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We Get Our Own Coffee by Jaime DeLanghe
About the author
On May 16, 1986, my mother gave birth to the screaming pink bundle of a human being that was to become me. Soon after, a series of events was set into motion that would lead to the growth, formation, education and eventual death of me. As I write this, our narrative has not yet reached its dire conclusion. Rather, I am lodged in the midst of an education at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Actually, that is completely incorrect; in fact as I write I am sitting in a coffee shop in Minneapolis (my second home) taking a break from my life as a student. By the time you read this little biography however, I will inevitably be back in CT, working my way toward a double major in English and Religion in-between shifts at the art library.
Debbie, the waitress that works the graveyard shift at the dump of a truck stop off the four-lane, has always had a bad haircut. This squat woman with too-thick glasses and tacky Goodwill t-shirts keeps her black hair in a bob, or perhaps, more of a bowl cut. She loves it. It is a bad haircut.
I have known Debbie since the sixth grade, when my mom cooked the food that Debbie served in this tobacco-stained diner. My mom drove Debbie home because Debbie doesn't have and never has had, a driver's license. Debbie is not the type of person who drives. She has too-thick glasses. Debbie smiles too much.
Tonight, Debbie says hello. What she really means is, "I thought you'd never show up ... where were you last night? ... I waited all night but you never came." She says this when I walk through the gas station, past the old checkout counter and cowboy boots, by the rack of Christian coloring books, and into Debbie's view. She expects me. She expects all of us. We are the regulars that shouldn't be: teenagers and twenty-somethings with nothing better to do on a Saturday, Monday or Wednesday night. We have been coming here since we could drive and even before that. We come here because home is too much or too little and because nothing else is open all night in such a small town. We come here and we get our own coffee because we have been coming here for so long now. But Debbie is still our waitress.
We know her too well. She scrambles back and forth between the other tables in which bald-headed, yellow- toothed, potbellied men, who have been on the road so long that they don't know where home is anymore, sip on coffee and bullshit with each other. We get our own coffee, our own cups, water, ash trays. Debbie counts on this, even though she's our waitress.
Debbie has three jobs. She works at the truck stop six, sometimes seven days a week. In the morning, rather than sleep, she baby-sits her two grandkids. Afternoons, she works at McDonald's. We know this because she tells us. She does not complain. She squeezes into our booth, breathes in the cloud of second-hand smoke, gathers our garbage, and tells us about her new granddaughter. Debbie is in her mid-forties. She tells us that she is doing well and shows us pictures. She tells us that she will see us tomorrow. Debbie tells us that she works every night until Tuesday. She tells us not to look for her that night. She will be drunk.
Debbie works too much, and some nights when we come in to get our own coffee, she doesn't say hello. She doesn't look at us. If we approach her, asking about her grandkids, or the weather, or the drunks that came in last night, or her new, but equally bad hair cut, she groans. Debbie is sleepwalking these nights.
Tonight, Debbie decides to wait on us. We call her across the restaurant. "Debbie," we singsong her name, lovingly. Debbie works too much, and so she is often short-tempered. We singsong her name because she is more likely to come to our table.
"What do you waaant?" she singsongs back. Debbie has a voice that moves too slowly. She closes her mouth too often. She seems to be on the edge of laughing, even when she is tired or angry or confused.
"Food, but no hurry,"
or "Can I get an omelet?"
or "Simply the pleasure of your company," we say.
Debbie and her bad haircut shuffle over to the table. "You guys want food?" she asks us, as if she is talking to a three year old who has just drawn a picture, or picked a dandelion, or stuck a bean up his nose. She asks us this, pretending that she is surprised. We know she is not. We play along. Debbie loves us. We shoot off our order, being sure to mention the extra ranch dressing, or holding the tomato, or bringing the side of mushrooms we would like with our sandwiches. We order the same thing every time. She is still confused. She double and triple checks our order, making at least one correction. She calls the raisins that we ordered to go with the oatmeal "rabbit turds."
Debbie brings the food an hour later. We know that she forgot to put the order in. It's ok. We refill our coffee and chain-smoke and watch the truckers while we talk politics or philosophy or movies, and then we plan our futures. We are going to travel the world, we decide. Debbie doesn't understand this. Debbie brings us the food and tells us that we are crazy. She asks when we will leave for school. We say "August." She asks us where we are going. We say, "Too far away to sit at the truck stop every night." She tells us she will miss us. She tells us we can't leave. She means it. Debbie will be here forever with her bad haircut.
We eat. We stay two, three, eight hours. We live here, with Debbie. We get our own coffee, our ten pots of coffee. It is raining out. We decide it is time to leave at five a.m., and Debbie is still here. She is at the front counter buying pull-tabs, talking to the fat, beastly woman behind the Formica countertop and laughing at nothing. We stack our plates and grab cell phones, cigarettes, money and lighters. We tip Debbie too much: sometimes ten dollars for a cup of coffee. We stick any garbage in the trashcan or the hole in the wall next to our red vinyl corner booth. We double check. We don't want to leave anything but we always leave something. Debbie picks it all up; the lighters, jewelry, receipts, business cards. Later, she'll give it back to us in little piles with our coffee. She takes care of us. She is our waitress.
We tell Debbie good-bye. She waves back at us with her bad haircut. She tells us to drive carefully; "The roads are bad", she says. Debbie never drives. She says that she will see us tomorrow. She expects us. She tells us that we should get some sleep and that we should behave ourselves. She tells us to stay out of trouble. Debbie loves us. Debbie is our waitress.
©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers