Originally uploaded by wessobi.
There's a woman who works in the kitchen at the country club. A short heavy woman with grey hair and eyes so small they get lost in her fleshy face. She limps from a bad knee or arthritis or some other condition that no one has ever bothered to ask her about.
In fact, she was probably there for a couple months before she emerged as a personality at all. Not that we're callous, but people come and go in the back of the house. It's hard to keep track of them all or to get noticed in a kitchen that's almost overwhelmed by the collision of personalities: temperamental chefs, handsome young line cooks with tumultuous lives, and raucous taste in music who are in constant pursuit of one waitress or another, the Brazilian and Guatemalan dishwashers who charm us with their practical jokes and their warmth.
The lady cook's personality, when it first emerged from the simmering stew in the kitchen, was an irritating one.
She'd see one of us looking for something, and drop what she was doing behind the line to follow us around.
"Whatcha lookin for?" she' say.
And when we named the missing object, her response was also predictable:
"Well, I sure as hell don't know where it is." Then she'd shake her head in an annoyed fashion, as she ambulated back to her station.
Soon it became a stand up routine in a kitchen that is always searching for new comic material.
Whatcha lookin for?
Well, I sure as hell don't know where it is.
Then one day, the lady cook stopped me in the middle of the wedding. "If there are any flowers left, think you could save me one? Today's my anniversary."
I promptly alerted the bride about the cook who shared her wedding date, and at the end of the evening she presented me with her bouquet. "Give it to your cook," the bride said flushed with happiness and generosity. "Tell her I said, 'Happy anniversary.'"
The cook lady was waiting for me in the kitchen. She scooped up the flowers eagerly.
"So how many years have you been married?" I said, feeling proud of my good deed.
The cook lady shrugged. "I can't remember, but I can tell you how many years I've been divorced. Fourteen. Happiest day of my life, that was."
As she shuffled toward the door, she was sniffing the flowers. I suspected they smelled extra sweet because of the way she'd conned both the bride and me.
When my co-workers asked why I was laughing out loud in the middle of an empty kitchen, I told them that whatcha-lookin-for had taken me for a ride.
I soon learned that she not only materialized when things were missing, she also showed up to watch when the wedding cake was being cut.
"What kind is it?" she'd ask as soon as the bride lifted the knife. Then she'd linger around while it was being sliced until she got her piece.
Since I often cut the cake, we'd make small talk as she watched me. I soon learned that her only son was in Iraq, that she had a sister, but they "didn't talk much." Her life seemed to be defined by the nightly TV lineup. While I sliced the cake in even slabs, she gave me the detailed list for every day of the week.
"Wednesday night's the worst," she told me nearly every time I cut the cake. "Nothing's on on Wednesdays."
Then, last night when I was cutting a chocolate wedding cake with peanut butter fillings (one of the staff favorites) the lady cook asked if I would pack her up a piece for tomorrow.
"It's kind of a special day, tomorrow is," she said, revealing a ravaged set of teeth when she smiled. "I thought I might like to have a piece of cake."
"Oh yeah; why's that?" I went on cutting.
"Tomorrow I'm going to be fifty years old. Imagine that. A half century."
At first, I thought I might be duped like I'd been about the wedding anniversary, but when I looked at her face, I knew I wasn't. There was a genuine sense of wonder that she'd suddenly found herself on the eve of fifty years.
"So what are you going to do to celebrate?" I asked as I packed her cake.
The lady cook shrugged. "Guess I'm gonna eat this cake," she said. Then, she once again told recited the TV listings for Sunday night. When I wished her happy birthday, she smiled.
Later, I was sorry I hadn't at least given her a hug. It seemed as if a person who's planning to celebrate her fiftieth birthday with a piece of leftover cake and a screen flashing with other people's lives ought to at least get a hug. But when I returned to the station where she makes chi chi salads and sandwiches for our country club members, it was empty.
So happy fiftieth, my friend, who will never read this post. I wrote this for you, and chose Marilyn Monroe for your birthday portrait. Not because you have much in common with her. But maybe because you, who seem to be content with so little, have been asking the right question all along. Asking in a spirit of rare humility and acceptance that many of us could learn from:
Whatcha lookin for?