Then You Were Gone

Monday, late morning in the restaurant kitchen. Cam slices the plastic wrapped around the five-pound hunk of chicken, and juice sprays onto the stainless-steel table. “Shit,” he says, and grabs a cutting board from the shelf below. He isn’t used to doing this without Matty. Portioning out the chicken, mixing up the roux, making soup from whatever veggies are left over from the weekend.

Less than three days ago Matty was here, his green bandana wrapped around his head as he ran the bartender’s bus buckets through the dishwasher before closing the kitchen, and today he’s gone, not even enough money left for a funeral. He seemed fine Friday—a little drunk maybe, but he and Cam hummed along to the tunes on the classic rock station, Roy Orbison and Jimi Hendrix, and he told Cam a story about a guy he’d seen at Fury’s Tavern the night before who was dressed like one of Santa’s Elves: “He was dropping candy canes and tinsel along the bar, and at all the tables. It was nuts. Straight out of the movie Elf. Except that it’s May.” He chuckled, a grin sneaking out from behind his beard.

Cam holds a jumbo can of tomatoes, sets it next to the can opener attached to the counter and grips the knob, using his entire arm to cut the blade into metal, circling round and round. He hadn’t even known Matty owned a gun, or that he knew how to use one, not until Matty’s roommate found the mess early Saturday morning. The rumors are flying around the small New Hampshire town: “He was hung up on his old girlfriend.” “His new girlfriend is pregnant.” There had been a “lengthy, lingering depression.” People are saying things they aren’t sure they mean, like “How could he leave his poor mother and sister?” and “But he was such a happy guy.”

Cam looks around at the chaos of the kitchen—the thick, crusty loaves of bread to warm, the soup crocks to be filled, the carrots and celery to chop, and he wants out, but he knows he is overthinking. “You can’t think in this business,” the owner Chuck always says. “You just do. You move and you keep moving.” Fuck it. Cam rips the metal lid from the can, dumps the tomatoes into a pot, slices the garlic and onion, the basil. He’s chopping fast, just the way Matty taught him; he becomes distracted by the white and green slices, his eyes burning, nostrils stinging. He fastens the tongs around the chicken, drops the pieces in rows on the grill, the flame rising as he sprinkles seasoning through his fingers. He spins around to check the levels of sandwich fixings: turkey, pickles, lettuce, his eyes dancing along the line when he sees it in his peripheral vision—the chef coat draped next to the dish pit, the stain that looks like balsamic, the missing button, the nametag with cursive lettering: Matty.

Cam grabs the bottle of cooking wine and guzzles. He tries to concentrate on veggies and meat, the makings of a soup, but the white of the chef coat is blinding, and although it is not in front of him, it’s all he can see. One New Year’s Eve a few years back, Chuck gave Matty and him these identical coats. The three of them had toasted with champagne and a shot of bourbon. “You’re in now,” Matty told Cam. “Just make sure you can get out.”

*

By the time Jenny walks in holding two iced coffees, Cam has the soup on the stove turned up to medium. Jenny is in all black, an apron tied around her waist, her brown hair with red streaks pulled back in a ponytail. “Hey,” she says, and walks behind the line as if she’s one of the cooks. She hands him a coffee, and stands beside him while he stirs the soup. “I took a detour on my way to work. I thought you could use an extra shot.”

Jenny lives upstairs, in an apartment above the restaurant. “Only twenty-six steps,” she tells her bar regulars. “Quite the commute.” It’s a small one-bedroom where she and Cam and their co-workers step up onto her bed and climb out the window to a ladder that leads to the roof. They treat the top of the building like their own private deck, hanging out up there in all seasons. They listen to music, pass joints, drink beer and whiskey from plastic cups, linger under stars and fireworks and sprinkles of rain.

“Thanks.” He looks at her as he takes a sip. Jenny is small but sturdy. Her pink bra straps run alongside the straps of her tank top. She has a tattoo of orange lilacs surrounding tiny black swallows on her upper chest, near her collar bone. She glances at the open bottle of wine next to the stove, pulls at the bar rag hanging from her waist.

