Arlene led him to a small all-night diner. She waited in her car until he had parked next to her then they entered the diner together.
“I come here sometimes with my mother,” said Arlene. She led him to a corner booth where they sat facing each other. We usually have lunch, sometimes dinner. Saves my mother from having to cook.”
“My mother died when I was kid,” said Bill. “I’m only telling you that because I want you to know that I feel for you. I hope your mother still goes on and lives a long life.”
“She has cancer,” said Arlene. “They’re going to operate but the prognosis isn’t all that good.”
“I’m really sorry,” said Bill. “I’ll pray for both of you.”
Arlene reached her hand across the table signaling for Bill to give her his hand. They were holding hands across the table when the waitress came. They both ordered coffee and sat without speaking.
After awhile, Bill asked her if she had any other family. Arlene said she had some cousins but they all lived far away.
Bill didn’t know what to say. He held her hand until the waitress brought the coffee and then he let go. It was an awfully awkward moment. Arlene looked as if she were going to burst into tears. Bill hoped she wouldn’t, but he wouldn’t have blamed her if she did.
“Want some ice cream or something?” he asked.
Arlene said, “I just want to be held. What I’d really like is for us to be somewhere quiet, alone, where I could just cry on your shoulder.”
“You have a place to go?”
“Sure. My place.”
“Is it close by?”
They drove in separate cars, Bill following Arlene, to where she lived, a small apartment. When they were inside Arlene showed him where to put his coat and then led him into the living room.
First thing, Arlene kicked off her shoes. She motioned for Bill to sit on the couch and asked him if she should start a pot of coffee. He said no, that he’d had plenty. He told her under ordinary circumstances he’d ask her if she wanted to get high, but he didn’t figure this was a time for that. He also said he had some Quaaludes and that she was welcome to a couple if she wanted to really relax later on.
Then they were both settled on the sofa and Arlene was looking at Bill in a way that he didn’t quite understand. He couldn’t figure exactly what she wanted from him and he was very unsure as to how to proceed. He sat back and shifted away from her but did not actually move. He hoped she would read his body language but he wasn’t at all sure his body language was clear because he wasn’t sure that he was clear about what he was doing there or about what he was feeling.
He said, “I guess I should put this out on the table. I’m not sure why I’m here and I’m not clear about what you want from me. So if there is anything you would like me to be doing or you’re expecting me to be doing, just let me know.”
“I don’t have many friends,” said Arlene. “The friends I had were at the University. When I grew up I wasn’t one to have many friends. Then my parents got divorced when I was fourteen. Not many families had divorces in them so I was kind of a pariah.”
“We all have stories,” said Bill.
“I am so scared,” Arlene said.
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So there they were. Arlene went into a whole monologue describing exactly what was wrong with her mother and what it meant to her. Bottom lines were simple. Her mother was very sick, maybe not going to live for much longer and the treatments she needed were very expensive. This meant Arlene was going to have to work nights and days and be away from her mother much more than she wanted to be.
“Life sucks,” she said.
Bill didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know why Arlene was telling him this. He wondered if she had told Tommy or any of the other waitresses. He wondered if she had other family who could help out. He clearly agreed that life sucked.
He listened. He had a bottle of beer in his hands and sipped at it slowly. He looked to his feet and shuffled his butt a little as he sat on the metal milk cases.
“You closing girl?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Arlene. “But I’m not making any money tonight. No one is.”
“Check the basketball schedule,” said Bill. “When the buckeyes are playing we always have good business. Make sure you get those shifts.”
“It’s not that easy,” said Arlene. “I don’t have any seniority and I don’t have any pull. I know Tommy will help me out when he can, but there’s not much he can do. If I want the good shifts when I want them, I have to screw Drenovis.”
“Life does suck,” said Bill. “Let me see what I can do.”
“What can you do?”
“Give me a few days. I’ll do it quickly.”
“Think anything will happen?”
“With my shifts.”
“Of course it will.”
“That’s not why I came out to sit with you,” said Arlene.
Bill said, “I didn’t think so. You want a piece of pie?”
“What do you like?”
