by Carmen Ruggero
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
A bald-headed man of certain elegance, wearing tight white pants and a navy blue silk shirt had sat at the counter somewhere between John Trusdale, and the chocolate sundae guy. He stopped Elaine as she headed back to booth seventeen carrying a fresh pot of coffee. “Who loves you, baby? I just need a menu.” He smiled broadly.
“As soon as I get back from serving this coffee,” Elaine fired a stare in Helga’s direction. “Can you manage to give this poor man a menu?”
“Where’s my chocolate sundae?” The man at the end of the counter stopped her again.
“All I need’s a menu, baby,” the bald man smiled at Helga, who was still writing John Trusdale’s order.
“I told you I’ll get your sundae. I need to take this coffee to booth seventeen first.”
“So what’s so special about booth seventeen? I’ve been waiting for ever.”
“Here’s your sundae, sir.” Dotty rushed in.
Elaine headed for booth seventeen. When she got there, fresh pot of coffee in hand, one of the bacon and eggs people, who so far had been a very pleasant man, said:
“Listen sweetheart, I wanted my eggs over easy. They wanted scrambled. Is that too hard for you to keep straight?”
“No, sir, no... I’ll get you another order of eggs.”
“Please try to remember: over easy.”
“Wait, what’s that brown stuff on your face?” The man noticed.
“Oh... ah... this?” Elaine touched her forehead suddenly remembering in the rush, she hadn’t finished wiping the coffee off her face. “Ah... this is... ah... well... Dotty... ah... was laughing... and... it’s... spit, sir.”
The six people sitting at booth seventeen looked at each other, and quickly arrived at a common decision:
“Just bring us the bill.”
Elaine, with a ‘let me kill that cook,’ attitude, took a brisk walk back to the order counter and hands on her hips, confronted Oscar: “Now you knew that order was for two scrambled and one over easy, didn’t you?”
“I did you a favor squeezing you in, like that. Some appreciation you show, eh?”
“You know what this means, don’t you? It means,” she clenched her teeth, “no tip.”
“Hey, hey!” Dotty interrupted. “We’ve got a restaurant full of people. Can we please get back to work? We’ll settle our differences later. And by the way, Helga,” she yelled from the kitchen counter: “The tip for that chocolate sundae is mine! Don’t you dare take it.”
Ace approached the counter at that moment. His lips were pursed tighter than a drum. “Kay Ballard would like a bowl of cereal and half a grapefruit.”
“Gee,” Elaine mocked. “That’ll bring at least a twenty-five cent tip.”
Ace forced a loud theatrical laugh. “It’ll be twenty-five cents more than you’ll get after dropping that tray.”
“I didn’t drop that tray. My customer grabbed it.”
“Oh, that’s a big no-no, letting your customers grab... your tray... and by the way; about that silverware...”
“You found it?” Elaine failed miserably at feigning innocence.
“We’ll settle our differences later.”
“That’s just what I said, a minute ago. Let’s settle our differences later.” Dotty grabbed Elaine by one arm, and dragged her away from the line of fire. “So, where did you hide his damn silverware?”
“I? Hide it? The silverware just happened to fall inside his wash tray as I was dusting the place — just doing the guy a favor.”
“I told you he’d get you. Didn’t I?”
“Oh, shut up Dotty — like I worry about him.”
John Trusdale interrupted them: “Can one of you please help Helga with my order? I’ve got to see my agent in an hour — bad enough on a Saturday — just can’t do it on an empty stomach.”
Dotty was about to say yes, when her gaze traveled over John’s head, beyond the counter and the line of red leather booths, and outside through the window she saw tragedy about to happen.
“Damn. Elaine. Please don’t tell me they scheduled a tour bus to come through on a Saturday morning.”
Elaine swallowed hard, and then whimpered: “They scheduled a tour bus to come through on a Saturday morning.”
“Please God, let it be a mistake.” Shiny tears welled in Dotty’s eyes.
Elaine rested her tightly girdled behind against the dessert counter. “That’s at least forty single orders of bacon and eggs.”
“Look,” said John Trusdale. “I’ll settle for a bowl of cereal.”
The people from booth seventeen, yelled in Elaine’s direction. “Sweetheart! Bring us our bill now, or we’re leaving.”
“One bill, coming up!”
Meanwhile the place was invaded by the hungry mob. There was no place to sit; not even a lousy milk crate. They all started walking around looking at the place — their eyes filled with wonder.
“I’m starved to death.” One woman with a heavy Midwestern accent said to another.
