Serving Up Smiles
“Did you smile?” she asks, smiling herself, revealing crooked, neglected teeth, as if to say, see? This. Did you do this?
Instead of answering Miss Mattie, I busy myself unloading the large tray of dirty dishes that I brought back from the last course I served – a Wild Mushroom Risotto with Baby Arugula, Manchego Cheese and Lemon-Parsley Sauce – foods I have never heard of before, let alone eaten, but have to be prepared to explain in case one of Miss Thornton’s party guests asks me what they are eating. The other servers race around me and Miss Mattie. They have heard our conversations before.
For six months, I have been asked this question by Miss Mattie, the head cook at the Thornton house. Three meals a day, six days a week, but especially on days when Miss Thornton is entertaining. Miss Mattie has never asked if I spilt the piping hot bowl of soup onto Mrs. Thornton’s lap. Nor has she ever asked if I ripped the tablecloth from under the 18th century family heirloom of fancy dishes and serving bowls, sending them crashing to the floor. She knows that I know better than to do that. But the smiling. The smiling, she never quite trusts me to carry out.
“Carolee, Miss Thornton says you do good work. She says you just don’t seem happy. Can you try and look happy, honey? Can you show them big, pretty teeth of yours and just look happy?”
Happy? Happy be damned, I feel like screaming, as I turn my back to Miss Mattie. Miss Mattie helped me to get this job. I have never even told her thanks.
Five years ago, my parents were killed in a car wreck. No insurance except to bury them, and I was left to raise my younger brother and sister – alone. I was only seventeen. Barely out of high school. I was supposed to be away—away being the first in my family to attend college. Not doing this. Not this. So what, I wondered, was there for me to be happy about?
Maybe if I lived in that crazy white woman, Mrs. Thornton’s world, I could fake happy. Maybe, if like her, I had a doctor prescribing me happy pills that I washed down with happy glasses of 100-year-old bottles of happy Scotch, then I, too, could fake happy every day. But right now, my only concern is getting through my crappy week so I can put away what I can from my paycheck so that maybe someday at least my brother and sister can go to Alabama A & M or Tuskegee University and actually get a job that doesn’t rip out their soul day after day like this job does to me.
“All you got to do is smile ‘til you get back here,” Miss Mattie says, interrupting my thoughts. “It’s like holding your breath, honey. Just press the smile on your face and go on out there. They ain’t gone know one way or another if the smile is real.”
But I will know, I seethe inside my head. I will know. I ignore the fine beads of sweat I feel forming on my forehead, and I resist the urge to tug at my black server’s dress that is fitting too loose. I’d borrowed it from another girl who was much stouter than me. I hadn’t planned on serving long. That was nearly three years ago.
I fight the urge to click my teeth in disgust. Instead, I start plating the Roasted Rack of Lamb with Sage and Carrot Cream onto the plates. The little bowls of orange-sour cream sorbet have already been taken out. Now it is time for the main course. I fill my tray with the plates, ready to go back out when Miss Mattie grabs my arm, squeezing it tightly. I wince, but she ignores me. Her face is full of fire. Like brimstone—like preachers on the last night of revival meetings.
“I been young, too, Carolee. You ain’t the only one to work in sorrow’s kitchen. I could tell you ‘bout dreams. All of us could. But what’s the point? All any of us can do…the only thing we got power over is the face we show them. When it’s just you and the good Lord, well, you can rage and scream and cuss, but here…when it’s you and them…you smile. They ain’t got to never see no more of you than that. Never,” she rips out of her throat, and then, almost like she has said nothing, Miss Mattie blinks several times, releases my arm, and smoothes down the white chef’s apron she always wears over her clothes. “Ain’t gone kill you to smile.”
I look at her. Really look at her, and I see a flash of something that resonates in my spirit. I recognize Miss Mattie for the first time because for the first time, she lets me see inside of her soul – only a brief glimpse, but it is like she rips open a bandage, shows me the red, puss-filled wound, and covers it back up quickly. In that moment, she and I are one.
Slowly, I nod my head, and she must take my nod as evidence of me finally understanding her words that before now have sounded to me like church ladies speaking in tongues, because she turns from me and starts talking to the other servers, making sure their trays are ready to be served. I swallow the lump in my throat, pick up my tray and walk towards the door leading out to the formal dining room. But before I push the door open with my left hip, I affix a smile onto my face.
Poet and writer Angela Jackson-Brown grew up in the small town of Ariton, Alabama. She is an English Instructor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and she recently received her MFA in Creative Writing. Angela has published her poetry and been a featured reader at events all over the South. Most recently she presented her fiction and poetry at the 2009 Limestone Dust Poetry Festival and the 2009 Southern Women Writers Conference. Angela also had a short story, “Something in the Wash,” selected for the 2009 fiction prize by New Southerner Literary Magazine.