Ainsley switched hands as she poured a sweet tea so she could get a better look. Sitting at Table One was a young family. They were bored and anxious. The mother was trying to entertain her little boy with cubes of ice she had fished out of her cup with her straw. The father was shuffling a stack of menus as he kept glancing over his shoulder, hoping to see their server return.
Ainsley shook her head. “I dunno. Who’s table is it?”
“The new girl,” Teresa said, putting her hands on her hips. She scratched her forehead as she tried to remember the new girl’s name. “Jessica.”
Ainsley scanned the small diner. Jessica, of the black and pink color scheme, was nowhere to be seen.
“I’ll go take care of Table One.” Teresa sighed, loosening her apron. “They’re going to want to be seeing a manager anyway. You go find Jessica.” Teresa slammed her apron onto the counter top.
“Drop this off at Four, would you?” Ainsley handed the sweet tea to Teresa. “Thanks,” she said before Teresa could object.
“Ainsley?” Teresa called before Ainsley could even take a step.
Ainsley turned back to her, her eyebrows up, asking “what?”
“Where do you get your hair done? I love that haircut of yours.”
Ainsley smiled appreciatively and a little self-consciously as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. Teresa was lying. It was a lie Ainsley appreciated, but it was a lie. Teresa was such a good liar, the way she shook her head and marveled over Ainsley's hair, that Ainsley began to wonder if she was sincere.
Whatever it was, Ainsley didn’t have time for it. It was only half way through the lunch hour, all of her tables were full, a line was forming at the door and a waitress was missing. She feigned embarrassment and turned away, doing her best to walk a jog.
Table Four looked at her with wide eyes that asked, “where’s my tea?” Ainsley smiled, didn’t break her stride, and pointed over her shoulder, to Teresa. Table Five had just been delivered their two orders of pasta primavera. They would be needing drink refills and an extra basket of breadsticks in the next few minutes. Table Six sat eagerly awaiting her arrival. She wished she could ignore him, but she had to smile.
“Miss?” said the eighteen year-old boy.
“Ooh,” said Ainsley, screeching to a halt. “I am not a ‘miss.’ I couldn't have been older than two when you were born.”
He had a young face, dotted with pimples and growing in a splotchy beard. He would lose the pimples one day, but he was always going to have that face and he was never going to have that beard. Guessing his age was impossible.
“Sorry,” said the boy, scanning Ainsley’s chest for a nametag and not finding one. “I don’t know your name.”
“It’s Ainsley – what can I do for you?”
“I’m done,” said the boy, pointing to his empty plate.
“Ah.” Ainsley fished her pad out of her apron, thumbed to his ticket, tore it, and handed it to him. “You just pay at the register. Have a great day.”
“Um,” said the boy, not letting her leave. “You were really good.”
“I do my best.” She said sincerely.
“I would like to, uh . . .” the boy was nervous. His cheeks were blushing. “How could I show my appreciation?”
“Actors respond to applause, comedians respond to laughter. Waiters and waitresses respond to tips.” Ainsley smiled.
“Yeah . . .” the boy dropped his head and stared at his receipt. There was a hesitation in his voice that made Ainsley curse herself. The boy didn’t have any money. He had ordered a grilled cheese and a glass of water. "What if I took you out on a date, instead?"
Ainsley laughed, but not mockingly so. "That seems an awful lot like rewarding you for all my hard work."
The boy couldn't help but laugh, too.
"I like your pluck, but I'm going to have to say 'no.'" Ainsley spotted a large pad of paper sitting in the booth beside the boy. “Are you an artist?”
“I’m an art student,” offered the boy feebly.
“That’s your Steno pad?” Ainsley nodded past the boy’s lap.
“Um . . .”
“Draw me a picture.” Ainsley suggested. “Then, when you’re dead and famous, I can sell it and retire.”
The boy laughed and shrugged, “sure.”
Ainsley escaped the boy and ducked into the women’s restroom. “Jessica?” She called. “Jess?” She peered beneath the bathroom stalls. Empty. Ainsley spun out of the restroom and headed for the backdoor. That’s where she found Jessica.
Jessica, sixteen years old, sat in a ball just outside. Her hands were trembling and her eyes were welling up tears.
“Ainsley! Hey! Hi!” Jessica pulled up her shirt and wiped her eyes with its collar.
Jessica shook her head. “There’s just so many of them! I had three tables! Four people at one, two people at another and three at the other! They wanted water with no ice, water with lemon, unsweet tea, sweet tea, Coke, Doctor Pepper, a hamburger hold the pickles, a hamburger with extra pickles, spaghetti with marinara, Alfredo sauce to dip the breadsticks in, salad with dressing to the side, salad with extra dressing, macaroni and cheese instead of a side vegetable, extra this and . . . and . . . and . . . I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m prone to panic attacks and they were asking questions and I’m supposed to be able to answer them and . . . and . . .”
Ainsley sighed. There was not going to be any speeding through this problem. She leaned against the wall and slid down it to sit next to Jessica.
“It’s okay.” Ainsley put her arm around Jessica and rocked her. “It can get kind of scary. Is this your first job?”
Jessica nodded and wiped away more tears, feeling more foolish.
“My first job,” remembered Ainsley, “was in this three-storey restaurant. The first floor was a bar, and the second and third floors were the restaurant. My goodness,” she shook her head, “could it get crazy.”
“Where’s that at?”
Ainsley shook her head, “back home. New Orleans.”
“You’re from New Orleans?” Jessica hiccupped.
“Why on earth would you ever move to Happy Valley?”
“Katrina.” Ainsley said, a crack in her voice revealing more more emotion than she wanted. “But don’t you worry,” she covered, “I’m going back some day. Now c’mon. You can’t let your fears shut you down like this. Because everything you’re afraid of is still in there, waiting for you. On your feet!” Ainsley stood and then pulled Jessica up. “This is just The Dinner Table. Nothing too scary in there. But if you disagree, I’m here for you. Teresa’s here for you, and if you’re nice to her, Beth’s here for you.”
“Boyfriend left this for you,” said Teresa as the girls walked back in. “Sorry! I didn’t realize what it was. I almost threw the thing away!”
Ainsley unfolded the piece of paper Teresa was handing her. The boy, the artist who couldn’t afford a tip, had decided to draw her. She couldn’t tell if it had been a quick sketch or something he had labored over – and she wasn’t sure which she preferred.
“Five wants breadsticks,” Teresa grumbled.
Ainsley refolded the art, stuck it in her apron, and went back to work.