Henry Lee followed Bill down the stairs and into the meat room.
“Man,” he said, “I thought you was gonna get yourself into a pickle.”
“I thought so too. Good thing she came in when she did.”
“What it is,” said Henry Lee.
They carted the meat up two trays each at a time making trip after trip until all the shelves in the van were filled. After the last trip, Drenovis closed and latched the van doors. He followed Bill and Henry Lee back into the kitchen.
Mary had fixed Bill another coffee. Since there were no orders, Bill stood on the side of the line by Bea’s station and drank it. Drenovis went out to see Tommy and came back into the kitchen to say goodbye and head out the back door.
No one said bye to him but he did take a moment to stop by Bill and Bea who happened to be standing on her station.
“Have your fun now. It’s not gonna last long,” he said to Bill.
“One of your Riviera girls says your pecker’s as ugly as your face,” Bill said.
Drenovis turned red. His face, pockmarked from chicken pox, flared. He glared at Bill and maybe he would have started toward him but Bea stepped between them.
“Don’t you got nothing to do?” she asked Bill. “And don’t you got to get back?” she asked Drenovis.
Drenovis thought better of doing anything more. Lunch was about to start and he did have to get back. He didn’t want the East to be without a cook. That would be disastrous. So he downplayed what Bill said and repeated what he’d said. “Have your fun now. It won’t last long.”
“Why don’t you just take your fat ass to the van?” Henry Lee said. He had come onto the line and was by the fryers greasing up a towel to coat the grills to cook off some hamburgers and bleus.
Drenovis didn’t respond to Henry Lee. He had calculated the odds. If Bill and Henry Lee walked off, well, that would be the end of the lunch and dinner and no way Mr. Bowman was gonna tolerate that. In the end, Drenovis would lose his job. Henry Lee and Bill would not. They’d get chewed out and be high up on the shit list, but Robert would save them. So Drenovis tucked his tail between his legs and slinked out, walking across the front of the kitchen so as not to venture onto the line.
“Pussy,” Henry Lee called at him as he walked out the door.
Drenovis didn’t say anything.
“Just couldn’t let it go, could you,” said Bea.
“Give me a kiss,” said Bill. He took Bea in his arms and kissed her then took a solid feel of one of her hefty breasts.
“Get out of here, boy.”
Bill moved his hand inside her kitchen dress so he could feel bare skin.
“Boy, what the hell is wrong with you?”
“Like I told Mary, I feel ornery.”
“Ornery ain’t gonna help you when he fires you. You don’t think he can fire you?”
Bill’s hand made it inside Bea’s bra and played with her momentarily before she slapped him on the arm.
“Maybe I don’t care,” he said.
“Well maybe we do,” Mary said coming over to where Bill and Bea stood. “I know he pisses you off. But you gotta give him his respect.”
“Respect this,” Henry Lee said. He grabbed his crotch in the way men do when they’re making that point. “I’m proud of the boy. He done good. Don’t you take no shit from that fat-ass cracker. Not now, not ever. You can work anywhere now.”
“Don’t you listen to him,” said Mary. “You need this job.”
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Bill started trimming the round. Really, he was listening to Drenovis as he told Bea it was just a matter of time, that he simply didn’t like Lexi and wasn’t going to keep her.
For her part, Bea didn’t say anything one way or another. She steered the conversation toward the day, asking Drenovis if he was going straight back with the meat run. Bill heard him say he wanted to be back so he could expedite, which meant, more than likely he was getting the meat and going.
Done talking to Bea, he came over by Bill. Henry Lee was just coming into the kitchen. He watched Drenovis step onto the line and move next to where Bill was so he could get a good look at what Bill was doing.
“Don’t you got to pick up meat?” said Henry Lee.
“That’s what I’m here for. But I got a minute.” To Bill, he said, “I’m going to fire you too.” He said this low, on the down-low, but Henry Lee heard it and stepped in closer.
Bill didn’t say anything. He didn’t flinch or shuffle. He simply kept stroking downward with the carving knife working all around the edge of the round trimming pieces of fat so they slid off and onto the tray.