“Any word from Chuck?

“Not since Saturday.” Cam glances at her and cracks a smile. “He must have decided it was time for another vacation.”

“He really wanted us to open today?”

“Had to open back up eventually,” he says.

“It’s only been two days.”

Cam continues to stir the chicken and kale. He watches as the stock thickens. Jenny moves closer to him, leans her head against his shoulder, wraps her hands around his elbow, his upper arm. Her skin feels good against his. “How’s his mom?”

“Not sure. I might go by there after the lunch rush. Check in.”

They hear sounds coming from the lounge—legs of chairs scraped across the floor, the alternative rock station turned up high—and Jenny lets go, backs up against the salad station. “You’ve met her, right?”

“Yeah, just once. I think she might be trying to pull together some cash for the funeral. I want to see if I can do anything to help.” He puts the ladle down, and swings back around to face her.

Jenny crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Going to pawn some of your stuff?” She smiles, then loosens her hands and looks down at them, picks at her fingernails. She knows him enough to know it was the wrong thing to say. He wants to grab her now, pull her up to his face, taste her lips, but he doesn’t even know what they are. Friends, fuck buddies, something more. And he still has to prep the salad station.

One of the servers rushes into the kitchen, and Jenny moves out from behind the line. “Let me know if you want company,” she says, and turns to head back into the lounge.  Cam watches her walk away. She catches a glimpse of Matty’s coat, stops to finger the fabric, the thread spelling his name. “I loved this fucking coat on him,” she says, and pushes through the swinging doors.

 *

After Cam has barely pulled off the Monday lunch shift, yelled to the new guy to move from the dish pit to the line, instructed him to assemble salads and garnish plates, he guzzles from the gallon jug of water. It must be one hundred degrees in here. Sweat drips down his back, his butt, his legs. He wipes a rag across his forehead and behind the back of his neck. He unties his apron, scrunches it into a ball, and tosses it aside. Chuck has finally called, offered to get coverage for the dinner shift. “Go do what you need to do,” he said. “I’ll have Simone work.” Simone is a bigwig chef he’s brought in from the city, someone to take Matty’s place already. “Just until we find someone permanent,” he said. “She needs the work, we need the body.”

The body. Cam has been trying to avoid thinking about what actually happened to Matty. He doesn’t know much, only that Matty’s roommate called the ambulance even though he wasn’t moving—even though the contents of his brilliant brain were splayed across his mattress. It’s all so unreal. But what Cam wants to know, despite his awareness that his main concern should be why his friend took his own life, is how Matty could leave him like this. “We are like family,” Matty always said. “Except better.” Chuck’s Place is where they spent holidays, roasted hams and made stuffing from scratch, sliced roast beef under hot lamps in the dining room while guests shuffled through the buffet line. They saved heaping portions of meat and trimmings for closing time, when Chuck would let them open a few of the most expensive bottles of red and sit around a table set for twelve, clinking their glasses before diving in. They sometimes brought gifts for one another wrapped in silver paper, and they always blared music—anything from Jay Z to the Eagles to Pearl Jam—and ended up dancing or wrestling or stumbling home to one another’s houses long after dinner was done.

After Cam punches out, he doesn’t say bye to anyone, even Jenny. He turns back to take one last look at the chef coat, thinks about taking it home and hanging it next to his own, inside the room he rents. But instead, he walks out of the kitchen, the door slamming behind him as he springs down the back steps, leaving it next to the dish pit for someone else to take away.

*

When Cam arrives home, he is glad to see his landlord is off somewhere with her toddler son. He climbs the stairs, unlocks his door, the metal knob clicking as it opens. When he finished his degree three years ago, and moved in here to be closer to the restaurant, Matty told him, “Don’t get too comfortable. You don’t want to end up like me.”

