In early 80s smalltown USA, Shoe works as night chef in a bar with an absolutely terrible boss; by Bill Tope.
|Image generated with OpenAI|
Shoe stood before the prep table in the kitchen, his huge, gleaming chef’s knife flailing away, chopping the cabbage, peppers, and carrots into a massive mess of coleslaw, one of the signature dishes provided by Ronnie B’s Bar and Grill, the city of Edwardsville’s foremost barbecue establishment. Ronnie B, the man for whom the tavern was eponymously named, burst suddenly through the open doorway that separated the tiny, cramped kitchen from the tavern itself. The room was suddenly perfumed with the essence of English Leather.
“C’mon, Shoe,” urged Ronnie, “get those ribs out. People are hungry, man.” Shoe looked up from his prep work at the table and peered into his boss’s mean little black eyes.
“Ribs got another twenty minutes yet,” he muttered, observing Ronnie’s extraordinarily large head, which was set off with bloodshot eyes and dark, curly hair, revealing his Italian heritage.
At this, Ronnie growled back at him, “Take ’em out now! They’ll keep cooking while they’re resting. Just don’t put ’em in the walk-in for a few minutes.”
Shoe shrugged. If his boss wanted to poison his customers with trichinosis or worse (Shoe studied biology at school), it was no concern of his. He flung the knife onto the table, then exited the kitchen and walked behind the bar to the BBQ shack out back of the tavern. While Shoe was in transit, Ronnie ran his dirty fingers through the prepared cabbage and scooped the vegetables into his mouth. Back in the shack, Shoe unsnapped the door of the huge, refrigerator-sized smoker and flinched as the door opened with a burst of hickory smoke and the savory aroma of roasting pork. He batted away the fumes and, with a long, heavy set of tongs, pulled a side from the smoker and plopped it down onto a wooden table. Taking up a butcher knife, he slit the side of the ribs into two and examined the bright pink flesh. He frowned, then contemplated his personal liability should one of Ronnie’s inebriated diners sink their teeth into the half-cooked meat. He knew full well that he couldn’t count on Ronnie to come clean with the authorities or to back him up. He hesitated, muttered “Shit!” and tossed the ribs back in with the other forty sides of roasting flesh.
Six Months Ago
Shoe stood at the rear entrance to Edwardsville Hardware Store, gazing jealously at the stunning, azure bicycle standing outside the door, unattended. As a rule, Shoe didn’t steal, but he had coveted the bike for months, and it cost more than $500, which put it in another universe, in terms of his being able to afford it. So far he had accrued precisely $200 and he had been saving for what seemed an eternity. He could purloin the cycle now and no one would ever know he stole it. Unconsciously, his hands and feet twitched in the direction of the bike. No, he decided in that moment, he couldn’t do it. While he might escape the law and Mr. Delton, the owner of the store, he’d never escape his own conscience. To him that was more important. He turned on his heel and began to walk to work.
“Hey, Shoe.” He turned. It was Mr. Delton. Where did he come from? “You still admiring my bicycle?” asked the store owner. Shoe smiled, nodded. Mr. Delton was a nice old guy – at least fifty. “You know,” remarked Delton, “you could have ridden off on that bike in the time I been inside working. I would never have known what happened.” Shoe shrugged, proud now he’d resisted temptation.
“‘I’d rather not even have the bike, as to steal from you, Mr. Delton,” replied Shoe candidly. Delton nodded.
“Look, Shoe, I’ll tell you what: this is a hell of an expensive bike, but I admire your honesty. You know, we dealers make a killing on bikes. For you, I’ll let it go at wholesale. Are you interested?” he asked. Shoe nodded enthusiastically. “With this particular model, which retails at $429.95, I’ll let it go, for you only, for $200 plus tax.” Shoe’s mouth dropped open.
“When can I pick it up?” he demanded.
Before returning to the kitchen, Shoe paused to admire his new bike, his beloved Schwinn Typhoon, which he locked in the shack for safekeeping while at work. He ran his hand lovingly down the saddle as though it were a lover, and critically examined the complex derailleur gear system. Shoe had spent more than a hundred hours of his income from Ronnie B’s to buy his cherished bicycle; yet he had no misgivings about the purchase. He loved his bike. And it saved him a forty-minute walk, each way, to and from work. With a sigh, he headed back inside without the ribs.
When Shoe returned to the kitchen empty-handed, Ronnie fumed. “What the fuck?” he rumbled in his basso profundo. “I’ve got customers, Jack!” he snarled. “Where you been? You making love to that damn bike again?”
