“Hello, anybody here?” The gory jam container slipped from my hands back to a warm sea of soapy water. It would have to wait patiently for Search and Rescue to return from this new priority. The bell had let me down. Strangely a lady had gotten a sound. Leaning over the counter was a woman of middle age with shoulder length black hair and a smile forced through wrinkles. Patting my hands dry I stepped up front. She wanted to order a cake. I asked if she wished for a salutation to be included? She said, well it’s for me so I guess you can write “Happy Birthday Vanessa”. I thought, how poignant, a lonely woman in her fifty’s ordering her own cake.
Something about her reminded me of my recently departed mother. I hadn’t let on but at that time of my life I felt like the little lost chick in the children’s story who wattles up to cows and trucks and asked “Are you my mother?” We talked a little. She mentioned she was looking for a job. I paused for a second to appear as if I was deeply considering many factors and then hired her. I thought, a woman who smiles would be just right for working on the counter. Then I could get back to the adventure in the pot sink.
Here’s a helpful hint for you future employers. Use more criteria for hiring than the fact that your applicant reminds you of your dearly departed mother. Upon closer inspection Vanessa’s hair was black as a raven’s. Her laugh was more a cackle. Around her neck hung a little leather pouch full of mysterious sticks and seeds. She claimed to be part of a family but it looked like she’d abandoned it and fled here. Her lineage was a stew of German, Spanish, Gypsy and Cherokee Indian. Her bumper sticker philosophy, “Fighter pilots don’t have rear view mirrors.” seemed to apply to every situation including customer service situations.
Within days I watched Vanessa turn from an eager employee to The Boss of the Counter. She assumed command. She took control of the customers and the telephone. She took control of the indoor plants. The atmosphere was permeated with her presence. I thought my concerns might just be a micro-management issue and nervously let her go with it. After all she was working hard and taking a lot off my hands. A few friends suggested tactfully that something was very wrong. She’s surly they said, her smile was strange even spiteful.
I dealt with it by focusing on my pastries and sweeping the floor a lot. As luck would have it July was a perfect time for starting a business in Hawaii. In case you ever have the whim to do this yourself, pay attention. Be ready to open a few weeks before the busiest month of the year. The act of creating your establishment; getting the lease, buying the ovens, selecting the silverware, the chairs and those cute little baskets to hold the paper plates will leave you financially, emotionally and physically depleted. Emotional and physical exhaustion will become a new way of life for you. However if you open just before the busiest month of the year and if you don’t do something stupid like poison your first customers with Salmonella or scare them off with alcoholic rants you may be able to get your cash flow going. I said “cash flow” not “income”.
On July 3rd we were seven hundred dollars over drawn in our new checking account. We funded our opening inventory using a credit card. With nothing left we were a little nervous about operating capital. We went to our friendly bank to ask for a loan. Bank managers here resemble most bankers back in “America”. Serious looking trimmed men or women with calculated smiles. I had this feeling of certainty though that our bank manager had a sense of humor and that he would have a good laugh after we left. I could just see his lips moving through the window as we walked away. “Cut a loan to a new restaurant? Haaaa!” We had no choice but to establish and prove cash flow the first month.
Curse Katie. If she hadn’t done such a good job with all the receipts, forms, statements and money I stuffed in a bag at the end of everyday we may have failed and I would have reached my Gestalt moment with ten or twenty fewer years of suffering. I may have cracked in the first few months. My resolve to force life and make things happen might have fallen apart and I could have optimized the progress of my psychological evolution. I could have crossed the street and sat with the boys of the “Kilauea Social Club”. Sat in the shade and let life just happen instead of trying to push it around with the futile arrogance of the Army corps of engineers on a flood control project.
I dutifully rolled Danish, mixed bread and served coffee with Vanessa through July and August. While we slowly lured in our shy and cautious local neighbors the tourists herded in from the first day. “Good morning what can I do for you?” “Better get a box for this, I’ll have six of those rolls there, and six of those donuts there, (Those are buttery Danish pastries sir), and gimme’ six cups of regular coffee. That’s not that exx-presso is it?” “No sir it’s organically grown, freshly ground, Guatemalan, whole bean, regular coffee. It’s drip brewed by the cup through an unbleached paper filter with purified water.”
