Alissa Nielsen, 6/12/2011
Current Occupation: Teaching Assistant. Chocolate-and-wine pusher at Pix Patisserie.
Former Occupation: Dishwasher, busser, host, server, barista, cafe manager, zine curator/librarian, editor, tutor, English teacher . . . in that order.
Contact Information: Alissa Nielsen is a fiction writer, editor and teacher. Her work has appeared in The Raven Chronicles, Ellipsis, and Prick of the Spindle. She studied literature and writing at Charles University in Prague, The Evergreen State College, and earned her MFA from Pacific University. Currently, she lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is working on a collection of short stories.
Beyond the Bay
It had been a long night. Kelley slipped from the covers, Araby at the edge, her shoulders wrapped in a thin, white sheet. He switched off the alarm and slid into his work pants.
“I’ll stop by later . . .” she said.
He patted through a couple pairs of jeans to find his wallet.
“Before I go,” she finished.
He sat at the foot of the bed, pulled on his socks, and stayed hunched, staring at a knot in the hardwoods. “Ara—” he sighed.
“I should really sleep,” she said, shifting her body with careful strain toward the wall. Early morning flare-up, he guessed. Osteoarthritis—early on for a woman in her forties, though not unheard of. He stood, one hand to his chest, trying to draw strength from some spot that hadn’t been whittled to a pulp.
In the kitchen, he downed four aspirin with the dregs of the OJ, laced his slip-resistant boots, and walked the dunes to work, hours before his scheduled shift. The air was damp, clouds gravid with rain. A boat moaned against the dock, one oar creaking at the hinge. Gulls keened.
He slogged through the back entrance, wasted tired, and pulled the strings for the fluorescent lights, each calming after the initial spazzy flicker. The kitchen smelled of bleach, artificial lemon floor soap, the toxic sting of griddle cleaner. He ran hot water into the coffee pitcher, and slid a basket with filter in the grinder clamps. The scent of dark roast filled the air. He liked the quiet of the early morning, before Rios blasted the music, before the yelling, the sizzle-bang-crash, though, in truth, he enjoyed that too. Not that he liked getting slammed. It was
more the building of the rush that he reveled in, a controlled chaos, and the satisfying relief of making it through as things started to die down. He used to work prep, scheduled smack in the heat of lunch hour—it felt like getting into the game just before it was over, going straight from sitting to sprinting. Kelley’s strength was endurance, pacing; Araby called him the long-distance type.
She’d trained him, Bennison Bay Restaurant being small enough for the owner to break in new hires. Had to fill out the accident form after a pot boiled over onto Kelley’s bare arm. His flesh had turned pink and shiny, iridescent as an onion. Araby calmly dialed 911, asked Kelley, Date of birth? penciling his answers as he tried to breathe through the pain, Eight, twenty-eight, sixty-eight, he could barely speak. I’m an August baby, myself, she said, except I’ve got six years on you. She sat by him in the ambulance—their first date, they laughed about it later. He recalled lying in that ambulance, skin burning, head woozy, hazed from the painkillers, her calm, soft face looking over him, and feeling a dreamy sense of molting, starting anew. Sure he pissed away most of his twenties on his dad’s rig inAlaska, partying at bars, dating (if you could call it that), but working at The Bay turned things around—he’d found his passion, met Araby, started a life with her in that kitchen.
Kelley opened the walk-in to see what they’d have to prep. The door suctioned closed with a heavy click, the fan whirred. He scanned the huge cylinder containers, labeled and dated, on the steel-grated shelves—romaine to chop, carrots to shred, scallions to dice, slaw and sides. He slid out a shallow pan with only about an inch of chowder—need clam juice before they could start on that, he thought, which meant waiting for the Sysco guy, which meant overall back-up on prep. Just past the eggs, he found some pickled vegetables, in the fridge for who knows why, marked over a year ago. Araby’s signature. The beautiful, elegant scrawl made him burn. Six years; just throwing it all away, he thought, as he backed out the door, heaps of produce in his arms. He dumped everything on the stainless steel table, and then stood at the sink, scrubbing between his fingers, glancing at the clock. He’d be training one of the prep cooks to work the line today, not something he was looking forward to, but the kid had more than earned it, working doubles, covering shifts. Kelley finished cleaning the romaine, chopped and filled the squares of green to the top of the container, diced tomatoes off the white board, into the cylinder, organized the remaining produce in the walk-in.