“I just checked the ribs,” said Shoe, ignoring the sarcasm. “They’re the color of raw hamburger.”
“It won’t matter,” cried Ronnie. “Cover ’em with sauce; they won’t know the difference.”
“Is that what you’re going to say at the trial?” he asked, “when they bust us for serving raw pork? ‘Gee, yer honor, I didn’t know they was raw; they was covered with sauce. Who would have guessed…'” And here Shoe did a respectable impression of his employer’s low, ugly cackle.
“Luther wants rib tips,” protested Ronnie, referencing the huge black man who practically took up two stools at the bar. “He won’t be happy, you let him down,” he warned.
“You serve Luther a raw rib tip, and he’ll shove it up your ass.”
Ronnie knew this to be true. Muttering, “Little sonofabitch,” he withdrew, scooping up another handful of vegetables, which he chewed loudly and with his mouth open. Ronnie marched back into the tavern, where Luther was waiting with a starched white bib tied around his thick neck in anticipation, and broke the news to him: “Rib tips not done yet, Luther.” The big man glared.
“What is ready, then?” he asked.
“We can fry you up a burger, man,” offered Ronnie.
“I didn’t come to Ronnie B’s for no burger,” Luther grumbled. “I go to Vanzo’s if I want a burger; they’ve got hot women over there. Come an evening, you and Shoe are all you’ve got here.”
Ronnie brightened for an instant. “Sexy Beth comes in tonight,” he said happily, “waiting tables. She comes in, what, twenty minutes? By then, your rib tips will be ready.” He grinned stupidly.
Luther nodded disconsolately. “Better be!” he warned ominously. Ronnie grimaced.
Twenty minutes later found Sexy Beth running about the place, her tight jeans whispering against her thighs, her blond ponytail flickering back and forth, as she put food orders up on the spring-loaded clips over the steam table. “Order up!” she bellowed.
Shoe frowned and peered up at the first order. “Livers!” he muttered. “I hate goddamn livers.” Springing into action, he stalked to a refrigerator and extracted a stainless steel pan filled with raw strips of chicken liver. Taking up a heavy plastic bag, he dumped the livers in with flour and seasonings and shook the concoction vigorously. Then he dropped the coated livers into the basket over the fryer and carefully lowered the basket into the oil. Immediately the oil began sizzling and popping vigorously, spitting out tiny, angry particles of scalding liver onto the cook’s bare arms. “Shit!” he growled, backing up out of range.
“Order up!” snapped Beth again. Shoe peered at the new order, nodded agreeably, then proceeded to manufacture three BBQ pork sandwiches and put them under the heat lamp. With the blade of his spatula, he struck the bell sharply.
“Order up,” he shouted. And so it went for three hours, until 8pm, when the dinner rush subsided. The movie house would close at 10pm, at which time the second rush would ensue.
Meanwhile, Luther, having consumed a plateful of BBQ rib tips as well as a river of cold beer, had fallen asleep at the bar, near the door to the kitchen. Beth, taking a breather on the stool next to him, smoked a cigarette. Suddenly, Luther’s large hand, the size of a catcher’s mitt, drifted down, and, still asleep, he grabbed Beth by the ass. She startled, discovered what was up, and elbowed Luther sharply in the gut. With a loud grunt, the big man shifted and fell off his barstool and onto the floor with a thunderous boom. Immediately, he regained consciousness, and Beth kneeled before him, murmuring. “Oh, Luther Honey, you must have fallen asleep. Are you alright, darling? Let me help you up, precious.” Luther was a big tipper.
Ronnie called a Saturday morning employee meeting prior to opening for business. As everyone drifted in, Ronnie took his place behind the bar. “There’s a movie company that wants to use the tavern in a movie they’re making,” he said without preamble. “The plot takes place in Edwardsville, and they want to shoot some scenes here; plus, they want to hire me for technical assistance,” he boasted proudly.
“What’s the name of the company?” asked Linda, the bar manager, who had unrequited showbiz aspirations.
“It’s a Chinese outfit called Wun Hung Lo,” replied Ronnie.
“What is it?” asked Dave, the weekend barkeep, “a porn flick?”
Ronnie’s face darkened. “No, goddamnit, it ain’t no porn flick! It’s gonna be rated R.”
“Oh,” said Dave quietly, a little disappointed. He had hoped for a big part.
“So they may want to hire some of you as extras for the shots in the tavern,” Ronnie concluded, disclosing that production would begin in a few weeks. Everyone put the idea to the side for the time being. Dave and Linda, however, now had stars in their eyes.