“What are you?”

“Stuck.”

But Cam liked his landlord’s flowery scents and the sound of her son scurrying around their shared kitchen. Living in their house reminded him of what it was like to live with a woman, a luxury he’d had for only a few years during his childhood, when Cheryl, his ex-stepmother, moved in with him and his dad. Cheryl brought plants and paintings with her. She chopped vegetables and lit candles, played old seventies records, like Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie. It was the longest stretch his dad had gone without drinking, and the three of them would sit together at the kitchen table and play Scrabble, or take walks around their poor neighborhood as if they lived in a fancy new development on a dead end road with a cul-de-sac.

In his room, Cam grabs the last beer from his mini-fridge. He sits on his mattress on the floor, and takes a long swig. He looks around and assesses the contents of his life: the dresser from his dad’s house, his clothes hanging neatly on a closet rack in the corner. There’s a café style table and a flat screen TV. He gets up and rests his beer on the sink below the mirror. He peels off his wife beater, moist with sweat, and stands and lathers his hands with soap, washes his armpits and chest. The reflection of his tired eyes stares back at him. You would have been proud today, man. He leans over the porcelain, the water still running, his weight suspended over the sink. What the fuck were you thinking?

Cam walks to the dresser, picks up a framed picture of him and Cheryl. She hugs him from behind, her cheek touching his, her arms looped around his chest as his ten-year-old self laughs. They lived together for almost four years before his dad managed to ruin it. Cheryl is the one who taught him that a mess creates stress, that “every possession in a living space should have a home.” Because of her, his floor is mopped clean, his bed is made, his belongings are tucked away in bins and boxes and compartments. After she and his dad split, Cheryl stayed in touch. When she inherited some money, she talked him into heading north to go to college, offered to pay off all his student loan debt once he finished. “Now you have no excuse not to,” she said. “A business degree can take you far.”

Cam opens an old wooden box where he keeps his valuables: two crumpled hundred-dollar bills, a silver stud earring he used to wear, a few gold chains his dad gave him when he was a teenager. That’s it. He fixes his gaze on the TV, but it’s too heavy to lift without help. And besides, he wouldn’t get more than a couple hundred bucks for all of it, even with the TV. He spills the contents of the box into his hand, then jogs down the stairs to the kitchen to find a Ziploc bag. As he opens the drawers, he spots his landlord’s unmade bed through her open door. Her jewelry is sprawled across her nightstand: a gold bracelet, earrings, a watch. Next to them is the tablet her son plays video games on for hours at a time. He creeps closer to her doorway, lingers there for a moment to think about what it all might be worth. “Nah, bud. No way.” He hears Matty’s voice as if he’s in the room with him. He gulps his beer and waits for his friend to say more, but the house is eerily still. All he hears is the quiet.

*

Cam walks through town at a brisk pace. He follows the road along the river, moves past the mill buildings where artists rent studio spaces, the bars with open bay windows and chalkboards out front listing drink specials. He walks by the hipster coffee shops advertising garden fresh sprouts for bagel sandwiches and hemp milk for lattes.

Late May in New England seems like a contradiction, a practical joke, the lilacs and tulips springing up from yards, the sun like a torch someone’s lit and is waving across the sky. This is the time of year when he and Matty cruised the beach after months of bitter cold and darkness. They dashed inside arcades and played ski ball, strolled the strip and admired the young women who were finally uncovered in tube tops and short skirts.

Last summer, after their first day spent sipping beer out of water bottles and dipping their feet into soft, cold sand, Cam returned to work sunburned, blisters covering his back. Matty sliced a tomato and threw the pieces onto a plate, then led Cam out of the kitchen and into the lounge, instructed him to lie face down on the leather couch. Matty stood over him and spread the cold fruit across Cam’s back. “Old trick I learned working on Nantucket.” At only thirty-two, Matty had already spent years traveling. He’d worked in Portuguese kitchens in Lisbon, and lived above a French bistro where he cooked in San Francisco. He’d hiked the Appalachian Trail and made fires to cook his dinner—he knew how to forage wild mushrooms and onions and scallions. Man, Matty had lived.

