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Lookin’ for love at the Gourmet Cafe

A short story by Kimberley Jace.

In the early 2000s, I had just been discharged from the Marines and I was bouncing around central Florida looking for two things: gainful employment, and someone to love.

It seemed to me restaurant work held the most promise, because of the free food and the waitresses. I thought, if I washed dishes, I’d earn a few bucks and get to know a few waitresses, and maybe one thing would lead to another, more interesting thing. That wasn’t exactly how it worked out, but it was my plan at the time.

The first place I applied was Marcy’s. When I met Marcy, I thought she might be sort of hard-bitten, with the tattoos and gold teeth and everything. But she was actually pretty nice. Her husband, an ex-convict named Ed, was the problem.

My troubles with him began the first day.

“OK, when can you start?” he asked. ”

Um, tomorrow?” I said.

“Why not right now? What are you doing right now?”

That was not what I had expected. And anyway, I was driving this old Ford Escort at the time and the starter was going on it, so I never knew if it was going to start again. I had left the Escort running in the driveway of Marcy’s.

“I can start right now if you let me go turn off my car,” I said.

“Planning a quick getaway?” he snarled, flashing this ugly smile at me, like he’d made a few of those getaways in his life.

I just chuckled, and went out and parked the car and turned it off. Of course, I had to get one of my neighbors to come jump me later, when I got off duty, because that was the day the starter went out for real. But I also knew I’d have a paycheck coming.

Ed could be hard to deal with when the place got busy. He’d come in screaming, “Where’s my dishwasher!” and half the staff would be out in back, cigarettes hanging from their lips, cell phones pressed against their ears. I’d be the only one in the kitchen.

“Dammit where’s my dishwasher!” he’d scream, and I’d raise my hand and wave it a little.

“Well why are there so many goddamned dishes in the sink and no goddamned dishes to put food on?” he’d ask, and I had no answer for that, because I’d be up to my arms in suds, scraping and rinsing as fast as I could.

Ed was sweaty and smelled like rotten teeth, which was not that different than the smell of the meat in the freezer. But Marcy meant well.

The big problem there was health inspections. The inspectors made Marcy nervous, and with good reason, since there were quite a few fire hazards and whatnot in the storage area.

When the inspector was on the way — for some reason in Florida, there were no real surprise inspections — Marcy and Ed both would go into overdrive. She’d be marching around with her hands on her plump hips, gold teeth flashing as she shouted commands. He’d be stinking. It was 105 degrees over the stove. It was almost hell.

The waitresses at Marcy’s were mostly young and not that bright, but there was one girl named Lucy who had a sort of hot body, except she’d lost a leg in a motorcycle accident and had just a metal stick with a shoe on it on that side. She’d stuff her tips into her cleavage, and the combination of pity and lust made her the top tip-getter in the place.

Sadly, she didn’t want to have anything to do with me.

I quit Marcy’s the day I heard there was an opening down the street. I told Ed, and I gave him two weeks notice, but he made me leave immediately. I mean, he didn’t even give me time to say goodbye to Lucy or get my jacket or anything, just heave-ho out the door. He was angry, and the anger made him smell worse.

“Well thanks a fucking lot,” he said, literally holding the shoulder of my cheap white t-shirt that said “Marcy’s Fine Sandwiches and Grill” on it, holding it up so it dug into my armpit, which I guess was supposed to make me walk faster.

“I’ve enjoyed working here,” I lied, and Ed said, “Yeah, fuck you.”

“I’ll be back to get my check on Friday,” I said. Ed just laughed.

My last check was only supposed to be $84, and they had taken out $40 for “breakage.” When I asked what that meant, Ed said, “You know, breakage, like when somebody breaks your nose because you’re a smart-mouth little asshole.”

By then, I was already working at Donna’s.

Donna’s was a little bigger and a lot cleaner than Marcy’s. I thought Donna might be a problem, with her dyed black hair and the tattoo on her neck. But she was actually pretty nice.

Her husband, a Vietnam veteran named Frank, was the problem.

Frank could seem pretty calm and intelligent, but he had these “triggers,”‘ as Donna called it, that made him somewhere between agitated and psychopathic homicidal. The real problem was, the triggers changed all the time.

After I’d worked there a couple of weeks, a shipment of pumpkin pie came in. Frank started screaming at the truck driver. “It’s squash!” he shouted, as the delivery man scrambled backwards into his truck. “How can you call this pie? It’s made of fucking squash!”

I watched as Frank paced back and forth, back and forth, like a caged hyena in the little kitchen area. Waitresses who came into the kitchen and saw him just walked out again. A couple of them gave me sideways looks, like saying, for God’s sake get out of here. But I was still fascinated.

“Don’t like pumpkin pie, Frank?” I asked as gently as I could.

When he heard that, his face froze in this weird contortion and he started beating himself in the head with his own fists and crying.

Donna came in just then, and she looked at me with her accusing little eyes. She had the smallest eyes I’ve ever seen on a living human being, and both of them way around on the sides of her head, so it made you wonder if she could read or drive or anything. Her eyes gave her a fish-like appearance, and her fleshy lips didn’t help. And the tattoo of an anchor on her neck didn’t help either.

