The ice started cracking up. Spring was in the air, and everyone was cleaning out the pipes to let in air and daylight and revival. Change, as usual, was fraught with unknowns; and growth came with the usual pains.
Our sous chef had left for greener pastures (if anything in NYC is green…), and we salute him. But it took longer than we’d hoped, to hire and train a worthy replacement. Everyone was frustrated.
And then after a week or two picking up the slack, Chef threw a tantrum and refused to work another six-day week—and so the Boss had to don coat and apron, and play Chef Boss every Sunday for a while.
“It’s absurd,” the Boss grumbled. “I worked six days a week for eighteen years, pretty much. Why can’t he?"
“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” I lamented solemnly.
He shook his head and opened a fresh Coke.
“Isn’t it a little fun though?” I prodded. "Just a little? To be back in the kitchen…?"
“No,” he said. “My back, my knees, my neck—I’m too old for this shit."
“So do you think Shithead will show up tonight?"
“With some excuse about why he missed yesterday and couldn’t call to let us know? H'yeah, probably. What an asshole."
Chef Boss went back into the kitchen to finish up the prep while I went through my opening routines, head bobbing unconsciously to the music thumping from the Bose system. I loaded the ice-well, lined up my 16-oz cheater bottles in the trough, crushed my ice, lit my candles, checked my infusions and fruit bowl and glassware and onward.
At one point the Boss poked his head out over the pass. “I’ll take a lemonade,” he said, referring to his daiquiri variation with rhum agricole. “Whenever you can."
“Make that three all-day,” he amended, accounting for the acting-sous and the dishwasher behind him.
I made four, and strained them over ice so they looked like lemonade to any interested observer glancing at the kitchen.
We deserved a little treat. Saturday had been rough.
With our runner out of town and the Server gone ghosted, the Boss and I'd had to run service just the two of us.
It had started reasonable enough; reservations about average for a Saturday. Seemed like nothing we couldn’t handle, even without the Server. We expected the usual Saturday pattern; a predictable flow of reservations with a handful of walk-ins.
There was no way we could anticipate the flood.
While I opened that afternoon, I kept glancing up the street to see if the Server was hustling to work after all, gabbing some excuse to convince me it was better late than never. It being Saturday, and the sun being out, and the dogwoods blooming stark white against a butane blue sky, the Boss was setting up the patio for the first time this season. A cool breeze rustled the leaves and tempered the heat.
But still no Server.
“No word yet?"
Reluctantly I started setting up the floor for dinner service, glancing up at the door still hoping to see his bald pate sauntering in, with a sheepish look in his shadowy Irish-Italian eyes, and some airtight explanation bubbling forth in his cocky Southie swagger.
By five o’clock I knew he wasn’t coming. But I kept checking for him, the sonofabitch. It seemed so out of character—and yet so fitting, in retrospect. The more I thought about it, the more the threads came unraveled—and wove themselves into a far uglier tapestry than the one he’d spun for us for so long.
He'd called out Friday, and the Friday before. And then, goddamnit, he'd called out on a Friday a couple weeks before that, when he'd rung me up, voice thick with terror, telling me about his new prognosis of some inactive tumor under his lung and asking for a day to himself. And I'd granted it, of course, taking up the slack; preferring to believe the ugly fiction over the uglier fact that he was unreliable and lying to get out of work.
Always a Friday...
How long has this ruined bastard been planning this?
And then it occurred to me—it had been a Friday when he supposedly fell off a ladder hanging Christmas lights months and months ago, when he claimed he'd been in the hospital unable to get to a phone...
Christ on a bike. We've been swindled.
The Friday came and went, mercifully low key. The Boss ran the floor, leaving me to solo the bar, while our food-runner-slash-barback scrambled here and there filling in the gaps, taking some tables and resetting my stations and earning his stripes.
We found a groove and it was good; but we had to cut some of the fraternization and showmanship that develops regularhood and builds the business, just to keep abreast of the tide of food and drink demands washing over our shores. Though enduring, we'd never been in the weeds.
