“Don’t you be sorry for me.” Angry as she was, Marie looked at Bill, stuck her tongue out at him, then she freed her hand and gave him the notorious middle finger.
Bill laughed. He wanted to smoke another joint, so he stood up. He was going to ask her if she wanted to take the edge off, but just before he spoke, he saw Jim, the dishwasher who’d been causing him concern but who had been relatively quiet lately, step up to the end of the line by the knife sheath. Jim took it upon himself to lean over the sheath and linger there.
Bill moved to his left a bit to get a better angle so he could see if Jim’s hands went to touch a knife. But he heard Paul say something and understood that a rack of dishes had come out of the machine and needed to be emptied. Jim straightened himself up and disappeared out of sight from the doorway.
“I’m smoking a joint,” Bill said to Marie.
“I want a drink.”
“Henry Lee’s down there.”
“Forget it then.”
Bill shrugged his shoulders and went on out the door. He hadn’t even had two full tokes when Marie joined him. “Maybe it make me feel better,” she said.
“I already had some. You smoke what you want.”
Bill left Marie and stood where he could see the doorway and her. He kept an eye out. As he was standing there, he saw Lexi park her car and when she got out head toward where he stood. She was wearing a coat so he couldn’t see her clothes, but he could see she wore dark hose and high heels.
“Goddamn cold,” she said.
“You just need someone to keep you warm.”
“And who might that be?” She kissed Bill, much more than a hello kiss.
“I’m sure you have options,” Bill said after the kiss.
“I’m sure I do.” Lexi smiled and walked inside.
Bill stood waiting for Marie who came to where he was when she was done smoking.
“No. But I’m horny now.” She looked closely at Bill’s face, saw that he had lipstick on his lips. “You got lipstick on you.”
Before he could do anything, she moved in toward him and licked his lips where the lipstick was. She took a good, long lick on his lips, then she wiped it with her hand. Then she reached down and felt him up.
“That’s where it should be,” she said. “That’s where it could be.”
“We need to get inside.”
“No we don’t. Only reason we need to get inside is cause it’s cold out here. Who put that lipstick there?”
“Lexi kissed me hello.”
“Hello,” Marie said. She reached in again and kissed Bill a long, deep kiss. She laughed and pointed to the mistletoe on the doorway. Then, “I ain’t apologizing to Henry Lee.”
“My name is Been It and I ain’t in it,” said Bill. He started for inside, Marie following him and goosing him every step of the way until they reached the doorway to the kitchen. When Bill turned at the doorway, he noted Jim was back at the knife sheath. He didn’t say anything but stepped past Jim, Marie doing the same and walking through the line over to the pantry station.
Jimmy was up on the line now. Bea and Mary, seeing Bill and Marie come back inside, started for the doorway to go down to change clothes. Mary stopped by Bill. “We’ll talk when I come up,” she said.
Tommy came in the kitchen a moment after Bea and Mary went down the stairs. He walked through Marie’s station, checked on everything in the walk-ins, drew himself a cup of coffee. Carrying the coffee he walked through the line and asked Jimmy and Bill if they were all set. They both nodded and let Tommy pass through, checking what he wanted to check but knowing he didn’t have to check anything.
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So Bill ate more chocolate. It happened unexpectedly, one night when Marie had kept totally to herself. She was angry and withdrawn when she came in. She went straight down to the meat room, picked a fight with Henry Lee and stormed into the linen room to change. Henry Lee stayed cool. When she left him, he went over and took himself a long drink of bourbon and when Bill came down—Bill was setting up the line for the dinner—they went into the deep freeze to get high.
“Bitch is crazy tonight,” Henry Lee said, smoke from the cold surrounding his words. He looked at Bill, Bill looked at him, both of them in the thick arctic parkas and quilted freezer mitts.
“You get to go home. I got to suffer her all night long.”
“You need to get you some of her.”
“Yeah. Like I need to get a cavity.”
“No, really. I need the relief.”
“Sorry buddy. She’s all yours.”
“That’s the damn problem.”
“We’ll it’s your problem. I got my own.”
“Do me the favor.”
“Get out of here.”
“Let’s do another joint.”
Bill had to take off the mitts to get a joint from his pocket and light it and then they stood dancing from foot to foot smoking the joint in the cold.
