A tale of caution about the danger of conformity, or resistance thereof. Ally Conroy moves to a small town in Mississippi to help her sick Grandmother. She get’s a job at a local diner where everything seems pleasant and hospitable, but is everything but.
Franklin’s Diner, the town’s staple restaurant, could best be described as the only needed church in Calico in which citizens gathered more often than on Sunday church. Mr. and Mrs. Gardner ate there every Tuesday on their scheduled date night. Catheryn Jones loved the chicken wings while her husband, Henry, loved the baked bread they put out before the entree. Today they hired a new server on staff named Ally Conroy.
Before working at Franklin’s Diner, Ally moved from her big city life to a small rural town to take care of her sick grandmother. She wasn’t disgruntled about it, she loved her grandmother. Ally was a short, somehow still lanky, girl with beautiful brown hair. She loved the opportunity for a quieter, slower life provided by small-town living. Of course, she would find out soon that the people here were different than big-city folk.
The third day after Ally moved in with her grandmother, she sent Ally to the pharmacy to pick up her meal preps. Ally walked into the pharmacy and asked “pick-up for Conroy, Scarlett Conroy.” The clerk stared puzzled at her presence. Small-towns had a way of knowing who came in and who left, and this clerk didn’t recognize Ally. He stared at her through his thick horn-rimmed glasses, wiping black ink on his white coat. “Alright, Conroy, Scarlett Conroy,” he said. Ally hated going to pharmacies. She felt the way some felt going to hospitals. Anybody who went to a pharmacy, or hospital, likely had something wrong with them. Some were perhaps dying and needed just an inch more to hang onto refusing to relinquish their grasp.
“Yes, sir,” Ally replied, waiting for him to turn around and get her grandmother’s meds. He stared at her for what seemed to Ally to be ten full seconds, even counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi before turning around. She felt violated. Not in a perverted way, like he was undressing her with his eyes, but like a serial killer scoping out his prey. He came back after a few minutes and handed her the bag of medication. “Thank you,” she said.
“Be among the Angels,” the clerk said with a grin. Where she came from she classified the grin as a shit-eating grin. Here, in Tarnynch though, it was humbling. Be among the Angels, only here would she hear something like that. Across the street, she saw a man helping out an old lady walk across the street. He wasn’t a man, a young teenager. Blue jeans, polo shirt, and a cowboy hat – not the kind of guy seen in the city. If she did see a guy like that he’d knock her down or play some other cruel prank on an old woman like that. She looked at the two in awe. While out she stopped by Franklin’s Diner during lunch. Ally parked across the street and was amazed at how many people could fit into the building and if it was against fire code. Then again, it looked like the only restaurant on the block, for many blocks.
Franklin’s Diner was a jumbo-diner compared to others yet somehow full of customers. She felt stares in her direction immediately but everyone focused on their table or on their conversation. The place quieted and stared. Ally felt the whole town was here for lunch and lowered her head at the host’s stand, and almost put her hands to her face. A cute young girl, around eighteen with a bright and cheery smile, greeted her immediately at the door and asked her if she would be dining in with them today. “I will be,” Ally said. The girl grabbed silverware, a menu, and led her to a table telling her that her server will be right with her and “be among the Angels!” That was the second time, in a second location, that somebody said that to her in this town. Nobody in her big-city would tell her “be among the Angels”, they tell you “to get outta my way.” She noticed a few other odds of the people there. They all said the phrase “by Lord” at the end of their sentences. One man said, “I got my mower picked up today and the fellow didn’t have a truck he came in a small Toyota, by Lord!”
A table across from her had three middle-aged people, two guys, and one girl. They looked like they worked with each other wearing similar clothing. She heard them say something like “fitz” when referring to their children, or maybe children in general. “Them damn fitz at the store tripped me,” the woman said. The man with the hat repeated the word, fitz, and “by Lord” many times. Ally noticed the perfection of the employee’s work. Everything had its place and each employee operated in sync with each other. The crew resembled an orchestra.
After finishing her meal Ally went to the front and asked for an application. She stood there feeling more eyes peering in her direction. While waiting for the host to come back with an application she saw other citizens wearing the same blue and grey dress clothes that the table across from her wore. Ally thought these people were kind of nuts.
