The first girl drops three plates in one hour.
Less for me to wash, Miguel says, wiping his soapy hands down the front of his apron. I shrug and turn back to the grill so as not to see my customers leaving, tired of waiting to place their orders. Fortunately the lunch rush is almost over when the girl steps out for a cigarette and doesn’t come back.
At least she remembered her tips, Miguel says, shaking the empty jar over his head.
We’ve established a good system, Miguel and I. I open up in the mornings around 5:00 and get the coffee going while prepping the day’s food. Miguel comes in around 8:00, the middle of morning rush, and scrubs the egg smears and grease from the plates in time for lunch. Most of our customers keep their orders simple–lots of fried eggs on rolls, cheeseburgers, rice and beans, and BLTs. We talk about buying the place next door to punch through the wall to add two more rows of booths. Once that happens, we’re big time, Miguel says.
Having a waitress was Miguel’s idea. Class up the joint, no more calling out orders over the counter. He said the Greek place at the end of the block had waitresses, cupping his hands in front of his chest. Big waitresses. Real nice, he said.
The second girl I catch on top of Miguel in the walk-in, the steel door propped open by a cardboard box full of lettuce heads. It won’t happen again, Miguel says, dropping his apron back into place. The girl, Java, keeps her face turned away from me for a few days, flushing red each time she puts in an order. The blushing suits her and the way she bites at her full lower lip, the tiniest bit of front teeth showing.
You’re a married man now, Miguel says later, I’m doing this for you.
Miguel likes to fill my head with visions. After his last girlfriend threw him out, he slept on my couch until Marta started showing. Now he has an apartment around the corner from us, one small room with a mattress on the floor.
Being on my own, he says, imagine the possibilities.
With Marta pregnant, more and more I find myself imagining all sorts of things–girls on the countertops, girls in booths, girls in my bed until Marta’s snoring wakes me and I remember who I really am.
It doesn’t take long for Miguel to tire of the second girl.
You have to fire her, he says. She’s stalking me.
Before I can refuse, Miguel calls to the girl. Jose has something to say to you baby.
Java walks over to me at the cash register, her eyes cast down, her front teeth worrying her lip. She can’t be much more than eighteen–if I have a daughter, I will keep her away from men like my brother. She takes the money I give her, a thick roll of ones and fives, and tucks it into her waistband, tight against the brown skin of her belly.
A lot of money for a little girl, Miguel says. What you need to fire is your Catholic guilt.
When Miguel and I were younger, we tore pictures of models from our mother’s magazines. Miguel preferred big-breasted women with dark eyes and full lips. Homegrown, he said. Miguel says that my preference for big-breasted blonde women is what brought us to the US in the first place.
The third girl is not Miguel’s type, which is a big part of why I hire her. The other part is that she is big-breasted and blonde. Elena, a tall Russian girl, agrees to start right away. She was a waitress before coming to New York, the first person I’ve met to hold the same job in both places. Many of our customers were doctors, lawyers, teachers before coming to the United States–now they sit over coffee with heavy workbelts hanging off the backs of their chairs, thick boots leaving ridges of dirt on our tile floors. They eat their sandwiches with knives and forks to keep from touching their food with hands stained with paint and varnish, fingernails caked and cracking.
Miguel says I waste too much time on the little things, says I need to think big picture.
He doesn’t like the new girl, thinks she’s too broad in the shoulders, some sort of Soviet experiment.
Lift her skirt, see for yourself, he says. I snap him with my dishrag.
Elena’s first week passes like nothing special. At night, Marta asks me how the new girl is and I lie. I tell her she’s clumsy, slow, and ugly. I waddle like a duck around our living room, bowing over her. Kin I tak yer odor, I say. Marta laughs all the way back to the silver caps on her molars. She likes when I clown, says it makes me seem like a young man. Fun, she says, her fingers ruffling my hair.
