Connie pulled on the oversized handle and the heavy wooden door-perfectly balanced-opened smoothly. She slipped into the cool dim that was Umberto’s in the morning. It was her favorite time to be in the restaurant: three hours before service: yesterday’s smells a fragrant memory as today’s aromas are just beginning to seep from the kitchen where Antonio’s sauce for the day was simmering.
She walked past the bar and noticed with a start the stack of bills just lying there beside the register. Her heart sank and the warm glow in her chest turned heavy and cold. “Shit!” she whispered immediately looking around to see if anyone was there to see. She had closed last night and her last task was to count the register, make sure the money was right, and put it in the safe. She got it half done.
Connie was staring at the pile of Saturday night cash so intently trying so hard to remember what had distracted her that he didn’t notice Marie come up behind her.
“He told me to leave it there”, she said. “Let you see what he found when he walked in.”
“Christ, I don’t know what I did…if I heard something or what…?”
“You’ve seen it now. Best finish up what you were doing last night.”
Marie was the front-of-the-house queen and to diners in front-seemed to run the place. Just shy of fifty she had an ageless glow that comes from the confidence of, not only knowing your place in the universe, but mastering it. Ostensibly, her prime task was building the charcuterie boards that were Umberto’s best-selling appetizers. She worked behind the bar in full view-surrounded by hanging meats, cheese wheels, knives and slicers.
She wore the Umberto uniform of white logo T-shirt and black jeans. But instead of the apron that wrapped to the hip-bones…revealing jean-clad tushies pushing out as from behind a curtain, she wore a short chef’s coat that hung no lower than her belt, unbuttoned half way down her chest. There was nothing about her body, top or bottom, that she felt a need to hide.
“Jesus, Marie”, Connie hissed through gritted teeth. “This is bad…”
“Is he pissed?”
“You know Chef…he shook his head. I wished I’d have stayed late to help…”
“No. Don’t be silly. This is my fault.” She bagged the money and set it back on the bar when Antonio stepped into the archway.
“So, is the money right?”
“Yes, chef. It’s right.”
“Just a quick note, if you’re going to leave it on the bar, probably best just to leave it in the register.”
“Yes, chef. I’m sorry….I”
There’s an old saw in the business that you don’t trust a skinny chef. Antonio wasn’t skinny-was once, but not now. His wife’s family own a gym and some of he and Deena’s first dates were there-bonding over dumbbells, as it were. Like a good border-line obsessive, Chef Antonio took to weight training like a starving man to food. Now, standing there in his black V-neck reflecting the V from his shoulders to his waist with the trimmed salt and pepper beard and hair combed straight back he looked like an out-of-place model doing a shoot in a kitchen.
“Did you bring the change?”
Connie lived closest of the three to the only bank around the lake that was open on Sundays. She would typically stop and get a couple hundred dollars in ones and fives for the day.
“You forgot the change.” It was pointedly not a question-which was good because she had no answer for him. Marie slipped a step or two further into the background as the silence seemed to dim the lights. “Now or later?” he asked sternly. The air left the room and it seemed to get warm. Marie dropped her eyes and put an elbow on the bar. Sunday was a short day with a limited menu, but they were close to opening and had a lot to do.
“I really have to run to get that change”, Connie said meeting his sharp eyes with her own puddling.
“Later then.” He turned on his heel and was back to the kitchen.
Marie cleared her throat. “Better this way. He’ll calm down a little.”
Skittish, Connie turned too quickly and knocked a French Press pot off the bar with her elbow. It landed with a shattering crash but happily it fell into the dirty dish bin.
“NOW WHAT?” came a roar from the kitchen.
“Nothing Chef” yelled Marie quickly. “I broke a glass-I got it.” Then quieter, “Jesus, girl. Settle. The die is cast. You want a Xanax or something?”
“A Xanax is not what I need.”
“I know, I know. Hold it together for today-You’ll get what you need. Now get out of here before we’re both in trouble!” She pushed her toward the door with a quick little smack on her jeans.
(To Be Continued….)