“You two can go work together someplace else,” Drenovis said.
Mary heard this and Bea did too. They both came toward the line from where they were.
Bill stepped away from the round. He took the side towel he wore from his apron string, wiped the blade of the slicer and carefully set the knife down. Then he took the slices of fat he had gotten so far, picked them up one by one and tossed them into the garbage closest to him but away from Drenovis. His instinct was to splash fat, grease actually, on Drenovis’ suit, but he made sure not to do this or anything that could be construed as an action against Drenovis. When all the fat had been disposed of, he turned to him and asked if he was ready for the meat to be put into the van. He wiped his hands on his side towel and slid it back into his apron string.
The tension in the kitchen was so thick Bill could have been cutting it. Bill’s words and action caused a collective sigh of relief from Mary and Bea. Henry Lee would have preferred Bill to say something, but he knew this was the best course of action.
Bill would have eased them all out of the situation if Lexi hadn’t walked into the kitchen just then. They all heard the automatic doors, and maybe they all thought it was going to be Tommy. But it was Lexi, of all people, bouncy and bubbly and ever-herself happy.
“That’s the bitch,” Drenovis said loud enough for everyone to hear. He smiled meanly.
Bill thought of Ronnie, that guy in the workhouse who’d asked him the first night he was there where his wife was, inferring that she was cheating on him while he was locked up.
They all thought Bill was going to lose it. Bill thought he was going to lose it. But he’d lost it once and it had landed him in the workhouse. Or, he’d done the right thing, which was more accurate an accounting, but he’d still ended up in the work house.
Bill stepped off the line moving back and away from Drenovis. He walked around to Lexi, took her in his arms and kissed her. He held her tight and kissed her hard, just for a moment. Then he gently pushed her back toward the automatic door and told her to leave the kitchen. He approached Drenovis from the other side of the serving counter.
“Ready for that meat?” he asked. Then, he said, “You ain’t never getting that.” He smiled at Drenovis. “Fire me now,” he said. “Before the lunch.”
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Before his last trip up, Bill popped a black beauty and took a swig of bourbon. He knew the speed would straighten him up and so he wasn’t worried about being too messed up to do the lunch. In fact, young, stupid and very naïve despite the things that had happened to him in his life, Bill assumed everything would just go on as it did and would be okay.
On that last trip he carried the two prime ribs set on one meat tray that Henry Lee had arranged for him. Henry Lee told him to be careful and Bill paid it no mind. He simply hoisted the tray on his shoulder and went about his business.
Mary had fixed him a double espresso. When he set down the tray, she handed it to him.
“Any bourbon in it?” he asked.
“No. And you better keep up on the line.”
“Give me a kiss and I will.”
“I ain’t kissing nothing. And you got blood on your shirt.”
“Must have dripped from the tray.” Bill sipped the espresso and wiped his shirt at the same time.
“Take a break,” said Mary. “Sit down a minute.”
“Nah. I’ll help you set up the ribs and then I’m gonna trim the round.”
“Well, finish your coffee then I’ll get you another.”
“I know you’re good. I need you straight.”
Bill and Mary set the ribs into a roasting pan, dressed them, then, each one holding a handle, they carried the roasting pan to the oven and slid it inside. That done, Mary went to fix Bill another double espresso. Bill went over onto the line and checked everything out, top to bottom, double-checking and triple-checking that everything was in order and everything needed was in place.
He had done everything Mary needed him to do and everything he needed to do for the line. The potatoes were out and set in place. All the meat and frozen stuff was in place, a lot of it too, much more than usual since whatever was left over from the lunch would be used for the dinner. He was making sure no one had to make a run downstairs during the service, especially since if anything were needed he would be the one to do the running.
Satisfied, he took a boning knife, a carving knife, a chef’s knife and a sharpening steel from the knife sheath and set them where he always kept them on the carving shelf of the steam table. The round was set on a flat platform there which was like a tray set upside down and covered with foil.
