Except for the hum of the air conditioner, Deli House is quiet. When I walk through the door, B.J., the main day-waitress, leaps forward menu in hand. Recognizing me, she says a sullen hello. I smile broadly in return.
B.J. is Gloria’s main waitress, and between us there is an armed truce. A fat girl in a big girl’s body, B.J. hides herself in conservative clothing. She believes that if things look all right, they are all right. To do this, she has to ignore everything she doesn’t like. Unfortunately, she can’t ignore me.
“Well, thanks for coming in,” she says. “I’m glad you finally made it.”
“Give me a break, B.J. It’s not even ten after.” There is a crash of silverware behind us, and we both jump. Tommy saunters through the dining room, an empty silverware tray in his hand.
“That creep,” she says. “Bill made him come in an hour early, and he’s been like that ever since. Bill’s been upset all day, too.”
“Bill’s always upset.” I clap my hand over my mouth and look frantically around the dining room. “There’s going to be some changes made around here, let me tell you.”
“Stop.” She pulls my hand away from my mouth. “Don’t make fun.”
“Where is our fearless leader anyway?”
“He had to go to the market. He was supposed to be back half an hour ago. If he’s not here soon, I’m leaving, night girl or no night girl. Wally is picking me up at eight, and I’ve got to wash my hair.”
“Don’t leave yet.” I start to wheel my bike through the dining room when the back doors fly open and slam against the wall. The flash of a red windbreaker, the jangle of an overloaded keychain and Bill drops a box on the change mat in front of me. He leans against the cash register and lights a cigarette, huffing wildly. B.J. is a vague figure at the other end of the room, solicitously refilling coffee cups.
He jerks the cigarette out of his mouth. “Put that away and come out to my car. How many times have I told you not to bring your bicycle into the dining room?” He coughs and spins.
“Who did that?” he shouts, pointing to the pile of silverware in the tray. I shrug. “Nobody knows anything. We’re going to make some changes around here, let me tell you.” He rushes off.
The box is full of pastramis, so I leave it on the floor by the meat-case until I have time to put the meat away and wheel my bike into the back.
Bill is standing by the dishwasher and shouting at Tommy. “And another thing, I don’t like your attitude.”
Tommy watches Bill coldly. He stares at me as I pass, his eyes hard blue. I wonder if he thinks I ratted him out on the silverware.
Bill tries to prop the back door open with a cinderblock, but the block is so heavy that he can only scrape it about a quarter of an inch along the floor. Leaving the door barely wedged open, Bill rushes out to the loading dock. Tommy saunters past me with a broom.
By the time I get to his car, Bill is trying to drag a box out of the back seat sideways. It’s caught against the doorpost, but he keeps tugging, as though sheer, dumb energy will prevail.
“Here, Bill, let me.” He lets go instantly. The corner droops and thin drops of defrosted grey water trickle to the gravel.
I slide the box back into the car, right it, and ease it out. The bottom is gritty from the wholesaler’s walk-in, and I hold it gingerly in case the cardboard rips. The back seat of Bill’s Cadillac is smeared with gunk and stained from years of hauling stuff from the market. They take Gloria’s car whenever they go someplace nice.
Bill himself is standing beside the car, sorting through mangled receipts, trying to decide whether he made money or got taken. His body is twitching, and his eyes do not focus on the receipts. He’s like some speed freak, a quivering mass of useless energy. All you can do is see that he doesn’t hurt anyone. Or himself.
“Well, don’t just stand there,” he says, looking up. “I don’t pay you to stand around and look at me. There are more boxes in the trunk.” So much for extending a compassionate thought.
“That asshole,” I mutter, as I walk past B.J., who is combing her hair in the mirror.
“Don’t talk like that. He’s not well.”
I drop the box on the floor of the walk-in. B.J.’s right. Bill hardly sleeps, jams an occasional tuna sandwich on top of his daily gallon of coffee, smokes three packs a day. All he does is work and worry about the business. The sad thing is he doesn’t see that there’s anything wrong with his life.
On the way back to the car, I pass Tommy. He’s standing by the garbage cans, tying a plastic bag with irritating exactness. He glares at me, acne scars lending fierceness to a face which doesn’t need it. I feel his eyes on me as I walk down the steps.
I lift the box out of the trunk and slam it shut. Watery hamburger blood soaks through my apron, cold against my skin. Bill follows me across the lot.
Tommy walks onto the dock with a second bag of garbage.
“Don’t leave garbage on top of the cans,” Bill shouts at him. “We’ll have every dog in the neighborhood tearing those bags apart.”
“Fuck you,” Tommy mutters.
“What?” shouts Bill.
“The cans are full.”
Bill rushes up the steps and stands facing Tommy.
“The truck was just here. Put those away.”
“Don’t you shout at me.”
Bill lunges forward and Tommy drops back, crouching, hands in front of him. Bill grabs the can nearest him. The can is so dented that the lid sticks, and the whole can comes up in his hand. “It’s empty, see. Fill it.” He throws the can at Tommy.
“Hey,” Tommy shouts. “Watch it.”
I drop the hamburgers and run to them as Bill lunges towards Tommy. I grab Bill and pin his arms against his side. His face is so red that I’m scared his heart will burst. His eyes are glazed and his breath is a series of ragged gasps, smelling horribly of cigarettes and stomach acid.
I turn around to tell Tommy to cool off and realize too late that I’m going to get the fist that’s meant for Bill. But Tommy is gone and Christine is standing in his place, wide-eyed. I let go of Bill and discover I’m shaking. Bill pulls his cigarettes out, but his hands have no strength and the pack falls to the floor.
I gather them up and, still on my knees, hand him one. He strikes a match fruitlessly until the tip is gone and rips another out of the book.
“Excuse me, Bill,” says Chris.
“That hoodlum,” he says at the sound of her voice. “He won’t, he won’t…What do you want?”
“There’s someone at the register who wants to cash a check. He says you always let him.”
“I’ll get it,” he says wearily. “Take care of this, will you Danny?”
“Sure, Bill.” I brush the sawdust off my pants. Bill walks past Christine, his orthopedic shoes making soft pats on the concrete.
“What happened?” she asks.
“I don’t know. They argue all the time, but this time I thought Bill was going to get it for sure. Then I thought I was going to get it.”
“I saw what you did.” She sounds oddly proud of me.
“What? Offer to get punched instead of Bill? Real smart.”
“Tommy wouldn’t have hurt him.”
“Yes he would. I used to get beat up by guys like Tommy in high school. Junior high,” I add to save a little self-respect.
“You didn’t look scared.”
“I didn’t think. I just rushed in.”
Christine smiles and I feel like the hero I know I’m not. I reach out to touch her. She steps closer. I put my arms around her. She presses into me and there’s no turning back. When we kiss, I touch her lips with my tongue and she opens her mouth.
I don’t want it to end. It’s the first good kiss since Matisse… “We’d better get out front,” I say, breaking the touch.
She nods and smoothes her skirt before she walks through the swinging doors. The sweet smell of her hair lingers and I take a deep breath before I go back out to pick up the case of burgers in the parking lot.