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Cooking With Love

By Cynthia Hickey

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St. Louis, Missouri

Tabitha McClelland twisted her apron, the fabric so soiled she believed it could stand up on its own. She straightened her shoulders as the first train of the day screeched to a halt, and wished for something nicer to wear. The least her new employer could do was to give her something clean on her first day. Obviously, a previous employee left in a hurry and no one thought to do laundry.

Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward to open the door. Her heart leaped into her throat. Black smoke belched from the engine and drifted inside the dining room, mixing with the odor of burned bacon and sour grease. Within minutes a crowd of passengers surged inside.

On the first morning at her new job, she'd expected more than the dirty eatery with a scuffed wooden floor and the soiled aprons she and the other woman wore over their equally stained gray uniforms. She needed to look past the filth and muddle through because she sorely needed the work. Aprons could be washed.

"Step aside, Tabby," Alice, her coworker, barked. Sweat stained the bodice of her blouse. Dark hair streaked with silver escaped from her bun. "Seat the customers, then join me in the kitchen."

Tabby dashed among the passengers, handing out tattered menus printed on newsprint before she rushed to join Alice. "Now what?" Tabby glanced at the plates of runny eggs and greasy beans that lined the counter. Her stomach churned.

"We wait until it's almost time for the customers to board. Then we serve them."

"What about taking their orders?"

The waitress laughed. "Those are just for show. The only difference is what the person wants to drink. Relax."

"But the food's waiting and growing cold." Not to mention getting more unappetizing by the minute. As the words left her lips, Tabby wanted them back. She knew better than to question her superiors but her mouth ran like a racehorse most of the time, crashing over the line at the end without warning.

"Hush, girl. You don't want Mr. Beeker to hear you asking questions." Alice frowned and lowered her voice. "If you value your job, you'll be quiet and do as you're told."

Tabby eyed the pudgy, balding man reading a newspaper in the corner. Her flesh crawled at remembrance of the leer on his face when he'd granted her the waitress job. She shuddered. Other than picking up her pay, she hoped her interview with Mr. Beeker would be all the contact she had with the man. Since the age of sixteen, Tabby had made do on her own. She didn't need a man to take care of her. Especially one old enough to be her grandpa.

Voices rose from the dining room. Tabby glanced at the clock. The train would leave in ten minutes. Mr. Beeker strolled past, the newspaper folded under his arm.

"Go collect their money," Alice said.

Tabby scrambled to do her bidding. Why were they taking the money before serving the food? Was that right? What kind of business had she gotten herself into here?

"Miss?" A gentleman in a suit raised his hand as she finished the task. "Will we be eating soon? The train will be leaving shortly."

"Yeah! And why do we have to pay before we get our food?" A bearded man scowled.

Tabby swallowed past the lump in her throat and tried to smile, failing miserably. "I'll check on that right now, sir." She pocketed the fistful of half-dollars and rushed back to Alice. "The customers are asking about their food."

Alice glanced at the clock. "We can serve now. Make it snappy. We've got to get a plate in front of each customer before the whistle blows."

Tabby bit the inside of her lip. She might not be experienced in such matters, but it seemed as if they were doing things backward. She'd no sooner set the last plate in front of an elderly woman when the train's whistle blew. Pandemonium broke out as the people shoved back chairs, grabbed children's hands and bustled outside. All without eating a bite. One man scurried back, grabbed a piece of toast from his plate, and nodded before following the others.

"Help me clear the tables, then set the plates back on the counter for the next crowd," Alice said as she began collecting plates. "And replace that piece of toast."

Tabby planted her fists on her hips. "Are we reusing the food?" Unbelievable. "This is unethical! We take the people's money and serve the food too late for them to eat. People do this every day?"

"Hush. Mr. Beeker will hear you. The walls aren't that thick in here." Alice pushed past her. "It's the way things are done."

"It's wrong." Tabby glanced out the window. A girl in pigtails looked over her shoulder before stepping on board. "Those people left here hungry."

"And unless they packed a lunch, they'll most likely be hungry at the next stop, too. Railroad diners have to make a living too, you know. There aren't many job opportunities out there for women, so hush." Alice slammed the plates down. Her lined face reddened. "We get enough bad attention being waitresses without frequenting less respectable places. A girl has to make do where she can. If you don't like it, you can move on. There'll be somebody to take your place soon enough."

Tabby pulled the money from her pocket, counted out a day's pay, and then handed the rest to Alice. "I quit."

"Wait a minute!" Mr. Beeker reentered the room. "There'll be another train in an hour."

"I apologize for inconveniencing you." Tabby untied her apron and let it drop to the floor. Jutting her chin, she marched to the changing room and donned her navy skirt and white shirtwaist, ignoring Mr. Beeker's heated words.

Unemployed again, but she had a few coins in her pocket. She'd manage somehow. With a skip in her step, she hurried outside. Spring sunshine and a gentle breeze caressed her face, reminding her the day was too lovely to be spent inside a dark dining room anyway.

Buggies lined the road and passengers awaiting the arrival of the next train crowded the sidewalk. Tabby wanted to warn them to box food to take along. If she ever got the opportunity to ride a train west, she'd never be caught off guard like those poor souls who left the station as hungry as when they arrived. A girl was wise to keep her wits about her. She stepped off the sidewalk and dodged people and horses until she reached Main Street.

A wooden bench beckoned from beneath a towering oak tree. Tabby accepted its invitation and sat, trying desperately to ignore her rumbling stomach. From unemployed to employed and back to unemployed in a matter of a couple hours. Sighing, she slumped forward and rested her elbows on her knees. With no time for the luxury of looking for new employment, and no more than a few coins in her pocket, she would have to take the first thing to come along. Her gaze traveled the street, searching for a potential place to apply.

A little help here, God. She snorted. Like He'd been much help in the past. Still, it never hurt to ask.

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