Food Chain – Jim Grimsley

In the morning he made himself bathe and dress again, down to thirty five dollars and forty cents, his stomach in knots, but when he looked in the mirror he still thought he looked all right, his black hair neatly combed, his smooth skin between the color of sand and brown hen’s eggs, his nice lips, and in the T-shirt his shoulders had a good shape, you could tell he wasn’t all skin and bones. Looking in the mirror he thought better of himself, and the panic about money subsided. This could be the day he found a job, after all. He walked to the Circle K. Saturday morning, and the manager, Curtis, was there, in the middle of a rush, and could only pause to talk to Newell for a moment. Newell figured that meant bad news, and Curtis kept rushing from table to table anyway, so that Newell had to stand and wait. Curtis pushed by with a tray full of plates and glasses and said, “The dishwasher didn’t quit, but wait a minute,” and turned the corner, with Newell’s heart sinking, there was no job, the dishwasher stayed, and here was suddenly Curtis again in his face. “But the bus boy left. Do you want to be a bus boy?”

He grinned, he could hardly believe what he was hearing. “Sure.”

“Well, I can’t stop to talk to you right now. Come back this afternoon about three o’clock. Can you start Tuesday?”

“Sure. That’s fine.”

“Good. Come back and talk to me this afternoon.”

Curtis rushed away and Newell went on standing there dumbfounded. After a while he realized he had to leave, the place was too busy for him to go on standing there, so he drifted to the door, walked outside, realized he could relax now, the anxious feeling could dissolve. He would come back this afternoon, he would talk to Curtis, he would go to work as a bus boy. He figured that was the job Curtis had been doing while he was talking to Newell, clearing the tables and carrying the dishes to the dishwasher and setting the tables again. For doing this he would earn money, and it was only the third of June, he had plenty of time to earn the rent. He felt himself relaxing over and over again, He could stay.

At three o’clock he stepped through the door to the restaurant again. The tables in the various rooms that he could see were mostly empty now, a few pairs of men or women sipping coffee or glasses of water. Curtis was sitting at the desk crammed against the corner near what had once been a door leading to the back gallery of someone’s house. He had Newell sit down and fill out some papers, explained the tax forms to Newell and showed him how to do those. He told Newell the job paid four dollars fifty cents an hour plus tips. The waiters he worked with would each tip him at the end of their shifts. How much would depend on how busy the restaurant was, but if Newell felt like he was being cheated, he could say so. Had he ever worked in a restaurant before? Well, that didn’t matter. What mattered in the Circle K was that Newell could keep the tables clean, keep the water glasses filled, and look cute while he was doing it so people would keep coming back to the restaurant to see him. Curtis said that with a perfectly straight face, and when Newell giggled, Curtis merely smiled, though in a rather tired way. “You don’t think I’m kidding, do you? I wouldn’t hire you if you weren’t cute, sweetheart. Not to work out front.”

He would work breakfast and lunch shifts Tuesday through Sunday, with Monday off. He was due at work by 6:30 a.m. every day except Sunday, when the restaurant opened later, and he would get off work by two in the afternoon. Absorbing every detail as if his life depended on it, Newell studied the rooms, the neatly placed wooden tables, the framed prints on the wall, drawings of men with no shirts and tight pants, big crotches, big eyes with long lashes, in pairs or groups, eyeing one another greedily.

“When is payday?” Newell asked.

“End of shift on Tuesday. For the week before. But you’ll get your tips every day.”

Walking home, Newell could hardly believe it, that it was done, that he had a job, that he started in three days, that he would have to get up very early every morning, even earlier than for the IGA; he would have to buy a cheap alarm clock, he couldn’t rely on his watch. But he could buy an alarm clock out of the thirty-five dollars he had left, a sum that appeared more substantial now that it only had to last a few days. He could buy something to eat besides soup, and starting on Tuesday, he could eat two meals a day for free at the restaurant.

He called his grandmother, Flora, the next day, to tell her he had found a job. He caught her at home with a headache on Sunday morning, puffing her cigarette audibly, sipping coffee and trying to clear her throat. “Honey, I am so glad you called me.”

“Yes ma’am. Well, it’s good news, don’t you think?”

“Well, I hope you don’t have to work in food service for very long,” she intimated. “Jesse has been in food service his whole life and look where that’s got him.”

“Yes ma’am.” Newell understood from this that Jesse, Flora’s boyfriend, was sitting at the kitchen table too, scratching his nose or the inside of his ear, looking completely vacant as he usually looked in the morning.

“You being careful in that French Quarter?”

