Saturday, December 27, 2014
By Daniel Skye
The restaurant is closed for the season and someone knocks anyway. Probably a tourist, someone just in town for the holiday. Some spoiled, rich socialite from the city who just rolled into town in their Mercedes or Corvette convertible.
Probably driving with the top still down, because even when it’s ten degrees Fahrenheit, you just need to show off and draw attention to yourself like the douche-magnet that you are.
They tap on the glass doors, ignoring the big CLOSED FOR THE SEASON sign that hangs in the window from a few strips of masking tape.
And they say, “I see your car in the parking lot. I know you’re in there.”
And you tell them to scram, to get lost, to politely fuck off. That you’re all closed up for the season and you won’t be open again ’til next spring.
But they’re still banging their fists against the glass as you walk away, shouting, “Wait, I need help!”
Shit, you think. You’re not even supposed to be here today.
You got roped into this because Mike Perez, the guy who was supposed to spruce up the restaurant, was a no-show. So Mr. Coffey called you instead. You just got laid off for the winter and you need the money. Sometimes unemployment just doesn’t pay the bills.
So you’re here, scrubbing bathroom tiles with a toothbrush and getting high off the fumes of Scrubbing Bubbles, polishing wood surfaces to bring back the finish, and wiping the windows until the glass sparkles, then wiping them clean again when you spot the balls of lint that have clung to the glass.
Scrub. Wipe. Polish. Rinse. Mop. Repeat.
This is your history. Your legacy. Your contribution to society.
Scrubbing bathroom floors and piss stained toilets.
And Bryan Coffey is probably sitting at home, curled up in front of the fireplace with a glass of brandy and a thick cigar. Nice and toasty.
Bryan Coffey, who always prefers to be called Mr. Coffey. Bryan Coffey, the prick who laid you off for the season and didn’t even give you a bonus for Christmas. Four years you’ve worked for this man and he’s never given you a bonus.
Bryan Coffey with his cleft chin, bushy eyebrows, and penchant for gaudy yellow neckties. You should buy him a pair of tweezers for Christmas.
“Hey!” the tourist screams, his breath fogging up the glass. “I need help! Some lunatic ran our car off the road! My wife is injured! We need an ambulance!”
And you tell him, “Go around the side, to the other door.” And you walk through the kitchen, to the side door where the young man waits impatiently. He’s got a fedora on his plump head and a beige scarf wrapped around his neck. His eyes glasses–the crystal clear lenses, the shiny gold rims–look like they cost more money then you’ll ever make cleaning places like this.
You told him to go around to the side just in case this guy is lying, just in case he’s really a lunatic waiting to ambush you the minute you open the door. You’ll be safer in the kitchen.
Plenty of sharp objects to defend yourself. But that also means plenty of sharp objects for this alleged maniac to use against you. Still, you feel safer in the kitchen.
You open the door, slowly, cautiously. You let the man in and he’s panting and wheezing and trying to catch his breath. He tells you that he ran all the way here. That he left his wife in the car. That she banged up her knee and can’t put any weight on it. That they need a tow truck and an ambulance.
You’re not even supposed to be here today. Of all the days this shit had to happen, it had to happen today.
You show the tourist to the phone. You let him dial 911 and explain the incident to the operator. You watch him hang up, dial another number, and make arrangements for a tow truck.
The walk-in, still packed with meat and fish and produce that will surely turn rancid before the next season, turns itself back on when the defrost cycle ends. The fans whir and the motor grinds and groans as it kicks back on.
Mr. Coffey, the jerk that he is, he wouldn’t even let anyone take anything home to cook for their families. Even if they offered to pay for it. He’d rather let the food spoil and eat the loss of the money than see anyone enjoy it.
Under the fluorescent lights, you can see the panic registered in the tourist’s eyes. And you ask, “What happened exactly?”
You ask as though you weren’t listening to him talk over the phone, because you honestly weren’t listening.
You don’t need this aggravation. You’re tired, cranky. The holiday season is upon us and you haven’t even started buying Christmas presents yet. You still have to decorate, even though you’re not in the holiday spirit. Your neighbors all decorate their houses, so if you don’t decorate, you’re the odd man out.