“Lexi knows you’re out here, right?”
“Yeah. She told me to take my time.”
Bill got up and walked through the kitchen over to the pantry station. He helped himself to a piece of cherry pie then stopped to see what Esserine was doing.
“You eating pie now?” she asked.
“It’s for Arlene. What you up to?”
“Hanging out. Deciding whether I should start to cleanup or not. What’s up with her?”
“I’ll tell you more later,” said Bill.
Esserine said, “You don’t need another girlfriend.”
“It’s not like that,” said Bill.
He walked through the line back into the hall, handed Arlene the plate with the pie on it and sat back down.
He said, “When you go back out, bring me another beer and ask Bebe what she wants for dinner.”
Arlene took a forkful of pie and ate it. Bill watched her, gave her the once over although he couldn’t say why. He wanted to ask her if she wanted to talk but he was hesitant. It seemed, and it felt logical, that she did. Otherwise, he thought, she wouldn’t have said anything in the first place.
Arlene was conscious of him watching her. She shifted on the lettuce cases and made sure her legs were not wide open.
“Pie is good,” she said.
“You’re not supposed to be eating it,” said Bill.
“Yeah, I know.”
“So,” Bill said, “you want to go somewhere after work and talk?”
“I think I do,” said Arlene. “Something tells me you’d be a good person to talk to.”
Bill was about to say something when he heard the automatic doors open in the kitchen. He was about to say that he didn’t know if he were a good person to talk to or not, but he would certainly try to be. But he didn’t get the words out. He heard the bell a second after the doors opened and he stood up immediately.
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Bea got more and more bitchy. Mary got more and more needy. Bill started getting bored. He wasn’t bored with Mary. He was in love with her. He was in love with her and he was in love with his fiancé. This was a conundrum, to be sure.
Bea’s bitchiness stemmed from the fact that she was losing control. The loss of control was not in any one given area but just a general malaise that rose in her and spread throughout.
As she became more bitchy she became more demanding in all regards. She demanded that Bill go downstairs with her at all different times, usually for no reason. She demanded he carry up the silliest little things for her, even at times when he was occupied doing other work. The more Bill and Mary cared for each other, the more mean Bea became.
Tommy saw what was happening. He didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to see what was happening. Tommy saw it. The waitresses saw it. Mary saw it and told Bill that she would talk to Bea about it. Bea didn’t want to hear anything and told Mary nothing was wrong.
Sooner or later, it had to come to a head. Sooner or later there had to be some sort of catharsis, as it were, or a catastrophe. Mary told Bill that in their discussions she asked Bea if she was having the change of life. Bea almost smacked her.
Arlene and Bill did get together, but not the way either of them thought it would happen. Per their original conversation about it, Bill had thought they would have arranged a time and a place to actually meet. Given that he was busy with Mary and of course his fiancé, he thought that was going to take some planning and not be as easy as it might be for someone who was unattached. But that’s not the way it happened at all.
It happened one night when the business was unbearably slow, several weeks after they had that moment in the kitchen. Arlene had only worked nights two more times. This night was the third.
Bill was sitting out on the milk cases where he always sat. Jimmy and Grandma had left about fifteen minutes earlier than usual. Arlene and Lexi were the two girls working and Lexi was early girl. Bill had already fed the waitresses and given that there were no orders but it was still early, he had nothing to do but hang out. It was too early to start any cleanup.
Bill had called home and told his fiancé he would be on time, a good thing, he’d decided, since with her studies and her busy schedule centered around UDC they had not been spending much time together. Unlike Bill, his fiancé was a clearly-focused, no bull shit lady. She knew what she wanted and was unafraid to go after it. She knew how to get what she wanted, knew what she had to do and did it.
Bill was quite the opposite in some respects. He was conflicted, overly cerebral, clearly ADD. He had been taught not to ask for what he wanted, that other people were always more important than him. These teachings would not serve him well, but he would not discover this until later in his life. More immediately, they would serve certain needs of his but not the key ones. And the drugs didn’t help anything, but you couldn’t tell him this.
