“François was right; I do have these tips that come down from my ass.”
I frowned at her, politely confused.
“It’s probably your panty-line.”
“No it’s my fucking ass… Do you think I would look better in a skirt?”
“Well, I think you do have really nice legs; so yeah.” This wasn’t me being honest either, but in comparison to her arms and torso, those legs were pretty amazing.
“You’re such a sweet girl…so my black skirt with this shirt would look nice right?”
I was a puppet and Maria was the master; tromping me back and forth with my arms full of kitchenware, nodding my head approvingly after her every voiced idea. Of course she hadn’t asked me for a real opinion; I could never have told her, “No, those jeans don’t look good on you. They emphasize the sag in your bum too much.” But François could. François – who had spent 30 years in prison for robbing banks and now supported a medley of drug addictions – his conscience never stood a chance against cold, easy cash. When I walked into the take-out area he had been cupping the portions of Maria’s buttocks that pointed conspicuously towards the ground.
“There, right there. It’s no good. You see the tips? Ok – give me the money.” Maria opened the cash and handed him a twenty-dollar bill. Dumbfounded, I quickly returned to the safety of the giant espresso machine. Obviously someone who pays an employee an extra twenty dollars for an honest opinion about her ass can be considered insecure. But she was so inept that these occasional bouts of self-doubt tempered my distaste for her. It showed that she did have a vague grasp of reality. Most of the time she did no wrong, and every problem came as a complete surprise – like the sag in her ass.
The Hen was a Portuguese grilled chicken restaurant and take-out counter where I worked. Maria, an Italian Montrealer, owned and ran it with her lover, Farid. Lou, her husband, worked the barbeque. It was a bad soap opera – the kind where passion results in nothing but incessant bad-mouthing and all of the main characters have grandchildren. Complicated, no. Uncomfortable, yes. Though most uncomfortable, for me, was serving breakfast.
“What the hell’s the matter with me? I’m breaking all of the yokes,” Maria would say while pushing another pair of hemorrhaged eggs out of the pan and into the trash.
“Calm down. Take a deep breath,” I suggested once, helplessly, and decided that it wasn’t a good time to warn her against using a metal spatula on teflon.
“They wanted white toast right?”
“No, I wrote it down; she asked for brown.”
“Fuck. Well it’s too late now. Just bring it anyway.” And I did, keeping my eyes averted as I set the plate down in front of a friendly woman who had come alone and would therefore notice the mistake.
“I asked for brown toast,” she reminded me perfunctorily.
“I know. I’m sorry, the cook…I’ll go make some brown ones.”
Maria was rummaging through the freezer. I made straight for the bag of whole wheat bread.
“Did they say something?” she asked with a quick guilty glance.
“Yeah, she wanted brown toast.”
I dropped two slices into the toaster and stood waiting for the ding, vulnerable.
“Bridget, you know that note that I was writing to Farid yesterday? Well, he told me that he ripped it up without reading it and left it in a cup in his car. Except his wife found it and put it back together.” This was Farid’s wife who, according to Maria, had attempted suicide on multiple occasions. I watched her remove a clear plastic bag of something from the freezer. “And it was all about how I know he doesn’t love her anymore and how he stays with her out of guilt and all of this stuff. Farid said to me this morning that if she dies, he’s going to kill me.”
She opened the bag and I realized with horror that what I would be serving was a plate of toaster waffles (you know, Eggos) sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. It was dreadful. For the low, low cost of $9.95, we inserted frozen waffles into a toaster and took them out after the ding.
Most people learned after one ill-fated visit that The Hen could not provide a comfortable dining experience. The only time it was busy was during the World Cup final. Twenty minutes before the game was scheduled to start, Maria told François, the delivery guy, and a few other randos that she wanted a television put on the terrace. They quickly carried one down from her apartment above the restaurant, and before long dozens of fans came, took tables, and ordered iced coffees. Later they kicked themselves for giving The Hen this vote of confidence. We were never able to get the sound to work.
