When I finally stopped calling myself a Christian, I blamed it on a tip. I could have named a few more causes, but I had remained a dewy-eyed non-denominationalist up until that tip, that crisply folded 20 dollar bill, finally pushed me over the edge. I was twenty years old, waiting tables on a Sunday afternoon. The restaurant in which I worked was a chain, noted for its family friendliness and home cooking. So wholesome was its decorating—the kerosene lamps, the wood-burning fireplace, the antiques tacked to the walls—that it attracted entire flocks of church folk, fresh from their Sunday morning services. Each Sunday at approximately 12:30, the restaurant would fill up like a chicken coop. I don’t use this simile lightly; they seriously reminded me of chickens. Most of them didn’t just walk; they strutted. They didn’t just laugh; they cackled. Have you ever seen a chicken that looks as though she is enjoying her life? Neither have I. I have seen chickens eat and shit and peck each other to death, and that is all. I don’t like chickens. And I blame the church folk for that.
It’s interesting to wait on church folk alongside non-church folk, which is what happens this afternoon. In one corner, I have five fellows who run the tattoo parlor a couple streets over. They are all uncommonly large with bald heads inked in barbed wire and flames. One has the word “SACRILEGE” drilled across the back of his neck in dripping red letters. Metal studs sprout from the tops of the men’s shaved heads. Dragons and fire and naked women sheath their arms.
“How you guys doing?”
“All right,” one says. He’s the leader, I suppose because he has the most metal decorating his skull. The rest nod. “Root beer,” says the leader, and the rest order the same thing.
Before I return to the kitchen, I see the hostess walking a middle-aged couple to another one of my tables. I can tell that they are church folk by their clothes. She wears a shapeless floral blouse buttoned tight around her neck and a long, polyester peach skirt that brushes the tops of her peach flats. He wears a peach-colored suit, in an attempt to match, I suppose, and his hair is parted on one side. It loops down to his right eye in a perfect semicircle, like someone rubber-cemented half a brown paper plate to his forehead. I can also tell they are church people by the way they walk: they look as though they have something very unpleasant to do, and they want to get it over with as quickly as possible.
Back in the kitchen, I realize we are out of mugs for my tattooed fellows, so I run back to the dish pit and see how long it will be. The dishwashers say one minute, so I wait one minute, grab the mugs, and then carry them out on a tray with the root beers. From the doorway, I can see that my church couple is ready to order. I know this because the husband is waving at me like an air traffic controller. I set down the root beers and mugs.
“You guys ready?” I ask.
“We can wait.” My tattooed gentlemen have apparently noticed my other customer’s frantic gesturing. One of them nods in the couple’s direction.
“Thanks,” I say. “Be right back.” I cross the dining room.
“How are you two doing today?” For me, the response to this question sets the tone. I used to think that the whole how-are-you-I’m-fine conversation was meaningless but, as a waitress, I have come to appreciate how it establishes the humanity of both parties. My air traffic controller, however, now that he has finally landed me, will have none of that. He won’t even look up.
“You ready to order?” the man growls across the table at his wife. He continues to examine the menu in disgust.
“I want the broccoli chicken special,” she says, eyeing me with suspicion. “And I want it with potatoes and carrots.” She says this in the same tone a mother would use with a child. I want you to clean your room, and I want you to do it now.
“I’m sorry, but we’re all out of the special,” I say.
“No, you’re not,” she says, licking her lips ferociously. “I just saw it on the board out front.”
“Well, someone should have taken it down. We are out, though.”
“Then why is it on the board out front?” I assume that this is a rhetorical question, so I decide not to answer. When she narrows her eyes at me, I shrug. “Sorry.”
The woman throws herself back in her chair and rolls her eyes up toward the ceiling. For a brief second, it looks like she is praying that God will intervene and supply her broccoli chicken desires. Then she sags a little and sighs.
“I had my heart set on that broccoli chicken,” she says. She sounds so bitter and wounded that I get the same awkward feeling I got when my adult cousin started crying about her dead goldfish.
“Do you need a couple minutes?” I ask, horrified. She doesn’t say anything. “Can I get you something to drink while you look?”
“Are you out of coffee, too?” the husband says, and I can tell from his expression that this is supposed to be a joke: a mean joke.
“I’ll have to check and make sure,” I say, and I laugh sheepishly, but they don’t. The man’s joke was for them, not me. I’m not supposed to be amused; I’m supposed to be sorry.
“Coffee,” the man barks. “Coffee, cream, water. Got that?”
“Yes. And for you, Ma’am?
“How old is your decaf?”
“I can brew a fresh pot for you if you’d like.”
“If I’d like? Of course I’d like. You have to ask for fresh coffee around here?”
For a brief moment, I forget myself. “You have to ask for toilet paper, too,” I say. I instantly regret it. The husband and wife are glaring at me in horror, unified in their humorless revulsion. I smile weakly and get back to business. “So that’s one regular and one decaf.”
The husband recovers himself. “Do I have to ask for fresh coffee, too?” he says, “’cause it had better be fresh.”
“No,” I say, smiling like I just stepped on a nail. “You don’t have to ask.”
Before I go to the kitchen to get their coffees, I stop to take my other table’s order: five steak and egg specials with grits, gravy, and biscuits.
Back in the kitchen, I hang the men’s ticket and start a fresh pot of decaf. I take out the coffee for the husband and two glasses of water while I’m waiting for the decaf to brew. When I step into the dining room, the table is motioning to me again, this time with two sets of arms. Before I am able to set down their drinks, they begin ordering and both finish by the time I place their drinks on the table, tuck the tray under my arm, pull out my book and pen, and prepare my ticket.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but could you please say that again?”
