GOFER ALL OR NOTHING
by Katrina Johnston
The speciality at the Hampton Grill is huge cheeseburgers with wedge-cut fries. I’m on the normal day shift now. Hooray! Lucky me. Compared to the night-time slogs, the dinner rush is not so daunting. It seems like sanity. Maybe it will always be like this – smooth sailing.
There are no more rowdies after the bar closes and spews out drunks. The tables tend to be neater during the day. The bathrooms too. There are less unpredictable messes and fewer fights. I suppose the day shift might be busier, but I don’t mind. There are two negatives – the servers. They are bossy snits. It should be easier. But it’s not.
We’re the only restaurant for several acres of rural farmland. Locals, transients and truckers make up the majority of our customers.
Sarah and Sandra are the servers who claim to be identical twins. They don’t look exactly alike to me. Sarah is slightly shorter. Sandra has a longer nose. Both of them think they’re gifts from heaven. They do look similar, but that’s as far as it goes.
I’m the flunky and the errand slave. I go for this, I go for that, and I go for whatever the cook, the servers or the management require. I clean up messes.
Today…. Sandra, and not the other one, was busy being royal. Both Sarah and Sandra treat me like a minion. They’re only three years older; 24 to my 21.
Sandra bellowed: “Melanie! Don’t forget to bring a case of coffee creamers.”
I was heading past the the walk-in, going toward the kitchen, lugging a box of frozen burgers. I pretended not to hear. I began unloading and stacking the soup bowls. Sandra pounced again. “Where’s the case of creamers?”
“Get it yourself, I said. But very quickly I spoke again. “No wait. I’ll do it.” I wanted to keep her mollified. I had good reasons. The manager had explained that I might score a portion of her tips.
That’s Paul Tomlinson and he’s okay. Much earlier, he had poked his inspector’s nose into the kitchen and tsk tsked over the fryer. “The cooking oil is despicable,” Tomlinson said, but no one paid attention. He ran his bony fingertips along the counter. “Degreaser needed here and everywhere. And by the way…” and he turned to me, “…Melanie,” he said, “I am considering that all personnel should share gratuities.”
“Yes, you’re a valuable part of this team.”
I grinned.“Thanks,” I said to him, as pleased as a turtle in the mud. I tried not to show real enthusiasm. If Sandra and Sarah understood that they’d eventually have to divvy up their tips with me, they’d probably be snottier than ever.
Then Tomlinson said: “Okay. I’ve decided. Twenty-five percent.”
“That would be amazing,” I said, and I started thinking that any percentage was better than a big fat zero.
So, Sarah and Sandra have to be extra congenial with our customers if I’m to get anything in the way of tips.
The Hampton Grill is in the middle of the prairies. My parent’s grow canola. I keep two goats at home. We have a mixed farm. I call our goat shed a barn, but it’s really a pre-fab shack. We have three chickens. Used to have four chickens, but one of them was sacrificed last month. It was my birthday.
I’m seriously thinking about finding a way to consign this place to history. I can’t even locate the town of Hampton on the tourist brochures. There’s no action anywhere.
I’d like to bust right out and move to Southern California. I dream of beaches.
In California, I’d visit the art studios. I’d find some wealthy buyers for my charcoal drawings. I’d shop my portfolio around to the best galleries. Even if at first I couldn’t get noticed, and I ended up going broke, I’d find my way to work it out. I could doodle for the tourists. I dream about it every day. I want to get away to taste my freedom.
I’d have myself a blast because a lot of creative people live in San Francisco and I want fame and the inspiration of other artsy types.
My job here is not rewarding. Creativity consists of strong profanity bounced around the kitchen. The twins like to swear. When the temperature goes up, the cursing goes up too.
I suppose they’re pissed about the so-called deal of sharing tips, but that’s the way the burger sizzles.
I hurried to the walk-in fridge to find a box of coffee creamers.
Today, it’s just me, Sarah, Sandra, and the cook until 3:45 pm.