Slowly, the day shifters arrived—Jensea, always early, stumbled in with two bloated bags, unsnapped her bike helmet, water trickling down the reservoir of her raincoat.
“Shit weather out there,” she said, her waterproof pants sloshing as she crossed the kitchen. She stopped at the swinging door. “You look like crap, Boss. Another all-night bender?”
Kelley shook his head. “Something like that.”
“Liquor before beer,” she chimed, heading toward the restroom.
Kelley sopped up Jensea’s puddle, his head pounding. He did feel hungover.
Paxton stumbled in, one arm around Bernadette. She was laughing, the soundless kind you see in the eyes.
“Mornin, sir,” Paxton said, tagging his coat over a hook. Kelley hadn’t been able to break him of the “sir” habit. At the interview, he’d pegged Paxton as a slacker—his arms inked with skull and bird tattoos, one silver hoop in his lip, like a hooked fish—but he’d turned out to be a real natural, and a damn hard worker.
Bernadette had slipped out of her shiny red coat and was on a stool next to the counter, paging through her anatomy cards—patella ligament, tibialis antenor, peroneus longus, soleus. She had the test for her massage license coming up. Her serving shift didn’t start until noon, but she usually came in when Paxton was scheduled. Kelley disliked the idea of staff dating, but everyone knew about him and Araby, and, well, he couldn’t bear being a total hypocrite.
“So,” Paxton said, already in his chef shirt, rubbing his hands eagerly. “We starting with oysters, then?”
Kelley eyed the kid. “Sure,” he said, fighting the urge to tousle his hair. “Grab that knife, the funny-looking one.” Shucking oysters was tricky; it had taken Kelley months of training with Araby to get it right.
See this, K? she’d said, coming in from the ocean, drops sliding down the sheen of her stringy hair. You got to hold down tight, she said, palming the oyster with her left hand, knife in the other—it had a short, stout blade with a downward curve at the tip end. The trick is to jimmy the knife in and cut the muscle so it’ll unclamp. She slipped the tip into the shell, sawed, said, There! See? She pried open the shell to reveal pale gray meat, purple and bits of black on the edges. She tipped it into her mouth—it made his breath catch, watching the soft curve of her neck, imagined the oyster slipping down the back of her throat. Smiling, she leaned forward and dug into the bucket, slammed a European Flat on the cutting board and narrowed her eyes, Now you, and slid the knife to him.
“That’s right,” Kelley said to Paxton, examining the oyster. “Just make sure you don’t tear the meat. Damages the presentation.”
Paxton was careful in his arranging, delicately placing each shell around the shimmery red cocktail sauce. Took him about fifteen minutes, from start to finish. Not bad for the first go-around.
“Y’know,” Kelley said. “Araby can shuck thirty of those in under a minute.”
“Naw.” Paxton stared at the plate. “You’re shittin me.”
“Probably could’ve set the world record, if she cared about that kind of thing. Anyway,” he nodded at several orders dangling a safe distance over the stove, “just three more and we’re golden.”
“Yes, sir,” Paxton said, and pulled more oysters from the bin.
“I love this town,” Kelley said, flicking the slips. “Half-shells. Eleven a.m. and everyone wants half-shells.”
Of course Araby couldn’t shuck oysters anymore, not a one. Arthritis so bad and the meds just stopped helping. One day she was sautéing scallops and her elbow locked, the pan fell to the ground, oil scalding her calf clear through her work pants. They thought she’d be okay if she just cooked less, managed inventory, bills, the schedule. But even being at the computer was too painful; she’d talk of a sharp ache through her fingers, burning at the tendons. She’d lost weight, used warm water soaks, hot and cold packs, took her Paracetamol, swam regularly at the pool, but the relief was only temporary. She’d become snippy with how Kelley ran the kitchen, then she fell behind, insisting it was lack of sleep, the medication, or the weather; it took a while for Kelley to realize that she’d slipped into a pretty serious depression. Thinking back—he realized that things weren’t perfect, but they’d made such great partners, fantastic actually. And now, all this talk about going to stay with Lucy, maybe even moving down to Phoenix to be with her sister—better climate, closer to family. All these plans, her plans, really. And then, of course, there was everything else they’d managed to avoid.
“Order up,” a server yelled and smacked three slips on the spinner. Lunch rush.
