It was the fourth of July, and everyone was celebrating elsewhere. Kay’s Burgers and Fries, on Cherry Street in Seattle, was a small brick building between a dumpster and a beauty supply store that was rarely open. The owner of the establishment leaned across the counter from Sara and scanned her application like it was the Sunday crossword. The waitress, who was nine months into her twenties and six months into her first pregnancy, sat with her feet up at a round metal table and stared out the window that looked out onto the dumpster.
“What do you wanna wait tables for, Richter?” Kay called everyone by their last names. It was a habit she’d picked up from her late husband, who’d served in the Marines during Vietnam. A framed Polaroid of him in front of a flat-top grill hung on the wall.
“I don’t,” Sara said, and a frown further creased Kay’s nicotine-etched face. She continued, reassuring Kay that she wasn’t wasting her time. “I’m answering your posting for a cook.”
Sara’s voice was deep and placid, but it rippled slightly when she expressed her need for a job. It was the first time in her thirty-six years that she’d had a definite need for anything.
“Oh, right, I put out something for both. I got two waitresses ready to hatch.” Kay pulled a pencil from behind her ear and started to scribble on the application. “Can you work late afternoons, nights? We close at 11.”
“Yes,” Sara replied, nodding, “I’ll work anytime at all.”
“You’ll work Jewish holidays?” Kay raised her head and looked over Sara. She was tall and blonde with high cheekbones and large blue eyes. “I suppose that won’t affect you, but I just like to be upfront. This is a business: We’re open every day but Christmas.”
“I understand,” Sara said. “I’d actually like to work long hours.”
Kay grabbed Sara’s hands. They were firm, thin, and unmarked, without even the mild irritation from wearing rings.
“Well,” Kay said after a moment’s careful study, “you’ve either never worked a day in your life or you’re pretty good.” She tapped her on the knuckles. “All right, come with me and we’ll sort you out.”
Kay took Sara through a pair of swinging doors into the kitchen. It was clean but cramped with barely enough room for the cook, who Kay introduced as her son Kevin. He quickly straightened himself to match Sara’s height and wobbled slightly on the leg he’d injured in Iraq. The wound was self-inflicted, much like the war itself, but accidental, so there were no medals or honors, just an early release home. When he returned, he started working for his mother. “Just temporary,” he insisted then and even now to Sara. “Until I can find something else…” He gestured grandly at the undefined dreams that lay somewhere over Sara’s shoulder. “You know, with some opportunity.”
“Yeah, good luck,” Kay snapped, and her son slumped back to his normal, unadjusted five feet nine inches. She lamented to Sara with a shrug, “I had him late. I was barely thirty, and I spoiled him, as you can see.”
Kevin insisted he hadn’t been spoiled. He even did his own laundry and cleaned the bathroom twice a month. (Kay, it seemed, was both his employer and roommate.)
Sara raised her hand. “Excuse me. I think you wanted to ‘sort me out’?”
“Right!” Kay snapped her thick fingers. “Show her how we make a burger, honey.”
Kevin, his face reddening, grumbled under his breath in undecipherable protest over Kay’s calling him “honey” in front of another woman, especially one he hoped to impress. Most men either subtly or overtly tried to impress Sara. She’d been the audience for an unending series of auditions ever since she left Pennsylvania eighteen years ago.
“We do just two things here — burgers and fries,” Kay said. “The fries anyone can learn, but if you can’t cook a burger right the first time, there’s no helping you.”
“Eighty-twenty ground chuck,” Kevin said, forming two patties between the palms of his hands. “All our burgers are the same size — no tall, no venti, no grande… just large.” Pleased with his own clevernesses, he offered Sara a smile, which she accepted patiently.
— from The Wrong Questions