Getting Crisper Here
by Rachel Waterman
Runestone, volume 9
Runestone, volume 9
Getting Crisper Here
by Rachel Waterman
You walk into the back door of Rusty’s Diner at 2:58pm, which gives you just enough time to tie a teal apron around your waist, stuff two dead pens and a small notepad into its honey-colored pocket, and step out behind the counter before your shift begins. Albert is already taking orders for his famous Rusty’s milkshakes from teenagers looking to satisfy their after-school urge for something sweet.
“Hey Al,” you say. “Ever gonna tell us what the secret ingredient is?” He shakes his head and grins before responding that, no, he would never consider it. You watch as he places a cherry on top of a whipped cream swirl about two inches tall, shouts order up! and slides the milkshake across the bar table into a waiting hand. You like the diner and its predictable chaos almost as much as you like snacking on the leftover food every night. You like Albert, too, even though he won’t let you in on his secret that you’re pretty sure doesn’t actually exist. He gave you a job when you were old enough to have one, and his 75 years of wisdom is comforting. He even came to your grandma’s funeral. Each booth is now squished-full with conversing high schoolers, so you make your way down the aisle to pour cups of water and feel like a fly on the wall.
A girl wearing a crimson Harvard crewneck with her hair pulled back into a high ponytail announces that everyone needs to be spreading the word about the walkout tomorrow – it’ll be the school dress code’s funeral.
Another student with a pixie cut, a tight black tank top, and thick silver rings on each of their middle fingers tells a group of musicians about a new riff he had just learned on the electric guitar. The band’s next gig is coming up in two weeks.
Another teen rehearses to his friends how exactly he plans to tell his parents he wants to study art in college next fall. His dad is a lawyer and his mom’s a nurse, and he needs to make sure he gets the words just right. His friends tell him it doesn’t matter if his parents understand or not – it’s his life, not theirs.
On the other side of the aisle, a girl in an oversized t-shirt and faded ripped jeans soaks up every detail of her friend’s breakup from the night before. She does her best to be supportive and vows to punch that stupid guy in the gut the next time she sees him. You deserve more than his half-ass love anyway, she says.
Suddenly someone orders a black bean burger. It takes a moment to remember you’re a waitress, even as you balance three plates and two glasses on one arm.
At the window into the kitchen, you tell Levi the order. He’s 23, one year older than you, and his dark brown hair is always pulled back into a bun underneath his hair net. He slaps the burger onto the grill, and you watch as the grease bubbles up and begins to spit. Levi asks you if Guitar Man got their record deal yet. No, but they have a gig coming up in two weeks. You don’t know where. But you tell him that the school dress code is about to die. He wonders if Harvard Girl will become a community activist or a public servant. You hope, somehow, it’s both. Suddenly, the supportive friend accidentally knocks over her glass as she acts out how she’ll punch that stupid guy who hurt her friend. The glass flies off the table, hits the edge of the booth, and shatters as it hits the ground, and you rush to clean up the mess amidst a slew of I’m so sorries. You continue your rounds throughout the diner, smiling to customers, quietly delivering orders and balancing tables worth of dirty dishes in your arms as you go. The conversations fizzle out, and the diner gradually empties and fills and empties again. You take home $27.85 in tips, which is $1.58 per table and 52 cents per customer. You’re good at math.
The next afternoon you go to your mom’s house because she asked for your help cleaning out a desk that had belonged to your grandmother, Elsie. There’s a good chance she actually intends to have you do it by yourself. Somehow, your mom got the itch to sell the desk on Facebook Marketplace. Apparently, a similar desk had sold for a pretty good price. You wonder why a 58-year-old woman who just learned how to use emojis and text with two fingers, instead of one, has suddenly become so interested in making money online. She has little trust for technology and little trust for people, too, which is unfortunate, you think, because she could have been happier.