“Okay,” Kelley said, grabbing the orders. “Two lobsters and three steaks—Calhoun, that’s all you, cowboy—two medium, one bloody—and one, two, five—six side salads and two chowders go to prep, and hold the tomato on this one—allergies, people!—Jensea says table eight needs to be bussed, that’s eight, Johnnie, eight, the little one in the corner—and here,” he handed Paxton a couple slips, “these are for you—crab cakes, just four, and a drizzle of coconut chutney, yeah?”
“Only two cakes left, Kel,” Rios said, still managing a full stove.
“Shit,” Kelley glanced at the orders, face flushed.
“No problem,” Paxton said, paging through the recipe book. “I can whip these up.”
“Okay,” Kelley said, assessing the plates waiting to go out, edging a splash of chowder with a dry towel. “Halibut for table six is nice, Rios. Redo for number eight, though.” He shoved the plates to the side. “Turn the burner down, yeah?”
“Balls,” Rios shook his head. “I’m on it.” His dark hair was curling up at the neck, glistening with sweat.
“You need a break from those burners?” Kelley asked.
“Naw, I’m just warming up,” he said, two spatulas conducting.
Kelley tidied some plates, rang the bell. Calhoun slid two stunning dishes in front of him—god damn, he could grill.
“Man, those are some sexy steaks,” Kelley said.
Calhoun gave a smug grin. “Pax on top of things?”
“Yeah, he’s got it.” Kelley took off his hat and rubbed a hand over his bristly hair.
“Hey!” Jensea pounded the bell. “That bachelorette party needs their crab.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Paxton said, molding the cakes. “Almost up.”
“Don’t worry, kid.” Calhoun elbowed him. “Those girls? Probably already have crabs, know what I mean?”
“Shoot,” Jensea said, rolling her eyes. “You really should work on some new material.” She slapped a couple orders on the spinner, slipped a pen in her hair and teetered off through the restaurant, balancing a platter on her arm.
Everyone sprinted around the kitchen, narrowly dodging elbows and flailing knives, bowls of steaming crawfish bisque, skillets popping with hot oil. Kelley could feel it all surfacing, the rush, moving like a living organism, every part of the kitchen breathing, circulating, pulsing and he, Kelley, the core.
“Kel, these all right?” Rios showed him two plates of halibut.
“My man,” Kelley said. “Slap a little rouge on those puppies and they’d win MissAmerica!” He always got a little punchy when things were moving, a spinning boyish giddiness, but still focused, always attempting control.
Kelley grabbed more orders from the wheel, left them dangling at each station.
“Can you get these two, boss?” Rios asked, about the salmon.
Jacksonlooked like he was barely holding on with sauté and sauces, and Calhoun’s slips went on for miles. “Sure thing,” Kelley said and grabbed a spatula from the rack, noticed the cut-out taped to the wall—off to the hungry sea, stomachs of the wealthy. It was curling up at the edges, spats of yellow from the stove, but enough stick to hold.
Araby used to collage the kitchen in these random phrases clipped from the Times—I need your diamonds and jewelry on the register, Now stuffed with more beef in the meat freezer, Flee from fornication on the telephone, Because we are crooked and evil by nature on the safe. She was quirky like that, charming. Then he found Like it was the last day of your life, up above the stove. It was a small creative gesture, subtle, but he could’ve sworn everyone worked extra hard that day. She knew how to get people riled, inspired. It stung Kelley, really rattled him, thinking of Araby now, her quiet fragility, embarrassed disposition, her always-irritated tone, fearful and aloof.
“All right. Listen up,” Kelley said, and divvied out the orders. “We’re on the last leg, we just have to push through this round.” He got no reaction and for a moment wondered if anyone had heard him.
“The eight-top wants to talk to the chef,” Jensea yelled through the window. “Table ten, bachelorette with crabs.” She winked at Calhoun.
“What?” Kelley said. “I don’t remember those going out.”
“Sorry,” Paxton peeled off his plastic gloves, wiping his hands, smoothed out his apron. “I just thought they needed to get out ASAP.”
“Okay,” Kelley said, feeling a bit woozy—he hated talking to upset customers. “I’ll take the heat. Next time, no matter what, you check in with me.”
“Absolutely. Thanks,” Paxton sighed, teeth clicking nervously over his lip ring.
