In the morning Mary was shy-eyed. She flushed red over her chocolate when she and Bill were face to face downstairs changing into their uniforms. Bea had not come down yet. She made a pot of coffee and sat on her stool. She smoked a cigarette and read the racing pages just like she always did but usually after she’d changed clothes.
Bill was tired. Just plain feeling lazy. He was looking forward to some time off, even if only a couple of days. This was his first time off since he’d started at Steakhouse East. He wasn’t complaining. He was happy to have a job, a trade, money in the bank now, even a good car. He worked and worked and worked. The social life there, being in demand, was something he had never experienced before, and like the proverbial kid in the candy shop, he was eating all the candy.
Mary was different. He sensed her mood change, saw her blush, saw her continually looking away from him, even down at her feet. Finally, when he had put on the checkered pants and the white kitchen shirt, even though he hadn’t buttoned the shirt yet, he took Mary’s hand and stopped her where she was at. She had her dress on, but open, and she was sitting on the folding chair they kept nearby putting on and tying her work shoes.
“The turkeys are in the meat room,” he said. “And what’s up with you?”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with me.”
“Didn’t ask that. I asked what’s up with you?”
Bill bent over her and kissed her. As he did so, he reached inside the open dress and fondled her bosom. He kissed her again, stood up straight and looked down at her.
“You ain’t right,” he said. “So whatever it is, let’s get it out in the open.”
Mary finished tying her shoes then stood up and began buttoning Bill’s shirt. “I’m a little embarrassed about last night,” she said shyly, still not looking him in the eyes. When she finished his shirt, she started on her dress, but Bill stopped her and picked up where she left off.
“No need to be. It was cute, kind of.”
“I never did anything like that before.”
“What you mean so what?”
“You have fun? Did you finish playing with yourself?”
“Yes and yes. But it just made me horny.”
“Come on, we’ll get the work started and then we’ll come back down and make some sweet love, some soft, velvet love. We’ll scrub away that horny feeling.”
“Why you got to be so pretty?” Mary asked.
Bill was shocked and looked at Mary. No one had ever said he was pretty before. No one had ever said he was handsome. Even after he’d grown his hair long, lost more than sixty pounds and gotten really skinny, he was still not desirable, not wanted, so to speak. But then he was a broiler cook, in a power position, and all of a sudden…
Mary could see he was taken aback and was surprised. “What? You never been told you were pretty?”
“Only by the prison guards who wanted to set me up for trouble.”
“You poor baby. I think you’re beautiful.”
Bill could have cried, he was so touched. He was shocked and touched and even embarrassed. His emotional state did not know how to accept such a compliment and he wanted to bolt. But Mary began to stroke his cheek. Her hand ran over his cheek and her fingers went to his lips. She ran her pointer around his lips until finally he kissed it, then sucked it gently.
“Don’t do that,” she said.
“Why not?” Bill asked.
“It makes me hot.”
Having discovered a means to move away from a difficult spot, Bill sucked more to make Mary the focus. She allowed him to suck her finger and she finally closed her eyes and let herself enjoy it.
“You’re gonna pay for that,” she said when they were ready to start upstairs.
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Marie went downstairs first. She hurried into the ladies room and did her face again, this time in a big mirror where she could see clearly. She was excited in many different ways and she was happy too.
Bill peeked out the dining room door and had the waitress bring him another beer. He walked down the stairs slowly and when he turned into the hall Marie was waiting for him.
“Let’s smoke a joint first,” she said.
Bill stopped at his locker and got a joint. They didn’t go into the deep freeze. Odds were very good Tommy would not come downstairs until the morning, so they locked themselves in the ladies room where they sat leisurely and smoked.
“You really wanna do this?” Bill asked.
Marie looked at Bill. “Why? You don’t?”
“I don’t want any hassles.”
“Won’t be no hassles.”
They were sitting on the counter. Bill was sitting next to her, almost on the sink. He reached a hand to her skinny thigh and stroked it over her dress.
“Let’s just get changed and go home,” he suggested.
“Let’s not and say we did.”
“Why? Why me?”
“I been waiting patiently. I know Henry Lee told you he don’t mind. I want it, that’s why. I want to be with a white man before I die. You might be my only chance. I think I told you this once already, so let’s get this done.” She reached over to feel him. “I can see you want it. So what’s the problem?”