“Whatever, six larges” “Thank you sir, good job.” By the end of the summer Katie was happily depositing receipts from sales and writing checks for our expenses at an exactly even rate. If nothing major broke down and we could avoid unexpected expenses we might be able meet our obligations.
If nothing major broke down? What about me? I lay in bed one night and counted the possible hours left before the muffins had to be scooped and the French bread mixed. 2:00 am comes quickly when a little sleep is all that bridges the gap between exhaustion and the forced march awaiting the next work day.
I crawled into a comfortable position, a pillow under the knees to take the tension off taught lumbar muscles, one under the neck to relieve shoulder tension. I lay a t-shirt over my eyes, put earplugs in to muffle the barking dogs next door and threw Katie’s pillow over my chest just to top off the feeling that I’m buried and will never have to rise again.
The body was ready but the mind wouldn’t bed down. What if I can’t relax? Valuable minutes of possible sleep slip off the clock. If I don’t fall asleep it’ll be worse tomorrow. I could try napping but our two girls in diapers need attention, Katie needs a break, the house is a mess and the dishes are piling up! I’ve never had a problem sleeping. If I can’t drift off I’ll become so tired I won’t be able to work. I won’t be able to open and I will fail. I’ll have let Katie down. We’ll go bankrupt. We’ll lose it all if I can’t get to sleep in the next hour!
Just a little sleep is all I needed. Breaking into a sweat my eyes clack open and peek from under the t-shirt. 9:45 pm. This isn’t working. Making a hunched and untidy shuffle into the kitchen I pour a glass of wine. After that a cookie and some hot tea. Shaking with fatigue I sit down on the couch in front of the TV with Katie. Over come with anxiety I look at her, hopefully. Maybe sex? “Not tonight honey, I just got the kids down”. She pats me on the knee, “It’s ok, everything will be all right”. Something in the glow and movement of the TV screen seems to slowly unlock my caring. I begin to unwind. Finally around 11:00 my eyes start to droop. Considering there are only two and a half more hours until the alarm rings I call it a nap. I promise myself I’ll pay the sleep debt later and drift off to bed.
The next night is worse. After dinner I shower and slip into bed making the same valiant attempt at falling asleep. I sense immediately I’m setting myself up for hours of staring at the ceiling. A depleted body has to recover a little before it can rest. I throw the covers off and march to the TV couch. Upon the first signs of heavy eyelids I head for bed but once there all I can think about is the hour hand’s relentless march around the dial and worst-case scenarios. I try a hot bath. This relaxes me and I eventually fall asleep there, waking in tepid water. I drag myself up, towel off and glance at the time. It’s so close to work I dress and start some coffee.
I thought I was falling apart. I’d never felt this kind of doubt and anxiety before. I called the local hospital. I got a Psychiatrist, “I can call in a prescription for a few nights of sleeping pills or you can come in and we’ll talk.” I opted for the visit.
Passing through the first of two locked steel doors I wondered if I should have just accepted the prescription. A genial older woman in a nurse’s uniform coaxed me inside and sat me down in a chair to wait. Little puzzles on the table kept my hands busy. The doctor had to finish with a patient down the hall. The green linoleum tile floor was aged but highly polished and lined with doorways to small, spare rooms. Rusted metal screens covered windows looking out over an empty yard and obsolete cameras were mounted in the upper corners. A large male nurse escorted an angry looking adolescent boy into the common room; they stopped next to a couple that appeared uncomfortable with each other and their surroundings. I assumed a troubled son and messed up parents, or a messed up son meeting troubled parents.
The good doctor approached as I was giving up on the simplest of math puzzles. We made introductions. In a shaky voice I unloaded the visions of failure and self doubt that had infected me for the first time in my life. My doing strange things like curling up in a warm bath to go to sleep. He politely let me finish, wrote a prescription for a week’s worth of sleep medication and told me with that confidence only a Doctor can convey that it was probably all I needed. Before I could leave two matronly Hawaiian women in nurse’s uniforms offered me some of their boxed lunches. They were caring people warming cold facilities. Part of me wanted to stay. That evening after dinner and a sleeping pill for dessert I suddenly loved everything and everybody. I hugged my wife and children, I hugged the refrigerator and drifted down the hallway to curl up in bed and fall into a warm sleep.