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Press Against the Tide at Dusk
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Sadie is terrified, on her first day of working at Waffle House, of people discovering who she is: A 21 year-old white woman with no college degree, no husband, no prospects. In other words, no one.
She lives in a thirty-foot airstream with her disabled mother. The interior is uncheerful. It reeks of passing time, a miasma that makes the air stale and the upholstery sour.
Four years ago they moved from the greasy spoons and dollar stores sprawled along Pineville’s Route 25 to a remote cul-de-sac of shitty trailers on an abandoned zone of dirt and vestigial asphalt, an area in Vallscreek technically not officially sanctioned by the city. There are no streetlights. Sometimes Sadie will go sit outside at dusk and smoke a cigarette and watch as one by one the windows in the surrounding tenements flicker from black to yellow, and then from yellow to the faint blue glow of television screens. On Sundays, she goes behind the airstream where the power lines run through the reeds adjacent to the highway, wading back and forth across the no man’s land with a black industrial-sized garbage bag, filling it with all the cans and bottles people toss out as they speed by. Her spending money.
Like much of rural America, Vallscreek qualifies as an “education desert.” There’s no easy access to education past high school, which means the workforce lacks training, which means there’s not much reason for a manufacturing company or software developer to come to town, which means few well-paying jobs, which means more poverty, which means it’s difficult for people to come up with the money to go to college. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle threatening the already precarious heartland economies by widening their socioeconomic drift from urban America. Many rural counties that have seen a surge in deaths of despair have been hit hardest by dying industries as manufacturers outsource jobs abroad and replace blue-collar workers with robots and computer-assisted processes.
For those who don’t acquire the right pedigree, the cosmopolitan elite and its burgeoning, high-tech information economy remain out of reach. While the well-educated move to the fast-growing cities to pursue select opportunities, those with less education are left behind in the countryside, often in towns where the economy is running on fumes and opportunities are few.
Between January 2010 and January 2019, nearly 16 million new jobs were created, but fewer than 3 million were for those without a four-year degree, and only 55,000 were for those with no education past high school. Stable work is becoming harder and harder to find for less educated Americans, who now struggle to get by in the automated, low-wage, service-oriented economy, where there is little potential for personal or professional growth. Employment duration has decreased. Hours aren’t guaranteed. Gig work and day labor in lieu of manufacturing jobs are the new norm and rarely come with benefits like health insurance and full worker protections.
Sadie makes $3.68 an hour plus tips at the Waffle House on Wark Street. It’s her first job, and her mother has advised her to take a firm stance against expectations. Sadie has been unable to work, having spent the past few years in a state of such crippling depression that she often struggles to find the volition to keep breathing, isolated by a pain none can see or share. Her days pass with a devastating sameness. Intense dysphoria features prominently, leaving her disassociated from everything and struggling with the kind of draining anhedonia that keeps you half-catatonic.
She doesn’t want your pity. She doesn’t want you to feel sorry for her. She wants you to know that she despises herself, that she oscillates between wanting to be unconscious and wanting to scream, that she watches from afar as people her age do with such ease all of the things she struggles terribly with. Her support system is lacking. The few friends she’s managed to keep are busy with their own active and vibrant lives, and she can’t bring herself to phone them up and divulge the emotional agony she’s struggling with, lest she drag them down as well or sound unbearably self-involved. What would she even say?
“Hey friend, sorry for bothering you but my quality of life is dipping below the point of being worth the effort. Can you help me hurt less?”
She’s accustomed to a solitary existence, a lonely lifestyle meant to hide her brokenness from everyone. Too much of her time is spent on Facebook and Twitter. All social media has ever done for her is show what she lacks, but she’s been unable to give it up. It’s her only portal to the outside world. She yearns wholeheartedly for something beyond the confines of her surroundings, trapped by circumstances beyond her control, the existence she has spoiled by the one she doesn’t.
Her depression has not improved, but her mother’s disability was cut by 25%. Sadie has no choice but to start bringing in some money. Anything. Her lack of a degree drastically narrows her options.