After Arlene had eaten, while Lexi was still out on the floor, she came into the kitchen and found Bill out in the hall. She sat herself on the lettuce cases, the same ones on which Bea always sat. The stack was lower now since most of the cases of lettuce had been used.
“What’s up?” Bill asked.
Arlene looked down to her feet. “My mother’s really sick,” she said.
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Turns out they were done. When Esserine asked her question about being finished, Bill stood close to Arlene a moment and looked at her. If they’d been alone in the kitchen, or if it had been Marie over on the pantry station, he might have reached for Arlene. He might not have. So he looked at her, studied her, then asked her to go out and ask Tommy if he could close up.
Arlene studied Bill a moment too. She was feeling him out just as he was feeling her out, and turns out they were both deciding whether or not they were going to do anything. At least for the moment it was a standoff, so Arlene turned from Bill and headed out through the front doors into the front dining room.
She came back two minutes later. She carried a beer and walked around the counter onto the line to put the beer down by where Bill stood.
“Tommy says we’re done,” she said.
“Okay,” said Bill. Then, to Esserine, he said, “We’re done, you can go down and change. I’ll come down as soon as you come up.”
When Esserine had left the kitchen, there they were again, Bill and Arlene standing together almost touching. Bill looked at Arlene, wondering if he should kiss her. After all, he thought, they were alone in the kitchen and had a moment, but only a moment because if Arlene stayed in the kitchen too long Tommy would come to see what she was doing.
“What?” she asked.
“I was wondering if I should kiss you,” said Bill. “That’s why I was looking at you. I was thinking.”
“You could,” said Arlene.
Bill leaned in toward her and kissed her once, a gentle kiss on the mouth. Then he put his arms around her and reached one hand down her back to her buttocks.
The second kiss was decidedly more intimate, a feeling-out of tongues. It lasted as a kiss would, and while it lasted Bill slid his hand up under her skirt.
“That okay?” he asked.
“Is it obligatory?” Arlene asked.
“Not at all,” said Bill. “All you have to do is say no. If you don’t want to be touched, I won’t touch you. If you want to be touched, tell me so.”
“I want to be touched,” said Arlene. She stepped in even closer to Bill and kissed him harder than they had been kissing. “But not right now, not right here. Let’s set a time and date.”
Bill fondled her a moment until they stepped away from each other, not hastily but agreeably. He took a sip of his beer and offered it to Arlene.
“You do drugs?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” said Arlene.
“Pot. Downers. Acid sometimes. Why you asking?”
“Just want to know what I should bring when we get together.”
“We going to get together?” Arlene asked.
“Maybe.” said Bill. “You’re going to have to be the one to make it happen.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I don’t pressure anyone into anything. I’m not like Drenovis.”
“You find me attractive?”
“You think we’d be having this conversation if I didn’t?”
“Okay,” said Arlene. “Understood.” She leaned in and kissed Bill on his cheek then turned and left the kitchen.
Alone, Bill finished his beer. Then he went around back to make sure everything was properly covered. Seeing it was, he put it away into the ice box.
Even before he was done doing this, Esserine came back into the kitchen in her civvies. She had her coat on and her purse draped over her arm. “I’m out of here,” she said. “Come let me out and lock the back door behind me.”
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Everything is a salad. In all his years in the kitchens, Bill would discover that when it came to eating, everything was a salad. Shrimp salad. Chicken salad. Chef’s salad. He rarely ever ate a meal in and of itself, even after only a few months in kitchens.
Lunch at the steakhouse was usually a roast beef sandwich. He didn’t eat dinner except maybe to take a few bites of meat he cut for one of the waitresses. But when he did take a plate, it was usually a salad into which he put a selection of different things like a meat, a cheese, some olives, maybe some shrimp or chicken or tuna or any combination he felt like at any given time. Sometimes he would just pop cocktail shrimp into his mouth a half dozen at a shot, one after the next. He’d stand over by the pantry, pick a shrimp, dip it in cocktail sauce, pop it in his mouth whole, over and over until he’d had enough.
Bill would discover women were like salads too. They were mixed, mixed colors, mixed textures, mixed treasures. Like the meats or the shrimp, they were all the same but they were all different.
