Everybody Wants to Rule the World
I wake up with the early morning mist. Zennen has already gone to work. He’s a garbage collector. He often starts before dawn to get his route done. Mom and the twins are still asleep.
I pad to the fridge and cabinet, making myself another bowl of cereal with milk. The vinyl floor is cool under my feet. The wooden chair creaks when I settle into it. The only sound is the ticking of the cat wall clock, the early morning birds, and my crunching.
I’m still in my practice clothes from yesterday: basketball shorts and a massive T-shirt, courtesy of the Goodwill men’s section. $1.99 in total. What a steal.
Eventually I brush my teeth, run a brush through my long, thick, tangley brown hair, scrape the crusty sleep from my eyes, and get dressed for work.
One Nirvana T-shirt, unbuttoned plaid flannel, loose-fitting pair of jeans, and black pair of converse later, I pick up my skateboard to head out the door.
At the last second, though, I backtrack to the sugar bowl in the corner of the countertop. Mom’s secret cash stash, where she hides all her tips. I’m pretty sure only Zennen doesn’t know about it.
I pull my wallet out of my back pocket, slide out a twenty, and slip it into the sugar bowl, closing the lid. Then I head out the door.
The early morning is a sauna, steamy and heated. It sticks to my skin as I skate down the cracked sidewalks to work. I bump and jostle past the laundromat we go to, past the diner and arcade and various churches of God knows how many denominations, none of which are full on Sunday.
My long, craggly hair blows behind me. I think about those stained-glassed, steepled buildings a lot. We haven’t really been in one, except for Christmas and the occasional Easter, since Dad left and we moved away from Georgia. We used to go with my grandparents. Now we don’t go at all. I miss having my grandparents only a few blocks away. We spent summer mornings like this in their backyard playing detective, eating Gram’s cookies, and sipping lemonade. But I guess we all have to grow up sometime.
I skid to a stop in the parking lot behind Skinny’s Pizza. We technically don’t open until eleven, but I like to show up early and get the place prepped.
Skinny’s car, a Plymouth Road Runner from the ’60s, gold, with longhorn antlers on the grille, is parked in front of the back door. I kick up my board and carry it under my arm as I push open the screened back door. It keeps a breeze blowing through the hot kitchen.
“Morning,” I say to no one in particular, because no one is in sight.
“Ah! My favorite employee,” I hear old Skinny exclaim. I have to walk past a rack full of cans and jars to see him crouching under the prep counter, organizing utensils. He’s probably in his early forties, balding on top, large and round, with a big nose and a thick neck. His armpits are always drenched, but they never stink. The guy permanently smells like pizza.
“Hey, Skins,” I say, still carrying my board. “No one here yet?” I look around the greasy kitchen.
“Naw. It was a late night. I told ’em they could come in around ten.” He stands up, rubs his hands on his pants. “If you want, you can get to work setting up the dining room.”
I nod. “Okay.”
I set my board up against the wall by the supplies closet and get to work. I fill up all the napkin dispensers, all the salt and pepper and Parmesan cheese shakers. I roll the silverware, set out the ketchup and mustard bottles. I make sure there’s ice in the cooler under the soda fountain, plenty of glasses and straws on the shelf above. I run the vacuum over the maroon and green carpet, wipe down all the menus, booths, and tables, and by the time I’ve organized the carry-out boxes I know I’m just killing time. My body is jittery, as if I drank a butt-ton of coffee.
I cross the swinging door from the dining room back into the kitchen, where the cooks are now arriving and firing up the pizza oven. In ten minutes, we’ll all be dripping with sweat.
“Hey, Skinny,” I call, my eyes roaming over the salads Mikey and Elaine are preparing on the cool steel counter. “Anything else you need me to do?” He’s in the walk-in fridge now while delivery truck drivers are hauling in fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms. He directs them where to go.
“Yeah, set that one right there. Great. The ham goes over here.”
“Skins,” I say loud enough for him to hear me. He looks up, mouth open.
“Uh, go get your drawer set up. We’re all good back here.”
The kitchen has come alive with water running, metal clanging, chopping, shouts, and sizzling. It’s getting its usual roasted garlic and basil smell.
I head out to the counter in front of the order-up window, where I count in my cash register drawer. That’s what I do, my official job: I take orders and payment, relay it to the kitchen, and send food out to the floor or customers for carry-out.
I pluck a toothpick out of the complimentary Styrofoam cup next to the register and gnaw on it as I count in. I thumb the bills so fast it’s like they’re flying from one hand to another as I count. The wood turns moist and almost soft in my mouth. I focus on that, avoiding thoughts of football and the punch-worthy face of Justin sneering at me as I face a list sans my name. I shake my head, shake off the sudden drop in my stomach and flash of rage. My face is hot. I let my cool slip. And lost count.
I sigh and recount the quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. I watch the clock and unlock the glass-front door at exactly eleven. I straighten , flair, and re-straighten the menus next to me.
I answer the phone, take orders from little league moms and block party dads. I yell through the kitchen window, clip the tickets to the overhead turntable. A couple, probably fresh out of middle school, comes in and orders Hawaiian pizza. They insist on feeding one another. Lucky me, I have a front-row seat. Young mothers with their playmate kindergartners take corner booths, smattering tomato sauce everywhere. I entertain myself by recalling as many customers who’ve sat in the same booth or table as I can. I deliver greasy, steaming trays to person after family, never forgetting a face.