And of course you still have to buy a tree. Still have to get wrapping paper. Still have to get cards and stamps and envelopes and cardboard boxes and packing tape to ship presents to distant relatives.
And this tourist stares at you with wide hazelnut eyes behind those exorbitant glasses. The fluorescent lights flicker and hum their insipid tune as the tourist sighs and his lips part as he prepares to tell his story.
“My wife and I are in town to see her family. We’re not going to able to see them on Christmas so we wanted to give them their gifts now. We were on our way over there when, just down the road on Fulton, this maniac came out of nowhere in an Escalade. He was swerving in and out of the lanes, forced us right off the road. I don’t know if he was drunk or just trying to play chicken with me.”
“How bad is the damage?”
“The car will be fine. It’s my wife I’m worried about.”
“Then shouldn’t you be getting back to her?” In other words, you’re asking him to beat it. You were nice enough to let him in, to let him make his phone calls. You’ve done your good deed for the year and now it’s time for this guy to get back to his wife, his car, and his Armani sweater vests.
The restaurant world is riddled with phrases and terms the kitchen and wait staff use on a daily basis. The most common term being 86.
To 86 something basically means to cross it off the menu. You run out of tuna, you tell the staff to 86 tuna.
And right now you wish this tourist would 86 himself, go back to his wife, go back to the city where he belongs.
“I’m sorry to trouble you further, but do you have a bathroom I could use? It’s been such a long ride and we never had a chance to stop for anything other than gas.”
You walk the tourist from the kitchen, through the dining room past the chairs that are flipped upside down on the table tops, and to the lobby. You show him to the bathroom, ask him to please make it quick. That you have to get back to work.
But he stops just before he reaches the men’s room door.
The sudden change in room temperature tells the tourist that we are not alone.
“We hit a cold spot,” the tourist said.
“Cold spot?” you ask.
“You feel that? How cold it just got over here?”
“It’s just a draft. It’s very windy outside.”
“No, I’m afraid it’s not,” the tourist says. And then he introduces himself, as if you cared to know his life story. “Owen Stillson.”
“Walter Dandridge, but everyone calls me Walt. I guess you can too.”
“Well, Walt, I know it’s weird of me to ask something like this…but has anyone ever died here before?”
You remember hearing a story, back when you first started working there, back when you were bussing tables and scrubbing pots and pans. You heard mutterings about a man who was skinny enough to cram himself inside the dumbwaiter.
The same dumbwaiter that crushed his head when he accidently fell down the shaft one night. They thought he had walked out, that he quit without notice. They found his body three days later at the bottom of the shaft.
“Now that you mention it, I think so.”
“Dumbwaiter shaft. That means he would’ve fell down to the basement.”
“Where’s the basement?”
“Over there,” you point with one finger to the steel door opposite the men’s room that’s clearly marked EMPLOYEES ONLY.
“Then that’s where we’re heading.”
“What about your wife?”
“It’ll only take a minute. Besides, she’s safer in the car than in here.”
“Just who are you?”
“Owen Stillson,” he repeats.
“Yeah, you already said that. I mean, are you like, a ghost hunter or a famous author who writes about haunted places? Why are you so keen on seeing the basement?”
“I’m not famous or special. I just have a great interest on the subject. I’ve read a lot about it.”
“So when you say ghosts, what do you mean exactly? Are we talking Casper or Samara? Can you see them or just hear them? Can you like touch them? Shake their hands or give them a fist bump?”
“Some spirits remain hidden, keep to themselves. Others crave the attention and love to make their presence known. Sometimes, spirits can project themselves in mirrors or other surfaces that reflect.”
“What’d you mean when you said your wife was safer in the car than in here?” you ask as begin your descent into the basement.
“I mean that some spirits can be vile, malevolent.”
“You mean ghosts can hurt you? Like beat you up and take your wallet?”
“No, but you’ve heard of poltergeists right? Ghosts that move things. Well, these poltergeists are not the friendly type. In fact, their goal is to pretty much make your life a living hell.”
And you feel like you’re talking to a poltergeist at this very moment. That’s all this tourist is. A pesky ghost who just won’t take the hint.
