Mr. Spatz made a deliberate show of looking at his watch while shaking his head. He removed a pen from his shirt pocket and began tapping it on the edge of the clipboard he held. "Well, Mister Jenkins, it looks as if you are late again."
Our eyes met for a moment, and I then looked down toward my ten-dollar pleather shoes, as if to say, yes, I am tardy again, and I apologize for my stupidity and pray for compassion and understanding on your part, oh exalted manager of Peachy Burroughs Terrace, Fine Dining at the P.B. Country Club.
"I cut myself shaving and it wouldn't stop bleeding. I practically bled to death. See?" I said, pointing to my shirt.
Mr. Spatz looked at my shirt suspiciously, raising his eyebrows as if it was an elaborate hoax. I knew that he was filling out an EDF (Employee Disciplinary Form) that would require my signature when finished.
I continued with my excusplanation. "I was trying to get the bleeding to stop, which it wouldn't, and when I realized what time it was I rushed over here and in the process forgot my employee identification card." I put my hand to the cut on my chin. The little piece of TP was gone and it still bled ever so slightly. Mr. Spatz shook his head again, his favorite gesture, as if his world was just filled with one unbelievable disappointment after the other.
"I know you know this, but I'm telling you this so that you will know I know you know this. You are on some seriously thin ice around here, Mister Jenkins. This is your third strike. Normally we terminate employees on their third strike, but in your case I am going to make an exception." Mr. Spatz scribbled on his clipboard as he spoke. "I am not going to fire you. I am putting you on probation. You are a good busboy, you work hard, but you are late for work far too often." Spatz stopped writing for a moment and shot a glance in my direction. He eyed my crotch and shook his head again.
I looked down and noticed my pants were unzipped, which explained the draft. "It won't happen again," I said, waiting until Spatz returned his attention to his clipboard before reaching for my open fly.
"Each time I have been assured that it will not happen again. This is your fourth tardy in two months. Look, Mister Jenkins, I'm not here to give you a hard time. I want you to succeed. I want you to have a long, happy employment here at Peachy Burroughs." Mr. Spatz flashed me his trademarked unctuous smile as he handed me the clipboard. "Please sign here."
I'd been accused of being late, of forgetting my employee identification card, of having a dirty uniform, and of improper hygiene (not shaving completely). I informed Mr. Spatz that I was growing a mustache. The employee handbook stated that mustaches were the only facial hair employees were allowed to cultivate. Goatees, beards, sideburns lower than the earlobe, or any other creative types of facial hair were strictly verboten, as were visible tattoos, piercings, and unnatural hair colors, but the employee handbook said I could have a mustache.
Mr. Spatz looked even more disappointed than usual. "I don't know if I would call that a mustache, but very well. I'll strike that comment from the record." I signed the form. He handed me my pink copy that said For Employees Records at the bottom. "Now, chop chop," Spatz said, clapping his hands. "Clean your face off and get your vest on. There is a dining room to set up." Mr. Spatz turned to leave but paused a moment. "I will be studying your performance closely this afternoon, Mister Jenkins. Any more mess ups and you'll be no longer employed here at Peachy Burroughs." Then he was gone.
I went into the employee bathroom and washed my face but my cut still bled. I grabbed the vest from my locker and went down to the first aid kit in the kitchen for a Band-Aid. The only bandages were the size of a large butterfly. I had no choice. My little black and gold vest almost but not quite covered the blood on my shirt.
The other busboy, Cirilo, was already busy setting the tables. Cirilo was never late. He never forgot his employee identification card or arrived with blood all over his white shirt. Plus Cirilo was so fast and efficient he made everyone else seem incompetent. Cirilo already had half the dining room set up. He'd wiped down the tables with a damp towel, spread out the tablecloths, set the salt, pepper and candles. Now he was setting out the side plates. I grabbed a rack of wine glasses. The wine glasses were tricky. Leaving fingerprints meant signing an EDF for mishandling of glassware.
When Cirilo finished the plates, he wheeled a cart full of silverware around the dining room. At each seat he placed two forks, two spoons and two knives. Fine dining meant using extra plates and silverware. Instead of polishing the silverware before he set it, Cirilo somehow palmed all the utensils in a way that left no mark. He shuffled them out like cards, only stopping occasionally to polish ones that weren't shining quite enough. And damn he was fast. Even though he had to place six pieces of silverware for every wineglass, he was still catching up to me. Pretty soon we stood at the same table.
"Buenos dias," I said.
"Hola, amigo," he said. We shook hands with a slide and a snap, and then bumped our fists together. "Amigo," he said, "you do the coffee and iced tea. Do the sopas. I'll do this." He pointed to the rack of wineglasses I held.