“Yes ma’am. But I don’t think it’s dangerous.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“Really. I been walking around since I got here, even at night, and I never feel like anybody is following me, or anything.”

“Well,” she took a drag on the cigarette, “you walk around with that kind of careless attitude and somebody will drag you off in an alley one of these days, you watch. And nobody will know what happened to you.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I know what I’m talking about. There’s things that happen in New Orleans that you’d rather not even imagine.” Her words took on a curious authority over the long distance line. Jesse must have coughed, with the cigarette smoke swirling around him in that trailer kitchen, because Flora snapped, “Go in the living room if you can’t stand my smoke, you tattooed son-of-a-bitch.”

“Are you going to church, Grandma?”

“No. I didn’t get my dress out of the cleaners this week.” They had made this joke before, they both laughed and felt better, and he imagined Jesse sulking in front of the TV with his toes buried in the shag carpet. “It’s a lot of Catholics in New Orleans,” Flora noted.

“I know. There’s a great big church they go to. In a square right here in the French Quarter.”

“I know exactly the one you’re talking about,” she agreed, and after a moment said her phone bill would be sky high with the two of them gabbing about nothing. They said good bye and there he stood across from the Verti Mart on Sunday morning. Wondering why he had asked about Mama, after such a long time. Wondering what had put her on his mind.

On Tuesday he woke up when the clock said 5:30 a.m. He had hardly ever waked up so early before, and he stumbled to the bath tub and ran hot water. He lay in the tub waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping, till finally he washed and rinsed himself as best he could. Dressing in jeans and a shirt, like the other guys he had seen in the restaurant.

He headed for the Circle K with plenty of time. Some people were already seated in the dining room and a thin waiter in a tight T-shirt slouched over them writing down their order. Curtis was at his desk, looking half asleep, yawning as Curtis walked in.

“Oh, hi, it’s you,” Curtis said, and yawned again. He showed Newell the kitchen set up, introduced him to Felix the breakfast cook, and Alan the morning waiter. Umberto the prep guy was out back washing out the garbage can with a hose, visible through the open screen door.

Newell picked up dishes and brought people water. When they were gone he cleaned off tables. He was the only bus boy for the breakfast shift, until Tyrone came in at 8. The job seemed easy until the tables were full, and then he was walking back and forth from the kitchen through all the dining rooms and back again, one thousand times at least. Curtis helped him at first, then sat back and only pitched in to clean a table when there were too many for Newell to handle.

Whenever Newell looked that way, he found Curtis watching him, though pretty soon he was too busy to notice what Curtis was doing. Alan tapped Newell on the shoulder and said, “Those people have been asking for water for fifteen minutes. You need to move your behind.” Or came up to him and said, “If you can’t clean these tables any faster than this I’m not going to tip you. I could do it myself this quick.” Or, while passing to the kitchen, said, “Come back here and help me take out these plates to that party of eight. That woman at that table has an attitude about me.” A woman was in fact scowling at them both, and Newell set her plate in front of her, and she asked for something and he took the message back to Alan and Alan said, “Well, here, take it to her,” and what it was, Tabasco, turned out to be a bottle of hot sauce that she sprayed over her eggs. So that half the morning he spent running around doing what Alan told him to do and the rest trying to keep from listening while Alan harangued him because his own work wasn’t getting done.

Help came and things settled down, and sooner than he could have guessed the rush was done and Curtis clapped him on the back in the kitchen door. “You got through it.”

“It was all right,” Newell said.

“Except you’re so slow and clumsy,” Alan added, from the side.

“Shut up, Alan,” Curtis said.

“I will not shut up. He’s slow and he’s clumsy with the plates.”

“He didn’t break anything.”

Alan whirled away with his order pad. Curtis watched him go and said, “You did okay. But you need to wear a tighter T-shirt.”

“A what?”

Curtis laughed nervously. “Your jeans are all right but your T-shirt’s not tight enough. You need to wear a tight one. We have to keep the queens happy.”

In the lull between breakfast and lunch he ate his own eggs and bacon, served without a word by Felix, who watched Newell eat the first couple of bites, then grunted and lumbered back to the kitchen. Alan ate his breakfast, too, but sat at a different table than Newell, refused to look at him or speak to him. But by then there were other waiters, Frank and Stuart, and they were friendlier than Alan, and cuter.