Bill was standing before the round, honing the blade of the carving knife straight. He had the steel in his right hand, the knife in his left. It had taken him awhile to learn how to do what he was doing, but now, practiced and good at it, he honed the blade swiftly, rhythmically running it against the steel, first one side then the other, over and over.
That’s when Drenovis walked into the kitchen.
Waitresses had been coming in and out regularly. The dish machine was running, the dishwashers in place. Like a sleeping beast, the kitchen, over the past hour or so, was waking up, stirring, stretching and moving into its daily routine. More and more was going on, faster and faster, and the service was still about a half hour away.
He and Drenovis eyeballed each other immediately. Bill set down the one knife and picked up the other. He began honing it on the steel as Drenovis went over by Bea’s station and drew himself a coffee.
Drenovis started first. Loud enough for Bill to hear, purposefully, he told Bea he was firing Lexi.
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“What took you so long,” Henry Lee asked.
“Had to do something.”
“She in trouble again?”
“Hardly. She was doing her nails.”
“I had to help her.”
“What’d you do? Blow on ‘em?”
“Just saying what? What you saying, boy?”
“Nothing,” Bill said. He cracked the seal on the bottle and twisted the cap open. He took a long, long drink, one that he knew was gonna change his head a bit then handed the bottle to Henry Lee. Henry Lee took a long, long drink too.
“We need to get a bottle at lunch and replace this one.”
“I’ll get Lexi to go.”
“Tell her buy two and we’ll have a extra.”
“I got a good mind to just tell Drenovis we took his goddamn bottle and tough titties.”
“That’s a good way to start some trouble.”
“Sometimes I just get fed up. We’re working double and triple hard this week and the least they could do is buy us the bourbon.”
“I see you’re in a mood.”
“I guess I am.”
“What Lexi do to you?”
“She didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe that’s the problem.”
“Aw, shut up,” Bill said.
But that was the problem. He was horny. Soon as he’d finished doing Lexi he’d kissed her bye, went around the bar to get the bottle and come back to the meat room. He was realizing he wanted some and he was irritable because the little man inside his pants wanted some too and he wasn’t getting any.
“Let’s smoke a joint before you start carrying up the meat,” Henry Lee said.
As he always did, Bill carried up two meat trays at a time. He carried them the same way the waitresses carried their trays, up on his shoulder, balanced. He’d had to learn how to do this, but it was easy once he knew how.
He put the meat away in the reach-in opposite the Garland and went around back to see what Mary was doing. She was bent over checking the round which was just about ready to come out. Not even thinking about it, Bill grabbed her at the hips and pushed himself against her, grinding on her. Lexi had left him hard. He drilled that hardness against Mary’s behind.
Not even turning to face him or move from him Mary said, “Boy, I’m gonna smack the shit out of you, you don’t stop that.”
Bill paid her no mind and pushed harder until Mary forced her way up and away from him. She used one foot to kick the oven door shut and stood facing him, looking directly into his eyes.
“Goddamn you. Boy, you messed up?”
“No. A little drunk, a lot high and extremely horny. I’m about to get my ass in some trouble too, cause I’m feeling ornery.”
“Well you better check out your mind. Drenovis coming over soon. He’s doing the meat pick up instead of Alvin. We’re gonna be crazy busy all day and all day tomorrow. Even Sunday looking good.”
“Fuck it,” said Bill.
Mary was taken aback. This was so unlike Bill she was shocked. She took a long look at him, checked him out. Then she thought a moment and finally said, “Potatoes gotta come out and I know you got more meat to bring up. I could use all the help you could give me back here before the lunch starts.
Bill focused. “Yeah okay.”
“First thing when you come back up is help me get this round out.”
“Yeah all right.”
“Then we cooking off two prime ribs. Tell Henry Lee get them ready.”
“Yeah, all right,” said Bill.
“And don’t you start nothing with Drenovis,” said Mary. You keep your thoughts to yourself and your damn mouth shut.”
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Henry Lee was pissed when they ran out of bourbon. He’d known they needed a bottle for the day but he didn’t have money to buy it on the way to work. So they ran out. It wasn’t gonna be enough to just smoke a joint. He needed the whiskey.