“Why don’t you leave him alone?” she asked.

“Hey, I didn’t say anything,” I said. “The delivery driver set him off. Something about the P-I-E-S .”

Donna put her arm around Frank and made him sit down, although he was still punching himself and crying. “Damn, he’s never going to forget about those pumpkins,” she muttered.

I didn’t ask what she meant. My shift was over anyway.

Well as you know, I was trying to meet women, which was the main reason I’d been taking these cook jobs instead of like construction or something. You don’t meet women on construction jobs. Not many straight women.

There was one cute waitress at Donna’s, a girl about 19 named Mona. She was kind of skinny, but always flirting with all the men in the place, customers, even me. Mona had that skin disease where there was no pigment on part of her face, which gave her sort of the look of a spotted puppy. The white spot was in the shape of lopsided lip prints, right on her cheek, and she stayed real tan all the time, so the white looked even whiter.

I had a crush on Mona for a long time — well, for all three weeks I worked there — but I couldn’t quite get up my nerve to ask her out. Then one day I decided this was it, now or never. I knew she was working late, so I left at my regular time and then came back at closing time.

The restaurant seemed empty. All the customers were gone, and the kitchen was dark, but I could hear little noises coming from the store room.

When I opened the store room door, the first thing I saw was that little white spot on Mona’s cheek, and then the surprised look on her face, and then the fact that she was sitting on Frank’s lap. Which wouldn’t have been so bad except they were facing each other.

Which wouldn’t have been so bad except they were both naked.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do, so I grabbed my eyes and pretended to be stumbling around. “I got soap in my eyes!” I said, bumping into the door. “Is anybody here? I need help!”

I heard Mona giggle and say, “Shhh” and Frank said nothing, and I kept up my charade all the way out the door and into the parking lot. Where I said, “Shit.” Because I knew what was going to happen.

The next day when I showed up, I was fired.

“Just don’t need this many cooks,” Donna explained. “Frank’s been doing some trimming.”

“Yeah,” I said, and I thought, if that’s what you call it. “OK. I’ll be back on Monday for my check.”

I didn’t want to rat out Frank, because I could tell it would make Donna sad, and the idea of little tears coming out of her tiny, tiny eyes was just too pathetic for me. And I didn’t want to get Mona fired.

When I picked up my check, it was almost $60 short. About half my check.

“What’s this?” I asked. Donna explained that the cost of my special t-shirts that said “Donna’s Gourmet Grill” and my special non-skid shoes were being deducted.

“But I never got any special shoes!” I said.

“Well we ordered them anyway,” Donna said, shrugging. Frank sat in a rolling desk chair behind her, looking smug.

“OK,” I said. “I’ve enjoyed working here. See you around town, Donna. And Frank,” I said, “I’ll see you around the pumpkin patch.”

I thought I could hear him starting to scream, but I was out in my car. By then I was driving that crappy Mustang with the loud muffler and you couldn’t hear shit inside that car.

So the next morning I applied at Susy’s Bagels and More. I thought Susy might be a problem, with her super-high high-heel shoes and her upswept blonde bun on her head.

And I was right. Susy was a flat-out bitch.

Bagels and More was actually the nicest Florida diner I’d worked at so far, and it smelled good, like fresh-baked bread, even though they actually brought in the bagels from a bakery somewhere. One of my jobs was to meet the delivery truck at 4:30 a.m., that’s 4:30 in the morning, the 4:30 that’s entirely dark and weird and too early for any valid human occupation.

Sometimes Susy’s husband Jimmy would be there. He was a pretty nice guy–kind of whipped, if you know what I mean. But pretty nice.

“You know, you learn this stuff and some day you could open up your own place,” Jimmy would say to me. “I never thought I’d have my own place. But here I am.”

I knew Jimmy had gotten his own place only because his wife Susy had the money to invest in it, and I thought, what were the chances that I’d find myself a rich girlfriend? Especially if I kept working in these restaurants?

But in fact, I fell in love at Susy’s. With the cleaning lady, Jessamine.

Jessamine was from Bulgaria or Hungary or something, probably undocumented, and she had curves in all the right places. She had this bad stammer, where she’d get stuck on one syllable and keep saying it over and over and over. Plus, she barely spoke any English. So in some ways, she was like the dream date.

I was the first one to get to Bagels and More in the morning, of course, and I didn’t have a key to get in, since they didn’t trust me yet. I had to watch the delivery guy unload the bagels, and then just babysit them until someone unlocked the door.

Jessamine was the second one to get there, at around 6 a.m. She had a key. She always seemed so happy to see me, and she’d try to talk to me.

“So early you c-c-c-c-c …” she would say. I smiled and nodded a lot. I really liked Jessamine, but I was too shy to tell her that.

Once, when she was stammering, I touched a finger to her lips to silence her. She froze and we stared at each other. There was something there, allright, some kind of chemistry. I thought maybe my plan was going to work, and I was going to find the girlfriend of my dreams at one of these cheesy central Florida eateries. But that was not to be.

