Before work, Sarah Bremer bathed and dressed her father, who was old and grim and wheelchair bound. Her husband, Joe, a trucker, was gone this week, on a run.

“Daddy, you call me if you need anything, okay?” Sarah, dressed in her pink and white waitress uniform, said to him, before she set him in front of the TV where he would sleep and drool and watch cable. His whole life was 1980s reruns. Sarah tried to ignore the piles of dusty Reader’s Digests everywhere. On her day off, she would clean.

“I’ll be fine. You go on,” he said, already in his TV trance.

Sarah gave him a quick peck on the cheek that he didn’t acknowledge. But she was used to this. She told herself he kept his feelings inside.

It was 5:20 a.m. and still dark. As Sarah drove to work on streets free of morning rush hour traffic, she passed by quiet houses, a not-yet-open Burger King, a 24-hour laundromat that looked deserted, a gas station with one or two cars and then the sign for the diner where she worked. In pink neon letters, it said EAT. But the E was burned out, so it said AT.  In thirty minutes, it would open.

Ten minutes before she had to be there, Sarah punched in. She arrived some days before her boss, Lou, a man with big bulging muscles, colorful tattoos, long gray hair and a hillbilly beard. He looked intimidating, fierce and scary like he was a bouncer at some sketchy club where people smoked pot in the back, but, as long as you did your work and didn’t try to sneak extra smoke breaks, he was a pussycat. In fact, sometimes, he was fun and good to talk to. He was kind of like a father, just not her father. With a twinkle in his eye, he’d sometimes tease, “Stop working so hard, honey. You’re making everybody else look bad.” But he always gave her extra hours when she needed them and let her off early if she needed to take her father to the doctor’s.

Today, Sue Ellen, a bottle-blond waitress who wore gold hoop earrings and had a way with men, had beaten Sarah in. At 44, Sue Ellen was twice Sarah’s age. Sue Ellen had gotten a ride to work with Bill, her boyfriend of the hour. She started to tell Sarah about their hot last night using words like sweat, breathing, erection, orgasm. Sarah’s face turned red with embarrassment. Her encounters with Joe were more often fumbling and awkward than pleasurable, but then, sometimes, there were rare moments when she could forget herself.

In a few minutes, the first customers, including the regulars, and Flora, the waitress who was always late, would trickle in. One of the daily customers was Ted Ames, a retired high school gym teacher and former football coach who still wore his Westboro High t-shirt each day and greeted Sarah each morning with the words “Good morning, Sunshine.” He said this as she plunked his black coffee down on the counter. He always ate a piece of rye toast with grape jelly, no butter, and egg whites. He winked at her and said, “I have to stay in shape for Mabel.” Mabel, his wife of 47 years, was 65 and didn’t like to leave the house.

Some days, everything went smoothly. People got what they ordered and liked it. Other days, well, it wasn’t so smooth.

Yesterday, for example, Sarah had waited on an old man with fishing pole-thin arms and a hearing aid who’d screamed I’m not deaf, even though he was. She’d only yelled at him after she’d asked him four times if she could get him anything else and he hadn’t heard her. Yesterday, they’d also been visited by Ethel, the greasy woman with baggy clothes who appeared from time to time and asked Sarah if she could see spiders crawling on the tables.

“No, ma’am, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“What, are you blind?” Ethel asked.

“Maybe,” Sarah replied because reasoning with Ethel seemed pointless.

As Sarah checked tables to see if the silverware was rolled in napkins and if the salt and sugar shakers were filled, she thought of Joe and the stories he liked to tell her. Last week, sitting on the couch, flicking ashes from his Camel cigarette, never quite hitting the ashtray but instead getting them on the carpet and the couch cover and every other surface in the room, Joe said, “You should’ve seen that Mack truck flipped over on its side. The state police were there. They closed off four lanes. It took two wreckers to try to lift it up again, and it backed up traffic on I-70 for miles.”

“That so?” her father said looking away from the TV for once. Her father didn’t seem to find his daughter’s stories so interesting.

Once, when Sarah first started working at McDonald’s as a teenager, she had tried to tell her father what it was really like, how bad, and her father, who was white-haired and bitter even then, after her mother, sick of his misery, had left him, had said, “You think you got it hard? You just look at me. When you got my problems, then you can complain, understand?” Sarah had nodded, bit her lip and looked away. And, after that day when she was sixteen and baffled by the ridiculousness of impatient customers who said things like, Can I have coffee but in a Coke cup with a straw and three scoops of ice or can I have the cheeseburger without the cheese or a kid’s meal with two toys and no burger, Sarah didn’t complain to anyone. She just marveled over the way people could behave, so difficult and mean.