Sarah cornered me. “We need more ketchup.” She was fiddling with the fryer’s on-off switch.
A few seconds later, Sarah said: “Melanie, for pissy sake, clear the pathway.” She jabbed my shoulder with her elbow. “Move. Tote the dishes back and run ’em through the sanitizer. The bins are overflowing.”
I wanted to strike back: ‘Don’t tell me what or when.’ I wanted to shove her out of my vicinity.
A rumour is swirling.
Holly Dewell is coming to Hampton. They say she might be staying overnight. I wonder if that’s truth? She’s my favourite country singer. I mean she’s everything.
Tomlinson returned after the post lunch clean-up. He began by hovering at the grill and scribbling notes. Then he scraped a spatula of heavy grease and tsk tsked once again.“It’s the most unusual circumstance, you might have heard the gossip,” he said to me. “Holly Dewell is planning a pet intervention. Going to rescue Rialto in all his flabby glory before Ms. Wickstrum goes into a facility.”
Everyone in Hampton knew about Ms. Wickstrum and her famous cat. My family is well acquainted. She’s a neighbour, so I knew all this.
Ms Wickstrum isn’t able to keep her trailer. She is going senile. She has to go into Rest Haven, but first she has to find a placement for the black and white tuxedo cat she calls Rialto. He’s a super heavy beast. A picture of the cat and an accompanying descriptive story are featured in last year’s Guinness Book of World Records for the heaviest living feline. Poor, dumb pile of flab. He’s over 38 pounds. Rialto lies around like a puddle on the floor. He sprawls upon a cushion until Ms. Wickstrum remembers (if she does and if she is able) to haul him to his litter box. He doesn’t go outdoors. As far as I understand, he doesn’t move.
I was stunned. I tried to keep a serious expression on my face. My mind was whirling with excitement over the possibility of seeing my singing idol, Holly Dewell. I was supposed to be rinsing dishes.
It was crazy news to me that a famous singer was concerned about the plight of Ms. Wickstrum or her cat, but I knew a lot of social media stuff about Holly Dewell’s career. I follow her online. She’s the very best.
I realized I was going to see her; somehow here, no matter what it took.
I’ve got most of her CDs. Her lyrics express love and reality. She sings as if she knows everything about me. I don’t share much of my feelings about being such a fan with the folks around here, but Holly’s songs make me shiver. I crank up the volume. Sometimes I cry.
I’ll go and find her.
I’ll make it to the airport. I’ll get her autograph. I’ll discover what she’s really like. But she’ll only be in town for a brief stopover before she carries on to Vegas.
I don’t connect with anyone here in Hampton and it’s far too long ago that I had very many friends during high school. Most of them have moved.
This is the second most important aspiration for me. I mean…. More friends. My first goal, always and forever, is to find a way to make it as an artist. Painting and drawing and sketching have been my wisest and my dearest allies. But I could use more human contact in my life. Even I know that.
Tomlinson cornered the cook over by the fridge and they began discussing something in a very serious manner. I eavesdropped.
“Ms. Dewell is going to be an honoured guest,” Tomlinson told the cook. “We’re expected to provide for her. She doesn’t care to stay at a hotel. Wants a private residence.”
“So where’s she’s bunking-in?” The cook sneezed three times, “Camp grounds?”
“That old mausoleum? The run-down place back of Drayton’s?”
“Yes. One and the same. A room has been renovated. The amenities are connected.”
“I suppose she might want a pool, a sauna, and a concierge?” the cook said.
“No, not all that. The private residence insures the singer might retain her anonymity. The rescue of the cat is supposed to come out as an exclusive and at a much later release to the press. After it’s all done.”
“She’ll be wanting food. Is that right?”
“Sushi?” That stuff looks like bait. I don’t do Japanese.”
“Better learn. However…. Maybe…. I’ll have to send an employee to the Ferntown mall. There’s a seafood place. Yeah, right, give me steak and fries in any other circumstance. She wants sashimi, shrimp, tempura. Yeah that’s what her representatives have specified. We should supply a good variety.”
