Backlit, faintly glowing, she waves me to a booth by the window, one of the narrow ones she knows I like, with cushiony seats and natural light, good for reading. I have a book on my tray as always.
I come in every Wednesday after therapy for the vegetable plate, $2.99 plus tax. Today I’m having lima beans, mashed potatoes and applesauce—soft foods, because my teeth are loose. I’ve been grinding again, probably that’s why, though there may be a deeper reason. My teeth may be crumbling from within.
My therapist says worry is a way of pretending you can control things you can’t. Like your bones turning to chalk.
The cafeteria lady takes my tray. She is old, with hunched shoulders, a feathery mustache, gray hair done up in a net. Her eyes are small and dark, darting, seeing everything at once. She has many jobs. She greets customers, helps them find tables when the room is crowded, which it always is at lunchtime—shoppers, store clerks, tradespeople, retirees from Cameron Village, office workers like me, but never anyone I know, so I’m safe here, no threat of conversation. It’s best to avoid conversation after therapy, the same way you don’t go swimming right after a meal. You need time to digest.
Some customers need help setting food on their tables. Some expect her to fetch their condiments. She can gauge exactly how much attention each of us needs.
She checks my drinking glass. “Sweetened?” she asks, in case I want refills.
I can’t imagine a more perfect hostess. Or a more unlikely one. Because all the while she’s greeting customers and setting tables and collecting trays and ferrying condiments and tea pitchers, she is also shaking uncontrollably. She has a condition that causes tremors in her hands and arms. Her elbows shudder like baby-bird wings.
In the booth next to mine, two men finish their lunch. She has been keeping an eye on them. She plucks a spare tray from the tray station and carries it over, trundling along in her crepe-soled shoes, regular as clockwork. The instant the men get up to pay, she moves in. She scrapes their leftovers onto the tray and stacks their dishes, small bowls into larger bowls, larger bowls on plates. She stands their silver in one man’s empty water glass. She rights the salt and pepper. Her hands tremble, they jerk, but she is methodical, unhurried, even when a young woman walks up behind her and wants the booth. The young woman is wearing a tailored suit and spike-heeled shoes. She looks important, shifting her weight from foot to foot while the cafeteria lady, who doesn’t carry a rag like the other girls, drains a little water from the second man’s glass onto a clean cloth napkin and wipes the table: there now. She clatters off with her tray full of dishes.
The young woman inserts herself into the booth stiffly, as if she might snap in two. There is nothing fluid about her. She is thin, her hips narrow like mine. Manicured hands, no wedding ring. Probably no children: her face is closed-off, unmotherly.
If you don’t have children you’re more likely to go through menopause early. Your body stops preparing for something that isn’t going to happen.
My body figured it out when I was thirty-nine. Now I’m fifty-two and my doctor says I’ve lost bone from my hips. Not much, but she wants me to take a drug. This drug could corrode my esophagus and, in a single dose, weaken my jawbone so that if I ever have dental work I might not heal. My doctor isn’t focused on these side effects, which she calls rare. She’s focused on the fifty percent mortality rate associated with hip fractures. If I don’t take this drug, I could break my hip and die. My doctor is trying to motivate me. She knows I dislike drugs; she also knows I’m anxious about my health — she prescribed a sedative for my anxiety. Sedatives increase your risk of falling and breaking a hip.
I’m skeptical of the bone-loss drug, but I take my doctor’s warnings to heart. I take calcium and Vitamin D supplements. I walk. Most days I walk at lunchtime, twice around the Capitol in my pantsuit and Adidas. And when I walk I think, Careful, you could fall, you could die. Even though the high mortality rate is for elderly patients. Even though the stress of worrying about falling can cause bone loss. Stress activates a hormone that leaches calcium.
I work on the fourth floor of the legislative office building, researching and writing memos for lawmakers. Researcher Four: the highest level state researcher you can be. My office is small but private. I can close my door, take off my shoes and practice yoga poses: tree, stork, eagle, skater. The standing poses are supposed to improve your balance and reduce your chances of falling.
Government work is honorable if not especially meaningful. I take some small pride in my resourcefulness and my clear, organized writing. Still, I will be happy to retire. In three years I can draw full benefits.
The cafeteria lady’s work is never-ending. She can never clear a table or refill a water glass and say to herself, There, I won’t be doing that again.
When a big family gets up from the round table in the middle of the room, she’s ready with her tray. She scrapes and stacks their dirty dishes—so many; the tray is too heavy for her to carry to the dishwasher. She will have to leave it for one of the younger, stronger girls. And all the food on the floor, from the children, she will leave for the girl with the carpet sweeper. She knows her limits.
