At Deli Delight, we served eggs all day, any way you wanted, along with, of course, bagels, corned beef, and our signature grilled sandwich called the Red Russian—made with red cabbage, pastrami, provolone, and "special" sauce (which was just Thousand Island, but we didn't tell anyone). Unless you've worked the line, you wouldn't think eggs were such a big deal, but if there's one thing Featherly taught me, it was that eggs are a bitch.
I mean, really, you try to watch five sandwiches on the grill, plate three bagels with salmon, and still manage to cook one order of eggs over easy, two scrambled, and poach another order—all with ten more waitress slips spinning on the wheel. That's some crazy shit, let me tell you, especially if an order isn't served just right. Customers might gobble down corned beef with fatty hunks hanging off it, but if their eggs are just a touch runny, or too hard, the same assholes never hesitate to send them back.
The thing was, Featherly (David Featherly, but no one ever called him David), he could handle it. The guy would be sweating through his hair net, his thinning blond hair as greasy as the grill, but he was like a magician: arms waving, body twisting, plates seeming to fly up to the pass-through. He'd slap the ready bell and be back flipping a burger before the damn thing stopped chiming.
Now don't get me wrong, he could lose his cool and scream when some dirtbag sent back an order he knew was perfect. One time he yelled out "Fuck you!" at the top of his lungs and threw a plate into the wall, just missing my head. The whole restaurant heard it, and Tom, the owner-manager of Deli Delight, came running into the kitchen. But what could he do? Featherly just ignored him, already back at the range doing his thing, making the order right.
Yeah, he was a natural talent. He'd never have to look hard to find a job, because there were always openings for cooks. The problem—and this was what made Featherly even more amazing—was that his dream, what he really wanted to be, was a rock star. I shit you not. It was hysterical when he was tossing eggs while trying to play air guitar and singing, "I am the eggman... They are the eggmen... I am the walrus... goo goo g'joob—" He actually could play guitar, and he sounded pretty good. I mean, I was blown away the one time I heard him in that dive tucked behind the new Blockbuster Video on Ogden Avenue, doing some blues-rock stuff, classic jam songs like "Whipping Post" or "Smoke on the Water," ones where they could play the same riff over and over and no one seemed to give a shit. His band called themselves De-Gen, which Featherly said meant "a-generation-not-to-be-defined," but everyone else thought it was short for "degenerate."
The only problem was on the weekends, when he'd show up at the restaurant after jamming all night and looked like a total mess. He had some sort of sugar imbalance, or maybe it was a mental imbalance, I couldn't tell one way or another, but there were days when, during prep, he was totally out of it, waving knives around like he was conducting a symphony or something, all while trying to slice up fruits and vegetables. He wouldn't pull that shit when prepping the meats, although sometimes he'd get in a trance at the slicer, his head lolling back and forth as his arm pushed a hunk of pastrami back and forth through the spinning blade. I watched him close then, and let me tell you, it was scary.
But what's funny is that it was his being wasted that started my move up the Deli Delight totem pole.
Up until then my one claim to fame was cleaning the grease trap, a nasty chore that all the other dishwashers always—I mean always—tried to squeeze out of. The trap wasn't very big; the hatch barely a foot square, and the tank underneath not much larger than a couple large buckets. But the thing had to be cleaned out like every other day or else this nasty black sludge would ooze up through the hatch seal and into the kitchen. Hey, I didn't finish high school, but I knew enough to know the health inspector would shut us down if he ever saw that mess.
It wasn't that hard: you unscrewed the hatch, scraped out any hard grease on top, and then reached down and pulled out whatever gunk clumped on the bottom. The problem was the smell; I'm not even sure how to describe it. Rotting flesh? Dead body? Not that I've ever smelled those things. Guess you could say it's like a giant vat of putrid pus. I'm talking b-a-d. Big surprise no one ever wanted to clean the damn thing, but it was on the job description, and if I had to do it, I was going to do it right.
You were supposed to use these rubber gloves that went up past your elbows, and I did use them the first few times, but then I found that to really clean the thing properly, I needed to feel what I was doing and get every little bit of nastiness out of there. Tina and the other waitresses looked at me like I was from another planet. I'd have to wash my hands afterward with this industrial-strength soap that turned my skin white, but once I'd done it a few times, for some strange reason, I didn't really mind.
