Stacking Napkins

Stacking Napkins

Seven across, light green. Five diagonal, white. Seven—no eight—across, dark green. That’s a good find. But still, I search for that elusive nine. An imperfection, almost, a mistake.

I study the patterns in the tiles on the restaurant wall and let my mind go quiet, slow, while the blue sky putters onto the dark concrete on the other side of the big window.

When business is slow and David has run out of tasks to give me, I stand at the front counter and stack napkins into the crisp piles of three we put in customers’ bags. My body’s memorized the motion and I’ve found every across and diagonal on this wall before. I’m sure David could order the napkins already separated, but then what excuse would he have to keep me around?

The lights above me flutter out, again, and I lose track of my tiles. I call out for David with no response. Through the window I watch the manager of the cafe next door run into the sweeping downpour to close all their bench umbrellas, lest they get swept away with the wind. His big arms wrestle the rusty metal spindles into place.

David must be on his break.

The restaurant is often empty on days like this with the whole town cleared out for the holidays or is stuck indoors by winter storms. The kitchen is silent but for the bubbling oil of the fryers when I step back there. I don’t like to be back there often with the heavy, watchfulness of the cooks.

“Do you know where David went? The lights are out again.”

Ignacio stands to my left, scrolling his phone by the freezer. The older cooks mostly talk amongst themselves, making jokes and leering at girls through the front window. They don’t speak to me at all if they can help it.

Ignacio throws a pointed look at the man whose name I don’t know as dumping wings into the fryer. The frozen meat hits the heat like the sound of applause and the man snickers.

“He’s in the storage.”

I take the umbrella by the door and make my way across the parking lot to a large metal shipping container where we store extra ranch powder and utensils. Only an inch of the door hangs open.

“Jesus, close that.”

It’s enclosed, dark, and the air stinks of dirty rain and weed smoke.

“The lights are out again up front,” I tell David. “Do you have the key to the generator?”

“Ah shit, yeah I place them down around here somewhere. Help me look.”

David knocks over a few boxes as he stands and curses. I use my phone flashlight to help fumble around in the dark, getting flashes of David’s scruffy face screwed in concentration. The light deepens the lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

“They’re here, by your head.” David leans close as his arm reaches around my head towards a stack of boxes. I feel the presence of his mouth near my ear, his hot clammy breath smelling sharp and sour.

Slowly, he backs away and hands me the key. I walk back with the umbrella by my side and enter the restaurant soaked.


Working somewhere as temporary and replaceable as a fast food restaurant, you can pick a new identity and try it on for a season. Liam, the other cashier who likes to start our mornings by telling me about his conquests the night before, is always loud and bubbly. He tells any customer who will listen about his new motorbike and his plans to go away for the summer, but won’t say “hi” when we pass on the street. I saw him once sitting alone at the cafe on his day off and wondered if his persona was just something he used to get through the day. Off work, his posture was curved in, like he was trying to hide himself, and he sat with his hands and arms blocking his face from view, just a moppy blond head. He was always alone.

David goes by an entirely different name–we saw it once on his time card plain as day–Agustin Gomez. Liam asked him about it; he just likes David better. I wonder what David can do that Agustin cannot. We all have our ways of chameleoning.

I become obedient, quiet. It’s easier that way. I greet customers when they enter and take their orders in a soft voice two octaves above my own. I ask them how their day is going and say sorry often. I imagine where their lives will go as I watch them leave and walk down the street and go back to counting tiles on the wall.

Off-shift I sometimes find myself responding to friends with an overly polite “My pleasure.” or “Have a great day!” and wonder how I can possibly expect customers to treat me as human when I do not think of myself as such. When I clock in I become something outside myself.

Today a girl slipped and hit her head on one of the cafe’s metal benches. I see her and a group of girlfriends through the big glass window, stopping at the bench closest to our doors to check their bags. A middle aged woman in a long blue raincoat stands before me, deciding between fries and veggies sticks while the two in line behind her cross and recross their arms and tap their feet.

“Hmm well.. are the carrots fresh?”

They come in freezer safe boxes that I dump into vats of ice water beside the fryer. David has me refresh the ice once a shift.

“Yes,” I tell her.

Little beads of water race down her body, making small puddles at her feet. “I’ll take the fries. Large, well-done, with lemon pepper seasoning.”