“Here’s your application, mam!” The host said appearing out of nowhere. Her face was again, bright and cheery. The host’s eyes never blinked. Ally stared back at her attempting to do the same, attempting to not blink her eyes. She felt awkward and invasive, quite the opposite of the genuine personality of her host.
“Oh, thank you.” Ally grabbed the application the host handed to her. It contained nothing but a spot for her name, number, and what was her favorite color. Odd. Ally wrote in the first two bits of information, but what was her favorite color? Red was the first one that came to mind but she liked green, the spread of a large field. Or brown, she imagined a wondrous forest. Ally filled in “blue.” She stared at the application wondering if she should put in any other information so she decided on the back of the page to write in her job history. Maybe that’ll be the nail in the coffin to land it – Ally thought twice about that metaphor, it seemed too morbid and pessimistic. Ally strolled to the host stand and handed it to the girl.
“Be among the Angels!” The host said. She smiled with that bright and cheery smile.
Ally thanked her, left Franklin’s Diner and headed to her grandmother’s house to give her the medication. She didn’t want any of the town’s food, she had her own special diet that she adhered to. Two pills at breakfast, three for lunch, and four for dinner. Two, three, four. Like jumping into a punk rock song. “Two, three, four, pills!”
Pulling her car to the driveway she saw a car parked in front of the house. It was a red Toyota she had never seen here before. She walked into the house expecting a visitor but no one was there. “Here’s your meds, grandma.” Ally laid them down on the coffee table in front of her grandmother laying on the couch. Her grandmother had a few giant-size crossword puzzles on the table with an abnormally large pencil with a separate eraser and manual sharpener laying nearby.
Her grandmother raised her body with aching pains. “Thank you Ally dear,” she said. Ally swore she ash float out of her grandmother’s mouth. Walking over to the counter Ally placed her things down.
“How was your day?” Ally asked.
“Dying,” her grandmother said with a laugh.
“That’s good,” Ally said. “Who is that red card belong to outside your house?”
“I’m not sure, it’s only been there for thirty-two minutes.” Ally laughed to herself. Grandmothers, or any old person, love to keep tabs on unknown or suspicious behavior.
* * *
The next day’s sunrise melted any ice built on the sidewalks from the previous night. Ally received a call from Franklin’s Diner, they were interested in having her start immediately, noting her particular experience as a server and also commenting on her generous caretaking of her sick grandmother. Small Town people loved that sort of stuff. After she hung up the phone, Ally wondered if she mentioned her grandmother to anybody at the restaurant?
Ally started the next day. She was excited to get out of the house and spread her legs a bit. To be honest with herself, she also needed time from her grandmother. Not that she was tired of helping her but because it was depressing to be cooped up with her all day. Her grandmother wasn’t exactly the most pleasant person to be around. Everything was dead, dying, or will be dying.
Ally arrived at Franklin’s Diner for her first day of work. She was surprised to see another girl waiting to begin working. The girl looked younger than she was and more out of place. Her name tag said Sarah, or as she said, Sarah with an H. Ally sat next to Sarah with an H awaiting the manager, Thomlin to come to tell them they were fired and to go home or tell them what to do next. Hopefully the latter.
“Welcome, by Lord, welcome! I hope you two are among the Angels,” Thomlin said as he greeted the two girls to their bright and wonderful new job. He did an unusual gesture with his arms waving them out and folding them in that Ally tried to imitate. A glow grew around him as he approached them like a sunray beaming down on him. The girls perked up. “Today, you two, we’ll be shadowing another team member.
The girls were assigned to Eve, a tall brunette with a ponytail tied tight straight down her spine. Eve pulled out an employee manual to go over with the new servers with Thomlin by her side, with a grin ear to ear smiling at the two new girls.
Eve patted her manual on the table. “Ladies, welcome to Franklin’s Diner, we’re all thrilled, as our guests will be, to have you two join our wonderful team!” Ally thought Eve was the most over the top person she has met. That is until Sarah spoke.
“Oh yes mam, we’re thrilled to be apart of your company!” Her smile shaped into a shit-eating grin that Ally handled poorly by her bewildered look at Sarah with an H’s direction.