Upstairs, it was time to take out the baked potatoes, finish building the steam table and filling the inserts. Bea was done with her work and Mary was pretty much done too. The rib was ready to come out, but she waited for Bill to finish everything else.
Marie was huffing around. If you looked close, you could still see a slight tinge of yellow on her brown skin. Because she was skinny, almost like a crack-head except crack hadn’t come out yet, her cheek bone was angular and the yellow stain still visible.
Bea sat on her stool and smoked a cigarette. She was drinking coffee. Everything for the pantry, including desserts, was done and set up. She was back to her racing page.
Marie cleaned everything a second time. She wiped the stainless steel and stirred all the dressings. She made sure the pies were cut cleanly and the slices clearly delineated. She made sure the coffee urns were full and the coffee was fresh. When there was simply nothing else to do, she walked to the hall and plopped down on the lettuce cases, folded her arms and stared out the open back door.
About five-thirty Bill came out. Mary and Bea were over by Bea’s stool just talking and winding down. The dish washers were working, the machine going. Jimmy and Grandma had just come in. Jimmy was downstairs changing. Grandma was already in the back looking at what Mary had left on the stoves.
Bill sat on the milk cases, like always. He could see into the kitchen and he could hear anything that was amiss. The usual sounds of the exhaust fans and the dish machine were prevalent, but then there was Paul who was always hyper, talking his usual stuff.
“What you looking at?” Marie stared at Bill. She sat with her legs crossed and her arms akimbo. She was all to herself.
“I didn’t do nothing, so don’t pick on me.”
“You ain’t gonna do nothing neither.”
“Got your period, huh?”
“No. Just sick of this goddamn place. Sick of this goddamn life.”
“Join the club.”
“Well you gonna be off for a few days. Me, I’m going be working.”
“I paid Alvin twice for the time off. And then I’m leaving her up there and working here for New Years.”
“Gonna be alone.”
“Oh. Had another fight with your husband, huh?”
“I’m a fix him, you wait and see.”
Bill smiled at Marie. “Sorry for you,” he said.
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Bailey was crazy to get with Lucy. Many men were crazy to get with her. For her part, Lucy, a single woman in her late twenties, stayed away from fraternizing with the help and with customers. Mr. Bowman, for obvious reasons, wanted Lucy to get with Bailey. He was hoping they would go out a couple of times and maybe find their way to The Upper Room. Robert secretly hoped for the same thing, but he would never enter into any discussions about such things, not even with Mr. Bowman who had broached the subject several times.
“It would make things so much easier,” Mr. Bowman had said.
Robert had stayed mum. But Mr. Bowman was right. Bill would never again have to worry about the police picking on him or even watching him. They would never follow him home again, and that was a lot better than having to look over his shoulder to see if they were on his trail, which he always had to do now. The numbers game would be more protected than now too. Now it was only protected by the fact that Bailey played one number every day for free as long as he played other numbers too. The more of his friends who played, the better his perks, and this didn’t count his eating for free.
Marie was relentless. The swollen cheek which was also a black eye blossomed. Once again she wore sunglasses for nearly two weeks, right up until Bill was ready to take off for Cleveland to visit with his fiancé’s family for Christmas. Both he and Henry Lee had inquired about it. It was a familiar story. He had seen her get out of Bill’s car and wobble up the walk and into the house. Just after he closed the door and right before she could say a single word, he had cracked her one right on the side of the face. She’d gone done like a limp rag-doll and when she was conscious enough, he’d forced her to do things she would have done for him if he’d just asked. Then again, if he’d just asked, she would have told him the truth, that she was drunk and high and couldn’t drive and Bill was nice enough to drive her home.
Every day, black eye and all, Marie implored Bill to tell Henry Lee he was gonna get with her. Every day Bill stayed away from it as much as he could, and when she took things on her own and said something to Henry Lee about it, Henry Lee told Bill it was okay with him, that he really didn’t care and even hoped Bill would because she was a pain in the ass.
Every night Marie ambushed Bill. She would wait for him to go outside to get high and join him behind the building for smoking a joint. While they smoked she would cop feels of him and lead his hand to take feels of her. She would make sure to wait until he went to the storeroom to go down for what she needed so that they were together down there when no one else was around.