She tried to become a stripper at Chauncey’s, where men from the burbs willing to part with negotiated sums of money in exchange for having their aching desires turned into fleeting fulfillments go every night. Chauncey’s is the kind of club where neither an ankle monitor nor ample flesh is enough to keep a girl off the schedule. That’s what everyone says, at least.
But the floor manager told her they weren’t hiring. Sadie knows in her gut it’s because she’s one of the worst things a woman in this world can be: unattractive.
She has no car and must therefore walk a little over a mile to Waffle House on a spine of cracked and uneven sidewalk along a street dotted with dodgy-looking bars and dilapidated grocery stores advertising their willingness to accept EBT payments. It’s only her first day, yet she already knows the walk is going to be a problem. Not because it’s too far, but because it gives her too much time to think about her future, which terrifies her. She’s scared it will be little more than an extension of the present. She gets tangled up in circumlocutory thought spirals and helixes, her mind skipping frequencies, struggling with the mental shackles by which she’s so unwillingly restrained.
Upon arriving at Waffle House, it’s clear she won’t have much time to think, and for this she is grateful. The first six hours of her ten-hour day are spent running after the agile Fran, a 40-something, sharp-featured widow with frosted hair and perfume that smells like a memory. Fran imparts bits of instruction with personal tragedy. All food must be trayed, and the reason she’s so tired today is because she woke up in a cold sweat thinking of her husband, who was killed in a coal mining accident a few months ago. Carry the creamers to the table in a monkey bowl, never in your hand. After her husband died, Fran spent a month living in her truck, peeing in a plastic bottle and reading by flashlight at night. Now Fran lives in an extended stay motel for $220 a week, but is desperately trying to save up the $1,400 needed for first/last/and security deposit on a trailer and has taken to skipping meals, which makes her dizzy. Like all poor people in America, she’s always one bad diagnosis, one necessary car repair, one rotting tooth away from catastrophe.
The plurality of the diners are hard-working locals — truck drivers, construction workers, even housekeepers from the nearby motel — and Fran wants them to have the closest to a “fine dining” experience that the grubby circumstances will allow. She plies them with iced tea and coffee refills, returns mid-meal to inquire how everything is, and dolls up their salads with chopped raw mushrooms, summer squash slices, or whatever bits of produce that can be found that have survived their sojourn in the cold-storage room mold-free.
The day is disorienting. It has the impression of somehow simultaneously racing by and dragging on interminably. Sadie’s only break is during a lull at 4:00 PM. Standing out back behind the dumpster, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette while watching the rain dimple a puddle, the neon from the pawn shop sign next door bleeding onto the pavement, she’s suddenly struck by a tiredness greater than mere fatigue, deeper than marrow-deep, reaching down into a part of herself that she cannot name.
There’s no respite. Having spent the first half of the day tailing Fran and “learning the ropes,” Sadie is on her own now.
Things start off rocky. She’s not used to the subtleties of social interaction, and so her conversation lacks the dance-like rhythm and harmony that characterize the socially fluent. Tentative and unsure, by necessity, in a world that so often denies her confidence, Sadie gets the sense that her awkwardness makes some patrons uncomfortable.
Her third booth is a kindly couple. They order coffee and waffles. It’s cute that they seem so happy, but it only serves to remind Sadie of how miserable she is. She is awestruck when they leave her a $5 tip on an $8 bill. But then her next customer, a mechanic from the nearby Jiffy Lube, leaves no tip at all. Fran notices.
“Honey,” she says. “You were born with an ATM machine between your legs. Use it.”
When she sees Sadie’s expression, she quickly adds, “I’m not saying sleep with anyone. Just flirt. A little small talk. Nothing wrong with that.”
It helps that male diners seem to take to Sadie quickly, though it confuses her. Maybe she’s not so unattractive after all. Men are certainly eager to strike up a conversation, but she can’t help but be shy and tight-lipped, smiling but never laughing, talking but never sharing. She does her best to ingratiate herself but is unsure if it’s having the desired effect. Her next booth is a pair of men, and though they leave a tip, it’s only $2 on a $15 bill.