When Cam reaches the outskirts of town, where commercial buildings become residential, he stops and pulls a joint from his pocket. He flicks his lighter, inhales, the paper sizzling, smoke seeping into his body hot from the humidity. He exhales slowly and continues to walk, the heat weighing him down, the pot a screen against harsh reality.

When he sees the old Victorian house with the peeling paint, he turns into the driveway and stops, tries to remember which apartment entrance is theirs. Matty’s Oldsmobile is parked in front of the overgrown grass, the plastic slide and swing alone in the yard. The front door opens, and Matty’s mom surprises him, her large body filling the door’s frame. Mandy, Matty’s eight-year old, freckle-faced sister, stands next to her mother, staring down the driveway at him. “You coming in?” his mother asks.

Cam walks toward her. “Hi, Karen, we met a while back.”

“I remember you. I don’t forget Matty’s friends. Come on in.” Karen is obese, with thinning hair and a furrow between her brows that accompanies her smile. “Sorry about the clutter.” She gestures toward the old washer and dryer surrounded by lamps and nightstands, buckets of whiffle balls and stuffed animals. He follows Karen and Mandy up the stairs, the wood creaking. When they reach the small kitchen, Karen says, “Go play,” and nudges Mandy toward the door to a third-floor attic.

Karen leads him into the living room, where she plops herself into a recliner in the corner. It’s hotter in here than it is outside, despite the two fans whirring in open windows. Magazines are stacked in piles across the carpeted floor. A couple of empty cardboard containers from frozen dinners. She points to the plate of crackers on the table next to her chair. “Help yourself,” she says, as Cam drops onto the love seat.

“I’m good, thanks.”

“I forget how you chefs don’t like to eat outside of work.” She smiles and kicks her feet up. It’s the kind of smile that might easily morph into a frown. She mutes the news station on TV. “I just keep it on for company. I’ve always hated the quiet.” Cam is starting to feel higher, his face stiffening, his tongue numb. It’s surreal to be sitting with Matty’s mother in her messy house on a sunny afternoon when he’d normally be at work—Matty’s car in the driveway as if he stayed the night and is still sleeping off a hangover in one of the bedrooms.

“Matty told me you’re a bright kid. That you don’t belong behind a line.” Karen seems to be sizing him up; he isn’t sure if she’s taking note of his sweat-stained t-shirt, or if she’s wondering what kind of person stops in without calling, especially considering the circumstances.

“What we do isn’t easy,” he says. “Even though people think it is.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. I was a waitress for thirty years. Until I threw my back out.” Cam knew that Matty’s mother was on disability for some type of injury, but he’d never asked why or from what. And Matty had only said that he returned from his travels to look out for her and Mandy.

“You went to school for business? You could make some real money. Go far.” Cam hates when people say this. In college, he interned at an accounting firm and found himself checking the clock every fifteen minutes; he’d never been so bored. He doesn’t want to sit in a cubicle pouring over spreadsheets his entire life. He wants to use his hands, to move his body, to be surrounded by people bursting with creativity. He can’t imagine any job that will allow him to feel as alive as when he holds a pan above a flame and tosses the ingredients, watches colors and flavors settle and sizzle into a beautiful, savory mess. It makes him crazy, too—the surges of adrenalin—the urgency of a hustle that feels like someone’s life depends on it. The rush is similar to the first weeks and months of love—when you encounter a type of passion that will haunt you for years if you don’t chase it, even if you know it’s impossible to sustain.

“He told you that?” Cam asks.

Karen’s face is worn, her eyes glassy and distant. She stares at the news anchors, their soundless mouths opening and closing like puppets, and turns to Cam with a sudden, sharp focus. “My son told me everything.”

