Not long after Eleanor was gone and Bill’s Suburban life had quieted some, State West was down a cook and the east sent Bill over to do the lunch rush on the line with Robert and Alvin. Alvin was burly, a heavy-drinking, pot-smoking man in his thirties. He was related to Henry Lee and Yulie, who’d died awhile back, who Mary talked about as if she had loved him. Robert did the grill, Alvin worked the middle cutting roast beef from the steamship round, and Bill did the fryers and vegetables.
This was the day the line caught fire, a good one too, starting on the Garland and spreading quickly over and past the charcoal grill.
“Damn,” Robert said.
Bill started to panic since this was his first real fire and he didn’t quite know what to do. Robert gently grabbed his wrist and held it, shook it so his whole hand shook.
“Check out your mind, baby,” Robert said. “Make every step count for two.” He let go Bill’s wrist. “Now go to the walk-in and get me a case of milk. Quickly.”
Alvin was nowhere to be seen when Bill returned with the milk. Robert, slow and easy as was always his way, reached into the milk case, took up a gallon container and started pouring milk systematically over the fire. He did the charcoal grill first, then the Garland. Meanwhile, Bill covered the food that might get splashed, and within a matter of moments, the fire was out.
“If the foam goes off,” Robert said, “we lose all the food and can’t do the lunch. You know Mr. Bowman gonna lawnmower our asses if that ever happens.” Then he said “Put the milk away, chill out a minute and we’ll clean up.”
Bill was coming out of the walk-in box in the prep kitchen when he heard Robert yell, the first and only time he ever heard Robert yell.
“Who the hell cleaned the broiler and didn’t empty the damn grease drawer?”
Bill saw the kitchen stop dead. No one moved, no one made a noise.
“You stupid bastards,” Robert continued, yelling at no one in particular, “that ever happens again I’ll fire all you crazy bitches.”
Done, Robert turned to Bill. “C’mon baby,” he said, calm as if he’d never raised his voice, “let’s go get some air.” He put his arm around Bill and started for the door.
The moment the door closed behind them, as if it were one living organism, the kitchen came alive again. Robert’s arm still around Bill, he said, “Glory hallelujah,” and he started to laugh. Then he saw Alvin sitting on a big rock with Alfreda, Henry Lee’s wife.
“What the hell you doing out here?” Robert asked.
“Shit,” Alvin said, “I’m a cook, not a fireman.”
Bill would never forget those words. Alvin was sitting on that rock all relaxed and peaceful, smoking a cigarette and talking to Alfreda as if nothing was going on.
Bill lingered outside with Alfreda after Robert and Alvin went back in to start the clean-up. Alfreda was dark chocolate like Mary and skinny like a speed freak. She didn’t get up from the rock and Bill sat next to her a moment.
“So,” Alfreda, said, “I am gonna get with you, you know.” As she said this, she slid her hand into Bill’s lap and rested it there. She began indulging herself and Bill made no attempt to stop her. He couldn’t help but get roused.
“You’re Henry Lee’s wife,” Bill said.
“So? Being married never stopped him any.”
“Never seemed to stop you any either.”
“What are you saying?”
“Bea, Mary, Norma, Eleanor. That’s what I’m saying, and now it’s my turn.”
“I don’t think so,” Bill said.
“I do,” Alfreda said with a big smile.
Due to several personal commitments, Coming Now In About Another Month:
The Ghost Writer, Rose’s Story: A Look At The Worlds We Hide
Bill took up the thin boning knife and the sharpening steel, and facing the short loins, he straightened the blade. Having sat out so long, the meat had sweated and a thin coat of slime covered its outsides. Starting in on the first loin, the knife slipped several times, even crashing once against the stainless steel counter on which his cutting board sat. He honed the blade straight again, honed it often now because a sharp blade was essential. Too slow, he was thinking, and he tried working faster but the slick meat was slippery and the knife’s path unsteady.
He never felt the knife slice his leg and because of the meat blood on him he didn’t notice his own fluid escaping till it had spilled over his shoe. “Damn,” he said, shock-sober. Dripping blood the whole way, his foot squishing in his shoe, he ran for the bathroom.
“What the hell,” Henry Lee said seeing him burst in. Bill stopped cold, blood flowing out his pant leg onto the floor. Henry Lee’s stump stared at him, and the wood leg, the foot part covered by his sock and shoe, angled against the wall nearby. Bill stared from stump to limb and back again. He was frozen, blood puddling around his foot, the puddle spreading and deepening. Henry Lee was frozen too, torn between helping Bill and hiding the stump. “Lordy, Lordy,” he finally said, “you keep admiring me, you gonna bleed to death,” and trying to keep calm, he reached for his leg. “Better take down your pants and let’s see what you done.” He flashed a smile that quickly turned to a grin. “Nice to make your acquaintance,” he said, then, “Mary,” he shouted, “Mary get down here quick.”
