s not. And walking out without paying isn’t allowed either,” said the waitress. “Did you say something to him?”

           Jenn confessed mentioning that she didn’t think cigarette smoking was allowed anywhere indoors. To keep him from getting in trouble. She didn’t, she insisted, ask, or even suggest he should leave.

           “Well, I’m out a coffee, a muffin, and the quarter tip,” said the waitress. Her face was a bit too close to Jenn’s. 

           “I didn’t ask him to leave or anything. I really didn’t,” said Jenn.

           The waitress frowned. She muttered, “It ain’t your problem.” That bothered Jenn. Ain’t. What type of person uses that word in polite company? She thought the same type of person who would come to a coffee shop dressed in greasy garage overalls, smoke a cigarette, and leave without paying. Those two should be married.

           The waitress swung around to return to the kitchen when Jenn called out, “Excuse me, but I’ve changed my mind. I’d love, love, love a toasted corn muffin if you have. And a soft-boiled egg. Can I ask for those?”

           The waitress took wrote down the order on her pad, looked back to Jenn, and asked, “Is that all?” Is that all? What’s it any of her business anyway? Aren’t an egg and a muffin enough?

           “No, that’ll be fine. I just got a bit peckish waiting for the fresh coffee,” she said.

           “Not much of a wait, I hope,” said the waitress. Her head was tilted to one side. Her garish red lipsticked-lips were taut.

           “Hardly,” said Jenn with a thin smile. That’ll teach her something.

           The waitress brought out the muffin, untoasted. Jenn reminded her she wanted it toasted “and with butter please.” The waitress grabbed the plate spilling the muffin on the counter. “I’ll get another,” she said. That one arrived, toasted, with a pat of butter on the side, with one soft-boiled egg in a cup.

           “Anything else?” said the waitress.

           “Just the check,” said Jenn.

           The waitress again returned to the kitchen, where Jenn was sure she heard more laughs. What are they doing in there? They should be out waiting for customers.

           She took a bite of the muffin. It wasn’t bad, not at all. She put it in a napkin and then in her handbag for later. The bill was in order; coffee (it didn’t say de-caf), muffin (it didn’t say toasted with butter), and one egg (it didn’t say soft-boiled). She heard more laughs, louder, with a man’s voice saying, “You’re kidding,” to more laughter.

           Jenn spilled the coffee on the counter, cracked the runny egg into the puddle, and made sure the bill was nice and soaked in the mess. She left a dollar bill soaking in the puddle as well; a generous 20% tip. Jenn looked back as she left the coffee shop. She had this broad smile on her face. Look who’s laughing now.

June 21, 2023 00:48

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4 comments

Michał Przywara
20:40 Jun 29, 2023

That's a fun story :) Right from the beginning, it's loaded with attitude. Here we have a situation that's completely neutral on the surface - a simple ordering of coffee at a diner - where every interaction is needlessly antagonistic and frustrating. Opening up with things happening "twice" really sets the tone. Of course, we don't really know if things are actually antagonistic, or if it's all in Jenn's head. She's nervous, she's got a job interview to get to, and right now she's stuck somewhere she doesn't really want to be. That's a go...

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21:01 Jun 26, 2023

Hi David, I read this story with interest, wondering where it would go, and I relished in the ending - even if Jenn does come off as a bit of a cow. I'm not entirely sure how the story meets the prompt though. I spent the whole time reading trying to figure out if the story was supposed to be happy or sad and if the tone was supposed to be serious or humorous. I was expecting this prompt to draw very stark contrast between story and tone, and I didn't find that here - am I missing something?

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Mary Bendickson
02:56 Jun 21, 2023

Yep,turned a bit messy. Mostly I read, like and/or comment on other authors works. And follow if I really like things I read. New ones from people I follow show up under Activity Feed under Stories. I see those right away and comment. I don't consider myself expert enough to give them a lot of critique but I may point out errors I see and make a quick observation or say something that strikes me about their story. Most of the time, but not always, they respond by reading and commenting on one of mine. I know most people want the kind of ...

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David Ader
15:02 Jun 23, 2023

How do you get so many comments on your stories? I'm envious and need more feedback, but not sure how to go about getting that. David

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