Shoe was occupied with pounding pork cutlets into serving portions two days later when Ronnie, who had just arisen and was hungover, wandered back into the kitchen. He observed Shoe without interest, and peeping into one half of the divided sink, spotted there several dozen frozen rib tips, thawing in a pool of water. Curiously, he grabbed a rib tip from the sink and, apropos of nothing, said, “If my dick could get that hard, I’d be the hero of Edwardsville.” Despite his own hungover condition, Shoe burst out laughing.
“Yeah,” said Shoe. “Mary Jo would like that, too,” referencing Ronnie’s girlfriend. Ronnie laughed as well, making for one of the rare periods of amity between boss and employee.
Four weeks later, early Thursday morning – Thanksgiving Day – Ronnie burst into the bar with a strikingly handsome man in tow. Others noted that he had “that California look.” The men took seats at the bar and turned to Dave, the weekend bartender, who was working an extra holiday shift. “Dave,” bellowed Ronnie in his kettledrum voice, “this is Mr. Anderson…”
“Archie,” corrected the newcomer.
“Archie is an executive producer for WHL Inc., and he’s here to scope out locations for the film. Arch, this is Dave.” The two men shook hands.
“Hello, Archie, good to meet you.”
“Dave, give Arch anything he wants for as long as he’s here: food, booze, women…”
“Women?” repeated Dave with an uncertain smile.
“Beth!” said Ronnie. “Introduce him to Beth, man,” he went on, turning to Archie. “This chick has got the biggest honkin’ knockers,” and he spread his hands wide. “And the sweetest ass. I’d like…”
“You’d like what, sweetheart?” asked Mary Jo, walking up behind Ronnie and pinching him sharply on the ass.
Ronnie winced in pain. “If I didn’t have a beautiful girlfriend already… I was speaking figuratively, Baby,” he cried. Mary Jo narrowed her eyes at him and smiled sweetly.
“I know. Baby!” The other men enjoyed this exchange immensely.
“I’d be honored to meet the young woman, Dave,” said Archie. “Thanks.”
Shoe sat on the concrete floor of the tavern kitchen, his back resting against the door of the cooler, enjoying the coolness of the thrumming machine. His knees were drawn up to his sternum, and he sat with his head in his hands. Without warning, Ronnie suddenly loomed over him. “Are you depressed this morning, Shoe?” he asked in apparent sympathy. “Don’t be depressed, now.” Slowly, Shoe lifted his head.
“I’m not depressed,” he said. “I’m hung over.”
Ronnie nodded. “Good,” he said. “Because if you were depressed and you committed suicide, it would cause a hell of a lot of problems for me. So,” he concluded, “I’m glad you’re not depressed.”
Shoe stared blankly at his boss and said, “Thanks a lot, Ronnie. You’re all heart.”
“Sure thing,” returned Ronnie, and he bounced back out of the kitchen, his good deed for the month accomplished.
While Shoe subbed for an injured Reava, the day cook, Ronnie was induced to hire a temporary replacement for Shoe. The new man was Larry, a painfully thin, nineteen-year-old, waif-like student and a housemate of Shoe’s. During the job interview, Ronnie was taken aback by Larry’s slight physique. “You ain’t got AIDS, have you, man?” he asked bluntly.
Larry blinked in surprise. “No!” he replied.
“Okay, you’re hired; work with Shoe tomorrow morning and get broken in. He’ll train you.”
Larry’s first – and last – day on the job was an eventful one. Arriving at eight in the morning, he crept through the employees’ entrance and greeted Shoe.
“Hey,” said Shoe. “You ready to work your ass off?” Larry’s mouth fell open, but nothing came out.
“Well,” said Shoe, catching the other man’s reaction, “what’d you expect you’d be doing?”
Larry grinned. “The same thing you always tell me you do: eat ribs and drink beer.”
“Well, forget it,” retorted Shoe. “Ronnie has a whole production company in town, and we’re feeding them every day for eight weeks.”
Larry’s eyes opened wider. “Oh, is that Wun Hung Lo that I read about in the paper?”
“Hey,” chirped the little man, “you think you can get me a job in the movie?”
Shoe stared at him, then said, “Sure, Larry, as part of my duty as cook to the stars, I recruit actors to star in the film. Would co-star be okay with you?” Larry grinned enthusiastically. Shoe continued, “Forty thousand a week, alright, for a minimum engagement of eight weeks; chauffeured limousine, naked women, hashish…”
Finally picking up on the sarcasm, Larry scowled. “Aw right, aw right, I get it,” he muttered. Meanwhile, the front door opened, and a striking figure entered the tavern.