You reach the bottom of the stairs. More fluorescent ceiling fixtures illuminate the cold concrete floor. Pipes rattle overhead as Owen, the tourist, scans the room. There’s a locked room where they keep all the wine and liquor bottles. Extra chairs and boxes of excess table clothes and spare candleholders.
There’s a stack of plywood that Mr. Coffey purchased two years ago for some project that never came to fruition. And propped up against the plywood is a long, narrow, dusty mirror with a huge spider web crack in the center that Mr. Coffey had you take down from the men’s room when some pissed off customer decided to smash it with his fist after a fight with his girlfriend.
The lights hum and seem to flicker even more so than the kitchen lights. You excuse yourself to check the circuit breaker, make sure everything looks ok. But before you walk away, you notice that Owen, the tourist, isn’t wearing a wedding ring. And though he is pale, you can still see there’s no tan line.
“What’s your wife’s name?”
“Samantha Stillson…” you trail off, thinking about that name. Where have you heard it before? And why is this man lying? If he’s married, why isn’t he wearing his wedding ring?
You look up and see the letters GAR written in red on a concrete support beam. And you think of Gary Paulson, the bartender who sliced his hand open on a broken gin bottle. It was his last night and he wanted to leave his mark.
So, with the palm of his hand sliced opened, in need of stiches, blood droplets trickling down his fingers, Gary signed his name. Well, most of it. He fainted before he could scribble the Y.
Now all that remains is a blood stained signature of a clumsy alcoholic who cut up his own hand on his last night. A bumbling bartender who couldn’t even finish writing his own name before he passed out from the loss of blood and the alcohol in his system.
This is Gary Paulson’s history. His legacy. His contribution to society.
And you start to recall that hot little number that Gary was dating the last season he worked here. She had a slim, hourglass figure and long, smooth legs that distracted from her ample chest and backside. With a body like that, you didn’t know where to focus your eyes.
What was her name?
You check on the circuit breaker. Everything looks fine. You walk back to Owen, the ghost-obsessed tourist. And he kind of reminds you of Gary Paulson in a way. Gary was also into all that spiritual, paranormal garbage.
He believed in ghosts, believed in the afterlife. He used to talk about a coworker that shared his interests. But you can’t for the life of you remember that person’s name. And you still can’t remember the name of the girl Gary was dating that summer.
“Can you feel that?” Owen asks. “Can you feel those negative vibes? That wave of negative energy?”
“I don’t feel a thing other than the cold,” you tell him, shivering slightly. “But what does it mean?”
“It means there’s definitely a spirit present. And this spirit is angry. Discontent. It can’t find rest. It wants to be heard. It wants you to know its story.”
“And what is its story?” you ask, playing along.
“The young man that died here. He’s telling me his death was not accidental.”
The lights dim and brighten. Dim and brighten. The cold envelops you and you can see your breath every time you exhale.
And you finally remember that girl’s name. Gary Paulson’s girlfriend. Samantha Stillson.
Not Owen Stillson’s wife. His sister.
And the name of that unfortunate soul who fell down the dumbwaiter shaft hits you like a kick in the teeth. The one that Gary Paulson used to talk about. The one that shared his interest in the macabre and the paranormal.
You turn to confront him, but he’s gone. Missing. Vanished. 86’d.
The fluorescents flicker rapidly, blinking. The lights dim, then fade out, plunging you into darkness, obscurity. You feel the cold air circulating around your body. And you feel all those tiny little hairs standing up on the back of your neck, like the spines of a porcupine.
The lights pop back on and you jump, scream, stagger backwards. You’ve just seen a reflection in the mirror that was not your own.
The reflection of Owen Stillson. The reflection of what was left of his body after they pulled him out of that dumbwaiter shaft. His skull crushed, face all smashed in, eyes squeezed from the sockets. And you hear him whisper the name of the man who pushed him down that shaft.
The name of the man who killed him.
You can almost smell the shit in your pants from when your bowels evacuated. You just 86’d your underpants. And as quickly as the apparition appeared in the mirror, it vanishes.
And you remember that you weren’t even supposed to be here today.