“One Shiny Dime and Three Pennies,” Ensign, Dec. 1983, 54–55
The K-Tom Cafe didn’t look very impressive that first day—a small, yellow, box-like structure with a pop sign in the window. I was to find, however, that it communicated exactly what they took pride in: a working man’s cafe and a “decent place to bring the wife and kids.”
I can still see the bored young man at the employment office peering over his horn-rimmed spectacles. “Hmmm, sorry, Ma’am, we haven’t any openings for graduate home economists … perhaps in a few months? We’ll keep your name on file.”
“What do you have now? I need a job!”
“Oh.” Again the drumming fingers shuffled the pitifully small pile of job cards: “waitress, short-order cook, housekeeping—”
“What do they pay?” I interrupted. The pay, as could be expected, was minimum wage but anything was better than nothing. The short-order cook paid 10¢ an hour more than the others and allowed Sundays off, so I put it at the top of my list.
The card for the K-Tom read: “Wanted: short-order cook, manage grill and other duties as assigned; morning shift, 4 A.M. to 1 P.M.; experience preferred.” I was good at interviews, I had cooked all my life for a family of ten kids (I was second to the oldest and the first girl), and I had worked in the dorm kitchen. When the K-Tom called me back to report to work Monday morning at four A.M., little did I realize that the card should have read: “Wanted: short-order cook with eight arms, dexterity of circus acrobat, memory of elephant, and ears of an owl—can distinguish rustling of mouse in dry grass at one hundred yards.”
It started out bad and got worse.
I think everyone else who worked there must have been at least six feet tall. The other employees seemed to enjoy watching me push the closest canister over to the shelf and stand tiptoe on top of it to reach something. Then they would slowly shake their heads and chuckle, “I do believe you’re a little short on one end, but for the life of me, can’t tell which end. …”
And there was this whole ghastly thing about eggs—one must never break the customer’s egg. (Odd how one expects—and demands—the perfect egg in a care.) I would awaken trembling in the middle of the night from dreams of a huge, black grill reaching out long black arms to burn me; or leering three-foot eggs, breaking and running across the grill, cackling with laughter.
No matter how hard I tried, it seemed I couldn’t get all the orders straight nor get them fast enough. As December rolled around, things didn’t seem to be getting any better.
I think my employers sensed how hard I was trying: I arrived early, worked hard and cheerfully at any project, and struggled earnestly with the grill and orders. At least they didn’t fire me.
Two weeks before Christmas, and only one week before our first anniversary, my husband and I put our total cash assets on the couch between us: thirteen cents—one shiny dime and three pennies. It had all seemed so easy: we married, I finished my last year of college, and LaMar was promised a good job with a new furniture store starting as soon as we could move. We moved—only to find construction was behind schedule and his job wouldn’t be available for a month. He went to work at another job. Then came eye surgery and the verdict that he would probably be unable to work for two years. He was flat on his back with excruciating pain in his head. Our savings lasted through the first month as I nursed him, but were soon gone; only his patience and love kept us going. That’s when I became a fry cook.
My journal entries for that Christmas tell the story best:
December 18—Our first anniversary, and the weather is miserable. Between the grey skies, sleety snow, and tears, I could hardly see the road on my way home. When I got there LaMar was actually out of bed and had made it to the door. His face was pale with bright spots of color burning in his cheeks—I fear a fever. He was eager to get me over to the couch. I sat down quickly so he would—he still cannot stand without trembling. Like a mischievous schoolboy, he pulled a candy cane from behind the pillow. Laughing and crying, we fed each other little bites. Gradually he told me how, resting every two or three steps, he had walked two blocks to get it for me for our anniversary. Two blocks! It probably seemed like a thousand miles with the pain he has been fighting, the pain that even now makes him tremble.
December 24—One of the waitresses told me that Kay and Tom usually give everyone a small Christmas surprise. I told myself it wouldn’t include me—the newest employee. I hadn’t even been there a month, and I was doing a terrible job. Surely they wouldn’t include me. But on the way to work my hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly I noticed the whiteness of my knuckles. With every swish of the windshield wipers I prayed, “Let it be some little thing I can give him. Please don’t let it be some girl thing, for I’ve nothing for him. Oh, Father, I can bear anything, only give me a gift to take home to my man.”
Kay and Tom, the owners of the cafe, gathered all the employees together. “Will everyone step out front, please.” I hesitated.
“Come on, let’s get moving, so we can get home a few minutes early tonight.”
At the doorway, I gasped. It couldn’t be—for us! I was almost in shock when they started passing things out: a huge basket of fruit and nuts, a box of chocolates, a five dollar bill, and some girlish trinket—I’ve forgotten what. I know I must have cried, and I know I said thanks.
But how do you truly thank someone who has given you, not only a gift, but Christmas?
Ten years have come and gone, and there have been many times we have wondered how we’ll ever get by. But in the back of our minds we always see one shiny dime and three pennies and taste again that crunchy candy cane and ripe fruit.
Thanks, Kay and Tom, not only for Christmas … but also for courage.