Phaedra wasn’t the only softy in the family.
With a wry smile, Pete glanced over at his boss and then continued with his duties.
I helped Hector roll silverware. Then I refilled the Coke syrup in the soda fountain behind the bar, cleaned the windows, and double-checked that the dining area was sparkling clean.
Gunnar dropped Kirby off at eight o’clock sharp, and she stood at the front door with her arms crossed, like she did every morning. I wasn’t sure why she insisted on coming in so early. We didn’t open until nine.
I opened the door and then locked the door behind her.
“I’m here!” she announced as she walked across the dining room, another thing she did every morning.
Kirby stuck her tongue out at Phaedra and then winked at me as she pushed through the double doors, letting them swing violently behind her.
“You’re gonna break those damn doors one of these days!” Phaedra called.
“Sorry.” Kirby was rushed but sincere, her dark ponytail swishing as she carried the salt and pepper canisters.
As she began to refill the shakers on each table, they exchanged knowing smiles.
“I’ve known that brat since she was a latchkey kid,” Phaedra said, shaking her head at Kirby.
“Good!” Phaedra snapped. “I’d make myself a grilled chicken panini with pickles and chipotle mayo every day, right about the time Kirby would pass by on her way home from Columbia Elementary.”
“Just because I knew you’d be ravenous by the time you poked your little crow head into my door,” Phaedra said, her tone a mixture of sass and silly. “She would talk nonstop with her mouth full, carrying on about her day, while she annihilated my poor panini, and then she wouldn’t even say thanks before wiping her mouth with her sleeve and walking the few blocks to Old Chicago where her mom waited tables.”
Kirby shook her head and chuckled as she detached the pepper shaker lid.
Noticing the time, I began unscrewing lids for Kirby, and she picked up her pace.
“Kirby is the only person in the world, including Chuck,” I said, nodding toward the kitchen, “who could get away with sticking her tongue out at you and live to tell about it.”
“No. I have two girls, and I take shit from both of them,” Phaedra said, arching her eyebrow at me.
I swallowed back the lump that had formed in my throat. Phaedra had a way of making me feel like family when I least expected it and always when I needed it the most.
She picked a hand towel off the counter as she approached me. She swung it over her shoulder and then glanced at her watch. She turned me to face the wall of glass, toward the three parked cars full of people.
She raised my hand with the open saltshaker still in my grip and began to recite her favorite sonnet, “Mother of Exiles! From her beacon-hand! Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command!”
After each verse, she would shake my elevated hand, salt falling over our heads like an erratic blizzard.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses!”
After Phaedra finished, she let go of my hand, and I shook out the white specks from my hair.
Phaedra sighed. “No one talks like that anymore.”
Kirby made a face. “Anyone would know that after seeing your arrest record from participating in sit-ins. What does that poem have to do with anything?”
I continued, “That sonnet is on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.”
Phaedra rolled her eyes. “Dear Lord Jesus, help us all.”
“I’ll get the broom,” Kirby said, dashing to the back room.
Phaedra grumbled all the way to the kitchen. Failure to know important pieces of history, or ignorance of common knowledge in general made her temper flare.
Kirby reappeared, broom and dustpan in hand. “Shit. I’ve tried to forget all of that since graduation. It’s summer break. You’d think she’d cut me some slack.”
“It’s going to be a long day,” I said, fetching the broom.
Kirby and I worked to clean the mess, and she rushed to the trash can with the dustpan while I flipped it open. People inside the three parked cars in front began to stir, and by the time Kirby returned from taking the broom to the back, the customers were waiting to be seated.
“I didn’t finish the shakers,” she whispered to me.
“On it,” I said, rushing to finish her job.
I looked at the clock, wondering how we’d gotten so far behind schedule. Usually, we’d finish with ten minutes to spare.
Phaedra didn’t reveal her mood to the customers, but Kirby and I had to work extra hard to keep her smiling. An entire pitcher of sun tea crashed to the floor, Hector broke a stack of plates, and I didn’t get one of the saltshakers screwed on tightly enough, so Chuck had to make a Philly cheesesteak sandwich on the double to replace the one with more salt in it than what had been in my hair.
Kirby seated the author and her assistant, their second visit in as many days.
“Afternoon,” I said with a smile. “Back again, huh?”
“It’s so good,” the author said. “I wanted to try the Cuban before we left.”
“This is not what I ordered,” a man said loudly to Phaedra.
Dwayne Kaufman was sitting alone in the corner, licking his thumb after tossing the top bun of his burger to the floor.
“Uh-oh,” Kirby whispered in my ear. “Dwayne’s been drinking again. Should I call the police?”
I shook my head. Who gets drunk before noon? “Let Phaedra handle it.”
“I said, no ketchup! And it’s fucking cold!” Dwayne yelled.
“My apologies, hon,” Phaedra said. “I’ll get that fixed right away, Dwayne.” She scooped up his plate and rushed through the double doors.
“I’m not your hon!” he called after her. “Piece-of-shit café.”
I walked over to Dwayne and smiled. “Can I get you a coffee while Chuck grills that up for you?”
“Fuck off,” he grumbled, facing me but keeping his eyes on the floor. “I just want a fucking burger the way I ordered it. Is that so hard?”
His cup of tea was over half full, but I wanted to keep him occupied until Phaedra returned. “She’s working on it. Let me get you more tea,” I said, picking up his cup.
He grabbed my wrist. “Get your tater-tot tits outta my face!”
The liquid sloshed from the cup onto my shoes as I tried to pull away, and then it happened again when another large hand encompassed Dwayne’s wrist.
Dwayne froze, and so did I.
Taylor had suddenly appeared next to me. “What did you just call her?” His voice was low and ominous.
I began to speak, but Dwayne let go of my hand and laughed nervously.
“I don’t want more tea,” he growled. “I want to be left alone!”