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86'd 

First place winner

I was out back smoking cigarettes with Dominique the deaf dishwasher during Tuesday lunch rush when someone said the restaurant reviewer had just come in. We came inside to peek out at her. She was sitting there sipping iced tea with a guy who looked like a Ken doll with a walleye. She was scanning the room for, what? Other restaurant reviewers? Who knew what she was looking for.

I sent Pat, the head waitress, out to spy on her while Dominique and I watched out the kitchen door. Pat swished back and said she was babbling about nothing. Her name was Gail Straight, or something like that: Looking out at her now I couldn't remember the last time I read the newspaper.

Everybody went about their business and tried to ignore Gail Straight. Technically they weren't supposed to know who she was anyway. She made a half-hearted effort to do different things with her hair -- I'd seen it ash blond, black-as-coal, roasted chestnut, and now here was a drop-dead red that hurt your eyes -- but she was under 5 feet tall and spoke in this annoying whisper-voice and of course everybody in Charleston knew exactly who she was. A couple of divorced men I knew wanted to date her, but she seemed to only ever be seen with two or three obviously gay local TV news guys.

She ordered the artichoke appetizer and ratatouille. Lotta acid in that combination. I'd ordered extra artichokes for a wedding party that night and they were perfect. The ratatouille I'd made that morning, with some of the summer's best-looking tomatoes. We'd give Gail a couple free glasses of wine and we'd be golden.

But standing there staring out the kitchen door I started to wonder why she -- any of them -- were out there eating our leftovers. Half of it was warmed-over crap from the night before, but they lapped it up, left their desk jobs and spent two hours over thin house wine savoring crepes that should have been served and out the door eight to 12 hours before.

The restaurant was run-of-the-mill French, tucked in a city corner. We had only a teeny garden of dill and rosemary and a couple other slightly dirty herbs grown about 6 feet from the street. Most of the waitresses looked a lot like last night's wine, done up to look pale and bored, with red lipstick and no base, serving up iced tea and waiting around for dinner. Which anybody with any sense would know is when we'd want the restaurant reviewer to show up, since who's on their toes at lunch?

Rick was my ex and worked down the street at a new bistro called Pamela's, which was owned by a guy named Paul, who hired Rick as head chef when we split. Three years of living together and running the kitchen at our place and poof, one day he was gone, his clothes and CDs and about $2,500 worth of Williams-Sonoma pans whisked out of the apartment, and no one to cover his shift at the restaurant. Paul also hired Marta, the waitress he left me for.

I spent about 10 minutes just staring out at the dining room door while everybody buzzed around me, doing stuff for the restaurant reviewer, and I started to be glad she was there. Dominique and I had been shooting the shit out back for most of the last hour. I'd been trying to figure out which of the fish was fresh enough to make it through the night. Now I had to get it into gear. Go in, help make some lunches. Go out after a bit and schmooze up Gail. I thought, this is great. I haven't thought about Rick for about 25 minutes.

Which immediately got me thinking about him. Luckily, in the last couple of weeks it had seemed to pass from the blinding, throwing-up sort of thinking to become a low, sick sort of thudding thinking. It was getting easier to manage. I could sleep and eat normally; I thought I looked reasonably not insane.

Only problem was that I kept thinking I saw him. On my walk to the restaurant in the morning I'd see five or six men I thought were him. I would start watching their feet as they walked toward me and then, in a blink, look up to take in the whole body. So I knew in half a second whether the approaching figure was Rick, someone who looked like him, or something else entirely, like a long-haired woman or a large black man or a Doberman. I developed a circumnavigating sweep-vision that took in every human being within 500 feet, immediately assessed them to make sure they couldn't be Rick, and then dismissed them from my periphery, where they fell away like peanut shells.

I thought of him not just on my walk to work and back but everywhere, in my own apartment, on my back porch, in my bathroom. I'd picture him, big and burly and black-haired, laughing loud, his feet up on her coffee table. And, let's see, I'll bet he's, right this very second, playing jazz CDs for her and making her dinners, amazing dinners like the crispy duck he made when we were first dating, with lemon potatoes and Veuve Clicquot. But probably he didn't need to cook for her to love him. Could be whatever was holding the two of them together was strong, something real important, something that makes me want to vomit. Damn hard to cook for a living when you want to throw up all the time.

I was still knee-deep in my stupor when I started to notice the developing war between our place and Pamela's. First one or two of my staff would show up at Pamela's drunk at closing time and be obnoxious in the dining room, until I found out about it and asked them to stop. I couldn't figure out whether I was flattered or annoyed, but it didn't look good.

