All That Glitters
I pulled my car into the parking lot at work, turned off the radio and cut the engine. Outside, it was the tail end of a fantastic afternoon and the first really warm day of spring, which made the impending end of the semester finally feel real. It was also the kind of day that made a college kid want to pull right out of the parking lot and spend what was left of it doing anything but work. I took a deep breath and let it out. "Showtime," I whispered.
I exited the car, walked across the lot to the rear door of the kitchen, checking my watch as I did. Damn, it was 4:20. I walked into the kitchen and there was my buddy Gary chopping vegetables on a long, stainless steel counter. AC/DC blasted from a boom box set on the counter.
Still chopping, Gary looked up from the cutting board, threw me a crooked grin and shook his head. "He’s been asking about you."
I rolled my eyes. "I figured. What did you tell him?"
Gary shrugged. "Said you’d get here when you damn well felt like it."
I glanced down at his hands, which, with the help of a large chopping knife, were making short work of a long carrot. "How did you learn to be a smart ass and chop vegetables at the same time?"
Gary grinned. "This place’ll make you good at both."
Since high school, Gary had worked part-time here in the dining hall of the George Meaney Center for Labor Studies and began recommending friends for jobs as they came up. It was a great part-time job for a student. The work was straightforward—making salads, cutting pies, setting tables, then running the food from the kitchen to the serving line. The dining room served union officials attending week-long continuing-education sessions on labor relations and union policies. The students were unfailingly polite, not to mention every few months the flight attendants union rolled through, the leadership of which was female and frequently gorgeous.
After dinner, we bussed the tables, washed the pots and dishes, cleaned the kitchen, reset the tables and got the place ready for the breakfast shift. We came in at four o’clock and were out of there by nine-thirty, ten o’clock at the latest, early enough not to interfere with early classes or dates. The job paid union-scale wages, too?seven bucks an hour, not bad considering minimum wage was half that. Plus, we were fed every shift, and not the dregs that other restaurants shoved at their staff, but whatever was being served that night, and as much as we could wolf down. For a twenty year old with an appetite as relentless as a 180-pound ravenous termite, that was a major selling point. Hell, when we worked the Sunday shift, we got New York strip steaks, cooked to order.
Yes, the job could have been just perfect. But as I’d already learned, there was almost always a catch. And, in this case, the catch existed in the form of Billie Dennis, the Center’s food service manager and my boss, a mercurial gay man who was currently sitting in his office on the far side of the kitchen waiting to jump all over me for being twenty minutes late. Mr. Dennis ran the place like one of those banana republic dictators. Just one thing out of place or not done just the way he wanted it, and was duck and cover time.
There was the time a food inspector found an uncovered container of salad dressing in the walk-in refrigerator, which cost the place a perfect one-hundred inspection score. After the inspector left, Mr. Dennis went berserk, pulling every container off the shelves of the walk-in down onto the floor, throwing pots and pans around the kitchen all the while screaming he was going to kill the motherfucker who left that salad dressing container open. That night, Mr. Dennis kept us there until after midnight, putting the place back together, scrubbing everything down, including the heavy rubber honeycomb mats in the kitchen which we had to work on with toothbrushes.
Everyone who worked here had, at one time or another, come under the gun. Once, while carrying a full tureen of pea soup St. Germaine (God help you if you left off the St. Germaine when describing it to the guests) from the kitchen to the dining room, Gary slipped, spilling the whole green mess across the length of the kitchen floor. Mr. Dennis came running out of his office and let loose with his specialty, a blast of strung-together epithets and alliteration, calling him a "stupid, mealy-mouth, monkey-faced, mau-mau of a motherfucker."
Sometimes his tirades felt more like a show, as if he was playing the role of a bitchy queen in one of those drag reviews he did from time to time. The sight of Mr. Dennis?forty-something, short, a little paunchy, sporting a bad toupee and a touch of eyeliner—swishing through the kitchen throwing out insults left and right could be a hoot. When he was really angry, though, it was another story. I came to be able to read his moods, to know when it was okay to joke around, when a well-timed compliment could cut the legs out from under him. More importantly, I also sensed the times it was best to shut up and make myself as small a target as possible.
