The way it worked was, on the weekends, there were two cooks, two busboys, and five servers for the graveyard shift (or the drunk shift, as it was generally called). During the week, business was slower, so there was only one cook, one busboy, and two servers. When the bars shut down for the night, it seemed like we were horribly understaffed, no matter if it was a weekend or not, but that rush usually only lasted two hours or so, and then you had another couple of hours to relax before your shift was over.
We worked ten hour shifts at the Pancake Palace, mostly because they could never manage to hold onto the help long enough to get decent eight-hour-shift schedules worked out.
It had been about a month since Matt had started, and I didn’t mind working with him. He wasn’t really my kind of people, but he was able to take care of his customers and do his share of side-work, so I didn’t really have a problem working with him.
I always liked working with guys better than the girls, because the chicks always had tons of drama going on in their lives. You had ex-boyfriends showing up drunk out of their minds and demanding another chance, or you had customers acting “overly aggressive” (that’s what the managers called it when we had to throw someone out for harassing the female servers), or you had any manner of other personal catastrophes. Even though I had no personal stock in these situations, as the male coworker, I was always expected to do something to make it better.
If there was a potentially dangerous situation (ex-boyfriend or hostile “over aggressive” customer), mostly what I did was call the cops. I know it sounds kind of punk, but I didn’t care. I had my whole life ahead of me, I was busting my ass paying my way through school, and I was damned if I was going to take a knife in the gut just because some girl I work with didn’t have sense enough to not date lunatics, or just because some drunk customer thinks the waitress should fall in love with him.
Point being, I liked working with other guys much better. They weren’t so catty, they weren’t so emotionally disturbed, and they weren’t such a pain in the ass to work with. They were generally lazier, but I’ll take a little extra work over having that other bullshit any day. The girl I trained before Matt, she went into the bathroom one night, and came out bawling. Come to find out, she had taken a pregnancy test in there, and it came up positive. Compared to shit like that, having to do a little more side-work is nothin’.
It was that dead time just before the drunk rush, so I went out back to smoke a cigarette. As I walked back around to the front of the building, I saw that familiar bike leaning against the building. I had a smile on my face as I pushed open the glass doors and stepped into the diner.
It faded as soon as I heard the raised voices.
Matt was standing face to face with Willy—a regular that came in pretty much every night and drank coffee for five hours before returning to whatever life he had outside the diner. Ralphie was walking out of the kitchen, his face a mixture of anger and confusion, and Heybuddy was standing up near the counter. He looked a little afraid, but mostly he looked like he might start crying any moment.
“What the hell’s going on here?” I yelled at Matt. He didn’t answer, just kept up his argument with Willy. They were shoving each other a bit, and it looked like it might resort to blows soon. Willy was an old guy, probably around sixty or so, and although he wasn’t really a frail old man, he was nowhere near young enough to be duking it out with Matt—a kid in the prime of his life.
I stepped in between them, shoving them both back a couple of steps. “Fuck you, old man,” Matt yelled. “You don’t like it, you can take your coffee-drinkin’ ass down the street.”
I grabbed Matt by the throat and stared at him until his gaze went from Willy to me. He locked eyes with me, and he looked like a wild dog. Ralphie pulled Willy back a few more steps, so I only had to concentrate on Matt, and I was thankful for it. With that look in his eyes, I didn’t want to turn my back on him for even a second. There was lunacy in those eyes, and there was the desire to hurt. Physically, emotionally, mentally, whatever—I suddenly realized that Matt was one of those sick bastards that just likes to hurt other people. He was the first person I ever met that was like that, and it was hard for me to grasp the concept. Just wanting to hurt people—anybody, any time, for no reason at all. It made me feel sick to my stomach.
“Listen to me,” I said, squeezing his throat a little. “Calm. Down.”
“Get’cher fuckin’ hands offa me!”
“Maybe after you calm down a bit. What the hell is going on here?”
“He wouldn’t let Heybuddy sit down,” Willy said from behind me.
“What?” The question was directed at Willy, but I didn’t look at him—I stayed focused on the container of fury I was holding.
“Heybuddy came in, and this little prick tries to take him over to the corner booth. Heybuddy asked if he could have that seat by the window, and this kid told him he could sit where he tells him to sit or he can get the hell out.”
“What?” This time the question was directed at Matt. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t cater to no retards.”
Ralphie stepped over and backhanded Matt. “Watch’cher mouth, you little shit.”
The smack almost seemed to echo in the silent diner, and Ralph’s voice sounded like thunder. I had never heard him angry before, and I could have done without it, honestly. I heard a sob, and realized that it had probably come from Heybuddy. I felt a little twinge of pain deep down in my chest, but I had to deal with the current situation before I started thinking about anything else.
“Step back, Ralphie.” He didn’t move. “Rafael. Step. Back.”
