by James Wasserman
“You see? Very clean. Very clean,” the Asian man said.
Harold looked around the kitchen of the Vietnamese restaurant. He knew they were probably prettying it up for him. It was probably a terrible mess. Thing was, he didn’t really care.
“Yes, yes. Very clean.” He said, making some checks on his clipboard report.
“So... no problem? All done? We passed inspection?”
Harold nodded. “Yep. All done. No problems.”
“Ahh, thank you.”
Harold nodded again, this time a little more aggravation on his face. He didn’t want to be here. On the surface, everything looked okay. He was a health inspector, not a detective.
Harold came out into the restaurant. It was fairly busy. He looked around: couples, triples, quadruples. One elderly couple started screaming for the bill. Another man, looking lonely, played with a menu. It was a fairly popular place. Well anyway, the place is popular, he thought. Wouldn’t have had any accidents or any huge snakes in their rice bowls without a story somewhere.
He lowered his hat and walked out of the restaurant. It was raining.
Harold felt his heartburn starting up again. He chomped on some antacid tablets. It seemed like the heartburn was becoming worse and worse.
He jumped into his car and looked at the partly waterlogged inspector’s checklist. Harold sighed. He filled out passes on all accounts. It was becoming this way, had been for a while.
Harold Keeler was getting bored of the malaise of his job; as a result, he had become a little lackluster in his duties. Once he got into the restaurants, he wanted to leave immediately. He had to grin and bear it through intense examination of the kitchens and other slimy places. Harold’s solution? Hasten it up. If it looks okay on the inside, it should be okay around the place. It was a rationalization perpetuated by his sloth, but he accepted it. So he became more and more lax in his duties. His superiors were getting a little suspicious that virtually every report he was turning in nowadays extolled the virtues of the given place he had inspected via the hastily checked forms and the lack of comments.
He went home, which was a one-bedroom apartment that was gaining a lot of wear and tear. Harold didn’t really care how he lived. If it’s got air conditioning and a bed, I’m satisfied. Why waste more in rent? His cat (Harold Jr.) greeted him at the door with a barrage of meowing.
For a health inspector, Harold lived in a hovel he himself might deem a disease threat. Harold’s refrigerator itself contained many items pushed to the back: old mustard, jam, the ageless non-alcoholic beer he’d bought by accident. In front, there were only a few items of note. Frozen pizza. Swanson dinners. Some real beer. Chinese food leftovers. All that you wouldn’t expect from someone who was in Harold’s line of work.
Harold cracked open one of his cheap beers. Before he could flip on the television, the phone rang. Harold sighed and picked up the receiver.
It was his boss. “Hey Harold. Sorry to bother you at home. Something’s come up. There’s another restaurant that you’ll need to look at, if you can fit it in today, that would be great. Otherwise...”
Harold grimaced. “Sorry, Melvin. Can I do it first thing tomorrow?” Harold did not intend to leave home after hours.
There was a pause. “Okay... if you could get on it first thing in the morning. We’ve had a lot of complaints about this place. I assume I can get your reports tomorrow as well?”
“Sure, sure...” Harold didn’t have a problem with handing in his hastily checked reports.
“All right, Harold. Thanks.”
Melvin Freedman was a pretty decent guy to work for. He wasn’t an ogre about much unless there was some kind of emergency. Also important was the fact that he was a clean-cut guy with a wife and two small children; thus, he led a pretty normal life and was, as far as bosses go, pretty sane and sensible. He didn’t seem to have a chip on his shoulder nor a superiority/inferiority complex.
Harold sat down, flipped the television on, and opened a beer.
* * *
The next day Harold submitted his reports – all aces – to Freedman.
“Wow, Harold... Sure seems like all these people finally cleaned up their act,” Melvin said behind his desk.
“A good batch.” Harold said.
“Yes. Anyway, here’s the file for that restaurant. If you could get to it as early as possible, I’d appreciate it.”
Harold took the file and nodded. “No worries,” he said.
It turned out that the establishment in question was a very large and popular “greasy spoon” diner on the south side. Harold cursorily flipped through the file. Some formal complaints, several incidences of food poisoning. Harold didn’t care too much about each detail, just another file for another day.
He did, however, catch a name that was on a few reports (which he didn’t read). Some people had files: Jose Rodriguez, Betty Praise, and Anna Schmidt. Harold didn’t investigate further. There was just a ton of paperwork that could barely fit in an extra-large manila folder. It was mostly inventories and such. Waste of time. The sooner he could get this inspection done, the sooner he could sit in front of the television and continue wasting his life.
Harold drove to the restaurant, which was called The Dingo Diner. He idly wondered if the problem was that dingoes were eating people. That would make his day a hell of a lot more interesting.
Alas, the rampant dingoes did not appear. Harold looked around the diner: it was a 50’s-style establishment with juke boxes at each table and servers dressed in white and black.
A server approached him. “For one, sir?”
“Actually, I’m the health inspector.” Harold said, flashing his so-called badge.