Bill couldn’t deny that he liked being pursued. He couldn’t deny that he liked touching her and getting touched by her and that he’d even begun to have some fantasies about things with her. He even liked when she cornered him against a stack of cases and jammed her tongue in his mouth, pressing all up against him and making him press against her. One time, when she’d taken his hand under her dress and wasn’t wearing anything under there, she’d kept his hand until she thoroughly pleased herself.
“So when we gonna finalize this?” she asked repeatedly.
“Come on white boy. Make me happy. Have some more chocolate.”
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Bill and Alfreda christened that van and Marie, Alfreda and Jenny, Pam’s cousin, were the three who used blackmail, or it’s threat, to get with Bill for vengeance on their significant others. Bill didn’t mind all that much. He would never have touched any of them if he’d had a clear choice. He did have choices, not clear ones, and he made them.
Christmas approached. Lunches got busier and busier. Bill worked around the clock, straight through the afternoons and into the night through the dinner. Opening to closing, seven days a week through the month he worked because he owed Alvin three days for getting Christmas off and he was paying in advance.
They hired several new waitresses at the beginning of the month. Drenovis was in his glory, strutting as if he had something to strut. The two new girls hired for the East were about thirty and sweet. Bill called Lorraine and Victoria aside and asked them to let the new girls know about Drenovis’ Riviera, about the pressure to accommodate him in the back seat. They told Bill that was first thing they did and they’d already done it. Then they both asked if they should warn them about the excessively horny broiler cook and they had a good time goofing on Bill about it. But as the days rolled along, the new girls trailed, learning the menu, then working shifts on their own.
Over on the west side they hired three new girls. Bill was working a lunch there one day Alvin was off when he met two of them. They had both, by the rumors, visited the back seat. Bill and Alfreda were talking about it, or Alfreda was expressing her disgust. She remarked about how she disliked managers, him in particular. Then she talked about how beautifully Robert sang, not only in church but with his friends, who were mostly members of the choir. They had cut a tape and Alfreda said she had sung some backup on it. Mary sang too, but she wasn’t on the tape.
Bailey came in that day. He strode up to the open hearth unabashedly and shook hands with Robert and then Bill.
“Get to visit with two of my probationers at one time,” he said.
“Huh Glory,” Robert said.
Bill didn’t say anything. He was cutting the round, busy making sure it was even and all beautiful.
“I see you’re learning the trade,” Bailey said to Bill.
“He’s not a natural, but he’s doing great. They’re gonna make him a manager.”
“I’m doing okay,” Bill said. “And I’m really grateful for the job.”
“I’ve been seeing some of the cops watching you.”
Bill stopped slicing and made direct eye contact with Bailey. “They follow me home sometimes. They did it all the time before.”
“I know. I told them to ease off you. And I told them to talk to their Whitehall friends too.”
“And they said they would?”
Bailey smiled at Bill. “Let’s say that we all play nicely in the sandbox.” Then to Robert he said, “Play my numbers for the rest of the month.”
“Lord have Mercy,” Robert said. “Huh glory,” he sang out. “Buy my tape, sweetheart. The money goes to the church. And get your girlfriends to buy it too.”
“What you eating?” Bill asked.
“What you’re cutting.”
“Tell the waitress to let us know it’s your order.”
When Bailey had walked away from them, Bill told Robert he was glad they played well in the sandbox.
“Oh, I been watching out for you. When you started messing around, getting comfortable, you know, I started talking with Bailey. He comes here almost every day. He mostly eats for free, but not when he’s got friends with him like today.” Robert pointed with a head gesture to where Bailey had gone to sit. He was with four other men at a six-top. “It was just a freak mistake that I got busted,” Robert said.
Bill noted that Bailey and his friends were drinking. He noted that Lucy was hanging around their table and flirting and so were some of the waitresses.
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Alfreda kissed him more in the van. She couldn’t help herself, she said. It started at the first red light and picked up at every red light until Bill finally asked her why she didn’t just pull over and park for a moment.
“Don’t have to ask me twice,” she said, and that said, she quickly drove into Whitehall, the borough outside Columbus where Steakhouse East was situated. She knew of, and didn’t have to find, a small park where she could drive around to an isolated side street at the back of the park.
“Every now and then I come here to get high,” she said. She smiled. “I got a joint, if you want.”
They sat and smoked the joint, windows open on both sides. Alfreda pressed Bill about Henry Lee and Marie. Bill continued to deny knowing anything, but of course he knew and the more she pressed the weaker his denials seemed. When it got awkward, she stopped, but not until she reiterated that she knew for sure and would certainly get even.
