A Quarter in the Quarter (a short story about a cook).
Sam stood in the alleyway looking in a picnic cooler full of fish. It was 11:30pm on a Saturday night and humidity hung heavy. The kitchen was so small they didn’t have enough refrigeration space, so a few years ago he started keeping fish iced down in coolers in the side alley. Most nights it stayed colder in the portable coolers than it did in the groaning reach-in coolers they had inside. He kept mostly produce and day-to-day prep in those, food that was less perishable. Every time the inspector from the health department paid a “surprise visit” he would start his usual rant about the temperature of the coolers, then he’d be offered a bourbon-on-ice and everything would be fine. He was as crooked as this old building. He didn’t know about the fish in the alley, or at least he acted as if he didn't.
Sam had given up on asking Tom to buy him a new cooler, let alone have a walk-in cooler put in. Tom owns the place. He likes to be called Mr. Robenchon in front of customers, or if you really want to stroke his ego call him Monsieur Robenchon. He’s Creole, and third generation owner of Café Petite, a French Quarter institution. He’s spent most of his life in the Quarter; he’s an institution. He likes to play the game, likes to act like he’s still a high roller. He likes people to think that he’s still as wealthy as his grand-dad was. It’s all part of the façade, part of the game. But it keeps people coming in, night after night, especially the little old ladies whose jewels around their necks are worth more than he’s worth in total. When they enter, with their drivers holding the door open, they raise their old lady hands ensconced in little white gloves, and he kisses them. They like the way he says bonsoir in the best Creole accent he can muster. The rest of the time he sounds like he’s from Brooklyn. The whole charade makes Sam kind of sick to his stomach. He’s known Tom long enough to know that he’s just scraping by like the rest of us. His family’s money is long gone. The only thing that’s left of it is their name. That’s why he doesn’t bug him about the cooler. He knows he can’t afford it.
Tom’s grandfather—Pierre Robenchon—started this place back in 1910 with an inheritance he was given from his father, a former plantation owner. His grandfather, Sam was told, was basically a playboy and a drunk. He just wanted somewhere to play, where he could be treated special. Supposedly the thing that kept the place afloat was that his grandfather had, as Tom’s father did, as he does, a knack for surrounding himself by very interesting and talented people. That’s why he hired Sam. People say he’s one of the best cooks in the Quarter; it’s just his life he can’t get a handle on.
Though it was almost midnight the air still hung heavy outside, it was thick with moisture. Typical summer night in the Big Easy, Sam thought. Something dripped on him from the building’s eve above. Standing in the tight alley he wiped his head and looked up. It could be anything dripping on him from up there he thought…anything. He wished it would rain.
Sam had developed this system of icing fish outside out of necessity, and he was proud of it. He used ordinary picnic coolers, albeit large ones, and set up a series of tiers in them with wire racks, two or three tiers to a cooler. It depended on how full the coolers were. The racks were removable, they had to be to fill and retrieve the fish. The fish was placed on the racks then layered with cellophane before being iced down. He set the coolers on bricks and left their little drains open. This way the water drained out as it melted rather than accumulating, which could really ruin a good piece of fish. He’d also learned, through trial and error, that he had to put a couple of bricks on top of the coolers, too, to keep the lids closed. Otherwise feral cats would open them up and grab fish. One brick’s not enough, they’ll push it right off and open the lid; it’s got to be a minimum of two. This is a pain sometimes during the dinner hour—removing bricks, grabbing fish, replacing the bricks—but it’s got to be done, if you forget to replace the bricks the cats will grab fish as soon as you go back inside. It’s like they're waiting in the shadows. It’s amazing how smart they are. Everyone—everything—is just trying to survive.
On his way back into the kitchen Sam nicked his knuckle on the door frame while carrying a pan of ice that wouldn’t fit in the cooler. It didn’t hurt too much, and he hadn’t noticed it right away, but it was bleeding pretty good. It glistened in the florescent light. He shook off some of the blood and watched as it hit the tiled floor. The floor itself seemed to be sweating with the heat. He held a clean ice cube on the wound. The coldness of the ice hurt worse than the wound. A lot of blood for such a small cut, Sam thought; he must have hit it just right.
He rummaged around one of the cluttered shelves above the bread warmer for a band aid. Even though the equipment had been shut off for almost an hour it was still sweltering in the kitchen. Why the fuck do we have this emergency medical kit up here if there’s nothing in it, Sam thought. It was a makeshift kit—an old big yellow toolbox with the words Medical Kit written across it in indelible marker. It was a good thought, originally, but now all that remained were smelling salts, a half tube of antibacterial ointment, a gauze tourniquet, and a couple of empty boxes of band aids. He was annoyed now. He held his hand in an upright position and warm blood slowly oozed out his knuckle and down his arm. “If I ever need a tourniquet or smelling salts in this hotbox just drag me outta here,” he said to himself in a muttering tone.
“You alright over there chef?” José inquired from behind the line. José was Sam’s sous chef, his shadow. There was only room enough for three of them on the line: the two of them and a pantry cook, who doubled as dishwasher. Because of the tight quarters and the volume of business they almost had to read each other’s minds during the busiest times. They worked well together. José was only a couple years younger than Sam. He waded across the Rio Grande with his parents and twin sister before he was a teenager. By the time he was fifteen he was on his own, and he’s done all right for himself. He respected Sam and Sam respected him, and out of respect José referred to Sam as chef even though Sam told him not to. After more than two decades in the kitchen Sam was still not comfortable with people calling him chef.