The buxom leading lady edged sinuously up to the bar and addressed Dave, who was mixing vodka cocktails. “Good morning, Miss Diering,” said Dave amicably. He smiled, admiring her “style.” They had met the day before.
“Alyssa,” she corrected, plunking her ample backside down onto a bar stool.
“What’re you drinking?” he asked her. “Or would you like something to eat?”
“Whatcha got?” she asked seductively, running a pink tongue over her red lips. Dave began to recite the menu from memory, but Alyssa stopped him. “I’m interested in beef on the hoof,” she told him, leaning her large breasts over the bar. Dave’s eyes darted in their direction for a moment. “You know what I’m saying, Dave?” she asked. He nodded dumbly, eyes wide. “Let’s blow this shithole, Dave, and go to my motel room – right now!”
“I can’t walk out in the middle of my shift, Alyssa,” protested the bartender. “I have responsibilities,” he said, hating himself for saying so.
She looked around the tavern. “This?” she said sulkily. “You would pass up an afternoon with me for this?” Dave pursed his lips, thinking desperately. “Have you ever made love to a movie star?” she demanded, arching her brows. She had him there.
“In a few weeks, you’ll be back in Hollywood, and I’ll still be here – and out of a job,” thought Dave. What he said was, “Let me call in a replacement bartender, alright?” She frowned. “Five minutes. C’mon, Alyssa, give me a break.” Detente was achieved when she agreed to wait no longer than five minutes. Dave leapt for the phone, and after four and a half minutes, he had called every bartender he knew. At length, an agreeable solution was reached, and Dave departed on the lovely arm of the bodacious Alyssa.
By 4pm, Ronnie, recovered from an evening of tooting up cocaine with Archie, walked in the door and did a double take. There behind the bar, pouring and mixing drinks, was his diminutive new cook, Larry. This was alarming: Larry not only had no bartending experience but was just nineteen years old and was legally not allowed to drink or pour alcohol. Ronnie stared around the room; every teenager in town must have been there, many severely in their cups. Ronnie drew his hands to his face and sweated.
“Get out!” he roared, grabbing for Larry behind the bar. “Get out, you little bastard; you’re going to ruin me!” Ronnie ran back around the bar, and Larry scurried away, climbing over and free of the bar, never again to darken Ronnie B’s door. As he left, Larry yelled back at Ronnie:
“Never mind, then. I don’t wanna be in your dumb movie.”
Remembering the teens, Ronnie ran back around and shooed them out the door. One of a pair of teens, engaged in a brawl, swung a beer bottle at his opponent, inadvertently striking Ronnie on the bridge of his nose. Ronnie went down like a sack of flour. In seconds, the tavern was cleared. Shoe had come out of the kitchen to see what the uproar was about and found Ronnie unconscious on the floor. Shrugging, he padded back into the kitchen.
“Mr. Beladarossa,” said the oily salesman in the cheap plaid suit, “you can never go wrong installing one of our vending instruments in your place of business. Burrell’s provides only top-notch products and devices.” It was Saturday at noon.
“What kind of machine you talkin’ about,” croaked Ronnie, barely conscious after another onerous night of cocaine and tequila. He wasn’t quite awake yet.
“A Burrell’s single-product latex prophylactic/condom vending machine, our PC22.”
“Huh?” grunted Ronnie. Dave placed a cup of coffee before him. Ronnie ignored the coffee and lit a cigarette.
“A rubber machine,” explained the salesman, breaking it down so that even Ronnie could understand.
“Oh, okay,” replied the tavern owner. “Why didn’t you just say so? What’s my end of it?” he asked.
“You buy a minimum of 1,000 precision latex coated con… rubbers… for $36 per gross, then sell them for 75 cents per unit, and you net $108 on every gross you sell. That’s a return of 300%.” Ronnie sat pondering the proposal, his huge head swaying up and down. “Further,” added the salesman, “there’s virtually no maintenance. This machine is self-contained and self-lubricating; all you do is restock it with our latex wonders and rake in the dough. How about that? We even perform the installation free of charge!” he added with a grin. He could tell when he had a fish on the line.
Ronnie had made up his mind. “I’ll do it.” For most of the afternoon, there were loud banging sounds coming from the men’s restroom, but as Ronnie explained to staff and customers, that was just somebody installing his rubber machine in the toilet. Unknown to Ronnie, the salesman/installer had some difficulty in locating a stud and had pounded several dinner plate-sized holes in the men’s room walls. At length, the job completed, he sneaked out the back door. When Ronnie checked up on the installation, he was jolted by the big fissures in his walls. “Shit!” He seethed, then hurriedly covered over the cratered walls with wallpaper that didn’t match what was already in place. When questioned by customers, he replied, “This ain’t the freakin’ Hilton; what do you want, the world?”