A couple of hours and a dozen customers later, it happens.
A man with paint on his fingers comes in and sits down in the corner booth on Sadie’s side of the diner. He has a hatchet-hard face, jug-handle ears, a thin hard mouth and smells of stale sweat. He is hungry for eye contact, but there’s something in his gaze that’s unsettling. A capacity for something.
He orders the All-Star Special and a coffee. Like all food at Waffle House, it’s ready in just a few minutes. He barely touches it. Sips on the coffee. Sadie can feel his eyes on her as she hustles around the diner.
Finally, when she can’t afford to wait any longer, she returns to ask if everything’s okay with his food. He says yes, then moves to small talk, then moves to flirting. Sadie indulges him, going through the motions because she’s worried that deviating from the script he has proposed might cost her a tip. He motions for Sadie to come closer so he can whisper something. She obliges. There’s an air of theatrical suspense.
“You got a great ass.”
He reaches over and places a palm on Sadie’s backside and squeezes.
She jumps like something bit her.
“Relax,” he mutters. He smiles but his eyes do not participate. It’s the unpleasant, semi-smug grin of someone who has lost his inhibitions, unmoored from anything other than his own desires.
Sadie apologizes. A beat passes, then another. She asks if he’d like more coffee.
“No,” he says, audibly annoyed. “Just the check.”
She nods. Nobody seems to have noticed what’s transpired, or at least they’re not showing it.
As she goes to check on her other customers, she can feel her composure ebbing and returning in a certain spastic rhythm that feels like constantly losing and then regaining her grasp on a bag of groceries that’s just a little too much to handle. She offers coffee top-ups before returning with his check, placing it on the table without looking at him. He pays at the register and doesn’t leave a tip.
Sadie chides herself for reacting the way she did. Why couldn’t she just continue to go along with him, play her subservient role and simply pretend like she was unfazed by his groping? Now she doesn’t even have anything to show for it.
It occurs to her then how poor her self-esteem is. A fresh wave of despair hits. As she wipes down the man’s booth, something inside her, an emotional wire, draws tighter and tighter until she’s sure it’ll snap. It does. She can feel it break as surely as you can a bone. Suddenly, it’s difficult to breathe. She tells Fran she needs some air and heads outside, gasping.
What a gift it would be, she thinks to herself as she lights a cigarette to calm her nerves, to return to a place from which she might begin again, a fresh start as someone new. She takes a long drag, tilts her head back and exhales toward the faint stars in the soft light of dusk.
At 10 PM Sadie sets off for home with $27.39 in tips. She’s not sure if that qualifies as a good day or not, but hopes her mom is proud.
The sodium lights that are still working cast long, cold shadows on the sidewalk. The bars and fast food restaurants and gas stations are vaguely patinaed with moonlight, and a certain melancholy insinuates itself into the atmosphere. The late night traffic shudders and sighs. In the distance, sirens sing their heart-stopping arias.
She wishes she had a car. She tries losing herself in the slow, methodical physical exertion of walking, tries not to leave open any chink in her consciousness through which she might be waylaid by the deep sadness that only sleep can erase, but already she can feel the barbed contour of every second that passes. The dull carnal pang of deep unhappiness and the desire for something else, to be someone else, reverberates in the pit of her stomach. How is she going to manage repeating days like this up to five times a week? The thought is heavy. It feels like a sandbag slung across her shoulders.
Is this it? Is this what her life will be like indefinitely? Will she ever escape poverty? Will her depression go away?
She finds that the lengthy walk has actually done her some good. It’s helped oxygenate her mind, relaxed her a little. She’s back at the trailer now and sits down on the step in front of the door and lights a cigarette.
Sadie thinks about the man who groped her, how he’s cut from the same cloth as the men her age who are sulky and disappointed if you won’t compromise yourself, and imperious and aloof if you do.
She feels small. Her mother says the hardest thing is to recognize your smallness without being diminished by it. How true.