Cam shifts in his seat. His upper lip is wet, trembling with sweat, the skin underneath his shirt sticky. “Did he…did this surprise you?”

Karen turns away from him and gazes out the window, as if searching for an answer to spill from a passing car. “I just keep thinking he’s going to pop in. Walk through the door any minute. Come to pick up his car.”

Cam realizes how stupid he feels, having shown up here unexpectedly. “I know. I mean, I understand.” He attempts to clear his throat, but his mouth is like sandpaper; he isn’t sure if it’s from the pot or the heat, or both. He needs to get to the point. Could I trouble you for some water?”

“In the kitchen. Help yourself to the tap. Glasses are above the sink.”

Cam passes a pot of liquid sitting on the stove, a stack of plates on the kitchen table. He opens the cabinet and finds a tall glass. Next to the glasses is a cluster of prescription bottles—Percocet, Dilaudid, Vicodin. He looks closer, sees that there are multiple bottles of each drug. The Percocet bottles have names of three different doctors from three different towns. “Find them alright?” Karen calls from the living room.

“Yeah,” Cam slams the cupboard shut, his hand shaking. “Thanks.”

He rejoins her in the living room, his gait unsteady, and collapses back onto the loveseat. He isn’t sure what to make of what he’s just seen. He reaches into his pocket to make sure his cash and jewelry are still there, chugs the glass of water, and sighs. “I was wondering if I could help you. With some of his stuff.”

“Did he owe you something? Money?”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that. I mean the funeral. Can I help with that?” He’s looking past her at the window, avoiding her eyes. He doesn’t want to know if she’s high or not, if her pupils are pinned like the eyes of so many addicts he’s known.

“Do you know how much funerals cost? One place asked for eight thousand dollars. We don’t have that kind of money.” The smell of freshly cut grass seeps in through the windows. The heat is stifling. “Doesn’t even include burial. I can’t believe we’re talking about this.” She shakes her head, takes a sip from a glass of juice.

In college, Cam learned about bodies of poor people getting buried or cremated directly after death, no memorial or ceremony—bodies lying in the ground, graves unmarked, joggers unknowingly trampling over them. He isn’t going to let Matty rot like that in this town. “I just want Matty to have a respectable service. A proper goodbye.”

“I see.” Karen’s chubby face has tightened, her hand forming a fist. He doesn’t know if he’s offended her. My son told me everything.

Karen looks out the window again. “When he left for culinary school, I really was proud. I thought, he’s going to be extraordinary. He’d loved to cook since he was small. And I know a lot of the reason he felt stuck was because of me. I’ve never been too good with men.” She gestures to the ceiling, to where Mandy plays above them. “But I can’t do anything to change any of that now, can I?” Cam isn’t sure if he’s imagining it, but he hears a slight slur in her voice. “Matty struggled with the blues. Like me. He was his mother’s son.”

Cam doesn’t know what to believe. As far as he can see, Matty was nothing like his mother. He had lived an extraordinary life. And he hated pills. In fact, he’d gone to one of their dish kid’s houses to talk to his parents about his opiate habit. The kid had potential, and Matty kept giving him second chances when he failed to show up for his shift, or arrived to work so high that they’d have to send him home, the two of them working faster and harder to make up for the missing body.

Karen sits upright in her chair. “Thanks for coming by. I’m sure I’ll be able to use your help getting his things out of his apartment.

“Can I bring you any food from the restaurant?” Matty often packed bags of vacuum sealed salmon and shanks of lamb to bring home to Karen and Mandy. Baby carrots and spinach.

“Sure, thanks. Anything is fine.”

Cam’s legs feel heavy as he gets up from his seat. “Say bye to Mandy for me.” Karen nods and Cam makes his way down the steps. Outside, he pauses on the doorstep and reaches into his pocket for the crumpled hundred-dollar bills. He straightens them out, then places them in the rusty mailbox next to the front door.

