It was ten fifty in the morning and he was squinting through one eye as he diced vegetables. The other eye was swollen shut. Jorge had just a vague recollection of the fifth–sixth?–bar last night after work, and someone talking smack. The fat ass kept on calling him “Chef” as they played a game of pool. Every time Jorge had knocked a ball in, the turd had said, “Nice shot, Chef.”
Until the eight ball went in and the man wouldn’t shake his hand. “Don’t want to get salmonella,” he’d laughed to his white friends. That’s when Jorge had swung at him and missed, getting an eyeful of big, meaty fist instead. It all went a little hazy after that, but he remembered the looks he’d gotten on the subway ride home.
But, here he was, on time as always. Late once and he’d be fired, no matter that he’d been working here for three years. On payroll, he was just another immigrant working the shittiest job in the kitchen.
Manuel walked through the door, took one look at him and grunted as he headed into the back. Probably as hung over as he was. Actually, now that he remembered it, the older man had left before that last bar. Good thing, too. His wife would never have forgiven Jorge if Manuel had gotten involved in another barroom brawl.
That was when the Kid came in, shiny with the polish of culinary school, already on a fast track for management. Sure, the chef was hard on him, but there was no doubt that while Jorge would still be washing dishes in five years, this kid might be running his own restaurant. He looked paler than normal–still trying to keep up with the big boys at night, men like Jorge and Manuel who’d been drinking since this boy was in grade school. “Hola,” the Kid said.
“Hola, boss,” said Jorge. Manuel came back in dressed in his dishwasher shirt and took out his board and started chopping. The Kid headed into the back. As soon as he was out of earshot, Manuel said, “You look like an ass,” in Spanish.
“Acted like one,” he replied in the same language. “What did Carmelita say when you got home?”
“Usual.” Thunk, thunk, thunk went their knives. “She wants you over for dinner on Sunday.”
Jorge snorted. “Who is it this time?” Manuel’s wife was always trying to set him up with “some nice girl.”
“Cousin.” Manuel disappeared into the walk-in, returned with the next bin of veg for both of them. “Not bad looking.”
The Kid came back in, dressed in chef whites. The two of them ignored him as he moved around the kitchen, getting his own prep ready and trying not to look out of place as they continued to speak in Spanish. The Kid knew only Spanish swear words, they’d found out when he started work.
“Looking like this?” Jorge asked. “She’d kill me on the spot.”
Manuel considered him for a moment, finally nodded. “I’ll put her off.”
“Only temporary, you know. Next Sunday, she’ll be sure to get you.”
Jorge laughed. “Fine.”
He sent money back home to his parents for his brothers and sisters, but what was left over after that? Enough for a beer or two after payday. He didn’t want a wife and kids, not yet. Manuel worked two jobs, like Carmelita, just to support their family. There was more to life than working all the time.
“Fucking Friday,” murmured Manuel as the kitchen filled up. One of the worst days of the week, although Saturday was the true amateur night. On Friday was the preview: orders sent back to the kitchen, the chef yelling at the top of his lungs from the moment service started until the end of the night. The frenetic energy of the staff ramped up as the hours stretched into late afternoon, and his friend said, “Here we go,” as the first orders came in.
There was never any way to brace for the dinner rush. Just grin and sweat through the work until the noise died down and another day was done. It wasn’t until midnight, stinking of food and industrial strength cleaner through his civvies, that he said goodnight to Manuel.
“Don’t do it.”
“Do what?” he asked innocently. The older man just walked off, shaking his head.
At this time of night, the bar down the street was already filled up with smoke and noise. He moved through the crowd, alone, shorter than most of the men and women there. He found the man he was looking for at the pool table.
“Well, lookee who it is!” the fat man exclaimed. “How’s it cooking, Chef?”
Jorge eyed the man’s companions. They didn’t seem to be the same guys as last night, but it was hard to tell. He’d been pretty drunk.
“Wanna play pool?” he asked.
“Sure, sure.” The man reached into his pocket for quarters. “Game’s on me, Chef.”
There was no better time, with the big man’s hands in his pockets. Jorge ran up and slammed his fist into the other man’s face, throwing all his body weight behind the punch so that when the man went down like an avalanche, Jorge fell on top of him. But he was up like a light before the man’s drunk friends could react, and darting through the thick crowd. He broke out through the door and ran like hell down the street.
The next morning, Manuel eyed Jorge’s swollen knuckles and smiled. “Don’t forget next Sunday,” he reminded him.
Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. Her husband is a professional chef who started out his career in the industry as a dishwasher, and she drew the inspiration for this story from his experiences in the kitchen.
She has been published in SpeckLit and On the Premises, among others, and is a recent recipient of the Patricia McFarland Memorial Award from Flash Fiction Chronicles. When not writing, she draws all over the walls of her house with the enthusiastic help of her kids. You can find out more about forthcoming work and read her blog at alisonmcbain.com or follow her on Twitter @AlisonMcBain.
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© 2014 Alison McBain