A Saturday evening gloom hung in the air of the dining hall, and it seemed that the revelry happening elsewhere on campus had left a sad vacuum here. Dinner was no longer being served, and the vomit-green chairs contained only a few lonesome stragglers, gazing down at textbooks as they slowly forked their food. A gigantic clock glowered down from the far wall, its latticed iron hands lurching noisily to mark each passing minute. Go somewhere else, the noise seemed to say, anywhere but here.
Pella passed through the open doorway to the kitchen. A small but substantial man, built low to the ground like an Indian burial mound, was scraping mashed potatoes into a giant baggie. He had wide fleshy features, flared nostrils, and acne scars under his eyes. He wore a flopped-over, caved-in chef’s hat. “Closed,” he said forlornly, without glancing up, before Pella could open her mouth. “Closed.”
“I know. I’m sorry to bother you. I was hoping that maybe—”
“Closed.” He pronounced it softly, as a sad but ineluctable truth, and clanged his mashed-potato scooper against the rim of the pan.
“I know, it’s just…”
He didn’t even say the word this time, just shook his bent head from side to side and clanged the potato scooper against the pan’s rim again, somehow producing a long somber O sound that matched his voice’s timbre: Cl-OOOOOOO-sed.
“Right,” Pella said. “The thing is, see, President Affenlight sent me.” She paused and tugged on one of her tender, freshly pierced earlobes, waiting to see what effect her father’s name would have. The mound-shaped man lifted the bag of mashed potatoes to eye height and performed a subtle wrist move that spun the bag slowly on its vertical axis, winding the neck into a long tight strand. “President Affenlight,” he said, a weary shrug in his voice. “Chef Spirodocus.” His tone indicated that it was an open question as to which of these was the loftier ; that despite the loftiness of their s they were both just men; and that because they were men they would surely die. He opened a tremendous refrigerator and tossed the bag inside.
Behind him, in the kitchen proper, a small Latino man was blasting a huge pan with a pressurized hose. Wet chunks of charred gunk kicked up and spattered his shirt. Pella imagined the inside of the pan slowly coming clean, black giving way to gleaming silver as the fierce stream of water worked its way through the caked-on layers of sauce or soup or—as the menu card propped on the counter beside her said—Southwestern Veggie Lasagna. The guy didn’t exactly look happy, his eyes glazed over and his face slick with sweat, but Pella envied the clarity of his purpose. Dirty Clean. A hose like that, she thought, would make a good addition to Mike and Arsch’s kitchen.
“So…,” she said, unsure where she stood with Chef Spirodocus, who had unspooled another bag from a giant roll and resumed the spooning of potatoes, “President Affenlight and I—he’s my father, I’m his daughter—are having guests, unexpected guests, and we were wondering, if it wasn’t too much trouble, whether you might have something lying around that we could maybe use as an appetizer.”
“Lying around?” repeated Chef Spirodocus broodingly. “Use as an appetizer?”
He balanced his potato scooper on the edge of the pan, pressed the heels of his hands to the countertop, and fixed his flesh-pinched eyes on Pella for the first time. He struck Pella as a deeply democratic man, a man of the people, and she wished that she were wearing her usual uniform of hooded sweatshirt and frazzled hair and bags under her eyes, instead of this pretty lilac dress and earrings and makeup. She fidgeted with a sliding bra strap.
“A thousand people.” Chef Spirodocus encompassed kitchen, serving line, and dining room with a broad sweep of a stubby arm. “Every day. For a thousand people, you cannot do things right. You must simply do them. Do you understand?”
Pella started to say that yes, she understood, but he had already spun on a wooden-heeled clog and vanished into the kitchen. Without those heels he would really be impressively short. Minutes passed. He didn’t come back. Pella was pretty sure she’d been abandoned, but she didn’t have a plan B, so she just stood there watching the Latino dishwasher blasting away with his power hose, his face purpled by exertion.
She’d given up on appetizers but was still standing there blankly when Chef Spirodocus returned, a brimming shopping bag in his stubby arms. Atop whatever else was inside sat an unbaked loaf, redolent of cinnamon, with currants or raisins on top. “Put that in the oven as soon as you get home,” he said. “Serve it with the coffee.”
“Wow,” Pella said. “Wow. Did you make this right now?”
“A chef never tells.” Chef Spirodocus’s face turned pleasant for the first time; it seemed to sink and soften. He reached up to give Pella a clumsy pat on the back. “Tell your father I did my best. I had no time, I had no notice, but I did my best. Okay?”
“Okay,” Pella said. “Thanks so much, Chef Spirodocus. My dad will really appreciate it.”
She turned to leave but found herself rooted to the navy-and-ecru-tiled floor. The tiny desire-voice in her chest was chanting something, softly and incoherently; she stopped and tried to listen.
After a while Chef Spirodocus looked up from his potatoes. “Something else?”
“Um…” Pella rocked from one foot to the other. “I was just wondering, you know, whether you hired people to work in the kitchen. To wash dishes and such.”
“Do I hire people to wash dishes?” Chef Spirodocus repeated wondrously, with a sad shake of his head. “Yes.”
“So you’re hiring right now?”
“I am hiring always.”
“Could I have an application?”
His eyebrows lifted. “For whom?”
Chef Spirodocus’s eyes took in her white flat sandals and pale legs and crisp dress and whatever else he happened to find. Pella felt his gaze linger, not on her breasts, as men’s gazes tended to do, but on her fluked tattoo. “You’ve worked in a kitchen?” he asked.
“No.” The word left her mouth and hung dead in the air. “I’m an extremely hard worker,” she added quickly, and wondered whether there was any way in which this could possibly be considered true.
“I have an opening on the breakfast shift,” Chef Spirodocus said. “It begins at five thirty. Monday to Friday.”
“Five thirty?” Pella said.
Chef Spirodocus nodded with infinite sadness. “I understand. It’s far too early.”
“It’s early,” agreed Pella. “I’ll see you Monday.”