Finished smoking, the tiny roach tossed out the window by Bill, Alfreda slid herself over the console in the middle and onto Bill’s lap.
“Been waiting a long time for this.”
“Don’t you like me?”
“Course I do.”
“But you’re Henry Lee’s wife.”
“And the mother of his kids. And we have a good marriage except he fools around all the time. He always fooled around. So don’t worry. You won’t be my first and probably won’t be my last.”
“It’s just weird.”
“Shut up and kiss me.”
They sat for about twenty minutes kissing and fondling, easily steaming up the windows of the van which they had closed because it was bordering on winter-cold outside. Alfreda ran the engine so the heater would blast. The radio played rock music. Bill was reminded of high school, of the many times on lover’s lane making out with his girlfriend. They would go into the back seat of her car and steam up the windows. Up and down the lover’s lane strip sat a whole load of cars with steamed up windows.
They would have stayed longer, but the radio blared out the time and when they heard it they both knew they had to get back.
“You know I want a repeat of this,” Alfreda said.
“Yeah. That’s the problem.”
“Ain’t no problem, baby.”
“I got some good weed over in my locker. I’ll give you a joint before you leave.”
“Good. Me and your butcher friend’ll smoke it after the kids get off to sleep. Maybe he’ll get lucky.”
“How’d he lose his leg?”
“Give me the short version.”
“White dude thought he was looking at a white girl, picked a fight, drew a knife.”
“I hope he got arrested.”
Freda had pulled the truck from the curb and was headed back to Delta Road, the main drag Steakhouse East was on. She took her eyes off the road and looked at Bill, a long, serious look.
“What world you live in?” She guffawed. “Oh, almost forgot, you live in the white world. It’s a different place from where we live.”
“Watch the road, Freda. Tell me the rest of it.”
“He lost his leg. The white guy damn near died cause Henry Lee stuck him in the gut. The cops found them both outside, in the alley—you know how Columbus is set up with the series of back alleys—in the cold. Henry Lee got charged. There were witnesses. The blacks said the other guy started it and drew his knife first. The whites lied, said it was the other way around. Henry Lee got the false leg and five to seven in the Penn. He got out on parole after three. White guy skated. What else is new?”
“I’m really sorry,” Bill said.
“Yeah, me too,” Freda said as she turned from the street into the restaurant’s parking lot.
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Marie’s husband dropped her off at four. Marie was wearing sunglasses and her cheek was swollen. She didn’t get with Henry Lee but went straight from changing clothes to work on her station.
Alfreda drove Bill back east. All her prep was done. Robert said he would put the baked potatoes on for her and make sure the prime rib was okay. He said he would stir the Bordelaise sauce and pour it into the bain marie for the steam table. Meanwhile, he and Mr. Bowman locked Drenovis out of the office for nearly an hour. Only two things could possibly be going on. The second was money dealings with the numbers game. But truth was that both things went on and both things were why Drenovis had no hold on Robert or anyone Robert protected.
Locked out of the office, Drenovis started in on Bill, told him sooner or later he’d mess him up, told him he heard about him and Lexi and that he’d better enjoy it while he could because Lexi was a goner. Bill was tired. He didn’t bother with Drenovis. He broke down the steam table, cleaned and scrubbed the line, brushed the grills, greased them and emptied the grease drawer. Then he had a few moments free. He went out the back door and sat on the bench there to smoke a cigarette. He was thinking how Lexi had curled his toes and Drenovis would never get that. Lexi was freaky-deaky and she loved every minute of being it.
It was cold outside so he didn’t stay out long. He stopped by Alfreda in the back part of the kitchen. This kitchen was set up differently from on the east side, but the same things were cooked and served the same way every day. So Bill knew the cooking and what Alfreda was doing. He knew why sometimes she liked to go out east and talk with Mary. If there were any menu changes, they had to be coordinated. Sometimes they just talked about how they were going to do things. Then also she got to see her husband, and sometimes to see Marie, the girl she knew her husband was fooling around with.
In this kitchen which was situated directly behind the line there was a table for the staff to eat at. The dishwashers were sitting around drinking sodas. Alfreda was cutting onions on one of her cutting boards. Drenovis was not around. Robert and Mr. Bowman were still locked in the office. Lucy had come in to see what she could get to eat but not seeing anything she liked she didn’t hang around.