"Okay," I said, and went to the rear corner of the dining room. I brewed coffee and iced tea. I brewed some decaf. I ate a package of oyster crackers and sucked on an ice cube. I went into the kitchen and got two soup pots from the cooks, the clam chowder we had every night and salmon bisque, the soup du jour. One of the cooks asked me what happened, pointing to the bandage on my chin. I looked at the cook whose name I didn't know, studying his bushy mustache and the toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth. I wanted to tell him that I had cut myself because I was distracted by my decision to grow a mustache, but knew any man with such a healthy mustache would never understand.
I shrugged my shoulders. "Muy borracho," I said, and everybody in the kitchen burst out laughing, even the dishwasher with the lazy eye and the broken teeth. I couldn't tell whether they thought I was funny or stupid. I wasn't even sure what I thought myself.
I took the soup pots into the dining room. I filled the bread warmer with a few bags of sourdough rolls, and then took one out and gnawed on a corner of it like a caged rodent. Mr. Spatz suddenly swept into the room, inspecting the table setup and the general appearance of everything. He didn't have his EDF clipboard with him, but I knew it was probably close at hand. I quickly tossed the roll I was eating into the garbage. Eating rolls was grounds for an EDF.
Spatz stalked through the dining room with his hands behind his back and his sharp eye searching for any flaw in the dining aesthetic. He paused and leaned in close at one table in particular. He carefully picked a wine glass up by the stem and held it toward the window. He wanted to know who had set the wine glasses out. Spatz stared me down, and I became painfully aware of the background muzak.
Of course it was one of the wineglasses I'd set out. I wanted to confess my mishandling of glassware, but still had a mouthful of sourdough and could not immediately speak. Cirilo approached Spatz and said that he had set the tables. Spatz set the wineglass back on the table and told him he had done an excellent job. Superb, he said. He patted Cirilo on the shoulder and then looked back at me. He told me he hoped I was taking notes. I didn't know whether to feel relieved that I wasn't in trouble or angry that Cirilo had stolen a tiny piece of praise that could have been mine.
Cirilo carried a bucket of ice over to the rear of the dining room, and poured it into the extra large ice bin next to the ice tea machine. When the ice bin was nearly empty in the morning it was possible to read a warning label attached to the side near the bottom of it. It read this ice chest is not intended to store ice for human consumption. One of our most important jobs as busboys was to keep this ice bin filled, brimming so the label was always covered with the ice we used for waters and ice teas. Not intended to store ice for human consumption. I always felt confused in the face of it, paralyzed by this moral dilemma.
I walked over to where Cirilo was filling the ice bin. I thanked him for telling Spatz that he had set the tables. I was glad he had taken the focus off of me.
"I thought he was being very mad. I think he want to fire you." Cirilo began pouring ice tea into a few portable pitchers, for refills.
"He told me one more mess up and I'm gone." I suddenly realized what a long day it was going to be, with Spatz watching my every move, waiting for any mistake at all. I hated long days, so I tried to let it go. Just pretend I didn't even care anymore. Maybe I'd even try to get fired.
"Mister Jenkins, please clean the windows before we open." I turned around and found Spatz behind me, holding a squeegee. "You know where the Windex is."
I took the squeegee and retrieved the window cleanser. As I sprayed and squeegeed the windows, I decided that whole quitting and/or getting fired on purpose line of logic I had been exploring was a little premature. No reason to rush things. Just because I didn't care whether I got fired or not didn't mean termination should be an immediate goal. The money at Peachy Burroughs was good, so good that I was often left speechless while counting the pile of twenty-dollar bills I had been stashing under my mattress at home. It was enough to make me forget all the bad things and focus on the good.
Having that much money just lying around made me believe I was well on my way toward the illustrious world of success and notoriety. I was thinking about going to Vegas, thinking of rolling seven after seven at the craps table. I would have a big baggy mustache. The dealer would call me Mr. Jenkins, or maybe he would call me Mr. Mustache, which would become my nickname because of my amazing facial amendment. The busty cocktail waitress would slip me her phone number while eyeing my stack of chips. Smoking a Chesterfield and sipping on my complimentary Long Island iced tea, I would laugh remembering my days as a lowly busboy at Peachy Burroughs.
"Mister Jenkins, chop chop." Spatz clapped his hands behind me. I dropped the squeegee mid squeeg. "I do believe that window is clean." I had cleaned the same window about ten times in a row, leaving it so spotless it had practically vanished.