Sam didn’t answer José. He walked into the small scummy bathroom off the kitchen and held his hand under cold running water. The water felt good; it soothed more than his bleeding finger. He looked at himself in the mirror. His hair was still full and had little curls around the edges, but it was beginning to gray. His youthfulness has faded, he thought. In just the last couple of years he’s begun to show his age. And why shouldn’t he? The way he works, with the everyday stress and the heat. He ran water through his hair with his hands and examined the thin lines of wrinkles on his face. Water dripped down onto his face and a little dot of blood was just above his eyebrow from his hand. “What did I do to deserve this?” He said aloud. He wasn’t referring to his bloodied hand, or his job. He was talking about his life predicament. Two years ago his wife had left him to return to her home state of Michigan, and Sam had still not gotten over it. She was welcomed back by her former boyfriend. She also took their young daughter, Tia. He thought of Tia everyday. They spoke on the phone once a week, and she stayed with him a couple of weeks during the summer, but it wasn’t the same. He also thought of his relationship with his ex-wife, Carly. He remembered when he first met her. He had only been in New Orleans six months and landed a job as saucier at a restaurant on Decatur Street. She was a waitress and a college student studying impressionistic dance. From the minute he laid eyes on her he knew he was in love. It was the way she carried herself, so full of confidence, but mostly it was the way she smiled. Now, after everything he’s been through—after everything she’s put him through—it’s hard to remember those days…those days when everything seemed special and magical. He missed them both; Tia and his ex-wife. He missed them being a family.
Sam had come down here from Woonsocket, Rhode Island more than twenty years ago. But his family is originally from Montreal; France before that, he's told. They still speak French at home. He could put on a good but fake French accent when needed. It's that same fake accent that initially wooed Carly when they first met. He was only eighteen when he came here, fleeing his abusive father. One night, after enduring yet another of his father's drunken rages, he simply left. He took nothing. He hitchhiked and planned on going to Mexico, or maybe California. But he landed here and he stayed. And he will never forget that feeling of destitute of those first couple months here. He slept on the street for a few weeks, ate in food pantries, and spent a lot of time in St. Louis Cathedral, praying. He prayed for help and for guidance, but mostly he prayed for his mom and little brother that he left home with his bastard father. Then one day as he sat in the pew of the mostly empty church a nun appeared in the isle beside him and asked if he was okay. She spoke to him in French. How did she know I spoke French, he thought? Was I praying out loud? She seemed to be from a different time; the way she was dressed, and the lilt in her voice. They spoke briefly in hushed tones, and then she simply told him to have faith, that things will be fine, they always are. Think of the “birds in the sky,” she said as she smiled and walked away. She was referring to Matthew 6, where we are told not to worry, that it is useless. And then, as suddenly as she appeared, she was gone. But she made such an impression on him that he has attended Mass at St. Louis nearly every Sunday since. Sometimes even weekday Mass. Usually sober and sometimes hungover he's often there. There was a small worn sign near the front entrance the reads, Saints and Sinners Welcome. Sam saw this the first time he came here and glances at it every time he's entered since.
When Sam came back to the kitchen there was an icy beer waiting for him. The bottle, like him, was sweating. He chugged nearly half of it and walked behind the line to retrieve his clipboard with Monday's produce order on it. Along the way he clinked his bottle with Jose's, who was cleaning the counter and cutting board. Neither said anything. They simply clinked their bottles in acknowledgment that the night went well.
The kitchen door opened and with it came a rush of cool air and the flourish of Paul, the flamboyant waiter. He was from deep in the bayou and also fled an abusive situation. Sam and Paul knew this of each other and never really spoke of it, but because of it they had a sort of unsaid camaraderie. Sam fed Paul food and Paul fed Sam drinks.
As Paul rushed in he had too many glasses on his tray as usual. It teetered, Paul himself teetered in silent-movie-comic sort of way, and two glasses fell from the tray and smashed on the floor. Sam turned to look, without saying anything, but imagined Tom—who was in the dining room—sort of quiver a little. Even if he didn't hear the glasses break, his sixth-sense knew something had happened, something that cost him money.
“Paul,” Sam said, almost sighing. “Oui, chef?” said Paul, sheepishly. “Une autre bière s'il vous plait,” then he added in English, “Two, actually. One for Jose as well.” “Oui Chef,” and he returned almost immediately with two fresh beers, and also two small chilled glasses of Herbsaint, that pale green and syrupy licorice-flavored but potent drink native to Southern Louisiana. “These are from Tom,” Paul said, nodding towards the two glasses.
Sam and Jose drank the Herbsaint first; they drank it in one large gulp. Jose let out a short howl, a sort of yelp, and shook his head, which reminded Sam of a large dog trying to shake something free. But Sam relished it; the sweet licorice fire as it burned down his throat. It's no wonder the old-timers refer to it as le diable vert; the green devil...it's sweet as pie but sneaks up on you when you least expect it, like an opportunist.
For a few minutes Sam just stood there, leaning against the stove and enjoying his beer. It's the first time he stopped moving since this morning. The kitchen door was opened now, and it was cooler in the kitchen. For nearly 25 years Sam has lived and worked in this neighborhood; almost a quarter century. A quarter in the Quarter, he thought to himself, and it made him chuckle. Jose looked at him when he did but said nothing. Cool air from the air-conditioned dining room wafted in through the open kitchen door, so did Louis Armstrong's song, Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans, which was playing on the sound system. Tom liked to play this for his regulars. In a few minutes Sam and Jose would go out to the small bar in the dining room; regulars would be glad to see them. They'll compliment the food; they'll buy them drinks.
Tomorrow is the only day of the week the restaurant is closed. It's also Sam's only day off. Sometimes he'd come in to do some prep or inventory. But not tomorrow. He needed the day off and had plans on going to Mass, no matter how hungover he was. But that was tomorrow. Tonight he would chill out and enjoy himself. And as a couple regulars raised their glasses to Sam and Jose, Sam thought to himself that he too knows how to play the game.