I've been forgetting things. Words. Sentences. Sometimes I start to speak and I'm halfway through a phrase that doesn't make sense before I realize that I have no idea what I was even going for. Like now, a little. Maybe it's lack of sleep. Probably it's that I'm trying so hard to remember as much as I can, that I'm losing other parts.
Like how I didn’t know we were out of oil until last night’s shower. I didn’t even know we were low. But I’m hopping around at quarter-to-ten, darting in and out of the cold water, making hyperventilating noises. Someone must’ve… something, I muttered to myself, unwilling to believe that we had let our oil tank run dry, not even noticed. Or the Redbox film I found still in the computer disk drive… from the beginning of May.
Worse yet, I forgot our business cell phone on the counter yesterday. This on the day when we handed out 200 fliers with our call-in number boldly printed across the front. This might not seem like a big deal. But we live over an hour from the shop, and we'd just arrived at work. I debated driving home. I even sped back toward the highway, but instead of making the 2.5 hour round trip, I turned around. I bought a phone charger for our personal cell phone (which was completely dead) and managed to forward all calls from the business number to our personal number. And it worked, but it just seemed like a bundle of extra trouble all because my mind is jumbled.
So here I am, trying to notice everything about the people who pass and the customers who stop. Trying to absorb the sun and the salted air and the atmosphere. Trying to make something of it all while I quietly lose my own mind.
Is it worth it? Yesterday I would have said I don't know. But today is something altogether different. Today is bright blue and squint-your-eyes sunny. Today is warm with families that wander by carrying boogie boards and sand buckets and maybe they'll stop by for lunch. I hope they do
I've never seen such clear signs of the economy as I do here, in Maine's "Premier Family Beach Resort." And it's not in the tourists (or lack thereof), it's in the faces of the Locals- people who are here to work the season and hope for the best. Or rather, hold onto the best. Because summer in Maine is as good as it gets.
I talked with Cindy today. I've seen her half a dozen times. I ask about her husband, who is sometimes with her. He likes our steak wrap.
"He's only here on the weekends," she tells me. "During the week we go our separate ways."
Odd, I think. But don't say. Because everyone's story is a little different, everyone's marriage works best a certain way. I get that. She must have seen my questions, because she continues on with just a moment of hesitation, her voice quieting and slow.
"His business fell apart," she says. "Sprinklers and fire protection. Nobody's spending for it anymore."
"That stinks," I say, feeling inadequate; without words.
"Yeah. We lost our house. We lost our car. Everything." Her eyes take on a flat quality and I realize that I'm looking into the face of this recession- or whatever we're calling it now. A fifty-five year old woman who's renting a single room to work the only job she can find. 3-Midnight at a market, selling siz packs and cigarettes. A job that will end too soon, pays (way) too little, and is still something to hold onto.
She turns from the sadness and looks me in the eye.
"But you know what? We're ok! I'm healthy, he's healthy. Our kids are healthy. I have beautiful grandkids. This morning I took a walk on the beach, and the bus is still only a buck twenty-five, even all the way to Walmart." Her eyes are bright again, and I can't tell if she's beaming with joy or ready to cry.
"It sure is," I say. It sure is. And for the first time this summer, I am humbled to my knees, just reminded of how fragile all our pieces are; how resilient our people.
There's a white box of donuts waiting for me this morning. It's on the bench out back. I left $7.20 in an envelope last night, and today there's a dozen sweet and fried bits of dough.
Selling donuts wasn't exactly part of the plan. I have this thing about selling someone else's baked goods. Call me territorial (and I may in fact be). But I take great pride in my danishes, muffins, even cookies and whoopie pies. It's not that they're amazing, it's that they're made with my hands. Cups of flour, dishes of berries, fresh eggs and I combine them to turn out this product that people pay me money for. It's a satisfying process from start to finish. And so when Jack pulled his Ford Focus up to the curb, hopped out and asked if I wanted to sell donuts, I didn't even hesitate.
"No!" I said, a bit on the emphatic side. "I mean, I think we're fine right now."
"OK," he said. "But here's a sample box, just in case..." and he hands me a heavy pastry box, his card taped on top. With a wave he's back in the Focus, pulling into steady morning traffic.
I manage to ignore the pastry box for almost ten minutes, while I putter around, straightening bags of chips and brewing coffee. But it's there, on the counter, the faint sweet scent of sugar taunting me. There's no harm in looking, I say to myself. Inside the box are nine pastries. Boston Creme donuts, a coffee roll, chocolate donuts, glazed donuts, jelly filled donuts, a blueberry muffin. I stared hard at the box, knowing instantly that I would not only eat least two donuts right away, but that I would also end up ordering a dozen for the shop. They weren't even that good, I'm sorry to say. But I kept breaking off pieces until what I rationalized as just a nibble turned out to be two full Boston Cremes and a jelly filled eclair.
