I’m going to kill Harold.
While I’m at it, maybe I’ll kill my father, too. They’re the ones who got me into this mess. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be standing in a swank twenty-table dining room, wondering if the wineglasses are going to shatter.
“Whoever puts wilted flowers on a table is crazy! Should go to an asylum!”
My new boss, Gina, paces back and forth in stilettos and tight jeans, waving a limp white bloom. “How many languages I have to tell you in?” she shouts in a heavy Italian accent. “What did I do to deserve this?”
I stand frozen in a line of waiters, asking myself the same thing. What exactly did I do? Oh, that’s right. Four months after being laid off, I let Harold, my father’s golf buddy and one of the biggest liquor distributors in the state, talk me into taking a job at a “hot spot” called Roulette. “The owners are customers of mine, real sweethearts. And your dad tells me you can practically run a restaurant single-handedly.”
Single-handedly? Did my father really think that I, a former marketing manager, could wait tables at one of the best restaurants in Manhattan? Did he honestly believe that a college summer serving chowder prepared me for this?
“Answer me!” Gina shrieks.
I jump. Somebody answer her. Please.
“The florist has really been slipping lately,” says Cato, the waiter who’s been assigned to train me. He has a spiky blond crew cut and wears a T-shirt that says Queen for a Day.
“I don’t care! Is your job to choose what goes on the table!”
“It won’t happen again, we promise,” says Ron. His deeply lined face and humble manner say “waiter for life.”
Gina tosses the flower onto the scrolled carpeting. “I can’t run a business with promises. In my country, is different. A waiter spends his own money before he gives dead plants to a guest. I turn my back for one lousy minute and what happens? Everything goes to shit!”
I step closer to Cato, hoping to make myself invisible, but catch Gina’s attention instead. “Ah,” she says, leaning forward to get a look at me. She’s older than I thought, probably in her early forties. “You must be the new girl. The one Harold sent us.”
“Erin Edwards,” I say, my voice shaking. “Nice to meet you.”
She smiles and extends a skeletal hand. “Gina Runyan. You know Harold and Brenda a long time, I hear.”
“Most of my life. I used to house-sit for them when I was younger.” I don’t mention that their cat ate Cheetos on my watch or that I hosted a three-day party for my senior class while Harold and his wife bicycled around County Clare.
“For other people we make two interviews and a background check, but Harold brought us Ramon, our best prep cook, and he says we’ll be happy with you the same way.”
Gina tilts her head and her waist-length dark hair swings out to one side. “What size you are?”
“Uh . . . six, usually.”
“You look more like eight to me. We give you a nice uniform. I hope it fits.”
Eight? “I’ll try to squeeze into it.”
“Is not easy being a woman, I know.” Gina gestures to Cato. “This shirt you wear. You have a mirror at home? Purple is no good on you.”
Cato’s expression is calm and flat. “You’re right. I look better in earth tones.”
Everyone waits in silence while Gina moves from table to table, scrutinizing each centerpiece. Finally allowing myself to breathe, I glance around the dining room and take in my surroundings for the first time: cathedral ceiling, huge multi-colored chandelier, red velvet banquettes, walls covered in striped silver silk. It looks like three different designers ran wild and went way over budget.
“Mama!” Gina sets down the last crystal vase as a frail little boy runs into the dining room. He wears a navy blue school uniform and carries an overstuffed backpack.
“Nino!” she says, throwing out her arms. “How was your kindergarten today?”
He drops the backpack and flings himself against her narrow thighs. “Okay.”
“Just okay? We pay a lot to get you in that school. You must like it.” She turns his head with her hands. “Say hello to Erin. She starts working tonight.”
“Hi,” he says in a small voice.
“Hello there. How are you?”
He studies me with suspicious brown eyes. “Daddy says boys make more money than girls.”
“Hush now!” Gina snaps. She gives me an apologetic smile. “He doesn’t know what he says. Come on, Nino. You want a soda and some ice cream?” She takes his hand and pulls him toward a lounge filled with smoky glass tables and black leather club chairs.
