(The decision has been made to hire another cook for the Cafe, and Sefton Grant knows of a young man in need of a job as cook, one Lucas ‘Luc’ Massie, Who is a good and competent cook, but is also an oddball, tatted and pierced twenty-something … and a drummer in a band called The Ozona Mud Puppies. Luc is also homeless. But he has passed the cooking audition, by supplying at a moment’s notice a tasting menu of hot grilled sandwiches and the tastiest selection of French fries that anyone has ever tasted.)

“Understood,” Richard sighed and accepted his doom. “I approve hiring him – but I’m afraid that we will – er – come to clash in the kitchen now and again. I don’t look forward to it, but there it is.”

“Let me go and talk to him,” Allen Lee offered, and such was his fatherly authority that both Miss Letty and Doc Wyler nodded acquiescence. Richard followed Allen Lee into the kitchen, where Luc glanced up from scraping down the grill station.

“That was a magnificent meal!” Allen Lee exclaimed in hearty delight. “And they tell me that you’re hired on account of it. But seriously, there’s some things you gotta know – and stick to, if you wanna stay in this place long enough for me to come back around and feature y’all on a repeat of my people for a new foodie throw-down.”

“Sure,” Luc was still looking down at the surface of the grill. “So, they like it, uh?”

“They sure did, kid,” Allen Lee reassured him, hearty and enthusiastic, with an ear-to-ear smile. “You got the job – yours, if you want to take it. But understand that Ricardo is the ultimate boss in the kitchen. And you gotta remember that he’s been around the track a good few times, understand that he’s got the final say, cooking-wise. See – he trained at this school in Paris …” As Richard listened, Allen Lee expounded on Richard’s training, career, experience in the field at a fulsome and almost embarrassing length, not omitting the embarrassing bits, although putting the best construction possible on them – a consideration for which Richard was grateful, since it appeared that Luc had never heard of him and his career as a celebrity chef, although he gave every evidence of being impressed by tale that Allen Lee spun. He did wish that Allen Lee had left out the embarrassing bits about the Carême meltdown and aftermath …  Finally, Allen Lee wound up the final threads of his narrative and tucked in the extraneous ends, concluding, “So – ya see, Luc – you’re solid in the kitchen, and you have the basic skills. Ricardo is OK with taking you on. But you gotta be mature about this, realize that he has a world of stuff that he can teach you, things that you don’t know about, until he starts teaching you … and teaching – he’s done that! He’s doing it even now, with teaching kids to cook with his internet series. Learn from him about the fancy French cooking stuff you didn’t know, working for – was it Emerald? And then for Arbys? – You got the skills, kid – but don’t let that go to your head. Richard …” and here Allen Lee paused – perhaps to lend extra drama to his final peroration. “Take the job. Don’t think that you know it all, Luc. You don’t – but this guy can teach you. Mebbe you still won’t know it all – but I guaran-damn-tee – you’ll know a lot more. Be a good sport and learn what he can teach you.”

“Sure,” Luc wiped his hands on the towel at his waist. For about the first time he looked squarely at whom he was speaking to. “Thanks. For the chance, guys. I won’t ever let you down, Chef. Or you either, Allen Lee.”

“I’ll take that as a promise,” Richard accepted with the minimum required grace, as Allan Lee beamed approval. “So will I, kid – and I’ll tell you know, I expect great things from you – like, I come back in a season or two, and see you on my show!”

Both Richard and Luc winced slightly, at the thought of that, but Luc straightened his narrow shoulders and replied. “Sure thing.” He sounded a bit dubious – no, Luc wasn’t made for dealing with the public the easy, comfortable way that Allen Lee did, and which Richard had faked for so long. Now Richard said,

“Come on and tell Miss Letty and Doc Wyler that you’re on … and I’m sure that Jess has some paperwork to finish, now that you’re accepted.”

“Sure, Chef,” Luc followed them out to the front, and when Richard nudged him towards the empty chair at the stammtisch, he sat down in it – with some definite signs of unease. Miss Letty broke the ice, by saying with as much fulsome enthusiasm that a starchy, prim lady of certain years was able to bring to bear, “You will be relieved to hear, Lucas – that we were all very pleased with your audition menu, and that the decision to offer you employment was unanimous. I do believe that the selection of regular diners at the Café were enthusiastically in agreement in this. You will have fans, even before you begin your first workday in the Café.”

“I’m done,” Doc Wyler announced, scraping his chair back. “Places to go, things to do. Welcome to the Café, son – hope that you choose to remain long. Those grilled sandwiches were prime, by the way. Now I won’t have to drive all the way to the city for their like. Give your particulars to Mrs. Vaughn – your current address and all, and she can process the background check…”

“Already done,” Joe Vaughn observed, looking up from his cellphone. “No wants or warrants – only a citation for disorderly conduct at some dive in San Antonio.”

