Wolf Diner

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Maria Hiers

“A lone wolf is a wolf that is searching, and what it seeks is another wolf. Everything in a wolf’s nature tells it to belong to something greater than itself: a pack.”

She came to me, colored in. Leslie’s first words to me: “Can you stay for a few more hours? I had to send the other host home, her crotch stunk.” I nodded, struck.

I had got a job at the diner that had just been built, and everybody was a new employee. We were thrown together in training, where our firsts converged. People with holes in their faces from where they pulled their piercing out before their shifts began. People who seem acquainted already, recognizing the same abrasions in each other induced by the hospitality industry.

Leslie was my assistant manager. She wasn’t in attendance at the mass training sessions that were mandatory for me all week.

But a late introduction didn’t deter her from singing to me through the headsets, her voice a crackle of torched velvet. Her laugh, the stone skipping over the water; melodic, lucent, and gone too soon. The kind of laugh I was unfamiliar with. Forty something and slightly vulgar, she caused a shift with that unexpected line; that of the stumbling into an oasis inside a diner.

I got a job for a pair of reasons; to deflect the encroachment of summer idleness, and to wad paper bills in a sock I could shove in the back of my drawer. I was hired with an expiration date on my forehead, my eventual evacuation a blister reopened every time somebody asked me when I was leaving.

Leslie, jovial, whenever this topic is alluded to. “She’s only temporary,” she’d comment. “She’s gonna do what the rest of you should’ve done.”

“Wolf puppies are born deaf and with their eyes closed.”

I had graduated earlier in the month. The rest of my life behind a locked door, and I stood in its face with my key stuck in the knob. One of the first mornings of June, I woke on an air mattress before the sun came up, both of us half-deflated. Two of my friends on the bed next to me, still unconscious, their breathing synced out of turn. I went to the bathroom to splash my face. In the mirror, my reflection nervous, her face strained and unhinged. I left the light on and the door open in case she too felt the threat of the dark.

In the diner, though, I dirtied my hands. The trash needed me to take it out. The fingerprints on the door called me to erase them. It was easy work and I clung to it. My shirt tucked in, hair pulled back, jewelry stripped. I dissolved myself before I stepped through the employee door, naked and susceptible.

Nobody ever had to tell me to smile. Beauty approached me in teasing fragments, in the kids’ menus crayoned by toddler hands tacked on the wall, in the cackling chatter of the servers’ alley. In my favorite customer who might have come daily, if she could drive herself. An old woman who greeted no one in particular with an exaggerated, “We’re baaaack!”

Her half-bald son following with a shrug and a grin, always slipping me a five.

I never ran out of energy, never daydreamed. Everybody fit, like the busboys and the stains on their pants from where they wiped their hands. They tried to flirt with me as if they didn’t reek of dish detergent and fried chicken fat. Or maybe they knew anyway and reveled in smelling like being unhidden. The other hosts, us all girls, and how we traded anecdotes easily as we traded shifts. I knew their summer flings, their heartbreaks, their arrest stories, their dreams.

But when I exited: I put myself back on, often found it uncomfortable. All the threats of the summer before college pummeling me during the walk to the car, unwelcome and mean. That I would never make meaning out of anything, never find my voice. Every night after work I took a bath with the lights dimmed.

Removed from the synthesis of voices and the grease stains, I echoed inside of my head, unremarkable.

A howl can communicate things like a wolf’s location, warnings about predators, and the position of prey.”

“Corner!” – meaning – I’m coming around this wall, and I’m not stopping.

It enchanted me. The blind trust that someone you couldn’t see would stop for you, as you carried a rack of ceramic mugs or pots brimming with boiling coffee.

Meaning – I believe you won’t bring me harm.

I tried yelling it myself, but half of the sound would get stuck in my throat. Or I would yell it, then pause a moment, my feet in a protest I didn’t authorize.

But there is never time to pause, not when tables need to be flipped faster than blowing down a house of cards in order to make any real money.

I can’t avoid the corner. I watched everyone else float past it, automatic and not thinking. How they say the word with different tones. Some sing, others bark, another gave it the limp of a New York accent. None of them blink. So I tried not to think about it, which only made me brake harder.