For all his drawbacks as a manager, Mr. Dennis also had a generous, almost fatherly side. On the occasion of Gary’s eighteenth birthday, Mr. Dennis took ten of us to dinner and paid for the whole thing. Granted, reservations were at the Eagle, the gay leather bar set in a section of D.C. that looked more like a set for a post-apocalyptic movie than the nation’s capitol. He had a special table set aside for us right in the middle of the dining room. Before we sat down to eat, he took us on the grand tour, including the bar, where a bank of wall-mounted TVs blared gay porn, and to the store down in the basement where they sold dildos, butt plugs, whips, and some stuff none of us could figure out. We tried to act cool and nonchalant, but ended up following Mr. Dennis around that place single file like little ducklings, trying to ignore the ogling we were getting from the old leather queens who had probably never seen that many young straight boys in one place since they’d been in high school. It was an odd experience, but I had to admit, the service was attentive and my steak was cooked to perfection.
By now, Gary had finished cutting up the salad and was wiping down the counter. "How is he?" I asked. "Really.
"Seems okay. Been holed up in his office since I got here. He’s got one of those shows coming up." He rolled his eyes. "Wait ‘till you get a load of the costume."
Good. The theatre was Mr. Dennis’ passion. When he was younger, he’d starred in some off-Broadway productions and he never let you forget it. The rigors of rehearsal tended to distract him and keep him relatively docile.
"Where do you need me?" I asked.
"Put the deserts out, then run the plates from lunch."
I nodded. I’d never admit it, but I found satisfaction in the knack I had for arranging the various pies and cakes in the display case just the way Mr. Dennis liked them—an aesthetically pleasing array of colors and textures. Doing dishes? Served me right for being late.
As I walked across the kitchen towards the changing rooms and Mr. Dennis’ office, I saw Frank Nolan’s enormous back looming over the big pot sink. At least I didn’t have pot duty anymore, that miserable job being reserved for the lowest man on the totem pole.
"Hey Frank, what’s up?" I said. Frank kept his hands in the sink but stopped his scrubbing long enough to turn part way towards me.
"What’s goin’ on," he said under his breath.
Frank Nolan was a year ahead of me, a junior, and had only been working here about a week. He’s was on full football scholarship at the University of Maryland, had made the all-ACC team at linebacker. There was even some buzz that he might have pro prospects. I was surprised Mr. Dennis hired him. Like most jocks, Frank was used to being the big fish. Plus, he didn’t really fit the profile. Something, probably childhood acne, had scarred up his face pretty badly. That alone should have cost him the job. There weren’t many formal requirements for working for Mr. Dennis, but there were some unspoken prerequisites?necessary conditions they’d have called them in my logic class. It wasn’t a pretty sight to see what Mr. Dennis did to those who weren’t a pretty sight.
About a year before, the head of the Teamsters union pulled some strings and Mr. Dennis was forced to hire, of all things, the guy’s daughter—as far as I know the first and only female who’s ever worked here. To make things worse (for Mr. Dennis, that is), she was our age and gorgeous. We were falling all over each other trying to help her carry things and do her work. I don’t know how Mr. Dennis pulled it off without getting his kneecaps broken by some Teamster henchman, but she was out of here faster than you could say Jimmy Hoffa.
You’d think Mr. Dennis would have chosen to pack his kitchen with gay boys, but, as far as I know, he never hired a single one. Best I could figure, we served as a sort of fantasy harem. Sometimes, Mr. Dennis’ buddies would pay him a visit and stand outside his office, drinking coffee and checking us out. It must have stoked his ego to have a stable of studs to show off to his pals. At first, it made me uncomfortable as hell to be sized up by a bunch of old queens, but, over time, I became, if not oblivious, at least accepting of it. It was a part of the job—like having to scrub those pots and pans.
Frank lifted a massive, steaming soup pot out of the rinse sink and set it next to him on the drying rack. He may not have fit the bill from the neck up, but, a couple of days earlier I’d seen him in the changing room with his shirt off and then I understood. The guy was built like a gladiator. He couldn’t fit into the largest shirts the uniform service provided us, so he had to bring his own white, short sleeved dress shirt he must have scored from a fire sale at body-builder’s convention. Football stud or not, though, Mr. Dennis’ kitchen was nothing if not egalitarian and Frank was stuck scouring those pots and pans, though I could tell he wasn’t one bit happy about it.
Just past the pot station was the main cooking island with a big, eight-burner cook top on one side, a grill and fry station on the other. In the center of it all, stirring something in a large sauté pan was Wendell, the evening shift cook and our union shop foreman. I caught a whiff of roasted meat. Wendell was a big black man, about fifty. He never said much, just did his job. He was his church’s chorus, and occasionally overcame his laconic tendencies by belting out gospels in a nice baritone. Whatever Wendell made of Mr. Dennis and his antics, he kept it to himself.
"Wendell, my man!" I said.