The woman sighs, unwilling, but the man is too busy suspiciously sniffing his coffee, so she goes ahead.
“I said I’ll have the chicken tenderloin with potatoes and carrots. And I don’t want the carrots dripping with butter. Write that down. No butter.”
“You don’t have to worry. They aren’t cooked in butter.” I smile to myself because the carrots aren’t actually cooked in butter; they’re cooked in lard. I’ve seen the back-up cook slice off fat, white chunks the size of chemistry textbooks and toss them into the pots of carrots. It’s gross, and she’ll be eating it.
“And I want biscuits. And I want blackberry preserves.” She accentuates the word preserves. “Don’t be bringing that grape jelly over here. No strawberry either. Blackberry preserves. Or nothing.” I pretend to be jotting all these things down on my ticket.
“And for you, sir?”
“Meatloaf. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Green beans. Corn. Corn muffins.”
I wonder how I have wounded this man past the point of formulating sentences, but I write it all down anyway, give them my customary “thank you, I’ll have out as soon as it comes up,” and return to the kitchen. Ruby, a fellow server, walks up to me with her usual swagger, like she’s got something deliciously horrible to say. When she talks, her breath smells like the lipstick-tipped cigarettes she leaves behind at the end of her shift, lined up in a neat row in the break room ashtray.
“Waited on those fuckers two weeks ago,” she says. “Ran my ass off, left me shit.”
“Which ones? The tattoo dudes or the couple?”
“I’m talking about Mr. and Mrs. Stick-Up-Their-Asses at Table 55.”
“Oh, them. Yeah, they seem angry.”
“The guy’s a preacher, too.” She snorts. “Figures.”
I consider asking how she knows that, but before I can, Ruby disappears to the back of the house to restock the biscuit bin. Mr. and Mrs. Stick-Up-Their-Asses’ food is already coming up in the window. I exult inside—we are not out of anything else they wanted, and they’re not going to have to wait. Once the chicken tenderloins are on the plate, I tray the meals up, dab off the pool of grease from around the carrots, and plate two fresh biscuits and two fresh corn muffins. All the while, I resist the urge to fill their jelly bowl with one measly packet of grape or to request that the cook ladle some hot lard over her plate. I arrange everything just as they have requested, and I carry out their food. After I place it on their table, they poke and sniff and stare at it like poodles. The woman digs through the jelly bowl like a mother digging for drugs in her teenage daughter’s purse. The man picks up each biscuit and corn muffin and hurriedly inspects their bottoms. Despite my waning faith, I silently thank God that they are not my parents.
“Can I get you anything else right now?” I ask.
They cast their glances about wildly. The woman checks her silverware, readjusts her plate, and proceeds to poke around her carrots in search of butter. Then the man says, “Cream!” like he’s just won a game of Dutch Blitz.
“It’s right there,” I say, pointing to the bowl of creamers I had placed earlier on the table.
His eyebrows wrinkle. “Sugar substitute!” he shouts, and I point to the sugar caddy.
It’s an emergency now. There must be something. Finally the man spies it. “Coffee!” he cries, and picks up his full mug with lunatic glee. “Dump this,” he orders smugly, “and bring me a fresh cup. It’s cold.”
The tattooed dudes’ food is late, but they don’t seem bothered when I stop by to apologize for things taking a little longer than usual. When I finally do bring their meals out, I forget their grits and gravy, so I have to run back, but they are unfazed. Meanwhile, the Stick Ups are eating as quickly as they can and flagging me down for every imaginable offense: the cold meatloaf, the hard biscuit, the butter too melty in its little plastic cup. “You’re supposed to spread butter, not pour it,” Mr. Stick Up informs me.
Thank you for educating me, I say in my head, my family drinks it, so I didn’t know that. Instead I bite my lip and bring him a fresh, cold scoop.
After the two tables leave, I find a ten dollar bill on the dudes’ table, folded under a drippy bowl of grits. I head over to bus the Stick Ups’ table next. And that’s when I find it. The twenty dollar bill, folded in half. When I see it there next to the empty blackberry preserve packets, my stomach drops and my face rushes red with shame, shame that I had been calling them Mr. and Mrs. Stick Ups back in the wait alley, that I had only begrudgingly fulfilled each of their requests, that I hadn’t informed the woman that her beloved carrots were soaked in artery-clogging quantities of animal fat. As I reach down to pick up the bill, I promise myself that never again will I judge a table for being church folk, never again will I assume that they will be crotchety and stingy and hateful. I will assume that they are simply idiosyncratic souls, capable of tidal wave sized generosity. I pick the bill up to slip it into my apron, but I notice that it is very thick and shiny for a bill. Slowly, not wanting to believe what I already know to be true, I turn it over. Sure enough, the back is white poster board. “Faith Baptist Church,” it reads and, next to its name and address, is a picture of the very couple I was just feeling guilty for hating. On the inside of the bill is a list of the three steps I have to follow in order to get to heaven. Below, where the bill was placed, is a pile of loose change that I can tell, even at a glance, adds up to less than a dollar.
For a brief moment, I imagine what it would be like to hang out with Mr. and Mrs. Stick Up in heaven. I see us playing Sorry, taking long aimless walks over the hills, them making mild-mannered jokes at my expense. I take the tract back to the wait alley, rip it into tiny pieces, and toss the little squares in the garbage. They flutter down into the black bag’s bottom, like doomed confetti.
About the Author
Michelle Webster-Hein is a pianist, teacher and writer working toward an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she is recovering her faith in God and humanity. For this she credits her husband, the miracle of her newborn daughter, and the reluctant patronage of her cat.