“What, I don’t get any ice cream?” Derek says when she’s out of earshot. He has a wrestler’s build and a deep, penetrating voice. One of his pant legs is rolled up, revealing a calf streaked with bicycle grease.
Jane, the only woman on the crew, grabs the wilted flower off the floor. “That’s it. Feed the kid sugar so he’s too wired to notice that Mom’s psycho.”
“Welcome to the family, Erin,” Cato says. “Come on. Let’s get you that uniform.”
I trot to keep up as he leads me to the back of the dining room and down a slate-floored hallway. “So, what do you know about Roulette?” he says over his shoulder.
“Not much. Just what Harold told me.” He doesn’t need to know about the two anxious hours I spent digging up information I found on Google last night:
Roulette’s chef was first in his class at CIA, and cut his teeth at Le Bernardin under the late Gilbert Le Coze. . . . He combines French technique, a modernist edge, and an endless imagination, making New American food new again. . . . The wine cellar includes such treasures as a 1971 Pétrus Pomerol that orbited Earth on the Soyuz spacecraft. . . .
“We’re one of the top-five reservations in the city right now,” Cato says. “That means no slow nights and no empty tables. I hope you’re ready to work.”
With a tower of bills sitting on my coffee table? “Absolutely. As much as I can.” Anything to hang on to the rent-stabilized one bedroom I used to take for granted.
“That’s what I like to hear.”
He pushes open a pair of swinging doors and we step into the kitchen. “This,” he says, “is the center of our little universe.” I stop, momentarily stunned by acres of glittering white tile and stainless steel. The room throbs with the metal-on-metal clang of pots hitting burners, the drone of exhaust fans, and the loud voices of cooks. At least a dozen of them work at massive, steaming stoves; racks of well-scrubbed pans dangle from the ceiling.
“Guys, I want you to meet Erin,” Cato shouts.
They glance over and I give them a little wave that I instantly regret. “Hi.”
Cato starts reeling off names and positions, as if words like garde-manger and poissonier were actually in my vocabulary. I try to make up sayings in my head so I won’t forget anybody, but give up after “Lorenzo the sauce guy” and “hope-he’s-single Phil,” a grill cook with thick, bristly brown hair and blue eyes. Strange that I never thought of white double-breasted jackets as hot until this very moment.
“Carl won’t be here until the staff meeting at five,” Cato tells me.
“Carl. The chef?”
“Chef, commandant, demigod, take your pick. I prefer ‘food fascist,’ but what you call him is totally up to you.”
We start up a steep flight of stairs at the back of the kitchen. Each step is lined with slip-proof tape, and the walls are scuffed and splashed with what looks like dried coffee. “You haven’t met Steve, have you?” Cato asks.
“Then get ready. ’Cause you’re about to.” We turn at the top of the stairs and stop at a partially closed door marked “Office.” Cato knocks twice. “Steve?”
A muffled groan comes from inside. “Yup!”
I see a fleshy bare back, followed by a towel-covered rump, hairy legs, and brown loafers. Steve is lying on a massage table, his face pointed at the floor. The masseur, a muscular man in drawstring pants and Birkenstocks, looks irritated. “Can’t it wait? He’s finally starting to relax.”
“Just need to introduce Erin,” Cato says.
Steve raises his head and turns a slack cheek toward me. “Hi,” he says, straining to sound friendly. “I forgot you were coming today. Cato showing you around?”
“Yes,” I say. “Your restaurant is beautiful.”
“Better be. Cost enough to decorate. We have my wife to thank for that.” He slides over an inch and settles down heavily. “I’ll talk to you more in a bit. Right now, I need Alex to work last night’s party of twenty out of my shoulders.”
“Sure. That’s fine.”
Cato takes my elbow and guides me out of the office. “Sorry. I forgot Thursday was massage day.” He takes me to the end of the hall and ducks under a low doorway. “Well, here it is. The last frontier. I keep meaning to bring in some plants to liven up the place, but I’ve been so busy with acting classes and all.”