*

Long after the sun sets, Cam approaches the red awning of the restaurant. Through the windows, he can see that the place is empty. He enters through the front door, and locks it from the inside. The candles are still lit, lights dimmed, the TVs muted and music low. Jenny wipes a rag across the bar. “I locked it,” he says.

“I was wondering about you.” She sweeps her bangs to the side, behind her ear. Her forehead is shiny from the heat. “Are you ok?”

“How was Simone?”

“I don’t know, fine. Who cares? Did you go by there?”

“Yeah, for a while.”

“And?”

“Interesting. And unproductive.”

Jenny scoops ice into two rocks glasses and fills them with Maker’s Mark. “Come on,” she says, and moves out from behind the bar holding both drinks in one hand, and an ashtray in the other. She leads him to the couch. “Sit.” She pats the cushion next to her. She takes off her shoes and rests her legs on the coffee table, one hand clasping her drink, the other on Cam’s thigh.  She sips the bourbon, swallowing its glints of gold. The candle on the table casts a shadow on her face. He loves the way he can see her dimples even when she’s not smiling.

Cam focuses on the TV above them, watches the green shirts play against blue, dribble past one another, the crowd cheering. “You know what I keep thinking of?” Jenny asks. Her wide eyes look as if they are about to drink him in, dissolve his measly existence—and he’s okay with that—with being swallowed up.

“What’s that?”

“When I got my DWI, and I had to walk to work, before I lived upstairs. How when it rained, I would call Matty to come pick me up. And he’d always say, ‘You haven’t bought that umbrella yet, girl?’ because he was tired of coming to get me. So I’d start walking, and within minutes I’d see his car pull over to the side of the road to scoop me up.”

“Yeah, guess who was manning the ship every time he took off to come get you?” Cam laughs.

“You could handle it just fine. You’re better than you think.” She moves her hand to his arm, runs her fingers across his skin.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do now,” he says. “I’m fucking lost.”

“Don’t say that. At least you have a degree. I barely finished high school.” She pulls a cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and leans forward to use the candle to light it. The last time he and Jenny were on this couch together after hours, they drank too much tequila, and he lifted her skirt and went down on her right here, the back of the couch blocking them from the windows, while she gasped and said, “Don’t stop” again and again.

“Why do you think he did it?” Her question seems out of nowhere to Cam, even though it isn’t.

He thinks of what he knows about the impulsive nature of gun suicides—the lack of deliberation, of premeditation, and he wonders what set Matty off. He knows that if the person misses or stays alive, there is usually immediate regret, the kind described by those who jump off bridges and miraculously live to tell about. And he remembers the pills. “His mom was odd. I couldn’t get a good read on her.” He thinks about telling Jenny about the prescriptions. He wonders if Matty had been dabbling in them, even though he often said he hadn’t touched hard drugs in years: “Weed only. It’s a gift from the earth.”

Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” plays on the radio, and Jenny sings along. I wish I was a sailor with someone who waited for me. Cam doesn’t think he’s in love with her, at least not yet, but he knows he loves her. Mostly, he likes their time together—their banter during the lunch and dinner rushes—her drinking too much espresso and racing into the kitchen spouting off requests for condiments and relaying customers’ special orders so quickly he can barely understand her, her amusement when he threatens to smear her arm with raw, red steak, their hanging out after hours. Every part of her turns him on: her voice, her legs, the way her eyelashes flutter when she laughs. He suspects there is no industry that forges surrogate families more quickly and intensely than the restaurant business. There is something so raw and uninhibited about the pace of the work, the lack of time for dinner or bathroom breaks; the loud voices calling out orders or yelling for pick up, the blend of anger and laughter; the hot plates burning your hands as you remember twelve tasks you must perform at once; the intimacy of food and drink, of heat and sweat, like being naked together again and again.

“This week marks five years for me,” Cam says. “I thought Matty and I would celebrate.”