I tap the order into the POS thoughtlessly, and wonder if years from now the layout of this menu will remain permanently imprinted on my brain. Then the woman squeals. I take a look behind her and a puddle of blood bleeds into the threshold.

“Oh my god! Someone help her!”

I stare blankly at the girl, splayed on the concrete. Her friends surround her, shrieking as they lift her lifeless head. There’s a gash on its side, just above her right eyebrow where she hit the bench.

The machine spits out the woman’s receipt in a slow chuga-chuga-choo that I rip from its mouth.

“It’ll be about a 15 minute wait. Next?”

By the time David returns from his break crowds of people are surrounding the girl and two ambulances skid down the street.

“You think he’ll let us go home?” Liam’s hand grazes my leg as he grabs a soda from the fridge behind me.

“If he wanted to let us go, he would have already. It’s been dead all week.”

“Bet you he’ll let me go first.”

“Why?” I turn around to face Liam. He holds a foggy bottle of Sprite and a smirk blooms on his lips.

As Liam leans towards me and whispers, I shiver. “Because he likes to be alone with you.”

“What the fuck happened?” David directs his question and Liam and I.

Liam pulls a long, distressed face. “I don’t know, she just fell–slipped maybe! I just mopped but I don’t know what happened, am I in trouble?” he whimpers.

David sighs. “Jesus, Liam, just go home before I have to file an incident report.” He picks up the phone and punches the keys with exasperation.

Liam turns his back to David and winks at me as he goes to grab his jacket. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Told you so, he mouths.

Running a hand over his tired face, David waves him away. “Lily,” he says. “Mop that up when the ambulances leave.”

I feel a pinch on the back of my thigh, Liams goodbye. I nod at David, and begin stacking again.

Business slows down again after the accident. It takes half an hour until they leave and I study the wall with the bench in the corner of my eye. Six down, white. Three diagonal, light green. The girl’s friends shuffle away with red puffy eyes. They don’t notice their food, brown paper bags left to wilt in the rain.

“Why do people always do stupid shit in the rain?” David’s leans against the kitchen door with one hand in his gray-black hair. Behind the door the fryer sizzles softly and the vent fan blows it all away.

“Do you want me to go clean it now?”

“Nah, nah. The rain’ll wash it away,” he says, though the rain has died down to a sprinkle and the blood is trickling across the storefront. David steps up to the front counter beside me. We both stare outside.

I wonder if the cooks are on break in the back or watching through the door’s window.

“Fucking Liam,” David pushes his hair back again. Liam thinks it makes him feel younger, more attractive. “He’s not the smartest, huh?”

“He’s alright.”

“Nah he’s an idiot. All those guys are, except you.” David chuckles and throws a look my way that I don’t acknowledge. My hand’s reach for a nearby stack of napkins.

He tries his hand at joking again. “You know I should just fire ‘em all. Keep you around more often.”

I stiffen. And keep stacking.

“So, uh, what’re you doing after work today?”

“Going home. Homework, I think.”

“What, on a friday?” I try not to react as David slaps his hand on the counter. “Nah, nah you have to go out. You’re gonna regret that kind of thing when you get older, kid.” His hand squeezes my left arm.

“It’s raining.”

“And bars are indoors. And warm. You know what, you should come out with us! Yeah, yeah, we’re celebrating Gerry’s birthday tonight–I mean, we’re a few weeks late–but we’re all going downtown to Joes after close. You should come.”

He takes another step closer, hand on my arm again. His gaze burns into the side of my face.

“I can’t, I really should do homework.”

“Come onnn. Don’t be so serious, Lily. Loosen up!”

I hold my mouth shut. The texture of the napkins on my fingers is rough and dry, powdery almost.

Out of the corner of my eye I see David squint as he looks at me closely. Then the doorbell rings, a customer enters. He backs away.

“Uh, make sure you get that mess outside cleaned up. Looks bad to the customers,” he says before he goes back into the kitchen.

In my hands the napkins are a crumpled mess. I set them to the side and let go of the deep breath I’ve been holding. My eyes and stomach are burning, but I can’t think of that now. I grit my teeth in face of it.

“Hi sir, how can I help you?”


About the Author

Maya Johnson is an Afrofuturist storyteller, essayist, and magazine journalist and a graduate of UC Santa Barbara. As a Black, queer writer she defines politics through interpersonal relationships, focusing on topics of generational trauma, romance, and identity.


Photo by R. Mac Wheeler on Unsplash