Kelley double-checked for food splatters on his chef smock, apron, and face. Arranged his hat and walked out to ten and eleven. One of the women was a checker at Thrifty’s, but he didn’t recognize the others. The table was split by two conversations, both intense. He loomed, feeling the heat rise in his cheeks, scanned each plate for the crab cakes.
“Oh, good,” a woman said, looking up at him. She had shoulder-length crimped blonde hair, like lightning bolts. Attractive, though older than he’d expected, hands of a woman well into her forties.
“Good afternoon, Miss. I’m the manager, how’s the food?” God, he felt awkward. Why couldn’t he be one of those casual-conversation types?
She stirred the olives in her Martini. “Unexpected,” she said.
The table went quiet.
Kelley crossed his arms, straightened. “Unexpected?” he asked. She nodded, pressing her glossy lips. Now he remembered her—she was a regular, way back, years ago; she’d changed her hair color, lost weight. Used to be a sous at the pricey joint on 27th. A shudder ran through him, she knows, he thought. He’d had this happen before, been lambasted by people familiar with Araby’s style. She’d found him out—he was a fraud masquerading as a chef, and owner. It made him feel simple, the way this woman looked at him, like he was a beginner again.
“You remember me?” the woman asked. “I used to come in here a lot.”
“Yes, ma’am. Dungeness, with garden salad, balsamic on the side. Sometimes crab cakes. The martini, I don’t remember. That’s new.”
“It’s celebratory,” she said, took a sip. “I’m getting a divorce.”
“Ah.” Kelley glanced down at his boots. He wasn’t sure what to say, that is, he understood these things were sometimes for the best, but it hardly seemed appropriate to congratulate.
“Well, look at that,” the woman chimed. “She’s still here.”
Araby was standing in the entrance, that huge wool shawl of hers wrapped around her like a tornado. Kelley’s tongue went dry, cotton-mouthed as the first time they met.
He tried to focus on the table. “And the food?”
The woman reached, held up a tiny green square. “Since when did you start putting jalapeños in your crab cakes?”
Oh, shit, Kelley thought. Jalapeños? With crab? “I’m so sorry.” He scooped the plate from the table. “Let me redo this, it’ll only take a couple minutes.”
“It’s not that they’re bad,” she said. “Just, well, if we’d known, Carol hates spicy foods.”
“Of course,” he said. “Those’ll be right up. I’ll be sure to knock an extra twenty-five percent off the bill. Anything else?”
She looked to her friends who all seemed content. “The rest was lovely. Thank you.”
“Wonderful. Enjoy the remainder of your meal,” he said. “And congratulations.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Bennison.” It was Araby’s maiden name, but he didn’t blame her, everyone made that mistake.
Kelley leaned on the host stand. “This might be the first time I’ve ever seen you walk through the front door of your own restaurant.”
Araby unwrapped her shawl, pulled it over her head, a wild mess of brown-gray hair at her shoulders. “I thought I’d sit for a while, until it slows down. Then maybe we could talk.”
“Sure,” Kelley said, his voice soft, trying to counteract the hardness in hers. “Shouldn’t be long, just have to . . . you know—”
They stood, silent. She rubbed at her hands, then started toward a booth.
“Ara?” he asked. “Can I bring you anything?”
She stared at him. “I’m not here to eat, K.”
“Right.” He put his palm on the table, patted it gently. “I’ll be out soon, then.”
Kelley hustled to the kitchen, glanced around. “Anyone seen Paxton?”
Rios shook his head.
“No, Boss,” Jensea said. “Smoke break, maybe?”
“Right,” he opened the back door. “And let’s go ahead and make up more crab cakes for table ten? And take a quarter off the bill, yeah?” He made sure to get nods from both Rios and Jensea before turning outside.
Calhoun was finishing a cigarette.
“You know where Paxton is?”
Calhoun shrugged, looking up at the gray sky. “I must have been crazy to leave Saint Kitts for the goddamnPacific Northwest.”
“Yeah,” Kelley took a breath. “Weather sucks here.” He tried to comfort, knowing that Calhoun was going through a rough patch. “But what were you going to do, stay with your girlfriend who doesn’t like to eat? I mean, what’s that? There’d be nice weather, yeah, but what would you guys talk about?”
Calhoun gave him a twisted look. “That don’t matter. So what if she don’t talk food?”
“Look, we’re slowing down,” Kelley said. “You can go ahead and clock out whenever,” he said, glancing at the full bins, wondering if he’d forgotten to pay the garbage bill.