He used his sharpening steel to break the empty bottle in the trash can, whacking it good several times so it smashed into pieces. That done he told Bill to go steal a bottle from the party room bar.
“You go,” said Bill.
“You want the bourbon, not me.”
“C’mon man, go get it for me.”
Bill was happy he went because when he walked into the party room Lexi was sitting there doing her nails. Her skirt was riding high up her legs and she was flashing plenty of thigh.
“I’ll be damned,” said Bill.
“They’re covering for me, so it’s okay.”
“Who’s covering for you?”
“Norma, Lorraine and Victoria.”
“Who else is working?”
“That new one, Arlene. The redhead.”
Bill walked close up to Lexi. She was defenseless since her nails were wet and he knew she didn’t want to mess them up. Seizing the moment, he reached to her legs and pushed them so she let them open. Then he leaned in and kissed her. While he did he ran his hand up there.
“Sure, take advantage of a helpless girl,” said Lexi.
Bill did not hold back. He let himself take advantage of her. She wasn’t upset at all. She spread wide for him and didn’t hesitate in the slightest when his hand found his way in her underpants. She kissed him hard and only complained once between kisses saying that she’d have to do her lipstick all over again.
“In that case,” Bill said, “I won’t hold back.”
He smothered her lips and licked all around them, pressed hard into her face and deep-kissed her. She kissed back as his fingers happily worked on her in ways he already knew she liked.
“We have to have a date,” Lexi said. She was no longer doing her nails. She was no longer doing anything but allowing him to do what he did and encouraging him both with her clear expressions of pleasure and her tongue’s dancing with his.
“Yeah, we do. And you can invite one of your friends.”
“Oh, you bet I will. You bet I already know exactly who too.”
Then it turned serious. Lexi was captivated, Bill working her over. She closed her eyes and leaned as far back in the bar seat as she could.
“Wait,” she said abruptly. “Stop.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I want more.”
“No. We can. Here.” Lexi got up from the bar seat. “Help me onto the bar.”
Bill lifted her, sat her on the bar where she, small and agile as she was, settled her legs for him so he could kiss all the way up her thighs without any difficulty.
“You know what to do, baby. You know what I like.”
Bill leaned in. He didn’t have to bend much due to the height of the bar. She carefully placed her hands on his back so as not to disturb any nail polish that could still be wet. She gently stroked his neck as he moved to where she wanted him and did what he knew she wanted him to do.
In just a brief moment she was moaning. Just a brief moment after the moaning began she was finished.
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Bill popped a black beauty on his way back to the meat room. Henry Lee had the grinder set up and was already feeding the meat scraps in. Bill took himself some bourbon and went about getting the wax paper squares they set the burgers in and the bleu cheese wheel they would use for the bleus. By the time he had everything in place, including the trays to place the burgers and bleus on, Henry Lee had almost finished the grinding.
“Alvin called. They gonna need meat early. So he’s on his way.”
“We have enough for here,” said Bill.
“Yeah, we good. They just gonna have to make two trips today.”
“Freda must be busy over there.”
“Yeah. She called too. She said she was gonna try and come by for the second trip. She said she wanted to see Mary about some shit for next week.”
“State’s out of town next week. We’ll have time to catch up.”
“I don’t care. Long as I’m getting paid, I’ll work long as I have to.”
Done grinding the meat, Henry Lee broke down the machine and brought the parts over to the sink. Bill helped him and when they’d cleaned their space, they started making the burgers. Henry Lee rolled the meat into balls, dropped the balls on the scale, set them on the wax paper squares Bill laid out. Bill covered them with another square and pressed them down into hamburgers. Working this way, they knocked off a cool hundred in a short period of time. They were familiar with the routine and practiced at it.
Then came the bleus. Bill hated these. The routine was similar except they were formed into ovals then a thumb hole was gouged in them and filled with bleu cheese which Bill picked off the wheel with his fingers. Bill hated the cheese. He hated its feel and its smell. He hated everything about them. Regardless, he made them and he made them pretty.