The cook shook out a ragged tea towel and drew it through his fingers. He flicked the cloth with a decisive whack that split the steamy air. “Don’t do Japanese,” he said again.“What kind of beverages does this lady wish to order?”
“Wine – Sireana – Cabernet and a vintage port. Something prior to 1958. No juice or soda. No desserts.”
Tomlinson turned towards me. I flinched like I’d been stung. He wasn’t smiling. “You willing to help me Melanie?” He was examining me from head to toe, and I felt like a suspect under criminal surveillance. “Into the office,” the manager said, gesturing like I was a feather duster. I obeyed. I followed him.
Technically it’s called the ‘office’ but the room is an alcove with a rickety table and a couple of chairs. After Tomlinson closed the door and we sat, it seemed he was about to announce an investment scheme. “Melanie,” he said. “I want you to go and buy the wine and the port and the sushi for our guest.” He pushed two twenty dollar bills across the table. The cash is for your initial expenditure. The rest…. ring it up on debit.” He skidded a bank card at me. I caught it before it skittered to the floor. “Go to Ferntown.”
“What? Mr. Tomlinson….” I said. “Sushi? Ferntown? You can’t be serious?”
“See…. Like this. We don’t prepare seafood at the diner. I don’t know of anyone who serves up any kind sushi way out here.”
“You’ll have to fetch the food. Take the bus. Go to the Japanese place. I think it’s called Komaji’s. I’m too swamped to drive south right now. Get a sampler. Make sure it’s elegant… sashimi, tempura, shrimp, and perhaps another? California rolls? Bring the items back in the carry cooler. Keep the sushi packed in layers of ice and the cooler gel packs. It’s gotta be ultra fresh.”
“It sounds way too complicated,” I said.
“It’s not,” Tomlinson said. “I have faith. Don’t forget. Ms. Dewell’s agent has ordered a bottle of port and a brand name too – the finest. It’s called Graysons. Here, take my cell for all emergencies.” He slid his phone over to me. “Don’t forget the cooler.”
I began to sweat. How was I supposed to go all the way into Ferntown on the mid-day bus and haul supplies back to Hampton before 2 pm on Friday? That was the time that Holly Dewell’s flight was expected to arrive and I’d end up losing out. I’d probably get back at 4:20 pm and that was far too late. Even if I managed to complete the errand, I wondered if Holly Dewell would answer the door at the residence? Did she have an entourage of security personnel, a body guard – her own staff gofer? Would they welcome me if I came to visit?
Hey, I might be a hero? Maybe, I should go for it. I had to go for everything and take every single chance to get to meet her.
The bus was packed.
At the liquor store, they didn’t have the wine. I had to guess at other varieties. I found two bottles of Sauvignon and a Merlot and the Graysons. The cashier wouldn’t ring the purchase until I excavated my ID. When I finally stepped outside, the taller bottles were clinking awkwardly against the shorter one. That load was packed in a less-than-helpful paper bag. The cooler was a nuisance. It is a rather large and squarish box. It’s heavy even when it’s empty. I hurried because I didn’t like hanging around the liquor outlet. At Komaji’s, I ordered the expensive choices. I was rushing. I was nervously heading back to the bus, intending to catch the 1:45, and trying to keep steady, balancing the cooler and the liquor. I had to hold on carefully.
A sky-blue Ford pick-up swung around the corner. It raked over the curb while I waited for the light. I stumbled back. The bag containing the bottles dragged itself from my right-hand clutch. The bottles hit cement, shattered, splashed my pant leg and the bottom of my jacket. Instantly, I smelled like a wino vagrant. The cooler box bashed against my shin.
I sent creative profanity towards the driver who had not slowed or stopped to check on me. I wouldn’t cry. I couldn’t. My curses went nowhere.
