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Lasagna

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Kemp was having a crisis of confidence. After two months waiting tables at Angelo's, a family Italian restaurant inside the largest mall in Birmingham, he'd discovered that dinners included salad only, not soup and salad as at lunch. A minor mistake, his girlfriend insisted--don't worry about it. But worry was Kemp's basic frequency. For nine weeks he'd been sending away by the dozens customers who would now expect free soup with dinner. They would wander back in like mosquitoes and sit at other waiters' tables, or his own, insisting they'd been given free soup last time: Yeah, that guy, he's the one! Kemp had a recurring nightmare of a tray piled high with plates and long-stemmed drink glasses, teetering at the edge of a table. The tray, Kemp decided as he arrived ten minutes late for his dinner shift, was him.

"You're set, two at 13," announced Darlene, the shift manager. Kemp began to apologize but she was already gone. The south side had been open for over half an hour; waiters darting in and out the double doors of the kitchen moved with a deliberate urgency Kemp knew he should have mastered by now. He tied on an apron, loaded a tray with glasses of water and baskets of hot bread, and headed out to the north side without even collecting his tickets.

At last they'd begun to give him some good shifts: Friday night, the smoking section, a football game in town. He might take home 80 bucks tonight.

His customers were hunkered down at the table in the corner, next to the potted plants. A slender red-haired woman tapped a long ash off her cigarette. Her sleeveless top exposed a pair of perfect shoulders. Her face was cleanly drawn like a model's, her mouth blunt and beautiful. Her date, at least 20 years her senior, wore a sport jacket, and his shirt collar splayed wide open at his collarbone: gold chains, chest hair. Angelo's piped-in Italian music obscured their conversation, but Kemp made out the tail end of it:

"Don't blame me," said the man. "Don't come running in a week or two with some story about gettin' used."

"The only one using me is you! The way you--"

Kemp introduced himself, welcomed them to Angelo's, and set down their ice water and bread. "May I get you folks something to drink?"

"Get us some menus," the man barked.

Kemp apologized and fetched a couple. "Jim Beam, neat. The lady'll have the same." The ice in his voice said Get lost. Kemp was glad to oblige. Barry, the manager and licensed scourge of Angelo's, stood by the ice cooler grinding his teeth and flipping through a bunch of checks. He had the thick trunk of a boxer, and his bearded, ravaged face read like a bad menu. His eyes simmered with hatred whenever they found Kemp.

"Side work, side work, side work!" he shouted. "You're ice tonight. Cooler's dry. Move it!"

Kemp apologized, ran back to the mammoth ice machine in the kitchen, and scrambled for balance as he carried a pair of ten-gallon buckets of ice out to the cooler. Twelve buckets would fill it; Kemp deposited four then ducked out to place the drink order at the bar. The bartender wouldn't take it without a ticket, so Kemp grabbed a pack from the cashier's window.

"You're set," Darlene told him. "Party of 11."

"Eleven?"

"We pushed two tables together. Get out there, they've got kids and they're hungry."

Barry exploded from the kitchen, purple in the face and jabbing his finger back at the cook. "Stupid motherfucker can kiss my ass!" His breath hissed as he charged Darlene and Kemp. "Eighty-six all the dinners but lasagna."

"What?" Every waiter within hearing distance stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look.

"Those stupid fuckers forgot to defrost the dinners. We won't have anything for another hour at least except soup, appetizers, and lasagna." A collective cry went up. Barry stomped through it and out the south door, grinding his teeth, with Darlene close behind.

This was bad--15 dinners on the menu, and nothing to serve but lasagna. It was a fuckup so massive, so sweeping in its implications, that it brought relief by dwarfing anything Kemp could possibly do wrong. A few waiters unleashed curses or ultimatums; others went about their business in grim acceptance. The ice he'd carried to the cooler long gone, Kemp ran two more buckets up from the machine, then filled 11 ice waters and loaded them with baskets of bread onto a tray resting on a counter. He knelt down on his right knee, his hand found the center of gravity under the tray, and he lifted it up onto his shoulder.