"Doin’fine, Doin’ fine," Wendell said. That’s what he always said when you greeted him, as though you’d asked him how he was, even though you hadn’t.
From inside Mr. Dennis’ office, I heard the tune he’d been singing for weeks:
Don’t cry for me Argentina
The truth is, I never left you . . .
The good news for me was that he was in his reverie, channeling Patti LuPone who was then starring in the first run of the musical, Evita. The bad news was that the uniform rack sat immediately outside his office, which meant that, no matter how much Mr. Dennis was caught up in the spirit of Eva Peron, there wasn’t a chance of sneaking past him. Too bad there wasn’t a piano in the office. More than once, I’d seen Mr. Dennis on the piano out in the employee lounge, doing a passable impersonation of Liberace, complete with flourishy arpeggios and limp-wristed runs. In those moments, consumed as he was by the fantasy of performing a Carnegie Hall, I could have strolled in at closing time and he’d never had noticed. With a little luck, though, I might just be able to use his image of himself as the Broadway ingénue to my advantage. As I reached the rack, I took a deep breath and turned to face the music.
Mr. Dennis’ office was small, with room for a desk which faced the door, a file cabinet and two chairs, which he had pushed out of the way to make room for a rolling garment rack supporting an enormous blue-sequined dress, fringed with black fur. He stood in front of it fussing with the collar with one hand and holding a cigarette, wrist cocked back, in the other. As soon as he saw me, his eyes shifted up to the wall clock hanging over the door.
"Where the hell have you been?" he said. He continued to fluff the wispy fur of the collar.
"I’m late," I said.
"I know you’re late. I asked where the hell you’ve been."
I was about to answer him, but he cut me off, using that that odd voice which combined Southern drawl and the clipped staccato of a Bostonian.
"I’m tired of all you mau-maus drifting in here whenever you want. I can see what’s happening. Time to start lighting a fire under some asses." He turned his attention back to the gown. "Even the cute ones," he added.
"Um, nice dress," I said. The compliment was a risky maneuver. If he was really angry, it could set him off.
He took a puff of his cigarette and blew it up at the ceiling through the corner of his mouth. "A dress? A dress is what you wear when you’re on the corner turning tricks." He took a step back and gave the costume a loving once-over with his eyes. "This, you Neanderthal, is a gown. A piece of art. A vision. As I will be two Saturdays from now."
Not knowing what to say, I said nothing.
He reached forward and fluffed the collar again. "Now get to work."
I turned, relieved at the success of my strategy, and sifted through the white uniforms hanging on the rack. I grabbed a pair of pants, then considered the shirts. A large would be more comfortable, but instead I chose a medium. I headed into the locker room, changed quickly, then stood in front of the mirror by the sink to button up the shirt.
I had to admit, I liked the way my chest bulged against the shirts buttons and the tautness of the sleeves against my arms. One of my housemates was a bodybuilder and he and I had been lifting weights at the college gym. I’ve been at it about a year, and, according to him, my body had responded quickly, a surprise considering how skinny I was as a kid. I’d noticed the extra attention from girls, and now when someone referred to me as "Big Guy," I knew they weren’t being sarcastic. Mr. Dennis had noticed, too, which was behind my decision to squeeze into this shirt. Better to have him checking out my arms than riding my ass.
I headed out of the locker room, past Mr. Dennis’ office, empty now except for the sequined dress which stared back at me like a glittery scare crow. From the kitchen, I heard him yell, "And turn off that goddamn noise!" Someone lowered the volume on the boom box.
I turned the corner into the kitchen where Mr. Dennis stood at the counter next to Gary.
"When are you straight boys going to appreciate some real music?" he said. "I’ve got half a mind to make Andrew Lloyd Weber required listening in this shit hole." The walk-in fridge was just past them, so I had to get by. Mr. Dennis noticed me coming and stopped talking to look me up and down.
"My, my," he said, low and lecherous. I could smell his cologne which, as always, was too sweet and too strong. "Tell me now, how can I stay mad at this."
He usually saved those kinds of remarks for the privacy of his office, not the middle of the kitchen, and especially not around Wendell. I squeezed past. I was almost to the walk-in when he said, in a voice loud enough to be heard across the entire kitchen, "Neee-kaaaay," (he had a peculiar way of stretching the syllables in my name) "you are wasting your time in college. Wouldn’t you make a fine pool boy instead? One day I’m going to have you by the deep end serving Mai-Tais wearing nothing but a little-biddy, tight, white bathing suit." His laugh was a cackle.