But the best learning is through unintentional imitation, and as the job absorbed me, I began to shout it with the rest of them. My own yelping “Corner!” an addition to the cacophony of the soft drink machine, the puncture of the dishwashing hose, and the endless shuffling of non-slip sneakers. Not swallowed. A loud punch in the air.

“Corner!”, meaning – I don’t have anything to be afraid of.

“There are old wolves that need to be cared for, and young adults that are beginning to assert themselves – all altering the dynamics of the pack.”

Leslie has a gluten allergy. In the strip mall that the diner partly occupied, a Cuban bakery opened next door. She wondered if she should order something, admitted to me she’d never had a Cuban sandwich.

“You need to. You have to get a Cuban sandwich if you’re gonna live here.”

“Is it really worth it? My stomach’s gonna react.” I assured her it was, and she ate one, immediate regret invading. In the office, she leaned over her chair, a hand over her stomach, and groaned. As an apology, I promised to make her gluten free cookies before I quit.

Over her shoulder on her way into the bathroom, she called, “Don’t mention food right now.”

Never another sandwich, but she did take a liking to Cuban coffee. A need for the jolt ensued, and often she’d coax a busboy to retrieve one while he was still on the clock; the head manager’s definition of a mortal sin. One morning, the head manager was on the schedule for eleven a.m. It was fifteen minutes ‘til. Leslie squinted to see if there was a line.

“Bacon. You got time to get me a Cuban coffee?”

“Nah, I’m not tryin’ that with Aimee coming in. She was on me enough yesterday for bein’ late.”

She thought for a moment, then made a run for it herself. She made faces at us from inside the café, delighted to find that the mic could still get a signal, and proceeded to make fart sounds.

She is years younger than me.

My eighteenth birthday came on the first of July. I worked the dreaded Sunday morning shift, nine hours of families steeped in post-church service famine and a prolonged shortage of high-chairs. In this jungle I came of age, and got paid for it, my American rite of passage.

I hadn’t told anybody it was my birthday until I got cut by the head manager. Another host, envious of my release, asked what I was going to do that evening. I mentioned going out with friends to celebrate my eighteenth.

The head manager, lingering at the host stand, lit up. “Eighteen! Exciting, you know what that means?”

“I can play the lottery?”

“No!” She smoldered, paused for a moment. “We don’t have to give you breaks because of child labor laws anymore!”

“The wolf mother is protective during the pups’ early days and keeps them in the den for at least three to four weeks before she will let them out into the light.”

A communal love for Leslie is fostered amongst the consequences of working for minimum wage. We laid selfish claims to shards of her. We whispered under the nose of the head manager when Leslie was scheduled to come in. She worked consecutive days bearing fourteen-hour shifts; she confided in me that she doesn’t even make as much as the servers.

Some days she is the sun, the breaking through; some days she is weary, the breaking down, withdrawn and darkened. On those days Leslie was not laughing, she shut the blinds of the office window. She would let me in if I knocked, knew I wouldn’t ask questions. Everybody defined her, put her in the Leslie box. They wanted her radiant. But Leslie’s aching is Leslie too.

Another time, a server was angry with me for how I sat a table. She got close to me, death-close, and slit my ear with, “Why the fuck did you do that?” It stung, bad.

Leslie saw it, snapped, “What did she say to you?” The concern in her voice a gun-butt to the back of my head. I turned around, met the gulf in her eyes, and came undone, left the front of the restaurant. I had seen how my hurt had bruised her in turn. I locked the door of the employee bathroom and cried.

She had told me once that she used to work in criminal investigations, quit the field when her daughter was born. The child, four or five and polished glass. After I left that shift, I wondered if she quit her old job because she knew there might one day be a gun in her face with her daughter still teething. Or that in every crime scene she might leave parts of herself behind. The situation of a worse salary and longer hours only a nail cut too short when visions of her daughter left motherless pervaded her dreams, haunting.

So much is demanded of her. The head manager just the skin; Leslie the guts and bones of everything, churning. The punching bag of the head manager, the suppliers, the customers, the employees. One morning I came in and greeted her, saw distress in her face. I gave her a look.

