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Written by Brian Shawver

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Category: Fiction - Literary
Imprint: Anchor
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: March 2007
Price: $13.95
Can. Price: $17.95
ISBN: 978-1-4000-7987-2 (1-4000-7987-X)
Pages: 320



O'Ruddy's thrived on Friday nights, under the stewardship of Casey Fielder. As the general manager he exercised absolute power here, and he had to wield his power with composure and resolve, or his staff would be lost in the chaos, in the kinetic heat of bodies and track lighting and frying food, in the clamor of conversation and complaint. On this particular Friday, as he watched and controlled the frenzy of the late dinner rush, it seemed to him that O'Ruddy's was thriving as usual, and he approved.

Casey was not above sweating alongside his staff, and throughout the dinner shift he bused as many tables, by his careful reckoning, as Paulo did. Once or twice he threw together some house salads to help out the harried sous-chef, and he ran meals to tables when the servers asked. But mostly his job was to supervise: to judge, to correct, to encourage, and sometimes to condemn. He watched even as he wiped down tables and mopped up spills, even as he talked with customers and restocked the service stand, and tonight he was satisfied with the performance of his employees. The servers--all women, all sporting ponytails and pastel polo shirts, nametags bobbing on their breasts--wove gracefully through the maze of the dining floor, around the sluggish busboy. Casey approved of their pacing and their flirtations, of the way their singular pursuit of tips merged so neatly with the interests of the restaurant. When he crossed the threshold of the kitchen, that fluorescent, intense world, the usual racket struck him: a symphony of clattering plates, spurting water, the sizzling grill, the machine-gun Spanish of the cooks and dishwashers and the Latino radio station they listened to. In the kitchen, the workers moved with the frenetic purpose of ER doctors; sweat shook off the jerky limbs of the head cook like water off a Labrador. They were entirely unmoved by Casey's presence when he came to check on them, adjusting their behavior to his watchfulness not one bit. One of the prep cooks even had a cigarette hanging from his lips, and he did not apologize when Casey scolded him. But Casey granted the kitchen staff some leeway on Friday nights because of their stoic competence, and tonight they were meeting the challenges of the rush.

Casey was meeting the challenges as well, and most important, he exuded a sense of assurance and command. He had somehow kept his clothes pressed and his cowlick mastered, and the sweat stains did not show on his navy blue shirt, although he felt more disheveled than he looked. His feet hurt at the sides, and the grease-and-sweat stink of his undershirt had begun to overcome the Gold Bond powder he'd puffed into his armpits at the beginning of the shift. But no one at O'Ruddy's would ever suspect that the cares of management had worn him down tonight. He mitigated his tiredness with brisk, purposeful movement. He listened to the whining of his staff--When can we switch to the unwrapped straws? Why does Julio put so much goddamn sour cream on everything?--and he corrected their mistakes. Credit cards that had been overcharged, platters that had been ordered twice, a clogged toilet, an absent dishwasher. All the problems were laid at his feet, abandoned there, as if he could turn a magic wand on them and--poof.

There was something in Casey that loved this, or rather something that needed it in an elemental way, the way a plant needs sunlight. Something in him turned crisis into sustenance, made the restaurant--especially on Friday nights--a place where he felt more at home than anywhere else. Sometimes he did feel possessed of secrets and special powers, although it was really nothing more than experience, a personality suited for this kind of work, and the guidance of the manager's handbook, which he consulted several times a day.

Within these walls (where he could be found, on average, seventy-five hours a week), virtually every aspect of Casey's behavior had a foundation in the handbook. The expression on his face, for instance, was specifically calibrated according to the directive on page 18: When interacting with guests about nonpecuniary matters, the manager's expression should be that of a dinner party host who is pleased to see all of his/her friends enjoying themselves. Mindful of this advice, Casey held his eyes open wide against the scowl that often swelled inside. This gave him a look of perpetual expectation, as if he were always waiting for something to pounce on him.

His fidelity to the dress code was absolute, so much so that he found himself wearing his manager's uniform more or less continuously, regardless of the occasion. Page 32: The manager's pants should be black and neatly pressed; the shirt and tie must be stately and of solid colors. After eight years at O'Ruddy's, most of his wardrobe conformed to the dress code. Several months earlier, at the funeral for his Uncle Rich, he had looked down to find that he was not only wearing the requisite manager's outfit but had pinned his manager's nametag to the appropriate part of his shirt (on the left breast, one inch above the top of the pocket), though he wasn't going in to work that day.

Most of the handbook's admonitions had seeped their way into his habits during his tenure at O'Ruddy's. He had mastered the nuances and complexities of the place, and he considered Friday nights to be the reward for this mastery. On these nights he belonged among the happy, satiated crowd and the tip-giddy servers, because of the fact that he made it all happen, he provided for their comfort and fixed their problems. That they took him for granted was no matter, because he knew that without him it would all go away.

It had been his idea to focus their attention on Fridays, for example, by creating Friday prime rib specials and putting coupons in Thursday's Beacon. Though he never spoke of the strategy in a self-congratulatory way, he had come to see it as a marketing plan that was singularly appropriate for this particular township and restaurant. On Saturdays anyone seeking diversion drove the half hour to Scranton, where there was a cineplex and a mall. On Sundays the restaurants of the township were dominated by the senior citizens, enamored of half-sandwich specials and 6 percent tips. The location of the O'Ruddy's, south of Arthur Avenue on the cusp of East Breed's, was inconvenient for the white-collar workers who might have come in for business lunches or after-dinner drinks, and so the weekday receipts largely depended on East Breed's locals: the ironworkers, the unemployed. These people were suspicious of the restaurant--the forced festivity of its decor, the cost of its fried cheese appetizers--and usually favored the Dairy Bar, unless it was someone's birthday. There were lunch shifts, especially in the winter, when the cooks at O'Ruddy's didn't need to filter the oil in the fryer.