Bill slipped himself off the counter and stood before her. “No problem,” he said, looking deep into her eyes. He leaned in and pulled her toward him as she sat on the counter. He kissed her, a long, hard, deep kiss, his tongue probing her lips and inside her mouth until it found her tongue and their tongues began to dance. “Ain’t nothing different but the outside color,” Bill whispered as they kissed.
“Make me cry with pleasure, white boy,” Marie said.
Bill smoked a cigarette afterward, while they changed into their civvies. It was getting late. He was tired and he wanted to go home. He knew he would find his fiancé asleep. He knew she had classes in the morning and that when he got home from work, whatever time that was, they would head off to Cleveland to spend the holiday at her parents’ house. That meant they would be driving at night and would get there in the middle of night, maybe between three and four in the morning. The dog would bark. They’d have to find their ways to separate bedrooms since they weren’t married yet. It would be a big hassle. He decided, standing there, smoking a cigarette with Marie, that he would petition his fiancé to leave the following morning instead of in the night.
“So?” he asked Marie.
“So? Any different?”
“You want the truth?”
“You smell different from anyone I’ve ever had. Your habits are different. I like the way you kiss, the way you lick. I like the way you feel.”
“It’s just the idea of different.”
“Well I’ll certainly take a second helping.”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you will.”
“How was I?”
Bill was tying his shoes now. He was dressed except he hadn’t buttoned his shirt yet. Marie was stepping into her shoes, sneakers, and as she bent over to tie them, Bill took a nice feel of her. But he didn’t answer. He just finished tying his shoes.
“Tell me,” Marie said.
“You tried too hard.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means if we ever do this again, relax next time.”
“I was relaxed.”
“You were too busy in your head. Next time I’ll give you some Quaaludes.”
“So I get a next time?”
“Your call, baby.”
“You wanna see my call?” Marie pulled Bill so he was facing her and slid softly to her knees.
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Bill’s hands were “shmootzie” from the ground meat. Marie handed him the beer bottle and took it back after he drank. She put it on the counter then went over to the mirror and checked her makeup. As she did so, Bill walked up behind her and pressed himself against her. She pushed back at him and rocked a bit. They stood this way a long moment until they heard footsteps on the stairs. Bill knew immediately it was Paul, the ADHD kid, who always flew down the stairs. Bill also knew he’d be followed by the rest of the dishwashers, so he separated from Marie and went back to his work.
When he’d sorted out and put all the meat from the tray into the pan, he washed his hands. That done, he went to the deep freeze. He grabbed a case of turkeys and lugged it out by dragging it along the floor. He opened the case and inside were four big, frozen birds. He went back to the deep freeze and grabbed one more turkey from a case he opened. He carried it out and set it on the table.
Marie was sitting now where Mary always sat, up on the stainless steel counter. She had, unlike Mary, put her feet up on the curled lip of the counter and spread her legs wide, something she could do because she was young and skinny like a speed-freak.
“Come kiss me,” she said. She held the bourbon bottle as an incentive.
“We need to go back upstairs.”
“Take a drink and kiss me first.”
Bill walked over to her. As he did so, she slid her dress up her thighs.
First thing, Bill took a drink. Then he put his freezing hand on her thigh causing her to jump a bit. Then he kissed where he’d touched and licked her gently. He kissed and licked upward until he felt he’d teased her enough, then he gave her one kiss right on target.
“Now I have to carry that meat upstairs and see what’s going on.”
He helped Marie off the counter, put the bottle back in its drawer and covered it with kitchen towels. Walking playfully behind Marie, he reached up her dress and kept his hand there kneading her buttocks as they walked.
Just as they started on the stairs, Marie on the third stair, Bill still at the bottom, Marie said, “What if I told you to kiss my ass?” She bent forward for him.
Bill pulled on her skirt and stopped her like he was pulling on a horse’s reins. “Like this?” He lifted the dress and planted a big kiss on each of her butt cheeks. Then he took a long and carefully placed feel of her, ending it with a soft pinch-like caress.
“That’s a good start.”
Bill laughed, slapped her once on her bare skin and followed her up the stairs. That’s when he remembered he had left the pan of meat down in the meat room.
“Forgot the meat, huh stupid?” Marie chided him then laughed. “I knew it,” she said. “I didn’t say nothing cause I liked what you were doing.”
