Robert Coover: “The Waitress”

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.

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Trevor

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.

Betsy

“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.

7 thoughts on “Robert Coover: “The Waitress””

  1. Wonderful thoughts, Betsy, and definitely not where I was going :-) .

    I think Coover is telling a woman’s story here, but I am not quite convinced he’s intentionally, or un-, made an analog of the history of feminism, which is not to say I think you’re incorrect to go there. His brevity leaves a lot up to us. I am just not sure he’s being that ambitious. I went to disillusionment, to a sense that the magic in the world isn’t really that magical. You go with what you get, even if it’s not happily ever after. You went the history of the feminism movement. I agree there’s room, though I’m not sure the story fully supports it. I think it’s more personal and individualized. The woman here is not a working mother, and I am not sure it I can follow the generalization.

    But when you talk about the wishes, I agree. Coover is intentionally vague on whether she has any wishes left. Not only do we not know if she’s used up any extra wishes, but we also don’t know how many wishes she gets. Are fairy godmothers limited to three like a genie? Surely this fairy godmother can do what she wants. I do get the sense the woman thinks her wishes are used up, though, and she’s planning to make the best of it. So, again, I’m don’t entirely see the larger feminist picture.

    Regardless, I love that you ask what the next wish would be. I think the world weariness is brought on because progress — if it exists — is slow. You get a wish granted here, but the world isn’t suddenly set right. In fact, today (and this links to feminist theory I remember reading) often we can point to those fulfilled wishes as ludicrously backward. The wish only causes more problems. The fairytale doesn’t end when you get the prince. That may just be the beginning of the problems — or, as here, something that is not exactly happily ever after. Perhaps in seeing the wishes rarely lead to anything lasting and, indeed, may lead to worse, the fairy godmother sees nothing better to do than have a little bit of fun.

    A wonderful story, and, like you, I can’t wait for the next one. I hope it’s a book filled with modern fairy tales (hopefully close to done, as Coover is 82!).

  2. Betsy Pelz says:

    Glad you bought the idea that the waitress may have more than one more wish. In fact, she may have to “wait” for it.

    So sorry you don’t see a feminist under ever cabbage leaf! But there’s this. A really good story should have a prismatic quality – offering a variety of valid reactions. And this is a really good story.

    About the waitress being a working mother – no, not yet! Given that she and her blind beggar are going to have a lot of time on their hands, I doubt it will be long before they have a baby or four on board. Obviously, she’s not going to be a working mother. She’s rich. But she is definitely going to be an invisible mother. Many a new mother in America has felt invisible – invisible in so many ways!

    I loved the cut-out illustration, done in the same style as the illustration for “The Frog Prince”. I’d love to have a book of these entertainments.

    Because he’s crisp! Like those cut-outs, Coover is deliciously crisp. You said about “The Frog Prince” that you “liked that bit of strangeness”. Me, too! And really, the same applies here.

  3. Roger says:

    I see disappointment ahead for Coover’s waitress and blind beggar. “It won’t exactly be happily ever after,” the narrator says, “but the bag lady never promised that.” I wish TNY served up something more substantial this weak than this clever little one pager. I don’t think there’s more to it than its surface, though Coover suggests otherwise in his interview, saying the story provides the prism of metaphor. But it’s in his interest to say that.

  4. Roger says:

    *this week*, not “this weak”. Freudian slip?

  5. Greg says:

    “You go with what you get”……..Thanks Trevor for nailing this down to six words. I will carry this lesson with me.

  6. I agree with Roger that the story is not much more than its surface. Which is fine. I did find it mildly amusing in its clever twists upon a traditional fairy tale (ex. the head snapping), but I don’t think it deserves to be taken for something deeper beyond what it appears to offer at face value.

  7. Betsy Pelz says:

    Welcome, John. I am sure my husband would agree with you and Roger! But I’m sticking to my story. : )

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