Lunch shift shocked him with its intensity, so many dishes on the table, so many empty water glasses, everything to be done at once, and people crammed into the restaurant leaving only the narrowest space through which Newell could slide. He moved as fast as he could, did everything he could see to do, and hoped for the best. His whole mind focused itself on the need to note the level of water in a glass across a room despite cigarette smoke swirling in the air and bodies moving this way and that across his field of vision; he concentrated on the balance required to haul a heavy tray of dishes over the heads of the customers, who were often staring at him as he moved, trying to make eye contact. He was assigned to Alan’s and Stuart’s sections and kept them clean as best he could, kept the customers flowing through, kept the water glasses full and picked up the used napkins from the floor, but even so, Alan found plenty to criticize, that he was setting the tables the wrong way, that he took forever to fill a simple pitcher of water. That he was bumping into the customers as he walked, that he was so slow he couldn’t help to carry out the food.

At the end of the shift Stuart tipped him eight dollars and some change and Alan refused to tip him at all, at first, until Curtis and Stuart took him aside and talked to him for a while, after which he gave Newell four dollars even and said, “You’re lucky I give you that much as slow as you are. I think you’re in the wrong line of work, honey.”

“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Stuart said, indicating Alan. “Her stars are all in the wrong place this month.”

“Fuck off, Stuart.”

Stuart smiled and glided away. Newell imitated the glide though not the smile, and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Alan.”

So his first day was over, and all he had to think about for tomorrow was finding a tight T-shirt to wear. He tried on the ones he had brought from Pastel, all six of them, including the one that had Bruce Springsteen’s picture on the front; that one was tight, and one other green one from high school was also a bit tight.

He put the twelve dollars and some change from his tips with the rest of his money, which grew to nearly fifty dollars again. The fact pleased him, and he thought, I can start saving for the rent right now.

But at work the next day, with Newell in the Springsteen T-shirt, relations with Alan were even worse.  Every dish Newell touched was the wrong one, every time he carried out the water glass he went to the wrong side of the restaurant first, or when Alan asked him for a simple glass of orange juice he needed ten minutes to find it. By the lunch shift Newell was wondering what bothered Alan so much about him.

“He really liked Travis, the last guy,” Stuart told him, when they were eating breakfast together, Stuart lowering his voice to float just over his eggs and potatoes. “But Curtis fired Travis for coming in late all the night and then not showing up one day, and Alan has been pouting ever since.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

“Honey, to a princess like Alan, that does not matter one little bit.”

“It’s because you’re cuter than he is,” Frank said, sitting with the two of them with a cup of coffee. The restaurant had gotten quiet, around ten thirty, just before lunch would start. “And younger.”

Alan, sitting alone at the window, legs crossed like a girl, smoked a slow drawling cigarette, his elbows sharp and dark against the window. Hair combed straight back, long sharp nose, thin lips, narrow eyes, soft chin. His parts had a look of hanging together only loosely, an uncertain whole. He’s not cute, Newell realized and then, at the same moment, but I am. I am cute.

Curtis had that day off, but came back from the next, when Newell wore the tight green T-shirt from high school, and the tight faded jeans with a slight flare at the bottom. Curtis said the T-shirt was better, was more like what he had in mind, and all morning he found reasons to talk to Newell, helping him with tables during the breakfast rush. Newell had to concentrate on his work and hardly thought about Curtis or what he might be up to, but as the morning wore on, he noted that Stuart was angry about something. He began to harangue Newell pretty much as Alan continued to do – get the water faster, there’s too much ice in the pitcher, this orange juice is soured, didn’t you check it?

For breakfast Felix  prepared Newell a nice omelet, a change from the usual eggs. Frank handed Newell the plate, noting, “Well, I guess Felix is in love with you too.”

“What do you mean?”

“He never fixes omelets, you have to beg him.”

For Frank Felix had made the usual breakfast, scrambled eggs and bacon, potatoes on the side.

“Who else is in love with me?”

Frank laughed. “Are you kidding?”

“No.”

“Well, darling, Curtis is following you around like a puppy. It’s got Stuart all upset. Haven’t you even noticed? You cold bitch.”

From there on through lunch he did notice, that Curtis was more or less following him around the restaurant, and Stuart was watching the whole thing, slamming dishes around and getting in a fight with Umberto the prep cook about the bad salad. Alan was meanwhile sitting calmly by the window, puffing the usual cigarette, off his feet for a moment, as he called it, but glaring at Newell whenever he passed.

You cold bitch. He liked the ring of the words, though he had simply been oblivious and not really cold. But he liked that he had appeared so to Frank.

