Frankie Takes Gas
Wednesday, July 3rd, 7:23 p.m.
Business at Chez Alain restaurant was light, probably because half the working population of Jersey City had taken the day off to stretch out the July 4th holiday, which happened to be in the middle of the week this year. Frankie wasn’t happy. “And don’t you dare do anything to that steak, Rafael!” he yelled above the constant din of the kitchen.
“Mais, what d’you think, I don’t know how to cook steak au poivre? I be make it for ’a thirty years, nom de Dieu!”
It wasn’t good when Rafael started cursing in French. “Rafael, if I lose this tip because you’re too stubborn to make the steak well done, I’m going to come back there and choke you.”
Rafael glared as he took the plate off the service shelf. Muttering more curse words under his breath, he put the steak under the salamander while Frankie stood there to make sure he didn’t do anything disgusting to it.
“Don’t screw with me, Rafael. We’ve hardly had any customers, and I’m barely gonna make enough to pay for my parking tonight.” He looked at the plate. “The sauce is dry now. Put some butter on it.” Rafael just walked away, so Frankie did it himself. Rafael could be a real ass. I don’t need this aggravation, thought Frankie. Then he thought, Yes, I do.
He took the plate back to the table, apologizing profusely for Rafael being Rafael. Teddy was the manager. It should have been him apologizing, thought Frankie as he brought the lady another glass of wine—which he wasn’t going to put on the check—but it was just as well that Teddy was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t want that jackass anywhere near his customers. He’d never seen Teddy save a check the whole time he’d worked there, which was going on two years for Frankie, two years of Teddy treating him like a second-class citizen.
Why do I do it? Frankie had asked himself more times than he could count. He was the one who always came in early to make sure the setups were done. He was the one who always stayed late when a party ran long. And, almost exclusively, he made a point of pushing Rafael’s specials. Specials… right. It was their way of getting rid of food which would otherwise go into the dumpster. He didn’t get paid for any of those things, and he vowed to himself that he was going to start being like everyone else who worked at Chez Alain and only do what put money in his pocket. Even the Mexican guys in the kitchen shook their heads when they saw him doing things Teddy should have been doing. “Hey, Mr. Frankie,” they would say. “Let the jefe take care of it.” Then they would chuckle because they knew the jefe never really took care of anything.
Gabby came up to him at the server station and filled a couple of water glasses. “Is Rafael giving you a hard time again? I could hear you two yelling from across the dining room.”
Gabby was Gabriella D’Angelo, and she was one of the few people at Chez Alain with whom Frankie was friendly. They’d even gone out a couple of times after work to an after-hours place called the Lucky 7 Tavern. Frankie said it was an omen since his last name, Fortunato, meant lucky. The last time they went, they played darts and did alternate shots of beer and tequila, then tried to soak it up with tater tots and fried pickles. That wasn’t a good night for Gabby, and Frankie ended up almost carrying her into the apartment she shared with two other roommates. She would have done anything that night. She’d even told him that she hadn’t been laid in months and was horny as a toad. As much as he was tempted to take advantage of the situation, he couldn’t do it. She’d made the mistake of telling him she was still woozy the next morning, and he never let her hear the end of it, teasing her mercilessly about the horny thing.
“I did not say that,” she said.
“You certainly did,” Frankie taunted. “As a toad, you said.”
“No way. You’re making it up.”
Frankie smiled and walked away. It had the desired effect, as evidenced by the deep flush of her cheeks. Those nights with her after work weren’t dates exactly, but he thought about her constantly and wondered if she’d say yes if he asked her out in a more formal way.
He checked her out now, and she was looking good: tight, starched white cotton shirt, tight black slacks, lip gloss… Ouch. “He’s being a real jerk tonight,” he said, answering her question about Rafael. “You better check your orders before you take them out. I think maybe he’s been hitting the sauce again.”
“Let me guess,” she said sarcastically, “Teddy isn’t going to do anything about it.”
Frankie waved off the comment. “Please. The man is a total waste, costing me a lot of money. My tip total is going down with every shift.”