Within an hour I had called Jack and placed an order for a dozen donuts, to be delivered the next day.
"They're just 60 cents a piece," I explained to Rich in a voice that came out more like a plea. "We can sell them for a dollar!"
He's not impressed, and neither are our customers. After the weekend's over, we've sold just one donut, consumed four and chucked the rest as the two-day old stale set in. Looking back, I'm impressed what an easy sell I was. One box of samples and I was in. Maybe there's something to that. I stay in my little shop all day, waiting for hungry people to wander up. I wonder how much better we'd do if we went to them.
So,I'll pack a bag of samples, I've decided- tiny version of our most popular wraps. I've got a list of businesses and I'm sending Rich in (dressed in chef whites, his request) and we'll see what happens. Meanwhile, I"ve got six donuts to burn off, so if you see me doing jumping jacks behind the register, you'll know why...
Everyday they walk past, just after 9AM. He's wearing a US Navy Hat, she's in sunglasses no matter the weather. An older couple- sixties, maybe seventies. I have no idea. Everyday they walk past, and everyday they wave with great enthusiasm, as though the whole point of their walk was to cruise past my window. Today they stopped. She got a breakfast sandwich- eggs and bacon and cheddar on a bagel that we grill with garlic butter. "Sliced in half, if you don't mind. We'll share while we walk," she says.
I want people to like our food so bad that I often worry about them after they've left. I hope it's good, I think. I hope they love it. I was still worrying about this particular sandwich when she popped back to my window. Oh no, I thought. She hates it. "Is everything ok?" I asked with (very real) concern.
"No," she said. "It's not ok. It's really good and I decided I'm not sharing. He'll have to get his own." Behind her, he stood, quietly shaking his head and eyeing her sandwich, (The one that he paid for). Confirming that she won't share.
So I made another and they decided to post-pone their walk and sit under our umbrella together. Eating breakfast, but not sharing.
The Health Inspector stopped by for lunch today. It's the second time he's eaten here and I have to remind myself that this is a good thing. And it is. He's a nice guy, really. Younger than one might expect, certainly friendlier.
Still, I'm nervous. Did I wash my hands before I put on gloves to make his food? I think so... Maybe I should do it again. My hands are still wet while I try to pull on the powder-free, latex free gloves that we use for food handling. They stick to my fingers, and I'm left looking more like a webbed creature than a nimble sandwich maker as I stumble through the wrap. I knock a spatula on the floor and continue on, pretending not to hear the loud clang it makes against the tile. I open cooler doors and consider changing my gloves each time, but that would mean another trip to the sink, more webbed fingers, and there's only three pairs of gloves left. I would have to climb on top of the freezer to retrieve a new box, so I continue on with what I've got, silently muttering at the one who stored the gloves so far away. My face is a brilliant red by now and it doesn't help that every bit of our line is visible to the customer, should they decide to watch the process.
I try to make small talk, because anything is better than the deafening silence of scrutiny. And also because I feel a certain courage in asking questions behind the glass. I ask about the job and does he love it. I ask about his history. And in the small talk I realize that I'm not in a panic anymore. I catch myself enjoying the conversation, and he becomes someone interesting with a story worth hearing.
Then it's over. I hand over his wrap and he leaves, stopping once to turn back.
"I'll be back soon," he calls out. "I have eleven more wraps to try!"
"Great!" I say. Surpised that I (mostly) mean it.
Mondays are quiet days. Who am I kidding- all days are quiet days lately. Rich drops me off and leaves in a blur- we're always ten minutes behind- while I settle into a daily routine. Coffee's out, pastries are wrapped. Now I settle back to read and wait for customers. By noon I've served eight customers- six of them are locals; the regulars who stop by several times a week. The other two are tourists- a Canadian who saw my sign for blueberry muffins. She buys two after carefully inspecting the just-wrapped muffins. I want to tell her that I bake them myself, from scratch. But her quiet inspection stifles my eager chit chat and so I look around for papers to straighten or serving spoons to tidy. Another man stops by for coffee- a warm companion for his walk on the beach this cold damp morning.
Then there's Kevin who now has a usual. I start the egg for his breakfast sandwich (bacon, egg and pepperjack on an everything bagel) the moment I see him. He must be a local because he's been here for weeks. I see him bike past or wander in from the beach.