The work was what absorbed him, the novelty of it, which he knew would wear away; but for the moment it was he needed. Alan and Stuart tipped him, if poorly, and his stock of cash grew, if slowly. Payday was coming. Saturdays and Sundays the restaurant was busy from the time it opened till the time Newell got off, and the customers were all in a jolly mood, ordering big tall glasses of tomato juice and vodka. The dining rooms became so crowded that every trip he made through the mazes of chairs and tables became a performance, and he became easy at making eye contact with the customers, for the most fleeting of moments, but enough to fulfill the apparent requirement; he twisted and shimmied through the chairs with his pitcher, his tray, his cloths for cleaning, and he forgot whether Curtis was watching him or not, he forgot whether anybody liked him, he did what he was supposed to do and remembered that he was getting paid money for it, and with the money he could pay his rent, and with that accomplished he could stay here, in the city.

Monday he slept late, luxuriating in the bed till long after sunrise, then getting up and taking enough money to buy breakfast, not at the Circle K, god forbid, but at the White Biscuit, where he got a table to himself. He like the thought that he could afford to buy his own breakfast out of money he had brought home last night, money he had mean to spend in the bar. The waiter kept watching him a moment longer than necessary for all the transactions, and Newell thought it was nice to get the attention but pretended not to notice.

In the afternoon he went to the adult bookstore. He waited till the heat of the day, when his room was becoming too close for comfort, and he walked across the Quarter to the building with the fine galleries. Today the carriageway was open and a car was pulling out, a long white car with tinted windows. The car glided past Newell slowly, and he waited for it to turn onto the street before he went inside.

He stepped into the fluorescent light, walked down the long dark passage to the lit counter where the same bored Louis was slumped over the cash register with his chin in his hands. The pattern of his acne had changed but the T-shirt was the same. Newell stepped toward the room where the men’s magazines lined the walls and at the same moment, from a curtain at the back, the old guy Mac appeared. Today Newell noticed a big mole on his cheek and his saggy, wrinkled facial skin, his rounded, soft belly with his pants pulled up high, the white-short-sleeved shirt with the pens and pack of cigarettes in the pocket, the T-shirt visible beneath, and the belt buckle in the shape of a leaping dolphin. He had come out of the curtained doorway near Newell and stood there watching the magazines briefly as if taking an inventory. He said, matter-of-factly, “We got some good new stuff in here this week. Good thing you came back.”

Newell nodded.

“Let me know if you need any help finding what you want,” the man said politely, “But take your time and look all you want.” He started to shuffle off but then paused, leaned forward, and snagged a magazine to hand to Newell. “This one,” he said, “you like this guy, don’t you?”

He shuffled over to the cash register and lit into Louis about sticking his gum on the edge of the stool; Newell heard the words but he was already lost looking at the cover of the magazine, where he saw Rod the Rock, shirtless and tied to a wall or a post with his hands raised over his head and a look on his face of pain or fear, and though the picture might be posed the pain or fear seemed real, and Newell gripped the magazine tight.

This one cost even more than the other, fifteen dollars, and Newell had only that much in his pocket. His heart sank at the thought, because he had not meant to spend so much money when he came here. But his heart was pounding and his grip tightened on the magazine, he glanced at the cover again, at the black and white photo of the big man’s body, of his face with that unearthly expression, and at the title, Bonds of Love. From the cash register Mac watched, belly sagging onto the counter, magazines fanned out in front of him, the greasy faced boy hanging behind his shoulder. Mac’s hair was neatly combed and oiled straight back over his skull and Newell could smell the hair oil all the way across the room. Mac watched Newell without any self consciousness while taking a cigarette out of a packet in his shirt pocket, raising it to his lips and lighting it. Finally Newell stepped up to the cash register and pulled out his money.

“I thought you might like that one.” Mac rang up the sale, while Newell stared at the other magazines, afraid to answer. Mac shoved the magazine into a bag and folded the top over, fastening it with a strip of tape. He handed the package to Newell. “Come back to see us.”

“Yes sir,” Newell said, and wondered why he had said it, “sir.”

But Mac simply watched him as if the “yes sir” had not surprised him at all, and said, “I could use some smart people around here, anyway. I got nothing but dumb asses working for me. Like Louis here. You’re a dumb ass, ain’t you, Louis?”

Louis had been squeezing a pimple near his temple, an angry purple rise, but stopped when he heard his name, and blinked, and said, “I ain’t so dumb, Mr. Mac, it’s just too many magazines to keep up with.”

“Yeah you dumb shit, you’re a dumb ass, all right.” He winked at Newell, who blushed and turned away, and at the doorway paused when Mac said, “Good night, son. We get the new magazines on Thursdays, come on back and take a look.”