In retrospect, it must've been the way I embraced such a crappy job that impressed Tom, because after only four-and-a-half months on the job, he let me start handling some prep. Okay, that's not entirely accurate. He didn't actually let me handle some prep, more like he tolerated it. I mean, like I said, Featherly could look pretty haggard, and I guess Tom got to the point where he didn't really give a crap who helped him out.
You see, for more than a few weeks, Tom seemed particularly on edge. He looked exhausted, part of which I assumed was because he drove all the way out from Chicago to Naperville every damn day, but I also suspected it had something to do with how he'd count the register three, four times a day. I don't think he believed anyone was stealing; no, it just seemed like he thought the take would magically grow the more often he checked. We all knew, or maybe just guessed, that Tom's plan was to open Deli Delights all over Chicagoland. He'd gone to some fancy-ass business school on the north side, and thought a deluxe table service-style deli restaurant was just what everyone in northern Illinois needed. But by the time I started washing dishes, too often the Iroquois Center, where we were located, looked as deserted as a ghost town. The J&M Discount store had already closed down, and they were the attraction that brought in most of the customers to the mall in the first place. Of course, you could come into Deli Delight during lunch and the place would be packed, but breakfast and dinner could seem pretty lonely. That didn't stop Tom though; he'd send out flyers, advertise in the newspaper, on billboards too, and I even heard radio ads pushing two-for-one weeknight specials.
We never talked much, but he seemed like a decent guy and probably liked the fact that I didn't ask for a raise after I started to help Featherly with prep. I wasn't really angling for a promotion, not any time soon at least; I figured I'd need months of practice—baby steps, yeah, baby steps—before I could leave the grease trap behind. But then things got kind of intense when everyone started whispering that Tom planned to open up a new Deli Delight in a better location in Oak Brook—maybe even close this one—all the same week I decided to throw a WrestleMania party.
It was on Wednesday of that week when things really got crazy.
Breakfast had been kind of light, which sucked, but lunches were picking up, probably because of Tom's advertising (although not enough to remove the constant scowl off his face), so everyone was pitching in to get ready. It wasn't a grease trap day, so I had time to wash salad and set up platters, get everything lined up in the reefer to be yanked out as needed. And of course, I was gabbing away about WrestleMania to Featherly, sort of a reflex of mine, the yapping, but I was no doubt trying to impress him, maybe score points. I mean, I still had a lot to learn, especially about cooking eggs, and I certainly wanted him to put in a good word for me with Tom if the time ever came, but I also liked him—you know, he was cool. So I told him about the party.
It wasn't even supposed to be like a party party, one with girls and shit. The original idea was that me and Russell, my roommate, who I'd known in high school and had a cushy job at the post office (and also moved a little weed on the side), would get buzzed at our apartment (Russell's apartment actually) after work and then go to Kelly's Pub—the one place I knew had a closed-circuit satellite dish and didn't ever, I mean ever, card anyone—to watch the match. And since WrestleMania was going to be on a Sunday night, and Tom closed the restaurant late afternoon on Sunday, everything was cool. I mean, it was just an excuse to drink beer and smoke pot, same stuff we did almost every day anyway, no big deal.
"Yeah, it's going to be nuts," I told Featherly. "They're gonna have King Kong Bundy, Iron Sheik, Andre the Giant—"
"Kenny," he interrupted, never lifting his eyes from chopping. "You know it's all fake, right?"
"Maybe, but Hulk and Mr. T, those guys are athletes," I said. "And there's always a lot of blood."
Now he looked up and smiled. "And that makes it real?"
Okay, yes, I knew wrestling was a show, and probably rigged—I wasn't a total idiot—but that didn't seem to matter. The show had bad guys and good guys, all of them looking like Saturday morning cartoon characters, human versions of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, each trying to smash one another without anyone getting hurt. Well, yes, again, some people did get hurt, for instance Hulk Hogan almost killed that asshole comic Belzer when he tried to make fun of him, but otherwise most injuries were exaggerated. It wasn't like pro football where people actually ended up paralyzed. And one thing's for sure: You didn't need a college degree to enjoy wrestling.
