by Bill Bowler
|Chapter 13: The Fateful Night|
At Paulie’s, they promoted me from busboy to waiter, and my tip income tripled. I was cash flush, though I found a way somehow to spend it all and still have nothing to show for it.
I guess Paulie decided I had what it took. He probably wasn’t totally sure, he probably had his doubts, but he gave me my shot and things were going pretty well. I forgot stuff sometimes but I worked conscientiously and strove to give my tables the best service I could.
The one time I really drove Paulie nuts, I think, was when ex-Governor Cartwright came in for dinner. Paulie sat them at 44, to put the ex-Governor and his party on display in the center of the main dining room where, by the way, he could keep a close eye on their table and the service his staff was giving them.
I waited on the ex-Governor, but it was hectic and I had my hands full. The woman seated to the ex-Governor’s left ordered chicken contadina. As I was putting the plate down, leaning and reaching around her left shoulder, I knocked over a half-full glass of red wine that spilled on her evening gown.
Paulie was crushed. Humiliated. He swooped on the table like a hawk on a rabbit, dabbing the stain with a damp napkin and apologizing profusely. I tried to assist but the damage was done.
“Into the kitchen, Wobble.”
Tail between my legs, I slunk into the kitchen. Paulie stormed in behind me and unloaded on me in front of the whole kitchen staff. He put his nose in my face and, in utter exasperation, screamed at the top of his lungs,
“Wobble! WAH-BUL!! Don’t you understand? How could you? What do you think we’re working for here? What do you think we’re trying to build?? What do you expect me to do?!”
He was red in the face and the tip of his nose was almost touching mine. I knew he was right, but still I rebelled. I couldn’t let him humiliate me in front of the whole kitchen staff. It was hard enough negotiating your orders from the chefs, coaxing, cajoling or whatever it took to get your orders up and out. It was a highly charged political atmosphere and, if you got on their bad side or they didn’t respect you, your tables were condemned to cold food and you were washed up as a waiter. Curtains. You were through.
But even more than that, there was my personal relationship with Paulie. Sure, he was the boss, but he had to respect me. On one level, at least, we had to meet eye to eye in mutual respect. Otherwise, it was all for naught.
Later that evening, I got my chance to square up with Paulie. Around 9:30, the place got so jammed, and the kitchen got so backed up, that Paulie had to take off his black silk suit jacket and go back to the kitchen to expedite orders.
The kitchen was packed with panicked waiters while the chefs struggled to move the backlog, and impatient customers on the floor clamored for their food. The grills and ovens were behind a shoulder-high glass counter and, as the orders came up, the chefs put them on the glass shelf under the heat lamps. The waiters piled the plates up on their arms and slipped along a narrow crowded aisle between the counter and the wall, to the double doors by the dishwasher, out into the dining room.
Paulie stood at the head of the narrow aisle, by the double doors, clutching a bunch of order slips, and barking orders at the chefs.
“Via 43! Miguel, baked clams are up for 27! Move!! Via 35.”
Paulie’s immaculate white shirt shone under the bright lamps. It was ironed and starched, blindingly white, not a crease or a wrinkle.
My order came up for 17. The chef put a big plate of chicken cacciatore up under the lamps. It was swimming, overflowing with red sauce. I draped a napkin over my forearm, lifted the plate, steadied it, and headed down the narrow aisle through the jostling crowd of waiters, towards the double doors.
Paulie stood directly in my path. A thought entered my mind, not even a thought, a whim, the first inkling of a temptation. I held the plate of cacciatore in front of me, like the prow of an ice breaker, weaving and plowing through the crowd of waiters towards the swinging doors, closer and closer, with Paulie in the crosshairs.
Should I? Dare I? Lock and load. It wasn’t really a thought process, it was a flashing series of images, but closer and closer I came to him and, at the last second, as I was about to pass him, without thinking, just instinctively, I extended my arm and tilted left and brushed him with the plate of cacciatore, leaving a long, thin crimson streak across the back of his immaculate white shirt, as if I had slashed him with a rapier.
He had no real way of knowing, or certainly of proving, if I had done it on purpose. It looked like an accident and well could have been. Yet, our eyes had met at the crucial instant. I was already past and out the door to the dining room, but he knew. And I had seen in his eyes — or thought I had seen — respect.
* * *
I called Cynthia later that evening when I got home.
“I was sick this morning,” she said.
“Were you out late drinking last night?”
“It wasn’t that.”
“Jesus! It seems like you’ve been nauseous for two weeks now.”
“I have.” She sobbed into the phone. “I’m pregnant!”
“I’m four weeks late. I’ve had morning sickness. My stomach is getting fat.”
