Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website. Robert Coover’s “The Waitress” was originally published in the May 19, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
The last piece Robert Coover published in The New Yorker was a very short, modern take on a classic fairy tale, “The Frog Prince” (our thoughts here). I enjoyed that bit of strangeness and was happy to see that “The Waitress” followed the same path, complete with a fairy godmother and three wishes.
When the story begins, we meet a weary waitress, sick and tired of “being ogled, or else stared at in disgust, whenever she bends over to pick up a dishrag.” She voices a request: “I wish nobody could ever look at me.” And, still in the first short paragraph, we get this:
The bag lady turns out to be a fairy godmother in disguise, and, in thanks for the soup, she raises her spoon like a wand and grants the waitress her wish, so that when she tries to hand the taxi-driver his check, his head swivels sharply on his bovine neck.
It’s matter-of-fact, so much so it’s almost as if it’s in draft form. It’s just happened. It’s not the most incredible thing in the world. Nothing incredible happens in this world. Usually, the things that look incredible just end up making this even worse!
This world-weariness and disillusionment in the face of the magical that pervades this short fairy tale.
It won’t exactly be happily ever after, but the bag lady never promised her that.
I don’t think there’s much more to the piece than that other than the clever writing and the fun twists and turns (at the neck and in the plot), and I highly recommend it.
“The Waitress,” Robert Coover’s short-short modern fairy tale, is funny, irritating, provocative, and oddly feminist, as was “The Frog Prince” back in January. Trevor, I notice you throw down the gauntlet by proposing the story is merely an entertainment, a good one, but merely that. As you will see, I think it’s more.
“The Waitress” is a Cinderella story: at an all-night diner, a waitress who is tired and tired of being ogled wishes “nobody could ever look at” her. A fairy godmother in the form of a bag lady “raises her spoon like a wand” and grants her wish. Instantly, not only can people not see her, their heads are snapped, painfully, in the other direction. What with all the head snapping, her boss fires her, and she finds herself “wishing she could find someone to tell her troubles to.” Coover reports that “maybe she has used up a second wish.”
It’s a blind beggar. No head snapping there. She takes him home!
Coover pointedly remarks, “She may have used up two wishes already.”
The blind beggar’s career is “going nowhere,” and she now has “two mouths to feed.” She debates what would be the best wish and decides on untold riches, a wish that is granted in the form of some hapless bank robbers who drop their money when their heads are snapped askew.
She goes home, and plans not only to order in (booze and eats, both), but also “to dance the night away.” She and her prince, the blind beggar, are set for life.
Coover is funny. “Hey, sweetheart, nice patoot,” says the customer. Patoot strikes the perfect tone — admiring and affectionate, but presumptuous! Coover makes sure we get the picture. He has the blind beggar remark that she is “ample”! In our surprise, we ogle her, too! This is no Barbie, this is actually a real woman!
He’s provocative — he says girls like to undress in front of their bedroom windows!
But underneath the patter, there’s an odd feminist twist. Coover twice makes a dangling proposition — maybe our heroine has not actually used up her three wishes, or perhaps, in this modern world, she has four wishes. What would that wish be?
Doesn’t the scenario remind you of waves of feminism? In the beginning, in the seventies, women got entranced by the notion that they could trump the patriarchal condescension, the wolf-whistles, and the life-sentence of taking orders.
Then, women got entranced by the possibility of money! It might be nice to have a career! And money! And power! And it’s true, it has been nice, even at the lowest levels. This teacher remembers the day when all teachers had to quit if they got pregnant. That is, until women’s liberation and Title 9 upended all that. There were lots of bumps in that road. For instance, the minute mothers began working, the price of houses doubled. Even so, life was better than for our mothers. My own mother had been a high school music teacher and had put on seven Gilbert and Sullivan operettas before she had us. I remember her showing me the 8X10’s. I think she missed it. A lot.
So, if Coover is proposing that his waitress still has another wish, what would that wish be?
What I like about this is my answer doesn’t trump yours. The way he’s structured the story doesn’t determine the answer. If the first two wishes were for respect and money, what’s a woman’s the third wish?
My husband says, “Balance.”
I say, “More concessions from society, in the form of rational support for working mothers. Extended maternity leave, job protections for mothers, the right to work part-time without losing all hope of advancement, universal day-care, and a school calendar that has a more rational mesh with work life.”
What do you say the third wish should be?
Wait — you say Coover’s not talking about the waves of women’s liberation? I think he is! Think about this: just recently a book appeared in which the female author argued that ambitious women should marry down. Such a marriage would have one ambitious partner and one supportive partner — like in Leave it to Beaver!
Think how the waitress married down! Her prince is a blind beggar; he is the only one who knows she’s there. He is the only one who can “see” her, so to speak.
Coover’s surveyed the triumphs of women’s liberation and found the process perhaps not quite done. And I like that. I really enjoyed this story and the last one, too. I hope there are more to come.