"No, the blood makes it fun," I said. "We're gonna get wasted and then head to Kelly's—no cover charge." I wasn't sure of that, but it sounded like it made sense.
"Great, then you guys can afford to bring dates." He laughed. "Hey, Tina..." Featherly shouted through the pass-through. "Wanna go watch some sweaty wrestling match with Kenny?"
My face burned and I wanted to slug him.
I sort of liked Tina; she was cute in a fleshy kind of way, and had an attitude about kitchen staff given she'd actually graduated from high school, but I didn't care. She sat refilling salt and pepper shakers and ketchup bottles while Anna Haywood, our tiny, graying, red-haired head waitress, who was way older than my mom but—unlike my mom—was always working, sat rolling silverware into napkins. Both of them looked up and shook their heads, snickering in my direction, which made me feel like a moron. I was glad none of the other kids employed by Deli Delight—like Denise and Cindy, who knew what they were doing in more ways than you could count and only flirted for practice—weren't around to tease me. Jimmy Hastings would've been okay; he was the late afternoon and closing dishwasher whose father owned an insurance business but made him work just the same. I taught Jimmy everything he knew, about dishwashing that is, and he, at least, would've thought the party was pretty cool.
"What about wrestling?" Tom suddenly asked, surprising us. We hadn't seen him sneak into the kitchen from his office, holding his clipboard loaded with the daily inventory checklist.
"Kenny's trying to find a date for WrestleMania," Featherly blurted out.
"Oh, yeah?" he said, and wandered over with a faint smile.
"No," I said, and glared at Featherly, who was actually giggling. "I mean—"
"We did a case about the World Wrestling Federation," Tom interrupted. He must've noticed our empty expressions because he added, "You know, in business school."
"A case?" Featherly asked, totally perplexed.
"Yes, a case," Tom said, like he was some fancy professor trying to get through to a couple knuckleheads. "You read a detailed description of a fictional business problem, one with no easy answer, and then everyone has to decide for themselves what the company should do... and you must defend your recommendations."
"How hard could that be?" Featherly chuckled, sort of joking, I thought.
But Tom stared back at him with dark, dead eyes, wheels turning, and I could've sworn Featherly's face suddenly melted. Tom really put him in his place with that stare, and I could've kissed him (not really, I'm just saying). But then he softened and shook his head, smiling.
"Okay, maybe," Tom said. "So here was the WWF problem: How do you create original wrestling promotions to beat out other long-standing, successful competitors?"
I wanted to crack a joke and say: "You body-slam 'em!" but he wasn't looking at me, and anyway, I didn't want to come off as too much of a smart-ass. Featherly, though, had regained his composure and after a few moments let a nice, big, goofy grin fill his face before saying, "You open a restaurant."
Tom let out a long, hard laugh and nearly yelled, "Good answer!"
"They're showing the match at Kelly's," I said, as if Tom knew where that was. "It's gonna be insane."
That's when Featherly piped up, saying to Tom, "Hey, maybe you should come with us."
I'm sure my mouth was hanging open; I mean, I hadn't invited Featherly, and here he was asking our boss, the owner of Deli Delight. My brain was spinning. Then he added, "You could come over to Kenny's first and..." he hesitated, thinking, "and teach us a case."
"A case of what?" I said as a joke, not really knowing what I was saying, let alone what the hell Featherly was thinking about.
"You know..." Tom said, a genuine smile stretching across his face, "that's a damn good idea."
"Seriously?" I asked.
"Yeah, I'll stop by... after we close."
"But you don't know where I live," I said, trying to hide a sudden, desperate wave of panic.
"Kenny," he said, "I know where all of you live." I must've looked confused because, well, I was, but then he added, "Employment records," as if it was obvious. I know he wasn't trying to put me down, but right then I would've been happy to get sucked into the grease trap.
Tom disappeared into the walk-in reefer to count pastrami packs. I waited for the door to clank shut before hissing at Featherly, "Are you out of your freaking mind?"
He just chuckled and patted me on the shoulder like I was his little brother. "Come on, man—you really think he's going to show up?" he said, and then turned back to his lunch prep, which pretty much told me he didn't need me to answer.