Three bucks for a breakfast sandwich and we sell dozens of them to teenagers. Kids who ride up on their long boards and count out their three dollars in change.
"I could live off these things!" I say to Kevin, making small talk as I wait for his egg to fry up.
"I basically am," he says.
He's probably just kidding, I tell myself, but it takes all of my resolve to take his three dollars. I add an extra egg and two more slices of bacon to the grill. Because two eggs are better than one, and a little extra bacon never hurt anyone.
"That was amazing, as always..." Kevin calls out to me, then heads back toward the beach.
I have no idea what his story is, I only just learned his name. But I feel honored that they come here to spend their last three bucks. I feel proud. And, of course, I feel the urge to give food away. To make sure no one goes hungry in Old Orchard Beach. So it's a good thing Rich will be here any minute...
It's not even 3PM and the sky is covered by clouds that lie low holding down heavy air- the kind that clogs in our throats. The streets are deserted, even the carnival rides downtown are skeletal as workers glance nervously above. Our little radio buzzes in with weather advisories- tornados and headache-causing hail. I've never worried much about a tornado on the coast, in fact I wonder if it's even possible. But the Springfield tornado was just last week so people are cautious. They scatter indoors and I wonder what I would do if a tornado came ripping through these streets. After all, there's a distinct vulnerability in my location. A take-out window. No basement. All glass. Nothing to hide under except a handwashing sink- 12 inches of porcelain protection.
The wind knocks over our signs and I can barely be bothered to pick them up. I'm watching the changing colors of the sea- the grays and greens that roll into each other and toss up foamy surf on an empty shore. This is what it means to be by the Sea.
We close early, even as the streetlights flicker on before 5PM. Everyone is gone, tourists and locals alike they have moved indoors to absorb themselves in indoor entertainments. And I suddenly understand our dependency on the weather. As a business. It's (more than) a bit frightening to realize that our success or failure may in fact hinge on the nature of the clouds and rain and sun. That two months of rain could sink us, literally. We pull away from the shop, two hours earlier than planned and I feel a certain anxiety build inside me even as the sky breaks open and the rains begin to pour.
The alarm clock sounds at 4:15AM, but I pretend like I don't hear it. I pull the comforter over my head until the beeping is faint, like a heartbeat. As if that was enough. It's not. Because we don't have one alarm clock, we have three, and two of them don't have a snooze. I don't know what it is about dogs, but they go from sound asleep to 100-Watt awake in seconds. When Sadie hears our alarm, she joins in- a bark that used to be cute when she was a puppy but is more and more sounding like just another loud dog. And when Sadie barks, Micky barks- a hair-raising noise that brings all kinds of swear words to mind before I'm even fully awake. By 4:16AM our little house is a cacaphony of noise. I pretend not to hear a thing. I remain still, even though my senses are jarred and (more than) slightly annoyed.
Eventually Rich gets up and herds the dogs onto the porch where Sadie slips through the gate and wanders around the yard and woods while Micky (who is much to large to slip through any gate, and has a strange fear of all things gate-related) barks his complaining and jealous monologue from the porch. Rich starts the French Press and then walks the dogs while I pretend to "be up in a minute." By 5AM I hear them coming back inside and I jump out of bed, before they get upstairs so that he'll think I've been up the whole time. He knows better. The next half hour is a flurry of showers and searching the drier for clean socks while packing the car with whatever we need for the day. Most of our dry goods are kept here at the house. There's just no room in the 89 square foot shop, so we load up on whatever doesn't need refridgeration. We lure the dogs downstairs into the basement with pieces of cheese and exasperated calls. At 5:30 one of us shouts, "This is the five minute warning! The train is leaving in 5 minutes!" But like most commuter rails, it's nearly quarter to 6 before we're on our way. "Good morning!" I say to him as we pull out of the driveway. And it is. It is a good morning and we are on our way.
I'm 28 years old and I'm going gray. OK, maybe that's a stretch. But I noticed not one, but four gray hairs last night. I was making our daily deposit at the ATM. And the camera they have installed on the machine is basically one shadowy mirror that reflects in shades of black and white. I can't help staring into it everytime I use the machine. Last night, the silver strands of hair stuck out, like glaring headlights in the night.
How can this be? My mother is in her fifties and has matured into a light blond that really isn't gray at all. Everybody knows you're supposed to age like your mom, right? Maybe it's the sun, maybe these are blond highlights, I reason, still standing at the ATM staring directly into the camera-mirror. Maybe I have something in my hair- paint or whoopie pie filling. But I wear a baseball cap most of the day, so there's not much sun and the only colors I've painted are reds and browns. How can this be?
