As I headed for the pot of soup that rested near the center of the Hot Line table, my attention was pulled towards the salad cage by a pair of long, smooth, evenly tanned legs. Scanning upwards revealed a trail of straight, dark brown hair that cascaded casually downwards in long, arcing curves. And then - I realized, quite abruptly, that the gams, indeed, the entire body, belonged to Amy Rose.
Amy, like Phyllis, was a relief busgirl. In the setting of the kitchen, I was accustomed to seeing her, like everyone else, in the standard blue pants and white shirt. That was the mandatory uniform. But this was her day off. Apparently, she had decided to grab a quick lunch on the house. And so, there she was, strolling about the kitchen clad only in a pair of sandals, cream colored gym shorts, and a gray T-shirt.
If her legs had caught my attention, I wondered what effect they were having on the bimmies. During their brief Boiberik sojourns, their sole entertain was (I assumed) a nightly bottle of smuggled Thunderbird wine. Nineteen year-old college girl legs might, therefore, merit more than a passing thought.
Some unsolicited advice was in order. I confronted her near the salad cage.
"Hi Michael Golub," she chirped. Amy's greetings always conveyed pleasant surprise. Her interest in others, combined with mischievous, daring eyes and a dark, Sabra-like complexion, had attracted a multi-tiered arena of admirers.
I rested the edge of my tray on the floor, and leaned, ever so lightly, on its opposite end.
"Amy," I hissed, "what are you doing here?"
"Getting lunch," she answered. "What does it look like I'm doing?" she added, upbeat demeanor shifting to a resentful tone.
We were interrupted by Leon, the official salad cage bimmie, and a damn good one at that. "Do you want strawberries with this, Amy?" he crooned in a husky bass. If it didn't seem so improbable, I would have sworn that he was estimating the distance between Amy and I as he eavesdropped on our conversation .
"No thanks, Leon," she said, turning her attention towards him as she took the platter of bananas, blueberries, and cream. She seemed nervous under his gaze. This was out of character for a girled who hailed from a comfortable section of a New York suburb, but often displayed the spunk and verve of her less upscale Yonkers buddies.
"Listen," I whispered, grabbing my tray and pulling her a few steps away so that Leon wouldn't overhear what I said next, "you shouldn't come in here dressed like that."
"Why not?" she demanded, her eyes widening in indignation in response to my parental tone.
"Amy," I moaned, "don't be stupid. You see Mario, over there?" I gestured with a subtle shoulder movement towards a suspect laborer who was transferring brussel sprouts from one pot to another.
She turned to look over, reaching, as she did, into her bowl to pluck a blueberry from atop a mountain of sour cream. She then placed the spherical morsel neatly between her incisors. "Hey!" I nearly screamed, in a hoarse whisper. "Don't make it so obvious that you're looking at him." Mario was Puerto Rican, twenty-five or so. The right side of his forehead was indented. His face was pock-marked and scarred from many a lost battle. His right eye, the fake one, roved aimlessly. Teeth were chipped. Tattoes of weapons alternated with the stigmata of IV use up and down his arms. The bulge of his back pocket suggested a switchblade. He looked like the kind of man that might kill his brother for farting off-key.
I waited to make sure that he hadn't noticed Amy's stare. "If I noticed your legs, what do you think Mario was thinking about? Where you buy your Nair? "Amy, these guys are alcoholics and addicts, some are criminals, some are morons. And most of them are lonely." "Fortunately," I continued, making my point as plain as possible, "no one has gotten raped yet up here, but it's bound to happen one of these days. So please don't come in here half-naked, okay?"
She took all this in without blinking. Then, quite deliberately, she placed a slice of banana on the platform created by her extended tongue, mumbled, "You're a nut," through a mucaceous mouthful, pushed me aside, and headed for the guest kid's area to enjoy her lunch.
Once again, I headed for Mina's soup.
A deep, rasp beckoned my return. "Michael." It was Leon, from within the prison of the salad cage, calling me over.
Leon was not your typical bimmie. He was a remarkably muscular, tall, African figure, with well-chiseled features accentuated by a perfectly manicured Afro and a full, thick, jet black mustache.
But for some twist of fate, I speculated, he could have been a successful pro-football player, following that career with a lucrative stint promoting health care products for studs. Instead, he was trapped in a claustraphobic pen, forced to listen to Herman's (the salad man's) interminable philosophizing about the fine points of catering, while concocting an assortment of fish appetizers and cold salad platters.
What type of bitterness, I wondered, festers in a man who is forced to endure such a contrast between what could have been and what is? Somehow, Leon seemed to take his fate in stride. As Herman's assistant, he was frequently bombarbed by a series of irate, demanding, impatient, whining waiters and busboys, each insisting that their orders take precedence over all others. Under this type of fire, he maintained his composure remarkably well. (Far better than the omelette man who struggled through a daily hang-over to fold egg concoctions on the hot line.)