Sarah walked to the door, unlocked it, turned the sign from closed to open and the customers started coming, slowly at first, like raindrops, and then, a half a hour later, the rain turned into a downpour as the breakfast rush began.


Because Sarah was so good at hiding things from everyone, because she thought it was expected of her, no one knew when she was sick. She kept her oversized purse stocked with Menthol cough drops and Tylenol Cold and Sinus in case of emergency and Imodium AD or Pepto Bismol for emergencies of the other kind. But this day, a Friday, Sarah’s sickness felt different. It had started when her leg had begun hurting a few weeks ago, when Sarah had banged her leg on a table, an injury that Sarah thought would heal itself, so she ignored it. Now, everything seemed foggy. She tried not to mess up orders. Her chest hurt. Her breath had a hard time coming. Sarah was dizzy but determined not to stop. Most illnesses would pass, just like people’s rudeness tended to, if she kept on working. Sarah’s method of dealing with most conflicts was to ignore them until they went away. So she continued robotlike, half-smiling, not listening to anything anyone said unless it was an order: Eggs over easy with sausage, no bacon, and a side of home fries; an omelet with American cheese and ham, a piece of rye toast on the side and can you bring some jelly with that; oatmeal hold the raisins; just tea for me; decaf, please, and one of them cinnamon pastries that are so good.

Sarah filled breakfast orders for three hours, concentrating as hard as she could, trying not to let anyone down, trying so hard not forget what anyone wanted, and as she did it, she thought, my busy time is nearly over, I’ve almost made it. She fell forward, dropping the breakfast plates. She would have banged her head on the floor if Sue Ellen hadn’t seen Sarah stumbling to her table as if asleep and said real loud, “Sarah, are you alright?” This caused the man at the counter, the one in a dress shirt and tie who had been coming to the diner every day for five years –since before Sarah had begun working there— to turn, and seeing her about to fall, as if it were in slow motion, he jumped off his stool and caught her. Otherwise, her black hair, pulled back in a ponytail so it would look neat and not get in the food, would have fallen into the plates and might have ended up immersed in runny yolk from the sunny side up eggs. The dishes, white and ceramic, crashed to the floor and everything in the restaurant stopped. It was Sue Ellen who finally got things moving again when she said to the man trained as a medic, “Well, go on, Donnie, and see if she’s alright.”

For five minutes, while Donnie checked her pulse and Lou himself called the ambulance, screaming into the phone, his face red as the American flag that hung outside, right now, young woman, emergency, get here as fast as you can, not one order was filled, and no one really cared. Afterwards, after they had hauled her off on a stretcher and orders started coming out again, Sue Ellen finally said what everyone was thinking, “I wonder what’s the matter with Sarah. I hope she’s gonna be okay.”


Later that day, when Sarah woke up in a thin white gown on an elevated bed in a hospital  room with an IV in her left arm, Lou stood by her bed wearing a black Guns N’ Roses T-shirt and a look of worry.

“What happened?” Sarah asked.

“You passed out, hon.”

“I guess they don’t know what’s wrong then?”

“No, not yet. But they should get some test results back soon.”

Out of habit, Sarah didn’t react with concern. Since no news seemed to be good news, it was just a matter of how bad. “Well, this happens sometimes, right? I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. They’ll probably tell me I’m fine and send me on home.”  She didn’t realize she was shaking.

“Hey,” he said and held out his hand. With relief and surprise, she grabbed his big fingers with her smaller ones and squeezed. Next to his bulky well-worn grease-under-the-fingernail hands, hers looked doll-like.

A young doctor who wore Ralph Lauren clothing and too strong cologne and acted like he was auditioning for a role on one of those nighttime medical dramas that her father liked to watch came in and asked her with a big smile on his face how she was feeling.

Using a chest X-ray, a blurry shiny piece of black and white film paper that didn’t look to Sarah anything like her body, he pointed to things. He talked too slowly using words like blood clot, thrombosis, respiration.

“If you look here,” he said pointing to a part of the slide as if he were a weather man showing a TV audience where the next cold front was going to come in, “you can see…”

Sarah just had one question. “Well, when can I leave?”

He said that she’d need to stay there a few days. But all she could think about when they said a few days was her father. He couldn’t be home alone. And what would she say to Joe?

