Life on the Line by Scott Mitchel May

When I come to, I am under the impression that I am having fun, or, at least, that I had been having fun at some previous point in the evening. She is underneath me and I am hard and an active participant. I don’t know what that means. I don’t even remember her coming back to my place. She is very skinny like she doesn’t eat at all; her hair is jawline short and she is only naked from the waist down. She is still wearing her tank-top and bra. I figure out what is happening and I am very confused. I just go with it.

The volume shift in the BOH means working the bulk of the hours of operation — starting before lunch and clocking out after the slam of dinner dies down and the covers slow to a manageable trickle. Usually, that happens just after eight o’clock. Everyone in the kitchen gets saddled with the occasional double, which is almost the worst. The only thing more annoying than having to work a double is having to work a close/open — leaving sometime around eleven and returning before eight.  

My shift ends at around eight-thirty and I go to the bar and I have my shifty; that, I do remember. The bartender is a short and bald Puerto Rican who came from out east. I am twenty. He is twenty seven. His name is Jorge. Everyone loves him. He hooks us up with long pours. Life is pretty okay.

I haven’t had to work a double or a close/open in over a year. I’ve been in this particular kitchen since I was eighteen. I am no longer the new guy. The volume shift is the preferred shift.

Jorge is closing the bar. He is wiping the wood with a damp rag and putting those little conic paper cups over the bottles to prevent the fruit flies from getting in. I joke that Jack Daniels joined the Klan. There is still plenty of time before last call at most downtown bars.

On shift, I smoke a Camel Light roughly every two hours while sitting on a milk crate or an upturned and empty five-gallon pickle bucket. Most of the time there is a server or two smoking as well. We all complain constantly. A small tomato plant is growing in a crack in the concrete behind the restaurant.

Jorge and Ben and Mike R and Gerardo (we call him Jimmy because we don’t want to pronounce Gerardo all the time) and Scott A and I all go to the Lava Lounge after Jorge finishes closing the bar and the other guys finish closing the kitchen. The bouncer knows us well. He knows we’re all industry people. We bring him food sometimes. He doesn’t even acknowledge that he should be asking me for ID. This is how it works.

The lunch rush at a chain restaurant near campus can be insane. The place fills up three times. Once between eleven and noon, again between noon and one, and then a small rush between one and two.

Jorge buys the first round. I have a double Jack and Coke. It’s all I drink besides Newcastle Brown Ale, Heineken, Rolling Rock, Guinness, Camo Malt Liquor, Gordon’s Vodka, E&J, Johnny Walker Red, Jameson, Tully, or Jäger. It’s ten-thirty and the Lava Lounge is still quiet. Later, in an hour or two, the place will be packed with late-model punks and metal-heads. The juke is full of The Clash, Rancid, NOFX, Brujeria, Macabre, Cannibal Corpse, Crass, etc… The BOH loves this place.

During lunch and dinner service, I work the range, the grill, and the fryolators. I am the only cook who’s able to work all three at once, and I am very proud this fact, despite that it means the bosses can pay one less guy per shift, and yet, I am still only the third highest-paid cook in the kitchen. Most days, I think I should quit.

I am not wearing a condom — that, I can feel. She closes her eyes and her tank top rides up a little on her stomach. I can see a topographical map of ridged skin. It’s obvious she’s had a kid at some point. I’m so very confused. She wraps her legs around my hips. I finish. She passes out shortly after. My bed is a twin. I try to sleep, too, but it takes forever.

In the middle of the lunch rush, I feel like God. That’s not true, that’s just the way we talk. We use words and phrases that either glorify or catastrophize. I am God. We are so fucked. In the middle of the lunch rush, I feel like a perfectly choreographed dancer, moving from pans, to grill, to my double fryolators, to the finishing line, setting timers, laying down buns and LTOs, tongs in one hand to rotate and flip chicken breast and steak and stir Rattlesnake Pasta, and metal spatula in the other for burgers. I can have up to three burners going at once, a grill with four or five burgers, four or five chicken breasts, two or three steaks, and all four of my fry baskets down and still not over or undercook a thing. I do all my own plating. I am God. We are so fucked.

Mike R follows me into the restroom at the back of the bar, he removes from his pocket a gram and a half of cocaine, we each take two/three key bumps. Jorge comes in while we are partaking and he also takes a bump or two. Ben doesn’t do cocaine. He says it makes him have to shit. It’s funny, but shitting on cocaine is my favorite part of the experience. I buy the next two rounds for the guys and feel pretty good about my life.