“I gotta go back down.”
“I’m gonna close my station up.”
When Bill came up, this time with the meat, Marie was sitting on her stool. She was all finished. Bill took the pan of meat into Mary’s walk-in. Then he went down the back stoves. He made sure everything was off and all the ovens were empty. That done, he walked around to the line.
The van driver had arrived and was picking up the dish washers. Bill watched them head out the back door. As that was happening, the closing waitress came in and told him that Tommy said he could close it up. Happily, Bill went down the line shutting off everything. He went back down the line toward the door to downstairs, double-checked that everything was off. The last thing he did was reach up under the ceiling hood and switch off the exhaust fans.
“Listen to that,” he said to Marie. What Bill heard was the sound of quiet.
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Bill busied himself with work, cooking the waitresses’ food, cooking hamburgers for the dish washers, breaking down the steam table as he did so. He went through his closing-cleaning routine quickly and energetically all the while thinking he should not have acted out on the sudden impulse. So he launched into his internal dialogue, the conflicting feelings, finally coming to an existential decision, as he generally did in situations like this, to a what-the-hell moment where he reasoned that she wanted it, Henry Lee wanted it, Mary had started it, teasing him as she did, and in the long run it didn’t mean squat in the scope of things.
The decision made, he started wondering what she was thinking, what she would want for him to do to her. He was thinking what he wanted her to do for him. Thinking these thoughts took his mind off his work and being unfocused, flipping a hamburger he burned his arm.
“Goddamn it,” he said aloud. The burger was for Bebe, medium rare. He went to the freezer and got an order of fries which he set into a fryer basket. He had no setups ready and had to cut a tomato and a pickle. He stepped over by Marie, took a nice piece of iceberg, a tomato and a pickle from her walk-in.
“You could have asked,” she said. “You could ask for just about anything.”
Bill nicked his finger cutting the tomato. This drew another “goddamn” and a “shit” too. Angry at himself, he dropped the fries too hard and splashed oil on his checkered work pants. Only by luck did he not burn himself.
He burned the first bun, but finally managed to get the plate ready and up under the warmer lights. He tapped the bell. A moment later, Lexi, who had eaten a steak, came in in her street clothes.
“I’m out of here,” she said. “See you tomorrow, sweetie.” She blew him a kiss as she picked up the burger plate. A moment later, one of the new waitresses came in with a beer for Bill. She told Bill the bar was full and Tommy asked that he hang around while they see if any late orders came in. Bill said he was going downstairs in a few, to get him if she needed him.
He finished up everything he could upstairs. He was conscious of threes as he worked. He had nicked himself, burned himself and wondered what the three would be. Jim was hanging around the knives again, eyeballing him and the beer. Marie was happening–maybe that was it.
The last thing he did was put away the steam table leftovers. He had already put the foods into clean containers and covered them with film, leaving a corner open on each. Since they were still warm, he made the open parts smaller and stored them that way.
“I’m going downstairs,” he told Marie. “I’ve got some things to do for tomorrow.”
Marie didn’t say anything. She watched him go out of the kitchen then went to her carry purse where she took her lipstick and powder. Looking in the glass of the reach-in box, she fixed her face the way she wanted it. Then she stepped around behind the counter of her station and when she was sure no one was looking, she quickly stepped out of her underwear. She tucked her panties into her dress pocket and quietly unbuttoned the top two buttons of the dress. Ready, she stepped through the line on her way downstairs. She stopped to pick up the beer Bill had left there, took a sip, then carried the bottle with her.
She found Bill in the meat room. She knew he would be there. He was busy fixing the meat for the meat loaf, taking the chopped beef from one tray and putting it into a pan which he would carry upstairs and store in the walk-in there for Mary for the morning. The first thing Marie did was take a sip of bourbon.
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Before Jimmy went home and when everything was quiet, Murph went out to smoke a joint. Marie saw him go and followed close behind. Jimmy was more than able to handle anything that had to go from her station.
It was extremely brisk outside and Bill had sweated through his shirt during the rush. He wasn’t totally dry and got very cold very fast.
“Too cold to stay out long. I’m taking a few hits and going in.”
He took several deep tokes then passed the joint to Marie. She did the same and passed it back. He repeated what he’d just done and while he did this Marie ran her hands all over his front.