Then Rick caught wind of it and got to the meat guys, and they started to be really nasty when they dropped off our orders. The van from Van Brunck & Sons Purveyors pulled up out back one day. Pete and Vinnie, these two big Italians who'd always been nice before, were snippy with me as I checked the order in. They haggled over every piece of meat in the box until it got down to a leg of lamb they said we hadn't ordered. Dinorah came out from behind the dishwasher to help me check in the order and he wouldn't hand her the lamb. He held it in his arms up over her head, the order slip caught between the meat and his sleeve where Dinorah couldn't get it, and she started screeching and grabbing at him. Vinnie stunk of smoke and started to laugh, threw the lamb to Pete, who caught it, and they played monkey-in-the-middle with it, sneering and being crude.

Then Sherry, our resident histrionic bleach-blond hostess, took to calling Rick's purveyors late at night and changing his orders. She'd cancel his lamb order and get him 100 pounds of Canadian bacon instead. She'd call his cleaning company and tell them to take the night off. She'd slept with Paul and worked for Pamela's and had all the phone and account numbers. She called up the linen supplier saying she worked for Pamela's and was such a bitch on the phone that they didn't get their linen for three days.

"We hate Rick!" read a note Pat left on my desk one morning. "We thought this would be fun."

Then Rick sent his dishwasher to be sick just outside our front door onto the herb garden. For three days running, a little round guy in whites named Juan destroyed the rosemary with a little vomit-like concoction. I stood there for close to a half-hour hosing off the rosemary, thinking I'd thought Marta had at least liked me on some level; maybe she felt bad about everything. And anyway, she's going to go out, for coffee or something, and Rick will have his big realization. He'll suddenly know what he's done and call me. How long exactly is it going to take for him to realize this?

I'd liked Marta. She was lovely, a natural blond. Next to her I felt like a 4-foot joke-cracking dwarf. She would pat me on my brown head and slip out to serve the house wine like a model. She smoked out back with Dominique and me. Then apparently she fell in love with Rick and that was it.

When you're just starting up with someone, everything moves so fast. Deep feelings develop in split seconds. You sit there with a Mona Lisa smile while your life swirls over your head like plastic bags on the sidewalk. Rick passed me a glass of wine at a party and by the time I'd finished it, I'd rearranged my life to fit him in. Which was fine, and had been fine the whole time until he left.

But when things end they go so slowly. The calls start to be interspersed with these endless empty waiting days. You think, maybe he's just busy? Really, really busy. Maybe he got home so late it would have been rude to call, then the next day was just a total mess, with not a second to spare. Sure enough, when you finally do get the guy on the phone, he's perfectly happy to tell you exactly how busy he's been, except you don't believe him.

And then he called. We were slammed. It was the day the restaurant reviewer was there. The whole place was booked that night for a wedding party that would start to arrive at six. Dinorah was playing disco at the dishwasher. Dominique had her hand on the work table feeling the vibrations and was shimmying a little, smiling, her eyes closed, not working at all. I was steaming seven dozen artichokes in white wine and oil and the greasy little yellow phone on the wall was ringing.

I put an oily finger in my ear and crushed my other ear with the phone and heard him say my name, slow and low. I stared at the floor, forcing myself to focus on a spot of spilled something.

"What?"

"It's me."

"I know."

I bent straight at the waist to stare dumb at the floor like I was going for my toes, greasy fingers in both ears. My mouth was wide open. He had been gone for two months.

"How are you?" he asked.

Well I've wanted to stick a fork in my stomach for a few weeks, but otherwise I'm good.

"Good thanks."

"Good. Listen. I miss you."

"... What? ... Really?"

I probably sounded very distracted. Shit. Dinorah was washing dishes and clanging pans to the Weather Girls, Hallelujah, it's raining men. I swung my torso up like a marching doll, whipped around to stare her down, screwed up a Gila monster face and glared at her. She stopped dancing in mid-clang and put the pans back on the rack.

"So ... how are you?"

"I ... Good, you know ... How're you?"

"Good. I've been thinking about you a lot, you know. Feeling terrible about everything," he said.

No way. Really?

"Yeah. Yeah ... me too ... I feel ... I feel terrible too. Terrible."

"Yeah. Terrible."

"How's Marta?"

He laughed, a low rumbling. My heart was jumping.

"I don't know. She's not here."

So many times I'd envisioned this conversation. I knew exactly what I'd say, and that I'd of course take him back, but I thought I'd chuckle and make him beg. Now here he was, laughing like he did not deserve to, and I was in pink Happy Chef baggy pants smeared with olive oil. It was sticky-hot and I felt like I hadn't showered in a week. He was chortling like a little chipmunk and I was not capable of speech. My feet were growing stalks into the ground.

