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Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Tail

The Tail

by Scott Gardner Merrick

Ben FranklinMy tail had been wagging me for 'way too long. I didn't know it, but I was about to decide to do a little wagging myself. A lost-and-found envelope -- lost by someone and found by me, late one night in corporate restaurant hell -- turned the tables (so to speak) for me.

You know that old saw about "the tail wagging the dog." It has to do with priorities, things getting out of whack, the wrong things becoming the important things until the really important things don't have any claim to attention. That is the shape I was in. How did I get that way?

Maybe it all had more to do than I had been willing to admit with my need to gain approval in the eyes of my two fathers-in-law. Yes. Certainly. After all, I had been pretty happy and pretty darned successful as a bartender. Lord knows that the money had been better: and it had been cash, mostly.

I remember one of the years I bartended for the local liquor distributor's annual Christmas party, held solely for the city's restaurant employees. The food and beverage were free, and of course that meant beaucoup free liquor. People were piled up like sardines in a can in front of the four portable bars, waving the bills they intended to stuff in the tip-bucket, screaming out drink orders and brandishing empty plastic cups. Five bartenders' hands were flying from bottle to bottle and the accomplished free-pourers among us were flashing style like Teflon-coated lightning.

I walked into my little duplex apartment that night with three bottles of premium liquor--grateful courtesy of the party's organizers--and somewhere around seven hundred and fifty dollars cash money. I remember groaning as I declared the full amount on my weekly paycheck at my regular job. I was unimpeachably honest as a bartender, one reason I was able to find and keep good jobs. My high principles were a source of pride to me, and they served me well.

I have to confess that I emptied my pockets (and the crumpled brown paper grocery bag I had ferreted away tips in as the night progressed) onto my shag carpet in the living room, took off my clothes, and rolled in money that night.

No, not every night was that lucrative. But the fact remains that my average income as a bartender was high enough, especially considering the relative levels of stress, that you might call me stupid to ever have left it. It was love got in the way.

Like I mentioned, I had a couple of prospective fathers-in-law to deal with. My wife's parents had divorced when she was little, and both had remarried, so that she grew up with two sets of parents. The resulting complications, both positive and negative, are obvious, and not unusual in today's schema. It was a new thing for me, though, and now that I had announced my intention to marry her, I was faced with the justifiably intense scrutiny of not two, but four sets of protective parental eyes.

My future step-father-in-law had threatened (and we had no reason to suspect it was an idle threat) to disown his stepdaughter.

My prospective father-in-law was a little more sympathetic, but clearly had his own doubts about his daughter marrying a bartender. Both prospective mothers-in-law, perhaps shocked out of their normally strong personalities by the prospect of losing their little girl, expressed mild support for both camps. We agreed to wait a year and try this marriage thing again. Meanwhile, in a ceremony witnessed only by our Himalayan, Earl Scruggs (who served his duty mainly by tongue-cleaning his sable-tipped left front paw), we exchanged the simple gold wedding bands we had already bought, and declared ourselves married. My wife was my wife. I was her husband. I went back to my job as head barman at a private North Miami Beach Tennis Club and told everyone I had gotten married over the weekend, and Deanne did the same at her job at a wholesale flower import company.

Somehow, scant weeks later, I accepted the job of Assistant Manager at the Tennis Club restaurant. I frankly don't remember how. Retrospection can't be trusted: It makes everything look immeasurably more logical than it was. In any event, that acceptance was the first step along the path of several years that led to my job as First Assistant Manager at a Crazy Magnolia's location in Nashville, not a mile away from the half million dollar home in which we now reside.

To return to the night in question.

I had just finished my sixth straight close. That is a shift, for those who are unacquainted with the dialect of the restaurant manager/slave, which lasts from one o'clock in the afternoon until between three and five o'clock in the morning. Exactly when you may leave depends on how busy you are, how good you are, how good your people are, how tired you are, and most of all, how lucky you are. We had been very busy, I considered myself pretty good, most of my staff were spot-on servers, bartenders, barbacks, cooks, and such; but I was kind of tired, not tracking to be out much before the mockingbirds started going wild in the parking lot trees. Lucky? Read on.