“You want something?” Alfreda asked.
“Nah. Just looking for a snack.”
“Ain’t nothing but the usual.”
“What did you do to Drenovis?” Lucy asked Bill.
“Be friends with Robert.”
Lucy smiled at Bill, shifted on her feet. “And then some,” she said.
“What’s that mean?”
“You know what it means.” Lucy looked at Bill coyly, wiggled her behind a touch as if to give indication of what she was saying. “Say hi to Mary and Bea,” she said as she walked out.
“Bet you’d hit that if you could,” Alfreda said.
“When you gonna do me?”
“I need to go back on the line,” said Bill.
“You need to give me a kiss.” Alfreda turned and kissed Bill but she didn’t touch him because she had onion-smelling hands. “Next time it’s tongue,” she said.
“Don’t go. I’ll leave you alone.”
“How often that man of mine hitting it with Marie?”
“Like I said, I need to get back on the line.”
“Think I don’t know? Think I won’t get even? Cause I will. If it’s you, it’s you. If it’s someone else, then it’s someone else. Any way you slice it, it’s happening. You just make it easy and clean and you keep it in the family.”
“Like I said, I hear the line calling me.”
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Two black beauties coaxed him out of his fear and woke him up. He left at five-thirty, after a long, hot shower to warm his bones.
In the car he blasted both the heater and the radio. Leaving as early as he did and coming home so late made the drive both ways quick and pleasurable. The amphetamines and the music kept him awake and focused. Christmas was up next and he was taking the holiday off. Thanksgiving was gone, his first of what would be many Thanksgivings spent at work. Christmas in Cleveland with his fiancé was required, but he was working up until the 23rd and back to work on the 27th. She was staying with her family until after New Years. He’d had to beg for the time off and pay back with covering others on his days off. He owed Alvin three days.
The morning started like always. They opened up, went down to change, had coffee and lingered over by Bea’s station. Bea read the racing pages of the Dispatch and took the numbers which she would pass to Robert. She was feeling frisky and wanted some, but Bill was standoffish since he’d just been with his wife-to-be. He told her later, but that wouldn’t happen because one of the cooks on the west side called sick and Bill was going over there. He didn’t find out about it until nine-thirty when Tommy came in and told them all. Robert was coming to pick him up at ten and either he would bring him back or Bill would ride with the van for the meat pickup.
So off Bill went, not quite at ten but a bit later when Robert sauntered in in his usual way. He sung “Huh, Glory” to announce himself, flirted with everyone, took money from Bea, checked things out with Mary. Then he stopped in the office to speak with Tommy before returning to the kitchen, putting his arm around Bill and leading him out the door.
The west side always needed three. They could manage with two but it was a great hardship, so when any of the cooks called sick, Bill was drafted. Mr. Jim and Henry Lee could handle the east side’s lunch service. If it got crazy, Mary jumped in to help doing the fryers. The west was an open hearth and had to be a good show as well as run efficiently.
On the west side lunch was fast and furious. This day Alvin was out and Bill worked the middle cutting the round. Robert danced and laughed as he did the broiler, and he took time sometimes to slightly rearrange how Bill plated some things. Drenovis called the orders and Mr. Bowman watched things, met with customers, schmoozed as it were. Some of his customers played the numbers, but Mr. Bowman never took numbers himself and never talked about it. It was his game, he was the bank. He would say he didn’t know anything, to ask around, and he would leave it for the customer to find someone who knew. Most all of the regulars knew that Robert had been busted for running numbers and so he was the logical one to approach. With the open hearth, Robert could direct them to someone who would help them out.
“See Lucy,” he’d say.
Lucy was the hostess, on the numbers payroll as well as the Steakhouse payroll. She was a drop-dead knockout of a woman, absolutely gorgeous and in a league beyond any of the Steakhouse waitresses, some of whom were stunning. Many of the single men from downtown, the businessmen, came in just to see Lucy.
Alfreda, who did the prep cooking on the west side, came on to Bill like always. Bill was all business and reminded her that he worked with her husband. She would be the second vengeance encounter he would have, the second woman who would threaten him with blackmail to get with him, not because he was so desirable they couldn’t live without him, but because he met the prerequisite for what they wanted.
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