She wets a napkin and wipes the table. Returns condiments to the condiment station and organizes the station: ketchups behind ketchups, mustards behind mustards, A-1s behind A-1s. Everything in perfect lines.
She turns and greets another family.
My doctor is young and pretty, with three young children whose pictures are everywhere. She wears stylish boots with her white pants and smock. Her hair is long and straight.
“I like your hair,” I told her last time. More and more I feel the need to ingratiate myself.
“Thanks,” she said. “I have to spend a long time on it. If I don’t, it looks like yours.” Meaning curly and wild—another symptom of the change. When I was young, my hair was sleek and straight like hers, only naturally.
Another symptom: bumps that come up on your eyelids and make your eyes feel full of sand. It hurts to blink. The best treatment is hot compresses made from Eyebright teabags. If these don’t work, I resort to the antibiotic ointment my doctor gave me.
Does she judge me—my doctor—for going through menopause early?
Does she judge me for my dry eyes, my wild hair, the lines on my face? Especially the grooves from my mouth to my chin. Marionette lines.
Does my doctor, with all her children, judge me for my failed pregnancies? They happened long ago, but they are part of my history. I have to write them down again every year when I go in for my physical.
I told her I had reservations about the bone-loss drug. She prescribed it anyway.
“Be careful to follow the pharmacist’s directions exactly,” she said. “You have to stand up for at least half an hour after taking each pill, until it’s all the way through your esophagus.”
When my glass is low, the cafeteria lady comes around with a pitcher. This is one of her jobs, to appear at the right time with the right pitcher. With some people, regulars, she might sit and talk a minute. It’s an act of grace, her sitting down with you.
Some days all she does is visit with people. No refills or bussing tables or collecting condiment bottles or serving anyone anything. Just chat. This is an important part of her job, to make the cafeteria feel welcoming and civilized. The other girls are not capable of chatting with customers. Some have mental problems. Some have speech impediments. Some don’t know English.
“More?” she asks me, her voice a crackly alto.
She always speaks to me but never sits. It’s the book, I think; she doesn’t want to keep me from my reading. I wonder if she notices this is the same book I’ve been reading for weeks. I’ve renewed it once already.
She leans over me, her elbows fluttering, her pitcher trembling. The tea tosses and quakes. The ice rattles. But somehow she doesn’t spill a drop. I have never seen her spill a drop, and I watch her closely.
The dining room is divided into three sections: front, middle, and an area for large groups in back. I sit in the front section whenever possible, for the windows, and because it’s where the cafeteria lady spends most of her time—though when I sat here last week she never came out of the middle, where she knew a woman having lunch and kept stopping by her table. I ended up reading my book and leaving early.
Today I am rewarded for my patience. She’s working the front, and three booths near mine empty out in quick succession, so I get to spend my whole meal watching her clear. I’m careful not to stare, but merely glance up from my book. There are condiments to be put away, too.
“It’s not like I worry for nothing,” I tell my therapist. “My grandmother had bad teeth. By the time she was my age, they’d rotted and she had to have them all pulled.”
“Mm,” my therapist says.
“She thought dentures would make her look young again. She was beautiful when she was young. She didn’t know how uncomfortable they would be. She never got a good fit. Finally she quit bothering.”
My dentist says maybe I should wear my mouth guard all the time, not just at night. Because both awake and asleep, I tap my front teeth together and grind the back ones and clench my jaw muscles. I recently chipped a tooth, and two of my incisors are loose, the same two I knocked loose when I fell last summer. It was only heat exhaustion, but I had to have an MRI just in case. The neurologist, a big, smiling, Yogi Bear-like man, clipped the films to a light board to show me. “It’s nothing,” he said. “It’s just your brain getting older.”
A woman in the cafeteria line looks like a cartoon: her legs are too straight; her shoes are pointed in exactly the same direction.
Down the line, people stare at food through the steamy glass, their eyes hungry and hopeful, their faces orange in the reflected glow of heat lamps over roast beef, Chicken San Francisco, yams, peach cobbler, biscuits.
The bread lady asks the man in front of me, “What bread, sir?”
The man has a gentle face and long wavy hair, like Jesus. “None, thank you.”
“What bread, ma’am?”
“A soft roll, please.” You don’t have to bite a soft roll, or chew it even. You can tear it with your fingers, put the pieces in your mouth and let them dissolve.
At the end of the line, a woman prints the slips we will take to the cashier when we leave. She’s younger than the line workers, and glamorous, with red fingernails so long the tips curl under. “How many in your party?” she asks me, as she does every week. How can she not know by now?
The cafeteria lady is working the front section, padding around table to table, collecting stray Sweet-n-Low packets. She wears tan Easy Spirits that match her tan pants, a tan apron over a crisp white blouse. She is bigger at the bottom than the top, like a tree: sturdy trunk, nervous branches.
