$9.50 AN HOUR, PLUS TIPS • by Alita Pierson

“Sorry but could I get just a dollop of whip, please?”

The woman’s red hair was framed by the contours of the black SUV. It shone in the early morning light and was a very pretty shade of red, one that looked like it swirled a bunch of difference oranges and reds and browns into a sort of uber red.

I answered her with all the cheerfulness I could muster at 6:30 in the morning. “Yes of course, ma’am, no problem.” I took the cup and added a generous helping of whipped cream before closing the lid. I handed her the cup and said, “That’ll be three fifty, please.”

She handed me four ones and said, “Keep the change. Thanks!” She sped off before I could say a word.

Her SUV was really nice, one of those Cadillac Escalades with all the shine. It glided past my car, which was parked at the far end of the lot. My car didn’t do much gliding these days. It’s kind of hard to glide when you’re 20 years old, full of rust, and humping along on about 230,000 miles.

There was no one behind the red haired lady’s SUV, although I’m sure there would be soon. It gave me a minute to rest on my barstool. Quiet filled the shop. Later in the day, the couches and chairs would be full, and there would be some hip indie rock warbling through the ancient speakers. For now, though, all was silent as I sipped my cup of hot tea. It was funny working at a coffee shop when you didn’t drink coffee. Everyone made fun of me, but it wasn’t my fault that I thought coffee tasted disgusting. Just couldn’t help it. I did understand the coffee house culture, though, and I loved it.

As I drank my tea, delicious notes of hibiscus and cinnamon washing over my taste buds, I thought about what the woman had said. Dollop. She’d used the word dollop. It was a word you heard often enough, especially working at a coffee shop, but today it lingered in my ear. In fact, it took me back to high school.

Specifically, it took me back to senior year, when some friends and I were staying after school to work on a project in Mrs. Gleeson’s room. It was for biology, and our group was doing a project on proteins. We were creating a poster with diagrams of various kind of peptide chains, and we were using lots of paint. At one point, I said, “Put a big dollop right there.” A split second later, Mrs. Gleeson’s voice cut like a knife: “Dollop? Is that an AP word?”

Now understand, this was in the late 1990s, but I can still hear the sarcasm in her voice. Four years at West Kitsap High School, and it was the only time a teacher ever spoke to me like that. It’s a shame, really. All the nice things teachers probably said to me over those four years, and I don’t remember them. But Mrs. Gleeson’s one stupid comment lives forever. The utter disdain in her tone has grated in my ear ever since.

A Honda Civic pulled up and brought me back to the present. I took her order and prepared a tall decafe with room, added a splash (or was it a dollop?) of cream, and then got to work on a grande nonfat triple shot no-foam vanilla foo-foo something-something. Seriously, these coffee orders could get ridiculous. My opinion was, if you were going to drink coffee, then drink coffee. To hell with all the stupid stuff. Let coffee be coffee. Strong words coming from a non-coffee drinker, I know, but I’d been there for three years and felt that I’d earned the right to critique the masses.

As I watched the Civic drive away, I found myself wondering why exactly I was still at the coffee shop. I’d taken the job three years ago as a stop gap, as something to tide myself over until I figured out what to do after my fiance had unceremoniously bailed on me, our apartment, and Rusty, our obese cocker spaniel. Rent wasn’t a problem thanks to my friend-turned-roommate, Logan, so while the situation may have frustrated my parents, I was perfectly comfortable shuffling along. My college diploma languished in a box, along with my parents’ hopes for my professional future. They never said anything, but I was their only child, the girl they never thought they’d have. They’d grown up in post-war Korea, and they’d made unfathomable sacrifices for me. And I knew they wanted more for me than $9.50 an hour, plus tips.

“Hello? Can I get some coffee?”

I turned and looked at the counter. A tall, handsome stranger stood there. He wore a brown suit that was cut to perfection, and a copy of the Seattle Times was tucked under one arm.

As if in a dream, I got his order and sent him on his way. Was the universe trying to tell me something? That I was missing out on sexy men just because I was wasting my potential instead of getting a quote-unquote real job? Honestly, if that was the message, I had to admit, it was a pretty damn shallow one.

The universe followed up with a friendly, “Hey Melissa, how’s it going? The usual, please.” I looked up at the sound of my name and smiled as Gary put his wallet on the counter. Gary was one of my favorite regulars. He was a paralegal and was owned by a rambunctious golden lab named Duke. I liked Gary.

Screw the universe. This was what I loved: seeing regular people I knew and liked, hanging out in the coffee house, and living life on $9.50 an hour, plus tips.

“Hey Gary, what’s up?”

Alita Pierson is a librarian who lives in the Midwest.

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Every Day Fiction