Then Friday had ended, as every shift will end—and we looked forward to an easier tomorrow.
Until he went AWOL.
“Hell, he’s probably in jail, to be honest,” I figured, wishing it were true.
“Fucking Christ. I can’t do this any more."
“Yeah, no way." I bopped my fist on the table and checked the time. "At this point, he’s no-call-no-show on a Saturday night. After calling out the past two Fridays in a row—he’s a goner."
“Unless he comes in with his doctor to beg his case. Or a cop, whatever. I don’t need to hear his bullshit excuses any more."
But as Saturday afternoon ebbed into evening and cocktail service flowed into the dinner rush, my ears rang like a Jurassic Park soundbite: He left us…! He left us!...
It got busier and busier. Before long I was three deep at the bar, with the floor all full. We were already running apology drinks to delayed reservations. I bottled up the voice of panic, that little girl screaming He left us...!, letting my body enter the creative state and operate by rote, so I could pay attention to orders and Choose Your Own creations while dancing around my coworkers and closing checks to encourage turnaround. He left us!...
I added my own twist to the panicked mantra, balancing it with the heat of anger: He left us! Burn in the hell of your own creation, you poxy bastard!
It didn’t make sense, despite the mounting evidence. He’d expressed such eagerness to work, to build a legacy here. To shine new light on the shadows of his past and be reborn. He spoke worlds of the place and its magic, the experience we bring. He’d complained of wanting to move up to bar staff. We’d let him stodge a bit behind the bar when it was slow, mixing drinks and practicing techniques. Though he never seemed to improve much. To which he demanded, More reps! He just needed more reps! But then he wouldn't show up early, wouldn't put in any extra effort, constantly needed cash outs...
The fabrications unfurled.
I thought back to a conversation we’d had, where he'd declared himself a Born Again, and an evangelist.
He nodded solemnly.
You serious, man? What, like you woke up one day and suddenly everything made so much sense and you had to spread the word to everyone?
There’s no need to depict the rest. Everyone knows how that conversation goes. It’s depressingly frustrating and all too familiar. Poor bastards, is all we can say…what a travesty of imagination.
I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d rescind the born-again label now, after this betrayal; whether he recognizes that with this, he’s not even a man, much less someone worthy of the title father or friend or christian. I couldn’t think of a lower way to close yet another chapter in an anthology of an ugly life. Good job breaking the chain, buddy. What a history you’re building, for your baby daughter to look up to. Poor stupid wretched bastard.
The nutty Saturday finally waned, and we croaked out a last-call, and bid a grateful so-long to the last of our guests. We looked at the night’s numbers, aghast at what the two of us had run through, eyes wide at the tip numbers.
“This is like a regular busy weekend night."
"Just the two of us."
"I felt every dollar of that."
“Yeah, man. Let's hope tomorrow stays nice and sedate."
“Holy shit,” he said, “I can’t believe I have to cook tomorrow."
“All in the game."
“That’s what they say always right before they get shot up."
I shrugged. “Stay strapped. See you tomorrow."
Before shift the next day I thumbed a text to the AWOL server:
So do I win the argument now, that the label “christian" has zero bearing on a person’s salvation or damnation? You live with the weight of this forever.
But I deleted it unsent. Fuck that guy.
“His landlady called me earlier,” I remembered later on, standing in the pass waiting for Chef Boss to finish my plates. A mercifully lazy Sunday ticked away behind me.
I stole a misshapen gnocchi from the mise en place tray. “Apparently he skipped out, still owing a bunch of rent."
“Yeah. And she said he came in to grab the rest of his shit or whatever, and saw the delinquency notice she finally wrote, and he threw a tantrum and broke some of the roommate’s stuff. So she’s getting a restraining order."
“Yeah. And, dude get this—the roommate said he’s been getting into crack."
I nodded. “Crack."
“Maan, fuck that guy. I’ll take another lemonade."