He took the magazine home and spread it out on the bed. The cover promised something harsh, and inside was a picture of Rod trussed up in chains, hanging in a sling, a kerchief through his mouth. Rod Hardigan in the magazine had been captured by a gigantic hairy blonde man, stripped and tied up, and page after page he was forced to do things, endure tortures, pains. Some of the pictures shocked Newell, Rod being penetrated by various objects, and he only glanced at them but even so he could vividly remember these glimpses, the blonde man shoving a long dark stick inside Rod from behind, and pinching Rod’s nipples with metal clamps, other pictures that Newell had turned quickly past. What amazed Newell was the look on the face of Rod, the almost starvation, almost ecstasy, almost oblivion, in his eyes, as if they had become windows on a hollow space. As if inside Rod the Rock were an emptiness waiting for this, nothing else.

He stayed in the room that night, washed his Springsteen T-shirt by hand, spread it out carefully to dry. The magazine lay face down on the bedside table. A banner across the top read, “The bondage that is love,” with a picture of Rod with his hands tied behind his back, face down on a bench looking backward at the camera, his fleshy ass exposed, his feet padlocked together, altogether helpless. Bonds of Love. He lay the magazine in the bottom of the wardrobe on top of the copy of Brute Hombre, and he went to bed,

He overslept by a few minutes the next day, and arrived at work a few minutes late, only to find the place in an uproar. Alan had caught Umberto looking in Curtis’s desk drawers without permission, presumably for the cash bag from last night, as if it would still be there. Everybody was shrieking at everybody and the dozen or so customers sat struck with a mild astonishment. Newell went back to the office to the time clock and stuck his card into the punch slot. Alan said, “Well, Umberto, if you’re so innocent, what were you doing in there?”

“I was looking for a book of matches.”

“We have matches right at the register.”

“I wasn’t at the register.”

“Well, ten steps would have taken you right there. You were not looking for any matches.”

“Everybody knows Curtis takes the deposit to the bank at night.”

“Sometimes he doesn’t.”

Umberto waved his hand at Alan and headed back to the kitchen, and Alan followed him there to argue with him some more. Alan came out in a few minutes and spotted Newell with an empty tray, heading to the tables where the customers were paying their bills and fleeing. “And don’t think I didn’t notice you were late.”

“I forgot to turn on the alarm,” Newell said.

“Convenient to be so forgetful. When the rest of us have to do double work.”

“It was only a few minutes, Alan,” he said, but this time he looked Alan in the eye. Alan wavered and looked away. Newell cleared the empty tables, his stomach already in a knot, and the week was only an hour old.

At the end of the shift Curtis handed Newell a pay envelope and gave him a receipt to sign. Inside was a check for one hundred and fourteen dollars and thirteen cents. “I can cash it for you if you sign it over to me,” Curtis said, and Newell waited, and Curtis looked at him, and then turned the check over and said, “Sign it across here. Sign your name.”

So he rushed home and put all his money together, and had over a hundred ninety five dollars, nearly enough to pay the rent in just one week. Now he felt better about buying Bonds of Love for fifteen dollars. Especially since he’d been afraid to look at the magazine once he saw what was in it. He sat on the edge of the bed with the folded money in his hand. The room, small as it was, could belong to him now.

On Bourbon Street he bought a tight, white T-shirt with the words “Vieux Carre” printed across it, and the outline of an ornate gallery, intricate ironwork, in shiny blue applique. He bought a small and figured he couldn’t get any tighter than that, so he paid seven dollars for the T-shirt and felt pleased that he would have something new to wear tomorrow.

The next day, in the T-shirt, he felt as though he were putting on a show in the restaurant, slipping between the tables, with men watching him from all sides, and some of them flirting, trying to talk to him. Later, Curtis called Newell to his office and said, “You’re really getting into this, babycake.”

“I like it all right,” Newell said, but he felt suddenly uncomfortable, knowing Stuart was somewhere in the dining rooms, watching all this.

“How long have you lived in town?”

“I just got here a couple of weeks ago.”

“That’s too sweet,” Curtis said, and his tone offended Newell, something about it he could not place, but Newell showed nothing except that he was listening. “Anyway, you seem like you’re settling in all right.”

Stuart appeared suddenly in the doorway, across from Newell, close enough to touch, and smiled in a brittle way. “You two look so comfortable together.”

Curtis turned to face the wall, lifting a pencil. “Stuart, did you want to talk about something?”

“No, Curtis, I just wanted to find out how much you two have to talk about, you know?”

They were staring at each other now. Curtis had started to blush again, and Stuart was about to start an argument. Newell figured it was a good time to leave, and so he did, with Alan waiting for him at the server’s station, complaining that there was not even a pitcher’s worth of ice in the bin, Newell needed to bring in some ice, where had he been anyway, the little nitwit?