A row of metal lockers fills one wall of the cramped room, which is made even smaller by a slanted ceiling. Several chairs with blown-out seams sit around an old card table. A dented silver candlestick holds open the only window, letting in humid September air and traffic noise from Madison Avenue. The place reeks of sweat and cigarette smoke.
Cato opens a narrow closet and pulls out a slim black skirt and a white shirt with ruched sides. “Armani,” he says, handing them to me. “Ruin ’em and you’re out six hundred bucks.”
“What’d you expect, J. Crew? I’ve only been here a year and I’m already on shirt number three.” He feels around the top shelf, then tosses me a package of black tights. “Here’s a starter pair. You’ll be putting them through heavy rotation, so you’d better stock up.”
“I will,” I say, planning to quit long before they wear out.
He takes a dark gray suit and lilac silk tie from a locker and drapes them over the back of a chair. “I’ll look the other way if you want,” he says, unzipping his jeans. “Otherwise just go ahead and strip. That’s what the rest of us do.”
We change in awkward silence. Uh-oh. I guess I am a size eight. When I turn around, Cato is no longer a would-be actor with a side job, but a polished, professional waiter. Even his crew cut seems stylish instead of funky. He punches in for both of us, then hesitates, frowning at my ballet flats. “You brought different shoes, I hope.”
I look down. “Why? I’m supposed to wear black ones, right?”
“Yeah, but you know how it is when service starts. Stuff falls all over, the kitchen floor gets slippery . . . If you’re not wearing rubber soles, you get airmailed.”
“I’ve never had a problem with them before, but . . . okay. I’ll wear different shoes tomorrow.”
“Good. See you downstairs.”
After he leaves, I stand in my uniform in front of the smeared full-length mirror. This is not how I pictured myself looking at twenty-eight. The glass is warped, making my small chin disappear and my hazel eyes seem farther apart. Even my hair is different—more red than light brown. Considering what I’m about to do, it seems fitting that I hardly recognize myself.
Maybe this is some kind of karma. My restaurant etiquette was never the best, even when I was earning a lot of money and eating out three nights a week. I made a habit of changing tables, leaving fifteen percent to the penny, and booking multiple reservations before choosing one at the last minute. Though I wouldn’t have admitted it, I felt a little superior to waiters, never dreaming that I’d end up becoming one. I was too smart for restaurant work, too confident that another marketing company would snap me up. I turned down three jobs because the salaries were low and the positions beneath me. That was more than two months ago.
What an idiot I was. It would have been humbling to work as an assistant again, but at least I’d be wearing my own clothes.
“You used to have such promise,” I mutter. “Look at you now.”
Fold corners to center line . . . turn over and rotate one-quarter turn . . .
After forty-five minutes of polishing silverware, scrubbing baseboards, and steaming wineglasses with a portable humidifier, I’m folding napkins into peaked shapes called bishop’s mitres. Despite Cato’s detailed lesson, I’ve produced some very unholy results. How could I have eaten out so many times and never noticed the napkins? Have they always been this complicated? If I can’t even fold napkins, how will I ever learn to wait tables?
. . . bring bottom edge up to top edge . . .
I slowly work through a mound of linen while the other waiters triple-check their sections. They squint at the tables from every possible angle, micro-adjusting spoons and sliding wineglasses a millimeter to the left. Ron stares at a red-and-white abstract painting, closes one eye, then taps on the upper corner. “There. That’s better.”
Six napkins down, dozens and dozens to go. “They were fighting earlier,” Jane says behind me. “Gina wants her mother to come live with them, but he won’t budge.”
Cato snickers. “Ten bucks she moves in by October.”
“Think they’ll end up getting divorced?”
“Gina wouldn’t dare offend the pope.”
“Knock it off,” Ron says. “Their personal life is none of our business.”
“I know. That’s why it’s so interesting,” Cato answers.