I tried to cover my bases at Bagels and More. When I first started there, I told them I planned to stay indefinitely, perhaps even make a career of greeting the 4:30 a.m. delivery truck and then waiting on the little loading dock for the beautiful Jessamine to arrive. I didn’t want them to think I was going to bolt as soon as I found a job offering 5 cents more an hour, although I probably would have.

I also scoped out Mr. and Mrs. Bagel to be sure there was no hanky panky going on that was going to put me in a compromising situation, like the Frank-the-veteran’s hanky panky had at the last place. As far as I could tell, nobody in their right mind was going to hanky or panky with Susy, the Ice Queen. And her husband Jimmy … he seemed preoccupied with the business, and not very confident. Like, for instance, he didn’t seem to even notice Jessamine.

She did notice him, however. She tried to tell me about it one early morning as we sat on the loading dock, huddled in the cool morning, bagel-scented air.

“I see Mr. Jimmy early morning with b-b-b-b …” she said.

“With bagels?”

“No,” she shook her head.

“With beer?”

“No no no,” she said, smiling.

“With badgers? Bouncy balls? Bandoliers? Boxer shorts?”

Jessamine’s laugh was like the silver tinkle of bells in a little chapel on a hillside in Bulgaria, or Romania, wherever her homeland was. I could never remember. But I loved to hear her laugh.

“I see Mr. Jimmy at night with b-b-books.”

“You see him reading?”

“No, the money b-b-b- …”

“I thought Susy did all the bookkeeping for Bagels and More,” I said, still not getting it.

“But Mr. Jimmy, he does secret b-b-b ..”

And then I got it. Jimmy was skimming money from the books. It explained a lot. His wife was constantly complaining about how they weren’t making any money, despite the steady stream of regular bagel customers coming in and huge volume of the chewy, fresh-baked treats going out.

Was Jimmy saving for secret retirement? For a secret escape from the Bitch Wife? Did he have a gambling habit? I never found out.

Not long after Jessamine told me her secret, I showed up for work one morning to find the entire Bagels and More building was just a smoking hole in the ground. The fire truck was there, and so was Susy, her bun slightly askew, her face smoky and tear-streaked. Jimmy was there too, looking kind of embarrassed, like he was trying to look more upset than he really was.

“Looks like the electric ignition for one of the ovens stuck in the ‘ON’ position,” the firefighter was saying. Susy sobbed. You could almost feel sorry for her, although she was generally the most unsympathetic woman I’ve ever met.

Jimmy put his arm around her. “Thank God I got the records out,” he told her. “Got here just in time.”

There under his arm were the b-b-books Jessamine had spoken of. And presumably the real books were gone in the ashes, never to reveal how much money had been siphoned off for Jimmy’s own, unspecified purposes.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” I said to both Jimmy and Susy, as she cried and he comforted, and the fire engine’s red lights flashed in the ocean-wet air.

“Looks like you’re out of a job, buddy,” Jimmy said.

“Yeah, I know. But I feel bad for you guys. Your whole business is gone.”

“Oh, we had insurance. We’re gonna be OK. Aren’t we, Susy?” Jimmy said.

“Shut up, you wimp,” Susy said.

“Shhh, she’s just upset,” Jimmy said to her, and to me.

“Um, Jimmy? Today was supposed to be payday. I don’t suppose …”

Jimmy shook his head sadly. “All the payroll records went up in the fire.”

“But you know I’ve worked here all week, right?” I tried.

“Sorry, no way I can help you,” he said.

“Come on, why don’t you just write me a check?”

“Why don’t you just fucking GET LOST,” Susy offered.

I tried to leave with my head up. I walked with some dignity to my car, not cursing or weeping or anything, and I got in and tried to drive away. But by then I had that crappy Pontiac Sunfire with the bad fuel pump, and it wouldn’t start. So I kicked the passenger side door a few times and walked home.

I never saw Jessamine again. I could never figure out how to find her, or if she just got spooked when she saw the building was burnt down, or what. I thought she’d turn up at another restaurant somewhere, some day. I still look for her whenever I go to restaurants in the greater Central Florida area.

When I think of Jessamine, my heart feels a little like a bagel–puffy, with a hole all the way through the middle.

So after that, I stopped working at restaurants. I tried telemarketing, then janitorial work, and then finally got a job here at Pet Palace. It’s a puppy mill, for sure, but I like the animals and they like me. Although the store chimp did try to bite me once as I changed its diaper.

At least I get a paycheck from here every week. And I live close enough to ride a bike over, since my last car, that old Corolla, burst into flames one day on the expressway.

There are no datable women at Pet Palace, but when the puppies lick my fingers through their cage bars, I feel less lonely.

And for a while last January, I had the privilege of reviewing my romantic history of Florida restaurant work every day when the mail arrived. I had a letter from Marcy. One from Donna. One from Susy.

These were the ladies of my past, and apparently they remembered me well enough to write–or at least, to send my W-2 forms.


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