“I want to buy a microwave,” she tells you. She’s sick of cooking and wants to start buying pre-cooked meals again. It’s easier. Since you work at the diner most nights, she usually has to eat dinner alone anyway. You’re not sure whether you should feel bad.
“Elsie’s desk is in the back room. Just take everything out of it and dump it in here,” she says as she hands you a medium-sized trash bag. Your mom has light brown hair, the color of sand, that reaches down to the middle of her back. Her eyes are brown and green all swirled together, just like yours. She wears bell-bottom jeans and lives in baggy sweatshirts because she can. Normally she doesn’t care about much, but right now she seems uncertain. Right now, she looks like a person who doesn’t understand how she can miss someone she was never very close to.
The desk looks forgotten in the corner of the room. Like it was put there out of convenience and ignored ever since. You take your index finger and begin spelling your grandma’s name across the top of the desk surface and immediately regret it – its edges prime for sliver-giving and the dust that erupts into the air makes you sneeze two and half times. The desk is made from some dark wood, you have no idea what kind.
You remove the bottom runnerless drawer and set it on the floor. Inside there are handwritten note cards with various words and their definitions. You learn that petrichor is the smell of the first rainfall after a dry spell, the Welsh word hiraeth means a deep longing, and that vacuous means thoughtless and empty. In the bottom of the drawer there is a worn copy of a third volume, second edition Webster international dictionary. The second drawer has a full set of canvas paper, a stapler, and some old news articles that feel random to you, even though you know they weren’t random to her. There is also a thin silver key thrown in among the old papers, and you notice that it’s for the top drawer. Perfect. If your grandma were here, you’d tease her about how well she hid the key.
The top drawer has some blank postcards with pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty. You knew your grandma dreamed of traveling, but you thought she’d never left town. Along with the postcards there is one photograph of your mom and grandmother, both looking so alive. Your mom looks like she is about ten years old, her hair still straight and sandy, but shorter. She looks like she’s laughing. Your grandma is wearing a green knitted sweater and her loose curls sit on her shoulders. She looks happy, too. At the bottom of the drawer, there’s a pile of paper torn from one of those yellow legal notepads, but when you flip them over you see your grandma’s loopy cursive handwriting scrawled out across the pages. You think they might be letters, but the notes aren’t addressed to anyone. You glance at the first one.
Sept 23, ’74
The air is getting crisper here, and autumn has come again. I think about how you used to stomp on every leaf you could find because you loved to hear them crunch. Then I think about you and your paintbrush and how you would have painted the Earth’s golden, fiery scenes. They used to say to you, ‘Paint your magic into the world. Go look at everything and show us what you see.’
You never knew your grandma very well. She seemed pensive and drawn inward the few times you saw her, always focused on something or focused on nothing, but you could never tell. You start to wonder how much you actually know about her, so you stash the letters in your bag for now, along with the vacuous notecard. You like that one the best. Your mom is in the kitchen eating a piece of peanut butter toast when she says she doesn’t need help putting the desk up on Facebook Marketplace, and you decide to believe her. It’s 2:28pm, and you need to be at the diner soon, but as you’re walking out the door she gets curious enough and asks if you found anything interesting. You decide to go with a half truth.
“I don’t know,” you say. “There was a photograph.” It was as pathetic as your mom had hoped, and she finished chewing the last piece of her toast before she replied.
“I knew it was all trash.”
Back at the diner, you make your rounds again. This time, Harvard Girl says that everyone should be reassured. The dress code will die, but revolutions take time.
Guitar Man asks Albert if he and the band could play a few songs after school every day. Maybe get paid a little? Albert laughs before saying there’s no money in the budget for rock band serenades at Rusty’s, but keep reaching for your dreams, kid. It’s too bad, you think. That could have been interesting.
The shift went by in a blur. As Levi finishes wiping down the counter top, you untie your apron and sit down, throwing your bag on the stool beside you. Levi hands you a mug of warm milk, just how you like it, and sips on his own cup of chamomile tea as he leans against the back of the counter.