“Sure thing,” Calhoun said and squashed the butt into a notch of the brick wall.
Inside, Kelley noticed inventory still had to be done. Screw it, he thought, tossing the crab cakes in the trash, then opened the walk-in. “Let Pax know I’m looking for him,” he said to all in range.
The fridge door closed, and Kelley was face-to-face with Bernadette, tugging at her shirt, all big-eyed. Paxton stood next to her, flushed, half-grin.
“What the hell?” Kelley said. “Jesus. What are you guys, thirteen?”
“Sorry,” Bernadette said, ironing her hair with a palm. “God, this is embarrassing.”
Paxton slid his hand over Bernadette’s goose flesh, but otherwise didn’t budge.
“Get out,” Kelley said. “Paxton—in the office.”
The two shouldered past him, and he was left to inventory the perishables. In a daze, he filled in blanks, made notes, but an unsteadiness started to build in him. Heated, his hands shook and his pulse quickened. The pen dropped from his fingers and onto the steel floor, rolled under the shelving lining refrigerator walls. He gripped one rack and, on an impulse, started shaking it, hard. The metal grating thudded against the walls as containers toppled over, and somewhere, deep in his gut, came a hard rrrrrrrr, cut short by several jars shattering on the ground, pickled vegetables everywhere. He leaned over and placed a thin asparagus in his mouth—so tart, still crunchy, sour-sweet. How? He wanted to ask, How did she do it? But no, they didn’t have those conversations anymore. He felt weak, as if his whole body were collapsing. His face went tight and he closed his eyes, feeling the cold air circulate. Then he sucked in one long breath, and made his last count, cleaned up, and pushed open the door.
“Jalapeños?” Kelley said, now in the office. “Really?”
“I’m sorry,” Paxton said. He sat on an upturned milk crate, his arms and legs crossed. “They didn’t like it?”
“No, they didn’t. But that’s not even the point. There’s a reason we stick to the recipes. People come here expecting a certain quality of food, not an experiment.”
Paxton stared at his sneakers.
“Because they’re familiar with our menu,” Kelley went on.
“Like at Burger King?” Paxton mumbled into his shoulder.
“What?” Kelley said—Paxton was ordinarily so obedient, respectful. He wanted to reach over and pummel the kid. “Look,” he said, “I’m talking about superior food. Araby’s recipes work, they’ve won awards. If you can’t respect that, I’m not sure you should be working in this kitchen.”
This seemed to get his attention. He straightened, said he was sorry, it wouldn’t happen again, calling Kelley sir for the umpteenth time.
Kelley opened the office door for Paxton. “That’s right it won’t,” he said. “And, Paxton, no more orgies in the walk-in.”
“Aww, really?” Paxton joked.
“Go on,” Kelley said. “Clock out. We’ll see you tomorrow.”
Kelley slipped through the swinging door and into the restaurant. Most of the tables had cleared out, including the eight-top. Only a couple tables, the place quieted into mid-afternoon, rain whipping against the windows, a subtle chorus of violins played through overhead speakers.
He fell into the booth; the lamp dangling overhead felt obnoxiously bright.
Araby closed an issue of Food and Wine. He studied the dusky half-mooned pockets under her eyes. Such distance between them now, it was as if they’d been cracked open and pulled apart; he felt thin, sparse, a stringy, pathetic mess.
“So I’ll be at Lucy’s tonight,” she said, all business. “What’s your schedule? Maybe the movers can come by tomorrow while you’re at work.”
Kelley took a big gulp of water. “Right. That’d be fine.” He could tell she’d taken care in putting herself together that morning, choosing the red shirt he liked, some hair pinned with two barrettes. Ruby nail polish, how easily her hand could cramp up after pinching the plastic handle, how long it might have taken to slip the cool ribbon of paint over each finger. She never wore nail polish before and now—she hated drawing attention to her hands, always called them her knobby bones—it was as if she’d embraced them.
“Christ, this sucks,” she paused, then puffed out a laugh. “You know I never thought anything when my grandma complained about her arthritis, never saw it as such a big deal that it could ruin everything. Or, you know, make everything so different.” She looked up, waited for Kelley to say something, then gave him a gentle smirk. “It’s been mostly good, K. It might be too easy of an excuse, but I really do blame this goddamn body of mine. Wasn’t it, you know, good? Living together at your father’s old place?”