I trudged on. After a few minutes I waited on the sidewalk. I called Tomlinson. I told him where I was. I explained about the booze and about nearly getting killed.
“Go again, Melanie,” he said. “Go and buy the liquor one more time. Come back as soon as you might.” Then he laughed. I heard him sigh. “Go directly over to the Chateau. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.”
Was he trying to be easy-breezy by attempting his own brand of funny, or trying hard not to swear at me?
I did what was necessary, resenting all the while that I’d be so much later. I’d have to wait for the final bus departure. I wouldn’t get back into Hampton until it was almost dark.
The smelly bus rolled over Hampton road at 5:27 pm and it curved around the jagged rocks along the newly paved thoroughfare – 5:32 pm. At the “Welcome to Hampton” sign – 5:44 pm.
Once I’d alighted from the bus, I checked. It was heading onto 5:48 pm. Outside the residence. I was gasping – 5:51 pm. I pushed the doorbell with my elbow.
I heard the yowling of a cat.
He was just beyond the door. And the famous Rialto was screeching high soprano. He is known for his flabbiness, not his voice. Apparently he is not a tenor nor an alto. He was sounding miserable, screeching like the Scottish bagpipes, discordant noise.
Holly Dewell opened the door. “Hello.”
Except for the yodelling animal, she was alone. I twitched.
“Wow,” I said feeling overwhelmed. “I expected a body guard, maybe an enormous dude with muscles or with dark glasses – a secret agent type.”
She was very beautiful. Her teeth were white perfection. She was shorter than I’d expected, but she had such a friendly way of welcoming. She pulled me inside, her very own right hand guiding me. She had a brilliant manicure of peachy frosted elegance. She reached beyond me to close the outer door. I twitched again.
“I’ve sent my associate and my manager away,” she said. “They’ve gone ahead. They’re arranging a Vegas production.”
I said nothing. She winked at me. Yes, she winked!
“This place is so darn deserted,” she said. “It’s weird. I crave my own company whenever I can arrange it, but this has been adventure. Well, I mean…. Creepy. There’s a loss of privacy when everyone wants a piece of me. I’m alone in here except for this diva, singing pussy cat.”
My knees felt like jelly. I held out the cooler and the bag. “Here’s the food and drinks,” I said. I stuttered.
The fat cat kept on yowling.
“Come all the way inside and shut that inside blinds,” Holly said. “Thanks so much for bringing the supplies.” She indicated a side table. With a sigh of relief, I placed my burdens on the table.
Rialto was just beyond the entrance way. He was in the living room area, but only just, like someone had dropped him there because he was too large to tote further. He was on the rug, screeching like a loud and annoying toddler, a lumpy puddle of fur having an ultimate tantrum.
Holly pointed a finger at the cat. “The reality of this animal rescue deal is driving me crazy,” she said. “Please….” she went on, “Come on. Pull up a chair and sit in comfort. I’m all alone with this crazy squawker. What’s your name?”
“I’m Melanie.” I stammered. “Why do you have Ms. Wickstrum’s fatso here? I mean, wouldn’t someone else be more inclined to take charge of the logistics and his transport?”
“It was supposed to be a humanitarian gesture,” Holly said. “A high-profile public stunt. A story. We’ve arranged to have the cat delivered here and then tomorrow the animal is to be shipped onwards to a rescue place in Nebraska. It’s called Soft Landings. They adopt. They’re sending an assistant in the morning. Someone will put him on a train, then a diet, make sure he has a responsible owner and a good life. My agency informs me that the elderly woman who has been keeping him is the same person who has fattened him up.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s Ms. Wickstrum. A catastrophe.”
And then I took a deep breath and continued talking, but way too jittery. “Ms. Wickstrum’s sort of become a legend here. The cat is infamous.”
“I understand,” Holly said. “The squawker. Until tomorrow anyhow…. Acchhhh…. He won’t stop this horrible mewling and it’s so damn loud, and now he’s squeaking too. That’s a new sound. He sounds so…. pathetic. Can you hear the squeak?”
