Julie Innis

Big Angel

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.