They were beginning to cause a scene. Darren was throwing more chicken on the charcoal grill, the cheap boneless breasts slapping wet and heavy over the gray coals. Mariah was cutting butter, cutting cake, cutting anything with our one knife. Louise was taking dirty plates from underneath the kitchen sink, rubbing at them with the corner of her apron, and handing them to me. They were heavy, and still not clean. The plates I brought to the buffet line. There I was forced to field questions and complaints—“Why is there no more steak?” and “When will the potatoes come out?” and “Why are these plates oval?” and “Do you have any more bread?” and “We need more butter!” and on. And on. I was glass-eyed, riding along on an oxycodone high. My face was swollen from oral surgery and my doctor had prescribed me to take the pill every four hours to dull the deep pulsing pain in the cavities of my extracted wisdom teeth. I looked grotesque, Frankenstein in pleats, a vacant beast bent on serving this secret society and their lady wives.
My efforts were ill-appreciated. Hell hath no fury like geriatrics whose meal is compromised by the failings of the catering company.
I reminded myself that this gremlin dinner was not on my head—my head, speaking of it, seemed to be in the stratosphere. It floated along with all the fluffy clouds.
It was my first night with Catering Care. I had been given no details about the event. My only communication with Pepper, Catering Care’s employee coordinator, was over the phone. Our conversation had been harried. She claimed to be a busy woman.
Pepper asked me to wear black pants, black shoes, and pull my hair up into a bun. She had heard about my long greasy hair from Louise. My reputation precedes me at last.
So I was under the gums of eighty hungry southern Shriners, formerly known as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. I know this because I looked up their organization while in the bathroom. The Shriners, according to Wikipedia, were known for the Shriners Hospitals for Children and their fuzzy red fezzes.
Shriner satisfaction seemed unattainable. They demanded answers. I smiled as far as my swollen face would allow. I told the old farts what they wanted to hear, and fancied myself something of a diplomat. Bridger of grills and gullets. Me, a hero. But then I felt the slobber running out of the corner of my mouth and cut a hasty retreat to the kitchens.
Pain medicine causes me inexplicable drooling.
Mariah was muttering with the knife. Savage, heavy cuts to the chocolate cake. “No dag respect. Not gonna get no cake if you all liquored up like that. No way today. Tell me fifty folk and send me eighty? Not on me. No respect.”
Darren called me over. “What they want out there?”
I told him. “More steak, more potatoes, more bread, more butter, another twenty years of life, and a set of new livers.” These Shriners could drink. They’d worn out the bar, the mixers. One man had brought his own bottle of tonic water. He was the only one who hadn’t seemed upset about the lack of food in the buffet line. I liked him for that.
“Well, they ain’t gonna get no more steak or potatoes,” said Darren. “Or, shoot. Bread either. They need more fried shrimp?” I shook my head. We had plenty of shrimp, but nobody seemed to want it.
Darren wiped sweat from his cheek. “Boy ain’t that just the way it goes?”
We had budgeted for fifty diners and eighty had shown up, thus it turned out all I could do for the angry line was bring them more butter. Out came a block fresh from the cooler. They descended upon it like pigs to the feed, a spray of golden melt. It was obscene. I watched for a moment. Or two. Maybe three. Who knows? Who cares? I was caught in a microcosm of society. Its vortex spun me, stoned me.
I noticed something weird. I went back to the kitchens, had a look at Darren and Mariah, and then went back out into the dining area to confirm my observation. My kitchens had two more black adults than the entire dinner of eighty Shriners. Through the haze of my high a thought cut clear.
Huh, how about that?
An old white man with a nose leathered from a lifetime of heavy, unadulterated drinking came stumbling into the kitchen. He was smiling. That was nice. I hadn’t seen many smiles yet that night, even when we had a full spread of cheese cubes and pretzel crackers.
“Hey!” he said.
“Hello,” I said. Nobody else paid him any attention.
“Hey boy, I got two great danes, $2,000 each! Their vet bills are $5,000! How about you say you save some scraps for me to take home to my pups?”
“If there are any scraps left, sure,” I said.
