My first shift back is next week. The restaurant’s going to be renovated with lacquered wooden stools and blossoms from the florist. I’ll be taping a Wear Your Mask sign to the front door, so please wear one. Normal surgical masks are preferable, but any facial coverings -- except for gas masks (they frighten the children) -- should suffice.
During the restaurant’s closure these last months, I’ve seen you at the supermarket buying cherry tomatoes. I waved hello each time, but you mustn’t have thought twice about it, passing by my greetings without recognition. After all, I did give myself a new haircut, a straightforward bob, over quarantine. My bangs are choppy, but they should grow back just fine.
Instead of our regular, over-the-counter chats about upcoming concerts (it’s always a country singer, you adore them), you went to the open Subway next door and bought sandwiches. Once, after you left, the green-shirt cashier prompted me for an order. But I only wanted to check up on our neighboring competition, so I walked away. (My regular orders are almost the same as yours, in sub form, if you're curious: Italian bread, pepperoni, mozzarella cheese, occasionally mayonnaise. Their meager mayonnaise doesn’t compare to our restaurant’s.)
We’re going to be one of the town’s last places to reopen. Last month was the original plan, but just as cases were declining steadily and just as we acclimated to the rhythm, a new spike struck. Rather than limiting attendees in public areas, store owners smoked cigarettes outside of crowded bakeries, tallying profits and picking at their ashy nails. Oftentimes, the sidewalk between Subway and our locked restaurant hosted a line of hungry patrons trailing into the sandwich chain's air-conditioned, suffocating waiting room. Since the first infection, our mayor has been quiet in his marbled office. But my boss, bless her, never is. The day after cases spiked, she said, to a row of puffy-faced and fatigued teenage employees, “I have an immunocompromised family member, and I know y'all don’t want to risk your health either.” I didn’t object.
Habitually, I check our restaurant’s storage areas: the giant fridge, freezer, and buckets of fermenting sauce. Nothing’s out of place. The sauce still smells appetizing, I promise. You never remember the name, but it blends in delectably with steamed broccoli and deep fried chicken. It’s the brown sauce, the one you labeled “unappealing” on your first visit years ago during a Christmas party -- seems like ages since our restaurant was packed with such a feverish energy.
Before, after every gathering of sweaty strangers, I would spend an hour cleaning tables and chairs, wiping them free of spilled Pepsi. Despite the work, I was always first to mop the dining area. My coworkers thought they were clever with their side glances and impish grins, but I didn’t mind. The (occasional) generous tip, sticky and crumb-covered dollar bills, kept me alert, present.
Our restaurant’s main phone still has the ringtone you chose, that beloved Christmas jingle, and the number of missed calls per day range from too many to none. Yesterday, I asked my boss about prank calling. “People have fun moments,” was all she said. She quickly hung up, and although I don’t (can’t) assume, it sounded like a hospital on the other side: the lung-deep coughing, the wobbly wheels on hard tiles, her shakiness.
You haven’t called since May. (This was inevitable.) Our restaurant was never clear about reopening and you already double, triple-checked our pandemic policy -- I knew that and I still know -- but the body memory I perfected over the years of answering calls and jotting down names never left. My fingers' calluses bear the ink of countless pens, the scribing for days' worth of menu items.
Today, I forgot where my uniform was. Although there were at least ten pairs of polos and khakis on my chair, the true culprit, a sturdy dress-and-apron set stitched by sturdy hands, has been collecting dust in my closet. I found a spider crawling up the apron's tie, silky white webs entangling with thready blue, but my cleaning supplies ran out days ago from sanitizing packages -- I didn’t kill it. I can't kill without spray.
Don't worry, though, spiders won’t be an issue when we open: All uniforms will be washed and re-washed before you come by later. There's a new atmosphere we're aiming for, an aromatic paradise with flowers at every table, a change of pace. I’ll prepare your favorite dish (stir-fried vegetables, extra sauce) free of charge, and we can catch up.