“Team, we’re just a single team here at Franklin’s Diner, Sarah,” said Eve with a minor frown at Sarah with an H. Eve went on describing the store policies. At first, they were quite usual for a restaurant or any business. “Be on time.” “Don’t come in intoxicated.” The most unusual was the policies on behavior towards the end. They were told they must respond to all guests to be among the Angels. They were even told to exchange words they’ve used all their lives in favor of ones the small town used like fitz for kids. Yees for y’all, or you guys, or all of you. After the “verbage” chapter, then Eve headed into “Movements.” This chapter detailed the peculiar gestures, which hand they grabbed cups or plates with, which hand they used to wipe tables with, and which foot to step forward with first. The consequence of failing to comply? They didn’t call it termination, or “fired” but “the consequence of failure to comply will be a trip to the Freezer.” Ally thought it was a strange way to fire someone. All of this was the Bible for them, mandatory. “Will any of our policies be an issue to uphold, ladies?” Eve asked.
“No, mam.” The girls replied.
“Lovely, well ladies, let’s get to work, and remember, be among the Angels!” Eve handed each Sarah and Ally an agreement of the policies to sign. Ally felt this was all too formal for a restaurant job, especially a ma and pop diner in the small town of Calico, Mississippi.
The girls went onto the floor with Eve, following her, watching her, and taking mental notes of all the things she was doing, making sure it maintained manual compliance. Every table caddie had to be a certain way after a guest left a table. Salt on the right. Every card on a table tent had to be in a certain order, each wiped off meticulously. Each angled at forty-five degrees.
When the girls were left on their own Ally tried hard to repeat every line and motion of Eve down to the salt shakers. After an hour she looked at Sarah and noticed she wasn’t even trying to do these things. Eve spoke to her off to the side but Ally didn’t notice what she said, just the shrug Sarah did afterward.
Another hour went by, with Ally doing all she could to avoid being reprimanded by Thomlin or Eve. She dropped the ball on a few table tent cards that guests had rearranged. She felt the guests were testing her. One of the pepper shakers on table forty-three replaced the salt shaker which brought Eve to her. She had also made a cardinal sin and neglected to tell the guest to be among the Angels after they left and referred to the children as just that, children. She thought she would be fired, or thrown in the freezer. She wondered why they didn’t just say, frozen? She noticed Thomlin himself point at Sarah with a hand over his mouth speaking to Eve, maybe she was safe.
That stopped Ally’s work and brought her attention to Sarah, whom she hadn’t been paying any attention to since they began working. She was on her phone at a table. Every table in her section visibly had filth and appeared disorganized. Her guests were not told to be among the Angels, she let them walk right out scoffing and mumbling under their breath about Sarah. The restaurant time froze. The clock ceased motion. Other guests glared at Sarah. The team members stopped doing their duties to look at Sarah. “What?” She stopped working, finally noticing everyone glancing towards her. Staring through her soul. “What is going on?” Sarah looked around, Ally remained frozen as all guests and team members were. She wanted to move, she wanted to continue working, but something in the air paralyzed her. Unlike them, she felt that she didn’t know what to do even if she could move, the others peered at Sarah like another failure, like they’ve seen this dozens of times before. It was a disappointment in their eyes that shook Ally, it wasn’t anger.
Thomlin stepped forward with his back straight, chin out, “Cooks, please,” he said. In ten seconds or less three cooks came from the back and circled Sarah grabbing her with their hands and arms. They were bolstered, yet well respectful in how they handled Sarah. They dressed professionally, with their shirts tucked in and cap faced forward.
“What are you doing?” She said. “What’s going on?”
The cooks pulled Sarah away, struggling and waving her arms as much as she could despite the grip of the three cooks. They dragged her to the back, and with the air relinquishing its hold of her, Ally followed. They went to the previously locked steel door. Ally saw them open it and toss Sarah in. With a glance into the cooler, Ally stood shocked. There was a pile of bodies inside! The cooks slammed the door shut making a loud thunder crackling sound that rippled through Ally’s eardrums.
Thomlin ordered the cook’s back to the kitchen as if they weren’t already on their way back, like everything happened was all routine. The guests resumed eating their food and drinking their drinks. Eve asked how she was doing and if she needed anything with a glorious smile. Ally appeared dumbfounded and Eve noticed it. “Don’t worry hun, she was different, she didn’t fit in, you’ll do fine,” Sarah said. “Keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll avoid the Freezer.”