He told his bar manager, Linda, the next day, “We’re having a wedding reception this week.” She looked up sharply. This was different.
“Who’s getting married?” she asked, “somebody from the movie?” He shook his head no.
“Luther,” he replied, “so we’ve got to do everything just right.”
“Cash bar?” she asked, smiling. She liked Luther.
He shook his huge head again. “Open bar,” he said. Luther’s paying me three grand to keep out everyone but the wedding guests and to have free drinks. We’ll make a killing,” he predicted hungrily. Linda nodded.
“You want me to do the usual and replace the good stuff with the cheap whiskey, vodka, gin, and everything else?”
Ronnie nodded avidly. “Of course,” he said with satisfaction. “Take out the Maker’s Mark and the Crown Royal and the Seagrams and the Canadian Club and all the rest. They’ll be drinking beer anyway; they’re mostly just a bunch of dumb spooks from across the tracks. Also, replace the Budweiser with the Falstaff, and get rid of the specialty liquors; there’s no sense in taking a chance. Hell,” he said, “we might get a gaggle of freakin’ lawyers in here, and you know how they can put it away, especially when they’re not on the hook for the tab.”
Four nights later, regulars at the tavern were disappointed to be denied entry to their favorite watering hole. Some of them were sulking when turned away, and they flipped off the wedding guests before disappearing into the night. One grizzled old man dropped his pants and peed on the front door, but Ronnie ran him off, wielding a snow shovel. The old man fled down the street, his privates freezing in the frigid December night air. Unbeknownst to Ronnie, a cameraman stood outside the tavern, filming the exodus of disgruntled patrons.
Ronnie came down from his second-floor apartment around midnight and walked through the tavern, nodding his approval. If he got a few more such engagements, he thought optimistically, then he could afford more blow. Reflexively, he sniffed. The wedding reception was in full swing, and voices barked drunkenly across the room. The girls were scantily clad, and Ronnie recognized several hookers from The Stroll. Briefly, he wondered how he could finesse a cash cut of their action. He stopped at the bar and addressed the night bartender. “Where did they get all the colored balloons?” he asked. “Luther bring ’em in?”
“I don’t know where they came from,” admitted Mick. “But Luther said to tell you thanks, that they were a nice touch.” He shrugged. Ronnie blinked in confusion, then, struck by a horrible thought, took off running to the men’s room. There, his worst nightmare was confirmed. The latex prophylactic/condom dispensing device – his damned rubber machine – was laying open like a ruptured bladder, and dozens of folded, packaged condoms of all colors were lying strewn upon the floor in wild disarray. They were in the sink, in the toilet, and peeping out of the vending machine itself.
“Shit!” Ronnie gritted. Dropping to his hands and knees, he began scrambling furiously for the errant condoms, stuffing them into a plastic bag he retrieved from the waste basket. Stomping angrily from the restroom, he then confronted the reception’s forty partygoers, blowing up condoms and tossing them around. Anxiously, he went around the room, grabbing them from tables, scooping them off the floor, even snatching them from the hands of the wedding guests.
“What’s the idea?” asked one indignant woman, startled when Ronnie seized an inflated condom affixed to her cornrows. Frizzy strands of hair came off with the balloon.
“Those balloons belong on men’s peckers, not your hair,” he grumbled back at her. Most of the partygoers, however, didn’t know the difference because they were so cooked on coke and alcohol. Ronnie B spent the next hour deflating (with a pin when the knots were too tight), folding, and fitting the condoms back into their packaging sleeves and restoring them to the machine. That night, after the bar closed, he spent time drilling a hole through the condom dispenser and installing a combination lock.
One afternoon – New Year’s Eve – Shoe, by day an impoverished college student, was peddling his precious 10-speed down Main Street, the avenue upon which the tavern was located. His legs churned furiously the two miles to work, even in the dead of winter. He was in urgent pursuit of getting to work on time for a change. His leg muscles, much-developed from strenuous exercise on the bike, churned away till the speedometer on the handlebars read 40 mph. “I think I’ll make it,” Shoe murmured aloud. Just up ahead, a long, ugly green Plymouth surged backwards from a side street, directly in front of the cyclist. And then the car stopped, its brake lights blazing red.