He went to the bar after work, still wearing the T-shirt, taking a seat in the upstairs bar at Lafitte’s. The cool beer soothed his nerves, three in the afternoon and him drinking, you’d think he was Flora or Jesse. He had quarters from his tips and played the jukebox, a song he had started to like, Dire Straits, “Sultans of Swing,” and some other songs that went with it, a nice set. Sitting on the bar stool he could only sway a bit to the music, but he felt himself content. He stayed in the bar long enough to spend three dollars on beer, an achievement, with prices as cheap as they were, but when he walked out of the bar he felt better about the world, more like he could face going back to that job tomorrow.

The next day, Thursday, Alan was off work so at least there was only Stuart to worry about, and he appeared to have made up with Curtis, because they were both acting very warm and friendly toward one another. Stuart hung out in the doorway talking to Curtis and looking back at Newell to see if he was getting the message. Newell ignored the drama, bussed his tables and did his other duties, ate his eggs when Felix cooked them and tried to stay out of the way.

Stuart and Frank tipped out and left the restaurant, Stuart lingering for a while to hover over Curtis, while Newell was still eating his lunch. He felt the comfort of his day’s tip money in his pocket. Stuart kissed Curtis good-bye on the lips and left the restaurant and Curtis hardly waited for Stuart to get out of sight before he sat down with Newell himself. He was watching Newell. Something hangdog in his air. “You doing all right, Newell?”

“Sure.”

“Things are working out pretty good for you, here.”

“Yeah. I like it.”

“Stuart likes you.”

Newell gave him a look.

“No, I mean it. He’s fine about you. Look.” He pulled his chair closer to Newell. “You could probably be a waiter, don’t you think? Those guys pull down the real tips.”

Newell felt something pressing on his midsection, a strange pressure that he had never felt before, a bit hard to breathe while Curtis was sitting so close, talking so low. “I’m fine with being a bus boy.”

“But you’d like to make the real money.”

He let that go. Curtis was still watching him. After a while Newell wiped his mouth with the napkin and laid it across his plate. “I like to make money, that’s a fact.”

“Well, then,” Curtis said, but he was looking down at his plate. “I’ll have to see what I can do about it.”

“See you tomorrow.”

“Why don’t you sit for a while? Talk to me.”

“I have something I have to do,” Newell said.

“You sure?” he asked, and there was something suddenly cool in his aspect.

“Yes. I have a friend coming over to my house.”

Curtis nodded.

“See you.”

Curtis nodded again, staring down at the table.

Umberto had been watching the whole time, and partway through the scene brought Felix to the kitchen door to witness too..

Newell walked out of the restaurant with a sinking feeling, already dreading the next morning. Curtis was off the next day but Stuart was working and it was clear that Stuart had heard something. He was cold and unfriendly to Newell all day, and that coupled with Alan’s continual harangues made the day nearly impossible. The next day was Saturday, and Curtis was working though it was usually his day off, though he treated Newell very coldly all day. But there was so much business in the restaurant, nobody had time to say very much to anybody. At the end of the day Alan left with the restaurant still full, Curtis interviewing people in the office, the rumor going around that Curtis was hiring another waiter.

When Curtis went out of his way to say good-bye to Newell in the coldest tones possible, in front of Stuart, Newell left the restaurant fearing the worst. In fact, it was as bad as he expected, because the next morning, a Sunday, a new bus boy was on duty when Newell came to work, and Curtis called Newell to the office and fired him very first thing. Almost a week’s pay for the days he had worked since the last payday, plus an extra fifty for getting fired, as best Newell could understand it.

“What did I do?” Newell asked.

Curtis shrugged, looked down at his desk.

“You were too disruptive,” Alan said, passing the door. “Nobody could get along with you.”

“Was this because I wouldn’t go out with you?” Newell asked.

Curtis never answered at all, going back to his books, and Newell asked, “Well, what am I supposed to do now?”

“Leave, honey,” Alan said. “It’s just that simple.”

