It’s 4:28 a.m., and, for now, he tucks his anxiety into his shirtsleeve.
He unlocks and opens the kitchen door and flips switches. Fluorescent lights blink and buzz to life and shine on sterile steel countertops. This early, his workplace feels cold and impersonal. His job, as he sees it, is to warm it up and bring it life. An hour and fifty-five focused minutes later, sun shines through windows and he studies a long row of food as coworkers slide serving utensils into dishes. Oatmeal, eggs, veggies, meats, and toast sit under heaters. Special meals—low-glycemic, low fat, and vegetarian—stack neatly, name tags in place, ready to be served. Milk and orange juice are cold, coffee and water are hot, and everything’s tidy and clean.
His worries creep out, climb up his arms, and zap him in the chest. I only have $7.56 until payday, and I need to go grocery shopping tonight. Deep breath, he tells himself. He smooths his apron, walks out of the kitchen, and opens the dining room door. He greets his “guests,” as he sees them, and welcomes them to breakfast.
She pulls aside the curtain and lets in images of tall trees with robust, leafy foliage. Rising light fills the room, so she turns off Mary’s bedside lamp. At 6:30 on the dot, she rubs rose-smelling lotion into Mary’s hands and forearms. Mary tells her about her grandson—straight A’s this semester—and her crossword puzzle (they’re tough, but Mary always knows the most obscure words). While she listens, she brushes Mary’s hair, helps her to the bathroom, and guides Mary’s arms, legs, and head into freshly ironed clothes. Her stomach knits into knots with a pang of jealousy as she helps Mary to her chair: Mary’s so secure—so safe. Why can’t I have that?
She—with her throat tight with emotion—tucks Mary’s feet under a knitted blanket. Next, she’ll visit Nancy. Her job, as she sees it, is to help people know that they matter—that they’re loved. Still, her mind races with thoughts. She heads into her next room and tries to ignore them.
He and she, even as they serve others, feel stressed. He’s worried that he won’t have enough to buy food for dinner that night, let alone the next couple of days while he and his wife watch their granddaughter. She’s panicked that she’ll lose her electricity again, and she’s calculating how much it will cost to borrow money to pay for a late fee and monthly charges. Payday’s on Friday, just four days away, but life costs money now.
They confess their concerns to each other at lunchtime and mask the depth of their fear with sunny dispositions; neither wants to bring the other down, and embarrassment puts its finger to their lips. But they need advice, and their dedication to their families trumps their shame. Don’t take out a payday loan, he tells her. His $300 loan cost him $900. Try beans and rice, she recommends. They’ll go far and benefit from some cheap seasoning. At the end of their forty-five minutes together, they part ways. She knows she’ll take out the loan, and he knows he’ll incur overdraft fees to buy milk and some vegetables for his growing granddaughter.
That afternoon they manage the kitchen and tend to others while their minds remain fixed on their money. They’re a little less present, slightly less kind, and sharp with their colleagues. They love the people they serve, but they’re trapped by calculations of invisible numbers, calendar days, and impending conversations with service providers, loan sharks, and bankers.
For he and she, four more days means ninety-six more hours filled with clenched jaws, tight shoulders, and gut-wrenching stress and guilt. What a way to wait for payday.
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