“Nooo!” shrieked Shoe, colliding with the vehicle, flipping over the handlebars, then across the car’s rear end, and finally crashing onto the street on his back. He landed with a jarring crash. The bike, smashed beyond repair against the side of the car, fell uselessly onto the pavement. The Plymouth, meanwhile, continued backing up, braked to a halt a second time, and then rocketed in the opposite direction, as if Shoe and his bicycle didn’t exist. Shoe lay prostrate upon the cobblestones for some moments before regaining mobility and rising to his feet. He gazed after the speeding automobile; nothing remained but a trail of shimmering gas fumes and clouds of exhaust. Returning to his dismal wreck of a bike, he pulled it upright and attempted to turn the front wheel; it was locked tightly in place. What was left of the gear mechanism lay strewn across the pavement in a hopeless spaghetti of chains and cables. Shoe sighed, left the now-useless bike in the street where he found it, and slowly limped in to work. He was late again.
When Ronnie B felt touched by generosity on New Year’s Day, he invited his ragtag employees to his upstairs apartment – as far as the stairs. There they crouched on the steps, smoking dope with their uncharacteristically benevolent boss. Ronnie was – aside from getting to hang out with the famous people – also earning a cool five grand from the production company, and Mary Jo had convinced him to “give back” a little. “It’s cold out here, Ronnie,” complained Sexy Beth. “Can’t we go upstairs?” Everyone was tired, having just worked a full shift at the tavern. Absorbing the additional duties incurred by the seemingly endless occupation of the film company, they had found it fatiguing. And the extraordinarily strong pot was making them feel even more tired, relaxed, and sleepy.
“Fuck no,” replied the man immediately, but without rancor. “You smell like goddamn BBQ sauce; I don’t want you inside.”
“How about some coke, then?” persisted the blond waitress. “It’s New Year’s.”
“Can you afford a hundred dollars a gram?” Ronnie came back at her peevishly.
Beth shifted her large breasts provocatively. “I might be able to pay you… in other ways,” she teased. Beth enjoyed nose candy.
Ronnie shook his head decisively. “Never mix pecker with payroll,” he explained, as if reading a needlepoint sampler.
Beth was subdued after that. “I’m out of here,” she said shortly.
“Got a hot date?” asked Ronnie sarcastically. He couldn’t comprehend why anyone would forego free pot for any reason.
“Yeah,” she said smartly. “I’ve got a date with one of those nine-year-old kids you sell your blow to. He’ll turn me on!” and she was gone.
“Bitch,” said Ronnie, fuming. He threw a filled ashtray down the steps in her wake, but the vessel landed against the door and shattered rather spectacularly. After about twenty minutes of intense toking, Ronnie rose to his feet on the stairs, took Mary Jo by the hand, and left without saying a word. Almost as an afterthought, he scooped up the big urn of loose pot and carried it through the door with him. Such was the first morning of 1983 at Ronnie B’s for the staff that he worked so hard. The last to leave, Shoe dislodged himself from the staircase and, still sore from the wreck, eased himself gingerly outside for the two-mile trek home. He wondered tiredly, what am I even doing here?
Ronnie B’s older brother Louis owned the town’s most upscale restaurant, just down the street from Ronnie’s, and this afforded the staff occasional adventures. For example, there was the time, about four weeks into the filming, that Louis’s place, “Rusty’s,” held a banquet for The Barrier Reefers, a free-swinging, dope-smoking agglomeration of self-styled outdoorsmen. Although none of the group had ever eaten anything more exotic than a fish stick, they thought it would be smart to nosh on calamari and yanagidako. On the night of the banquet, Shoe took a phone call from his boss, who said, “Shoe, take Louis’s yanagidako out of the cooker, man. I freakin’ forgot about it. Thanks, man!”
“What’s yanagidako?” asked Shoe. He had never heard of it. But Ronnie had ended the call. Shoe shrugged. His boss was often cryptic.
Shoe walked into the BBQ shack, not really knowing what to expect, only to find a huge, five-pound octopus simmering in the cooker. He did a double take, thought at first it was a small human head, and then realized what it was. Taking up a heavy set of metal tongs, he wrestled the yanagidako from the metal tray on which it sat and was about to drop it into a plastic pan when it slipped to the floor. It instantly became encrusted with meat drippings, BBQ sauce, and every variety of detritus and insect remains that were incidental to urban life. “Damn it!” he muttered, then reached for the creature, only to step on a tentacle, lose his balance, and then step heavily on the head of the beast. He felt it crack. “Freakin’ Louis,” he muttered, finally rescuing the cephalopod from the floor of the shed. He regarded the entree: one eye was dangling from its orbit, a tentacle had been ripped off, and there was a distinct impression of Shoe’s boot on the head. With his knife, he snipped off the end of a tentacle and munched. He muttered reflectively, “Tastes like chicken.” He tossed the mess into the walk-in refrigerator and soon forgot about it. When Ronnie heard back from his brother the next day, Louis didn’t indicate that anything was amiss. In fact, he was grateful to Ronnie and Shoe.