“Are you positive?”
“I don’t know! My periods are irregular. I guess it could be just nerves and stress. But I don’t think so.” She started to cry. “I’m seeing the doctor on Monday. But I’m not having an abortion! I couldn’t go through that again!! I was sick for a year afterwards. Throwing up. Cramps. It was horrible!”
“Okay, okay. Listen, hold on. I’ll be right over.”
“No. Not now, please.”
“I don’t want to see you now. I’ll call you later.”
As she was hanging up, I thought I heard a man’s voice in the background say, “Idiot.”
I looked out the window, across the street. Her shades were drawn. I strained my eyes, but couldn’t tell if I was seeing one shadow or two. I watched and waited, tortured by doubts and suspicions, imagining Mrak was there, they were fighting, they were screwing, tormenting myself, suppressing the mad urge to run across the street to her.
I watched and waited, and my patience was rewarded. The kitchen curtains were raised, and Professor Mrak leaned out and surveyed the street. Cynthia was behind him, smoking a cigarette. They exchanged loud words. Cynthia threw something at Mrak and I heard glass shatter. He took her roughly and slapped her. She burst into tears. He lowered his hand and took her in his arms. She wept as he supported her and led her into the bedroom, out of sight.
How can I tell you what I felt? I was distraught, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I was bitterly jealous of Mrak, that he was with her now instead of me, and I was furious with Cynthia. I had to get out of my apartment, out anywhere, just away from here!
I walked, with no direction, around the city, for several hours, I don’t know how long. What a mess! I could only think we ought to get married. I wasn’t really ready, but I respected Cynthia’s decision not to abort the child. We’d get by. We’d have each other, build a family. I’d make a good father.
I was getting back home, I guess around ten p.m. When I turned the corner onto Elizabeth Street, I saw a police car with the light flashing and a crowd of people in front of Cynthia’s building.
I was horribly afraid. I ran to the crowd and pushed my way through.
“She’s so young.”
In a complete panic, I shouldered my way to the front of the crowd as the ambulance was screaming down the street. Cynthia was sprawled on the sidewalk in front of me. She was in an odd position, kneeling with her head on the ground and her rump in the air, her neck twisted at a horrible angle, as if she had struck the sidewalk head first. Blood was trickling from her mouth and as she breathed laboriously, her chest made a strange, horrible gurgling sound. I will never, never forget that moment.
The police pushed the crowd back as the paramedics arrived. They worked very carefully, lifted her and snapped her into the stretcher.
As they raced off, I knew I would never see her alive again. I wished there was a God, so I could pray to Him for her life, but I could only weep bitterly. If only I had gone to her! What an idiot I was! I might have been able to prevent this. And never for one moment did I believe she had jumped.
I ran to 10th Street, to Mrak’s. My guts were ripped, crushed. I had to find him. The lights were on on the second floor. I pounded on the door, howling his name. The latch clicked as the Professor unlocked the door and let me in.
“She’s dead!! She’s dead!” I screamed.
He turned from me, covering his face with his hands.
“I know.” His voice was shaking from guilt or grief. He wiped his eyes. “You were her friend. She always spoke fondly of you.” He began to weep. “I’d like to talk to you. You remind me of her. She said you write poetry. I wrote poetry when I was young, you know. But she was very unstable...”
“Professor, my windows look right across into hers. I saw you in her apartment. You were fighting.”
Mrak was trembling. “It’s true. She was capable of being extremely demanding, extremely stubborn and unreasonable!”
“Cynthia was very young and inexperienced. Tonight, she had confessed, no, she had flaunted and mocked me with the revelation that she was pregnant. When I asked who the father was, she laughed in my face! I... I... struck her!” he sobbed.
“I know, Professor. I saw you.”
“I... was there when she fell! I was with her at the last moment. I left before the police arrived. Her death... was a tragic, horrible accident! She had been drinking, and we had been arguing. I had been insisting, demanding that she terminate the pregnancy for her own good. Her cavalier attitude towards her own condition and the paternity of her child indicated clearly to me that she was not ready, that she was too young and naïve to bear a child.
“I had been pleading that she reconsider. I was carried away in the intensity of the moment. I struck her, with this hand, I struck my baby. She knows, now in Heaven, looking down now on us here, she knows my remorse, my guilt, that I never, never meant to hit her.
“She was drinking too much. She had put some loud music on the stereo, so loud I could hardly hear what she was saying. To the absurd, insane screeching of this music, with a drink in her hand, she began to dance and spin, twirling in a frenzy near the open window. In her state of intoxication, in the imbalance of her emotional distress, she tripped over a cord by the window and... fell.”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Bowler