He felt a relief of pressure in his chest. He hadn’t seen the sweet side to Araby in so long. He had an idea in his mind, that perhaps they could both walk away from this appreciative of what they had, but ready to move on. People did that, right? That sounded real good to him, healthy. “It was—” he searched for the right phrase, but ended up repeating her words back. “It was nice for a while.”
Araby looked around. “I have to say, you’re doing an amazing job here. A machine, well-oiled. Food’s excellent, you know, staff adores you. I can really see it, K, you really love it.” She sat back and sucked in a couple breaths.
He reached across the table at her, his empty palm upward. “I know it’s hard for you. I hate that it’s come to this. There were always more write-ups when you were here. And the staff took you seriously. I swear, I can’t get people to listen to me, just today Paxton—”
“Kelley,” she blurted. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to talk about the restaurant. I just wanted to tell you that I think you’re doing a fine job here, truly, a damn fine job, it’s not that.” She went silent, her body closed-off. Self-defense, he guessed.
“What?” he said, the question almost a breath.
“I’ve appreciated all you’ve done, from the beginning: letting me stay with you when the restaurant was in a rears and I had to sell my place, being there for me with every step, trying new recipes together, taking over The Bay after I couldn’t cook,” she wiped at her nose.
“You taught me everything I know.” He said through his teeth. “It’s the least I can do.” There was a tug at him, an anxiety similar to when Araby stopped working, when he first felt the rift grow deeper, and those two questions that soured his stomach late into the night—who is she now and can I still love her? The thought made him goosy, could their love still exist without the tie that bound them? And now that she was leaving, would his dream, everything he’d worked for, be taken from him as well? “Ara, sweetheart?” he pleaded.
She looked at him surprised, probably hadn’t heard him call her that in some time. Araby focused fiercely on the table. “I guess what I want to say is that I need money to move and for doctors and I’m selling the restaurant.”
“To who?” Kelley blurted.
“I don’t know. Whoever can afford it.”
“And that’s not me, is it? Is it Ara?”
“Maybe if you sold the house.”
“I can’t believe this. That you’d sell this place.” There was a crash from the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, what now? If that busser breaks one more glass—”
“K,” she said, “what did you expect? That’d I’d just hand it over to you?”
“I don’t know. I figured it was more than just property. I mean, we earned this place and you’re willing to hand it off to whoever has the money? All of us worked hard for this place, it’s like our home.”
“It’s your home. For others it’s just a job. Don’t try to make this out like I’m taking away people’s home. It’s a business, Kelley. And I’m leaving. What did you expect?”
“You know I can’t sell my father’s place. All of this, Ara? Really? It’s just money to you?”
“It’s not just money. Jesus. It’s so I can afford medicine and be close to my family. Christ, I bought this place because I knew it’d make me feel alive and now I need to sell it . . . . because it’s the only thing I can do to keep going.”
“Your folks could help you.”
“No, Kelley. No. They really can’t. And it doesn’t matter. I’m moving. I have to sell. It’s hard for me too, you know. Look,” she reached out to him, bright red nails, “I know you’d be the perfect person to run this place. Maybe, I don’t know, I could give you a deal.”
“Goddamnit, Araby. You know I don’t have enough.”
“Maybe a loan? Credit cards?”
“Jesus. Isn’t this great. Isn’t this just glorious.”
“It could be good, K, you figuring this all out on your own.”
“That’s such a load.” He shook his head, jaw clenched. “Don’t give me that it’s-for-your-own-good motherly crap. It’ll be all right for you, maybe, but don’t pretend this is some lesson. I wanted to work on this, the restaurant, us. You’re the one that’s running out.”
She gathered up her shawl, wrapped it two times. “Hon, I couldn’t run if I tried,” she said, almost a whisper. “I’m sorry, K, I can’t do this. I have to go.” She stood. “I’m not sure—but we’ll talk.”
Kelley sat with his head in his hands, and still the glow leaked in; he reached up and unscrewed the light. Everything felt suspended, though there was a sense, an instinct in him, that the bulb had rolled off the table and onto the carpet, and then there were the details—would he go home or finish out his shift, because that depended on reservations, the number of servers, if they’d need an extra hand in the kitchen. He felt like he was suffocating, the same stifled feeling he’d had earlier that morning, only worse. God, was this it?
