May 20 — People watching on this bright and warm Sunday at Panera Cafe in the Marketplace in Augusta.

Sun-soaking people are sitting at the outside tables where there are trees that we pretend are chestnuts and a cement space with pots full of flowers, allowing us to imagine we are at Les Deux Magots in Paris. Such fantasies are those of the aged, don’t you think? This one’s ours.

She and I both like the food, the atmosphere and the extra large windows facing the parking lot. We like that Panera is keen at treating us like relatives, unlike similar eateries, and, as I said, the people watching.

She and I chew and chat, giggle at a couple here and there and create backgrounds for each passerby, guessing at their occupations.

This morning, young Panera cleaning associates bustle about wiping tables, picking up bits of food, occasionally helping customers with their empty dishes.

Then one young employee with dandelion colored hair and bright Facebook logo blue eyes shaded by the brim of her company ball cap catches our eyes as she weaves through the tables with cloth in hand and green apron slightly askew. Who is she?

Sometimes she disappears and then returns with a broom and long-handled dust pan.

She’s very tall, this one, very young and focused, as she glides through the big room like a swath of fog. I catch her occasionally glancing longingly out the window at the loveliness of the day.

She must be thinking, I’d like to sit out there in the sun and the warm breeze, munching on a tuna on rye with tomato and pickle, and think about my life.

But she can’t. She probably has to work to save money for a car or college. She pauses near our table to wipe another. Her name badge says Zoe. I love names like that: Zoe, Zeus, Chloe, Aurora.

She, always the motherly and once and forever teacher, asks of Zoe, “Where do you go to school?”

Gardiner, I think she replies. A senior getting ready to graduate? She wants to go to nursing school and has been accepted into a nursing assistant program. Wonderful. I love nurses, God’s special children.

Zoe wanted to be a dancer, but broke a bone in her foot, put that dream in God’s pocket, and works on becoming a nurse.

I ask strangers too many questions, like a reporter or a cop. I tell her I write for a newspaper and ask another.

“Does everyone interrogate you like we do, like a cop or reporter?”

She shakes her head and smiles, a sad smile.

I’m thinking that Cleanup Associates don’t get a chance to chat as waitresses who work for tips do. Under a manager’s eye, they have to keep busy wiping, sweeping, emptying the trash.

You never see Cleaning Associates pause to talk on their cells, never. That would probably be cause for instant dismissal, and that would be bad. This is the perfect gig for students. Cleaning is all about repetition, allowing time to think about exam questions, the upcoming prom maybe, or just wondering if nursing is what it looks like on “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Mostly they just pass through the aisles, past the booths and tables, popping up and vanishing like friendly ghosts, moving past diners like fresh breezes.

Now I’ve taken to watching the other cleaner-uppers, and I’ve noticed that almost no one talks to them. What do you say to a ghost?

I suspect it’s a summer or weekend job for students, or maybe they move up to the cash register positions where, depending on the actors involved, warm banter is allowed, but the basic script is simple and regulated.

“Chips, apple or baguette?”

Try saying that very fast, a hundred times a day.

Zoe floats by, pauses, perhaps sensing someone who cares. She, who always blended Teacher and Mother well, continues the chat.

Zoe disappears. I hope we see her again. Maybe one dark night years from now, as I lay in my final hospital bed, a new nurse will answer my call for water, and this tall girl with dandelion yellow hair and grass green scrubs will slide in from the hall to my bedside and prop up my pillow. Will I remember her moves, her voice?

“Is that you, Zoe?”

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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