The physical skills of waiterdom came easy to Kemp, however tenuous his grip on everything else. He couldn't make small talk with strangers, couldn't handle the stress. "You're gonna gain a lot of weight hanging around all that Italian food," his girlfriend predicted when he took the job. Since then he'd lost 17 pounds.

Another five weeks of this and he'd be back at school, writing his graduate thesis. During the day the temperature hovered over 100 degrees, so he lay in bed with two electric fans trained on him, making notes on The Divine Comedy. He'd read and notated the "Purgatorio" and the "Paradiso," but he kept coming back to the "Inferno," sucked in as Dante made his way down the concentric circles of hell. He liked to imagine his customers as the Gluttonous, mired in the third circle and mauled by Cerberus, the three-headed dog: "His eyeballs glare a bloodshot crimson, and his bearded jowls are greasy and black; potbellied, talon-heeled, he clutches and frays and rips and rends the souls." The resemblance to Barry was uncanny.

On the floor Kemp saw the angry couple and remembered their drink order. The man raised his chin at Kemp, who nodded but grabbed a bunch of menus and went to greet the party of 11--two couples and seven kids, one a toddler in a high chair who was tearing up the flowers in the middle of the table. The kids argued, changed their drink orders, demanded milk shakes. Angelo's didn't have milk shakes. As Kemp swung from one side of the table around to the other, the angry couple's argument filtered through the kids' cries.

". . . any more about it," the woman said. "You started all this with that woman and her dog."

"Are you nuts, Carla? . . . persist in creating these things? You only make yourself . . ."

". . . don't want to talk about it anymore. We've beaten it to death."

By the time Kemp made it over to them, both were tending quietly to their cigarettes. The guy opened an imploring palm. Kemp apologized and promised a swift return with the drinks. "Shithead," the man muttered as Kemp was walking away.

In the kitchen waiters screamed for ice, but Kemp rang up the drink order and took it to the bar before running four more buckets to the cooler. Then he filled up 11 sodas and took them out past the bar, where he scooped up the two drinks and set them down gingerly on his tray. Back on the floor he set the tray between the couple and the party. The argument had heated up. "Jesus, Sid, if that isn't a double standard, what the hell is? The things you come up with!"

Kemp set the drinks before them. "What's with the ice?" demanded Sid. "I said neat."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Kemp replied. Apologizing had become as reflexive as an eyelid wiping clean an eye.

"Get back there and bring us two Jim Beams neat, you dumbbell." Kemp's face burned. The party interrupted their banter to watch, as if the floor show were included with the meal. An Italian jig played in the background.

"Why don't you leave the kid alone?" Carla demanded. She took one of the drinks and sipped it. Sid fumed and picked up the other.

"Would you folks care for an appetizer?" Kemp knew he ought to tell them about the lasagna, but the insult had him cowed.

"All right," Sid said, softening a little. "Bring us the fried mozzarella."

Kemp delivered the sodas to the party and fronted them a humorous smile. When he told them the only dinner available was lasagna the kids groaned and the parents traded anxious looks. Sid had overheard: he shook his head and muttered the news to Carla, whose shoulders fell. "Well, I guess we'll have 11 orders of lasagna," one of the husbands said crisply.

"I'm sorry."

Each kid demanded a separate salad dressing; Kemp's pen was going dry, and he'd forgotten a spare. Something as small as a pen going dry might suck him into the void.

On his way back to the kitchen Kemp was collared by one of the hostesses. They were all dishy high school girls, sucking up to Barry and screwing over the waiters whenever possible. They thought nothing of seating 20 people all at once. When the south side closed early, they filched silver and napkins from the north and gave them to friends on the south, who would present 25 table settings to the manager and sign out; the northerners were left to roll their own silver as they waited on packed sections.