“Look, I need to get home,” Sarah said.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor said growing less smiley. “But this is going to take some time.” He went on to tell her about the tests they had run and would run, the medications she was taking and would continue to take after he left. How if they didn’t take care of this right now the blood clot in her lungs might kill her.

“I don’t understand how this happened,” Sarah finally said.

“In nine out of ten cases, a pulmonary embolism begins in the deep veins of the legs, breaks free and travels through the bloodstream,” the doctor said confidently as if he was talking about a lab rat or a microscope slide instead of Sarah’s body. “When it gets lodged in the lungs, it can become life-threatening. Sarah,” the doctor said more gently, in a George Clooney voice, “this condition can cause death.”

She thought about how her leg had hurt, wondered if that had anything to do with it. She didn’t ask. The word death rang in her head like an echo in a cave. It wasn’t a concept that Sarah could reasonably apply to herself. All the time she imagined something going wrong, something happening to her father when she wasn’t home, but Sarah couldn’t picture her own passing. She couldn’t even imagine the possibility of it.

“It’s going to be fine,” said Lou gently, hanging in the background like a comforting shadow.

“I need to see about my father,” Sarah said.

Lou volunteered to go.

“But I’m not asking you,” Sarah said.

“I know you not.. But I’m offering. You can always make it up to me later. Is it a deal?”

Sarah nodded and agreed to let Lou go. She would have to call her father at home first to explain, downplay her illness so her father wouldn’t worry.

As soon as Lou left, Sarah reached for the phone and began to dial. She was too tired to think things through clearly, but she noticed that when she told her father she was in the hospital, he asked how she was but in a conversational way that didn’t inspire revelation, so she said more to the air than anyone, “I’m fine. I’m just fine.”


When Sarah woke the next morning, Lou was gone, though he had left an imprint on the chair by the bed. Sarah didn’t know until Sue Ellen told her later that Lou had stayed with her the night.

“How are you feeling?” Sue Ellen asked Sarah while pacing the floor. Sarah noticed Sue Ellen’s candy apple lipstick bright against the neutral colors of the room. Sue Ellen was one of those people who didn’t like to stand still. She was like a bouncing ball that never rested. Sue Ellen was wearing a low-cut white cotton blouse and too tight stonewashed jeans. The lights of the hospital room made her look like a cartoon version of herself.

Sarah said she was okay though she still felt tired, knew from seeing the mirror when they’d helped her to the bathroom that her face, normally light but filled with color, was pasty.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Lou comes by here today after the diner closes,” Sue Ellen said as she fiddled with her curly, wound-tight hair. “He worries about you, girl.”

There was an awkward silence between them. Sarah wasn’t much good at small talk, so she finally asked to break the silence, “Do you know if—did my husband call me back?” Sarah explained that she’d tried him on his cell but had gotten no answer.

“Oh, I meant to tell you,” Sue Ellen said. “He called before, but you were fast asleep. He said to say hey, but he won’t be able to make it back for a few days. I think he might be out West somewhere.”

Joe had probably said he couldn’t come home early because he wanted to finish his run. This is exactly what Sarah would have told him to do, but somehow the fact that he was doing so without even talking to her about it, without even asking if it was okay, felt disappointing.

“Yeah,” said Sarah, not looking at Sue Ellen. “I think he mentioned something about being out in California.” Joe was probably in Oklahoma, Sarah thought, one day’s drive.

The mood in the room was gloomy, but Sue Ellen was someone who liked to look on the bright side of things. Sarah knew this because of the way Sue Ellen talked about her come-and-go boyfriends. Sue Ellen liked to say, “This one’s gonna be the one;  I can feel it.” Even though Sue Ellen’s feet hurt from waitressing, in her off hours, she still didn’t like to sit. “I can sit when I’m dead,” she would say.

“Sarah, I’m awfully sorry that this had to happen to you,” Sue Ellen said. She went on, muttering her sympathies. This kind of conversation embarrassed Sarah, who did her work and kept to herself. She knew what some of the other girls said about her, how they felt she was stuck up, too good for them.

“Look, I just,” Sarah began. She wondered if Lou had said anything to Sue Ellen about her father. She didn’t like to talk about him with her co-workers. “I just have a lot going on right now.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me, honey,” Sue Ellen said. She started to tell her a story about some ex-boyfriend of hers who had died in unexpected and tragic circumstances involving a toaster and a tub of water.