I moved on to the next window. Spray, squeegee, wipe. Spray, squeegee, wipe. I had found my rhythm. I was a lean, mean squeegee machine.
A few people in suits and dresses milled around outside the front door. It was five minutes until the dining room opened for business, and usually there were a few tables worth of people waiting to bust the doors down and commence their fine dining experience. The first diners of the day always had a hurried immediacy to them, engulfing their basket of rolls and polishing off their beverages as if they had been waiting for weeks. And boy were they cranky if you didn't refill their ice teas and coffees before they were halfway finished. Boy did they let you know when they needed more bread and butter. They liked to snap their fingers and say, Garçon, more bread and butter, toot sweet.
Candy pulled up in her little Honda Civic just as I was cleaning the very last window. Candy was the opening waitress, and had signed her fair share of EDFs. She was late. I saw her spring from the car with her hair confused, her white shirt halfway buttoned, the cigarette hanging from her lips one drag away from the filter. Mr. Spatz unlocked the front door to let the extravagant loiterers into the Peachy Burroughs Terrace, and the line of customers spilling into the dining room blocked my view.
Mr. Spatz sat three tables. He flashed the same pained smile while explaining the daily specials and soup that he did while extolling the virtues of proper dining etiquette to trainees, or pointing out someone's failure to perform within the expected parameters. His smile made Spatz look like he suffered from a painful and extended constipation.
Because Candy wasn't ready to take tables yet, Mr. Spatz pulled Andrew out of the bar and made him take drink orders from these people. Andrew the bartender was big in every way. He had at one time been an offensive lineman at some collegiate level, and now was bald as an onion and unpredictably emotional. He was known to throw bar patron's tips back at them at high velocity when they left him coins and break down into hysterics while watching college football. Today Andrew was smiling huge, each of his teeth many inches wide.
"Hey, you," he said to me. Andrew never remembered my name. Charlie I told him. "Charlie? Yeah, Charlie. Will you take some bread out?" I shrugged and told him I guessed so. His smile faded and he gave me a dark look like take the bread or else. So I took the bread. Some people have no sense of humor.
Cirilo dropped the water. I dropped the bread. Andrew walked out from the cocktail lounge with a tray full of martinis and cocktails, and also a bottle of champagne in an ice bucket. Appetizers, anyone want appetizers? he asked. One table ordered the crab cakes. Another table ordered the artichoke picata. The last table just wanted to sip on their champagne for a while.
A group of three people walked in the front door and stood next to the Please wait to be seated sign. Since Mr. Spatz was nowhere to be seen, I took the initiative. It was a younger couple with an older man. The couple wore matching tennis outfits that made them look like some freaky combination of sibling and spouse, with feathered blond hair and sparkling teeth. The older man wore a blue blazer with a tiny insignia like a coat of arms on one side and a white captain's hat, as if he had sailed to Peachy Burroughs in his yacht, even though the nearest marina was about two hundred miles away. I gave them some menus. Cirilo dropped some water. I dropped some bread. We stood around in the rear of the dining room with our hands clasped together behind our backs like we'd been trained to do, waiting for something to happen.
After a minute or so Mr. Spatz stormed in from the kitchen. His hair was gone. I hadn't even known that Mr. Spatz wore a hairpiece. Without it he looked diminished, frail, a mere stick figure compared to his former self. He turned to face Cirilo and me. The fury wrinkling his extended forehead and the glint in his eyes gave me the urge to drop to the ground and go fetal to protect my vital organs.
"Dios mio," Cirilo muttered.
"Mister Jenkins, I've changed my mind about you. You are no longer on probation. You are fired. You can pick up your final paycheck tomorrow morning." Mr. Spatz looked down at his suit, ever so slightly ruffled by whatever force of nature had removed his toupee. He pulled on the bottom of his silvery jacket, sweeping a hand over its surface in an attempt to smooth over any discrepancies. Mr. Spatz was accustomed to making discrepancies disappear with a wave of his hand. He looked back at Cirilo and me. Neither of us had moved. We both stared at Mr. Spatz with our mouths hanging open. "Is there a problem, Mister Jenkins?"
"What happened to your hair?" I asked, since I was fired anyway.
Mr. Spatz' eyes pointed quickly up toward his forehead, as if he could inspect his hair though the top of his head. Then he returned his gaze to me, as cold and hard as an ice cube. "Please leave the premises." He waved me off with a pass of his hand, as if I were just another discrepancy needing a quick fix. He told Cirilo to follow him, and the two of them left me standing alone next to the two-way door to the kitchen. As Spatz walked past me I noticed that one side of his face was red, a slightly swollen discoloration about the size of an open hand.