The long-haired man walks up behind her, lays a hand on her shoulder and smiles around at her, a beatific smile. She seems surprised and happy to see him. They talk. They are old friends. He keeps his hand on her the whole time. People are always touching her this way: kindly, on the shoulder, on the arm, as if to stop her shaking.
This is how an anxiety attack comes on: you feel a little off-kilter. You don’t understand why. The not-understanding makes you even more disoriented. Your heart speeds up. Your hands and feet get wet, your tongue dry. You start to go numb. A pins-and-needles feeling spreads from the back of your neck down your arms, across your chest, over your solar plexus. Your doctor will write this down as parasthesia.
You might get dizzy and short of breath. You might feel faint. Twice I’ve had to call for an ambulance when I thought I was passing out. I’m fortunate to live downtown where the ambulance arrives quickly, within three minutes.
When the emergency room doctor diagnosed me, both times, with anxiety, I took it as a judgment. No, I said. I must have had an allergic reaction to something.
She gets off work at two. At ten ’til, without fail, she stops whatever she is doing and gathers her things: sweater, purse, styrofoam takeout box—her supper, I imagine. For people who have no one else to cook for, this is an easy and nutritious way to eat. I sometimes go through the line a second time to get extra food to take home.
I used to eat supper with the game shows on TV. I liked the challenge of Jeopardy, the happy crowd noises of Wheel of Fortune. But now that the drug companies are allowed to advertise, every commercial break is a scary litany: all the ways you can suffer and die if you don’t use their medicines, all the ways you can suffer and die if you do. So I canceled my cable and joined Netflix. I rent DVDs of old shows—Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith. Light-hearted shows in black and white, with no commercials to give me nightmares.
I wonder: does the cafeteria lady shake in her sleep?
Some days I catch only a fleeting glimpse of her. Last week she never showed up. I ate slowly, waiting. Two o’clock came and went. Finally I got up to pay. I asked about her (“the one,” I said, “who pours tea for people?”) and the one-armed man at the cash register told me she’d taken the day off.
“Is she sick?”
“No, ma’am, she took a vacation day. In seventeen years she’s never been out sick.”
How could I begrudge her a day off? But I wished it hadn’t been a Wednesday.
A nervous day, today. Driving here, I slammed on brakes for the shadow of a bird crossing the road.
Two booths away, a man in a greasy uniform and workboots is complaining to his friend. He has bad skin and a loud, twangy voice. He’s telling his friend how his wife left him a year ago and still hasn’t picked up all her stuff. “Bitch could rent a truck,” he says.
I wish I could make a tape of him. I would play it for my therapist whenever she asks if I want to get married again.
He tells his friend all the ways his wife used to attack him: she threw keys, threw her pocketbook, threw herself across the room at him, fists flying.
“I don’t have a violent bone in my body,” he says. “She drove me to it.”
He ruins my experience of the cafeteria lady, who is busy in our section, retrieving and arranging condiment bottles. She is focused, intent, like a crow collecting shiny objects. But who can relax and watch her while there’s this man with his blackheads and his voice like a banjo?
You hear about hot flashes, night sweats, forgetfulness, mood swings. You don’t hear so much about thinning bones or loose teeth or bumps on your eyelids. Or fear. Menopause can overtax your adrenal glands; they can misfire and cause random surges of fear and panic. Not many people know this. Men don’t know this. Men say, Why are you always so afraid?
My minister says fear is a failure of faith. If we truly believed in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting, we would not be afraid of death.
Today is Ash Wednesday. The cafeteria lady comes to my table carrying a framed cross-stitch another customer made for her, an early Easter gift. The cross-stitch is a verse about our risen Lord.
“Have you ever seen anything so pretty?” she says.
“I never have,” I say.
She reads the verse aloud.
“That’s lovely,” I say.
“More tea?” She starts for a pitcher.
“No thanks, I’m swimming in tea.”
She looks at me, puzzled—am I making a joke? She smiles, just in case. Then wanders off to show her gift to someone else.
I imagine her going home after work, hanging her cross-stitch on the wall, studying it from different angles to be sure it’s straight. Then sitting down, shaking her head and saying out loud, “Swimming in tea.” Still not sure whether to laugh.
Stop worrying, my therapist says. Decide how to take care of myself, do that, and let go. Start with my teeth. Wear the mouth guard at night. Maybe a quarter-tab of Xanax before bed to help with the grinding.
But even on Xanax I have nightmares: my car going over a cliff, etc. Dreams so obvious they’re not even interesting. Even in my sleep I roll my eyes thinking, Right, we all know what this means.
Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life?”
