It’s morning all over again. Loud white lighting, sharp edges, pressured skull. Allen throws another few pounds of bacon on the grill to get ready for the day. Food particles hidden in steam settle into his body, his clothes. He holds his breath for a moment to steady his stomach.
Yesterday’s stink is still in his beard, in the creases of his skin. There’s nothing worse than waking up to himself when he gets like this. He pushes the strips around on the grill and tries not to imagine today’s bacon grease building on yesterday’s, layers of gray wax coating his skin.
The orders begin to come in and he fills them. At a certain point, things get like they always do. A person can only move so fast and his head is pounding and more order tickets are always clattering out of the machine, one after the next after the next. A four top, two top, seven top, three top. Some of the plates are already coming back with complaints. Pancake batter bubbles all over the grill. Omelets wait to be flipped, browning at the edges, cheddar spilling out. Biscuits wait ready on a plate, already too cold to serve. Forgotten corned beef hash goes to smoke on the grill and a timer is going off and he doesn’t remember what it’s for and his head swims in all this greasy steam. A pan clatters out of his hand and someone yelps. Hot sausage gravy has splashed all over the prep cook’s leg and the dishwashers are staring.
The prep cook is just a kid, somewhere in his mid-twenties. He has spent a few years working here while he tries to decide what his real job should be. Allen remembers when he used to feel like that too, knows most of the people in this kitchen felt that way at one point.
The kid has experienced a lot of small accidents during his morning shifts. He flinches a little whenever Allen gets too close with hot pans, boiling water, knives.
This time the kid doesn’t clean up the gravy. He leaves pieces of sausage clinging to his leg, keeps his eyes lowered to the cantaloupe he has gone back to slicing. This will be another thing that will get more uncomfortable to address as time goes by, but Allen doesn’t know what to say, so he mumbles a quick apology and lets the moment pass, gets back to stirring and flipping and frying.
Eventually the ticket machine’s clattering comes to a full stop. Allen scrapes burnt oil and butter off the grill, scoops leftover potatoes into a tub for tomorrow, wipes breadcrumbs and egg splatter from the counters, walks home.
It has been another rough morning, but he has certainly had worse. He has been doing this for too long to think that tomorrow will be different, but he has also been doing this for too long to think that guilt will improve anything. He forgives himself and moves forward. Besides, it’s a perfect day to take care of something. He finds his bottle and mug and gets ready for another warm afternoon in the garden.
Between sips, he clips spent blooms, unburdens the plants. He digs out ones that don’t belong, trains others to grow upward on the backs of twigs and branches. He sprinkles cinnamon in the soil around some pepper seedlings to prevent damping off. Protects the tomato plants from mold with a mixture of baking soda and water applied to each crinkled leaf.
Fruit is already starting to appear on the raspberry bushes. In a few weeks he’ll get to spend whole evenings sipping from his mug and picking jar after jar of red clusters. He’ll take jam to work like he does every August and share it with the tired dishwashers and waitresses in the break room. They’ll smile and tell him from between berry-stained teeth that it’s the best batch yet.
Everywhere in this garden things grow. Life comes bursting out of shriveled seeds, discarded vegetables, and dry crumbling soil.
For a while someone even lived in the garden. Allen found her in the Lost & Found at work, thick eyelashes fluttering closed over glass eyes. She was missing an arm and she was lovely. He always thought if he had had children, they would have been daughters. He wondered if they would have liked this sort of thing.
His guest lived propped against the trunk of a sapling until one morning he found a robin drawn to the sparkle, trying to keep her glass eyes. There are a lot of birds on his land. They’re only meant to live in the trees, but the rafters of the cabin are also clotted with nests he’ll always let stay for just one more week.
Sometimes he pockets oranges at work, then watches orioles and crows sip from the bright citrus while he drinks from his mug and lets the world grow warmer. They swoop and peck and dance around the garden. So in the end he slipped the lovely glass-eyed girl back into the Lost & Found and hoped for the best for her.
The afternoon is getting softer. He drags the hose around, splashing cold water on his toes and on coiled roots. He likes the way the water spills into the cracks of his skin.
Tomorrow he will have to slog his way through the murk of another early morning in a too-bright kitchen. As always, the prep cook will pretend not to notice Allen’s churning stomach, the hungover stink on his mouth, how his eyes will have filled with tangled lines of exhausted blood. As always, Allen will pretend not to notice the kid looking away. But today he is happy in this garden. Things are growing and everything is warm. He takes another sip and smiles at the pleasure of his undoing, lets the harsh lines in front of him smooth themselves out.
Jess Golden lives in California. Her stories have most recently appeared or are forthcoming in Lunate, Bright Flash, and Cotton Xenomorph.