Ann swung the glass door open. She was on time for her shift at the deli; it was a lunch and dinner place only, so the baker showed up at seven, but no one else got there until 8:30. She was working cashier again. The kitchen team all acted like their work was much harder—slicing the meat and tomatoes, prepping the freshly baked sandwich rolls, making the cookies, blah, blah. All Ann knew was that the opening cashier had a list of things a mile long to do, and there was only one of her.

She walked quickly behind the counter. She clocked in at the cash register and printed the receipt, which she carefully folded and put in her pocket. She donned her green apron; she already was wearing her regulation T-shirt and visor.

You got one T-shirt and one hat free when you started, but you had to pay for anything else. Unless you wanted to wear the same T-shirt every day, which Ann did not recommend, you had to spend some of your tiny paycheck on extra T-shirts with the deli’s name emblazoned on them. Some of the shirts also had jalapenos with smiley faces, in honor of the signature jalapeno-cheese-sourdough bread.

When Ann first started this job three months before, the jalapeno-cheese bread practically set her mouth on fire. However, for every four hours you worked, you got a free sandwich or individual pizza, and by this point, all the food tasted like mush; the jalapeno-cheese bread was the only thing her palate could still detect.

Ann said hi to Ginny, the manager. When Ginny interviewed her for the job, she seemed surprised that Ann had a college degree. “Why do you want to work here?” she asked.

“Well,” Ann replied, “I just graduated with my teaching degree, and since this is January, if you hire me, I can guarantee I won’t leave for at least eight months.” Ginny seemed pleased by this; Ann soon learned that in food service, eight months was practically retirement-with-a-gold-watch territory.

It turned out that Ginny also had a college degree. “What was your major?” Ann asked. She was wondering why Ginny was working there.

“German and history,” Ginny replied. They looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“Well, what were YOU thinking?” Ann asked.

Ann got started on the dining room. All the chairs had to be taken down from the tabletops. The closing crew was supposed to clean the tables and mop the floors, but one glance told Ann that no one had bothered. She sighed and got out the mop water; she knew that if Ginny saw it, she would make Ann stop everything and mop it anyway, so she might as well do it first.

She mopped the floor quickly; the dining area wasn’t that large, maybe 25 tables. The people on last night’s closing crew were useless. Two of them, including the team leader, were total stoners, and Ann was amazed they could even close out the register and lock the door, forget finishing the whole closing clean-up list. She knew without checking that they hadn’t taken care of the bathrooms, either.

Cleaning bathrooms had scared her at first. But each bathroom was a single room with one toilet and one sink—the guy’s room had a urinal, too—and on the whole, they were rarely all that bad.

Taking out the garbage from the giant dining room trash cans was definitely the worst. The first time Ginny had yelled at her to grab the garbage during the lunch rush—Ginny was always yelling because it was so noisy back there, and she was relentless about people keeping busy, so if the line was down, you were supposed to find other things to do—Ann was mortified. It was one thing to take out garbage and clean toilets when the place was closed. It was another thing to walk through a crowded dining room, pull out the can, grab the nasty bag full of wet food trash, replace the bag, and then walk out carrying the whole mess.

But like everything else there, once she did it a couple of times, she stopped thinking about it.

Lately, Ann had started to think that it wouldn’t be so bad to keep working there. When she asked Ginny how much money she could make full-time, Ginny stopped, stared at her, and offered her an assistant manager position on the spot. She said Ann would make around $26,000, which sounded like a fortune to her—minimum wage in Florida was $5.05 an hour then. She wouldn’t have to find a teaching job, start coming up with lesson plans, deal with parents, all that.

Ann finished up in the bathrooms and filled the ice bucket. She had to lift the big green bucket all the way over her head to dump it in the soda machine, and that never got any easier. Some people could fill the whole thing with one trip of a full bucket; Ann had to make two half-full trips.

She started the coffee machine and got the iced tea going as well. Ann didn’t drink either of those, so she had to be taught how to do it. She also had to be taught how to warm up the soup; it came pre-made in these giant frozen packs. You cut off one end of the plastic and squeezed the whole thing out in a big chunk into the soup pot. Then you just turned on the warmer setting, and in thirty minutes, voila! Soup.

It occurred to Ann that she never before had been taught anything really useful at all.

Opening time. The line formed slowly, then, gathering speed, soon stretched all the way to the door. Ann was super fast and accurate on the cash register. She kept the line firmly under control, while in the kitchen, Ginny bellowed orders at the prep and finish workers.

There was Daniel, the assistant manager who always had country music on in the kitchen, even though he was from New Jersey. He and his girlfriend had a little baby girl. They were also both in bankruptcy at the present. He had told Ann the differences between the various types of bankruptcy and the benefits of each. He also told her they had their spending under control now.

Dottie, the pierced and inked party girl, was tiny but fierce. She taught Ann how to make the salads and mentioned, with no small amount of pride, that she herself had been taught by the owner’s wife. Her salads were always beautiful, filled completely to the top of the clamshell and perfect in their symmetry.

Zee, the team leader with grey front teeth, was terrifying. She bossed Ann around a lot but also took her under her wing. She told Ann all about her husband, then told her he wasn’t really a husband, but she called him that anyway. He showed up one night when they were closing, and Zee was oddly solicitous of him. Ann thought Zee was scared of him.

Her co-workers had, she thought, opted out of the straight life she had been living, with all its expectations of conformity. All that was expected here was that you show up and do the work for the assigned period of time.

Her friends behind the counter were the one wearing uniforms, but they were all more different from each other than the oddly identical people who stood in line every day. All wearing a version of the same office outfit. All trying to convince each other that they were on their way up, that they would be a person worth knowing, worth having in your NETWORK.

A man arrived at the front of the line and did a double-take, “Amy? Anna? No, it’s Ann! Remember me? I worked with your student teaching prep class last spring.”

Ann was floored. She had moved to Orlando for the anonymity, for the unlikelihood of seeing anyone from school.
The man turned to his friend and said, “This is Ann. She was one of the undergrad students I worked with. She just graduated! I mean, she’s just doing this for now, temporarily…” his voice trailed off, a little uncertain now.

Ann froze, her smile stuck in place. She felt exposed, transgressive somehow. For the first time, she felt ashamed of where she was. She looked at the customer’s hopeful face and saw that he was waiting for her to validate her life as well as his own, to endorse his choices by claiming them for herself.

She sighed inwardly and spoke, “Yes, for sure. I’m already putting in apps for teaching jobs.” He and his friend smiled, took their change, and wished her luck.

Standing numbly, Ann knew she soon would meet expectations again. She would fall in line, just like the people waiting patiently to give their orders, waiting to be served.

Kay Summers is an emerging fiction author with a 20+ year career in communications. She’s written on behalf of others for so long that she started writing fiction to make sure she still had a voice. She does.