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86'd 

First place winner

Page 3 of 4

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?"

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