I continued to walk, staring at the floor, flushed with embarrassment. Billie Dennis, I’ve seen your crappy-ass room in the crappy-ass basement of your crappy-ass house where you still live with your mother, and I don’t recall seeing a swimming pool. Last fall, Gary and I helped him move a new box spring and mattress to his house. His bedroom in the basement had red velvet walls and looked like the bordello scene straight out of a bad Western.
I removed a stack of dessert dishes from the plate rack and put them on the table next to the walk-in freezer. Was he just trying to make an example of me for being late? It didn’t matter. This time, he’d crossed the line. My hands shook from anger as I spread the dishes across the counter. I went over to the walk-in, yanked the door handle, stepped inside and gathered up boxes of frozen pies. The chilled air felt good on my flushed skin. I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. What was I going to do, run to the union and tell them to reprimand my boss because he wanted to see me in a Speedo? If that’s was as bad as it got tonight I supposed I should consider myself lucky.
It was pushing ten o’clock. Dinner was over, the tables had been cleared, and Gary and I were in the dish room, loading plates, glasses and silver onto the plastic trays which fed into the dishwasher. Wendell was long gone. It was just me, Gary, Frank, and Mr. Dennis. Frank was in the kitchen mopping the floor and Mr. Dennis was where he usually hung out after dinner, in his office on the phone, waiting for us to finish up. I was ready to get the hell out of there.
Gary rinsed off the last of the dirty dinner plates and handed it to me. "You want to come over, smoke a bud, and watch Saturday Night Live? Steve Martin tonight," he asked.
"Now you’re talking," I said. "Anything’s better than dirty dishes and having to listen to more of her."
All night long, Mr. Dennis had been on a tear, trying to remind us all, I suppose, that, rehearsals or not, he was still in charge. Gary and I had been around long enough to know to keep our heads down and go about our business. As usual, he saved the worst for the new guy. Earlier, he stood behind Frank screaming at him, telling him he was so stupid he didn’t know how to wash a goddamn pot, making him redo the same frying pan three times. Gary and I exchanged looks, thinking Mr. Dennis might be pushing his luck, but we’d have been crazy to say anything.
Gary was about to turn the dishwasher on for another cycle, when, from the kitchen I heard Mr. Dennis yell, "What the hell do you think you are doing to my floor, you big, ugly, pineapple-faced, idiot?"
There was a groan followed by a tremendous thud, then the sound of pots clanging on to the floor. Gary and I ran around the corner into the kitchen.
Next to the mop sink, Mr. Dennis, with his sequined dress draped across one arm, was pinned against the wall by Franks’ forearm, pressed right across his throat. Mr. Dennis hung there looking like a shiny rag doll dangling from the arm of a bronze statue.
Frank’s face, inches from Mr. Dennis, was red as a pockmarked plum tomato. In a low voice through clenched teeth, he said, "Listen to me you little faggot."
Frank shifted his weight causing Mr. Dennis’ toupee to come loose and hang part way down the side of his head, covering one eye. The other eye stared at Frank, wide and black, like a spooked horse. The faucet at the mop sink was running full-on hot. Steaming water poured up and over the lip of the sink, streaming towards the drain in the middle of the floor. Frank must have gotten distracted and let the sink overflow. We’d all done it.
Frank leaned in even closer to Mr. Dennis. "Who’s stupid now? Who’s ugly now? Think you’re some kind of Broadway fag?" He glanced over at me and grinned. "The other pussies that work here might let you get away with that shit, but not me." He lifted his forearm a couple of inches, forcing Mr. Dennis up onto his toes. "Feel like a star now, ballerina? And don’t even think of calling the police and messing with my scholarship, ‘cause I’ll find you, you cocksucker. I will find you."
I stood there staring at Frank’s arm pressed against Mr. Dennis’ neck, knowing he could crush Mr. Dennis’ windpipe as easily as I could bend a drinking straw. There wasn’t a thing I could do to help him, but?here’s the part that surprised me?in that moment, I didn’t really want to. It wasn’t that I wanted to see Mr. Dennis seriously hurt, or that I liked the names Frank was using on him, or, for that matter, me, but one dark and delicious thought came frighteningly close to making me smile?perhaps Mr. Dennis’ pool boy, wearing that tight white bathing suit, would come along and rescue him.
Frank jerked back and away from Mr. Dennis who grabbed his throat and slumped to the wet floor, sputtering and coughing. Frank bent down and grabbed the dress from Mr. Dennis, whirled around and jammed it into the mop sink. It floated there for a moment before succumbing to the torrent of water, sinking away under a haze of steam.
