by Christopher Bacas
The boss' daughter, Cherie, came with a warning label. A coworker, who babbled endlessly about evil Ayatollah Khomeini and our hostages, told me:
“She's a piece of work. Just let her take whatever she wants and stay the fuck outta her way.”
One night, twenty minutes before closing, a woman's head appeared above the swinging doors. Under swollen lids, her dark eyes licked out.
“I'm Cherie Lasalle”
Her voice was low and slightly raspy.
“Yes, Miss Lasalle”
She walked behind the counter with a tray holding two plates.
“You new here?”
“Yes, Miss Lasalle”
“Is there any chicken?”
“Well, shit! When did you sell it?”
“A while ago. They only put a couple on the pit”
“That's stupid! Don't you sell more than that?”
While I served the last customers and tallied their bills, Cherie dodged around me piling up meat and side dishes, then dotted the tray with small boats of sauce and butter. I had to turn sideways so she could totter everything past me on stiletto heels. She sat at a booth in the back. A few minutes later a tall man arrived. He craned his neck and after seeing her, walked back. Her boyfriend was an Iranian student, Marwan Aref. They drove matching IROC Z-28s. Her Texas plate read: “CHERIE-L”, his: “MAR-ONE”. While the pair canoodled and giggled incessantly, I carried the 6 foot cutting board to the sink for scrubbing, cleaned and replaced all serving utensils and pans, then mopped the floor with scalding water and industrial degreasers. Rick and I usually smoked a joint after he locked the doors; not tonight.
Getting high helped me face the scariest task of every closing shift. The scrap drawer under the cutting board detached from its frame; forty quivering pounds in greasy steel. Holding the razor-edged pan against my belly, it was a hundred yard walk to the trash; a long way from any light. Once there, still holding the slippery pan, I used the side of my hand to open the gate. Inside the fence, a dumpster and a fifty-gallon can. The rendering can sat on a concrete pedestal. Its lip, level with my forehead. Rats loved trash but were intoxicated by fat.They waited silently. I pressed the pan against the drum and with both hands underneath, pushed it up, using the side for stability. Metal scraped and the partially empty can groaned like a contrabass cuica. I felt bodies displacing inky air. When the pan reached the lip, I turned it over and ducked my head. A brief cloudburst of splats followed. If fat clumps stuck, I loosened them by banging underneath and tilting again. There were nights I screamed to scare off feasting rats, or cursed because I sliced a finger or had to pull a smoky globule out of my eye socket. Always,the silent warp of night swallowed whole every sound and gelatinous spill. Afterward, I swung the creaking gate, slid its bolt and walked back with the empty pan.
Inside the restaurant, Cherie shrieked at her beau and punched him hard. He laughed. Glasses and cutlery jangled. They weren't as scary as rats, but I was plenty uncomfortable. A decent closing took an hour. We were past that already. It was time for me to clock out. Rick always stayed to make sure the pit was set for the next shift. Tonite, he was baby-sitting. He shrugged his shoulders when I asked if I should stay. I didn't. Later, he told me he spent two hours waiting for them to leave, but didn't clean up their mess.
Months later, during a late night rush, Miss Lasalle returned, coming through the doors quickly, without introduction, dead eyes and sniffle giving her away. Walking past me, she loaded a plate with meats and sauce, then baked a potato. The potatoes cooked in a whooshing convection oven by the register. Its cycle ended with a metallic ding, like a boxing bell. While the oven worked, she spread out in her preferred booth. When the bell signaled, I was vexed. Should I fix up the potato for her and serve it? She hadn't acknowledged me at all. The spud stayed put.
Dining alone must have been uncomfortable for Miss Lasalle. Her elevated mood made it worse. She got up and came behind the counter; oblivious to my work and customers. On that expedition, she searched for some missing ingredient, sighing repeatedly. A dial phone hung next to the swinging doors. It connected to another on the burger side. We used them to request things: a roll of quarters, ten one-dollar bills, a bucket of ice. The phones couldn't call out. She lifted the receiver, pawed the cradle, then wheeled around.
“The phone doesn't dial out” I told her.
Cherie's eyes traced a Y around my face.
“I'm Cherie Lasalle” she said defiantly and turned away.
Each dialing made her more agitated. Her shoulders heaved and she exhaled loudly.
“Miss, you can't call out on that phone!”
She spun again, holding the receiver against her shoulder, eyes down.
“I'm Cherie Lasalle”
“Yes, Miss Lasalle. You can't call out on that phone”
She snorted, turned and jiggled the cradle violently.
“I'm Cherie Lasalle……Cherie Lasalle!…..Cher-eee La-saaale”
Her voice descended from angry to meek, until she dropped the receiver and pushed through the swinging doors. I hung up the phone. After we closed, I tossed the potato.
I didn't see the boss' daughter again. There were more late-night visitors, though. Not long before I quit, on a night when Charlie was managing, Jim Lake strode in, trailed by his wife, baby swaddled against her chest. He made for the office/kitchen. She stepped behind the counter and began piling food into take-out trays, cradling the baby's head with one hand. Jim glided past me to the register. He opened the cash drawer and lifted the tray, deftly exchanging some items, then replaced the tray and closed the drawer with his hip. He whispered to his wife, then grabbed a small whole brisket from the cutting board. It fit neatly into an insulated bag. He looked at me, eyes bugging, and sniffed a few times. After a dash to the burger side for more provisions, they left without saying a word to me, at least three-hundred dollars retail in tow. Charlie came around and asked me what they took, sighing when I listed everything.
My last night at work, Rick and David were on the schedule. The shift was easy, until I got a call on the Batphone. David, trying to hold it together, told me there was a huge rat in his area. The curlicue fries, cut with a mandolin on site, stored in oval aluminum tubs. The tubs had grooved covers and slid into racks that lived in a walk-in behind the burger counter. A rat had gotten under a lid and David interrupted his dinner. The rat scrambled out of the tub and took off. David must have screamed, but I didn't hear it. I told Rick and headed over to the burger side. While David worked, I rolled the racks back to the prep kitchen,dumped the contaminated tub and gingerly popped lids off the others with a mop handle. No more stowaways. At closing, Rick and I smoked and did a lightning cleanup. David took longer, as he'd been delayed. I said goodbye to Rick. He was back in school getting a PE degree. I respected his low-key style and thanked him for it.
David and I rode in the big car. He was graduating soon and returning to Louisiana. Teaching and family loomed. He asked about my plans. With little trust in my skills and so much bullshit arrogance, I must have sounded quite confused.When we got to the crappy three bedroom house where I lived, I wished David well and thanked him for all the driving. He slipped his tiny hand over mine, threaded our fingers, squeezed and closed his eyes.
“Chris you don't even know, do you?”
“I don't know what?”
“Oh, Chris, Just let me have this moment….Please?”
He sighed. I looked out the windshield. The air was thick. I breathed through a slit in my neck. The Crucifix swung gently. Headlights scanned us through the dark. David let go of my hand. I reached for the door handle and got out. He slammed the steering wheel with both fists and leaned over. When I got to the porch, the car drove off. Memory: an infusion steeping in a tall glass; cloudy, narcotic, unbearably sweet.
Weeks later, I went in for my check. I didn't know anyone on day crew. Mike appeared, Bolo tie on a western shirt, pack of Camels in the breast-pocket.
“Ye here to getcha check?”
“Sure been nice workin which ya.”
“You, too, Mike. Thanks for all your help”
“Mah pleasure. Ye take rill good care, now. Come back n' see us sometime, ye hear?”
“Will do, Mike.”
The swinging doors creaked as I walked through. Outside, wood smoke rose steadily from the crooked pipe above the pit.