Football Nose thanked me and left. I turned to Mariah.
“Fool,” I said. “We don’t even have enough food for the whole event! How could he hope to have leftovers for his dogs?”
“Boy, just you watch,” said Mariah, shaking her head and slicing up a new dessert. This one was carrot cake. It smelled like a factory. “These folk are all about just wasting their food. It’s like a hobby for them.”
Mariah was right. That night I picked up more plates of half-eaten steak and chicken and potato than I cared to count. No wonder we didn’t have enough food for the party … seemed like everyone took a slab of steak and a cut of chicken. Those dogs were about to eat well—Louise and I filled two party trays of leavings.
The Shriners were much gentler after they’d eaten. These folk had survived another meal, and this security settled them. I walked around filling water and sweet tea. I removed plates still piled with food. In general my presence was ignored. When I asked a question to a table I was lucky to receive eye contact from any of them. To hope for a verbal response was juvenile, perhaps absurd. So in the silence that filled my work I received an education.
I learned that as a caterer I am a subhuman, a worm fit for clearing plates and bending to the demands of the invited patrons. My head, drifting so far above me in the oxycodone clouds, took offense. But it was my body that was present, and numb, and doing the work.
When they rose to do the Pledge of Allegiance we were asked to retreat to the kitchens on the grounds of secret Shriner stuff. I chewed fried shrimp and watched their dealings from a crack between door and frame.
Four fat men were up on a little stage. They were all wearing big velvet red hats with golden tassels. These red hats with their gold tassels are their fezzes.
The men kept introducing themselves to each other. They had names like Kenny Wilson and Bobby Joe and Darren Lee and Marlow Wayne. I realized that these were new Shriners inductees, and supposed I was happy for them. This all seemed like a big deal, what with the suits and ties and big carpet caps they were wearing.
All of a sudden my asshole itched. I wondered if there was some association with what I was watching and this bodily desire to scratch my anus. This thought made me laugh. A spray of slobber spouted from my mouth and onto the kitchen door. I wiped the spit away with my apron.
Later—the induction ceremony took some time—the music started up in earnest. This was our cue. We set about cleaning the kitchens and dining area as Shriners new and old began to filter from the party.
The man with the expensive danes came in, demanding his trays of dog food. We had fifty pounds of leftovers for him. “Boy!” he said to me. I was getting called boy a lot that night. “I’m gonna have me some happy pooches tonight!” Then he left.
It was all over. The Shriners of Morrison County were all headed back to whatever lives they led outside of their club. Men were lighting cigarettes, milling around, grabbing their women by the elbows and leading them out into the night. Louise and I cleaned tables, tossed trash, pulled cloth, and loaded the catering van with dirty dishware and a greasy grill.
The gig was done, and my face hurt. I wished I had another pill. I was tired, and testy, and smelled of sweat and spoiled mayonnaise. Mariah and Darren drove off with the van. Louise and I made one last sweep of the dining area and kitchen. There was a mess we’d left by the oven, Mariah’s last wedge of chocolate cake smeared over the countertop.
A man with a long cigarette dangling from his lips handed me a plate and his fez as I was wiping the cake into a trashcan. On his jacket was a name tag. It read Danny Chuck, President Elect. He was the big cheese. Good for him.
“Boy, put my hat over there and then grab me a couple chicken breasts and a few of those fried shrimp. You can use your hands with the food I don’t mind me none.” I did as I was told. I put down his red fez. I piled his plate high. He took the plate and left the kitchen without looking back.
So I left with Louise. She drove me home.
That night I slept on my mouth funny and woke with blood in my mouth. I didn’t complain. I am blood. It flows through the muscle of my heart.
We all have hearts. It’s what makes us alive. I do not forsake the Shriners of Morrison County. Their hearts pulse to the same beat. Life. That is what brings us together, with me in a tuxedo shirt and them in their big velvet hats. I came to the Shriners with chicken and they left with scraps. I poured from the cask and they drank it down. They demanded more and I gave them what I could. And when I left I left. I have only memories of my night with this secret society.
Memories, and the tassel to Danny Chuck’s fez.