The night before the party, I tossed and turned and woke as restless as a fly. I wasn't much of a party thrower, and this whole WrestleMania thing had gotten out of hand. Of course, I didn't get out of bed until near noon, but even then I had to suck down a couple bong hits to settle the edge. Having Sunday off sure didn't help. Weekend brunches were about the only times Deli Delight was truly balls-to-the-wall busy, the restaurant filling up early and staying that way until midafternoon, the place a madhouse with waitresses flying between tables, busboys dumping tray after tray of dishes in my face, and, naturally, Featherly twistin' and flippin' with this wild, manic look on his face. On weekends, more than any other time, people needed their eggs, and damn if he wasn't going to keep them coming. Sometimes Tom was even too busy to count the register.
I liked working Sundays, even this one, and I knew I would've had enough time after work to chill out before the party, but little Jimmy Hastings had begged for more hours, and Tom already had his other cook, Danny Lopaca, scheduled as backup to Featherly, all of which meant a day off for Kenny. I couldn't complain, but I did miss being there. I'd been working on my egg skills—okay, mostly at home—and was pretty sure with a little more practice with poaching and soft-boiled, I'd be ready to leave the grease trap behind for good. But that couldn't happen if I wasn't working, which I wasn't, so instead I straightened up the apartment, your basic dump on the second floor of a paint-starved house around the corner from the 7-Eleven on Lincoln Avenue.
It took all of five minutes to dump trash cans filled with empty beer and soda cans, but I wasn't about to waste time scrubbing out the stains on our rented furniture, and there was nothing I could do about the cigarette burns that now dotted the carpet I'd borrowed from a dumpster behind J&M Discount, that is, before they shut down.
Once cleanup was complete I had all afternoon to stew about the party, which kind of sucked. Thing was, I didn't even know how many people were coming. Like I said, the whole thing had gotten away from me, and quickly. Once Anna had overheard Featherly invite Tom, and heard his acceptance, she'd quietly blabbed about it to everyone, telling them my party was the perfect opportunity to get Tom to tell us all what was the deal with the new store (the idea being to loosen him up with beers and whatnot). Before I knew it, everybody was asking me what time they should come over. Would we have beer? Weed? Stuff like that.
Anna even started hinting that Tom might promote someone to assistant manager. That seemed crazy to me, but not as crazy as all of them—the entire Deli Delight staff—inviting themselves to my party.
But then again, Tina said she might come too, which really freaked me out.
I pretty much fidgeted around the apartment until Russell brought home a couple six-packs, and we started zoning out on a little MTV. Between bong hits and cigarettes, it didn't take long before any normal person needed an oxygen mask to breathe in our living room. Not that I cared, but I was definitely buzzed big time when the first knock pounded on our door.
"Jesus Christ, Kenny, get some air in here," Anna Haywood said as she marched in, her arms waving in front of her—not that that was going to help.
I jumped off the couch like my mom had busted me, which was an odd reaction since I hated my mom and actually liked Anna. I think I was just startled to see someone that old coming to my apartment. "I see you fixed the place up," she said, chuckling, her voice raspy from Kool Menthols.
I wondered when she'd ever been there before, but then I got the joke and was in the middle of coming up with some smart-ass reply when Tina strolled in behind her. "What... what are you doing here?" I stammered like a complete retard.
"Wasn't I invited?" she said, scanning the scene before nodding at Russell, whose pink half-closed eyes and slumped position could've been mistaken for a quadriplegic. "Who's that?" she said.
He told her his name and then leaned forward in slow motion, twisted a beer off a six-pack, and reached it out to her. Fuck, I thought, I should've done that. "You're early," I said, even though I hadn't a clue if that was true.
Tina popped the beer can, all the while holding Russell's stare. Anna just shook her head.
Then, all of a sudden, Featherly barged in with Danny Lopaca on his heels.
"In this corner..." he shouted like a ring announcer holding a microphone, "and wearing the puke-stained blue jeans—" Which actually made me glance at my pants to make sure he was full of shit. "...I give you Kenny—The Grease Trap—Blass."
Anna laughed, a little awkwardly, but I just ignored him; the last thing I wanted to do was encourage more teasing at my expense. And then I heard the unmistakable sound of bubbling water. Sure enough, Tina sat on the arm of our couch, next to Russell, her lips sucked tight on my bong. She finished the hit and coughed big time. Wow. I could count the times she'd talked with me on one hand, and now she'd left big smudges of spit and lipstick on the rim of my bong tube.
