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Tomorrow's Special


From his perch at the counter stool, Kenneth watched Helen sweep the tiled floor. He pointed out bits of straw wrapper and matches with powdery black heads—and the occasional lucky penny. By all rights he should have been sweeping, being the hired man, but Helen preferred to sweep—though she missed a lot of crumbs by refusing to wear her new prescription. She worked along the cigarette machine, where he called her attention to a piece of piecrust poking out from under. “If I don’t see it, it ain’t dirt.” This was her standard reply. Though they both hailed from the Tar Heel State, he loved her Boone accent. People agreed that you sounded like you were from North Carolina if you were. But people from Boone spoke Boone. It just sounded different, softer, a bit of mountain music. He swiveled thoughtfully, pinching a speck of tobacco from his tongue, and sighed as Helen bent over, angling the broom under a peach-colored booth, vinyl glowing in the twilight. The Formica table tops sported peach-colored flakes and ivory trim. In fact, all the furnishings in the restaurant were colored peach. It was called The Sweet Peach Café.

Over the years, Helen had added a few touches: peach napkins, award-winning peach cobbler, and a peach-colored jukebox. Atop the roof was a huge peach, created by a neon artist from the college in the mid ’60s. The sign dwarfed the squat building and had been designed to look as though a big bite had been taken out of it. A local acid-tripper claimed that a giant mouth had roared out of space one night and bit it. For many in the town, especially the college kids, the glowing peach was more inviting than the smooth, chrome cross in front of the Baptist church.

Smoke streamed like a vaporizer from Kenneth’s nostrils, slow and warm. This added pleasure to Helen’s haphazard end-of-the-day cleanup. Five years he’d watched her do this. Five years ago he’d responded to her ad for a dishwasher/cook—No Alcoholics Apply. He had been hired on the spot by the distinction of being the only applicant for the job. He didn’t actually want a job at the time. He was recovering from a colossal career setback. He had just been dismissed from the Carolina Culinary for poisoning most of the school’s board at the Easter dinner, including the president’s wife, a corpulent, unkind woman. It was not his fault; the tainted pheasant was bad luck, a result of unsanitary farm practices. But he was the student chef in charge and responsible for all aspects of the meal. There was a saying at Carolina Culinary: “The chef goes down with the gravy boat.” He went down.

At the dismissal hearing he became sarcastic and said that many board members looked like they’d eaten too much already. Purging might have added years to their lives. This did not bode well. Later, he received a certified letter saying his chef’s certification would be withheld in perpetuity. He considered moving to Virginia, where there was no reciprocal food service agreement. But he took the job with Helen. He could flip burgers and make Caesar salads, salmon stew, and puddings in his sleep, plus a whole lot more if he wanted to. But he had sworn off pheasant. That was his cover reason, anyway, for taking the job. He liked Helen’s voice and her facial expressions. Whatever she thought seemed to be right there in her eyes and mouth.

She told him that it was time for her to get out from behind the grill and broaden her horizons, take a look at the world. Mainly this amounted to her becoming the hostess/waitress in her own cafe. She did get to sleep later and see more movies. One day in the summer, she left Kenneth in charge and took a trip up to Manteo to see “The Lost Colony.” It was performed outdoors and featured folks like Sir Walter Raleigh, Miles Standish, and Virginia Dare, who came to life on the stage. There was a weekend trip to Elizabeth City where, Kenneth gathered, she went to say good-bye to her old boyfriend, a carpenter who drank too much and had tried to rough her up. Helen said, proudly, that she had thrown him into a wall of sheet rock. Kenneth hoped that it had not been a fond good-bye, though she came back home crying.

The main thing with Helen was that he had to keep on his toes, find some middle ground. Her emotions ran hot, cold, and boiling over with temper, all of which he found attractive.

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