“That was … it was nothing,” Luc shrugged, as if it were nothing. But he added, in flat tones, as if it were expected. “I don’t have an address.”

“You don’t?” Doc Wyler looked as baffled as someone might, who lived on the largest ranch acreage in Karnes County since birth nearly a century ago, in a house that his grandfather had built.

“He don’t,” Sefton spoke, apologetically, his mouth full of pomme frites. “All his stuff is in the back of my van. His roommate in Karnesville kicked him out this morning. We were gonna let him stay at the Age, but that Judikins has a major problem with …”

“The m – the non-veganity?” Richard ventured, and Sefton shook his head.

“No, the drum-practice. It upsets the chickens … and ya know,” Sefton regarded them all in a manner which begged sympathy. “If the chickens and all are upset … My Lady is upset.”

“Can’t have that,” Doc Wyler looked with – what might be interpreted as a pleading look towards the table, and Joe Vaughn murmured, “Your Lady is your Goddess … I know. If Mama ain’t happy, then no one is happy.”

“What about the old apartment upstairs in the Mercantile?” Miss Letty looked to have had the only sensible reaction. “If that would suit, I can make it available. I own the building, you know. No one has lived in the apartment for years. My grandfather, Arthur Wells McAllister had his business office there, and my brother used it for a while, as well.”

“At the Mercantile?” Richard was boggled. “Well, it would be handy to work, I suppose. I never knew there was any such thing in the Mercantile.” This was the narrow red-brick building next to the Café on the opposite side from Stein’s Wild West Roundup, towering two stories and a commanding cornice high over the single story and a half of the Café, with the name “Mercantile Building” outlined in the façade in contrasting and permanent white-glazed brick. The ground floor was an ice-cream parlor, in the early years of Luna City, noted for having been the establishment from which Don Antonio Gonzales emerged on a certain summer day in 1919. Upon encountering his mortal enemy, one Eusebio Garcia Maldonado on the sidewalk before the Café, increasingly heated words and then gunshots were exchanged in the last recorded public duel in Luna City. (The only casualties were the radiator of Don Antonio’s Model-T sedan, a city street-light and a mule hitched to a wagon parked farther down the square, all struck by wild shots from the participants’ weapons.) The Mercantile Building currently housed a small and rather shabby little shop featuring the work of local crafters and artisans. It was open erratic hours, mostly on weekends. Richard had never given it much thought, save when curious weekend excursionists wandered into the Café, asking when the place would be open.

Miss Letty was explaining to Luc, and to a rather relieved Sefton, “… it’s a terribly spartan little place, I’m afraid. Lucas – that means that there are no comforts in it. After the Spartans of ancient Greece, who preferred to live simply. No one has lived in it for years, as I cannot afford to renovate, and probably couldn’t get back sufficient in rent to cover the costs, anyway. But the view of the square from the front windows is quite pleasant, and there is a relatively new window unit … Sarah and some of her friends were holding needle-work classes in the front room, where the light is good. I suppose you would want to see it, first.” She fished in her generous handbag, found a ring of keys and detached on from it. “Come along, young man – and see if it will suit. I’m afraid it will be rather dusty, and of course the furniture is … minimal. But you would have it to yourself, and of course, be convenient to the Café…”

“I don’t mind,” Luc replied. He had not much of an emotion about this, so Richard presumed that he truly didn’t mind. “No roomies or neighbors to get riled up about the drums? Let me see the place.”

“She’s ‘Miss Letty’ to you,” Jess hissed, in an undertone, and then added in a more normal voice. “I’ll finish up the paperwork once you’ve had a chance to look over your new quarters,” She tucked away the folder, and picked up Little Joe, who in the interval of his mother having a bite to eat, had become quite restless over her attention paid to anything but him. “I’ll wait, Miss Letty … Richard, do you want to go with them?” Richard really didn’t want to do this, thinking it was none of his business, but as Miss Letty, Sefton and Luc went towards the door, Jess hissed in the same undertone, “Go with her – those stairs are murder. And he will be your employee, anyway. A good commander always looks after the troops and their living conditions.”

“Right,” Richard obeyed, as Miss Letty with her keys led the three of them out the front door of the Café, and to a narrow and undistinguished door sandwiched between the Mercantile Building, and the storefront on the far side of it. The door to the space in the Mercantile, over that hapless little craft shop? Guess that it must be, Richard thought. Miss Letty fumbled with the key, in the lock of that door, which opened into a small space, into which a staircase mounted up like an arrow upwards into the dimness beyond. There was a clumsy, old-fashioned light switch just inside the doorway. Miss Letty flipped it, and two lights came on – bare bulbs hanging on lengths of flex, one at the bottom and one at the top.