A couple more of the weekend waitresses arrived, along with one of the regular busboys. It was getting packed and noisy, and I was dizzy. Russell cranked up the latest Rush album on the stereo, Geddy Lee singing, "Big money goes around the world..." that piercing voice now loud enough to crack a window. Someone brought a couple pizzas, and people started to laugh and chew and cough, and I began to wonder if everyone had forgotten that Tom was supposed to come over.
"Yeah, we're jamming now," Featherly said, his fingers suddenly wriggling midair in sync with a blistering Rush guitar solo.
"De-Gen play last night?" Russell shouted over the music.
"Nah," Featherly answered, barely loud enough to be heard. "I quit last weekend."
"What?" I yelled, totally flabbergasted. "I thought you wanted—" but I stopped mid-sentence because I saw Featherly look around the room as if making sure no one else had heard him.
"They were a bunch of dickheads," he said. "They wanted me..." He hesitated. "They said I... I wasn't..." Then he trailed off and took a couple seconds, Russell and I gaping at him the whole time, before he said, "Fuck them anyway; who needs rock 'n' roll when you've got..."—he flashed a big toothy smile—"WrestleMania!"
"Yeah, man," Russell said, and handed over the bong, his lighter flamed up and ready to go. Strangely, though, Featherly waved it off. So I grabbed it, and yes, even though I was disoriented and trying to get my mind around Featherly's big news, I still wanted to taste whatever little bit of Tina remained on the bong's rim.
"Hey, Kenny," Featherly said as I spasmed to keep the hit down. "Don't you think you should hide the bong and weed before Tom gets here?"
"What? Really?" I said, the whole room all of sudden distorting in waves, everyone going up and down like they were riding a merry-go-round. This was only my sixth, seventh, okay, maybe eighth bong hit of the afternoon, so it could be argued that I might not have been thinking all that straight.
"Yeah," I said. "You're probably right." I mean, Tom was our boss, and even though I was toasted, I knew enough to understand we—his Deli Delight crew—shouldn't give him the impression we were a bunch of total waste cases. Problem was that Russell had already taken the bong back to the couch and was in the process of loading it fresh for Tina.
"When do you think he'll get here?" I asked Featherly, or the middle fuzzy replica in the center of three fuzzy Featherlys.
"I dunno," he said. "Tom was counting the register when I left."
"Yeah, he likes that," I slurred, knowing immediately I must've sounded like a goofball.
"That little Hastings kid was doing the kitchen cleanup, so it shouldn't be too long."
Our microwave clock said it was already 6:10. The plan, at least the one Russell and I had come up with, was to get to Kelly's early, by 7:15, to make sure we got seats before the body-slammin' began at 8:00. All at once I started to feel unsure of this whole thing. "Did Tom say he was really coming?"
"Of course," Featherly said sharply, like I was annoying him. "You think I'd be here if he wasn't?"
I was fried, but that stung. He was clearly distracted, his mind lost elsewhere, so I didn't really think he was trying to be an asshole, but through my self-inflicted haze, his words seemed to say none of these people had shown up because they liked me. He wandered away and I saw Anna offer him a beer, which Featherly rejected just like he had the bong. He seemed more fidgety than normal, but his eyes also looked out of sync, one aiming slightly off from the other and neither looking anyone directly in the eye. I would've sworn he was high on something, but if so, it sure wasn't from anything shared in my apartment.
It was right about 6:45 when I overheard Danny Lopaca say to Featherly, "See, I told you he'd blow us off."
"No, that's bullshit," Featherly snapped, sounding urgent but also just a bit uncertain. Everybody looked at him and stopped talking, which was weird and lasted for a few seconds. But then the music filled in and all the yakking went back to normal.
Tina finally lifted herself off the couch, and, yeah, she was wobbly as shit. I thought she might collapse on her way over to yap with Anna, but at least she was away from Russell. It hadn't really crossed my mind that she'd be interested in him, but that was stupid given that his post office career was way more together than mine, to say nothing about how much she obviously liked his stash. Still, this was my big chance to try to talk with her, so, wasted as I was, I wandered over. And I almost made it too, but Anna grabbed hold of my arm and actually leaned her weight against me. She was hammered, big time, must've guzzled four or five Old Styles. "You're a nice boy, Kenny," she garbled, and then turned to Tina. "What do you think Tines... Isn't Kenny a nice boy?"
