“Maria!” Helen, the shift manager, shouted to the back of the kitchen “Get you’re head out of your ass and get back to work! We got a full house out here, and I asked for fresh plates ten minutes ago!”
Maria was fixed in place, staring at the linoleum backsplash behind the industrial-sized sink.
“Hmm? Oh, yes ma’am of course!” She shook herself out of her daze and continued scrubbing the plate she started on minutes earlier.
“Gloria,” A waitress addressed another
“Whatchya want Sarah?” Gloria asked, hardly paying her any attention. She was too focused on not cutting her fingers while slicing up fresh lemon wedges.
“What’s up with that dishwasher girl, Maria?” Sarah placed a few fresh wedges in a pitcher of iced tea for table five.
“What do you mean? She do that thing again?” Gloria counted her wedges, noticing a few were suddenly missing, she grabbed an extra couple of lemons from a nearby box.
“Yeah. She just loves to stare at that wall doesn’t she?” Sarah looks around and leans into Gloria’s ear “Is she… you know, special?”
Gloria sighed and placed her knife down on the cutting board. “Do you mean retarded?” Gloria was an older woman and had little tolerance for euphemisms. “Say what you mean girl.”
“Well, I guess if you put it plainly, yeah. Is she?”
Gloria chuckled and continued her work “No, she’s just as right in the head as most of us, girly. She just gets lost in thought sometimes.”
“Is that what that was?” Sarah look back at the dish pit “What does she think about do you think?”
“I don’t know, girl- Ow!” Gloria shook her hand and sucked on a finger. “Why don’t you go ask her your damn self and stop bothering me?” She gathered her lemon wedges into a plastic container and stormed off.
‘Maybe I will’ Sarah thought
Typically after work, Sarah and a couple of other waitresses would smoke by the rear entrance to the restaurant and talk smack about the fry cooks or complain about crappy customers they had that day.
Maria had to pass by them to get to her bus stop and did so every day, but this was the first time Sarah noticed her.
“Hey!” Sarah called her “Maria, come here for a minute will ya?”
Maria approached “What’s up, Sarah?” She had her soiled apron folded neatly in her arms
Sarah took a long drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke away from those gathered “What’s with that thing you do?”
Maria tilted her head slightly “Thing?”
“Yeah,” She stomped out her smoke “That thing you did earlier. When Helen yelled at you?”
Maria nodded in recollection “Oh yeah, I just get lost in thought sometimes. I’m an artist, and sometimes I daydream about what I’m going to work on next.”
“An artist huh? What do you draw?”
“Anything really. I just see the world around me and get inspired.”
“Got any examples of your work with you?” Sarah asked, mildly interested
“Yeah! Want to see?” Maria reached into her bag and drew out a large black sketch pad. She flipped through it excitedly.
“This is my last one!” She held a rough looking sketch of an old woman reclining in a cushy chair. “I’m still working on the shading, but I think it turned out well!”
Sarah took the sketchbook in her hands and examined it. She was no art expert, but even she could tell it was amateurish at best.
She handed it back to her “How long you’ve been doing this?”
“Couple of years, but I practice every day. My grandma says she has seen vast improvements!” Maria placed her precious sketchbook carefully back in her bag “One day I hope to be a full-time artist and inspire others like me.” She said grinning ear to ear.
“Yeah,” Sarah looked to her fellow waitresses and back to Maria “That’s cool you want to draw kid, but you can’t make a living doing art. Trust me.” The other ladies nodded in agreement
Maria’s gaze lowered to the concrete floor “I mean, I know it’s not going to happen tomorrow or anything…”
“Look,” Sarah placed a hand on Maria’s shoulder “I’m not saying you shouldn’t practice and not try. I’m just saying that drawing is a fun hobby, and your not bad, but I just don’t want you to get crushed is all.”
Maria nodded, still downcast “I know it’s hard, but I can still try right?”
Sarah chuckled “Yeah, I suppose you can.
Maria gave a weak smile and resumed her route to her bus stop.
“To be young again,” One of the other waitresses said with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth “filled with hope and dreams. Then you get old, and you find out life’s a bitch, huh Sarah?”
“We all got to find out eventually” She agreed.