Arlene was his first redhead. She was a redhead all over, he would discover. Just another addition to his salad.
“Wow,” she said when all was quiet in the kitchen, when the remaining three dishwashers, Paulie, the hyperactive kid, Jimmy, the would-be pimp, and Andy, the one with the roaming eye, had finished and were gone off in the van to downtown. She had brought Bill another beer and she stood on the opposite side of the serving counter.
“Yeah. Wow,” said Bill.
“Bebe told me what she saw. Far out.”
“Much more than trippy,” said Bill. “Good thing I wasn’t too drunk or messed up on top of being drunk.”
“Were you scared?” Arlene asked.
“You asking me if I need a hug?”
“No. Do you?”
“You want to hug me?”
“Why would I?”
“Just checking it out.”
“You want to hug me?” Arlene looked at Bill from across the counter. “I’m very huggable.”
“I’ll bet you are.”
“I heard that downstairs some wild things go on.”
“Did you now?”
“I sure did. And I heard that many times you were part of those wild things.”
“How old are you?” Bill asked.
“About to be twenty.”
“You go to school?”
“I did, but I dropped out because I couldn’t afford the fees.” Arlene shifted her weight on her feet and looked down toward the floor then back up at Bill. “I plan to go back when I save some money,” she said.
“You got a boyfriend?”
“How come you don’t work nights?” Bill asked.
“I have a sick mother. I like to be home with her as much as I can. During the day she gets help.”
“How come you don’t have a boyfriend?” Bill asked.
“Why does a girl need a boyfriend? Anyway, maybe I like girls.”
“Nope.” Arlene smiled and walked around the counter. She sidled up to Bill and stood almost touching him. “I like guys,” she said. “But what makes everyone think a girl needs someone? Maybe some girls just like to be alone.”
“You like to be alone?”
“Most of the time.”
Bill didn’t say anything. He leaned against the counter and lit himself a cigarette. He understood that there must not have been any customers outside if Arlene, all by herself on the floor, were able to be here in the kitchen. He wanted to ask, but he didn’t bother.
Esserine had finished up all the work and double checked that her station was ready to close. The last thing she did was flip the stainless steel top down over her counter. She was ready to go downstairs to change.
“We done?” Esserine asked.
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Later Bill would remember his second night in the workhouse when the tough approached him. He would remember the tough asking him what he was in for. He’d remember his answer, the answer that rolled off the tip of his tongue without him ever thinking about it.
“Assault and battery.”
“Who’d you beat up?” the tough asked. “Your wife?”
“A cop,” Bill said, upon which the tough had looked at him, thought a moment then backed off.
Bill would remember that his first thought was God had put those words into his mouth. He could never have thought of them on his own. He would never have thought of them on his own. God had spoken. God was good.
Well, God had shown himself again and God had spoken for him again, only this time he’d spoken in the form of an action.
When things like this happen, time gets screwed up. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion but really only a few seconds transpired. The whole interplay between Jim and Bill lasted less than half a minute, probably more like fifteen seconds and a big part of those seconds was the pause when they stood staring at each other.
Even before the stare-down Paul, Mickey and Esserine were aware of what was happening. They were frozen. They’d frozen at the sound of Jim’s voice. Esserine thought to run for help, but she dared not move, afraid her movement would upset the balance. Paulie and Mickey stood still, the dish machine still working.
Expressionless, Jim took a step forward. Bill cocked the pot, preparing to throw the hot grease. Poker faced, Bill locked his eyes on Jim’s.
But God wasn’t finished with Bill just yet. At the height of the stare-down, Jim with the knife in hand, Bill with the heavy stock pot filled with scalding French-fry grease in hand, the grease about 350 degrees Fahrenheit, the automatic doors opened and Bebe stepped in with her dinner plate. She was about to put it by the dishwasher. She also held a pitcher of soda and she was starting to say “Hi all, I got you some…” But her last words trailed off because being as sharp as any of the knives, Bebe quickly assessed the situation and shrewdly turned and exited the kitchen.