Oh, man, I could feel my face turn red, but then Tina actually smiled at me. Her eyes were bloodshot, eyelids swollen halfway down, so I'm not sure who she thought she was looking at, but I smiled back anyway. She didn't say a thing, just stared blankly, and that's when I tried to be clever and said, "You guys ready to watch the Hulk?"
Anna let loose a sloppy cackle. "Oh, Kenny." She laughed. "No, no... we just wanted to see Tom lighten up a little, see if he liked to party—and, you know, find out if we're going to lose our jobs."
I didn't know what to say and just watched as Tina tottered back to the couch and plopped back down next to Russell.
My heart crashed like a racecar.
I thought my chest had exploded, but no, it was just the screen door slamming shut. Featherly had stepped to the outside staircase landing and was just standing there alone, gazing off at the traffic on Lincoln Avenue. The clock now said 7:00. Even if Tom did show up, there wouldn't be much time to hang out with him, learn shit or whatever, and make it to Kelly's for the first match, which I didn't want to miss since I knew it would be between Tito Santana and The Executioner. I was starting to get a little pissed off: I mean, if Featherly hadn't invited Tom, Russell and I would already be at the bar, prime seats probably.
And, yeah, Tina wouldn't be sitting shoulder to shoulder with him on the couch.
But I figured it was best to leave Featherly be; he was taking this badly, like this was serious shit, way more important than a party, which, in retrospect, it probably was. With all the craziness going on around me, I'd sort of put out of my mind what Anna said about our jobs, but it did cross my mind that since his band had dumped him, Featherly actually thought he'd have a chance to impress Tom enough to move up the ladder. But that was crazy; I mean, yeah, he could cook like nobody's business, but hell, it wasn't like he knew anything about managing a business.
"Hey, Kenny," Russell shouted, lifting himself off the couch. "We gotta go."
Sure enough, it was 7:15; it would take probably ten minutes to hustle over to Kelly's and park.
"Just a minute," I yelled back, and I rushed out to the landing.
Featherly had barely moved, but his face had turned all blotchy and red, and for a few seconds, I didn't think he knew where he was. "I could leave a note," I told him. "Maybe write the directions for Tom; it's only a few blocks."
He looked at me and opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out; his whole face seemed to sag, and I couldn't tell if he was going to cry or scream. Finally, he turned away and said, "I should've kept my mouth shut... I'm such an idiot; he thinks we're just a bunch of stoner grease heads, that's all." He started to drop down the stairs and added, "Sorry, Kenny."
"No, wait," I said. "You're wrong. I bet he's on his way right now."
And just then the screen door flung open behind me, and everyone started spilling out of the apartment. When I turned back toward him, Featherly was already at the bottom of the stairs.
"You're the best," Anna rasped, and grabbed hold of my shoulder to steady herself. "See you tomorrow."
"Yeah, Kenny," Danny said. "Too bad Tom's such an asshole. Next weekend, dude."
"Hold up," I pleaded. "Aren't you coming to Kelly's?"
"Nope," he said. "That wasn't the idea."
The other weekend waitresses and busboys pushed past me and waved, said thanks. Then it was Russell and Tina's turn, banging out through the door with arms wrapped around each other's waist. "Come on, man..." Russell said. "Let's do this."
"Yeah, okay," I said, watching them stomp down the stairs. "Save me a seat," I yelled, even though I now felt totally lost.
I went back inside, turned off the stereo, and locked the door on my way out. Just like that the party was over. Fuck me, I said and headed down the steps.
It turned out that Tito Santana won his match with a figure four leglock; then Bundy smooshed Special Delivery Jones with a belly slam. And the action continued crazy and totally nuts with Junkyard Dog, Volkoff and The Iron Sheik, and Andre the Giant all winning wild matches. The big match, the one with Hulk and Mr. T, was just total madness; Muhammad Ali refereed—safely outside the ring—as the real referee got conked out by Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The Chicago Tribune, no less, actually documented all the blow-by-blow insanity front and center on the sports page.
I was definitely bummed out to miss it, but, well, I didn't really have a choice.
