Joanne takes one look at me and saunters to the juice fridge. She hands me a cold V-8. She doesn’t say anything, just gives me her look; part-disappointed, part-pissed, part-what-are-you-doing-with-your life.
“What?” I mumble. It’s a hospital kitchen, so it smells like bacon, sausage, oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, fried hash browns, corn-fritters and bleach water. Normally comforting and known smells, homey even, but sweet Jesus, not today. I drink the V-8 in one violent toss, and struggle to keep it down.
“Come on,” Joanne says, “I’ve got Tylenol. Try not to breathe on the customers. You smell like vodka walking.”
Joanne is my age, twenty, but she could pass for thirty-something. She wears her long blonde hair in a French twist. Her hospital whites are bleached and ironed. Light blush and clear lip-gloss. I picked my scrubs off the floor of my bedroom. Last night’s mascara makes the rings under my eyes more pronounced. My hair is escaping the topknot that stayed put even during my neighbor, Billy’s, 2:30 a.m. pop in.
We both started in dietary when we were fifteen. Jo goes to the community college, fitting classes into her full time work schedule. She’s the day supervisor now. On breaks when I’m back from U of I, I work the hospital cafeteria from 5:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., frying eggs and toasting bagels, plating French toast and sausages.
Jo comes out to the patio and shares a smoke with me, asking me a million questions about living in a dorm and apartment. I explain it’s not as glamorous as she thinks, but Jo gets this sweet, wistful look on her face. I jive her about coming over and going for a swim. I share a summer lease at this crappy complex with Kim, a girl we both went to high school with. We live at the pool, deep into the parties that happen there. Joanne still lives with her folks. Her dad knows his way, seriously, around a Smirnoff bottle, not that he’s a bad guy. Her mom has emphysema. Jo said once that it’s her obligation to stick around. Just a drunk. But Jo’s holy like that.
I tell her how good the sun and water feel after being cooped up. How the third drink makes the place fabulous, not rinky-dink. And the fourth drink means Kim and I will dance together, pressing our hip bones together, arms draped like lovers around one another’s necks. I tell Jo if she comes over, we won’t dance with any boys, just each other, just for fun. And there’s always this teeter-totter moment that gives me hope that Jo might come, but she demurs. She’s the only person I know who can pull off demurring.
I’m at the grill 5 minutes when Vhonda, my arch-nemesis and the second floor secretary bellies up, asking for three eggs, scrambled. I make them once, twice, three times and each time she says they aren’t runny enough. I toss them and start over, and the line gathers, and I hear people shifting and groaning.
Vhonda’s this extremely bloated women with lips the color of raw liver, and a huge beehive from 1963. Her hair is so black it looks like she dyed it with shoe polish. She’s got a prune where her heart should be. The world has made her miserable and she gets off on trying to spread that misery. Jo says once Vhonda was young like us, but I imagine her coming out, full grown and wretched.
On my fourth try, I make sure the eggs are really runny, the whites gelatinous and clear, even though there is a sign behind me stating that the Health Codes dictate all eggs must be fully cooked.
“What’s wrong with you?” Vhonda bleats. “These aren’t even cooked. These are raw, not runny.” She shows them to the woman behind her and then hands me the plate. I nearly throw it at her, and then she whispers, “Just how fucked up are you?”
It’s like my hands aren’t my hands and I drop the plate. There are eggs everywhere and Vhonda rings the bell. She rings it again and again, a warning, an accusation and if shame had a sound, that’s what it’d be. And in that moment, I feel lost and convinced of my worthlessness, and what is there to do when confronted by such emotional truth and the misery of Vhonda, but go ahead and let the hot tears spill?
And then there’s Jo, like some vision there beside me, picking up the huge shards of plate, and then wiping up raw egg with a paper towel. I stand there just watching as she washes her hands and asks Vhonda how many eggs she wants scrambled, and she does it, just like that, plates them, lays two bacon and two sausages on either side and smiles. “No charge today, Vhonda. Thanks for your patience.”
Vhonda says, scooting her tray, “You could learn a thing or two from this one.” She nods her beehive to Jo. Jo stays with me, catching the line up, calling people by name, and asking if they want their regular order. There are doctors and custodians, social workers, and x-ray technicians, and they all know Jo and like her. When we have a moment of calm she lays her hand on my shoulder, looks hard at me and says so pleasantly I almost doubt it, “Fuck that miserable bitch.” And I have this feeling where I want to save Jo, save her likes she’s saved me, because this is my last summer working here, but for Jo, maybe this is her life.
She smiles at me, kindly and with great patience. “On the plus side, if Vhonda don’t sober a person up, I have no idea what will—yeesh.” I wonder then what Jo sees when she looks at me.
“Are you okay?’ Jo asks, suddenly serious.
“You don’t look it. At the lunch rush, I’ll try to sneak out, okay?”
I nod again.
“Look, people are constantly trying to put people in their place, especially here where there’s this ladder. We make the food so we’re at the bottom and then it’s the custodians and so on up to the doctors and administrators. But really, you shouldn’t know how to make Vhonda’s eggs. Only Vhonda should know that. But she’s not seeing you, you know? She’s seeing the hair net, not the person. That’s how all of us get away with being terrible. Not seeing the person or pretending not to. And you just got to be better than that because you are.”
She turns to leave, but I grab her hand. That feeling, shame I suppose, fills my belly and I don’t feel okay, not at all.
“Jo, are you okay?” and what I mean really is how’s your mom? And school? And will you make it out of here? And for a moment, I think she’s going to tell me. It’s quiet and warm, and the refrigerator hums and holds the dozens and dozens of eggs snuggly in their cartons, and the tiny creamers and individual margarines. And I think maybe I am the way I am because I don’t feel safe, and my parents’ home is not mine any more but neither is my crummy apartment, or even the pool and the never-ending party. I fled my parents’ expectations first chance I got, but I hold out my hands for their money just like Vhonda held out her hands for that plate. Instead of taking care, I do what I can to feel wild, shattered like that plate Jo picked up, mistaking that feeling for fierce aliveness.
Jo shakes her head like she’s waking up, smiles like she’s my supervisor, which she is, and she says, “Totally.”
Barbara Harroun is an Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Text Magazine. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can be found walking her beloved dog, Banjo, or engaging in literacy activism and radical optimism. She can be found at barbaraharroun.com.