Stewart O’Nan, who’s been called the bard of the working class, captures one winter day in the grindingly mundane life of a New England chain restaurant. Their “numbers are down” so the corporate office has given them short notice that they are to be closed permanently. The manager, Manny, runs the restaurant by the book, if you can overlook the fact that he’s only recently stopped dating one of his waitresses, at her request. We follow him from his midmorning drive into the parking lot all the way to closing time:
…a line of salted cars takes a left into the mall entrance, splitting as they sniff for parking spots.
One goes on alone across the far vastness of the lot, where a bulldozed mound of old snow towers like a dirty iceberg. A white shitbox of a Buick, the kind a grandmother might leave behind, the driver’s-side door missing a strip of molding. The Regal keeps to the designated lane along the edge, stopping at the stop sign, though there’s nothing out here but empty spaces, and off in a distant corner, as if anchoring the lot, the Regal’s destination, a dark stick-framed box with its own segregated parking and unlit sign facing the highway—a Red Lobster.
The Regal signals for no one’s benefit and slips into the lot like an oceanliner finally reaching harbor, glides by the handicapped spots straddling the front walk, braking before it turns and disappears behind the building, only to emerge a few long seconds later on the other side, way down at the very end, pulling in beside a fenced dumpster as if the driver’s trying to hide. For a minute it sits with the ignition off, snow sifting down on the roof and back window, the heated glass seeming to absorb each crystal as it hits. Inside, framed by the bucket seats, a gold-fringed Puerto Rican Flag dangles from the rearview mirror. The driver bends to a flame, then nods back astronautlike against the headrest and exhales.
Manny clings to the established routine of opening and closing the Lobster out of a misplaced desire to do right by the chain that’s closing him down, or maybe to prove them wrong. He learns which employees he can count on when they have nothing further to gain from him, and they aren’t necessarily the ones he would have expected. Despite the fact that he and the waitress have been living in that special hell of working together after their affair has ended, she is one of the faithful who show up. By paying strict attention to all the procedural details of operating the restaurant on its last day, he distracts himself from facing the fact that this is the last time he’ll have any excuse to see her.
The day grinds on, with its usual petty frustrations: turf wars between two of the waitresses, a spat between the chef and some of his underlings, a large party, an out-of control, barfing toddler. Someone discovers a piece of stray plastic (mercifully not a band-aid, which could mean a lawsuit) baked into a biscuit. The lunch rush, such as it is, fades into the late afternoon doldrums. A blizzard puts a damper on any dinner rush of Christmas shoppers. Just when even Manny is about to give up and close early, he sees a state trooper escorting a bus towards their end of the mall. As they approach, he excitedly rouses the remaining staff to action, happy at the prospect of going out with a bang instead of a whimper. But when the trooper gets to the door he learns that they’re only interested in using the Lobster’s restrooms — the passengers are Chinese tourists who were served bad mussels a few miles back.
On the surface, this is a small story. But in this slice of working life, O’Nan captures the essence of what it means to care about a job, however routine and low-level, and the attachments we form to the people we share it with.