The ad in the paper said a new chain restaurant was opening. Apply in person between the hours of eleven and one. I got permission to leave school early to interview. I think I borrowed my boyfriend’s car. I was sixteen.
When I got there at 11:30 and picked my way across the gravel and mud of the unfinished parking lot, the door was locked. I peered through the glass and knocked.
A man wearing a long-sleeved white dress shirt came to the door, unlocking it. His chestnut-colored eyes a question mark: What was I doing there?
I told him about the ad. He shook his head. Shrugged his shoulders. Well come on in then, we’ll talk, he said.
Inside, the restaurant felt skeletal. Bare subfloors and stainless steel equipment hulking at odd angles everywhere. No heat. I shivered, filling out the application.
Where is everybody? I asked.
I guess you’re it, he said and smiled, leaned back. There were booths, at least.
We talked for what seemed like a long time.
I know now he must have been young but to me he was just a potential boss and all bosses were grown-ups. Well, I better go. I have to get back to school, I said finally.
Sure, hold on just a second, he said. He stood up and walked to the front door through which I had entered, locking it with one of many keys he wore dangling from his belt. A faint alarm went off in the back of my head, but I ignored it.
Returning to the booths, he reached down and flipped a switch on a huge space heater in the middle of the floor. The sound of it filled the building, blocked out all our talk. He came very close to me so I could hear him. I’ll let you out the back, he mouthed and pointed. Why, I wondered. My car is out front.
But I had a little waitressing experience and he’d said my chances of getting hired were good. He would be my boss soon. I thought I’d better just go along.
We walked down a short frigid hall of ceramic tiled walls, past the kitchen and walk-in cooler, away from the roaring heater. His keys jangled against his thigh.
Then he stopped in front of me, just short of the back door. Turned around. Looked at me and smiled.
I smiled back and said, Well, thanks, see you later, I guess. But his eyes had changed. Clouded over with something dangerous.
I started for the door. He put his arm up, leaned against the wall. Filled the hallway.
I stared at the sleeve of his nice white shirt in front of my face. Too stunned in that moment to be afraid, I looked into his eyes and said, No. Like I meant danger too, though surely I knew I was powerless and all at once realized why he’d flipped the switch of that immense heater.
He didn’t move. His eyelids slid down like a hood pulled over a robber’s face. No, I said again because it was all I could say.
We stood, freeze-framed. For how long? A second? Two?
Something clicked behind his eyes then, like tumblers falling into combination. OK, he said, and smiled as if we shared some kind of inside joke. Then he unlocked the back door.
I was back in time for civics class.
After school, I told my boyfriend about what happened, and the veins in his neck bulged. He came from a family of hot tempers and swift punishment. He wanted to find the man and hurt him. This terrified me more than the man in the white long-sleeved shirt had, worried me in a different way. No, I said. No.
I didn’t get the job.
I went back once, though, after the place had opened. Walked through the smooth asphalt parking lot past the pink petunias in wooden barrels, opened the door and asked a waitress carrying a tray of bacon and eggs if I could talk to the manager. But he was blue-eyed and short-sleeved and I didn’t know what to say to him so I left before he reached me from across the room.
Gradually the memory dropped away, as sand falls through a shaken sieve. Years passed. A life evolved: husband, home, son, and daughter.
One day my daughter outgrew the skeleton key shape of her girlhood, her body a fluid curve where angles used to live. Young boys began to appear at our door, eyes averted, nervously accepting my handshake.
The man in the white long-sleeved shirt came back to me, then, or parts of him did. His eyes. His long, long arm, blocking the exit. I want to ask him now: What changed in that moment, unhinging me from a life so unlike the one I ended up with?
Did he glimpse in my No a scene he hadn’t planned for? Did he hear, over the relentless drone of the heater, someone else’s keys banging against their leg as they walked away, the clang of some heavy door locking behind him?
I feel I ought to thank someone, but I don’t think it’s him. He took something from me. I’m still not sure what. He gave me something, too, as I walked out the back door, free.
I look at my daughter, so much like I was then, so willing to think the best of everyone, her heart an open window fluttering white curtains.
I walk her through that door. I show her: the roaring heater, the cold tile, the hard knowledge she must carry into every strange place.