“I don’t know if he would’ve gone for that. He wanted you to get out, remember? Five years is practically a lifetime in this business. He was right, you know. At the end of the day, there’s no glory here. And no money either.” Jenny pulls strands of hair from her ponytail, smoothes them with her fingers.

“Everything isn’t about money,” he says. He thinks of the kids he knew on campus who had no idea what it was like to work, who zipped around town in their parents’ BMWs. How he couldn’t find anyone who he could relate to until he started at Chuck’s. So many students seemed to search for their identities through frats and friends, mainly concerned with conforming to a mold created for them rather than paving their own ways, and actually living. “Except when you all of a sudden need it for a funeral.” He looks at Jenny, who’s holding a cigarette, while picking at the nail polish on her opposite thumb. She takes a long drag and exhales, leans her knees onto his lap.

“I can’t let Matty just disappear—not after everything he’s done for me.” He can’t remember if he told her about the time his dad was supposed to show up for his birthday, but ended up getting so drunk he passed out holding a lit cigarette, and nearly burned his apartment complex down. How Matty’s the one who drove him south two hours to the hospital, to talk to the firefighters, to rummage through the apartment and try to salvage some of his dad’s belongings. How he knew nothing when Matty pulled him from the dish pit to the line, started teaching him how to clean scallops and make demi-glazes, the craft of bringing a steak to its perfect temperature on the grill.

“He did love you.” Jenny smiles, as if she can see inside his mind. She looks so pretty in this lighting. “You know what I think? You’re always saying that you want to travel, to go all these places you’re impressed with Matty for going. Well do it. What’s stopping you?” Cam’s face is close to hers now, and he sips his bourbon, runs his hand along her leg, up her thigh, lets his thumb rest in the crevice where her leg meets her torso. He touches her cheek.

Cam says, “You know what I will always think of? How everything with him was a work of art. What about his grilled cheese, for Christ’s sake.” In the warmer months, Matty spread garlic butter across the bread, used a blend of gourmet cheeses and added fresh slices of tomato, and pesto made with basil from the community garden.

“On sourdough. The best,” Jenny says.

*

By the time they set the restaurant’s alarm, it’s past midnight. “You sure you don’t want to come up?” Jenny asks.

“Can I have a raincheck?” He winks at her.

“Suit yourself.” Cam leans in to kiss her, her mouth warm and wet against his. She opens the door to the upstairs apartments, and blows him a kiss. He watches her from behind as she climbs the twenty-six steps.

Cam pulls a half joint from his pocket, lights it, and decides to walk a while before heading home. He can hear the train leaving the nearby station. It’s one of those clear nights when the stars look like silver chains, diamonds dotting the sky. The moon is close to full, illuminating the sidewalks far more than the streetlights. Pictures replay in his mind: he and Matty side by side, Cam manning the grill while Matty works a six-pan sauté station, whirling toward and away from Cam as steam rises to meet his face. The two of them pivoting and sliding past one another to the reach-in, sweltering and flushed, cracking jokes about getting people fed as the printer spits out order after order, getting lost in the rhythm, the lawlessness of the motion. At the end of each shift, Matty pulling a bottle of Jägermeister from the fridge, raising the bottle up high as if making a toast, and taking a big swig before handing it to Cam, who leans his head back and swallows, the cold, bitter booze like a river running through him. Cam wonders what was going on up there, in Matty’s mind—what Matty chose not to tell him. But Jenny is right—what is the point, especially now, of Cam just standing still, waiting?  And who says he has to choose between two extreme kinds of lives?

He reverses directions on Main Street, which means he’ll pass by the restaurant one last time. As he approaches the building, he sees a lone figure standing on the rooftop, her head turned toward the sky, the ember of her cigarette glowing. He can make out her upturned hand, her hair, now let down, the skirt she wears to work. The smoke from her cigarette looks incandescent, the red, glowing head waving through the air like a firefly flashing. Cam keeps walking, turns down the side street that leads to his house, as her silhouette grows fainter, but no less brilliant, finally fading into the night sky.

 

 

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