By Toni Judnitch
In the heat, it’s easy to feel like you’re waiting for something. Time in the summer moved differently, like both clocks and old dogs were hesitant to stir too quickly in the hottest part of the day. I was restless, looking at clocks. My hair was finally long again, but I did not feel pretty in that heat as I tried to find something to keep my mind off of the impending sense of losing something before I had it. I didn’t know how to say what I meant without people frowning at me, and I figured other people didn’t know either because they all just chewed watermelon and argued about the weather, watching as the thermometer kept on climbing.
That summer, I learned everything there was to know about my home town. I knew that the town homeless man walked through the Dairy Queen drive-thru at night, collecting stray dimes before taking half-smoked cigarettes off the tray on the garbage can and stuffing them in his pockets. I knew that there was a woman who lived across from the nursing home who carried four plump cats outside one by one and put them in a wooden cage in her backyard each day. I knew that my hips were too wide to fit on three out of the four seats on the swings at the elementary school, and that it was Chris Poleman who spray-painted a bright green penis on the sign welcoming the few people unfortunate enough to visit our empty little town. I knew too much and by July, I felt like even the shade under the trees was a kind of cruel trick.
When Kate asked me to work concessions down in the Cities with her, I agreed, thinking that anything was better than what I was doing. I didn’t like sporting events or crowds, but she promised me that it was worth the money. Kate made me nervous, but she didn’t talk about the things other people talked about so I figured that it would be interesting, at least. The day I started, she showed me how to tie a polka dot bandana around my hair so my hair would stay out of my face while I worked, and I sat shotgun with her as we drove to the city. She had a bad habit of forcing me to take the wheel as she lit cigarettes, or when her hands got too sweaty from the plastic wheel, or she simply got tired of holding her arms up, but I didn’t mind because she played music I hadn’t heard before, and I felt like something different was finally going to happen.
I ended up cutting onions. Terry, the owner of the portable stand, didn’t want to start me with customers because he assumed I would be nervous. He worried about the feelings of his employees but was always one letter off on the correct pronunciation of their names. When we got there and Kate left me to help set up the giant grill, he put one hand on the sweaty part of my back and led me toward two five gallon buckets.
“Let me see your hands, Jenny,” he said, but I didn’t correct him. Instead, I opened both of my hands and showed them to him, feeling suddenly embarrassed and dumb for feeling embarrassed.
“No calluses?” he asked, in a way that made it sound like a great crime.
“I don’t do much.” It was the wrong thing to say, and I could feel him trying to figure me out, so I stared at his bald spot, which was already turning pink in the sun.
He put a knife in my hand. It’s a strange feeling, being given a weapon by an adult and being trusted not to do something stupid with it. In school, they didn’t even give us plastic knives to cut our food at lunch. Instead, they made everything soft.
Terry pointed at a bag of onions and then at the two buckets. “One is for scraps and one is for slices. Chop all of them.” Then he walked away.
I wanted to ask questions, to figure out how I should slice them, but then I wondered if he would think I was also too nervous to cut the onions, so I kept quiet and sliced each one differently before I got bored and finally just diced them, dropping the white chunks into the right bucket and the rest of it into the left. I enjoyed cutting the first bag. It was simple and I didn’t have to think much. When I finished that bag, I thought I was done, but Terry brought two more and smiled at me. I kept chopping until the knife stopped feeling right in my hand.
The day went on. I was sweating and the other workers were sweating and the customers who lined up at the stand were sweating and the whole world smelled like
onions. Every once in a while, Terry would walk by and take one of my buckets and pass it to the boy on the grill, who would pour them on and start frying them for hamburgers and bratwursts. I watched Kate flirt with customers and walk back and forth between the grill and them, dodging the other workers and carrying a little calculator to find totals. Terry kept bringing me onions. I cut my finger and my blood smeared on the layers of one, so I threw the whole thing into the left bucket and covered it with the crispy brown skins and hoped Terry wouldn’t find it. I wrapped my finger in my shirt and stood there and didn’t say anything until the bleeding stopped.
After a few hours with onions, Kate stopped by and told me we could take a break and go sit on one of the stone benches that were around. She got us a bratwurst on a thick roll and topped it with onions and mustard that had warmed in the sun.
“The fruits of our labor,” she said and laughed.
It was the best thing I had ever eaten. Between us, it was gone in moments, neither of us minding the way our lips left dampness on the spots where we had taken our bites. When it was gone, we talked about getting another one, but we both agreed that we were too tired to take the short walk back to the stand. There was a breeze away from the concession stand, and it felt so good and cool in that spot that I couldn’t help but laugh. I liked the way the buildings around us felt as we sat there. I tried to describe the feeling to Kate, but then Terry walked over and we stopped talking. He dabbed his bald spot with a napkin, sighed, and said, “Sure is hot.”
When the sun got lower in the sky, people stopped lining up and the work got slower. Terry said there were enough onions for the night, and I was relieved until he led me over to where he wanted me to wash the dishes. Again, he showed me buckets, but this time there were three of them. One was for soapy water, one was for plain water, and one was for sanitizer water. Soak, rinse, sanitize. As I washed the dishes, the water filled with onions and grease and tiny pieces of charred hamburger. One of the other workers helped me, and he whistled “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a way that was slow and sad. I complimented him, but then he stopped and we worked in silence.
It kept getting darker, and the breeze came back and teased us as we closed up the stand. Dishes were finished and I watched as the men pushed the grill up the small plywood ramp and into the back of Terry’s truck. The cardboard they placed underneath the grill to keep grease from staining the concrete was soaked, and Kate waved at me and then slid across it like a figure skater. The Whistler joined her, and they both kept twirling and laughing until Kate came and grabbed my hand and made me try it, too. Together we whirled as the buildings looked down, and Terry looked away and the streetlights came on, and in that hazy light I almost felt like it could have been a dream.
When we were finally done, Terry walked us to Kate’s car because he was afraid we were going to get mugged or something. I threw my bandana in a garbage can next to a fenced-in tree and tried to whistle a song, but only managed a few breathy notes before giving up and listening to the cars pass us. When we got to her car, Terry shook my hand and waved at Kate, and I got in and rested my head against the cool glass of the passenger window. Kate put her head on the steering wheel. We were greasy and we were quiet and we were filled with the empty feeling of being tired and being seventeen and being strangers in a city at night.
I turned to Kate. “Do you ever feel like you’re waiting for something to happen, but you don’t know what it is?”
She started the car. “All the goddamned time.”