“Helluva nice job you did on the yanagidako, man,” said Ronnie, who seemed to enjoy saying yanagidako. Shoe looked at him quizzically. “Yeah, man, Louis said you did a bang-up job. Thanks, man.” Shoe smiled a little uncertainly.
“Bang-up job?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Ronnie. “Louis wanted me to give you a bonus.” Shoe grinned. “So,” continued his boss, “have a bottle of beer, man – on the house.” Shoe stared at him. Shoe and the rest of the employees drank their fill of beer every night, anyway. “But don’t drink the Heineken,” cautioned the boss. Shoe always drank the Heineken. He shrugged.
“You got it, man.” And Ronnie drifted away to snort more cocaine with Mary Jo.
All the employees had their own regular working hours, and Shoe worked evenings. He hated the day shift, which began at eight o’clock and involved prep for the rest of the day. Reava, a plump fifty-something woman, worked lunch. A professional cook for thirty years, she was Ronnie’s premier employee and had her choice of shifts. But when Reava inadvertently dipped her fingers in the deep fryer – again – and was idle for two weeks, Shoe was drafted to fill in for her. He didn’t take it too hard; he liked Reava. As he walked through the door, he met up with Dave, who was again working an extra shift, and who told him, “Make some more coffee, would you?” Shoe regarded the request with uncertainty. He didn’t drink coffee and wasn’t at all certain how to make it. He surveyed the electric percolater, took it apart, put it back together again, and figured out generally how it worked. Shoe only drank tea.
Five minutes later, Dave was back. “Got that coffee going yet, Shoe?”
Shoe asked him, “How strong do you like it?” Dave twisted his lips wryly.
“I don’t drink coffee,” he admitted, taking a swig from a bottle of Heineken. Shoe glanced at the clock over the bar: 8:06. “Fix it up any way you want,” said Dave, “my babies need it,” referencing the coterie of old men who showed up at 6am to get stewed each morning. He went on to explain that the night manager filled the coffee maker the night before and that when she came in the next morning, Reava always made a second – and third – pot. Shoe examined the coffee canister, into which the packaged coffee had been dumped; there were no directions, as there might have been on a retail can of coffee. No help there. Shrugging, which Shoe did a lot of, he filled the pot with water and then took off the lid and examined the coffee basket, where the ground coffee went. Shrugging yet again, he opened the canister and dumped about a cup of coffee into the basket, closed the lid, and fitted the cord into the wall. Twenty minutes later, the tavern was redolent with the aroma of freshly perked coffee. Shoe sniffed the air; it smelled good! He might have to try some himself, he thought. Pouring a cup, he took a big swallow. My God! thought Shoe, it’s strong! It felt as though he were chewing a mouthful of raw coffee beans. Rushing to the sink in the rear of the kitchen, he retched violently but didn’t vomit, as his stomach was empty. He was about to pour out the wretched liquid, when what he heard stopped him.
“Gimme a cuppa, Dave,” said an old man hoarsely, sitting at the bar with five empty beer bottles before him. Dave turned to the kitchen, pulled a cup from a shelf, and decanted the beverage. As Dave deposited the coffee before the old man, Shoe peered around the corner to see what effect it might have; in anticipation, he grabbed the phone off the wall and spoke quietly to the operator. The old alcoholic downed the coffee in one swallow, slammed the cup down hard against the bar, and exclaimed, “Thash the besh goddamn coffee I ever had! Fill ‘er up again, Dave!” At that moment, a tinny voice came out of the receiver:
“Poison Control Center. What is your emergency?”
“Never mind,” replied Shoe, shaking his head and hanging up the phone. This hangover was killing him. There must be more to life, thought Shoe wistfully, than beer and pot. But he couldn’t think of anything.
Shoe stood with Reava – newly returned to the fold – at the end of her shift and the beginning of his, observing the actors perform take after take in a seemingly endless cycle, in order to get “the damn scene in the can.” The female lead, Alyssa Diering, was as beautiful as advertised but was, it was acknowledged, stupid as a box of rocks. She kept flubbing her lines and couldn’t seem to put one syllable in front of another in a cogent, understandable sequence. At long last, after many, many takes, she got it right and only had to hold her dazzling smile for a few seconds to complete the take. And she farted.