“Where are you today?” he asks.
“A piazza in Rome,” you say before asking him the same question.
“I just reached the top of Mount Everest,” he said while grinning. “No big deal.” You imagine what that might be like. Thin air, wind in your face, but all for a spectacular view. You look out the window now and see the brown slush and faded crosswalk in the street.
“I thought you’d say something darker. Like maybe you’d enjoy hanging out at the bottom of the Mariana Trench or something.” He laughs and tells you he’s not always brooding. You wonder why you like thinking so much about other places when you always stay close to home anyway. For you, only the imagination is home to other places.
“How was operation cleaning out your grandma’s desk?” You pull out the letters from your bag.
“Look at this.” And you begin where you left off.
I go to the supermarket every week, and I look at my list of what I need. Apples, red ones with no bruises, so I buy the ones with the bruises. One pack of elbow noodles, so I buy a pack of penne. The garlic and basil marinara that he likes, so I buy any kind but that. He never does tell the difference.
Nothing is very interesting anymore.
In the house, I run out of worthwhile things to do. So I go out. I walk down the cracked sidewalk on Harriet Avenue, and when I pass by the neighboring houses I think about what the people who live there are doing. In the yellow house next to mine with the red 1973 Pontiac Astre, there is a woman who hosts a book club every Tuesday morning. Does she enjoy hosting parties or does she dream of all the possibilities she can only read about? Maybe both are true. A young girl lives in the blue house on the corner and skips school when her mother volunteers with the women from church. Maybe she doesn’t get along well at school, or maybe it bores her.
I sometimes find myself at the record store down the block. I scan through the records before heading home again just to see what’s there. Sometimes on the way back I sing to myself any song I remember. Sometimes I feel like Alcott’s Little Women. I have built my castle in the air, but I know that I will never live inside it.
What would you think if you were here?
Both of you are silent while reading the letter a few times over. You take a sip of your drink, and Levi says your grandma sounds depressed. That’s probably true. You think back to the notecards you found. All the words were beautiful, but their meanings are heavy, just like the letter.
“I wonder who she’s writing to.”
“Your guess is better than mine,” he says as he shrugs. Levi takes a look at the vacuous notecard and reads its definition. “Maybe she feels her life was this way. Like there was something missing.”
The rest of the letters are similar, and you read them all just as slowly as you drink your cup of warm milk. She writes about making apple pie every Sunday. About her husband’s insistence that dinner be ready at six sharp. She writes that the church congregation is akin to the high school cafeteria the way that words get around so fast like that. She writes of watching a young boy steal a library book and about the beauty of the dandelions that grow between the cracks in the sidewalk and pop up in well-manicured lawns to every owner’s discontent. Her melancholic joy for the small things pains you, and so does her attempts to transform herself back into the past. The person to whom she is writing seems to stay the same. Someone she used to know. Someone who was observant and wondered about what they saw. Someone who painted.
“She could be writing to anyone.”
“Who knows,” Levi says, “maybe the little painter was herself.” You remember the way your grandma looked at the world, as if she was witnessing incredible meaning and no meaning all at once. You remember the canvas paper in the second drawer of her desk.
“That’s one explanation for why she never sent them.” Part of you resists that answer, while another part of you believes it to be true. It makes you think about the diner, your mother, and her microwave. The way you like the word vacuous. The way you listen to high schoolers talk about their lives – the things they hope for – at the exact same time every afternoon. The way you dream about all other places but here.
It was getting late. You take the last sip from your mug and set it aside to clean the next day. As you place your bag onto your shoulder and turn to leave, the bottom of it swipes across the counter, knocking over your mug. It falls on the floor and shatters, and you pick up the pieces.
One by one.
RACHEL WATERMAN is a recent graduate from Bethel University where she studied English literature and writing and graphic design. She is passionate about all things creative – art, music, and literature, and will forever be in awe of the power of storytelling. This is her first creative writing publication.