“Hungry.” I said.
“But, I gave him food, and more. Seven packages of Kitsy Munch. The packages were stock-piled for this exact purpose. I’ve got nothing in the fridge.”
“Rialto would like other treats, something different than a dry cat food.”
“Hey, an idea. You say you have a quantity of sushi?”
“Sashimi – shrimp – others.”
“Give it to Rialto. Maybe that will shut him up?”
We grabbed the cooler, snapped it open, tore away the wrappings and discarded the ice. Then we set the sushi down before his royal flabbiness on a flat sterling silver tray.
Rialto was laying supine, his face towards the ceiling, his paws curled over his expansive girth. He sniffed. He stopped crying. He had to work it out. First, he moved his torso tentatively and his stomach followed, squashing against itself in a sort of hideous orchestrated undulation of rolling over. He craned his neck, reached for the tray. He sniffed again. We laughed, but it really wasn’t comical.
“So distressing,” Holly said. “Pitiful.”
And there was nothing beautiful to watch when Rialto began to consume. He ate like a hog; slurping, gorging. A long pink tongue wrapped around half his face as he struggled with his own dexterity of getting slices of food from tray to mouth, greedily sucking and chugging down each morsel. We watched the vanishing. Piece-by-piece, California rolls and all. He ate until the tray was empty. Then Rialto closed his eyes and purred and fell into a fat cat doze.
I looked at Holly and she looked at me. “Peace,” I said.
Holly rubbed her hands together. “Finally.” She sighed. “I’m really praying that he sleeps right through the night. Except, we’ve got no dinner. I hope you’ll stay with me and keep me company in case this guy vocalizes once again. He might ramp it up.”
“Sure,” I said. And we moved away from the cat and sat down on the big orange sofa chairs further back within the room.
Holly brushed a hand across her forehead. “Are you from this area? What do you like to do?” she said. “Are you into music? Sports?”
“I like your music,” I said. And I felt overwhelmed. “I’m an artist,” I said, feeling shy. “I do sketches. Sometimes, I do over-washes. And I also do some fill-ins using watercolours.”
“That’s really amazing stuff,” she said. “I’d love to see your work, but I guess you don’t have it on your person. And you’ve been so kind to bring the rescue. I’m sure starving,” she said.
“I know a local restaurant. It’s about ten blocks along the highway, just a few steps north.”
“I’m not going out in public,” Holly said. “I hope you understand. I tend to get mobbed. A side-effect of the biz. I’ve got fans. Too many sometimes. Could we phone and get something delivered?”
“Yeah,”I said. “Do you like cheeseburgers?”
“Cheeseburgers?” She nodded. “Plenty. And french fries.”
“Cool,” I said. “I can use my bosses debit and his phone.”
“I only eat the classy low-cal items,” she said, “to reinforce a positive public image. Please don’t tell my publicist, or my trainer. They worry about my image.”
I called the Hampton Grill. We ordered enough take-out for two very hungry women and one obese yowler.
“And while we are waiting,” Holly said, “Tell me more about your sketches and your paintings. Did you go to art school?”
After a while, we heard the doorbell.
Sandy and Sarah stood on the threshold.
“What do you want?” I said.
“We’ve come to say hello to Holly Dewell,” Sarah said. “We’ve come to welcome her. We’ve got the food as per the takeout order.”
I could smell the onions.
“Well, hand it over,” I said. And I used my own imperious voice, trying for new confidence, like I was the chairperson of this particular celebrity encounter. “I’m in charge.”
I really liked telling Sarah what to do.
Holly had ducked beyond the curtain in case the visitor was some sort of maniacal fan, or perhaps many fans who might have found her country hideaway. But when she realized it was only the food we’d ordered, Holly came to stand beside me. She reappeared and smiled briefly at each twin. I felt her presence near my shoulder blades.