“You’re still wet,” she said. She reached in his pants and felt that his underwear was wet too. “Give me that smoke and you go inside.”
Bill smoked as much as he could as fast as he could and left her there. Inside, he stopped at the doorway and told Jimmy he’d be right back. He ran down the stairs and into the meat room, took himself a long swig of bourbon, then a second one, then stopped to pee before he went back upstairs. As soon as he got back on the line, Jimmy said good night. Marie, high now, walked over to him and asked if he brought any bourbon up for her. He told her she knew where it was.
Waitresses started coming in for their dinners. As Bill started filling their orders, he also started the clean-up. As luck would have it, it was a strain-the-grease night. All he could think about was that tomorrow, when he would want to get out as fast as he could, he’d have to be changing it.
When Lexi came in to order her dinner, Bill asked her to bring him a beer. A moment later, when she came back in with it she told him he had a phone call.
The side dining room still had a few customers. They had already been served and were just enjoying a leisurely time. He took the call at the waitress station closest to the kitchen door, where a phone was located. It was Mary.
“You told me to call if I remembered I needed something.”
“Me. I’m up and I remembered what I needed.”
“Wanna know what I’m wearing? What I’m doing?”
“That what you called me for?”
“I bought this fancy new underwear and some nice shoes.”
“You feeling okay?”
“I been drinking and smoking and I’m feeling real good.”
“Mazel tov,” Bill said.
“Say something sweet for me.”
Bill leaned in over the waitress station and held the phone real close. He whispered several things into the phone, then he explained that customers were still in the dining room. Mary laughed. Then she started explaining, in complete detail, what she was doing. He couldn’t help but get hot and he was still hot when they hung up and he went back into the kitchen.
First thing, he took up the beer Lexi had left on the counter for him. As he sipped it, he walked over by Marie.
“You take some bourbon?”
“A little. I don’t want to get messed up so I can’t drive.”
“Want some beer?”
Marie took the bottle from him and sipped from it. While she did so, as had become her way, she let her hand drift down to touch him. Her counter prevented anyone from seeing what she was doing. She was surprised by what she felt.
“What’s up with you?” she asked.
“I was thinking about you.”
“Well later, when we go down to change.”
“Well maybe I can’t wait that long.”
“Well maybe that’s the way it is.”
“Well maybe that’s okay then. Maybe you better promise to make it nice.”
“Maybe you ought to order what you want.”
Marie sipped from the beer again then handed Bill the bottle. “Maybe I will, baby,” she said.
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Orders started coming in early. People were out and about all around town. The bar filled up quickly as Bill saw when he peeked out the door to the dining room. Not only were all the bar seats taken, but people were standing around too.
Businesses were having their Christmas parties. Those businesses that could afford it and wanted to have a good time out found their way over to Steakhouse East or West. Over on the west side, Robert and Alvin were doing the same things as Bill and Jimmy were doing in the east.
“Could sure use a beer,” Jim said to Bill while he was peeking out the door.
Bill did not respond at all. He waited until one of the waitresses came in and told her to bring a pitcher of soda for the dishwashers and a beer for him. He felt like smoking another joint, but he wouldn’t have time for that until the dinner rush was over.
By seven the board was full and he and Jimmy were dancing together. Jimmy slid over to read the board when he needed to, and they were doing just fine, keeping up with the flow.
Tommy came in a little after seven and set up the towels for expediting. When he was ready, after he’d drawn himself a coffee and was standing in place, Bill took all the orders from his board and handed them to him in the order in which they’d come.
“I got a Super and a Top with two pickerel that gotta go, and there’s a King and Queen up next.”
“Give me the Top and the Super,” Tommy said. “The Top gets a baked and veggie and the Super gets a rice. The two pickerel get rice and veggies.”
As they were putting up this order Lorraine and Victoria came in with orders. They were followed by one of the new waitresses. They each turned in their orders then went about getting salads and whatever else they needed from the pantry. Bill glanced over and saw that Marie was busy putting up salads and working ahead to keep chef’s salads and shrimp salads in place. The side salads were easy. She scooped the lettuce. The waitresses ladled on the dressing.
Tommy burst out in song. He called orders, picked up orders, asked what could be picked up. Lexi carried out one order, came in for the next. Bill was all business, Jimmy too. Tommy sang. They danced.