"Pauline didn't show up," the hostess said. "Barry said you'd pick up 16." Kemp caught a glimpse of the table: the Winstons. He'd waited on the old couple about a month earlier. Mr. Winston threw a fit when Kemp brought him salad before dinner--he'd ordered soup. Kemp and Mrs. Winston finally convinced the old man that soup was coming, it came free with dinner. Shamed, the old man spent the rest of the evening feverish with remorse and stuffed ten bucks in Kemp's pocket as they left. And Kemp had been wrong all along.

"Be right with you!" He ducked back into the kitchen.

Hysteria reigned. Waiters hollered for ice and shouted curses at each other. A waitress knelt in the middle of the floor, picking up broken glass as black-panted legs jostled her.

"Kemp!" Darlene shouted. "Pauline didn't show, you'll have to do her side work. Dessert cooler--right now!" Kemp ran back through the kitchen, past scrambling cooks and prep workers accusing each other of gross stupidity. Inside the walk-in refrigerator, Kemp shut the door and stood in the frigid air, his head in his hands.

When Kemp told the Winstons about the lasagna they looked at each other in silent deliberation, then the old man gave in and ordered the salad and minestrone. Kemp didn't even look up. He'd bring the soup and leave it off the bill; no one had ever noticed before.

He loaded three salads on the near side of his tray and salvaged from the barren chiller 11 ice-cold plates, which he scraped clean of ice and food particles left by the dishwasher and stacked opposite the salads as a counterweight. The Winstons' coffee and iced tea he placed in the remaining crevices on either side.

The quartet of parents were relieved to have something on the table because Sid and Carla had finished their drinks and their argument was boiling over. Sid's fist on the table was a brick of Spam with black hair. Carla beckoned Kemp over to the table. "Bring me another Jim Beam. And I want a separate check."

"I'm taking care of this meal," Sid cut in.

"Would you like another drink too, sir?"

"Yeah--Jim Beam, neat. That means no ice."

Back in the kitchen, 11 plates of lasagna were lined up under the heat lamps. "Kemp! You're up!"

"Who's on ice?"

"Desserts!"

"Who's on ice?"

"Kemp!" He took the drink order to the bar, then carted some ice to the cooler. The dishwasher chugged and screamed, the rubber mats beneath Kemp's feet slick with scum, soap, and grease. Desperate waiters grabbed drink glasses straight out of the steaming trays and shouted as the glass burned their fingers. A cry went up as two waiters collided at the south door, spilling dishes everywhere.

He took bread to all his tables, delivered the Winstons' soup, and brought out two big trays of lasagna for the party of 11. The kids grabbed at the trays, and one of the mothers slapped at them. The child in the high chair poked a bread stick in her brother's ear, he swung at her, and she began screaming. They all wanted more soda and bread. Kemp took the salad away.

No drinks yet. Coming out of the bar, Kemp ran into Carla, who had slung her handbag over her shoulder and was headed for the lobby. "I'm leaving," she said. "He's paying for my drinks." She pressed a folded ten into Kemp's hand and, before he could react, whispered in his ear, "Here. I'm sorry to leave you with him, but we're not getting along at all." Then she was gone.

From the back Sid stared, his face placid with rage: he had seen the whole thing. Only fawning subservience could save Kemp. He walked back to his section. "Sir, your friend gave me some money to pay for her drinks."

"I'll. Get. Her. Drinks." Sid eyed his thick red hands as he shook a cigarette from a pack of Camels. "And get me an order of that lasagna, and salad with bleu cheese dressing."

The kitchen had begun to settle into the typical chaos of a busy Friday night. Some of the dinners had thawed, and Darlene was taking advantage of the lull to get everyone caught up on side work. Two or three substitutes arrived to fill in the holes, and the cook announced the manicotti and cannelloni were back on. Kemp filled the dessert cooler and the ice cooler to capacity. "Kemp! You're up!" The Winstons' lasagna. Kemp fetched the plates, made up Sid's salad, and went to get the drinks. He figured he'd bring Carla's too and let Sid do whatever he wanted with it.