Neither of us spoke then. I was staring at my toes again, my feet spread apart and my nose about to rest on my left knee. The song ended and suddenly it was very quiet in the kitchen for just that one minute. I faced the wall and knew the whole staff knew what was up. One by one they were dropping what they were doing and coming in to stare at the back of my head. I could hear him breathing.

"Rick?"

"Yeah?"

"What are you doing?"

He laughed again. "I'm just laying here."

"Laying where? Where are you laying?" I sounded like a mom whose kid didn't make it home from the school bus.

"In bed, silly."

Pat was waving stale French bread at me.

"But Rick, it's like one in the afternoon."

"I know. Why don't you come over?"

"I can't ... It's the middle of lunch."

"So put somebody else in charge and come see me."

"But it's the middle of --" Oh. It had taken me that long to figure out what he was talking about.

"Hey," he said. "Are you there?"

"Rick?"

"What? Are you coming over or not?"

"But I can't. Can I come over later, after lunch?"

"No. I'm busy then. I'll ... ah ... you know. I'll talk to you again some time."

He said he needed to go and hung up. One weird chance and now it was gone, too bad, goodbye. I kept holding onto the phone after he'd hung up, hanging over and glaring at my shoes.

Pat was staring at me as she filled bread baskets. She and Sherry both bellied up to the work table and watched me as they waited for their bread. I hung up the phone and slithered into the walk-in cooler. Dominique came in then, pissed off because I'd glared at her and Dinorah.

"What is your problem?" Her voice was Haitian-inflected and consonant-free, like "Wha is ya pralom?"

I pointed back out the walk-in door. Cold air was sweeping away, dollars draining out by the second. "Rick on the phone," I coughed, shaking my head like I was trying to get bugs out of my hair.

"Oooh," she said, leaning back against the door, peering into my face to read my lips. She wasn't the type to try to console me. "O-kay." She stepped back out of the walk-in and left me alone to look at the lettuce.

The rest of the day was a disco fog. I sent Pat out to hang with Gail, crapped out a load of artichokes by rote, let their music swirl around me, loud obnoxious thumping against my will. Dinorah was mouthing, "if you want my body." Before he called I hadn't had much anger exactly, just dark, sickly sweet confusion. Now rage was seeping out of my bones through the muscles and settling carcinogenically just underneath my skin. I never made it out front to talk to Gail Straight. It wouldn't have been a good thing.

The review appeared in the paper the following Friday. It was written in such purple flowery language that, when I passed the review around the restaurant, nobody could understand what the hell it really said. But Gail gave us four chef's hats according to the paper's inane rating system, which went like this:

Five hats = Excellent! The tops in town.

Four hats = Wonderful!

Three hats = Average. Room for improvement!

Two hats = Not bad.

One hat = Avoid at all costs.

Pat was the first one in that day, after me. She'd already read it by the time she got there. She pursed her lips as she yanked her apron out of the drier.

"Four hats is not terrible," she stopped by my desk and leaned up against it, crossing her arms, plump and motherly. "Four hats is not a bad review."

I made a great show of sipping my coffee and crossing my feet, sitting in my chair and staring at my toes.

"I don't think I can forgive Rick for this one," she murmured through clenched teeth. I must have looked at her quizzically, because she said, "I think he probably watched her come in and then called you. Don't you?"

Don't I? It hadn't occurred to me. Pat pretended she knew I'd thought of it first. She went to get creamers out of the walk-in and get going on her day. The paper reviewed Pamela's the next weekend and they got five hats. She even described Marta in the review, her stately blond waitress, who had her service down and knew her Chardonnays cold. She noted that Pamela's had a huge herb and vegetable garden out back, "no doubt allowing for the inevitable freshness of all the incredible gastronomic feats that delighted all the members of my party." Described Rick as "warm and welcoming." Whatever.

I kept wanting the newspaper to take a moment to explain the difference between five hats, Excellent!, and four hats, Wonderful! We thought somebody at one of the other restaurants in town might have called by now to let them know what it meant for us: four hats brought the steady minimum of just enough customers to pay for the produce order and five got them lined up around the block for the rest of the season.

After her shift that Friday, Sherry took a flat full of old rotting tomatoes out into the parking lot and started throwing them against the back wall until they made a lovely flower pattern. I spent the afternoon smoking cigarettes out back and hosed the wall down before I came in.

My staff camped out in Pamela's dining room being hostile one night about a week later, but nothing really came of it. Juan showed up again and dry-heaved over our herbs a time or two more after that.

But then the war seemed to die out and I think everybody just moved on.

Originally from Florida, Kim MacQueen moved to Atlanta four years ago. She works at Georgia State University and lives in Cabbagetown with her husband, daughter and dog.

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