Frank by Andrea Marcusa
Worst day of my life? Three years ago, I was piping crème fraiche onto a chocolate mousse when the quake hit. People in the Bay Area always talk about earthquakes, and tremors are a fact of life, but I never really believed one would collapse a building around me. Frank, my boss, had just yelled to speed up because a twelve-dollar dessert wasn’t an f-ing Picasso. He always rushed me and Jimmy, the other cook, because the restaurant was leaking money. Believe me, he could let it rip. But it was Frank who gave me my job and taught me the restaurant business, which he knew better than anything else, since he’d lived and worked in it since he was twelve.
Frank’s wicked bad temper made other cooks walk out, but not me. I loved everything about that kitchen, even taking the veins out of shrimp, deveining as Frank would say, and chopping a mountain of vegetables for Cioppino. In all my life, Frank was the only person who ever saw something worthwhile in me. I’d arrived on the Coast with no skills, family, money and a string of dead end jobs – hedge cutter, drying hubcaps and windshields, gophering at a muffler place. Frank said I was smart and that he needed someone smart. No one ever said that to me before – not in the way he did – like I was worth something. He told me to work my tail off and get in on time and that one day I’d have something. I believed him. You believed him. He was just that way.
We’d been packed earlier in the night and were late finishing up the last of the dinner tables, the stragglers. The hostess and the busboys had already gone home. I glanced at the clock and saw that it was past midnight and was looking forward to closing and kicking back with a beer. Then, that very same clock crashed to the floor and broke open. I felt something buzzing in my feet and the parfait glass of chocolate mousse slid down the counter. Frank barged through the swinging door from the dining room with this holy crap look on his face and then made a dive for the exit to the stairwell. He yanked the door open and shouted, “Come on!”
I was right behind him, and then looked back at Jimmy, who was across the kitchen near the convection oven and yelled, “J, over here!”
I don’t know if hiding in a stairwell is where you are supposed to go during an earthquake, but I figured Frank did. He’d inherited the restaurant from his father in 1980 and had talked about other quakes he’d lived through. The shaking was really bad and the noise rumbled like a freight train in my ears. We went down three steps and crouched. I held on to the railing and was scared stiff it would rip out of the wall. I kept looking toward the door for Jimmy thinking that he would make it out. But he didn’t. Then this thundering sound roared even louder and wind blew dust everywhere. I pulled my apron up over my head and put my head between my knees, which seemed like the right thing to do, even though I had no idea if it was. The sound and the shaking seemed to last for hours, but I learned later it was only a few minutes. Dust and grit were in my eyes, my nose, ears and even crunched between my teeth.
As soon as it stopped, we were both on our feet. I started toward the rear door loading area to get out of that house of cards but Frank yelled to go back to the kitchen. Like it was still my work shift and we would be open for dinner the next day, which wasn’t going to happen. Still, I followed him. I don’t really know why I did. But there was never a time that I didn’t follow him. That was the deal. And maybe somewhere in me I thought that things would go back to the way they were and one day those words that Frank had said to me last summer–that he’d make me a partner one day or open up another place across the Bay that I’d manage–would become a reality. The shaking and broken walls had left the door to the kitchen ajar, and the two of us squeezed through. Inside, most of the windows had blown out. Glass was everywhere and I smelled leaking gas. A pot had fallen out of the refrigerator and tipped over making a puddle of pea soup on the floor, all the clean dishes had fallen, broken and were scattered about.
I looked around for Jimmy, calling his name. Through the dust I saw him on the ground, no sound or movement. He lay next to the freezer; the convection oven had fallen on his chest. The two of us had worked together ten hours a day, six days a week for the last three months and we’d always had each other’s’ backs, ringing up checks, distracting Frank so he wouldn’t see when a customer sent an order back, making sure the dishes came out in the right sequence. I started toward Jimmy to help him, but Frank said, “Not now!” and then signaled me toward the swinging door to the dining room. I couldn’t understand why we weren’t helping Jimmy but I just sort of assumed that Frank had a good reason. He’d been through quakes before and he had a way of taking charge, of saying things in a voice that got me to do things. If I didn’t, he’d have been sent me on my way a long time ago.
The door to the dining room was jammed until Frank reached around and shoved the bus cart out of the way. Inside, the entire side wall had caved in on a row of tables and flattened them. I crawled over the rubble toward the patrons. The first one I got to was an elderly man with scared blue-grey eyes that I can still see today. I turned to Frank and saw him crouched down beside a woman.
“Where’s the register?” Frank asked.
I was so intent on helping the man that Frank’s question barely penetrated. I made up an answer to get rid of him, “I don’t know – under there?” I pointed to where most of the wall had come down.
“How many cash meals did you ring up?”
“None,” I said.
Frank was one of those people who live and breathed work, his mind always ticking. We were surrounded by hurt or dead people and Frank was calculating dollars. The old man who was lying there in front of me closed his eyes and lost consciousness. There wasn’t much I could do. He was stuck under a big piece of wall that would take hours to move. I edged toward Frank and looked at the woman beside him. She had ordered the salmon special earlier and now she was out cold. I felt her neck. No pulse. “Shit.”
I looked down at her face. On the soft smooth skin lay a thick l coating of dust, especially her lips and eyelashes. I wanted to wipe off all the dirt from her face, but my hands were covered with the same grime. Every time I breathed through my mouth, I coughed. Instead, I tried to think of a prayer to say, to mark her passing. But I didn’t know any. Frank picked up her hand and held it in his large palm. I was still struggling to think of the right words when Frank began working off the gold and pearl ring from her finger. Next he unfastened her bracelet and yanked the gold chain from her neck. He began to crawl over the rubble toward another patron. “Over there,” he said.