As he came back into the kitchen, something tripped him: he fell headfirst toward the counter, and broke his fall with his right hand, letting one of the drinks fly. The glass burst, scattering shards and whiskey across the countertop. Waiters with trays on the counter cursed him--now they'd all have to dump their dishes and start over. Kemp put in a new lasagna order and ditched the Winstons' plates; miraculously, he had saved Sid's other drink--neat--and the salad, with its high-rimmed bowl, would be fine. He would have to stall the Winstons with a second helping of soup. The party of 11 had disappeared except for the two husbands, who sat tapping their wallets on the table. At the beginning they'd told him it was all one check, and now they wanted two separate ones. "Could you refigure it and bring us two checks?" one husband said. "Tax purposes." Kemp smiled. No point in blowing the tip after all this sweat.

Sid accepted his salad and drink in silence. Kemp could almost hear him brooding over the argument with Carla. Despite the browbeating he'd taken, he felt sorry for the old guy.

The Winstons' lasagna was up; Kemp wouldn't have to push the soup after all. Kemp separated the party of 11 into two orders and rang them up. He'd have to ask Barry for an override.

"Another one?" Barry demanded, his eyes narrowing to a pair of razors. "You've got the record for the summer, Kemp. No one can lay a finger on you."

"I'm sorry," Kemp said, but both heard it as "So what."

By the time Kemp made it back, the two husbands were gone. Sid jabbed a finger at Kemp. "You! Get over here."

"Where did they go?" he asked Sid. "Where did they go?"

"They just walked out," said Mrs. Winston. Kemp ran out to the lobby, but the hostesses had watched the men hop into a waiting SUV and drive away. Kemp felt sick. One of the hostesses ran to find Barry.

When Kemp returned to his section, Barry was standing at Sid's table. Kemp walked up to take the blow. "Barry, something terrible happened. I had a party of 11 and they walked." The two men looked at Kemp, then at each other, then at the table. Kemp followed their eyes down to the salad bowl: in it lay a twisted shard of glass as long as Sid's pinkie.

The warmth ran out of Kemp's face, and he fought to keep his balance on watery legs. "I--I picked everything else off the tray," he pleaded. The men stared. He started to compose an apology, but before he could begin, he'd been fired.

Kemp retreated to the kitchen in shock. He yanked the apron from around his neck and pulled off his bow tie. "Kemp! More ice!" The pain and anger began to take shape inside him somewhere, but like snowy images on a TV they didn't quite register. Sacked! Just when he'd begun to like it in a perverse way--the narcotic of monotony and the warm, insubstantial friendships. He hadn't meant to garnish Sid's salad with glass. But if Sid had eaten it . . .

Who could blame Barry for sacking him? He was a danger to himself and others.

Barry returned to the kitchen but wouldn't look him in the eye. "Turn in your apron, book, and badges before you go. Someone else will get your tables. You can come get your last check on Friday. Frank will sign you out." Kemp heaved a leaden sigh and turned in his stuff, ignoring the cries for ice and dessert. No one bothered with him; he had made a few friends on the lunch staff, but none of the dinner waiters knew him as more than a confused face.

Because no one was allowed out the back entrance, Kemp had to leave through the restaurant. Nothing on earth could make him walk past Sid and the Winstons, so he went out through the south side. A clot of elderly people blocked him, trying to inch around a new waiter who had put his tray in the aisle. Kemp turned around; he would cut through the bar.

A waitress behind Kemp was carrying four plates, and when Kemp knocked her off balance she flipped the tray onto a table, landing a veal piccata in the lap of a frail old woman with papery skin. The waitress stared at Kemp in disbelief.

Kemp couldn't feel his body. He smiled dumbly and shrugged. "Sorry." Then he bolted.