“I think that you will have sufficient space for your motor scooter to park in shelter at the bottom of the stairs,” Miss Letty observed. “Such a darling little machine – they used them in Italy, in the old movies! I have always wanted to ride on one, but never had the opportunity. I am afraid that the stairs are so steep! It was the way of it, in Grandfather Arthur’s day, you know. So many families chose to live over their shops, or at least keep offices there …” She began to climb up the steep, darkened staircase, in painful, one-by-one steps. Mindful of his instructions from Jess, Richard had no compunction about following her next, even in elbowing ahead of Sefton. If the old darling missed a step, and somehow contrived to fall backwards … Miss Letty was the oldest resident of Luna City, the living repository of history and legend. Her life should be preserved at whatever risk.

On the landing at the top of the stairs, Miss Letty took out her keys again, and unlocked the substantial panel door, admitting them all into a generous but empty room, high ceilinged, and well-lit by two tall windows overlooking Town Square. Although the room was paneled with rather fine – if dingy carved paneling, the floor was covered with the utilitarian greenish speckled linoleum favored for public buildings anticipating rather a lot of wear and tear, and the windows were filled with equally utilitarian Venetian blinds expecting the same hard-use, hanging at half-mast. A couple of folding tables and a stack of metal folding chairs leaned against the farther wall. It was altogether a cheerless and desolate prospect as far as a living space went, but Luc regarded it with approval.

“Rehearsal space! What else is there?”

“Not very much, I’m afraid,” Miss Letty replied, “Through here is the bathroom, kitchenette, and bedroom.” She led them to a door in the wall opposite the windows; a short hallway lay beyond with three more doors; the first led to a miniscule bathroom, into which a depressingly modern sink, toilet and shower stall had been wedged, likely with the aid of a crowbar. The door beyond that opened into a slightly larger room, with a single window in it, overlooking the lumpy graveled area which lay behind the Café. It had been fitted with some cheap kitchen cabinets under a Formica countertop, cabinets which had never had any better days of which to boast. A couple of dead flies lay in the sink, the porcelain lightly stained by lime from an intermittently dripping tap. There was a space where a stove had possibly once been, and another filled with a refrigerator, of a mid-century design with rounded corners and a dashing chrome handle shaped like a car door handle of the same vintage.

“The icebox works,” Miss Letty said, opening the refrigerator door to show that yes, there was a light on inside, and an opened box of baking soda. “I can’t recall what happened with the stove, although it may be that there never was one. My brother used this as an office, when he was writing his book about the history of Luna City. He was the last person to use this place, regularly.”

The final door stood half-open, to a room with another window; this one contained a single bedstead with a dusty mattress on it and nothing much else.

“What do you think, Luc?” Sefton sounded hearty, enthusiastic. “A crash pad of your own, and a job right next door, too! Might be your lucky day, after all, buddy!”

“Yeah.” For all that, Luc didn’t sound all that enthused, and Richard didn’t blame him in the least. “I don’t mind about the stove – I got a microwave of my own, so no biggie. So – how much is the rent?”

“I’ll work out something with Jess,” Miss Letty replied, sounding as magisterial as ever. “Something fair to us all, considering that this place is relatively useless to me, and offers no home comforts worth mentioning to you. A mere token of fifteen a week deducted from the salary that the Café will pay, I think – just consider that quarters are part of your salary.”

“Aw, hey – it’s fine, Miss Letty. A place of my own, even if it’s a dump – oh, no, didn’t mean that,” Luc added hastily, after intercepting a warning look from both Sefton and Richard – and mirabile dictu – taking it to heart after a moment of thought, in which Richard thought that he could hear the mental gears creaking and grinding. “I’ll take it. It’s fine. ‘Specially to practice the drums. Call it my address for now, Chef.”

“Good,” Richard said. “You know that I’ll know where to find you, when you oversleep!” while Sefton grinned. “Luc, man – don’t worry about no other stuff in the place, ‘kay? When our old place burned, people were real generous to us. We gotta whole trailer full of stuff that they gave us, to replace the household things that burned, stuff that we really don’t need. We’ll bring up your stuff from the van, and then I’ll make a run out to the Age, and bring you anything else you might need from our stores … hey, no problem, Luc. You know how nice it will be, not to have to drive all the way to Karnesville for a decent burger. But like I said – ixnay on the burger-kay when you talk to My Lady. Got it?”

“Sure.”

Richard was fairly certain that Luc did not quite comprehend – something about the expression in his face. No; the lights were on, but the person at home was hiding in a back room, hoping that the one ringing the doorbell would soon give up and go away. For himself, Richard left Sefton and Luc to make a closer survey of the apartment, and accompanied Miss Letty on that perilous journey down the narrow staircase – trip and fall on that, you’d be well into the grass of Town Square before you stopped bouncing.

