by Lisa

I was a terrible waitress, and I barely survived two months at a Chinese restaurant where I was the only non-Mandarin speaker.  Yelled at in the kitchen, words just sounds, faces always disgusted with my stupidity, and I wanted to die of embarrassment when the customers asked me what they were saying.  They were calling me a stupid white bitch, one kind Chinese amah told me. The owner’s daughter, seven, pulled my hair by the long braid down my back and made me spill saucy plates onto my white shirts, for the staff’s amusement.  My only pleasure was waiting for the owner’s husband’s cigar ash to fall into the wok.  Buckets of pork marinated at room temperature in salt and spices for days at a time.  The job scared me and disgusted me, and I left with no notice.

At the diner, I was a great baker, seven pies a morning for the farmer breakfast crowd, and soft things for the elderly clientele of the salad bar at lunch.  Cockroaches fell off of the ceiling and into the meringue.  The kitchen flooded on my end when it rained, and the rain never stopped that summer.  1993 was a year of dampness and mildew and mud, and a boy from Indiana who brought me cantaloupes to woo me at the back door of the puddled kitchen.  I love watermelon, not cantaloupe, but my boyfriend appreciated them.  Watermelons were my thing, and I ate so much of it that summer that I threw it up, more than once.

Then, a better job at a grocery store deli.  No cockroaches, but lots of meat like substances that we all pretended were meat.  The real meat lived down the back hall, and Skater Dave from high school watched it during evening shifts.  He couldn’t cut it, just watch it.  I still don’t know why he was there; a symbol in a white coat?  I wore white scrubs, too, and a coat when I could snag one from the butcher’s uniform rack.  My days were filled with frying chicken and slicing fake meat.  My pride lay in my ability to layer cutlets prettily on the sub sandwiches, ruffling the edges like pictures in cookbooks showed, and being able to pick up exactly a pound of sliced meat out of the case for a customer, without having to take any off or add any to the digital scale.  I had every code memorized for that machine, because my job was the only thing that I spent any thought over.  My real life was a mess, with a boyfriend in the pits of depression and anxiety and affairs.  He had to start his day with a hit on the bong, and I started each month peeing in a cup for the meatcutter’s union.  He left me for his co-worker’s daughter, or niece, or something.  At any rate, she had a career, and was a grownup.  I was not even twenty-one.  He left with the lyrics of Althea ringing in my ears, but proposed to her five weeks after he moved out, not born to be a bachelor after all.

I moved to a big house with two other girls.  I never even unpacked.  All I did was work, and come home, and go out all night with my friends and then a new boyfriend, the one who had such great satellite to watch.  We could stay up all night, dancing and drinking with his friends and mine, and I could work a morning shift at the deli, then sleep at three.  The schedule held up for a year, and then I crashed.  I quit everything but the boy, whom I loved more than anything but my grandma, so I moved in with my grandma.

My goldsmithing teacher had tried and failed at a few other businesses.  He made boxer shorts.  He made funny teeth to sell at gas stations and county fairs.  He ran for mayor of his hometown.  When he opened a pawn shop, I had a job.  I cut waxes again, and sized a ring now and then, and stood behind the pawn counter doing nothing.  It was a guilt job.  He still felt bad over firing me.  His wife told him that I couldn’t be trusted if my boyfriend was fired from the shop, so I went as a package.  That may have been true, but it doesn’t matter, does it?  Customers came in with anything they thought was worth some money.  Most of it was junk.  My biggest job was to deliver repaired jewelry to retail shops and pick up the new broken stuff.  Sometimes, a gun was bundled into the backpack, to be engraved.  Sometimes, other things, but I don’t know what.  I learned to smile and look sweet and extract payments for services rendered with honeyed words.  The jewelry shop owners always obliged, but no one really liked me, the costly bearer of shiny things who slouched through their front doors every week.  Even my co-workers didn’t really like me.  I was the odd add-on.  Maybe I was the girlfriend?  No, she lived down the street.  At the pawn shop, I learned to watch and be silent; when it was time to move, I left without fanfare.  Some of them weren’t even sure of my name, but my boss loved me.

A radical move to central Illinois found me broke again, but in love and cohabitating with the object of my desire.  He didn’t work, and his parents sent money.  We both lived off of that for a while, and then I became a telemarketer who didn’t have to sell anything.  Calling people just to tell them that their high-tech caller ID would soon have a name on the screen really bothered them.  The apartment didn’t come with a parking space, so I biked to work through a series of rough neighborhoods in the dark.  It was always dark.  The buses didn’t go where I needed to go, except to the community college campus.  Those classes kept me from feeling like a schlub among the sort-of Ivy Leaguers in attendance at the Real University where I lived.  One class, an anatomy drawing seminar, landed me yet another job: I became Champaign’s first female tattoo artist.