“They want me to fire Tasha.”

“Why?”

She shook her head, looking past me already, probably through the window of Tasha’s beater, where twin car seats sat strapped down in the back.

For all of us, Leslie was the ceiling we saw when we got knocked on our backs. A host hadn’t worked enough shifts to pay her rent. Leslie offered her a job as a babysitter for her daughter, paid part of her rent right out of her own shriveled pockets. A server was late; the head manager berated her. After, the girl told Leslie it was because her son had been Baker-acted. With a stone in her face that stayed the rest of the day, Leslie let her go home early.

In everyone’s eyes, the reflection of her daughter peering back and the fear of an ache fulfilled. Witness to all these small tragedies, she never asked mine. I didn’t volunteer them. She knew. Not what they were born of, but that they existed. The silent understanding, the first step of the thawing process.

But she endured. A blaze of eternal youth, concentrated and steadfast, propelling her. I knew no matter how exhausted I had seen her at night, she would appear the next morning, a buoy amongst so much drowning.

“Wolves may go through periods alone, but they’re not interested in lives of solitude.”

I requested a long weekend off. My parents had rented a hotel room on the coast in search of a few moments of solace. The next few days neither welcomed nor discouraged me. I chose to spend them sprawled on the sand, absorbing the breath of the sun I had neglected all summer.

I had anticipated the eventual resurfacing of anxieties about my future. They remained, despite how I tried to displace them while I had been sitting tables and rolling silverware. As I expected, they dislodged from the niches I had shoved them down in, cranky from being stifled, and surrounded me. Yet, a curiosity; they were much smaller, more restrained.

As I sat on the balcony of the hotel room, with a view of the ocean stretched out below, I turned inward, looking back. I had begun the summer with the same themes of my life; letting people talk over me, allowing my fear to corrupt my decisions. At what point had I stopped biting my tongue, raised my voice?

I saw then it was inherited from her. The vibrancy of Leslie seeping always through the air, soaked up by my undernourished spirit. I inhaled so much it had sustained me sixty miles away.

But I refused to bleed her dry. I could continue to suppress doubt, continue to avoid the halves of me I found disconcerting. Or I could refuse to remain a witness in my own life, and release my hands from Leslie’s buoy to establish my own.

That night I watched the sun descend, but I didn’t grieve it. I celebrated the dark of the night, listened to the folding of the waves, and looked forward to its resurrection.

  “When wolves lose a pack mate, there is evidence that they suffer and mourn that loss.”

August came so swollen that it pushed people out; they returned to other places, like college and school and better places of employment. The diner was less often stuffed, had a little more room to breathe. I measured time by the frequency of people coming through the front door; it became upwards of twenty minutes between customers. More and more I had my elbow on the host stand with my hand to my chin.

I had been working at the diner only a scratch above two months, yet it was time to put in my two weeks’. My last Sunday morning shift, I volunteered to be the last one cut. When I left, I slipped out through the side door.

When I got hired, I had no anticipation of going to bed excited to rise and work at the break of dawn, that I would be left mourning a minimum-wage job.

Gluten free vanilla extract is twenty-five dollars for a small bottle. I gave her the rest of it with the cookies, all I had to offer.

I wrote her a letter to say goodbye. I wanted to say, “Do you know who you have been to me?”

Instead, I detailed a moment she had likely forgotten, a late evening when her daughter was visiting the diner. The chairs were all stacked, the floors swept and trash discarded. The emptiness of the diner was amplified by the sounds of its remaining occupants. I had been tucking some menus back into a cabinet by the expo window, where Leslie was giving the cook an order before he went home. She leaned up into the openness of the frame, and the heating lamp’s yellow kiss warmed her face.

“Grilled cheese for her, but no fries. She doesn’t need them. Fruit for the side.” She paused.

“Only put strawberries in the fruit cup, though. They’re her favorite.”

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Maria Hiers is a Tampa native who finds joy in reading, writing, and travelling. She is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at Florida State University and will be graduating in the spring of 2020.

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