“I’m serious,” he said, staring at Matt, but at least he stepped back. I heard another sob.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” I hissed at Matt. “I mean, what the hell?” I knew the answer—his desire to hurt was what the hell—but I couldn’t stop from asking.
“Let me go,” he said, and tried to pull away. I held on for a second longer, just long enough for him to know that I could hold him for as long as I wanted, and then I let go. He stumbled back a little, caught his balance, and then stood glaring at Ralph, Willy, and I.
“You people treat him like he’s some kinda king or something, and what he is is a stupid retard pain in the ass.”
“What’d I tell you?” Ralphie screamed, and rushed forward. I managed to catch him and hold him back, but it was a near thing. When Willy stepped up and pulled his arm, Ralphie allowed himself to be pulled back.
“Get out of here,” I said to Matt. “Don’t get your stuff, don’t say another word, just get the hell out of here.”
“You can’t fire me!”
“I’m not firing you, you moron! I’m giving you the chance to get out of here without getting your ass beat. If you know what’s good for you, you won’t come back—not during the graveyard shift, anyways. I’m serious right now, Matt—get the hell out of here.”
“Willy, let Ralph go.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good id-”
“Let him go!”
Willy let go of Ralphie, and he rushed forward. Matt was already out the door, though.
I walked over the counter, where Heybuddy was weeping silently. “Sorry to cause all the trouble,” he said.
“No, man,” I told him. “Nah. That wasn’t you, you know? He was just a bad apple.”
“I just…I like to come in here, and I need to keep an eye on my bike. And I like the rib-eye special, you know.”
“I know, man,” I said, and I realized that I was fighting back tears. I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, but I hated it. “Your usual.”
He sobbed out a little laugh. “Yeah, my usual. And I…” and then he started crying. Not bawling or wailing or anything, just quiet little crying, and I had to expel a hard breath to keep myself in control. It was like watching a little kid get hurt—not on the outside, but on the inside. This guy, he was close to twenty years older than me, and yet it felt like I was seeing a little kid get ridiculed to tears.
“It’s all right, Heybuddy,” I said. I put my arm around his shoulders, and he leaned into me. “Come on, man, it’s all right.”
“It’s not,” he said. “It’s not all right.” He sat up straight, pulled away from me, and wiped his face. “I have to go.”
“No, man—you didn’t even get to eat.”
“I…I can’t eat here no more.”
“What? Sure you can.”
“No. I like it here, and I like you and the other folks. But I can’t come in here no more…it just don’t feel right anymore.”
“Hey, he’s never coming back in here, okay? You come in tomorrow, things’ll be just like normal.”
He wiped his eyes again and he smiled at me. “I gotta go.” He started out the door.
“We’ll see you later then, okay?”
He stopped and looked back at me. “No. You won’t.” And then he was out the door, around the corner, heaving his bike around and riding out into the shadows.
I sat on the stool in front of the counter, staring at the carpet between my feet, and trying to get control of myself.
“Holy shit,” Ralphie said from beside me, “I don’t know why, but I feel like I might start bawlin’.”
I was glad he said it—I wouldn’t have ever had the balls to admit something like that. But I was able to nod.
“He’ll be back, though, right?” Willy asked.
“I’m goin’ back to the kitchen,” Ralphie said, and walked around the end of the counter and into the back.
“He’ll be back, won’t he?” Willy asked again.
“I don’t think so, Willy.”
“Well that…that just sucks,” Willy said, and his voice was shaky. He was about to start crying, too.
I looked around the dining area and saw that it was empty except for Willy and I. “Where’d everybody go?”
“They scooted once the action started. I think they all left money on the table, though.”
“Just can’t get good service these day,” I said, and looked up at Willy. Sure enough, he had a tear or two running down his cheeks.
“Tell me about it.” He looked away quickly, towards the door, and took out his wallet. He dropped two singles on the counter, and then started towards the door.
About halfway there, he stopped and turned around. “I don’t know what it was about that guy, but this place just ain’t gonna be the same without him.”
“No. It won’t.”
He shook his head, his eyes focusing on nothing, and replaced his wallet. “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow, sport.”
“Hope so, Willy. Thanks for your help tonight.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, and walked out.
I walked back to the kitchen and found Rafael sitting on the prep table, smoking a cigarette. “Gonna suck for you tonight,” he said. “Be working the entire place by yourself.”
“I might call Jandy in—she’s always lookin’ to get more hours.”
“He’ll be back, right? I mean, he has to come back, right?”
He took a drag off of his cigarette, staring at me, waiting for me to look up. I didn’t want to meet his eyes, but I finally did. “Man, you know he’s not coming back. As much as I hate to say it, I doubt any of us ever see Heybuddy again.”
It would bad enough if I had to say that he was right, and that none of us ever saw Heybuddy again. But as so often happens when dealing with Life, bad enough wasn’t bad enough.