The board stayed full through the evening. The only thing that changed was at eight Tommy was replaced by Lillian. She came into the kitchen, took herself a coffee, said good evening to everyone and then took over where Tommy was. Tommy told her what he was picking up. Lillian asked what was next.
The dish machine ran endlessly. In the midst of their dance, Mickey came on the line with plates for the plate warmers. Bill and Jimmy both made steps around him, allowing him to load the plates without interfering in their work. The noise from the rattling dishes and silverware played in the background along with the droning exhaust fans. The fryers bubbled with each basket drop. Bill sweated. Lillian sang out, “ordering, ordering.” Grandma fried chicken.
Then it was over. About ten, for the first time since seven, the board was no longer full. There was a lull in the ordering and orders began trickling in again. Lexi brought soda for Jimmy and the dishwashers, a beer for Bill. Marie had a moment to run downstairs and pee. When she came back, Jimmy ran down and then Bill went when Jimmy was back.
“I want a steak for dinner,” Marie said to Bill when she had a moment to come over to where he was. Lillian was cleaning up now and Jimmy was straightening up, getting ready to go home. “And I’m having you for dessert,” she said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Bill said. “After Lillian goes, I’ll fix you what you want.”
“Sugar and spice and everything nice,” Marie said.
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Lorraine brought in the first order while Tommy was still in the kitchen. She handed the dupe to Bill. He slid it between the clips so it hung on the board then slid it all the way to the right so it was in the first place. He didn’t call out anything. Jimmy walked over to read it, saw it was for three steaks. Two had fries, so he walked over and put two orders of fries in one fryer basket. He didn’t drop the basket until he knew Bill was about ready with the steaks. Tommy checked out the dishwashers, finished his coffee, left the mug at the dish machine and went back out into the dining room.
When they came up from downstairs, Mary and Bea came back into the kitchen. Mary had put on lipstick, a pinkish color. She had put on blush too. She wore a dress and she hadn’t buttoned her coat yet. She went right to the back where Grandma was and did what she always did just before she went home, which was check out everything back there.
Bea walked through the line to Marie, made sure Marie had everything she needed. She did a last-minute look through the station then headed back toward where Bill was now plating the three steaks which were the first dinner order.
“You have a good night baby,” she said. “Tell Mary I’m out warming up my car.”
Bill nodded and said good night as he worked. He put the baked potato on the one steak it went with and when all three plates were up under the warmer lights, he tapped the bell once.
After the bell tap, Lexi came in quickly. “I’m running,” she said.
Bill acknowledged what she said and noticed as she walked out the door to the dining room that she still wore the dark hose but had put on bobby socks and working shoes.
Mary stopped by the broiler on her way out and took Bill into the hall with her. “Couple of things I need for tomorrow. Tomorrow’s your last day, right?”
“Till the twenty-seventh.”
“I need meat for meat loaf for tomorrow’s lunch. See what you got left over tonight and break down any old hamburgers for it. We’ll need to make brown gravy, and I want to start defrosting the turkeys for Christmas day so take out five of them tonight.”
“What else you need? I’m gonna work straight through tomorrow so I’ll help get you as much ahead as we can. I don’t think Alvin’s gonna be too helpful, and Mr. Jim only works limited hours.”
“I’ll let you know in the morning.”
“Okay. I’m getting us The Upper Room for the twenty-eighth. Plan accordingly.”
“Why don’t you take one of your bimbos?”
“Please. I don’t need an argument. You know how I feel.”
“Yeah. We will.” Bill drew Mary with him toward the back door. When they were out of the kitchen’s sight line, he drew her to him and kissed her softly, a completely different kind of kiss than with Lexi or Lorraine or Marie.
Mary kissed back, also different from the kisses Bill got from the others. “Goddamn you,” she said.
“Thank God for you,” he said. He smiled at her. “If you think of anything else I need to do tonight, call in to Tommy.”
“I will.” Mary kissed Bill one more time and as she did so she ran her hand softly along his cheek. “Goddamn you,” she said again.
Bill took her in both hands by her coat collar before she went out the door. He gave her a closed-mouth kiss, rubbed his cheek on hers then drew her coat closed and buttoned several of the buttons. “Keep it warm for me.”
“Have a good night and be safe,” Mary said.
Bill watched her walk to Bea’s car before he went back into work.
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