I pour myself an ice-filled cup of Pepsi and sip the straw as I wait for more action. I like weekends when it’s popping. The stress awakens me.
The door clangs open. I glance up. My insides turn to Jell-o.
“Hey, Stephanie,” Justin smiles, taking off his sunglasses. He’s with his usual pack - three boys, two girls. Two of the three boys tried out for football yesterday. The other is a basketball star at our school. Jamal something. Davis, that’s right. Jamal Davis. And the girls, I could’ve known without looking up. Of course Melissa and Kelsey are with him.
I slide on my stone face.
“Welcome to Skinny’s,” I say. “What would you like to order?” I sound so disinterested, I impress myself.
“Nothing, with that attitude. Lighten up, sweetheart.” Justin flashes a smirk. Damn his perfect teeth.
“Ew, Justin. I don’t want any grease-bomb pizza. Grody.” Melissa, the short curly ginger-haired, freckle-tan girl with him sticks her finger in her mouth in faux-gag. “C’mon, let’s bounce.” She wraps a twiggy, sun-spotted arm around his bicep and attempts to pull him away.
It’s so subtle, I would’ve missed it if I’d blinked. At her touch, his face, for a milisecond, contorts into a cringe. He does a good job at muffling it, however. In a snap, he’s back to his normal I-Own-The-World face.
“Hey, c’mon babe. Just order a salad.”
Kelsey, Melissa’s purse pooch, chimes in.
“Even the salads are greasy here.” With long, ramrod straight dark brown hair parted down the middle, large brown eyes, and massive eyelashes, she resembled a Chinese Crested. She even trembled like one, she ate so little. Her blood sugar is probably constantly low.
“It’s olive oil dressing,” I say. “With vinegar and spices.”
“Vinegar? Seriously? That stuff is like bleach! Are you trying to kill us?”
“C’mon,” Melissa says again, tugging on Justin’s arm. “Let’s go.”
“Alright,” he relents. He flashes me one last smile. “I’ll see you on the field, Stephanie...or, not. Best of luck.” His football friends snigger and sneer as they lope off.
I almost think they came in here just to taunt me. But that would be flattering their intellects. I doubt they could think ahead that far, let alone premeditate an encounter.
The bell on the door tinkles as they jostle out, voices booming with popular-kid laughter. It always sounds so careless.
That’s the only reason I envy them. I never want to be like them, all mental and moral rot. No, I hate the fact that they don’t have a damn thing to worry about. I wonder I’d probably turn out that bubble-headed and ignorant, if I’d grown up like that.
The afternoon winds up with my nerves. I’m shaking like a leaf, literally knee-knocking with nervous nausea. I don’t eat, and that tips off Skinny.
“Hey.” He confronts me as I chomp a toothpick and bounce a clean spoon on the counter. “What’s this?” He picks up the basket of untouched mozzarella sticks, stone cold, and shakes it at me. They rattle and shift, crumbs grating against their waxy wrapper. I muzzle a gag.
“I ain’t hungry,” I say, resting my chin in my hands. My knees were buckling on me, so now I lean my whole weight on the counter.
“I seen you watchin’ the clock,” Skinny says. “You keep lookin’ at it. What, you got some hot date you waitin’ on?”
“No, nothin’ like that,” I say, straightening up. I grab a straw wrapper, examine my hands as I twist, roll, and curl it. He just stares at me in silence for a long time. Then, he says,
“Get outta here.” Not cruel. But like an admonition. Like a “go for it”.
“What?” I look up. His red-streaked eyes lined with purple bags meet mine.
“Go. Get out of here. Do what you gotta do.”
“But what about the dinner rush?” I say, tearing the straw wrapper to little bits.
“You’re way over your hours, kid. Again.” He smile-sighs. “I’ll call in Cindy. Enjoy your day - what’s left of it, anyway.” He claps me on the upper arm and brushes back into the kitchen. My stomach churns. It’s time to face The List. If I’m on it, I’m on it. If I’m not, I’m not.
I sweep the bits into the garbage, toss my toothpick, grab my board, and roll towards my high school. The roster will be posted on the gym doors, just outside the athletic director’s office. It will be up at 5, in ten minutes. I would know; I’ve gone with Calvin every year to see his name on the list. As if he wouldn’t make it.
I arrive just in time. There’s the A.D. now, taping the list to the door. I tighten my gut, steeling myself against a suckerpunch. Some of the guys are there, crowding him, shoving each other out of the way. Freshmen. They thump each other on the back.
“Dude! We made it!” they cheer.
It occurs to me that guys like Justin won’t even bother coming. They already know their place on the team. Guys like him get everything.
I suck in a deep breath and hold it as I approach The List, my converse scraping on the concrete. The guys already there back away, like I’m some sort of pariah. They fall silent. My eyes land on the list. I slide my finger down the names, black print on white paper. Langford, McIntyre, Owen, Price, Richards, Stevenson. No Rogers.
Yet those shrimpy freshmeats made it.
“Huh,” I say. “Okay.” I nod. Shrug. Back away. “Okay.”
I didn’t make the team, but they did? I don’t think so. It’s my senior year. Don’t tell me sexism wasn’t at play here. If they think not having a spot on the team is gonna get rid of me, they have another think coming.
I turn away, ready to kick-start my board and roll off, letting my flannel shirt and long hair flap in the wind. I stop, though, when I hear my name called. I look up. I shield my eyes with my hand to block out the sun. It’s Calvin.