Sarah started taking more notice of Maria after that day. She still daydreamed, and Helen would get on her case. Sarah would share a chuckle with a coworker every time it would happen. “Kids” they would often to say to each other mockingly.
She noticed that every lunch break Maria would sit at a booth and just draw anything. Many times it was just whatever was around her. Like the napkin dispenser or a ketchup bottle. Sometimes it would get more complicated like crazy looking stars systems or wavy looking nebulas. No matter what the subject she had a look of pure bliss on her face.
Before Sarah realized it, months and even a couple of years went by, and Maria, true to her word, drew every single day.
“Hey, Sarah?” Maria asked while closing up shop one winter day
“What is it, kid?” Sarah hoisted a couple of trash bags over her shoulder to take to the dumpster
“Remember a couple of years ago, you told me how hard it was to be an artist?” Maria opened the back door for her.
“Oh yeah. Look, Maria, I didn’t mean to shit on your dream or anything.” With a grunt, Sarah tossed the heavy bags into their appropriate bins
“No I know,” Maria started, “you said that you knew how hard it was. I was wondering how you knew. Like, where you an artist too?”
They walked back in together and welcomed the warmth of the restaurant “In a way, but not with pictures.”
“When I was your age, I wanted to be a director.” Sarah readied a bucket of mop water
“I thought it was.”
“What did you direct?”
“Just a couple of short films for college.” Sarah replaced the old mop head and dunked it in the bucket.
“What made you stop?”
Sarah rubbed her neck “I had this idea for a movie and pitched it to probably every production company that existed then,” She slapped the wet mop on the floor and started scrubbing “every single one of them shot me down. Running out of money, I had to get a job to pay my bills. And then” Sarah paused a moment “I don’t know. I just became less and less interested in trying anymore. No one wanted to see my work. No one cared.”
“What as the movie about?”
Sarah paused her work again and glared at Maria “Look, kid, no offense, but butt out ok? It’s ancient history. Just remember that the fairytale life you were promised as a kid doesn’t always work out. Life is expensive, and eventually, you need to get practical. Get me?”
“I understand.” Maria examined the sudsy mop water “But we all need something to live for, right? Being alive with no purpose or dream, I don’t know, is that really living?”
Sarah sighed deeply “Just get me some more mop water will you?” Maria looked at the mop bucket and saw it was still full, but not wanting to press the issue further, she did as told and returned to the back for another bucket.
Sarah stopped looking for Maria after that day. She tried as much as possible to avoid going near the dish pit and avoided all eye contact her. Before she knew it, her life had returned to the way it was, and she was happy for it.
“Gloria,” Sarah asked while Gloria was making fresh lemonade at the prep table “What is it, Sarah?”
“Do you mind asking Maria for more saucers for me? Table seven wanted some tea.”
“No can do” Gloria squeezed another lemon into the pitcher
“Come on Gloria, you know I don’t want-”
“I can’t because Maria hasn’t worked here for the past month. Helen has been filling in her position until we hire a replacement. And I ain’t telling my boss what to do.”
Sarah paused “What? Why did she go? Did Helen have enough and just fire her?”
Gloria laughed “Na, nothing like that. She told me she had been applying to a bunch of graphic design companies for the past year. One of them finally took her up. Offered her a full ride at some school as well for training.”
“A full ride?” Sarah stood motionless “Wow… that’s… good for her” She wiped a tear from her eye
“You ok?” Gloria turned around and looked at Sarah.
“Hmmm? Yeah, just got some dust or something in my eye.”
The next week, a letter came in the mail at work addressed to Sarah. She opened it and saw a beautiful drawing of herself holding a camera. Behind the picture was a short letter.
Thanks for taking me under your wing and teaching me about the hazards of the artist life. Your wise words helped me to understand that rejection was a part of it and to keep going. After months of applying, I finally landed my first gig! They will be paying for my college and everything!
I know in my final weeks at the restaurant you didn’t feel like talking with me much, but I wanted to thank you all the same. And to tell you it’s never too late! I’ve been meeting a lot of executives, and they have mentioned getting a film crew together for a couple of documentaries. Just give me the word, and I’ll drop your name!
Wishing you and everyone the best.
“Hey Maria, It’s Sarah”
“Hi, Sarah! Did you get my letter?”
“Yeah, I did… Um, do you have a minute to talk?”