Part of my exhaustion was purely emotional: one of my first duties that shift had been to terminate an employee. She had been caught in a serious infraction of checkout procedure, her second of the same sort. We, as a management team, had no other option but to fire her. Even the appearance of dishonest intentions could plant ugly seeds in the minds of the other employees, and tolerance of repeated violations certainly could not be allowed.

"But Bobby-baby, I just forgot," she had pleaded. She was a pretty young red-haired girl with a vivacious personality and a smile that always made me think impure thoughts. I knew I would miss her, both personally and as an asset to the restaurant.

"I'm sorry, Chrissie," I said, with uncharacteristic formality. I did not smile. "There is no further need for discussion. As I said once, and do not intend to say again, your services are no longer required at Crazy Magnolia's. You are no longer an employee of this company. You may pick up your final paycheck a week from Friday after three p.m. Please return your aprons then. Please leave the building now." She left crying.

I hated firing people, but I had a reputation for doing it well. Surgically. There may be some tears shed on the way out, but my "terms" never led to nasty shouting matches.

To compound matters further, the shift had been frantic. I felt, as I often did, that I had spent the whole night running around putting out raging forest fires with a toy squirt gun. Finally, this true bitch of an evening was drawing to a close. I led the last kitchen dawg through the silent restaurant to the front foyer. "'Night, Junior," I croaked. My voice was a little raw. I had been training a class of new servers all week, talking almost non-stop for two hours a day, and it was showing.

"G'night, boss," Junior replied. His dark eyes smiled, something behind them. I thought nothing of it at the time: Junior always had something behind his eyes. I knew he was at least as tired as I was because I knew from painful personal experience how exhausted eight hours at the grill station could make a man. And I knew he had seven children at home and a wife who sometimes came at him with a kitchen knife. As always, his kitchen whites were selectively smeared with grill grease (grill cooks as experienced as Junior could be spotted by a neat consistency of their hand-wipe tracks. Whenever I cooked grill my clothes would end up just looking sloppy) and one of his stiff black high-topped boots flapped at the sole.

He clutched his requisite dark burgundy Crazy Magnolia's ball-cap loosely in one hand and reached for his car keys with the other. As I fumbled with the ancient door lock mechanisms, he limped away through the darkened parking lot toward its far end, passing my car on the way. (I was permitted to park as close as I could. All the other employees had to hike from out past the yellow line that was emblazoned on the asphalt.) I thought I saw him barely, slowly, shaking his sweat-soaked head from side to side.

I double-checked the doors to make sure the world was locked out. Only two weeks before we had been robbed at closing, by a gang of kids with guns. One kitchen worker, a prep cook, had been shot in the leg and an escaping server had been shot at and missed. The manager and two cooks had been locked in the walk-in cooler until the police arrived. Thanks to the server, and the Metro Police, the bad kids were captured and the freezing folks in the walk-in were released before frostbite set in. At least they wouldn't have starved to death.

On the way back to the office, I veered up into the raised smoking section to check the floors. It's amazing, the number of people a restaurant manager is paid to distrust, and the pity of it is how often that distrust proves warranted. The long-time server who had closed the smoking section had skated on his floor sweeping. I made a mental note to check him out more thoroughly tomorrow night before letting him clock out.

Back by the bar, I ran my hand down the ancient circuit breaker boxes (there were three of them) to kill the lights in the restaurant, leaving only the office and kitchen lights. I still had to do a final walk-through of the kitchen, which I had let go tonight because Junior was closing, and I knew that Junior wouldn't leave anything that I would have to spend any amount of time cleaning. I trusted Junior. Junior was good.

On the way back to the kitchen, I swung over to the dimly lit main register terminal and turned its key to manager mode, keying in the sequence which would set its computer off and running toward closing out. It would take about eleven minutes for this sequence to run, so I headed through the kitchen to the john.

I had to take a leak.

The kitchen was sparkling. Junior was so good. I glanced at the fryers. We would have to be sure to test the number 2 grease in the morning. I would leave a note in the manager's log. And that damned door on the line cooler was hanging askew again. A call to the stainless man, another note for the red book.