Mary took the stairs two at a time and rounded the corner on a run. The bathroom door was open. She found Bill standing in his dripping blood, Henry Lee sitting on the commode strapping his leg. He was muttering to himself how he couldn’t even take a crap in peace.
“Goddamn,” she said. “What you do, boy?”
“Guess I cut my leg,” Bill said.
“You guess,” Mary said. “Shit. Sit down.”
They both heard the toilet flush and Henry Lee came out of the stall as Mary was helping Bill take down his pants. The gash ran over the front of his thigh, a solid, deep cut about two inches long.
“Nice job,” Mary said.
“Can’t leave the boy for a second,” Henry Lee said.
“Get me a clean towel,” Mary said.
Henry Lee went for the towel, and Mary, on her knees before Bill, looked up at him. “Keep drinking,” she said. But her scowl turned soft and she smiled. “Leastwise you did a good job on yourself. That’ll need some stitches.”
“Give me a kiss,” Bill said. He reached down and kissed her square on the lips, catching her by surprise as his hands reached to her breasts. She might have slapped his hands away, but she focused on the immediate task, applying pressure to the cut to stop his bleeding. Despite her sensibility, she kissed him back, letting her tongue find his. She felt her nipples stiffen inside her bra as creaminess stirred between her legs.
“Be still boy,” she finally said. Her hands were quickly coated with his blood, part of it already drying on her dark skin. She waited impatiently for the towel, helped Bill sit himself down on the floor.
“Tommy on his way down,” Henry Lee said, returning.
“He gonna have to go to the hospital,” Mary said. “Guess I’ll take him ‘fore he bleeds to death.”
Mary wrapped the towel tightly around his leg and elevated the leg so it was higher than his heart. She helped him hold still, the leg propped up, and kept pressure on the cut over the towel. Tommy came in in his usual slow, shuffling way.
“It’s pretty bad,” Mary said. “He gonna need stitches.”
“Okay,” Tommy said, scratching his bald head. He looked at Bill’s leg, but with the towel over it there was nothing to see. “I’ll drive. You can sit in the back with him and keep pressure on it.”
“Pick your pants up, boy,” Henry Lee chided. “Don’t want anyone seeing that little white thing you got.”
Bill laughed. “It’s as good as any, better than most.” Bill smirked.
“Shut up, fool,” Mary said. “ Pick up your pants, and let’s go ‘cause I got a life and being with you in the hospital ain’t it.”
“You know you crazy about me,” Bill said quickly picking up his blood-soaked pants. Mary gave him another towel to press on the cut as he walked. Henry Lee knew he would have to stay and work with Robert until Bill came back. He still hoped Bill would be able to do his night shift.
The Ghost Writer, Rose’s Story: A Look At The Worlds We Hide
By three-thirty enough steaks for the night were cut, so Bill and Henry Lee cleaned and straightened their stations. Then Bill carted six short loins from the icebox and set them between him and Henry Lee. When they were ready to start boning the loins, just before they started, they took another drink.
Henry Lee’s leg was bothering him: this was the second full day on a drunk and exhaustion caused the pain. But because he was on a drunk, because he was used to it and prepared for it, he was steady. Bill was getting sloppy.
Twelve more loins sat waiting in the box. Henry Lee, the master butcher, did four to Bill’s two, and when he was done he examined Bill’s work. “You’re too damn slow,” he said. “You be doing this enough to be faster.” Bill didn’t say anything. He just took a drink. “You got pussy on the brain,” Henry Lee said, “and you drink like a boy, too.” Bill kept silent. He carted six more loins, two at a time, from the walk-in. “You do these,” Henry Lee said, “cause you need the practice. I’m going to take a crap.” But on his way to the bathroom he heard Mary call “Meat’s here,” from the top of the stairs. “Damn,” Henry Lee muttered, and calling back “Okay,” he passed the bathroom and climbed the stairs. At the top of the stairs he unhooked the wood ramp down which the meat was slid. The ramp, set on hinges, crashed into place.