He always spoke in measure tones, intelligently, parceling out the words slowly and carefully, as if each sentence and it's possible ramifications had been weighed in advance.
On more than one occasion, Fred had pushed me to befriend Leon. I had yet to do so, because, well, Leon made me uncomfortable.
The truth be known, I think he made me feel guilty. I saw him as a victim of pigment. A white man with his imposing stature and apparent intellect would probably have enjoyed good fortune in this imbalanced country. He reminded me of issues that I would rather not have thought about (not during my summer vacation, anyway) and so I avoided him.
Earlier that same day, he had summoned me to the cage as I was completing the final stages of serving breakfast.
"Michael," he began, as he prepared a vat of tuna salad, "you're a very smart young man, aren't you?"
I was not prepared for such a question. "Why can't you ask me about the pros and cons of Herman's Waldorf salad?" I thought to myself. Instead, I ventured, "Why do you ask?"
"I've been watching you. I noticed how you address the people you work with. The way you're organized." Leon made me wait for each word. "I bet you read a lot," he added.
"Some," I answered. This was makin me edgy. Given the option, I would not have chosen to discuss my IQ with him or anyone else (except maybe, Danny Pion). I wanted to finish the meal, clean my silverware, get out of the dining room, and take a nap. I made no effort to hide my fidgeting. " Do you go to school?"
"Yeah," I answered curtly, loosing patience with the interrogation.
"Which school? Ivy league?"
Just what, I wondered, was I being accused of?
"Yeah, Yale," I said, adding, "Look Leon, I don't mean to be rude, but I've got two customers waiting for soft-boiled eggs."
"Fine," he said, "I understand."
Once again, at lunch, I was planning ahead. I was eager to get Mina her soup, collect orders for the main dish, finish this endless nightmare of a meal, change out of my "blues," and go play basketball; the last thing I needed was a follow-up cross examination. Still, like Stanley (and unlike nearly everyone else who worked in the kitchen) he was too intimidating to ignore.
I stood opposite Leon - me onthe outside of the cage, him on the inside. A long carving table, on which Herman's many dishes were prepared, separated us. Leon was chopping scallions with what looked like a machete.
Here we go again. "What's up Leon?"
"Do you have a girlfriend here?" he asked without the slightest hint of embarrassment or hesitation.
"This guy must be writing a fucking book about me," I thought; and figured that honesty would be the fastest way out.
"No Leon, I don't."
"That girl, Amy, says you do."
"What?" came my shrill reply, having been caught off-guard. I cursed myself for this momentary lapse. You see, I had decided, that very morning, that whatever strange mind game Leon had wanted to play, I would match his aura of bemusement and control.
"Amy," he repeated.
"Yeah, Amy, right," I answered. "Okay, so just what did she say?"
I looked down at the table where he continued the rhythmic chop-chop-chopping of scallions, inching the long green stalks towards the repetitive down-strokes of the razor sharp blade.
"She said that you were her boy-friend," he explained, lingering on each syllable.
"And when," I responded, beginning to understand his rationale for this line of questioning, "did she say that?"
"I asked her if she would like to get together with me by the lake this afternoon. She said, 'No,' she couldn't. She said that her boyfriend would be jealous. And," he added, staring me right in the eye while continuing to chop away, his fingers advancing the scallions perilously close to the edge of the blade, "she said that that boyfriend was you."
Suddenly, everything fell into place. With this sudden illumination, I felt a pang of sympathy for Leon. This seemingly cultured, polite, ebony Hercules had been sentenced, for whatever reason, to the isolated life of a Boiberik serf. No available women for him in this shtetl. Nothing to do but chop fruits and vegetables. My resentment at his intrusive questioning faded, as did my fear that he might redirect the knife towards my mid-section. I laughed. "Leon," I said, "First of all, Amy is not my girlfriend-"
He stopped chopping and held the knife upward. I interpreted this as a signal of his desire to correct me.
"That T-shirt she was wearing today," he said, "It had, 'Yale Bladderball,' written across the front. Amy doesn't go to Yale," he added, solemnly. He resumed chopping.
Mina's soup would have to wait.
"Leon," I said, placing my hand of the table between us as a gesture of good faith. "We may have had a thing going last year. That's when I gave her the T-shirt. It's over now.
"As far as I know," I added, reclaiming my digits, "she's a free agent."
A joyless smile curled his lips, as he accepted my denial and realized, no doubt, the reason for Amy's lie.
"Get to work Leon," Herman shouted from a refrigerator in the corner of the cage. "Start scooping the Waldorf. We're way behind."
Leon put down the knife. I met his gaze. What the hell are you doing here? I wanted to ask. Maybe, intuitive as he was, he read the question in my eyes. Maybe not. He stared back blankly, then grabbed a coffee cup and began dishing out cup-sized servings of Herman's famous Waldorf salad.
Chapter X: The Hole
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