The barbecue restaurant is slammed. Our waitress is tall. Blue-eyed. Middle-aged.
After she takes our order, she waits on the party across from us. At that table: four adults, and a five unruly kids. The children holler in voices loud enough to affect atmospheric conditions.
The waitress takes their drink orders. She disappears, then reappears with a tray held over her shoulder.
When she nears their table, a little boy stands on a chair. He reaches for his drink before she has even set the tray down. Everything topples.
It is a disaster of Charlton-Heston-like proportions.
One of the men in the group—a man covered in sweet tea—says a terrible word to the waitress.
She places hand over mouth and apologizes. Soon, he is half-shouting, attracting the attention of every patron.
Cleanup takes a while. The waitress is on her hands and knees beneath their table. She gathers ice cubes, cleans the floor. The adults are angry with her.
The kids play with phones while she takes care of the mess.
The man of the group calls the manager over. He tells them their meals are on the house. The family eats, then leaves.
They leave no tip.
“Have a nice day,” the waitress says to them when they walk out the door.
When she delivers our food, her eyes are red, her face is puffy. She places plates on the table and asks if there’s anything we’d like.
“No ma’am,” I say.
She cleans their vacant table, takes plates to the kitchen.
Her manager approaches her. I can tell by his body language that he’s unhappy.
She takes her scolding like a hero. She nods with every word he says. She walks away, composed and tight-lipped.
She checks on us again. She refills my tea and makes polite conversation. She smiles. She asks how the food is.
To tell you the truth, the food is god-forsaken. But that’s not her fault. To call this place a real barbecue joint would be a stretch.
“The food is superb,” I tell her.
She brings the bill. I look it over. There is a name on the print-out ticket. Cassie.
All I can see is my mother. The woman who once wore a food-service uniform. Who worked as hard as Forty-Mule Team Borax
At the end of the day, I’d watch Mama empty loose change on the kitchen table, counting quarters and ones.
When tips were good, it was steaks and ice cream. When tips were bad, she sat, looking at her lap.
My mother was like any hardworking woman. She made sure your order was how you wanted it. She’s refilled your Coke, scrubbed dishes, and made pleasant small-talk.
She’d tell you to have a nice day, even if she wasn’t.
After I pay, Cassie hands me a folder with a receipt.
“Have a nice day,” she says before leaving.
I open my wallet. I have three twenties and a five. My wife digs in her purse. She has two twenties and a ten. I wish to hell it were more, Cassie.
Have a nice day.