Who gives a sh...t Dotty smiled at them.
“My... my... look at that picture! That’s Marilyn Monroe. What a dish!” One man remarked, “They don’t make legs like that, any more.”
“You best not let your wife catch you staring at them legs,” said another.
“So, this is the Brown Derby.” A tall man wearing a visor cap leaned toward the counter and whispered in Dotty’s direction and over John Trusdale’s head: “Are there any movie stars here, today?”
“No,” Dotty said dryly, and walked back to the cooks’ counter.
John Trusdale swallowed hard.
The man with the blue shirt and the bald head grinned. “Can someone, please, give me a menu?”
“What are we gonna do, Oscar?” Dotty asked, though at that point she would have rather died.
Oscar shrugged. “I’m just the cook. Ask Hamlet over there; he’s the head waiter.”
The bus driver approached the counter. Dotty stared at him from where she stood.
“Can I have another chocolate sundae?” the man at the end of the counter yelled in Dotty’s direction.
“No, you can’t!” Dotty yelled back.
“Some service! This place’s sure gone to hell in a hand basket.” The sundae man got up from his stool and turned to Dotty: “Don’t you look for a tip here.”
There go twenty cents. Crap!
“How about my cereal?” asked John Trusdale.
“All I want is a menu,” the man with the shiny head spread his arms.
“We’ve only got twenty minutes to eat,” the bus driver interrupted. “Can you fix us up?”
But fate had an ace up its sleeve. And it was one of those moments in life like what Dotty had described to Elaine, earlier: The impossible was about to happen. And all hell broke loose when Oscar poked his big, round Armenian head over the cooks’ counter and yelled:
Dotty and Elaine looked at each other. They were catatonic.
“Now who ordered eighty-six eggs?” Helga asked as she finally placed John Trusdale’s order on Oscar’s spindle.
Oscar looked at her long and hard. “I can’t believe you’re that silly. Eighty-six is a restaurant term. It means: we’re out.”
“You mean... out of eggs?”
“That’s right; out of eggs.” His fleshy lips stretched to a devilish smile.
“Right in the middle of breakfast?” Helga started crying again.
“Yep. In the middle of breakfast.”
“But... what do I do about John’s...”
“He’ll have cereal.”
Dotty had bent over the sundae counter and rested her face on her arms. She thought she wanted to cry, but started laughing, instead. She laughed so hard her whole body trembled like the Green Giant’s bowl of Jell-O. Tears rolled all the way down her cheeks, neck, and into forbidden spaces. The Brown Derby had run out of eggs during Saturday’s breakfast rush. This was too tragic to be serious. “I can’t believe it. God, I can’t believe it!” she kept repeating into the hollow of her arms.
Elaine grabbed the edge of her white apron and pulled on it. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Restaurants don’t run out of eggs during breakfast, least of all the Brown Derby.
“So why are you laughing, Dotty?”
Dotty was still bending over the sundae counter. “Because,” she snorted. “Because... I don’t know why, it just hit me funny, that’s all.”
“That’s it, we’re leaving!” The shout came from one of the people at booth seventeen. “Did you hear us? We are leaving!
“Have a nice day sir, sorry for the inconvenience.” Oscar couldn’t have cared less.
Helga was crying buckets. No. Helga was howling. Loudly.
“Hey... who loves you baby? C’mon, give me a menu,” said the man with the bald head.
“How about just a piece of toast?” said John Trusdale.
The shift eventually ended — it always did. The bald man got his menu, John Trusdale got his toast — Oscar threw in a side of bacon on the house.
Dotty sat at the waiter’s booth — way in the back by the swinging door. “Thank goodness the tourists settled for a continental breakfast... on the house! The misers didn’t even leave a lousy tip.”
Elaine carried two mugs with coffee to the booth and sat next to her. “Ah... tourists: nickel and dimes, that’s all they are.”
The two women, exhausted, held on to their coffee mugs, puffing on their cigarettes and staring into space. Helga joined them after a while; she was still crying.
“I’m fixing you guys a special lunch,” Oscar yelled from the kitchen.
“Not hungry,” Helga sniffled.
“Fine by me,” Elaine muttered. “Starve yourself.”
“You two: shift’s over — cut it out.”
“What did I do?” Helga whimpered.
Dotty raised her eyes to the ceiling. What didn’t you do...
Ace flung through the swinging doors as if nothing had even happened.
“I’ve got a 7:30pm curtain. Sorry I have to skip lunch, but got to get home, shower and get ready.”