Believe it or not, right after the party, just when I started to open my car door, sure enough Tom pulled into the parking slot next to me.
"Kenny, thank god you're still here," he said, all breathless and rumpled as he got out of his car. "I need your help."
Once I recovered from the surprise of his actually showing up, my first reaction was to be pissed off, not that I was in any position to let him know it—especially since I was still fully looped. But then I noticed the blood on his shirt.
"Jimmy..." he continued, "you know, Jimmy Hastings, the dishwasher?" I nodded. "He cut his thumb on the slicer during cleanup."
"What a moron," I said, and started to chuckle, which must've sounded pretty idiotic, because it wasn't hard to do—cutting yourself, that is—if you forgot to set the blade flush with the meat holder tray.
"Well, it was a nasty cut, took seven stiches."
"Ouch," I said, and meant it, although it probably didn't come across that way.
"Anyway, I had to wait at the hospital until his parents picked him up, and..." He trailed off and then sighed before going on. "Listen, I know it's your day off and I hate to... but look, if we hurry, maybe you'll only miss a couple matches."
There wasn't that much blood, not like Jimmy had an artery spraying all over the kitchen. But the slicer had become a dried maroon mess, and Tom had stupidly thrown a couple blood-soaked towels onto one of the food prep tables. The Health Department didn't care about roast beef blood, but little Jimmy Hastings' O+ or O-, whatever the hell it was, meant a triple wipe-down, industrial strength—no Hulk Hogan or Mr. T for Kenny tonight.
So, yes, I missed WrestleMania, but in retrospect that probably wasn't the worst thing in the world, especially since Russell didn't come home to our apartment after the matches. If I'd showed up at Kelly's, I would've seen him and Tina acting all goofy—which would've been tough. By comparison, wiping up a bloody mess wasn't all that bad. And anyway, Tom offered me triple-fucking-overtime for helping him out. Okay, it only took a couple hours, so the money wasn't that big a deal, but here's the thing—I sure showed Tom he could trust me. I even threw in a quick clean of the grease trap, just for good measure; I mean, it wasn't like little Jimmy Hastings was gonna stick his gashed-up hand in there anytime soon.
I was pretty zombied the next morning about everything, well, maybe more about Tina than missing WrestleMania, but I still arrived at work early, thirty minutes early, no less. Deli Delight was all locked up though, lights out. I shaded my eyes looking through the window, but nobody was home. I expected to find Featherly already busy with the breakfast prep, and I was kinda psyched to tell him all that had happened, our shared misery, but there was no sign of him. After a while, Anna showed up and, when she saw me, let out a long, tortured groan before unlocking the door.
At first I just stared at the empty kitchen; it was clean, that's for sure, but I stood there paralyzed, not knowing what to do. All of a sudden though, it was like something clicked deep in my brain and I sprang into action; it was like everything, my whole life, had led to this moment: I cracked ten dozen eggs, loaded multiple sheets of bacon into the oven, chopped vegetables—I was hustling like you can't believe, back and forth into the reefer and the freezer, bagels unloaded, plates stacked. I was out of my mind, you'd say possessed, so much so that I didn't even know Tom had arrived until I heard him clang open the cash register.
That's when I started to hyperventilate; I was actually panting like a dog when he came in the kitchen. "Where's David?" he asked, but I was scared to look him in the eye and just shrugged. He walked over and looked me directly in the eyes—didn't even blink. He said, "You got this?"
I fidgeted with my hair net and said, "Yeah." But then, out of nowhere, like some strange reflex, I blurted out, "Are you going to close this place?"
He took in a deep breath and smiled, sadly, I thought, and said, "Come on, Kenny, I need you... let's just get through breakfast."
And just like that I was cooking, short-order style.
Toward the end of the morning rush, Tom came in and said he'd called Featherly's mom, but she hadn't seen him. I was all reaction and action though, too focused to give his situation much thought. There were still six orders on the wheel, and then Anna added another, pausing as she clipped it in place to say, "Hey, Kenny—you're a nice boy!" Of course I blushed, but I was pretty sweaty, so I doubt anyone noticed. I turned back to the grill and plated a couple over easy, thinking, man, eggs sure are a total bitch.
Title image "Culprits" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2017.