“Um, Sue Ellen,” Sarah said, “when I’m better, maybe we could,” Sarah was about to say go out sometime but she didn’t even know, what  did the other waitresses do after work?


After Sue Ellen left, Joe called.

“How you doing, hon?”

“Oh, I’ll be fine.” Sarah said.

“That’s not what I heard from your friend there,” he said. Sarah thought she could hear the sound of engines in the background. He was likely at a truck stop on the interstate. She wondered but didn’t ask which highway, which state, how far away he was. She wanted to ask him to come home. But instead what she said was, “Oh, well, you know, hospitals make people nervous.”

“Don’t worry about missing work, babe. You know I’ve got you covered. I’ll pick up some extra runs if I need to. Whatever it takes. Don’t worry about a thing, baby. Love ya. Look, I gotta get back on the road.”

“Sure,” Sarah said. She felt like she was spinning.


When Sarah woke again, it was later and Lou was there. He was wearing an Orange County Chopper T-shirt and bad-ass blue jeans that he looked like he’d owned since prehistoric times.

“Hey,” said Sarah. “Thanks for checking on my dad.”

“That was nothing. Don’t worry about it. How’s my best waitress?”

“How’s the diner?”

“You know. Same old, same old. We’re somehow managing without you. The other girls are pitching in to help. All the regulars are asking about you. Ted Ames says his eggs and toast just don’t taste the same.”

She wondered if Ted had greeted some other waitress with the words “Good Morning Sunshine” today or if those words were only reserved for her.

“How’s my father?”

Instead of answering, Lou walked over to the bed, got the pink water pitcher from the table near her bed and poured. .

“Sarah, let me tell you a story.” When was the last time someone had said that to her? Images of her mother came to her then. She had been skinny, dark haired like Sarah. Pale and pretty. And, then, holding the Little Golden Books that Sarah had so cherished, she had been young.

Lou handed Sarah his well-worn leather wallet. Sarah didn’t know what she was supposed to do with it, so she waited.

“Look here,” Lou said, opening the wallet, pointing to a photograph. The grainy quality of the picture made Sarah realize it was old. It was a photo of a young woman with blonde feathered hair and a pastel pink dress with shoulder pads. The woman was holding a bonneted baby. He handed her the picture. “That was my wife and my daughter.”

Lou looked at her, but she knew he was seeing his old life. “I loved them, but I didn’t know how to be a husband or a father. Instead, I was out chasing women at all hours, having fun, doing anything and everything but spending time with Teresa and Jodi. I thought they’d always be there waiting. But, then one day, I came home from drinking all night, and they were gone. Teresa packed everything she owned and walked out. She hadn’t left a thing, not even a spare diaper. I hadn’t seen it coming. I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks.”

“I’m sorry,” Sarah said. After her mother had left, she’d felt a void a blackness. And she still felt that now.

With his legs crossed so that Sarah could see a small hole in the jeans near his left pocket and the way some of the thread was fraying, Lou continued, “Before I worked in the restaurant business, I used to fix cars. I think maybe I told you about that one of those nights when you offered to stay late. Well, anyways, sometimes I’d come across a good car that didn’t run so well no more because someone had worked it too hard, didn’t do the maintenance on it, neglected oil changes, brake pads, those sorts of things. The thing is a good car, a great car even, can’t just go and go and go. In order to run properly, it needs to be maintained.”

Sarah didn’t say anything. Instead she just looked at him.

Finally, he spoke again, this time more plainly, putting a grease-stained hand to his beard. The other he let drop so it was there against the bed. She could take it if she wanted. “Sarah, even if sometimes the people who should be there aren’t, it don’t mean it’s you. And it don’t mean nobody cares. Do you understand?”

“Yeah,” Sarah said, “I get it.” She let her hand brush his and then she reached for it, held it. As she held it, she bit back tears. She wasn’t the kind of girl who cried or made scenes. Still, she felt a change like a light turning on inside her. Nothing was different, except this: If she needed to picture someone now in those times when everything seemed beyond her, she could picture Lou with his hand stretched out, waiting, or she could picture the moment after when she’d taken it and held it and held it until she felt alright.


About the Author

Lori D'Angelo is a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation and an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Recent work has appeared in Idle Ink, JAKE, One Art Poetry Journal, Toil & Trouble, and Wrong Turn Lit. Find her on Twitter @sclly21 or Instagram at lori.dangelo1.


Photo by Ash on Unsplash