I looked at him. I could take just about any kind of crap from Frank but this was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I wanted to say something but my tongue was stuck. I wanted to go back to the kitchen to help Jimmy. But walls were down all around me, tables were upside down, and the lights were out except for the creepy, shadowy, emergency ones. Frank knew things that I didn’t. It was just how he was. He always saw more than I could. So I stayed there with him. It was as if he had a hold over me that I couldn’t shake.
I think he sensed something because he softened up his tone. I’d seen it a million times before.
“It’s okay, Jesse,” he said. “Nothing’s going to happen.”
He was so off about me. He thought I was scared about getting caught. I was so made but I looked in his direction anyway.
“Get over there and get that one done,” he said.
I made my way toward a large brown pocketbook with buckles and zippers. When we finished with this we’d find Jimmy out the back and get him help. Inside the purse there was a bag holding makeup, a scarf, a hairbrush, a paperback book and then the phone lit up and started going off. I heard weak cries and then a moan coming from somewhere else in the building. Maybe it was even Jimmy in the kitchen. I felt Frank staring at me so I picked up the wallet and grabbed the cash, $150 bucks.
There had only been a handful of customers when the quake hit and Frank was moving through them quickly. He was already done with the woman’s dinner partner, a man in a suit with a wallet in the left breast pocket of his jacket. Some on the patrons were totally covered with rubble. Others were knocked out cold or dead, I don’t know. I moved toward Frank and he tossed a purse at me.
“Just take the cash,” he said. There was something totally wrong with what I was doing, but at the same time, something was happening to me. The first time I took something, it felt bad. The next time it wasn’t so bad, and then it changed. I started to get caught up in it. The more the wad of cash grew and the heavier the gold jewelry and watches felt in my pants’ pockets, the more excited I was getting. It was this feeling like I was fill up on something that I’d never been able to have until now. It was like when you are really hungry and are at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. You keep eating and eating way past being full. I moved to a woman and felt for a pulse, found none, and then yanked off her thin gold chain and pendant, then found the other one, the thicker one and yanked that one off, too.
We worked our way through all the purses and wallets and jewelry that we could find. When I got back to the old man, he was still out, but breathing. When I saw his face, it made me feel bad. Like he could see what I’d done. I left his gold wedding band on his finger and moved his jacket over his hand so Frank wouldn’t see.
“Did you get his wallet and ring?” Frank asked. Just like him, never missing a chance to show me that I’m messing up and then bossing me around.
“He’s an old guy Frank.”
He stared at me. The expression said: don’t be an idiot candy-ass. He looked like he might kill me, like he’d saved up every one of his temper tantrums and was about to strike with all his might. Then his expression changed and he began to act like the friendly man who greeted and seated customers every evening– all smiles. “Jesse, this is to tie us over until we reopen. It’ll take weeks probably months for the insurance,” he said. “No one will find out. You won’t get in trouble.”
His words struck me in the gut. I couldn’t imagine the restaurant shut for even a day. Every morning I was out of bed and in a rush to open the doors by 10:00 A.M. to meet Martin who delivered our beef and poultry, or to let the PG&E guy read the electricity meter. Or I was breaking down the stove and making the stainless shine, and joking with Jimmy. I loved it, always felt alive when I was there rushing around, blanching beans, chopping onions, garnishing plates, reciting the specials to customers and answering their questions, even when I made it up. There was nothing like the quiet after a busy night when we’d sold all the specials and had finished cleaning up and Frank poured three beers and we laughed about the customers, like the woman who believed Frank when he told her that pastrami was a rare kind of wild pig.
Frank stood up a chair, pulled himself off the floor, sat in it and began counting the cash that he’d collected. “How much you got?” he asked. His eyes shown like he was celebrating a win in a Super Bowl pool. Not like someone who was surrounded by corpses. I’d always thought of Frank like a mean-tempered father. Someone who gave me a break when there were few to be found. And because of this, I’d always made excuses. But at that moment, I felt sick watching him, like I was going to heave-ho right there all over the rubble. I’d never had the guts to stand up to Frank and now this was worse, a whole lot worse than those gulls that feed off the dead sea lions that the tide brings in at Aquatic Park beach or the critters I’ve seen wiggling around in a spoiled piece of pork that Frank made me show Martin so we could get our money back.
I reached into the old man’s jacket, and felt the warmth of his body there under the fabric and tossed the wallet toward Frank. And just like Frank, he shot a pissed off look back, because I’d thrown it rather than handed it to him. The building trembled, the floor and walls stuttered, and dust started to kick up all over again. That motion shook me, really shook me, like I was suddenly woken up. “I’m getting out of here,” I said and began crawling back over the fallen ceiling tiles, the broken pieces of stucco from the walls. I went as fast as I could, sort of like half running and crawling around tipped over chairs, over shards of glass, not feeling a cut or a scrape or a bruise or anything, not hearing, not listening, just concentrating on getting out. All I could think of was that I had to get away from Frank, had to get outside. I squeezed through the door to the kitchen, scrambled toward the back door to the stairwell and then rushed out the back into the totally black, cold, damp air.
Here’s the thing that bothers me the most: I never stopped to see if Jimmy was okay. Never stopped to see if he was alive or dead. Never called someone to help that old man. I just got out of there and away.
Andrea Marcusa is a fiction and essay writer. Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Ontario Review, The Antigonish Review, Copper Nickel, NewSouth,and other publications. Her work appeared in the essay collection, In the Fullness of Time (Simon and Schuster,) she was a finalist in the Ontario Review’s 2007 fiction competition, and winner of the Antigonish Review 2008 Fiction competition. She divides her time between writing fiction and essays and working in the areas of health care and sustainable agriculture. She lives in New York City with her husband, two sons and pet cockatiel, Turko.