I wanted to throw a tantrum. I wanted to scream Fuck You Asshole at Mr. Spatz. I wanted to tell him that bussing tables was the worst job I'd ever had, and I'd had some horrible jobs. I'd cleaned stables. I'd cleaned toilets. I'd worked the graveyard shift at an all night donut shop. I'd done horrible things and this had been the most horrible, the king of all royally screwed up occupations. I wanted to rip my stupid vest off and throw it into Spatz' stupid face.
I did none of those things. I walked through the door into the kitchen and past the cooks and the lazy-eyed dishwasher. I walked up the stairs to the employee break room, taking one slow step at a time and unbuttoning my vest as I went. As I reached the top of the stairs I removed my vest and crumpled it into a wad of material. I had visions of slamming it down in the trashcan in the employee break room. But then I decided I would keep the vest as collateral, until I got my paycheck. It felt almost like I was taking a hostage.
I found Candy in the break room applying a coat of lipstick with the help of a small mirror. She had straight blonde hair and a quick smile, and when she spoke her voice sounded like it was filtering through gravel lodged in her throat. When she turned and saw me, her face lit up. "Hey, Charlie. How you doing?"
I wanted to tell her it was going crappy, but instead I said I was okay.
"Hey, look at you. Growing a mustache, huh?"
At that moment I loved Candy. Candy was always telling me I reminded her of her son. Sometimes at the end of our shift she would pull me aside and slide me five extra bucks, telling me I was the best-damned water pourer she had ever seen. She was the oldest waitress at Peachy Burroughs, a single mother with a teenager, and she was prone to long, tired sighs. She once told me she had ventured to the dark end of the street that mothers warned their children about. She had hit the dead end sign at full speed and somehow bounced back to the land of streetlights and sidewalks.
"Yeah. My new nickname is going to be Mister Mustache." Candy smiled at me and I smiled back. When the smile faded off her face I noticed the redness of her eyes, and she was sniffling.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Oh, what's not the matter?" She smacked her lips together and put her tiny mirror back in her purse. She began tucking her shirt in. "My son is going to send me to an early grave. Either that, or I'll kill myself trying to get away from him."
"What'd he do now?"
"He's in the hospital. He ODed on heroin last night. Fifteen years old and a junkie. Can you believe it? Supposedly he's very lucky to be alive. I guess I'm the unlucky one."
I'd seen pictures of her son before, bright blue eyes magnified by his glasses and straight brown hair parted down the middle. I tried to picture her son with a needle in his arm. I couldn't. "Oh my God," I said. "That sucks."
"Of course, Mister Spatz was very understanding. We all know how understanding Mister Spatz is." Candy rolled her eyes.
"Yeah, tell me about it. He just decided to fire me out of nowhere. He told me I could pick up my paycheck tomorrow."
"Ah, honey. I'm sorry to hear that."
I slammed the vest into the wastebasket, knocking it over and sending paper cups and napkins spilling across the floor.
"You're lucky, Charlie. You're young. You've got your whole life in front of you. You don't need this place. You don't need Spatz breathing down your neck every day. I wish I could get the hell out of here." Candy smoothed the wrinkles out of her shirt with a few gentle passes of her hands. "Someday you're not going to be able to walk away. Believe me, if I could I would quit right now. I'd tell Spatz to take his EDFs and shove them up his ass."
Candy tied her apron around her waist and tucked her purse into her locker. When she turned around I caught a glimpse of something furry nestled in one of her apron pockets. It looked like it might spring from her apron any moment and scurry away. She reached down and stroked it once, and then stuffed it further into the pocket so it was out of sight. I wanted to ask her how she had ended up with Spatz's toupee in her possession, but I didn't really want to know. Candy reached into her apron held the toupee out toward me by the scruff of its neck.
"Would you like a souvenir of your stay here at Peachy Burroughs?"
I studied the tangle of hair in her hands, wondering what I could do with it. I thought about holding it for ransom. I considered whether I might be able to construct some sort of fake mustache with it, something so manly that people would have no choice but to stare and think, who is that guy?
"I better not, but thanks anyway. Not just for that, but for everything. You know, for being so nice to me."
"Don't mention it, Mister Mustache." Candy flashed a smile while she tucked the hairpiece back into her apron, and then gave me a hug. "Take care of yourself." She turned and exited the break room, leaving only the scent of her flowery perfume mingled with hair spray.
I reached up and touched my upper lip absent-mindedly, surprised by the proliferation of bristles there. No doubt about it — my mustache was filling in nicely.