The cafeteria is not calm today. There are children running around, shrieking, making me glad I never had any. I wolf down my vegetables and make my lists and don’t linger. I don’t even bother looking for the cafeteria lady, though on my way out I ask about her.
“She isn’t here,” the one-armed cashier says solemnly. “She won’t be back.”
I pretend not to know what he means. I don’t want to know. “She retired?”
In his kind, slightly nasal voice, he tells me everything. How she came to work last Thursday complaining of a bad headache. They told her to sit down; she did, then couldn’t get back up. They called for an ambulance and she was taken to the hospital, where the doctors found a blood clot in the back of her brain. “It was about to burst,” he says, “and they said when it did it could cause blindness or paralysis. They upset her so bad she fell into a coma. She only came out once, for about thirty minutes.” He’s still in shock that the cafeteria lady, who was eighty-three, could have gone from having a “clean bill of health” to dying so suddenly. “We made a big fuss,” he says. “We sent deli trays, and everybody signed a card and put in money for the family, to help with the burial expenses.”
He waits for a word of sympathy, his face earnest and hopeful. I want to say the right thing. But all I can think is, I didn’t even know her name. As if my knowing it would have kept her alive.
“Good of you,” I say. Can he hear in my voice what has been taken away from me? What has ended? “She was special.”
He takes my money in his hand and sends my change down a chute from the cash register. “A servant of God,” he says.
There are things I believe in. The sky, the sun, shade trees, birds, bird feeders. I believe in the smell of gardenias. The gardenia bush in my back yard is blooming; I can put my nose in it. I believe in washing my hair every other day to conserve both water and my hair. I believe in drying my clothes on a line, and growing my own tomatoes, and returning library books when they’re due.
I believe in remembering people. I believe that memory is a form of afterlife; it’s how we stir the spirits of the dead.
Is it necessary to believe in more? Is it enough to want to?
My yoga teacher moves with a slow grace. She has a gentle voice. She tells the class, “You have what you need.”
Our final pose is Savasana, corpse pose. We’re supposed to lie flat on our backs and let go of everything, the weight of our bodies, all our thoughts and plans. Return to the earth. Like we’re practicing for death.
But I can’t stop thinking.
I’m imagining a time years from now, maybe sooner, when I can look back and say to myself, Remember when your teeth were shifting and you worried, but then they settled and everything was fine? Or maybe I’ll say, Remember when it was only loose teeth?
The teacher lightly taps her chime, ping, pang, pong, and we open our eyes.
Spinach, yams, beet salad.
It’s been months. The cafeteria lady has been replaced by a man. A plump, white-haired, apple-cheeked Santa Claus of a man, with a carpet sweeper in one hand and a little paper cap on his head. He does everything fast, without any help. He’s friendly, jovial even, with a deep loud laugh. I am friendly in return, out of respect for the cafeteria lady. But all his ho-ho-ho and bustling and bobbing around only makes my friend’s absence more noticeable: her slow, measured pace, her attention to small things, her quiet quaking.
I don’t watch the Santa man. I don’t watch anyone. I eat; I read.
This book is about how to stop bone loss without drugs.
Eat leafy greens.
Walk in the sunshine twenty minutes a day.
Get enough sleep.
Don’t drink coffee or tea; don’t take antacids.
Use herbs: horsetail to build bone, dandelion root to aid digestion, white chestnut flower to calm “worries that go round and round.”
Every night before bed I practice deep-breathing: in on a count of four, hold seven, out on a count of eight. This is supposed to keep my nightmares at bay.
One night I dream about the cafeteria lady. She comes to my table for no reason. “Everything all right?” she says, and, ignoring my book, sits down.
Kim Church’s stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Painted Bride Quarterly, Mississippi Review, Flash Fiction Forward (Norton), The Great Books Foundation Short Story Omnibus, and other publications. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received fiction fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council, the Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center. She recently completed her first novel, Byrd, a fragmented family history of a child given up for adoption. She is now working on a novel set during the Gastonia textile workers’ strike of 1929. She lives in Raleigh with her husband, artist Anthony Ulinski.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: “Cafeteria Lady” is a story about fear and aging inspired by Yeats’s “The Wild Swans at Coole.” For my narrator, Yeats’s swans take the form of an elderly K&W Cafeteria hostess, a character modeled after the late Myrna Morton of Raleigh.
Q: If you were a musical instrument, what would you be?
A: My 40-year-old Guild guitar, dark red, mellowing.
Q: Who are your literary heroes/influences?
A: Eudora Welty, Alice McDermott, Joan Didion, Amy Hempel, Roddy Doyle, James Salter, Wislawa Szymborska, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Strout, Jhumpa Lahiri.
Q: Where is the perfect place for writing?
A: A treehouse. Or an upstairs room with a window in a house on a hill.