Bill stopped working and grabbed a quick drink before he moseyed over to the bottom of the stairs. Henry Lee came down and set up the scale in the meat room. The invoice called for a regular delivery, about fourteen hundred-fifty pounds of meat. He laid the invoice next to the scale and waited while Bill carried the cases of meat, slid down the ramp by the deliveryman, into the meat room. They dropped them, one by one, on the scale, then slid them over and off.
After the meat was weighed and stacked in the walk-in, after Henry Lee’d initialed the invoice, Bill, Henry Lee and the deliveryman rested a few minutes. Talking jive, they passed the bottle. All the while the short loins lay on the counter, and every so often the deliveryman poked at them with his fingers. This time Suburban was his last stop and his truck was empty. He was talking about after work. Bill and Henry Lee wished after work was as soon for them.
The bottle was two-thirds dead and Bill was drunk-numb. He liked feeling this way. He liked working by habit. His ears buzzed and the top of his head was hot. His apron, stiff in spots from old smears and dried blood, was damp in spots too from fresh blood that had dripped during the delivery. A dishwasher mopped the stairs and the halls over which the meat had been carried.
“Now I’m going to take that crap,” Henry Lee said when the deliveryman left.
“Yeah, see you in awhile,” Bill said.
Henry Lee sat down in the stall and unstrapped his leg to rest the stump. He leaned the leg against the wall, and while he crapped he massaged his thigh. “Feels good,” he said aloud, relaxing, feeling the freed stump begin to throb. He hated it like this, when exhaustion pained it all and even whiskey couldn’t stop the ache. He hated and he remembered and he drank to be numbed and forget. But sometimes it didn’t work. Sometimes you could drink forever and never get outside yourself. “Lord have mercy,” he said, leaning his head against the wall of the stall. The cool metal soothed his temple, and sitting motionless, he cast his eyes downward studying the wood gam, not feeling at all inclined to get up.
The Ghost Writer, Rose’s Story: A Look At The Worlds We Hide
Because he was shy about his wooden leg, Henry Lee changed in the bathroom. “Honky doctor give me a honky leg,” he joked sometimes to his close friends, but color, though the leg was too light for him, wasn’t the problem. The stump made him shy: some ten inches of rounded thigh instead of tapering into a knee, ended. “Yeah,” he’d say, “honky doctor tripped me up,” and he’d laugh, casting his eyes downward.
But you didn’t know Henry Lee wore a fake limb unless you’d seen it or unless someone you trusted told you. He limped some toward the end of a day, having carted heavy meat trays up and down the stairs, and he massaged himself sometimes, but you didn’t know unless you knew. And if you knew, you understood that when his lips squeezed tight and he winced, more than the stump was ailing him.
He was a crackerjack meat cutter, swift and clean with his strokes, mean sometimes when he had too much to drink. His knife was part of him, an extension gliding through meat like a skate blade on ice. He’d cut a man once and pulled time for it and in that fight his own leg had been slashed. Now the stump ached intolerably on rainy days and in the cold. He blunted the pain with bourbon, often stealing if off the boss’ bar. Since he and Bill had been partners, Bill had done his share of the stealing.
When it ailed him, and sometimes just like that, he wished he’d killed the bastard. Just a good twist would have done it but the knife was in so deep his fingers had slipped into the warm fluids between the parted flesh. He was panicked and scared, and when his free hand grabbed his own leg and felt ice, he knew he was in for it: the wind had chilled his own blood. One hand in the warmth, the other in the cold, his educated fingers could not deceive him. “Motherfucker,” he’d said laying there, wishing he could get up to run.
Mary knew about the leg, and so did Bea and Robert and Tommy, and someone older might have read the signs and guessed. But Bill did not know at first, and at the times he might have noticed, he was busy flirting with a hostess or a waitress. Henry Lee liked it this way. It made it his game.
He and Mary had discussed it.
“Bill’s too busy with the girls,” Mary said.
“I’m hip,” Henry Lee said. “It’s his time for that.”
“He don’t know what it’s his time for.”
“Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Mercy,” Mary had said. “I wouldn’t mind giving him some of this, neither,” she said. She patted between her legs and smiled at Henry Lee. “But that’s for later maybe.”
Meat was coming in this particular day, the day Bill would finally discover Henry Lee had a false leg. They had been drinking heavily, more so than ordinarily. Down in the meat room after the lunch service, Bill could see Henry Lee’s eyes glazed over. He knew his own eyes were glazed too because he was floating, just starting to hear the high-pitched buzz he usually heard before he was drunk. He took himself a cutting knife and a boning knife and set up his station.
Henry Lee was cutting tenderloins. “Cut two strips,” he said to Bill, “and then we’ll bone the short loins.”