Between lunch and dinner, there are a couple of hours of downtime and the volume cook has responsibilities. Making dough for pizza is one, but that comes later. Restocking and cleaning The Lines from lunch is another, and that is more immediate. Freezer-pull and counting are a third, and, the most enjoyable. The kitchen is empty, I have the pick of radio stations, and I get to walk around the back of the house with a clipboard and smoke whenever the impulse strikes me. In the walk-in, I look at my list while smoking a one-hitter. I have a few hotel pans in which I put frozen burgers, chicken breasts, 8oz,10oz, 16oz steaks, bags of sauce (alfredo), mozz sticks, wings, tenders, onion rings, Tiny Dino Nuggets (for the kids), boneless wings, and cheese curds. I replace the thawed product with the frozen product in the walk-in refrigerator and the meat-fridge and stock the thawed product on The Line. Between the hours of two and five I smoke a quarter pack of cigarettes and I actually enjoy cooking FOH meals. I can take my time.

It’s late enough that the Lava Lounge is beginning to draw its usual crowd and the available seats at the bar are beginning to fill in and the tall tables against the wall are already at occupancy. A good number of punks are milling about in the back, by the lone pool table. It is that weird time of night when the place is getting crowded but the bartender hasn’t yet turned up the music. People can still hear themselves think. Ben has two girls enthralled with some humor and is steadily ordering rounds of drinks. Mike R ran out of cocaine. We lost Scott A somewhere. Jorge went home without saying goodbye to anyone. It is decided that we should go get martinis somewhere with more class.

Clocking out after a volume shift feels great because the rest of the night is yours and you can do whatever you want because you don’t have to be back until ten-thirty the next morning.

As we are walking the half a block to The Blue Velvet, the girl who is not the skinny girl does this thing that is meant to be sexy where she stops suddenly, grabs Ben by his shoulders, pushes him up against a wall, and kisses him deeply. Except, she misses the wall and pushes Ben partially through a small store-front window. But, like, gently. The window cracks and breaks but they don’t fall through it. She wasn’t forceful enough for that. We all laugh. She turns red. Someone from across the street yells about calling the cops. There is a two-foot shard of glass standing lonely in the window’s frame and I grab it with my hand. It does not cut me. I walk across the street holding it like my chef’s knife and I menace the do-gooder. I don’t have any intention of harming the man, but, it feels good to play-act. He’s scared of me and runs. Ben, and Mike R, and the girl who put Ben through the window, and the skinny girl all laugh. I drop the shard of glass in the street. It shatters, then.

In the morning, she is gone.

I don’t remember The Blue Velvet. I don’t remember walking home. I don’t remember sitting on our couch. I don’t remember watching the remake of Mr. Deeds. I don’t remember the frozen burritos. I don’t remember wanting music. I don’t remember turning on the stereo during the remake of Mr. Deeds. I don’t remember Ben and Mike R kicking me out of the living room. I don’t remember her following. I don’t remember initiating. I don’t remember how it actually happened. I don’t remember kissing her. I didn’t kiss her after I came to. I don’t remember taking off my clothes. I don’t remember not wanting to wear a condom. I don’t remember her putting me inside her. I don’t remember her name.

Ben eats his cereal from a large orange mixing bowl and Mike R has Winston cigarettes for breakfast. I am so sick. The living room is a disaster, but, it was a disaster before the after-party. The volume shift is the preferred shift because it is easy to rack up the hours and work around any hangovers or wake-and-bakes. I roll a joint in silence. Ben has to close the restaurant and Mike R has the day off. I light up. The two of them don’t say much and what they do say is cryptic. My nausea persists. I pass the joint to Mike R and I motion to his Winstons on the coffee table and he obliges. I ran my pockets when I put on my pants and I have no money for smokes. “So, do you remember anything from last night?” I think Ben asked the question, but honestly, I have my head between my knees, and those two being brothers, and Irish twins at that, they have an almost identical sound.

“No.”    

Later, I had to be told that I ordered and paid for everyone’s drinks and that we all had two/three chocolate martinis at The Blue Velvet. Later, I had to be told about the Xanax. Later, I had to be told that I wouldn’t stop telling jokes. Later, I had to be told that she laughed at most of them. Later, I had to be told that I seemed sincere when I told her she was beautiful under the blue fluorescents of the bar.  Later, I had to be told that she was the cousin of one of the prep cooks at work. Later, I had to be told that I found this fact to be amazing. Later, I had to be told I kept taking secret shots. Later, I had to be told that I kept telling everyone, individually, that the shots were secret and to not tell the others. Later, I had to be told that I seemed fine at the bar. Later, I had to be told that I was the one who put on Mr. Deeds. Later, I had to be told that I really wanted her to hear Magic Carpet Ride at full blast. Later, I had to be told that my eyes were vacant when I did this. Later, I had to be told that I was unresponsive when Mike R shouted, nearly in my ear, to turn it the fuck down. Later, I had to be told that’s when she took my hand. Later, I had to be told that she volunteered to put me to bed.

At the start of my shift, I go to the room where the linens are stored and put on a fresh, bleached white, chef’s coat and tie a new apron around my waist. It’s the only time a line cook feels truly clean.

About The Author

Scott Mitchel May is a writer living in rural Wisconsin with his wife and son. You can follow Scot on Twitter @smitchelmay

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