Eventually I manage to make the deposit and hurry back to Rich.
"Look at this!" I point to my hair, willing him to say there's nothing there.
"I have gray hair! I mean, do I? Maybe I don't. Probably I don't. What do you see?"
He looks carefully at my scalp. "Ummm, yep, there's about four of them!"
I yelp in horror. In shock and denial.
"I'm 28 years old!" I tell him, as if this was news. "How can this be!?"
"Don't ask me," he says. "I started going gray at 14." It's true. He woke up one day with a stripe of gray hair and by age 34 most of his head is gray. I don't mind, I kinda like it. But gray on a man is not the same as gray on a woman. Gray on a man is distuingished. Gray on a woman is something to hide. I contemplate the inequality of this, even as I'm thinking of the quickest way to a bottle of hair dye.
At home, I'm considering a quick pluck of the four tratorous strands. But as I check myself out in the mirror, I am amazed at the thinning texture of my short hair. I decide that I cannot afford to lose any of my locks, no matter their color. Better gray than gone.
Maybe this has something to do with the 90+ hours a week that we are each investing in the shop. Maybe it has to do with the stress of wondering if we made the right decision. Or maybe it's just the nature of growing old(er). One thing I know, tonight when I deposit the cash, I'm looking straight ahead. No mirrors, no nothing.
I know he's thinking today's disaster was my fault. He doesn't have to say the words out loud. He does anyway, of course. I'm learning (quickly!) that all bets are off when we're in the weeds. And today, we were definitely in the weeds. Here's what happened.
We arrived at work just a few minutes before 7AM. We open at 7, but it's no big deal, I say, because the vacationing world doesn't get up before 8AM and we won't see them until after 9. And so when the first set of customers wander up to our counter at 7:05AM, we are hardly ready to go. The coffee is still brewing. The sign is still propped against the side of the building. Even our outside tables are smooshed together. This is not ideal, but it's managable.
They order bagels and breakfast sandwiches, yogurt parfaits and juices, then sit (right underneath our window where the tables are now propped) to watch us and wait. But the griddle won't heat up. We turn it to 400 degrees, and a tiny plume of smoke files up from the outlet. Rich cracks the eggs and they slide onto the griddle and sit there, raw eggs on a cold steel. With customers who are watching from 4 feet away. This is not good. This is downright embarrassing. Rich runs out back to fire up the grill and work off the small gas range that is attached to the backyard grill, while I start to pray and curse over the grill at the same time. "God," I pray. "Please turn this damn thing on. Just please, let this useless piece of junk work. Just this once. Just to finish this order." And it does. I hear a sizzle and slowly the griddle comes to life, cooking the eggs and crisping the (precooked) bacon. It takes ten minutes, but our customers have their food. "They're good!' the father says, a few moments later. Relief.
The plan is for me to run out and buy a new table-top electric grill as soon as these customers leave. I'll book it to the closest department store. "Buy two!" Rich calls to me in a loud whisper. I wish him well with the customers, but assure him that I'll be back before he sees anyone else.
At the store, I power walk to the kitchen section, grab the two most expensive (and hopefully best quality) table-top grills that they have and move to check out. But there's only two cashiers working. I'm in line behind a coupon queen who has just finished food shopping. She checks the price on almost every item. She can't find her credit card. She doesn't understand why they ask her to "select English" on the credit card terminal. Why should she have to choose English? she asks the cashier. Fifteen minutes later I am out of the store and racing back to the shop. He's been fine, I'm just sure of it.
But he hasn't. "I was in the weeds!" He declares (which is restaraunt slang for saying you were behind and couldn't catch up. Like a boat caught in a swamp of reeds, forever trying to gain ground but never actually able to.) He had a group of fifteen people, he tells me.
"We ran out of coffee. They don't like our garlic butter. One guy actually said to me, "What's going on here?" Like I owed him an explanation."
"It took me fifteen minutes to make them their food. They're never coming back. And then I was so stressed out that I ate two breakfast sandwiches right in a row."
" Yikes, honey. That bad!" I try to make light of it.
'They're from the New York City," I say. "What do you expect? Being rude is the norm. It means they like you."
"If we could just get here earlier this wouldn't have happened," He says. And I know where this is going. Here it comes...
"If someone was able to get out of bed when the alarm goes off, instead of 30 minutes before we have to leave, this wouldn't have happened."
I don't respond, because it's true. I get up at 5:10AM instead of his 4:30AM. I don't mention that 5:10AM is still crazy early. I just start on the dishes and we work in the silence for the next fifteen minutes.
"Two breakfast sandwiches in a row?!" I finally say. At which we both start laughing.