Friday, 23 September 2011

Another instalment: Under

Another chapter (NOT sequential) for UNDER, the saga of young women in the dawning age of the X Files:


Kara at Work (Night)

Humidity lies over the city like a damp woolen blanket, driven down upon man and beast by a heat of over thirty degrees Celsius. There are weather warnings in effect: people with respiratory disorders, or the very young or the very old, should stay inside and avoid the heat. All others are advised to take it easy.

The restaurants in the City do not care. Almost all of them thrive in this weather, when people are too hot to cook for themselves. The irony, reflects Kara, is that after deciding to abandon their hot homes and hot stoves for cool and effortless dining, they invariably decide to eat on an outdoor patio underneath the crushing anvil of humid heat. The only reason she can come up with is, that people in the City spend so much of the year battling blizzards and snow that they feel they simply have to dine outdoors whenever it’s warm enough – despite the fact that the current weather is just as uncomfortable, in its way, as the weather they suffer through during the colder months.

Kara likes to be busy, and she wants to make money. But she hates working the patio with a passion. It is at least an extra twenty yards farther to run with dishes and drinks, with the added inconvenience of a flight of stairs to climb. She finds herself embittered towards her clients and her employer at times like these; times where the City itself has issued a warning to all citizens – not just those who don’t work in restaurants, but indeed to all citizens – to avoid any unnecessary exposure to the outdoor elements. Not only is Kara exposed to these elements, she is in fact racing and hauling and lifting and stacking and exerting in these insane temperatures. The restaurant has a perfectly functional air conditioned dining room which every patron seems determined to ignore. With utter complacency, they expose themselves to the dangerous heat and humidity outdoors, while placidly requesting Kara make return trips with more ice, more water, more napkins to sponge the perspiration from their well-to-do brows.

The demands do not end there. Kara remembers the early summer, just as the punishing heat became a daily occurrence. There is a beautiful tree growing in the middle of the terrace, providing shade by day and ornamentation by night, strung with white electric fairy lights. In early summer, a species of lime-green insect bred in the tree, resulting in intermittent cascades of tiny pale-green bugs onto diners, onto their food and into their wine. Customers kept summoning Kara to their tables, snottily insinuating they’d like a fresh carafe of wine “because there are bugs in this one”. In vain Kara tried to point out that the tree was generating the insects, not the restaurant itself. Finally, when she began bringing wine by the glass to the offended diners, protected by a napkin over the mouth of the glass, and came back later to find the guests fishing the bugs out with their teaspoons and drinking the remainder, she realized the customers knew the restaurant was not battling an infestation. But people kept bitching about the green bugs anyway. Kara would say: “We have plenty of seating indoors. There are no green bugs and it’s air conditioned.” Some took her up on it, but most remained outside, ensuring Kara had to keep running the extra yards to bring them extra napkins and teaspoons to deal with the green bugs, and to bring them extra ice water to deal with the heat. She sucks it up and counts her money, but the heat is a crippling addition to the physical demands of the work.

“I don’t fucking get it,” she once vented to one of the cooks. “I rarely get to eat out and to be honest I rarely want to... I spend too much time working in restaurants to really enjoy eating in one. But I can guarantee you, if I’m going to set out forty or fifty dollars for a meal, I’d like to eat inside in an air conditioned, insect-free dining room, thank you very much.”

“Preaching to the choir, doll,” the cook had replied. They were propped against the side of the restaurant, in the brick recess created between two buildings, so the cook could have a cigarette and catch some fresh air between rushes.

Kara had immediately been contrite. “Sorry, Tim,” she said. “I know it must get a lot hotter back in the kitchen than it does outside.” Tim puffed a cloud of smoke towards the lamp over the side door and said nothing.

Tonight, though, with sweat pouring beneath her blouse and her short hair almost completely soaked with perspiration, Kara wishes she were working in the back with Tim. At least she’d be in one place, only having to take a step here and a step there. She wouldn’t be hauling ass up and down stairs, breezing through the air conditioned dining room for mere seconds before plunging into the heavy humidity of the outdoor terrace. She sets her empty tray down on the stand beside the computer, and uses her forearm to sluice moisture from her forehead as she slips behind the bar to mix a margarita. One of the dining room servers throws her a perky smile.

“Hot out there, eh?” she offers.

“Mmmm,” replies Kara, loading ice into the blender. As the newbie, she has to take whatever sections the other servers don’t want to work, and she has been a good sport about it so far. The job is profitable and she doesn’t want to lose it, but she can’t help wishing the others would offer to let her work indoors occasionally.

In this weather, iced cocktails sell very well and the restaurant’s owner has had margaritas on sale ever since the heat wave struck. Kara can put one together in less than six seconds, without even thinking about it. She rapidly measures mix and tequila into the blender and hits the go-button, watching the ice chunks blend into a velvety blizzard of pale green. Quickly she runs a lime wedge around the wide circumference of an oversized cocktail goblet, then inverts the glass and dips it into a saucerful of salt; the lime juice causes the salt to form a thick, frosty-looking rim around the glass. Kara stops the blender and lifts off the glass jug. The lime-green slush pours into the goblet, which she garnishes with more lime wedges and a couple of straws.

She runs water from the small bar sink into the blender jug to rinse it out. While the jug is filling she snags two bottles of Moretti beer from the cooler beneath the bar and uncaps them just as the jug begins to overflow. She takes the necks of the bottles in one hand and sets them on her tray beside the margarita as her right foot kicks the cooler door closed. Her other hand is turning off the water in the sink and dumping the water from the blender jug. She gives the jug a quick wipe with a towel and places it back on the blender unit, and deftly picks two beer glasses from the overhead rack and arranges them on her tray as she’s already exiting the bar. It is important to do all this before the booze in the ’rita has a chance to melt the ice too much and thereby water down the flavour.

A customer at a table facing the bar has been watching this little production, and offers Kara a smile as she passes him with her tray.

“That was poetry in motion, honey,” he grins.

“Thank you, but if you saw it at the end of my shift it might seem more like a dirty limerick,” Kara replies, hoping she sounds more cheery than she feels. Thankfully the man laughs, and Kara heads out to the terrace.

Through the dining room and down the terrace steps trots Kara, carefully watching the ground so she doesn’t trip. (She’s heard this can be sudden death when carrying a tray of drinks; other servers tell her that the way to carry a full tray confidently is to keep your eyes forward and your steps sure. However, after watching a fellow-server go ass over tip down those stairs a couple of weeks ago, Kara keeps her hands on her tray and her eyes firmly on her feet.)

Outside, a light blessing of a breeze has thankfully begun to blow. The moon is out and almost full, and the white fairy lights in the tree in the middle of the terrace make it seem like the stars and sky are very close. Kara delivers the margarita and the two beers, and picks up some empty plates and some orders for more drinks. The terrace seems to be emptying out rather early for a weekend night; apparently there is a big outdoor music festival at a park two blocks away, which is drawing a sizable post-dinner crowd.

Many people begin asking Kara to prepare their checks so they can leave for the concert. With a sense of relief, she heads inside to the computer, glad to know she might finish up a little early. She prints the checks off and returns the top of the terrace stairs, flipping through the guest checks and looking at all her tables to make sure she will give the right check to each customer.

The moon is low in the sky, and the dozen or so margaritas dotted at various tables around the terrace catch its illumination and glow a ghostly, alien green.

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