“So—” Kelley heard a voice, peered between his fingers to a couple tables over. A needling started in his chest. “That was her. The owner?”
“I thought you left,” Kelley said, fingering the shiny burn scar on his arm.
“No,” Paxton said. “I usually stick around until Bernadette’s done. I had to get some notes down anyway. Lots to remember. I was wondering if maybe we could do some more training, off the clock. I’d like to get a handle on some of these sautés and sauces, you know, just want to learn more. I’d go to culinary school in a heartbeat, if I could afford it.”
“Naw, don’t do that,” Kelley said. “Waste of money.”
“Where’d you go, again?”
“Didn’t. I learned everything from Ara.”
Paxton put pen to notebook. “Step one: Find a smart girlfriend. Got it.”
Kelley chuckled. “Maybe find the woman, first. It’d be a bummer if she was already someone’s girlfriend.” He scooted over in the booth, felt a little fuzzy, stoned. “You been sitting over there this whole time?”
“I would’ve said hello,” Paxton said. “But I didn’t really notice it was you until the light went off. It caught my attention.”
They both stared for a moment, then Paxton returned to scribbling in his notebook. Kelley leaned over and grabbed the bulb from the floor, rolled it on the table, under his palm. The restaurant had pretty much cleared out, their section anyway; he figured it must be around four, four-thirty. He had an urge to get up, check the reservations, arrange seating, but remained planted in the cushy vinyl of the booth, his mind like a jellyfish, floating and falling.
“Jalapeños,” he scoffed.
Paxton turned. “I know, I’m sorry. Dumb idea.”
“What were you thinking?”
“You’re right, I shouldn’t have gone over your head.”
“No—I mean, yes, always check with me—but jalapeños?”
“Well, this guy I worked with?” Paxton said, “he sort of ingrained the idea of the five flavors in me. So, in the crab cakes, you have salty, a touch of sour with the lime juice, and the coconut chutney—which is amazing, by the way—adds a bitter-sweetness . . . but I thought, maybe a kick, something hot, you know, bring together the range of the palate and all that stuff.”
Kelley nodded. “I see what you mean. But you can’t just throw in any spice, you have to consider the acidity and texture. Beyond taste, you have to think: what is the makeup, the consistency of jalapeños mixed in this crab cake. You chopped those way too large, didn’t consider how the waxy-crunchiness would mix with bread, the stringy meat. See what I mean? There’s a science to it, yeah, but it also takes a lot of imagining and intuitiveness.”
“Absolutely.” Paxton leaned in, his whole body pointed, focused, intent to learn.
It made Kelley uneasy, actually—this stuff wasn’t any big secret, after all. But he told Paxton he was on the right track. “Just keep thinking it through. Like, okay, this needs a kick—Why? What type? What’ll it do to the texture? But I see what you mean about the spice, we should experiment.”
Paxton beamed. “Maybe chipotle?”
“That’d work better with the texture, but I was thinking some Thai spice, to go with the coconut.” Kelley held the fragile orb of the light bulb, twisted it into the socket. “We’ll see,” he said standing. “Tomorrow, ten a.m.?”
“I’ll be here,” Paxton said, sipped his coffee, kept on with his note-taking.
Outside, Kelley collapsed onto a bench under the awnings, near the dumpsters. Rain trickled from the rooftop gutters, plunking down on empty milk gallons in recycling. The trash shimmered with drizzle, drops slipped from the eaves, puckering the pools left in potholes. But, amazingly, even the buckets of guts and entrails looked beautiful, showered in all that grayness, even the lopped-off heads of salmon.
Slowly, the events of the day filtered through him, like sand sifting down through water. Never mind about the future, he’d have to accept what was happening now, even if it made him feel broken and bloodless. He knew that soon he’d have to start looking into loans, could feel the fight buried down deep; the pull wouldn’t cease until a decision aboutBennisonBayhad been made, but that was for later. She was gone; she’d been gone for a while. He let this realization sink in, made it certain, familiar, grew to know it as surely as he knew that Angela would be dimming the lamps and lighting candles, scribbling reservations with a grease pen on the restaurant layout, that Swanson would be prepping chowder and mixing a rub for the steaks, that soon he’d join them. He stared off at the docks—a mountain of oyster shells, blanched, eerie, like a pile-up of bones, and at the bay, low tide, pockets of pearly clams speckled on the shore, and beyond that, ocean.