Bill said “Okay” and went to the walk-in, returning to his station with a slab of meat. He took up the sharpening steel kept between him and Henry Lee, honed his blade and started to cut.
Mary had been hanging out during the afternoon lull. She sat on the stainless steel counter, her feet crossed at the ankles. She was swinging her legs as she did and stayed to watch him cut and trim a few steaks before she got up. “Mercy,” she said, then, “See you later,” and she left. Upon her exit, Henry Lee took out the bottle of bourbon and passed it to Bill.
The Ghost Writer, Rose’s Story: A Look At The Worlds We Hide
…The Chinese restaurant Murph’s mother Pearl loved to eat in was on the same block as the Roosevelt Theater, a bit further down the block and just before the curve. That block was a long one and it actually did curve, and just past the curve was the Long Island Railroad, still overhead at this point although by the time it got to the Bayside Station it was lower than the ground, down two sets of stairs. The Chinese restaurant wasn’t a Chinese restaurant anymore, but back across the boulevard, adjacent to the railroad bridge, on the second floor of a building whose first floor was vacant, was the pool hall and Tattoo Parlor that had always been there, their signs still in English. Murph had never been in either one of those places.
On toward Bayside and out of Auburndale, the memories were more adult memories than childhood ones. Murph sped up a bit and let his mind relax, thinking this wasn’t too far from where he lived now. If he didn’t follow the curve and left Northern Boulevard just before the tracks, he’d find his way toward a different part of Flushing than where he’d been, and with a couple of subsequent turns he’d be pretty close to his apartment. If he had come from there instead of from Carla’s, he would have made the trip on the Long Island Expressway, a faster and much more direct route. He could have done it that way from Carla’s too, but since he’d had the time he’d taken the cruise.
Murph and ugly Mary spent quite a few times together since Alan stayed with his girlfriend and eventually married her. At first they didn’t like each other. Murph thought she was ugly and maybe she thought he was too. She didn’t want to be there, wherever they were at the time, and neither did Murph. She was cold to him and he reciprocated in kind so that their first time at the RKO they could have been sitting in different rows, that’s how far apart they were. She was chubby and pimply and one corner of her blouse stuck out of her jeans. Murph was chubby, had a flat top haircut and wore thick black-frame glasses, a fat four-eyes with braces. Well into the movie, at one point they each looked over to Alan and Andrea and saw them deep into making out, Andrea’s hand stroking Alan and her pants open with Alan’s hand buried in there somewhere.
“Wanna make out?” Murph asked.
“No. I don’t even want to be here.”
“Well, me either. Want some candy?”
“No. Just leave me alone and we’ll get along fine.”
Their second time at the RKO was like an instant replay. Murph only went a second time because Alan promised to buy the beer for the next two months. Murph found out later that Andrea had promised Mary she would do her English homework for six weeks.
“Anyway,” Mary said when they were talking about it, “I wanted to see this movie and Alan had the passes.”
“I don’t care about the movie,” Murph said.
“So why you here?”
“Same as you, to help out my friend.”
“Well, that’s a good thing.”
“Yes it is.”
“That’s why I’m here too.”
“You have a boyfriend?”
“Would I be here with you if I did?”
“Well, same here.”
“No kidding,” Murph said. Then, in a bold and daring move, he put his arm around Mary and she didn’t tear it away, which was a surprise. In fact, he thought, she kind of moved a bit closer to him. Feeling emboldened, he started leaning in to kiss her.
“Wait, wait,” she said. “I really want to see this part.”
Disappointed, Murph sat back in the chair and he would have sulked to the end of the movie if ugly Mary hadn’t leaned over to him and kissed him once on the lips, closed-mouthed, when the part she really wanted to see was over.
“If we have to do this again,” she said, “I’ll make out with you…”
Look for Rose’s Story toward the end of May 2017
…Murph’s head spun with memories as he drove. He remarked to himself in the midst of it that this was why he didn’t travel here often. Nathan hated Husky pants. He hated his son wearing them. Nathan hated taking him to Robert Hall and out toward the Island to Klein’s and Abraham and Strauss, two other stores that carried Huskies.
Jesus, Murph thought as memories bombarded him from numerous directions. He remembered the ripped coat and was thinking about it when he came upon the block Georgewood Florist used to be on. He wasn’t sure this was the exact block anymore because the entire area was Korean and all the businesses had changed. But the bicycle store was still there, its signs in Korean, and the brick church was on the block before it—that was Korean now too.