“Goddamn it!” shouted Boot, the director. Alyssa’s agent, Sid Asshole – Boot’s name for him, but it stuck – rushed into the shot and cossetted a despairing Alyssa in his skinny arms.
“What did you expect, poor Baby’s been eatin’ this shitty food,” Sid snarled defensively, patting Alyssa protectively on the back.
Huh! thought Shoe and Reava simultaneously. They had received complaints from none of the cast or crew, much less from the star, who wolfed down rib after rib to the point where her famously flat stomach had developed a little bump. The media was saying that she was pregnant, and speculation was that a randy bar owner was the father. Ronnie was walking on eggshells around Mary Jo.
Production on the film proceeded apace, until, on Valentine’s Day, the movie was at last “in the can,” as Ronnie had grown fond of saying. The cast and crew were reshooting a few shots in the park on the final day when Mary Jo stormed down from the apartment and told Ronnie, in front of God and everyone, that she was moving out. An ugly scene ensued, but even Reava, Ronnie’s most senior employee, and a close friend of Mary Jo’s, didn’t have a clue as to what the tiff was about. It was a colorful exchange.
“Ronnie, you sonofabitch!” she raged, knotting her fists. He put his hands up defensively, but she punched him squarely in the face. Mary Jo emerged from the altercation with bruised knuckles, but Ronnie came away with a black eye and a swollen jaw.
“But baby,” he cried, chasing after her but then nimbly dancing away when she doubled her fists up again.
“No, Ronnie,” said Mary Jo, speaking in a quiet, reasonable voice now. “I’m done. You’ve pulled some pretty shady tricks in the past, but this one is… just too much, Ronnie.” His big face fell. “I’m going to pack my things now; please don’t come up until I’m gone.” And she went back upstairs. Everyone was eager to know what was up, but no one who valued their job even thought to ask. Some inkling was revealed that evening, however, when Shoe was visited by a man on a mysterious mission.
“Guy wants to talk to you, Shoe,” said Dave, stepping into the kitchen to give him the message. Shoe peered through the doorway and saw a nondescript, middle-aged man with a balding pate, wearing a Robert Hall suit. He didn’t know him, but he did look vaguely familiar. For a moment, he thought perhaps the man was from the local health board, seeking dirt on the food operation. Shoe approached the bar.
“Help you?” he asked dubiously.
“Eric?” said the man. Shoe froze. Nobody called him Eric, not even his mother.
“Shoe,” the cook corrected.
“Mr. Shoe, then,” said the stranger.
“I’m Bard Loma,” said the man by way of introduction. “I work for the Channel 2 News team; you’ve probably seen us on TV.” Loma grinned as if posing for a photo. Shoe nodded. So that’s where he recognized him. “I understand that you know everything that goes on at this tavern,” said the man. Shoe stared at him quizzically. “You may not realize it, Shoe, but you’re sitting on a powder keg here at Ronnie B’s.” Shoe didn’t say anything. He was still concerned that word had gotten out about the octopus.
“How can I help you?” he inquired cautiously.
“How would you like to make five hundred dollars?” Luma asked.
Word spread far and wide. The tavern was picketed by radical women’s groups and eventually had to be closed for the safety of customers and employees alike. The story created a sensation in the regional press but then went out on a wire and was picked up by virtually every news outlet in the country. Archie Anderson, the noted film producer, had, with the alleged connivance of a bar owner with very loose morals, been tagged for surreptitiously filming females in the women’s restroom of the bar owner’s establishment. What’s more, edited reels of film had been produced from the raw footage and sold all across North America and Europe. It was determined that some famous movie stars had been so filmed, including the now-pregnant Alyssa Diering. Lawsuits were filed, with liabilities said to be in the seven figures.
After a firestorm of controversy and publicity, Ronnie Beladarossa stood trial, was convicted in court of moral turpitude, and was sentenced to thirteen months in the state correctional facility. Archibald Anderson, Ronnie’s co-defendant in the criminal action, escaped retribution by fleeing to Europe, where he continued his career as an independent film producer. He was subsequently nominated for an Oscar. Dave moved to Beverly Hills, to live with his new wife and the beautiful mother-to-be, Alyssa Diering. Most of the other employees of Ronnie B’s secured jobs at Louis’s restaurant, where they earned twice what Ronnie had paid them. The tavern, which Ronnie had been paying a mortgage on, was foreclosed upon and became the First Edwardsville Baptist Church. And Shoe, who had recently graduated from college, rode his expensive new bicycle to California, where he lives even today, working as a supervisor for a substance abuse clinic.