Mona clipped back to the kitchen with an armload of dirty dishes and caught a whiff of Ellis' savory beef stroganoff, so she followed her nose from the deep sink over to the stove and spooned up a mouthful, chewed it up and smacked her lips and said to herself, "Oh man, this is good," at the instant that the cook reappeared from the storeroom with a gallon jug of canola oil.
"Hey! Get away from there!" he barked. "That's for the customers only."
God, she hated him. "I was just trying to see what you were burning back here," she said.
"I'm gonna burn your fat little ass you don't get back out there and get on the coffee refills."
"Who died and left you in charge?" she wanted to know.
"And wipe your face before you go," he told her. "You got stroganoff juice running down your chin. Looks like you been up to somethin' nasty."
Mona's face bunched itself up like a fist. "Fuck you, Ellis," she said. She wiped her chin with the back of her hand.
"Jeez, what a classy broad," he observed, shouldering by her to give his pot a stir. She threw an elbow that hit him in a kidney, then stalked out of the kitchen to go about her business with a peevish spring in her step of taking orders and delivering food and refilling the coffee cups all around.
After the lunch rush, when the place was almost empty and her transitory fury had abated, Mona said to her co-waitress Johanna as they wiped down adjacent tables: "You oughta get some of that stroganoff, man. It's to die for."
"Really?" Johanna replied. "Didn't Ellis make it?"
Mona shrugged as she redipped her sponge in the tub of soapy water. "Yeah, I guess he did. Go figure, huh?"
So Johanna, hungry after a hard day, finished up with the wiping, restocked the napkins on tables seven and eight, and brought fresh Tabasco sauce to the two surfer dudes on table ten, then slipped back into the kitchen to get her lunch.
Ellis was in the bathroom, getting ahead of the closing game by mopping the place out early, so Johanna served herself, heaping a plate up high, loading on the egg noodles until they dangled over the sides of her plate, three hundred and sixty degrees around, beneath an immense soggy pyramid of beef chunks soaking in a sour cream/gravy sauce. Her mouth watering, she butt bumped the swinging door to the dining room, turned and had to stop on a dime to keep from running into Ellis, who'd finished bathroom cleaning while she was preparing her meal. His coffee sloshed with the abruptness of his stop, dribbled a bit over the front edge; Johanna's stroganoff flowed forward like lava; hanging egg noodles swayed. She slid the plate to keep the pile from sloshing off and down to the floor, and Ellis took in the size of the portion she'd dished herself up and said: "Jo-girl, if there's not enough room on that plate for all the food you want, I got a trash can lid back there you can use."
The two surfer dudes on table ten overheard the remark and burst out laughing. Johanna shot them a look that froze the surfaces of their iced teas half an inch deep and shut them up in an eye blink; and Mona, incoming with a stack of dirty plates, giggled by into the kitchen.
"Fuck you, Ellis," Johanna hissed.
"I was just tryin' to be helpful," he protested as he sidled around her to push through the swinging door.
In the kitchen, Mona dumped her plates at the deep sink and said to the cook, "Maybe I'll go out there and tell her that she should just take that stuff and smear it all over her ass, since that were it's gonna go anyway."
Ellis grinned and grabbed her wrist and pulled her over to the service window, where they peered out at Johanna and her meal. The mad waitress had pushed the stroganoff away from herself at the table, and with a dark scowl on her face, she used a thumb and forefinger to pluck up single bit of meat from the goopy pile, to chew it up it with an angry fervor that had enough muscle in it to break bones.
"I wouldn't say nothin' if I were you, Mona," Ellis warned, increasing the force of his grip on her. "Unless you're in the mood for an ass-whippin', Johanna style."
"Won't be me gettin' her ass whipped," Mona informed him, jutting her chin at the old cook. "I'll tell her you said it."
Ellis's eyes widened; Mona pulled her wrist free. "You little bitch," he said. She treated him to a dazzlingly wicked smile, turned and bounced out of the kitchen, and Ellis slipped out the side door and broke into a run, crossing Kelly Street as Johanna appeared in the doorway to blister the air in his wake with a stream of profanities that scared a flock of pigeons out of the shaggy head of a curb strip palm tree on a whoosh of multiple wings, as the two surfer dudes on table ten slipped two twenties on top of their sixteen dollar ticket and sloped on out of the restaurant to go catch some waves.
Published December 2006