Holly put a protective hand at the side of my upper arm. We faced the twins together, and said in unison: “Thanks.” I took custody of the bag of food. I could really smell the burgers now.
Before I realized what was happening, Holly had reached over my head and pushed the door, effectively shutting away the anxious faces of the twins as if they were flunkies twice dismissed.
“Bye,” Holly said. And the door swung closed.
They fell away from my sight. The last image I retained was one of Sarah and Sandy’s mouths gaping.
“I’m ultra hungry,” Holly said, and she grabbed the bag. “You were telling me…. What kind of scenes or visions do you dream up? How often do you draw? Do you use graphite sticks and pen and ink?”
We talked and we ate. Occasionally we checked on the sleeping fatso.
“Hey,” Holly said, “Do you think I should have given those two girls some kind of tip? They’re sisters, right?”
“Did they earn anything?” I said.
“I’ll have to get my agent to add a generous bonus. Those girls probably depend upon their tips. My agent will send a gratuity over to the restaurant in a day or two. What’s the name of the place?”
“The Hampton Grill,” I said. “It’s the only place along the highway.”
“So, beside my tunes – what other kinds of music do you like?”
She was like a friend.
Holly told me about performing in Nashville and in Austin. She’s been to England six or seven times. She’s held major concerts in North America.
We talked until half past twelve. After that I checked my watch and it was 1:45 am. Additional minutes kept on skipping along. When I realized it was edging close to 2:00 am, and I had a lengthy walk to get myself home, I mucked about to find my jacket.
Rialto, the enormous, squishy, squashy brute, kept on sleeping like he was a little fish-aholic. If he planned on waking and singing opera, Holly had enough leftover cheeseburgers to satisfy a horse.
“This kitty cat is kind of sorrowful, Holly said, looking down at Rialto. “In a sprawly, lumpy and pitiful fur-ball way…. he is handsome. Well, I mean, he may be considered handsome, that is… if and when he’s silent. I hope they take good care of him and feed him sensibly at the rescue place.”
We both gazed down at Rialto until tears welled in Holly’s grey-blue eyes. “Poor baby cakes,” she said. “I swear he’s snoring.” Holly reached down and she stroked Rialto’s head. “Listen.”
Luckily, he did not reawaken. We held our breath and we listened. “Yep, that’s snoring” Holly said. “Listen…. It’s like a sweet and spiritual tune.”
“Dreaming about sashimi.”
Before I ventured outside, Holly said: “You’ve gotta come to California. Stay with me.”
“You’re not serious?”
“Oh yeah, I am. I think we’d have some amazing times. I mean, we are friends already. We’ll go to Sausalito. I’ll take you around to the art galleries. I’ve got many connections,” she said. “I know a lot of folks who will open doors for you. You might be famous. Could you handle that?”
“I might go for it.” I told her. And then she slipped a business card inside my pocket. “Here’s my 411,” she said. “Please call me. Do it very soon. Say you will! I’ll arrange a meeting.”
She gave me a hug. “It’s like we’re long lost sisters. We could be…. We could be twins.”
“I don’t think so.” I laughed.
“But we are both artists and we finish each others thoughts and we laugh. It’s meant that we would meet this time, and share our good experience.”
I went outside. I turned around and I waved, but shyly. I stepped into the night that was full of countless stars hanging over Hampton. Sequins on the clouds.
I started walking home, passing through the intersection. I took a shortcut around the jagged rocks along the boulevard, walking down the centre line. There was no sign of traffic and the wind was warm.
I could hardly see the moon, but it was shining all around me and I wasn’t dreaming now. I was humming something from Holly Dewell’s playlist. Something sweet and soulful. I couldn’t recall the name of the song, but I knew the lyrics word for word for word and those words nearly make me cry.
About the Author:
Katrina Johnston is a recent Pushcart Prize nominee. Her short stories appear at or on several online magazines. She lives in the beautiful environs of Victoria, BC, Canada. The goal of her writing is to explore and share with others whatever that she finds.