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“The Symphony” by Eva Sylwester

Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records


The Symphony

by Eva Sylwester

Rose was tightening a knot on her necktie in the locker room, checking herself out in the mirror. She was eighteen and cute, and she knew it. The retirement home management made even the girl servers wear neckties, and that just made her look even cuter than usual.

On her way to the dining room to wait for the residents, she glimpsed the food the cooks had ready in big metal pans. All the boxes and cans around the kitchen said SYSCO, like the SYSCO truck she often saw pulling up to her college dorm’s cafeteria. A retirement home was a lot like a college dorm, except people didn’t graduate — they died.

She and two other servers, both young men, stood at the end of the salad bar as the residents made their way in. She didn’t remember her co-workers’ names at the moment, as she’d already had too many co-workers to keep track of since starting the job six months ago. Tonight she was the most senior employee in the dining room.

“Rose?” Mr. Smith said. “Sylvia and I are going to the symphony tonight, so we’ll need to leave early.”

“We’re going to the symphony, too,” Mrs. Thompson said.

As Rose tried to keep track of the cacophony of requests to leave early to go to the symphony, it turned out that each section of the dining room had at least one table that needed to be served early so they could go to the symphony.

The Smiths were the symphony table in Rose’s section. She took their dinner order first and raced back to the kitchen to turn it in. Another server had already turned in the Thompsons’ order. The Browns’ order was not far behind.

“My god, those three couples have been going to the symphony forever,” the cook said. “And yet it still surprises me every month when they do it.”

Rose went back out to take the rest of her orders, keeping in mind that the symphony tables would go on to need everything first — order taken, dinner served, coffee refill poured, dessert order taken, dessert served. She noticed the Smiths staring at her, looking at her like she should hurry up.

A lot of the residents at the retirement home were lawyers, doctors, professors — or wives thereof — in their previous lives, so they were used to being in charge, but Mr. Smith seemed especially demanding. Rose thought he was a retired surgeon. She wanted him out of her section as soon as possible, symphony or not.

She figured out how to dispatch them smoothly: she took the rest of her orders while waiting for the Smiths’ dinner, took the Smiths’ dessert order when she brought them their dinner, and brought the Smiths their dessert when she cleared their dinner plates.

Finally the Smiths left, walking quickly enough that Rose wondered why they were living at the retirement home. Rose was then able to focus on what she liked about her job, pouring coffee for cheery old ladies.

When all of the residents had left the dining room, Rose and her co-workers got to eat their dinner, same as the residents’. The boys talked about taking their cars on rural roads south of town and driving too fast. Rose ignored them.

Next, the servers had to Windex all the tables and set up the dining room for the next day. They ran out of Windex and didn’t have any more in the kitchen supply cabinet, so Rose volunteered to go look for some in the basement, where she thought the janitors kept extra supplies. As the most senior person in the dining room, she would have the best chance of knowing anything about that.

She took the elevator down to the basement. There was a closet near the door that probably did have the janitors’ supplies, but it was locked. She decided to poke around a little bit while she was down there, as she knew very little of the facility other than the dining room and kitchen.

Much like the basement of her dorm building, the basement of the retirement home had a pool table and other entertainment. It looked like a meeting for a subversive group was going on in the community room. The door was closed, but there were windows. Rose noticed that it was the same people who had claimed to be in a hurry to leave for the symphony — the Smiths, the Thompsons, and the Browns.  She pressed her ear to the door to listen.

“Which of the servers should we harvest next?”

“Rose, maybe.”

“But she was so fast getting us our dinner tonight! Do we really want to punish competence?”

“If we leave her too long, she’ll catch on to us.”

“Besides, she’s so cute and youthful. You want some of her internal organs in you, don’t you, Sylvia?”

“Well, now that you put it that way.”

“I’ve been watching her from my window.”

“Oh, yes, those binoculars you got for the ‘symphony!’”

“Yes. I see her come in at 4:45 Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, to the entrance by the loading dock.”

“So, Rex, are you going to catch her tomorrow?”

“I sure am.”

So that was why the employee turnover rate was so high, and why no one even seemed to give two weeks notice. And that was why the Smiths and the Thompsons and the Browns had been going to the “symphony” for years and years while their neighbors declined and died around them.

Rose quickly went back upstairs. “I couldn’t get into the janitors’ closet,” she told the boys. “Just leave the tables, and the cooks will have to deal with them in the morning.”

She clocked out, grabbed her purse, and took off still wearing her work clothes, which needed to be washed anyway. She ran to the bus stop and spent her whole time waiting for the bus looking over her shoulder.

In the mirror on the bus, she looked sweaty and bedraggled. She loosened her tie a bit. If she were to report this, how would she get past the police station clerk? No one would believe her.

She got off the city bus near campus and walked back to her dorm. Marcia, queen of the girls’ floor, was holding court in the common area. Rose, against her better judgment, wandered in to investigate.

“We’re making decorative songbirds out of vinyl records,” one of the girls on the periphery told Rose. “Marcia wants us to hang them on our doors.”

Of course she did, Rose thought storming out of the room — just one more way for Marcia to make it visibly obvious that Rose was not in the in group.

Maybe Rose should have spent her adolescence learning something other than how to look cute for adults. Marcia was clearly an expert at something else.

Rose got back to her room. Her roommate, with whom she had a largely indifferent relationship, was out. She shut the blinds and took off her work clothes. She checked herself out in her underwear in the small mirror. She was even cuter. It wouldn’t last long, though. Eventually she would look like all the residents at the retirement home — if she didn’t let them get to her first. She decided she would let Mr. Smith catch her tomorrow evening.

© 2012 Eva Sylwester


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