The waiter looked nervous. “Uh... yes, sir, I think they’re waiting for you. I’ll call the manager.”
The man disappeared into a door labeled Employees Only. A few minutes later, a small man, potbellied with a bad comb-over, entered the fray.
“I’m Harold Keeler, the investigator,” Harold said.
“Jim Barnes,” said the bald man.
“I’m going to need you to show me around. Just need to make sure there aren’t any health concerns.”
“Of course,” Barnes replied, “if you’d just follow me.”
Harold accompanied the manager into the kitchen. Barnes looked agitated and a bit nervous.
Harold began his inspection in the main room of the kitchen, which could be viewed from the outside. This particular strategy, i.e., showing people how clean the visible kitchen was, so as to allay concerns about what is not visible, seemed popular in a fair bit of these places, and most of the time they did have skeletons (maybe literally?) hiding inside crawl spaces and the lot.
The kitchen was easily checked. It was not surprising, since customers were able to see parts of it.
Harold’s heartburn was getting worse. He popped about four Rolaids and headed into the other, more concealed places in the kitchen.
The crux of the matter was a deeper room in the kitchen (which was pretty carefully hidden). It seemed to be covered in dust, as if not entered in a long time.
Barnes saw Harold eyeing the door. “No need to check inside. It’s just a storage room. If you want to verify that, then go inside. Scout’s honor.”
Harold sighed, not even fathoming what was going on in that room. He figured a quick glance would be enough.
Despite Barnes’s plea, Harold opened the door and stepped inside.
He stood on the cusp, standing in the doorway.
The smell was terrible — a strange sort of smell, he couldn’t quite put his finger on it — something like decomposing flesh of some kind, combined with urine and what might have been flesh cooking.
He felt that that was enough. Harold couldn’t see any rats or any other dead animals from his perspective, despite the fact that the lighting level was low. Probably a buildup of mold and/or mildew.
With Barnes looking over his shoulder, Harold cursorily took a walk around the kitchen. Nothing major appeared.
Harold turned to leave, but looked back at the manager and asked “Does the name Betty Praise, or some Schmidt lady, ring any bells?”
Barnes said nothing. Then he chortled (the sound put Harold in serious jeopardy of bursting into laughter) and waved his hands. “I don’t know,” he said.
Harold took his records and went to his car. He gave the restaurant a fair review (fair as in sub-good), checking off most things. Then came the kitchen “problem”: Harold was forced to give some evaluation or warning about that.
He gave the kitchen a yellow light. Harold wrote some quick notes: Mostly clean some issues with mold and mildew in back room. That was that.
* * *
Harold choked on his beer, and spat it out all over the couch, the floor, and himself. It wasn’t going down very well. He also went to refill the cat food. Oddly, the bowl was almost full; Harold didn’t remember filling up the cat’s bowl recently. Also oddly, Harold Jr. was always hungry and loved the wet food. How could he leave this mound untouched?
Screw it, Harold thought, returning to the couch with a bunch of paper towels. What a day.
Well, good ol’ Hank would be pleased, as he always was, with Harold’s expediency; however, this was a direct function of his laziness to fully complete an extensive review of his inspections. Harold considered giving the file a more thorough look.
Harold found himself accelerating the rate of his page flipping. He started off reading it, and having very little attention, decided to see if he could catch some summary glances by just flipping through faster and faster.
Not surprisingly, nothing interesting came to eye. Like a true procrastinator, he decided to hold off giving the file a really good look.
He remembered those names that were in the file, albeit vaguely. He had mentioned them to the diner’s nervous manager, who professed to know nothing.
Now, THAT’S interesting! Harold thought amusingly to himself. He decided to pick the file back up and look up those names again.
There were red tags on the sections with the pictures. He remembered Betty Praise first, having asked about her specifically.
Much of the attached file seemed like gibberish. Someone’s terrible handwriting. However, there was a red stamp near the picture.
Now, that’s even MORE INTERESTING! Harold thought, not so amused this time. He couldn’t make much out of the attached files (gibberish, again) except there seemed to be some kind of investigation underway.
He also looked for Jose Rodriguez and Anna Schmidt. Also red stamps, with more indecipherable files.
Thus, the other two people:
Harold didn’t like this. Had these people died of food poisoning? That’s what must have happened, Harold wondered. Why else would they be in the Diner’s file?
Well, there was nothing to be done about the dead people now. An investigation was apparently underway and that was the investigators’ business. However, the food poisonings worried him. If that was the cause of death... Well, once again, the deaths are police business. However, there had been the subject of food ...
Well, Harold hadn’t been an inspector on the file at the time, only just recently. Therefore, he figured all of this happened a while ago and was probably resolved, with some other person’s laziness precluding an updated account. The file was pretty old, so Harold figured if they did die of poisoning, the Dingo Diner would be long gone. So really, he didn’t think it changed anything. He was in the here and now. Besides, tomorrow was his deadline. And that was that.
Copyright © 2005 by James Wasserman