His thoughts became more like flashes here because too many landmark-recollections were in this space. “Hello Georgewood,” was first, the sound of his aunt’s voice in his ears as she answered the phone with those same words every time. That church was where he and one group of his teenage friends used to go cruising for girls at church dances when he was in high school. They traveled in a pack, cruised for girls, looked for and picked fights. The old Roosevelt movie theater was next, on the other side of the street. He’d felt up ugly Mary there and made out with her because his friend Alan’s girlfriend wasn’t allowed to go out unless it was a double-date. So he and Mary got to be partners of sorts, an arrangement. Mostly they went to the RKO Palace on Main Street in Flushing because Alan’s father owned a share in it and Alan always had free passes, but the old Roosevelt was the usual standby. It wasn’t a theater anymore. Now it was a banquet hall and catering center. The RKO wasn’t a theater anymore either. It was an indoor flea market.
Murph had also made out with Mary Lamb at the Roosevelt. Mary Lamb—that was her real name—had a tongue made of sugar, the sweetest tongue Murph had ever tasted in his whole life. If he could still hear his aunt’s voice in his ears, he could still taste that tongue, and when he allowed himself this pleasure, he could picture her face and remember the first time he’d put his hand under her skirt and felt her up over her panties. She’d told him to stop, but she hadn’t meant it. He knew that because he stopped when she told him to and then she asked him why he stopped. So he continued. That was the first time he’d ever found his way inside a girl’s panties. It was his first look inside a girl’s mind too.
Lots of girls were named Mary back then, especially the Catholic girls, and Murph mostly found himself with Catholic girls because most of the friends he hung out with, who were really Alan’s friends, were Catholic. That was why it was church dances, garage parties, beer and fights. Alan came from a mixed family, Jewish father, non-Jewish mother. Technically he wasn’t Jewish, and actually he wasn’t religious at all. In the scope of things it didn’t matter other than it led Murph to being where he might not have ordinarily been, but then they were kids and kids did what kids did, different back then than it was now…
Look for Rose’s Story toward the end of May 2017
After the trip to Hawaii Murph found himself alone at the McDonald’s where, after some thirty-two years, he’d reunited with Carla. Carla had not retired, not even partially. Her preliminary goal was to plod on to sixty-six, and since she’d just turned sixty-five, it was less than a full year away. That definitely seemed doable.
Murph sat in the same booth he and Carla had shared that morning. Sipping his coffee, he thought back to that moment and smiled a bit as he mulled over their time together, some six months now coursing through three seasons though only one season in full. They had watched the leaves wither and die, then huddled and cuddled together through an unusually cold and snowy winter. The welcomed spring had not brought the desired warmth yet, but as the weather often did, thus far there had been a tease or two.
This morning, as usual, Murph had dropped Carla off at the train. He would have gone directly home to his apartment but he had a chore to run in Bayside, some ten miles down the road from the McDonald’s. Feeling hungry, he’d decided to stop. He’d brought his tablet with him, and once settled in the booth, he read what he’d written yesterday, looking at it not so much for like or dislike or good or bad as for correctness and how it advanced the story. That done, he picked up where he’d left off and worked for about a half-hour.
He hadn’t been back to Bayside for a long time. He still went to the dentist over in Bay Terrace, but usually he went with the Long Island Expressway to the Throgs Neck Expressway. If he did go with Northern, he turned on Francis Lewis Boulevard so he didn’t go into Bayside proper. By the time he got to where he was going today, he would have traveled along Northern Boulevard through Jackson Heights, Flushing, Auburndale, and Bayside.
In Bayside, he was turning right on Bell Boulevard and heading up toward the Long Island Expressway. He was going to meet a woman he didn’t know, a woman who’d read his book and contacted him through his website. She said she was looking for a ghost writer and had liked what she’d seen. Murph had sent her the links to his blog and a PDF of his Doctoral Dissertation, and he told her he’d never done this before and didn’t know if he was really interested, but when she’d told him that the potential earnings went easily into six figures, he’d decided he couldn’t possibly let the opportunity slide by without at least seeing what it was. Her address, from the way he figured it, was pretty close to the church where he had gone to Boy Scouts when he was a kid, maybe a block or two from where Mr. Gilbert, the Scout Master, had lived.
After he’d eaten and worked a little, he drove slowly along. He toured up Main Street Flushing and then went back to Northern Boulevard along the road where the Robert Hall used to be, the clothing store where his father, Nathan, a World War II POW survivor, used to begrudgingly take him to buy Husky pants. The whole area was Korean now with not a word of English to be found on any of the storefronts or businesses. It was the same physical space but a different world…