But I felt bad for Maria. The business was a last miserable attempt to survive. She had debts – big ones, to dangerous collectors – and she sold cheap food because she didn’t give a shit. And the ambiance was poor because she didn’t give a shit. Nightmarish paintings of roosters wearing aprons and carrying platters of cooked chicken and an inexplicable collection of knee-high ceramic elephants furnished the inside. On the outdoor terrace large parasols advertised beers we weren’t licensed to sell and an unpainted trellis was all that separated the tables from the trash and recycling keep. On especially hot days the area was inundated with thick wafts of rotting chicken carcasses. Luckily for Maria, there were enough tourists, optimists, and general passivity in the world to create a steady trickle of business.
Still, why anyone would come was a mystery to me. When Maria wasn’t “cooking,” she would hover around yelling in her deep gruff voice at Lou (who, as far as I could tell, was good humoured and a hard worker) or she’d sit on the patio complaining to her friends and bewildered customers about how terrible her husband was, how she needed to get laid, how she thought she was dying.
One morning after four blissful days at my leisure I walked into work to find Maria splitting chickens in the back and throwing them onto the coal grill. This was not normally her job.
“Good Morning,” I offered. Then, “Where’s Lou?”
“I kicked his ass out. If he wants to stay out to four in the morning gambling and fucking that whore, then he can find his own place to sleep.”
I wished I hadn’t asked. I also wished Maria would just accept that she and her husband were in an open relationship. Apparently Lou had a girlfriend with whom he periodically escaped to Martinique on vacations. But if Lou was no longer going to cook at The Hen, I didn’t know how I would cope. He was the last affable worker left. A few weeks earlier François had managed to get an advance from Maria for sixty bucks and was never seen again. I missed him. He had made me laugh with his mischievous winks and giddy whistling as he poured himself the day’s first paper cup of beer somewhere around nine a.m. He had also shared his life dream with me, namely “to get a money truck.” The thought of François sticking up a bank van with nothing but a taser (he swore he never wanted to hurt anybody) was one I returned to with a smile on many occasions, wishing wholeheartedly for his success.
But Lou, he was almost fatherly (in spite of calling me Brigitte Bardot); when I felt exhausted or angry or bored, he would sit at the bar with his cappuccino, listen, shrug, and say comforting things like “All men are dogs” or “Yeah, life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
I stood there looking at Maria’s heavily-lined, tearing eyes – mute. She continued, couldn’t help it; I was that good a listener.
“He’s been out since the beginning of the week. And you’d think that he would have spent some time thinking about things, about our marriage. But, no. You know what the asshole’s been doing?” She stormed over to the wall where photographs of Lou with his kids and a recent Father’s Day card were taped. “He’s been skinny-dipping with that ugly bitch in my son’s pool. The fuck!” She clawed at the mementos, ripped them from the wall, and shredded them maniacally into the garbage.
“I’m sorry, Maria.” I was sorry – sorry for her, for myself, and for her son, for whom skinny dipping in his pool would probably never be the same.
That night I drank with my friend Skylar and let her talk me into quitting. Then I talked her into quitting for me because I was too chicken. She added a bit of throatiness to her voice. We practiced saying “Hi Maria, It’s Bridget” a couple of times in unison. I was delighted and nervous and amused. She called.
“Bonjour, The Hen,” Maria answered in a weirdly sexual voice. I stood listening next to Skylar’s ear.
“Hi Maria, it’s Bridget,” Skylar said.
“Oh. Hi Bridget,” The voice lost its mellifluous character immediately, obviously disappointed. I was terrified but could barely keep from laughing.
“I just called to say that I can’t come in anymore,” Skylar said, painfully.
“That’s fine, Bridget.” Skylar hung up. Her worried expression softened to a smile. My smile sunk into a frown. Once again, I was unemployed.