The edge of the gray tub dug into my thigh as I pressed it against the ice machine. The magnet that held the flap up had broken off, so I had to use one hand to hold the flap while I used the other to paw around in search of the scoop. The lip around the edge of the tub had crumbled away on all but one side, so I used that side to hold up the tub while the opposite side threatened to saw its way through my jeans. Finding the scoop, I winced and began chucking ice into the bucket.
“When you get both of them filled, get out the salads and then cut the fruit. Damn! I forgot to get tomatoes,” Jean said.
She’d been there since six, baking the bread, and she’d almost forgotten to make more chicken salad. She absolutely refused to let anyone make it from start to finish – her secret recipe and all that.
“Start the soup in the crock pot, uh, shrimp bisque today, and get the Dutch oven going for the chicken,” she barked as she stomped off into the prep area.
“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered and let the flap fall closed with a snap.
The tubs were a nuisance, all because she didn’t have enough money to buy one of the refrigerated worktables like at Subway or in school lunchrooms. The restaurant across the street offered to sell her one of theirs cheap, but she her competitive streak wouldn’t allow for that. No, I had to fill two Rubbermaid tubs with ice and wiggle Rubbermaid containers of chicken, rice, and egg salads, Dijon mustard, mayo, pimento cheese, and four or five other spreadables down into the ice. I took off the lids and slid serving spoons into each container.
There was no proper kitchen. The place started out as a wine store, and when it became clear that she couldn’t make do on selling just wine, Jean expanded into a high-end deli/café. There was an enormous work sink with no hot water (tisk, tisk), and one industrial oven she used for baking bread and cookies. Instead of a proper range, she had a two-burner portable cook top, which she was now giving the evil eye.
“Why isn’t my pot ready? You need to get faster at cutting the fruit.” She set her travel cup down and pried off the lid. As I dumped a handful of sliced honeydew into a plastic bowl, I looked into her cup. I gave a smirk. I liked to imagine that Jean’s travel cup contained something like the “Mother” used to make vinegar only hers was used to make a never-ending Bloody Mary. If I asked, she would insist it was just tomato juice even as the stinging scent of vodka puffed out and she stuffed a celery stalk and wedge of lemon into the cup, followed by a few grinds of black pepper. “I have to go get tomatoes.” She threw her hands in the air. “It’s always something.”
“It’ll be fine,” I assured her. “I’ll get the chicken going.”
“You don’t know how much white wine to put in the water,” she reminded me, and bumped me out of her way. “Go start some cookies.”
“I haven’t finished the fruit.”
“Well after then. Jesus!” She loved to say Jesus as a curse word.
The fruit was a touchy subject. One morning, she’d thrown a fit when she found me tossing out moldy strawberries with a dead fly in the container. She told me I should’ve cut off the mold and re-washed the berries. I think if she’d told me to dig them out of the garbage, I would’ve jerked off my apron and quit on the spot. From then on, I made sure to bury whatever food I threw away under a layer of paper towels.
“And you need to start studying up on wine so you can make informed sales when I’m not here.”
By this point, it was an hour to opening at eleven, and she was crashing. It was best to just nod and do the other ten billion things she’d asked. I would get it all done because the situation was never quite as dire as she made it out to be. I could focus when she wasn’t scurrying around and sniping.
I knew that at 10:30, she would go out for whatever vegetable she conveniently forgot to buy. Then, she would return with the energy only cocaine can provide and run herd on me and the other two girls working for her off the books.
While the chicken boiled, I retrieved the salad greens and baklava from the cooler. I got the cookies out of the freezer, put them on pans, and slid them into the oven. I wrote the special on the chalkboard and swept the black and white tile floor one more time before unlocking the antique doors and flipping the sign around to announce we were open.
I started out on the cash register, but once I showed I had a knack in the “kitchen,” I never worked the register again unless someone bought beer or wine. I rarely waited tables, even though I wiped them every evening before closing. I spent my time making sandwiches and salads, chopping more fruit, and keeping the soup from forming an icky skim. I developed a flare for plating lunches that was both efficient and aesthetically pleasing. Most of all, I learned that I never, ever wanted to own a café.
When the rush ended at two, Jean would disappear into the bathroom for ten minutes. Every day, she came out high and ready to head to the gym, and every day, Hannah said, “She’s going to give herself a heart attack.”
The other girls went home at three, leaving me to the deal with the few stragglers that came in for a late lunch or early dinner. It never failed that just about the time I put everything back in the cooler and mopped the floor, the town sculptor came in for dinner. He was in his mid-twenties, a gilded prince of a man-boy with a smile to set girls’ hearts a-flutter, and he knew it.
“I’ll try not to get any crumbs on the floor so you don’t have to sweep,” he’d say. “How is your roommate?” He always asked. “Is she still dating that older guy?”
“Yes, although I don’t think you can call it dating,” I said.
He always waited until fifteen minutes to closing to ask for a Red Stripe, and then he’s say, “I guess I’ll have to drink it fast. Come over to The Pottager sometime.”
I mumbled curses under my breath as I locked the front door behind him and went to get the broom. I made myself a go-box, grilled chicken with Swiss and a side salad with black olive feta dressing. After double-checking the lights and the alarm, I locked the back door and walked two blocks to my apartment. All in all, it wasn’t too bad for $4 an hour, tax-free, plus tips.