Unbuilding Empires—Clark Humphrey
Several months after her intervention with Lauralee, Reenie found herself again driving past the forlorn intersection along the forlorn arterial road just off of the main highway, in between the old gravel pit and the new Buddhist temple.
The 7-Eleven was still there. Kitty corner from that, the independent deli-mart that had been going in and out of business as long as Reenie remembered seemed to be about to reopen as a Halal meat market; or perhaps it had already re-opened and re-closed. From across the street in the dark, she couldn’t tell for sure.
But at the intersection’s northwest corner, at the site of so many of Reenie’s past triumphs and tragedies, of the men picked up and tossed aside (before, during, and after her marriage), of the pseudo-profound ruminations about the state of our lousy society, something was missing.
Where the Empire Tavern and Sports Bar had been, there were a vacant parking lot and a darkened vacant building. In place of all the Budweiser and Seahawks signs, a large single painted banner promised a legal pot store at the site coming in the fall.
Reenie continued to drive out to her meeting, which she suspected would go off about as usual. On the drive, she heard a bit of a public-radio interview with a man who was billed as the city’s next up and coming celebrity chef. He talked about how everything in his life had prepared him for this step. He’d toiled in other chefs’ kitchens, trying to work his way up to the top; a haphazard journey, considering the often short lives and abrupt ends of some of these ventures. He’d finally become the protege to one of the town’s top 20 chefs; then he made it to the top spot when his boss and mentor took an offer in Palm Springs. Now he was leaving that kitchen to open his own.
The man explained to the whispery female interviewer that this was the only way you broke into the high-end restaurant trade these days, and that there was no substitute for learning the entire scope of kitchen work through rigorous experience.
Reenie immediately thought of Annabeth, the strangely proud and high-toned woman who’d owned the Empire Tavern the final time Reenie had been within it.
During her time working the Steps and sponsoring other women who were working them, Reenie had become quite the amateur expert on self-delusions, hers and other people’s. Now, she thought of Annabeth, of her rigid posture and her almost Victorian tone of voice. Could such a figure ever be happy working for someone else?
Reenie envisioned Annabeth as a lowly kitchen apprentice, slicing up fresh veggies and chopping up soup meat during some endless evening shift. Not gently imparting instructions to those beneath her, but instead having orders rudely barked at her by three different bosses, who each wanted everything done five minutes ago and who each demand Annabeth’s total attention and submission. The pre-dinner prep hours would segue, with many important tasks yet unfinished, into the serving hours. Annabeth would still be simmering soups and preparing desserts by the time the orders flooded in. Through nothing less than superhuman endurance, she would finish every task given her, always accurately and usually on time.
For the first few weeks, Reenie imagined, Annabeth would survive. She would believe herself to be better than her situation. She would take whatever came her way with stoic determination. She wound hang up her apron at the end of a shift with a satisfied grin.
But as the weeks and months wore on, Annabeth would likely wear out.
Reenie envisioned a time, perhaps three months into the job. A particularly slammed evening. For some reason, every upper-crust couple in town has decided to have dinner out this night. And most of them have come to this particular bistro. And also, Reenie imagined, there would have been problems. The kitchen ceiling might have had a big drip right through a fluorescent light fixture; or the garbage disposal sink might have been backed up; or the store room might have been infested by moths. Oh, and a health inspector might have shown up earlier in the day and demanded that some filthy kitchen surfaces be cleaned up ASAP.
That evening, Reenie iagined, would be Annabeth’s version of the “death level” in one of Reenie’s daughter’s old video games. It would be the biggest, toughest, most unrelenting, impossible ordeal. It would break the poor girl. Either she would run out of the restaurant’s front door one hour before closing time, or she would curl up and hide in a corner of the walk-in cooler (which wouldn’t relieve her profound sweating), or she would somehow finish her shift but then shuffle out the back door glassy-eyed and speechless, like an extra from The Walking Dead.
Reenie then assured herself that she was not passing judgment on Annabeth’s abilities or on her value as a person. No, Reenie was simply being realistic, something she feared Annabeth might never do until it was too late, the poor thing. Reenie sighed. She asked herself out loud (she’d always said when you’re driving alone there’s nobody to call you crazy when you talk to yourself, and even advised such activity to people she talked to at the meetings) why there weren’t 12 Step meetings for more non-chemical kinds of addictions. One of them could be Deluded Entrepreneurs Anonymous.
The sound of her own voice was interrupted by another voice, coming from the public-radio station. It was a voice she’d only heard once before, but memorably so.
As part of the same program segment, Annabeth was discussing her role as the director of dining room operations or some other high falutin’ job title at the celebrity chef’s new restaurant. With a voice that could have easily gotten her cast as the dowager matriarch on that PBS drawing-room serial, Annabeth calmly and assuredly told the breathy interviewer that the chef created the spectacular food, but that every other aspect of the diner’s experience was her responsibility, from the decor and room ambience to the place settings to the wait service. She added that she hoped she could execute a “presentation” whose quality would equal that of the meals themselves.
With surprised frustration, Reenie shouted “The Little Shitter Went and Done It! SHIT!” at the top of her lungs, almost missing a red light in the process.
Then she reminded herself of something else she told the women at her meetings: In your car, with the radio on, no one can hear you scream.