“I know what you mean. And it isn’t going to be any better today. A lot of people took the day off and headed for the shore.”
“Please don’t make me more depressed than I already am. Is Teddy even here today?”
“I haven’t seen him,” Gabby replied, “but that doesn’t mean he’s not here. He’s probably back in his office playing video games.”
“Or snorting coke and watching porn, more likely,” Frankie remarked. “Maybe we should talk to one of the partners about how he’s driving this place into the ground.”
“It couldn’t hurt,” Gabby said as she pulled a couple of menus and inserted the specials list. “Customers aren’t going to put up with lousy drinks and overpriced entrées for long. Have you been by the Orleans House lately? The place is always packed while we’re….” She made a crude gesture.
“I believe it. Last week two of Teddy’s obnoxious girlfriends were at the bar, and they proceeded to piss off everyone in the place. I think they were hookers. Camila was working that night and Teddy told her he’d take care of the tab, but he never did, of course.”
“So Camila got stiffed?”
“Oh, for sure, and she wasn’t happy about it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her quit as soon as she finds something else—and she will. She’s a good bartender.” Stepping away, Frankie said, “Gotta go. One of my customers is giving me the wave.”
Frankie weaved his way between the tightly packed tables and acknowledged his customer in the snug suit and skinny tie. “Another martini, sir?”
“Sure,” said the snug suit. “Does anyone want another drink?”
One of the women held up her glass, and Frankie said, “Pinot grigio, right?” The lady nodded. “Anyone else?” He took two more drink orders and asked if anyone cared for any appetizers.
“We’ll look over the menu while you’re getting the drinks,” the suit said.
“Absolutely,” Frankie responded, reaching down to pick up a couple of empty glasses. As he did so, he overheard some of the conversation from the other side of the table.
“I wonder who’s going to catch the case,” a portly gentleman was saying to the well-put-together lady sitting next to him. “Four guys shot dead on a fishing boat in the middle of New York Harbor? The press will be all over it. Mason is positioning himself to take it if it comes our way, and he’s already salivating.”
Frankie spotted a binder on the table and noted the words Hudson County District Attorney etched into the leather. These guys were lawyers, evidently, prosecutors probably, having a couple of pops and doing a little shoptalking after work, it looked like. Him being a law student made the conversation quite interesting, and Frankie did his best to eavesdrop without being obvious about it. He recalled seeing the headline about the murders on the cover of the Daily News earlier in the day as he rode the PATH train.
He brought the four drinks and some bread back to the table. Listening to the conversation again, his curiosity mounted quickly. “Is this a special occasion?” he asked.
“Retirement party,” one of the women said cheerfully. “Our man Charles is retiring at the end of the week.” She pointed to the portly guy.
“Well then, I guess congratulations are in order.”
“I guess,” the portly guy said. “After prosecuting cases for thirty-five years, I hope I can find something else to keep me busy.”
Frankie noted the apprehension in the man’s voice.
“You will,” said the lady with the pinot grigio. “It’ll be hard to replace you.”
“If you can hold on for a couple of years, maybe I can put in an application,” Frankie said through a very obvious smile to let everyone know he was joking. “I’m in my second year at NYU Law.”
“Go into contract law,” the portly guy said. “You’ll make five times the money, kid.”
Okay, thought Frankie. He’d established rapport, but knowing there was nothing worse than a chatty waiter, he asked, “Did anyone decide on appetizers? The mini crab cakes are good tonight.” At least he hoped they were, and that Rafael hadn’t screwed them up somehow.
All six people ordered, and Frankie was already doing the calculations in his head. If they did the whole enchilada and ordered drinks, appetizers, entrées, and dessert, the tab would be somewhere above $350. Maybe the night would be worthwhile after all.
He stepped over to one of the point-of sale stations and began punching in the appetizer orders. Out of nowhere, Teddy came up behind him and stood close so that his bad breath filled the air. Not surprisingly, it smelled like bourbon. “What the fuck was all that with the law school shit?” he asked belligerently.
