“Rating” – Fiction by Olivia Mardwig

Woman with a Coffee Pot – Jean Metzinger, 1919

Health inspections and sexual fantasies occupy the mind of a café cashier in “Rating,” Olivia Mardwig‘s realistic yet dreamlike short fiction from our Summer 2018 issue.

{ X}

EVER SINCE SHE TOOK THE CASHIER JOB AT THE CAFÉ SHE’S HAD OVERLY REALISTIC DREAMS. The most frequently recurring is of her grocery shopping for the things she actually needs. Waking up, it’s an odd, unwelcome surprise to realize that there is no almond milk, there are no bananas.

The café is on the first floor of an office building so far west of the city it’s almost touching water. On certain days, when walking from the train, in the wind tunnel of the avenue, it feels like you could be scooped up and carried away.

The only customers are the people who work in the building and in this way everyone is a regular. Some are more friendly than others, but no face stands out in the check-out line. No person, by however small a margin, are you happy to see.  Admittedly, much of that is caused by the lunch rushes, the only action between the hollow hours of mid-morning and afternoon. It’s hard to make an impression when like clockwork, they have their $6.99 turkey sub in one hand and exact change in the other.

Two springs ago she graduated college. She’s not sure what kind of day it was, and her only memory of the ceremony was an image that feels borrowed from someone else. Graduation for her meant the moment everyone threw their caps into the sun-filled sky, into a bright, blue beginning. She thinks about that image sometimes, whose experience it actually was, from what movie. But mostly she uses the blank stretches of time to fantasize about having sex with the dishwasher, the sandwich guy, the bread delivery guy, his brother. Inevitably someone takes the elevator down for an unnecessary cup of coffee and suddenly it would be here that she is.

After lunch, the day manager called the staff into the office for an announcement. She said that the following day the health inspector would visit to evaluate and issue a letter grade to the café. She looked more worried than usual. Her knee-length cardigan wrapped visibly tighter around her underweight self. Her crumb of morale was offered in the hardly audible, “We can do this”, as the wireless printer inked out next week’s order forms.

Unlocking the café the next morning she felt a gush of nervousness, a unanimous worry that reflected in the low hanging clouds. From somewhere a surge of spirit, probably just the group being united in the same activity, brought new life to the place. Even the salad artist, usually an austere man, took special care balancing the towers of baby corn and olives, washing the large mixing bowls with something close to joy. Everyone was enthusiastically chatting, robustly scrubbing in the merry pursuit of absolute cleanliness. For the first time there was dancing behind the counters, for the first time the mini quiche under the heat lamps looked edible.

A little before 11 the inspector arrived, entering flamboyantly through the revolving door. He did not have shiny shoes, nor a thin moustache, nor, judging from the poor fit of his suit, considerable wealth, though he seemed somehow to suggest all of these things. The manager shadowed him, moving quickly from station to station, front of the house to the kitchen. Not the same one, but a similarly long sweater wafted behind her. Less than 30 minutes later, they enter the office where the manager takes special care to close the door behind them soundlessly.

When the inspector left, the manager waited a few minutes before coming out of the office. On her face, a smile, in her waving hand, a piece of government-issued paper with a bold blue “A.” There was no other way to express everyone’s irrepressible bliss except to grab the person nearest and bring them closer. They gathered outside ceremoniously to see the letter from the street. In that moment only the day manager looked sullen, “Now we can’t get anything less”.

Customers who came for an early meal were received with smiles and an eagerness to please. The lunch rush was exhilarating, her fatigue barely noticeable through her pride, this one day’s devotion to service.

The next two passed similarly, the day after that, a little less. On Friday the checks were cut and distributed. Walking back to the subway, she ripped open the envelope with her ring finger. The hours of work, the row of taxes, the same overly subtracted amount. A few customers who had picked up on the raised mood of the staff took it as an opportunity to make small talk, which became as unendearing as it was unwelcome. On her way home she missed the train and was held in dormant minutes of waiting.

After a week, she accidentally short changed a guy by $5 and, instead of putting the money in the communal tip jar, slipped it into her apron. The week after she imagines Jorge lifting her up onto one of the metal tables in the break room. She imagines his hands on her knees, forcing them apart, then finding where she opens with the smooth tip of his dick and pushing himself inside with such power that she throws her neck back in pleasure.

A week after that she imagines the same scenario, this time with Luis.

{ X }

OLIVIA MARDWIG is a writer born and living in NYC.

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