My software project was a six-month contract and was mostly complete but overdue. Still, my manager had already lined up two more projects for me if I wanted them. It was good money, and it was as far away from Oklahoma as I could get without leaving the continental United States.
After work, I walked to Farid’s cafe. I had held to my well-trodden tourist paths since I’d moved here, not sure whether I would be a true San Franciscan or just a temporary visitor. There was a blue neon sign over the storefront which simple said, “Hot Coffee Here.” It would be easy to walk past without even noticing it, but Farid served the best coffee and scones in the city, at least the best on my route between work and home, and he needed a waitress.
I grabbed the help wanted sign out of the window and walked over to the counter. Farid burst through the kitchen door with a garden salad, two club sandwiches, and two coffees on a serving tray. He delivered it to a young couple in the corner. Most of Farid’s customers were tourists.
He blew passed me, saying, “I’ll be with you in just a moment, my friend.”
In just a few seconds, he returned with another tray. This one held coffee for the two older gentlemen by the door. He delivered it and returned to me.
“Ok! What can I do for you, my friend?” he said, rubbing his hands on his apron. ”You come back to complain about the food? Is that it?” he said with a wink.
I held up the sign.
“I see,” he said, “you need a job. Your boss finally say he don’t want you around no more! Is that it?”
“That’s right,” I say,” I need a job mopping up piss-poor coffee off your floor.”
“I see. You just come to insult Farid in his own humble place of business!”
We both laughed.
“Ok ok…listen, I have a friend who needs a job,” I said, “A young lady.”
“Ahhh, a young lady. How young?”
“She’s nineteen. You’ll like her. I’ll vouch for her. She’s very pretty,” I added to clinch the deal.
“Pretty. Yes. Good for business. The last waitress had more hair on her lip than my own mother.” His gold tooth gleamed as he smiled.” I can’t pay much. And half of my customers don’t even tip. You sure she want to work here?”
“Ok. Here’s what I’m gonna do. You send her to me at seven a.m. tomorrow for a breakfast shift. If I like her, she can take the lunch shift, too.”
“Thanks a lot, Farid. I owe you.” I shook his hand and headed for the door.
Farid was my only friend in San Francisco. I first met him when I came to town for a conference nine years before. I’d come to town every year since for the same conference and had made his coffee and scones my morning ritual.
The walk from Farid’s to my flat near Chinatown was entirely uphill. For the first few weeks I lived there, I would arrive home drenched in sweat, but eventually, my body acclimated. I’d never been in better shape.
I skipped McMillen’s, wondering if Amy was still around. I arrived to the smell of fried onions, which kindled my appetite and found Amy once again in the kitchen. She’d changed clothes. They looked new.
“You know, you really ought to shop for something else besides booze,” she said without turning around,” God knows how old those eggs were from yesterday. I went ahead and threw them out. Besides that, all I found in your fridge was fuzzy green Chinese food and a bottle of Smirnoff.”
“You bought food?“ I reached into my pocket for my wallet, “How much do I owe you?”
“Nothing. I swiped your credit card from your wallet this morning.”
I quickly checked my wallet. The card was gone.
“So you’re a runaway and a thief now. Is that it? By the way, congratulations; you have a job. You start tomorrow morning at seven. Don’t screw it up. And give me my card back.”
She pulled the card from her back pocket, laid it on the table, and returned to the stove to stir the onions.
“Thanks for cooking. No one’s cooked dinner for me since…” I stopped short. I could feel the pain of the past rising in me.
“Since what?” she asked, licking food off her finger.
“Never mind. I could use a drink. Do you make those, too?”
She ignored me. I opened the kitchen cabinet that had become host to a dozen bottles of various fine whiskeys, selected a Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel, and poured a double neat. I swished the scotch around the glass a couple of times and then held it to my nose. I told myself that it was a hobby. But at the end of the day, when I’d been drunk enough to pass out, all whiskeys were the same. They made me forget, at least long enough to go to sleep, and I’d spent the last four months trying to forget what had happened.
“I’m glad you’re here, Amy.”
She pulled a pound of beef out of the package and dropped it in the pan. It sizzled, and my mouth watered. As I turned toward the living room, she spoke softly, “Thank you for letting me stay.”
I kept a variety of prescription meds in the kitchen cabinet, and I pulled out the oxy and popped the lid. I chugged it down with the double whiskey and poured another one. I’d managed through the day with only a few, but the pain in my arm and forehead was wearing me down. I needed relief and would have it soon.
“What are you cooking? Smells great?” I asked.
“It’s one of my mom’s old recipes. She used to make it for me when I was not feeling well. I have no idea what she called it. I guess biscuit beef rolls. Like cinnamon rolls except for beef, onions, biscuit, and covered with tomato soup.”
“Do you miss your mom?”
I waited for an answer, but none came. I remembered our agreement to not ask questions, so I let it go.
The pills and booze were kicking in. I sank into my chair and let it overtake me. The pain subsided, and I was beginning to feel normal again. For some time, how much I did not know, I floated with the effects.
The sound of her voice broke my reverie.
“Hello!” she shouted. “James! Didn’t you hear me? Come into the kitchen. Dinner is ready!” She muttered some form of obscenity under her breath.
I stumbled a little as I walked into the kitchen.
“Whoa there, big guy. Easy on the booze for once.”
I didn’t argue. She was right to criticize. I had long ago lost my ability to moderate my alcohol, and I didn’t have Laura around to be concerned about it.
We ate for a while in silence. We didn’t know each other–not really at all. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be known, and yet, there was something about Amy that made me at least wish I did.