Teddy was playing sneak attack again. “Calm down, Teddy. I was only making small talk.”
“Yeah, well, maybe you should keep that crap to yourself. Nobody likes a nosy waiter.”
“Take a pill, Teddy. Why don’t you lay off me and go into the kitchen and do something about Rafael?”
“You can stop with the smart mouth,” Teddy fired back. “I’m the boss around here, and maybe that’s something you should remember.”
Frankie turned away and bit his tongue before he said something stupid. “Yeah, Teddy. I got it, okay?”
Besides the party of six from the DA’s office, he had two more parties of four that night and four parties of two, and it didn’t turn out to be so bad in the tip department. Teddy scowled at him and the other servers all night, and Frankie thought he heard Gabby tell him to shove it. Felipe was on the bar, and he didn’t look happy either. Despite having pulled in over two hundred bucks in tips on a slow night, it wasn’t going to be enough for him to pay his rent to his parents—on which he was late—and still be able to put something aside for books for the upcoming fall semester. That was going to be a pretty big number this time around. He needed more shifts, though he wondered if he dared talk to Teddy about it, seeing as the man had been a dick to everyone the entire night. When he spotted Teddy at a back table filling out the schedule for the coming week, he looked and saw that Teddy was only scheduling him for two nights.
“What the hell, Teddy? Two shifts? That’s all?”
“Yeah, well, maybe you shouldn’t be such a fucking smart mouth.”
Frankie felt his face heat up. “Teddy, I can’t cover my expenses on two shifts. I need more hours.”
“You should have thought of that before you started talking about me behind my back.”
“I wasn’t talking about you behind your back.”
“No? What about the conversation you had with Miss Tight Ass earlier, and talking about going to the partners to bitch me out? What the fuck was that all about?”
Frankie felt his face get even hotter. “It was just shoptalk, Teddy. You know how it is.”
“Is that an apology?”
Now Frankie thought his face was going to self-combust. “I… I guess it is. Sorry, Teddy. It won’t happen again.” The last thing he needed right now was to lose this job without having something else lined up. “C’mon, Teddy, I’ve always come in when someone called out and you needed me to cover. What’s with the cutback?”
Teddy leaned back and put his hands behind his head like he was really enjoying himself. “I’ll give you more shifts, if you want, but there’s two conditions.”
Frankie caught his own reflection in the bar mirror. His face was tight, his jaw was set, and it wasn’t a good look on him. He looked at Teddy and wanted to knock the smarmy half smile right off his face. “Go on,” he said, trying to keep himself from reaching over and giving Teddy a slap.
“One of the lunch crew quit this morning.”
And pretty soon, so will just about everyone else in the place, thought Frankie.
“I’ll give you your regular four shifts at the dinner seating, but you have to pick up three more shifts for lunch until I can get someone else hired and trained.”
“That could take the rest of the summer,” Frankie protested, getting more than he bargained for. “I’m still taking two courses this summer, and I’m going to need time to talk to my professors about my coursework for the fall semester.”
“That’s your problem, and I don’t give a fuck. You want more shifts, those are my conditions.”
Frankie swallowed hard. “Teddy, three lunch shifts and four dinner shifts might be more than I can handle right now.”
Teddy put his head down and went back to the schedule. “Not my problem. You can take it or fucking leave it, in which case I’ll cut you down to Monday and Tuesday nights. I’d guess that would put a hurtin’ on the old wallet, wouldn’t it, Frankie?”
Monday and Tuesday nights were the slowest nights of the week. Frankie stared at him, and he could tell Teddy was waiting for him to go off. “That’s only one,” he said, keeping his voice low and even.
“What’s only one?”
The dumb shit. “Condition,” Frankie replied. “The three added lunch shifts is only one condition. You said you had two.”
“Oh, right. The second is if you talk to any of the partners about anything that’s going on at this restaurant, you’re history. You comprende? No matter how bad I need servers.”
Frankie choked back what he really wanted to say. “Yeah, Teddy, I comprende.”