I learned Sylvie had died from her niece Naomi who felt obligated to make the call though we’d been estranged for years. She knew the old woman had loved me and thought I should know though she didn’t call until Sylvie was in the ground.
It was the latest volley in an imaginary battle for a woman’s limitless affections. Sylvie had enough for everyone, something truly limited people could not fathom. She had hired me back in the day-when the neighborhood turned and she wanted someone more substantial than her niece behind the bar. A sin I didn’t commit but was never forgiven.
I graduated from the bar to the kitchen, where Sylie taught me everything I needed to know, which was nowhere near everything she knew. Her chicken cacciatore became my specialty and her sauce was indistinguishable from mine. Naomi stayed jealous though she had no real interest in cooking.
She stayed as a waitress and in the beginning our battles were waged sotto voce in hisses and snarls and stares. Then grabs and pushes, unseen slaps, until our area of operations moved out of sight into the storage room after hours where an old couch had been reclaimed for late night crashing. Actual fighting would have been less damning and damaging. That came later, after Naomi had heard that I was selling coke across the bar and threatened to tell her aunt. It was an old story and a one-time mistake borne of poverty and the need of a quick score, but my embarrassment at being found out and fear of the loss of Sylvie’s trust brought a collapsing wave of desperation that sucked all reason out of my head. .
Later I would remember hitting her. It would come to me in flashes like one of those old timey crank kinetoscope viewers they had in arcades back then. First she is standing there with her arms straight down at her sides, fists clenched, defiant and perhaps a little afraid. Then my right fist lashes out and connects with her jaw. At the last moment, realizing what was happening, I pulled the punch hitting her just hard enough to drop her solidly on her bottom. She sat on the floor blinking and wagging her head from side to side like a confused puppy.
Almost as stunned as Naomi, I quickly extended my now open right hand. She took it and rose unsteadily to her feet. A cursory glance showed no blood nor outward evidence of damage. Pulling the punch had saved us both. Assuming, of course, that our regular angry coupling was off for the evening I tried to fashion some words of apology and mortification. Before I could open my mouth she said, “I’m sorry”, her eyes dulled and full.
She withdrew her threat to expose me to Sylvie-such a breach of confidence, that a punch to the jaw was not just warranted but desired. The tears overfilled and ran down her cheeks in two glistening streams, one of which I thumbed, leaving the other to drip off her chin before she wiped at it with the back of her hand.
I was moving toward the door when she said, “You can’t just leave.” I didn’t know what was left to do until she turned and lowered her jeans and rolled her panties after them. She bent over a stack of beer cases. “I don’t want the last touch from you today to be a punch.” It was the only sex in our roughly six month tryst that could be even remotely described as tender. Or as tender as banging one out in a storeroom over a stack of beer cases can be.
The next day she showed up wearing more makeup than usual to cover the bruise that had bloomed on her jaw overnight. She leaned in. “Never hit me again where others can see”, she said firmly, writing the script for our time together.
When Sylvie stepped away in her eighties, she rightly sold the place to Naomi, who seemed well suited to be an owner; maybe only because she was no more than marginal at most other things. I stayed on, cooking, refining the dishes, tweaking the menu, tending bar, doing the necessary things to keep Sylvie’s Bar and Lounge moving forward. Our affair, such as it was, cooled, then over a short time, disappeared. Burned out, more likely.
Not too long after I stepped into the kitchen on a Thursday morning ready to make my orders for the weekend and prep for the lunch trade. The lights were on and coffee was brewing. A woman was standing, her back to the door. She was slender and rangy wearing snug black jeans and a white T-shirt. Her red hair was thick and short, brushed straight back and as she turned revealed a full sleeve tattoo on her left arm. She extended her right hand and went to introduce herself.
“I know who you are”, I said, taking her hand firmly. Monica Perez was a chef at Tim’s Hideout, a steak joint out on the highway. She was until very recently it seemed. I looked around the kitchen where I’d spent so much time and it suddenly looked foreign to me. That’s how I knew I’d been replaced. I had splurged on my own set of knives which I gathered and wrapped in their canvas.
“Chef…” She began.
“Tony”, I answered. “You’re a chef. I’m a cook.”
“I’ve eaten here.” She said, trying.
“The food?” I asked, having none of it. She winced slightly leaving me surprised and embarrassed, And surprised that i was embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. My bad. Getting fucked before coffee makes me grumpy.” I said, heading for the door.
“Wait” She said. “You know Katie’s Corner uptown? “They need a che…”she stopped herself. “A cook of your experience. Talk to Kate. Katie Sole. If you’re going I’ll call her.”
To be continued…