“Lucas approves of the old apartment,” Miss Letty announced to Jess upon their return to the Café. Joe had already gone back to work, and Allen Lee was swapping yarns with Harry Vaughn about old times in Banff at the Castle Mountain Hotel, out at the sidewalk table, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine slanting across the Square in bars of blessed golden light. Lamentably, every scrap of Luc’s tasting menu was gone, save a dusting of crumbs and seasonings on the serving platters.  “So that will be his home address for the time being. Poor boy; I’m afraid he has had a very difficult life. There are these odd children, you know; often quite intelligent, but absolutely no grasp of the social graces, and what it takes to get on with their peers.” Miss Letty turned her regard towards Richard. “I’m afraid it will fall to you, Richard – to make allowances for this, as you work together.”

Richard sighed. “My dear Miss Letty, I have worked with such numpties in the kitchen that you would not believe – and both they and I survived. Well, just barely…”

Miss Letty frowned, very slightly. Too late, Richard recalled that Miss Letty had an excellent command of English slang, based on her youthful service in the European theater. “Lucas is not an idiot, Richard – just … odd. But very skilled at what he does. I trust that you will take his personal idiosyncrasies into account. I must say that we – that Stephen and I were pleased beyond belief with his cooking audition. The boy has definite talent. If his peculiarities can be managed skillfully, I dare to venture that he will be a credit and a benefit to the Café.”

“I’m certain that he will, Miss Letty,” Jess came to his rescue, as she settled her son into his carrier. “So – when should we announce regular supper service?”

“I suggest in time for Valentine’s Day,” Richard thumbed through his mental calendar. “We can do a couple of weekends, unannounced, just to work out the kinks…”

He ignored Jess’s snort of smothered laughter, too late remembering that crude slang went both ways.

“Very good,” Miss Letty gathered up her own notes. “Good night, then, Richard.”

“Do you need a lift home, Miss Letty?” Jess ventured. “I wasn’t going that way, but …”

“No – a lady always departs with the gentleman who brought her,” Miss Letty replied with a wintery smile. So that was why Harry Vaughn still waited outside the Café. “It’s a treat on a mild day, to travel in an open car, with the wind in your hair.”

“All right, then,” Richard supposed that his day was now done, some hours after he was accustomed to ending them. But this had been a special day, although he was still unsure about why this should be so. Another chapter in the doings of the Café, and of his involvement in the doings of Luna City, a place which had now set bonds – Richard refused to think of them as tentacles – so tightly now around him, that he feared that he would never be able to shrug them off and leave, even if he really wanted to do so. Kate Heisel, Ozymandius-King-of-Kings, the nurturing of the clients at the Café, for the schoolchildren which he had taken on the mission of teaching about proper food, the friendship of Joe and Jess, of Berto and Araceli and Pat, and all the others, to include the uncouth Grants … and now the care of a fellow with no social skills whatever?

He wandered into the kitchen, where Araceli had already efficiently cleaned up after the unexpected late afternoon spasm of cooking.

“Hey, Chef – I think we’re done for the day. I guess the new guy is hired. Can we all close up and go home?”

“Yes, yes, and yes,” Richard replied, whereupon Araceli favored him with a brilliant smile.

“He’ll be a good addition,” she assured Richard, with a relatively straight face. “Yeah – he’s weird, but, hey – he knew what he was doing, and wasn’t half as obnoxious as some of the other guys that Miss Letty and Doc hired. Believe me – I’ve seen them all, and outlasted them all – does that make me an expert?”

“It does,” Richard acknowledged with weary acquiescence. “So – tomorrow morning, after the breakfast rush – we all sit down and have a talk about where we are going with this thing. I’ve got approval to take on Beatriz for the front of the house, and another waitress of your recommendation. In a couple of weeks, as soon as we work it all out – we’ll be doing regular dinner service. Neither one of us can work seven days a week, and eighteen hours a day – so, we need to work out what we can do and the proper lines of authority.”

“On it, Chef,” Araceli replied, smartly.

And Richard had no doubt that she had.

What a waste of good managerial authority, in a dinky, small-town café, he thought, as he locked up for the day. In any first-rate place, Araceli would have been commanding a princely salary.

But then – so would he.

He got out his bicycle from where it had been leaning against the wall at the back of the Café, whistled for Ozzie – who appeared from the Stein’s garden, hopping easily up onto the basket on the back of it, nobly taking no notice of the bucket of kitchen scraps dedicated to the Grant’s chickens.

When he came around the end of the block, though – it was to see Luc’s Vespa go by, at a decorous pace, around the margins of Town Square, with Miss Letty, sitting demurely side-saddle on the back, with one arm around Luc’s waist, the other holding onto her hat.

Yes, that was Luna City – a world apart and all of itself. Richard waved to Miss Letty, and pedaled out on the road that led home. Home, in Luna City. It had a nice sound to it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *