Patty’s employee number is 1124. I know that from the receipt I got that had “Patricia 1124–thank you for your business!” written across the top. She works at a Pizza Hut in the South Somerset Rest Stop, somewhere in rural Western Pennsylvania. She is very old to be working at a Pizza Hut, perhaps in her mid eighties. I hope she is no older than that; my heart would break to wonder.
I met Patty two weeks ago when my Greyhound bus stopped there for food. I was in the middle of a good science-fiction novel, and with my mind on spaceships and aliens, I walked into the mini-mall on the highway.
To tell you the truth, I don’t know who I am writing this for. I am not making this story up; this is real. Granted, I have changed Patty’s number and name, but only for the sake of her privacy. She is a real person—with a real, four digit employee number, and she is a tragedy.
Or maybe I am inventing this, after all. Maybe she has a loving family back home, two healthy, middle-aged children and five grandkids who can’t wait to see her.
You be the judge—but let me tell you how we met, and what I saw.
Most of the bus had gotten in line at Popeye’s Chicken; those who did not went for hot coffee-like-liquid at Starbucks. I felt like coating the better portion of my cardiovascular system with petrochemical grease, so I chose Pizza Hut. Funny, I thought, there was nobody in this line, while Popeye’s next door had a queue to well outside the food court.
I asked the leathery woman behind the counter if this was the line for Pizza Hut, thinking that the stores shared a register.
She looked behind her and up at the glowing sign with a slow, measured turn.
“Looks like it to me, young man!” She smiled and straightened her red Pizza Hut Express cap. It had a little lightning-bolt under the Express.
“Yeah, I’ll just have a pepperoni slice thanks.” I handed her my debit card, wanting to engage as little as possible.
“Oh…well let me just go see if we…Hey Emma, do we have any pepperoni slices?”
“No, Patty, I told you to put them in earlier!” came the curt reply. That’s how I found out her name.
“Oh, well… sorry, young man, you may have to wait for three or four minutes,” she said, with my card still in her liver-spotted hand. She seemed to be propping herself up against the counter with it.
She looked up at me, and blinked behind thick glasses that double-magnified her squinting eyes. I did not see curiosity and kindness in her eyes immediately. I regret that now.
“Say, where are you headed to today then?” My debit card was still in her hand. She spoke in a frail half-whisper, so I couldn’t quite hear what she had said. When she repeated the question, my patience began wearing thinner.
“DC.” I was still watching the card, wondering when she would charge me so I could go wait for my pizza while doing something more useful—like twiddling my thumbs or texting my friend in Pittsburgh.
“But you’re not from there, are you?”
What was I going to tell her? No? What do you mean from there? I was born in Romania, and no, I don’t have an accent. Why are you asking? I was raised in Detroit. I just moved back from London, but before then, I was in India for a couple of years. Do you know where those places are? No, not Romania, Alabama. Not London, Ohio. Romania. The country. London, the capital of the United Kingdom. Who the hell are you, lady? Why do you care? Can’t you see I’m on a Greyhound bus with all the errata of the American Dream, just trying to keep my head low enough so I can get to my destination in four hours without being asked any questions?
“No. I’m from Detroit.”
“If it’s alright, I can pay now? Might be faster…”
“Oh, well, I never really got the hang of this thing… one second…” She looked at my card as if she’d never seen one before, and tried running it several times, the magnetic strip clearly facing the wrong direction. The girl who had snapped at Patty earlier apparently saw this and came to the front counter.
She couldn’t have been older than 16, spots of acne all over her pale, young face; a couple teeth—not quite buckteeth—jutting out from a mouth that could not afford braces.
“Patty I told you a million times, this is how you do it. Look—pay attention. See?” she ran the card, her rural accent now apparent to me.
“Oh…well…I guess I wasn’t…”
“Just do it right next time, okay?” She looked at me, “Can I help you sir?”
“Em…no, it’s just…” I pointed to my card, which the young woman had left with Patty.
“Oh, sorry.” She smiled and took the card from Patty’s confused fingers, handing me my receipt.
By this point, a line of two people had formed behind me. The young woman shooed Patty from the service counter with a nod while she competently tended to the next customers. Patty turned to cut the pizza which had just come out of the oven behind her.
That’s when I saw it: Patty’s gimp leg. That was why she had her hands on the counter the whole time: she was supporting a bowed right leg. She hobbled over to the large pizza, cut it into slices, and boxed one for me.
Handing it to me, she smiled and readjusted her owl-glasses.
“Have a nice journey, young man.”
“You too, ma’am.”
You too, Patty. I said it in my head then and I’ve said it many times since. Have a nice, safe journey Patty, and may your days be easy and may you keep smiling. I wish I had returned that smile.
And the reality of her world briefly washed over me. I glimpsed it, as if it were a landscape in the night of someone else’s life, briefly revealed to me by a flash of lightning.
It’s funny how, sometimes, we don’t notice important people until it’s too late.
I want to believe that Patty has a family who supports and loves her. I want to believe that she lives in a society that has not grown callous and cynical enough to say that a woman of her age deserves to be working on her feet for eight hours a day, earning minimum wage while attending impatient customers on their way to… elsewhere. That that’s an honest living for honest people.
What the fuck do people who say that know about honesty?
I want to believe that Patty is happy. I want to live in the illusion that working with teenagers who spend their money on movies and condoms makes her feel young again—that they appreciate her wit, that they’re curious about her stories which have covered what I can only guess is 1933 to the present. I want to know that she will have plenty of good food tonight; that she won’t have to drive (or god forbid, walk) too far to reach it, and that it will be served in a warm, safe home.
I want to believe that this whole goddamn nation sees Patty, knows Patty, hears Patty. I want to believe that so many of us have not gotten lost in the fantasy that we get what we deserve—always—that it’s not our job to help one another, to be our brother’s, and Patty’s, keepers. But I ask a whole nation to see Patty…yet I could not see her, her age, and the tenuous warmth in her brittle eyes until she handed me a pizza after limping over to bring it.
All I can do is hope that better days are on the way for Patty, for all of us. I want to believe that. I do.
Adrian Mangiuca lives in Washington D.C. and sits outside on sunny days. He enjoys travel, the company of friends, and no more than two cigarettes a week.