Jim knew it was over now. He backed off slowly, dropped the knife to the floor, uttered incomprehensible chatter under his breath.
Bill watched the knife bounce up in the air off the rubber mats. When it landed, he set down the grease pot but stood by it waiting for Tommy. He did not relax until Tommy had taken Jim downstairs to change clothes, and then, with purpose, he went through the dining room to the bar, drank down two double bourbons which Bebe gladly poured for him.
Back in the kitchen, he picked up the knife, sheathed it, drank another beer then went to work on the second fryer, finishing it as quickly as he could. While he was working, Tommy came up and escorted Jim out of the kitchen through the doors to the side dining room. He was taking Jim to the office where he would keep him until a taxi arrived and he could send him off back to downtown Columbus.
“It was only a matter of time,” Tommy said later.
“I did my best,” said Bill. “I tried not to get him canned. God knows I know what it’s like to need a job.”
“Wasn’t anything you did or could have done. Don’t take it on yourself.”
Tommy drew himself a coffee before he left the kitchen. Standing over by the coffee urns, near to Esserine, he stood a moment and sipped his coffee. He took in the whole of the kitchen, all of which he could see from where he stood.
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While Bebe’s steak cooked, Bill lugged that pot of hot grease out the back door where he dumped it into the grease barrel. He did it quickly because the grills were hot and the steak would cook in no time. For that reason he had it placed toward the front.
When Arlene returned, she came around again and put the glass of bourbon and the beer on Bill’s cutting board atop the meat reach-in. She stood there a moment not knowing what else to do, but then Bill told her go back around to pick up Bebe’s dinner. As she did so, he plated the steak, got her a baked potato and some veggies which he smothered in butter that quickly melted. Then he slid the plate up under the warmer lights.
“Anything else you need?” Arlene asked.
Bill took a good look at her and said, “What else you giving?”
Arlene flushed red. She was as young as Bill and maybe a little naïve. She shifted her weight as she reached for the plate, but before she could say anything, Esserine started talking bible talk about the fornicators. “Meats for the belly…,” Esserine started. She went on and finished with, “Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body.”
Arlene flushed more red now and she wasn’t even fornicating. She bowed herself quickly, stepped away toward the automatic doors and on out of the kitchen.
“You’re cramping my style,” said Bill.
Esserine smiled a sly smile. “Don’t you have to finish that grease?” she asked.
Bill took a big sip of the bourbon and chased it down with beer. Then he went back to work, washed out the one fryer, placed the cube of grease inside and lit her up. Then he emptied the dirty water from the stock pot and shut down the second fryer. Carefully, he drained the grease from it.
That done, he finished the bourbon in the glass and brought the glass over to the dish machine. Then he finished his beer.
Lorraine brought him another beer a few moments later when she came in to say good night. She was supposed to be closing girl, but Arlene said she’d do it because she didn’t work nights much and she wanted to learn all there was about the shift. Tommy’d said he didn’t care if they switched.
Lorraine blew Bill a kiss from across the counter. If Marie had been there instead of Esserine, Lorraine would’ve come around the counter and kissed Bill good night. As it was, this had to do.
As soon as Lorraine had left the kitchen, Bill went back to work. He saw Jim moving out of the corner of his eye, but he’d gone down on his knees to clean up the bottom of the fryer where he’d spilled some grease. He was lining it with towels, pleasantly high from the bourbon and beer.
That’s when time stopped.
“You royal French Canadian cocksucker.”
That’s what Bill heard, clear as anything he’d ever heard before.
Hearing it, recognizing Jim’s voice, he stood up immediately and saw Jim by the knife sheath.
“Could have shared that whiskey,” Jim said. Then, “Punk ass, nigger-loving kid,” he said. He drew a knife from the knife sheath and knife in hand, he stepped on the line and moved toward Bill.
Bill reacted instinctively. Before he could think to do it, he lifted the big pot of grease and tilted it ready to throw. Staring Jim down, he said, “C’mon Motherfucker.” He waited, praying Jim would back off, praying he didn’t have to throw that grease.
Jim froze where he stood. “You wouldn’t,” he said.
“Try me,” said Bill.