The bleus would only be one of the things Bill would hate throughout his career. He would come to hate curry, not because he didn’t like it, but because he had to make fifteen gallons of it a week at one of the hotels in which he worked. He could never get the smell out of his nose. He hated liver, hated having to cook it, hated its smell, hated having to taste it. And he hated sweetbreads. He had to cook them, hated tasting them as well.
But you did what you had to do to make your paycheck. You took the good with the bad and the easiest way to accept certain things was to get high and forget about them as much as you could.
There was no time to fool around this day. They finished the burgers, bleus and chopped steaks as quickly as they could and soon as they were done, Henry Lee went back to cutting meat while Bill carted the meat trays for the lunch service upstairs. On his first trip, he checked in with Mary who was busy with the chickens for Bea. The chickens were cooked, boiled, and Mary was scooping them out of the stock pot onto a kitchen tray. Bill made a quick mental note of where she was at then went back down to finish carrying up the meat.
Bill made sure he had plenty of frozen items, the French fries, onion rings, fried shrimp and pickerel, more than plenty actually, actually as much as he could physically fit into the reach-ins. He did this because he figured whatever they didn’t use at lunch was less that he had to bring up for dinner.
One thing after the next after the next, and once he was sure Mary was pretty much set, he went back down to cut more meat.
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Bill and Mary never did get it on. One thing led to the next to the next to the next and before either of them knew it, step-by-step, Henry Lee was in and downstairs cutting meat, they had moved through everything that had to be done for the prep cooking and Bill had gone down to join Henry Lee to help him in the meat room.
He and Henry Lee had a long discussion about Marie. They had such discussions several times already, Henry Lee expressing his hope that Bill would get with her because she had become a major pain in the ass. He was happy when he learned that Bill had been with her.
Bill told him about the night before. He also told him about getting home and finding his fiancé sleeping with Tim. He had to explain exactly what sleeping with Tim meant. He had to emphasize how innocent it was, really, and how gay Tim was. Still and all Henry Lee thought it rather strange, and Bill couldn’t disagree with him because on some level it really was rather strange.
“I’d get pissed if some other dude was in my bed,” Henry Lee said. “Gay, straight, or non-sexed at all, man.”
“Yeah, well I ain’t too happy about it.”
“People in glass houses, man.”
“Yeah, I can see where you might not want to rock the boat.”
Tommy stopped in the meat room. He didn’t check out the work they were doing, but he did ask about the inventory. Henry Lee told him he was making enough of everything to get through record nights at both stores and he was making sure he had plenty of meat cut today so that everyone had enough to make it till late afternoon tomorrow.
“You going to stay down here with him?” Tommy asked Bill.
“I’m working through. I’ll be up with Mary when I know she needs me up there and I’ll be cutting meat here when I’m not up there.”
Tommy turned and was about to leave the meat room when he stopped and turned back. “Don’t you boys be getting drunk,” he said. “And you,” he said to Bill, “stay away from that funny stuff.”
Bill and Henry Lee took it. Henry Lee was about to curse Tommy, but he held himself in check. Bill wanted to give him the finger, but he didn’t. They both knew Tommy was right. Not only was he right, but he was under great pressure too. Drenovis went at him every chance he could, especially since this store was physically bigger than the other one and did less gross sales. Still, on days like today promised to be, this store did much more business.
About ten-thirty, when they’d finished cutting the steaks they were going to cut for the moment and were about to start grinding meat for the hamburgers, Bill went up to check in with Mary. He had already carted a case of chickens up and helped Mary set them to boiling in a big stock pot. This meant they would have chicken soup tomorrow and chicken pot pies next week. They’d also have a baked chicken special with Supreme sauce sometime next week too.
Bill and Mary were all about business. He set the washed potatoes into the convection oven to bake and then quickly set up the steam table. He filled it with water, put in all the inserts then fired it up by turning on the steam valves. Then he carted over everything that was ready to come over at the time.
Mary saw that he had not changed his kitchen shirt and reminded him to do it before he came up for the lunch service. She also asked him to bring up two prime ribs to be cooked off. Bill told her he would change his shirt right after they finished the hamburgers.