Frank spun around towards the back door, taking long strides, his head swiveling side to side like a rampaging robot looking for something to destroy. Gary and I took a step back, giving him plenty of room. Frank passed the rack holding the pots and pans he’d spent all night cleaning. The rack was well over six feet tall, and, fully loaded as it was, must have weighed several hundred pounds. He stopped, looked back at Mr. Dennis and with one push, sent the whole thing tumbling over. There was a tremendous explosion of metal slamming against the floor, ricocheting off the counter tops and the wall. Out of pure instinct, Gary and I ducked. Two more steps, and Frank was at the dull-grey, steel-reinforced back door. We all complained about how heavy and difficult that door was to open. Frank never broke his stride; he hit the door with his shoulder, shattering the latch. The door burst out on its hinges, swung around and smashed against the outside wall with a crack like a gunshot.
Frank disappeared into the darkness of the parking lot. Except for the ringing in my ears, everything was quiet.
I helped Mr. Dennis to his office and set him in a chair while Gary went to get him some water. As soon as his voice came back, Mr. Dennis started in with the cussing and the yelling and threats, saying he was going to put Frank put away for so long, he’d come out of prison needing an asshole transplant. It was all bluster, though—and we knew it. All three of us remembered Frank’s words and the look on Frank’s face when he said them. There was no idleness to Frank’s threats, only the absolute certainty that he would, if provoked, carry them out.
Things went back to normal pretty quickly. By my next shift, the only outward sign of what happened that night was a loud scarf Mr. Dennis wore for a while to hide the bruises on his neck. Without being told, Gary and I understand that we should keep our mouths shut about Mr. Dennis’ run in with Frank. First off, neither one of us wanted to be the one responsible for having Frank come back and finish what he started. Besides, who was to say that Frank anger would be discriminating enough to leave us out of his revenge?
There was another reason for keeping the secret, though, one that didn’t have much at all to do with Frank. A few days after the incident, late one night just before closing, I turned the corner past Mr. Dennis’ office. He was leaning back in his chair, feet back up on the desk, a cigarette dangling out of one hand—just like most nights. But the look on his face stopped me in my tracks. In the moment it took him to recover, I saw him, for once, all there. In his eyes was a version of the look I’d seen as he hung there trapped under Frank’s forearm. Later, after life had a chance to knock me around a bit, I’d come to know that look, even to emulate it. It was the expression of someone who’d realized that the Frank Nolans of the world, in whatever shape they took, could come along and choke the illusions out of us, leaving only the empty feeling that our lives would never catch up to our dreams. At the time, all I knew was that the satisfaction I’d felt at seeing Mr. Dennis manhandled was suddenly gone, sluiced out of me as fast as the mop water I’d just poured down the kitchen drain.
Mr. Dennis must have felt me standing there and turned. His eyes came back into focus and as they did, the look disappeared and was replaced by his normal ornery, impish glare.
"What are you looking at?"
I rocked back on my heels. "Um, nothing." I scrambled for something to say. "I was just wondering."
He arched his eyebrows. "Yes?"
I spotted the garment rack pushed back against the wall. The sequined dress hung there, a sad shadow of its former self. The flat, matted fur drooped limply over the tattered sequins, many of which had fallen off leaving irregular jagged patterns. The dress looked violated, as though it had been slashed by the claws of a furious beast.
"About the dress," I said. "Can you fix it?"
Mr. Dennis sighed. "No. It’s ruined." His eyes welled just before he blinked them several times. "Anything else?"
I shook my head.
"Well, then, get moving. I’d like to get out of here sometime tonight."
"Right." I turned and took a step towards the locker room.
"Neeee-kaaay. Wait a minute."
I leaned back, my head and shoulders visible to him through the doorway.
He tapped his cigarette into the big ceramic ashtray set on his desk. "How much longer do you have in college?"
"Yes, you’ve heard of college, right? That place with a campus and professors?"
"Couple more years," I said, still thrown off.
"Know what you’re going to do afterwards?"
He glanced down at his hands, then looked up at me. "Figure it out." His voice was softer than I’d ever heard it, almost gentle. "Don’t get caught up in something like this."
"This?" I said.
He nodded. "You know: the pots and the pans." He took a draw from his cigarette. "You can do better."
Even then, I knew that was as close as he was ever going to come to praise, thanks and an apology. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out.
With a whisk of the wrist, he motioned me away. "Now go get changed so we can get the fuck out of here."
"Right," I said.
"And one more thing."
"It wasn’t a dress, you mau-mau. It was a gown."
I smiled. "Right. I’ll remember that."
-Nicholas Garnett (from Sliver of Stone Magazine)