God, did I have to take a leak. The dozen cups of coffee I had consumed during the shift were doing at least that part of their work well.

I pushed through the swinging kitchen door into the darkened public hallway, opening it slowly from a habit cultivated so as not to cold-cock some surrying server entering from the other side. There was a gray film over the door's glass window to keep  bathroom-bound guests from seeing the absolutely devastated condition the kitchen reached with each busy shift. It is a condition common to most commercial kitchens--things happen so fast--but that doesn't mean we wanted anyone to see it just before they received their Chicken Chimichimi's or Double-stuffed Potato Skins.

Of course, no one was there. And there was not a sound, except for the quietly cacophonous humming and whirring of the various coolers and freezers, and the little "whack, whack, whack" of the ceiling fan over table forty-three.

There is something positively scary about a commercial restaurant after the lights go out. It's like a big old beast that wants so bad to sigh but cannot because it doesn't know how.

I crossed the tiny hallway into the men's room, propping the door open with one of the two spare chairs we stored here. There was no light in the bathroom, so I had to make do with the low wash from the bar lights at the edge of the hallway.

I unzipped my fly and groaned a little. God, did I have to go. I approached the urinal and let loose. Heavy sigh.

My eyes became accustomed to the low level of light. That's when I saw the envelope.

It was on the floor underneath the Formica countertop.

One might expect to see a wadded-up paper towel there. Or a cigarette butt. But not a neat, crisp-looking, fat, brown manila envelope.

It took another minute before I could get to it. More important matters were at hand.

I picked it up, only to find that it was sealed.

I carried it to the office, first cruising by the register terminal to key in the code sequence which would begin the next stage of its closing process.

In the office, I turned the sealed envelope over and over. I don't know who I was fooling: Of course, I would open it.

I opened it.

It was full of brand new hundred-dollar bills. As it turned out, four hundred and fifty of them.

Of course, I agonized. For the next three minutes, worlds of tortured postulation whirled through my mind: what if it were drug money and the Mob would never give me a moment's rest as long as I lived? What if it were a gambling pay-off and Vinnie the Shark (surely there's a Vinnie the Shark somewhere in Music City) would feed my fingers to me one by one as a lesson about opening other people's mail? What if it were the cash bribe to a Central American dictatorship from Feed the Children? What if it were a donation to Feed the Children? The face of Benjamin looked disappointedly  judgmental. I returned the cash to the envelope and set it carefully upon the top of the neat pile of paperwork that still stood between me and home, and my bed.

I looked up. In the doorway of the office stood a large black man with a gigantic black-barreled pistol. He wore a navy surplus ski mask, but that didn't fool me at all. How the hell had he gotten in? Ah, the back door. I had been so intent on the john that I had failed to double-check that one.

"Junior," I expelled the word like a sigh, "goddamn it, Junior, please, for chrissake, don't scare me like that."

The individual in the doorway jerked the gun in a way I did not perceive as friendly. "I am not Junior, motherfucker," he growled, pulling off the knit mask. "I am Francis Lamont Miller. The Third. And I am so damned tired of sweating for you assholes that I am here to rob this hell hole and get the fuck out from under your  tyrannical motherfucking rule."

He wiped his brow with the back of the hand not holding the pistol, "And I might just kill your bogus ass while I'm doing it."

I did not look at the envelope on the desk. I only looked into his eyes. But I knew that though the envelope was not sealed, its flap was tucked neatly into the rest of it: it just looked like another stack of paperwork, piled on the top of the desk with all the other check-out stuff.

"Hey," I began...

"Shut the fuck up, Robert. Just shut up." He literally growled it.

I could see him looking past me to the open door of the safe. I shifted gears almost without thinking about it. I looked away from his eyes, at my hands, raised up in the air. There was no decision to be made. I sighed. My eyes again met his.

"I'll help you," I said, quietly, “I hate the bastards, too. May I?” He nodded slightly. I slowly lowered my hands, reaching toward the couple thousand dollars in the safe. I was feeling lucky.

copyright 1997 by Scott Merrick, rev. May, 2020, all rights reserved


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