Though I want to argue with her, tell her that joking doesn’t pay the rent, that fun won’t put our baby through school, I keep quiet. She doesn’t like being here, doesn’t like how English feels in her mouth. Says it’s like trying to eat raw dough that’s still rising, all gummy and gluey. When she explains, she holds her hands at her throat like she’s gasping for air. She only speaks Spanish at home, though I tell her she’s never going to learn English that way. The tapes I bought her are still wrapped in their plastic. What I got to learn for, I got you. When she says this, she smiles, shy like the girl I once knew. Then she gets down on her knees, one hand under her belly, the other splayed out for support on the floor. I got you, she whispers, lifting her hand to my belt. Don’t you want me to, she asks, looking up at me.
Elena is quick to the routine, so quick that it’s easy to ignore her complaints. She calls them improvements. Where Elena comes from they steal bread just to survive. Stealing bread must turn a woman’s heart. Elena says she can pinch a penny until it screams. As customers leave, she gives them the eye and taps a spoon against the tip jar.
That one, he’s always drunk, sitting too close to the till. He will rob you, she says.
Or: you are too friendly, your plates are too big and need too much food to fill them.
Or worse still: they are not your friends. They laugh at your English behind your back.
She has good ideas though, so I take the bad with the good and business picks up. One morning she brings in a chalkboard and writes the daily specials, looping colored chalks in big letters, a border of flowers and birds. It is the first time I’ve seen her smile and can picture her as a little girl with that yellow hair, solving sums at the board. Times like these I think she’s my big angel, but other times I’m not so sure.
Like the other day, she breaks off one of the bruised bananas and hands me part, the flesh translucent and slick. No good for the customers, she tells me.
I nod, mashing the banana around in my mouth until it’s soft like pudding, the thick sweet smell filling my nostrils.
I’ve been going over your books, she says. Since the first week, she’s been correcting the tallies, writing her numbers neatly in columns. I fold the banana peel into thirds. Something’s not right, she says.
I nod. I’m sure everything’s fine.
Who does your orders? Who pays the suppliers?
I toss the peel at the trashcan. She knows who does these things. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about doing the books anymore, I tell her.
She shrugs, turning her round shoulder away from me, tightening her apron before taking up a stack of menus to wipe clean. By now I know how she gets, know it will be several hours before she’ll bother looking at me, know that I will wait patiently those hours for that look. I push what she’s saying out of my mind.
Until later, after everyone’s gone, and I draw my finger down the column of neat numbers, the cross-outs, the corrections. I trust Miguel.
But the numbers do not lie and neither does Big Angel.
It isn’t long before Miguel says we need to get rid of Elena. This one, he says, is not right for the place. Too bossy. He looks over his shoulder as he says this, afraid Elena might hear. I concentrate on my grill, scraping the lines of grease off to the side, keeping the center shiny and clean.
She’s good for business.
Business was good before.
Maybe not so good. Maybe it would be better if Elena kept the books. I take my towel and wipe the edge of my spatula before turning back to the grill.
All a sudden you got a problem with the way I do things
I shrug. The numbers just don’t add up, Miguel.
So my math’s no good. By what, pennies? A few dollars here and there?
Maybe a brother should ask, maybe. I shrug again.
Maybe this brother should just leave then, maybe you like that better. Maybe that waitress will be a better brother to you. He heads out the front door, the bell Elena tied in place jingling as the door swings wide.
I tell myself he’s just jealous, he’s not used to women who don’t give him second glances, his wavy hair, his dark eyes. When we were younger, people said we looked like twins. Then he grew taller, leaner, the muscles in his chest and shoulders broadening whereas I stayed short, a barrel on two sticks, Miguel calls me.
Solid, Marta says, comparing her widening girth to my own.
Strong like an ox, Elena says when I lift crates of eggs, or boxes of canned tuna, or flats of frozen beef. Sometimes she stands at the top of the stairs, looking down at me working in the basement storage, the light coming in around her golden head, and my heart swells.
A good man, she calls down to me. Hard work makes a man good, she says.