In a daze he headed back to his room. He went upstairs immediately and counted out two hundred fifty dollars from what he had, leaving him about forty dollars. This was the rent, he put it aside. The forty dollars would have to keep him alive till he got another job. At least he had a couple of cans of soup and some crackers left from when he had been employed; at least Curtis could have fired him after breakfast. Could you really be fired because you didn’t care when your boss flirted with you? Newell ate a can of soup slowly to make it last longer, counted his money again while he did, discouraged that the folded bills and precise stacks of coins added up to such a tiny sum. The hot soup calmed his belly and he felt less anxious and tried to lie across the bed, but when he did, with the afternoon sun slanting across his belly through the slats of the blinds, when he drifted toward sleep he felt his belly rumbling as if hungry again and turned over on his side and counted his money again in his head, worried that it would not be enough. He had meant to stay in the house but, with thoughts like these churning in his head, he sprang up from the bed and splashed water on his face, folded the money into his pocket and went out walking along Boulevard. But whenever he saw a sign for help wanted he surged first toward the door of the business and then away from it. Sunday, it wouldn’t do any good to ask, most places the managers didn’t even work on Sundays. His heart pounded and he talked himself out of each opportunity, and walked away, and finally drifted toward the bars again.

He went into a bar and got one of the cocktails that worked so well to dull his thinking before. He moved from bar to bar. Late in the evening, in the Bourbon Pub among a lot of men dressed like cowboys in flannel shirts, cowboy boots and belts with ornate silver buckles, Newell felt a wave of nausea pass through him and sank to the barstool and hung his head down. There was a drink in his hand, somewhere distant, and he concentrated on that, because he knew if he did not keep the thought of it in his head he would drop the glass, and that would be unpardonable, to drop the drink glass, with the whole bar watching. The bar was spinning and the music was making him dizzy, but he thought he was okay sitting there, he thought the nausea was going away and he was acting pretty normal, he thought he blended in pretty well, until someone leaned into his face and asked, “Honey, are you all right?”

In the morning Newell woke to a pounding head like nothing he had ever imagined, and a feeling that his stomach was slowly wringing itself inside out, and as soon as he dared sit up the flashes of agony in his head and the topsy turvy state of his stomach sent him reeling to the bathroom, where he hung against the toilet and heaved bitter-tasting, yellow bile into the toilet bowl. After a while he rinsed his mouth and brushed his teeth and rinsed his mouth again, and he wanted to take a bath but his head throbbed with sharp bursts of pain. He had broken out in a sweat and hung on the sink looking at himself in the mirror, his hair matted in clumps of curls, his eyes ringed with shade, skin so pale it was almost blue. He drank a cup of water and waited to see whether his stomach would accept it, ran a tub of water and slid into it, sweating into the hot water with his head throbbing.

He found his clothes from the night before and went through all the pockets. Laying out the money, counting all the bills and change, he found he had nineteen dollars left. He had expected to find he had spent all forty dollars or something like that, he remembered drinks in the disco and in the Bourbon Pub, but now to find out he only had nineteen dollars! His heart sank at the thought, and he searched all the pockets again, and came up with another dime and a nickel, and added them to his careful piles. Sitting there dumbfounded, he stared at the money as if willing it to grow.

He slept through the rest of Monday, got up for a while, too depressed to do much more than eat chicken noodle soup and go back to bed.

In the morning,  he woke up and bathed, his head still tender but no longer throbbing. He went to breakfast because he was starving from the day before and ate a big omelette and a lot of potatoes and toast, and he felt better after that, though the meal cost five dollars with the tip. He bought a Times-Picayune and read the want ads in his room. He sat on the front gallery with all his money in an envelope in his hand, and he listened to the sounds of the city in the hot afternoon and felt its strangeness and indifference, and this scrap of money in his hand was all that protected him.

He slept for a while that afternoon, real sleep, with the effects of all that alcohol finally gone, and when he woke he went for a walk and ended up, he never knew quite how, at the adult bookstore on St. Ann.

This time of day the cool, high-ceilinged room was mostly empty, but Louis was nowhere to be seen. Mac himself  slouched behind the cash register, a cigarillo in his fingertips, brown and thin, trailing a signature of smoke up toward the drop lights. He had something on his mind and merely nodded at Newell when he passed, which made Newell shy, so he strayed along the shelves of magazines and scanned them. Standing in front of the magazines that had women and men on them, the women shoving their breasts toward the camera, bending over to show the creases and pinknesses of their inner parts, sometimes sprawled on a bed with a man hovering over them, a man with a pale, flat, white ass and a limber cock in his hand, and the woman staring up at him and pretending to have some expression on her face that somebody told her to try to have, and all the while the invisible camera hovered there, and their relationship was with the camera, and with Newell, and with anyone who wanted to watch. Newell thought this effect must come from the fact that the regular magazines were not made as well as the magazines that had only men in them, because the magazines with only men seemed very real and exciting to him. While these big breasted women and sag-assed men were flat and lifeless.

“You like that stuff too?” Mac surprised him, walking over from the cash register, scarcely lifting the cigarillo from his lips.