I hear a faint ring and glance up to see Derek pulling a cell phone from his trouser pocket. He snaps it open and ducks into the hallway. “Gimme a break,” he says. “Maybe if I get two more jobs and sell a kidney I’ll be able to afford commercial space in Manhattan. Try again.”
“That guy’s insane,” Jane says. She has blunt, eye-skimming bangs and skin that looks like it’s never seen the sun.
“He’s the only waiter I know who’s dumb enough to want to open a restaurant and stubborn enough to make it happen,” Cato says. He leans over my shoulder and surveys my progress. “Better pick it up or you’ll be folding napkins until you hit menopause. Here, pass me some of those.”
I push a pile of linen in his direction and shift from foot to foot. After only an hour on the job, my arches are throbbing. I start to lower myself into one of the velvet-cushioned chairs, but Cato reaches out and swoops me back up to a standing position. “Uh-uh. We don’t sit down when Gina’s here. Ever.”
“No leaning, either, unless you’re off the clock,” Ron adds, grabbing some napkins and heading for the lounge.
As we fold, Cato points out various employees and describes their functions and personalities. “Omar, head busboy, sends all his money back to Veracruz. . . . Kimberly, also known as Stepford Hostess. Answers to ‘Mario Testino at table two.’ . . . Alain, our French lady-killer bartender. He’s the fantasy of half the women on the East Side, single, married, or status unknown. . . . Chen and Luis, our food runners. Chen taught economics in China. Luis has the worst temper this side of the Pecos. . . . The guy with the little black glasses is Geoffrey, our sommelier. He has a genius IQ and can give you vintage statistics for the past hundred years. The cocktail waitress gets here at six. The lounge is her turf, so watch out or she’ll steal your chardonnay.”
“I could use help leveling tables in here,” Ron calls.
“Sorry, man, I’m trying to get a wicked stain out of the rug,” Derek says from under the front window.
Cato rolls his eyes. “This place would fall apart without me. Think you can finish the napkins on your own, Erin?”
I tell him what any waiter burdened with the new kid wants to hear: “I can handle it.”
“Great. Stick them in the cabinet under the wait station and meet us in the kitchen for the staff meeting in ten minutes. Whatever you do, don’t be late.”
“I won’t be.” But as soon as he’s out of sight, I start to wonder if I’ll be done by morning. The napkins seem to multiply as I fold them, and for every good one there are two that are lopsided or deformed. Bring the corners together, tuck one into the other . . . damn bishops. I glance at my watch. Approximately thirty napkins divided by seven minutes is . . . impossible. I’ll have to go faster.
One by one the waiters leave the dining room and walk toward the kitchen. I fold as if the place is on fire, and with only ninety seconds to spare I scoop the napkins into my arms and look around wildly for a mahogany hutch. It was near the kitchen, wasn’t it? I run into the hallway, pinning the hats with my chin. Maybe it’s behind that door. I stumble inside and find Steve, wearing a white terry-cloth robe and plastic sandals. He’s sitting in what appears to be a private dining room, a balloon glass of red wine and the Robb Report on the table in front of him. “What the hell are you doing?” he asks.
“Trying to find the wait station,” I say, horrified.
“You went right by it.” His voice is tinged with irritation. “It’s ten steps to your left.”
“Close the door on your way out.”
I free one arm and shut the door too hard, nearly dropping my entire load. Racing back the way I came, I see Cato, Jane, and Ron striding into the kitchen with Derek on their heels. I locate the hutch, yank open the cabinet, and start madly piling in napkins. Maybe it’s the fact that half of them have collapsed, but they’re not stacking well. At all.
“Come on, come on,” I mutter, abandoning hope and stuffing them in pell-mell. I push the cabinet closed, get to my feet, and sprint toward the kitchen. As I round the corner I look back and see a crushed bishop’s mitre lying on its side in the middle of the hallway, where Steve is sure to find it. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.
I shove open the swinging doors and burst into the kitchen, arriving out of breath and—oh shit. Late.
From the Hardcover edition.