I am used to Miguel’s temper and figure it will be a few days before he cools off, but then a week passes and another and I start to forget what it was like before. Orders go out fast and plates come back scraped clean. Elena brings in her cousin to wash dishes. Maksim buses the tables fast, placing the plates and mugs carefully into the deep sink. They jabber at each other in Russian and give me wide smiles. Elena tells me Maksim looks up to me, what a successful businessman I am. As she says this, her thick fingers brush against my forearm. Hard like a clamshell, she says, squeezing at the ball of my bicep.
At night, I dream of Elena’s red lips, her blue eyes and round pink cheeks. She is modest, a shy arm across her full breasts that I gently coax away before pulling her down on top of me.
At work I look for ways to press against her, passing close behind the counter, holding plates with my arm bent so she must come nearer to take them from me. She begins staying late, helping me close. She begins coming early, helping me open. It is so much better now, she says. She shows me her tallies, says she has friends who can punch through that wall, build my new booths. Maybe someday we run the place together, she says, drawing a shy finger along the top of my ledger.
Marta’s already in bed most nights by the time I get home, but she makes herself wake up to yell at me, her voice sleepy and thick. Miguel has been coming to see her during the day. He has become Marta’s personal cross to bear, the thing she must make right, and in my heart, I am afraid of what she might make me do.
When I try to explain how much better things are now, she tells me I am stubborn. That Miguel will pay me back.
It isn’t just about the money, I say.
Then talk to him. He is your own blood, this is not right, Marta argues. It is that woman. She makes you call your own brother a thief. Why do you listen to her?
This question I don’t answer. Instead, I turn back the sheet and lower myself into bed, careful to stay to my side.
Think of our baby, she whispers in my ear after we’ve turned out the lights. He needs an uncle, he needs a godfather. Not a waitress. Not a fat ugly waitress. Fire her and bring Miguel back, she says, her fingers rubbing then clamping tight at the back of my neck.
In my life, I’ve tried not to think too much about destiny. Destiny means that as hard as I work, as much as I try, some dark force may drop down and take it all away. Nothing that’s been my destiny has turned out so good. Destiny gave me my brother and Destiny tied me to a pregnant Marta and Destiny brought Elena to me only to cut her away.
The next day, I am late for work. Elena already has the lights on and the coffee brewing. The early worm, she says smiling. The kitchen is thick with steam and the stainless steel gleams like mirrors as Maksim scrubs down the walls and counters. Doubt turns sour in my stomach until I lose myself in the rhythm of the grill, slamming out orders, the metal spatula ringing like church bells.
After lunch, the diner empties out and the three of us sit down to eat, Elena taking neat bites of the tuna sandwich I’ve made her. Good, she says. Not too wet. Her lips shine with mayonnaise. Maksim sits next to us, his head turning back and forth between us, not understanding a thing we’re saying. I get a picture of the three of us, years from now, happy and whole, and I think how easy it would be for me just to stay here, to never go home again.
I cannot fire my big angel.
Then I think of Marta round with my baby, my first child. Your Catholic guilt, Miguel would say, his hands at his neck like a noose.
I tell Elena we need to talk. She says something to Maksim who nods and goes in back with our plates and I hear him whistling at the sink.
He’s a good worker? Elena asks. It’s good, us three?
As she says this, she stands to straighten her apron, tugging at the sides of the bib until it is centered, snug against her breasts. She turns her blue eyes on me, shyly smiling, a blonde curl escaping from the pile of hair atop her head. A good team, she says, coming closer to me, her pink hand resting on mine.
Turning, I glance at the front door, though I know it will be at least another hour before customers start coming in. Past three o’clock is our slow time, our time to restock and prep for dinner. I turn back to Elena. On my stool, I am the same height as she is standing. She takes my hand and places it on her breast. I feel you here, she whispers. In my heart. She squeezes her hand over mine and I work her soft flesh as she steps into me.
That night I tell Marta I will not fire Elena. She is good for business and we need business to be good. I press my hand against her hard belly and, looking deep into her dark brown eyes, I tell her to think of the baby. I rub my hand over her belly, her outturned navel a small bump against my palm. I push her swollen breasts together, gently, and say again, think of the baby, and as I say this, I make myself brush my lips against hers.
For a few weeks I am the man I have always wanted to be, pulling Elena to me in the walk-in, against the counter, in the depths of the basement. At home, I silence Marta with my hands, my lips, my fingers, her head rolling back against her pillow as her fingers ruffle and tug at my hair. Fun, she calls me. Lover, she calls me, shyly trying out the English word in her mouth.
For a few weeks, I think that I have finally saddled my destiny, the reins firmly in hand. Then Miguel comes back.
The first day, he sits at the counter for hours over a cup of coffee Elena refills with angry sighs and a balled fist at her waist. Regulars come up to him, ask him where he’s been. He smiles and shrugs. He calls out over the counter, says I need to be reminded that I have a brother. I will sit here until you come to your senses, he says.
By the third day, Elena is slamming plates down in front of customers and wiping furiously at imaginary spills with her gray dishrag. She pulls me over to the sink, her angry fingers poking at my side. This is not what I want, she shouts. He is a thief. He will ruin everything. When Elena presses against me behind the counter, Miguel raises his eyebrows at me, a smile teasing up the corner of his mouth.
Why don’t you go away, she asks him. We don’t need you here.
Miguel shakes his head at her, his eyes locked on me. When we were little, he could make himself cry and I would give him everything I had just to make him happy again. He would say I was the best brother in the world.
Your only brother, I’d say.
Then I’m lucky to have the best, he’d say, his small arms at my waist.
The days pass slowly with Miguel at the counter. He draws on napkins. He chews at cubes of ice. He brings girlie magazines to Maksim, teaching him the words to go along with the pictures. My brother has a beautiful wife, he says, he doesn’t need magazines like this. He says this in front of Elena and she presses her lips together so tight they disappear. She stops speaking to me and instead calls out orders like she’s talking to God, her face turned up to the ceiling, her eyes rolled back in her head.
At home, Marta stops giving me her opinions, says she’s too busy listening to her tapes to worry about the diner. Take him back, keep them all, what do I care, she shrugs, flipping ahead in her book to the next lesson. The baby will be here soon, she reminds me. I’m going to be an American mommy, she says. An American wife, she adds shyly, teasing her lips at my ear lobe.
Do you think the baby can hear, she asks, holding the tape player close to her belly. Kiss, she says in English, the tip of her tongue pushing out between her teeth.
Brother, Miguel finally says to me, coming back around to the grill. Just tell me to leave and I will leave. You deserve your happiness. He puts his hand on my shoulder and gives it a squeeze. I keep my face to the grill, the smoke and grease stinging at my eyes.
I think over the past month, my happiness, Elena’s soft breasts against mine, how it feels to be a man like my brother, one who women desire. I think of these things but make myself say what I should.
Don’t go, I say.
My best brother, he says, sliding his arm around me, pulling me into his side.
The next day Miguel comes back to work and Elena tells me she’s leaving. This, she says pointing at Miguel, is no team. Is not a family. She turns her finger, pointing it between us. You decide, she says.
The words for what I want to tell her only come to me in Spanish and my tongue flattens out like a wide wooden spoon. I want to pull her close, put my face to her neck, beg her to stay, but I can’t.
Elena, I say. He’s my brother.
Fine, she says, throwing her apron on the ground between us.
Though we stay busy, the diner feels empty without Elena. I fill my orders, I scrape my grill, I keep my head in my work. Miguel says we’ve had enough with waitresses for a while and I just nod along as he writes the specials in his sloppy script across Elena’s board. Maksim works for a few days after Elena leaves then disappears also, shaking my hand warmly, a stream of Russian pouring from his lips. Miguel gives him a bag of magazines and tells him to keep practicing his English. Good kid, he says. He keeps quiet about Elena, asking me instead about Marta and the baby. Only a few weeks to go, he says, punching me lightly on the arm. I will be the best uncle ever.
In the stock room, I keep Elena’s apron on the top shelf, taking it down from time to time to bury my face in its folds.
At night Marta fills our house with noise, talking back to the news radio. It is important he learn all about this world, she says in English, patting her stomach. She tells me to put my mouth to her belly. Talk to your baby, she says. Tell him what you know.