Newell blinked and watched him.

“You like this stuff too?”

Newell shook his head. “Not much.”

“I didn’t think so.”

They blinked at each other in mild surprise. They were suddenly watching as if they might know each other, in a friendly way, nothing too personal, and Newell became less nervous. He moved away from the racks of magazines with their endless sets of breasts, big gaping nipples, and Mac gestured to him and said, “Come look at these.”

He lifted a stack of magazines to the counter. These had not yet been wrapped in their plastic covers and Newell lifted each one and smelled it and opened it. Every kind of magazine offered itself, magazines with thin pale boys, smooth bulbous asses, a little fat at the lower back; with tall lanky men in cowboy hats, sometimes with cowboy clothes on, maybe a vest or chaps or just boots; with men who were dressed like sailors in a cheap motel room, or what looked like a cheap motel room, though it might have been someone’s cheap apartment, or even a room in a mobile home in Pastel, Alabama, and the sailor men taking off their clothes, and one was thickly muscled and one was thin and hairy, and they both had moles on their butt cheeks; but occasionally one of the magazines contained someone beautiful and he felt his tongue go thick, and these he laid aside in a pile, as if by instinct, since Mac had only asked that he come and look. He spent some time sorting the stack into the magazines that he liked and the ones that he didn’t care much about. Now and then Mac would chuckle and say, “You like that one,” or, “There ain’t much to that one, right?” Pointing with the little cigar.

A couple of other customers came in but Newell and Mac went on talking, even when Mac was taking the money, making change, answering the phone. Newell helped put the magazines into the plastic covers, and to tape them shut, and write up the price tags. He had heard Mac mention this sort of task to Louis, and knew he was up to something but wasn’t altogether sure what it was until he had a thought, and asked, “Where’s the guy that works here?”

“Louis? That fucked up motherfucker? He don’t work here no more.”

“No?”

“His ass is gone back to Mississippi where he the fuck belongs.”

“That’s too bad,” Newell said.

Mac fixed a look on him and chewed on the end of a match. “You want his job?”

“You bet I do.”

“You want to start right now?”

A weight lifted off Newell and he took a deep breath and took a look around the store. The fluorescent lights were humming in the sweetest way. “Yes sir.”

“You ever cashier before?”

So Mac began to teach him how to work the cash register, and pretty soon Newell stood on the other side of the counter, and he relaxed, and he was able to breathe for the first time since Curtis fired him the day before, maybe even since he stepped off the bus that first morning on Tulane Avenue. He learned the operation of the cash register without trouble and soon he was making change or ringing up sales himself with Mac supervising, arms folded; Newell’s first sale was a magazine called Suck City with women and men on the cover, and for the rest of the day Mac sipped root beer and sat on the stool while Newell operated the cash register, made change, and checked in magazines from below the counter, ticking them off on a handwritten invoice sheet that he could barely read, then bagging them and pricing them and, with Mac’s advice, moving them to the shelves.

That night, in bed, satisfied, having eaten two whole cans of chicken noodle soup, he stared at the shadowed stains on the ceiling and was aware of the ridiculous smile on his face, here on a day that had begun so badly and that was ending so well. Visions of naked breasts and stiff nipples rose before his eyes, and something in that parade of body parts pleased him, as if he had found something for which he was destined. He would continue to have money now. He would be able to call Flora and tell her he had a job at a bookstore, and she would think that was nice, and she would not worry about him so much, and he would leave out the part about the exact type of bookstore, and everything would be fine. She would stop being afraid he was about to go bad.

_______________________

Jim Grimsley grew up in a working-class family in rural North Carolina. His novel, Winter Birds, published by Algonquin Books in 1994, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway prize and winner of a Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Dream Boy (Algonquin Books, 1995) won the American Library Association GLBT Award for Literature and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Other novels include My Drowning (Algonquin Books, 1997), Boulevard (Algonquin Books, 2002), and Kirith Kirin (Meisha Merlin, 2000). He is playwright in residence at 7Stages Theater in Atlanta and at About Face Theatre of Chicago. In 1987, he received the George Oppenheimer/Newsday Award for Best New American Playwright for Mr. Universe. His collection of plays, Mr. Universe and Other Plays, was published by Algonquin Books in 1998 and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist for drama. He received the Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Writers Award in 1997. He teaches writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He recently won the Asimov’s Readers Award for his short story “Into Greenwood.” His second novel in the science fiction/fantasy arena, The Ordinary, was published by Tor Books in May 2004.

Photo credit: “End of the Night” by © Brooke Raymond, 2005. Used courtesy of Creative Commons License.

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