In the mall's basement food court, Kemp called his girlfriend and told her the bad news. She didn't get off work for another hour, so he'd have to wait for her to pick him up. With the ten spot he'd gotten from Carla he bought a hamburger, fries, and shake. He sat down at one of the canopied tables around the great fountain, the neighboring conversations absorbed by the echoing rush of water. A giant round atrium opened above the fountain, exposing a skylight and six floors of human traffic. Flirting teenagers ran in packs, parents dragged their kids, old people hobbled around. After eating Kemp strolled over to the glass elevators and rode one to the first floor. As he exited, he caught sight of a familiar sport jacket about 30 yards away. Sid saw him and his eyes hardened; Kemp considered running but pushed back into the elevator. By the time Sid reached the elevator, its doors had slid shut and Kemp glided toward the second floor.

Through the glass wall he saw Sid run for the nearest escalator and board it, forcing his way past the people in front of him. At the second floor the elevator emptied and filled again before Sid made it to the top of the escalator: he paused, huffing and puffing, then swung up the escalator to the third floor. How angry could he be? Didn't he know it was an accident? What could he be thinking?

Kemp got off on the sixth floor, ran like hell down the corridor away from the escalators, and darted into a toy store. He passed immense stuffed animals and windup toys that walked around with grinding gears, emitting metallic cries. He made his way to the back and hid behind the rows and rows of Monogram model cars, and waited.

Sid emerged from the games section. "You son of a bitch!" Kemp turned to run, but Sid grabbed him by the collar and delivered a stinging blow to the back of his head. Kemp wrenched free, feeling his collar tear, and ran for the front, pulling down a giant stuffed dog in Sid's path. He dashed across the hall to SportsWorld.

"Help! Help me!" The cashiers, dressed as referees, stared at Kemp. Sid loomed, his cheeks crimson, his teeth bared. Kemp dodged in and out of the weight-lifting equipment and hopped over the railing to the store's sunken rear area. Sid followed but couldn't make it over the railing and had to go around to the steps.

Kemp picked up the first weapon he could find, a disk of yellow foam rubber on a wooden handle. "Soft Squash," it was called. He swatted at Sid's face; the weapon bounced off him like a throw pillow.

Sid grabbed his wrist. "You son of a bitch, you tried to kill me! I wanna know what she said to you."

"Nothing, she didn't say anything!" Cashiers hovered, ordering each other to call security but afraid to make a move on Sid. Kemp broke from his grip, gabbed a wooden stickball bat, and drew back to swing. "Don't come any closer!"

Smiling, Sid picked up a wood from a golf set on display, and backed Kemp into the wall. Kemp dodged the wood as it whistled past him and made a break for the front. Again the wood sliced the air, then a ring of metal, a gasp.

Sid had flung the wood hard against a cement column; the club snapped off and the metal shaft bounced back, lodging in his neck. His eyes were round with shock as he stared down at the shaft. Then he focused on Kemp again and charged, the shaft bobbing like some hideous feeler.

Kemp escaped to the mall, but as Sid ran he picked up another weapon--a bowling ball. Sid caught up with Kemp, spun him around, and pinned him against the railing of the atrium, six stories above the fountain. He raised the ball over his head, aiming for Kemp's skull. Kemp gripped the metal shaft and yanked it from Sid's neck.

The bowling ball fell from Sid's hand. Blood gushed down the front of his open-collared shirt. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he fell to the ground like a bag of grain.

A crowd formed around the bleeding body, but Kemp backed away and seated himself on a metal bench. Potted trees decorated the resting area; along with the skylight they gave Kemp the peculiar feeling he was outside, or rather that the outside was gone, vaporized, and he could never leave this place. A crowd formed around the bleeding body, but Kemp couldn't bear to look. He slid along the rail, struggling to hold himself up, and turned toward the column of empty space. Above him, the circular skylight admitted a disk of black, starry night, giving the peculiar impression he was underground. Below him, shoppers milled about like insects. How easy it would be to vault over the railing. He wondered if he would hit the floor or just keep falling till he reached the earth's molten core.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jonathan Burton.

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