So, who cares? Elaine grinned.
Dotty caught the look on her face, and interrupted before words had a chance to form in her mouth: “Good luck, Ace, or is it break a leg?”
“Break a leg. Never wish an actor good luck.”
Break your head, Elaine grinned some more.
Ace was halfway to the front door, when he turned around: “I almost forgot. Tonight is comp night. Would any of you like to come see the show?”
His invitation was met with silence. He shrugged, and continued toward the front door.
“I’ll go,” Dotty called from the booth.
“Good! I’ll buy you a drink afterwards.”
“Sounds good, Ace... sounds good.”
Oscar walked around the counter carrying two chicken enchilada orders and placed them before Dotty and Elaine.
“Sure you don’t want any, Helga?”
She shook her head.
“She’s watching her figure...”
“Cut it out Elaine!” Dotty stopped her. “Like I said: shift’s over. Now shut-up and eat.”
Oscar sat on a barstool by the counter facing their booth: “Hmm... guys... ah... girls, ladies, whatever they say nowadays...”
“Girls is fine by me,” Elaine rushed in to say. “Even when Ace is here.” She shoved a big bite of chicken enchilada in her mouth.
“Oh... c’mon, Elaine!”
“Oh... c’mon, Dotty! Have you ever seen him with a girl? He’s as limp wrist as they come.”
“That’s none of your business. Now, what’s wrong with you?”
“Anyway... ah... girls...” Oscar puffed on his cigarette. “They cut my budget again... I didn’t expect such a crowd... didn’t even know about the tour bus ... well... I cut the egg order in half.”
Dotty raised her brows. She almost choked on her chicken enchilada. “What do you mean they cut your budget?”
“It’s this new management. Crap! They don’t care about the coffee shop.”
“It’s the coffee shop that made us famous!” Elaine protested.
“Yep.” Oscar puffed on his cigarette, again. “Things sure ain’t what they used to be.”
They all knew that. No sense in elaborating further.
Dotty interrupted the brief silence: “Helga, are you sure you wouldn’t want to join me tonight? Ace said he’d buy us drinks afterwards.”
“No. I don’t want to see another stupid play for as long as I live.” She stood up, walked away from the booth and threw her sweater over her shoulder. “As a matter of fact, I quit!”
Elaine and Dotty looked at each other.
“You’ll quit acting?” Dotty dropped her mouth.
“No. I quit this lousy job!” And on that note she walked out.
All three of them dropped their jaw as they followed her theatrical exit. She stood on the sidewalk; decidedly looked to the left, then looked to the right, the left again.
“Maybe she forgot her way home,” Elaine muttered.
“Not a damn brain in her head, that one has... not a damn brain,” Oscar muttered.
Dotty stood up, pulling down on her uniform. “Well, I’m going home. Sure you don’t want to come to the show with me, Elaine?”
Elaine just shook her head. She remained seated. “I’ll just sit here a while.”
Dotty shrugged: “Suit yourself,” and she walked away.
Elaine’s gaze traveled back to Marilyn’s picture. “She sure was a pretty little thing, wasn’t she, Oscar?”
“Yep. But dead. Cold and buried like the rest of them on that wall. This coffee shop is dead and buried. You need to step out of that stupid dream Elaine, whatever it is, or you’re just as dead as they are.”
Elaine looked down. She glanced at her bright red nails, took a napkin from the dispenser, and wiped the tears welling in her eyes. This had to be the most humiliating moment in the Brown Derby’s history. She had started working there right out of high school — a young girl full of ambition; over thirty years ago. Back when the stars came in by the carloads; during the golden dream days. In all that time, the Derby had not ever run out eggs during breakfast.
Jack, the lunch chef, walked past them. “You two make a somber duet — must have been some hell of a breakfast!”
“Oh... shut up!” Oscar stood up, pushed through the swinging doors and disappeared into the backroom.
Jack shrugged both shoulders. “What the hell did I say?”
Elaine remained seated, holding on to her coffee mug. Her star-filled gaze traveled back to the wall.
She sure was a little thing...
[Author’s note] Famous actors still frequented the Brown Derby, even in 1975 when I worked there. One I mention by name: Kay Ballard. The allegation to her order of cereal and grapefruit, however, is purely fictional. The other character is implied. The bald man who always said “Who loves you, baby?” was Telly Savalas. However, the situation and dialogue depicted in this story never took place, it is also fictional.
Copyright © 2008 by Carmen Ruggero