But all kinds of people came on Fridays, sometimes in droves, rambunctious from the cessation of work. Birthday celebrants, anxious first-daters, softball teams, lonely drunks eating fried jalape–os at the bar. The bartenders invented flamboyantly colored cocktails for the Friday drinkers, and Casey scheduled only his experienced servers for the dinner shift. On Friday afternoons the cooks would lay great slabs of poultry and beef on the back counter to thaw. The sous-chef would jam the chiller with as many premade house salads as he could fit. The Friday servers showed up early for side work, and the small platoon of pert young women would gossip and smoke as they each rolled fifty sets of silverware. By seven o'clock the hostess would be cautioning new arrivals of a forty-minute wait, and typically they waited. There weren't many restaurants of its kind in Breed's Township, and no one wanted to drive to Scranton on Friday night.

On these evenings O'Ruddy's was expected to total receipts of eight thousand dollars, in the course of serving around three hundred customers, including bar patrons. The restaurant was expected to accomplish this with a staff of six in the kitchen and six on the floor, plus the supervising manager. This, at least, was the benchmark set in previous years, and which had been surpassed every weekend this past fall, a season of bliss. The Breed's Township High football team had gone eight and one, and after each game a throng of giddy spectators trooped over from the nearby stadium to discuss what they had seen over Busch Lights and buffalo wings. The autumn weather had been mild and breezy, so people avoided the stuffy, windowless bars near the township center. O'Ruddy's had often reached the maximum capacity (112 persons, according to a brass plate in the entryway) and in Casey's memory that fiscal season was defined by a conviviality that he had not felt before, that gave him hope. The restaurant had churned out the happy atmosphere of fried food and celebration and alcohol and flirtation, and in the midst of this jovial mass Casey had acknowledged--with his own kind of joy--the real matter, the true success: the Breed's Township O'Ruddy's was flourishing under his command.

But it was January now, and things had changed, in spite of the sense of chaos and gluttony that surrounded him on this night, in spite of the frantic motion and the kitchen noise. Casey finally admitted to himself that the hectic activity of the restaurant belied another slow night. The sound and fury that reminded him of better times, and that had really lasted for only an hour or so, had been the result of a dearth of workers. In a time of hardship, which January was proving to be, Casey would schedule no more staff than was needed. This meant that there had been only four waitresses all night, and one busboy, and by eight o'clock the fifteen-minute wait (even as a half-dozen open tables, littered with used dishes, mocked the hostess) sent the later arrivals scattering to the Dairy Bar. The wait quickly shrank to ten minutes, then five, but by then it was too late, and at eight forty-five the hostess found herself facing a vacant foyer, chewing her thumbnail and waiting to be sent home. By ten Casey was sweatier and achier than he'd been during the busiest autumn Fridays, yet he knew it was because he had tried to summon that past glory through haste and micromanagement, and because he'd had to bus tables himself during the brief rush. The slump, which had begun in late November, had recently led to an exodus of the experienced girls, and those who remained were either too hard up or too lazy to find work elsewhere.

At ten-thirty Casey sent all but one of the waitresses to the break room to total up their receipts and roll more silverware. He told the bartender, who hadn't made a drink in forty-five minutes, to clean up and leave; if someone came in later, Casey would handle the bar. He retreated to his office, a square dark room next to the dry goods storage closet. Because of the stifling fires of the kitchen, they kept this back half of the restaurant minimally heated, and it was so cold in his office he put on his puffy brown coat and a scarf before he went in.

He printed out the preliminary returns from the computer and extrapolated the numbers to estimate how they would do, although he wouldn't know for sure until all the girls turned in their cash. He rounded up some of the numbers, and he gave generous estimations for the servers' cash receipts, in the hopes that this would push the final number into something short of extreme disappointment. It didn't help; they would be at least three thousand below average again, for the fifth Friday in a row.

It was not Casey's restaurant, not his investment that rode on these numbers. In fact the numbers would spell absolute disaster for no one. The octogenarian franchise owners, Mr. and Mrs. Ambrose Howard, were not going to allow themselves to fail this late in the game. There were indications (a house in Weston, Mrs. Howard's stockpile of minks, a new Skylark every other year) that the Howards' financial reserves were deep and diverse, though they were stingy enough when it came to running O'Ruddy's. Casey wasn't sure why they bothered with the place, unless it simply gave them something to do, and another way to prove their fiscal mettle. The Friday numbers were a disappointment, it was true, but they were only that--not a disaster, not a death sentence.

There was no comfort in this, however, unless it was to the Howards themselves, for there would still be blame, and this, like so much else at O'Ruddy's, would be laid at Casey's feet. Although there were many factors beyond his control to consider, the low numbers were a reflection on him in some way, or at least he knew they would be perceived as such. The blame is assigned to the general manager after five failing Fridays in a row, just as it is given to the coach when a team hits a losing streak, the president when the economy slumps. He knew he should be proactive in his defense.

He put aside the papers and began writing a memo on the computer. He addressed it to the Howards but sent a closed copy to the O'Ruddy's headquarters in Dallas. He restrained his language to avoid sounding accusatory of the headquarters, though in truth he directed much of his personal blame toward them. For one thing--and this is what he led the memo with--substantial losses could be explained by the "O'Ruddy's is on the clock!" campaign. A month earlier the marketing department had thrust this new promotion upon the franchise by shipping them a crate full of cheap fifteen-minute hourglasses and a video explaining the idea: once an order was taken, the server would turn over the hourglass, and if the food wasn't on the table by the time the sand ran out, the meal was complimentary. Casey's staff had proven themselves to be categorically unprepared for this challenge. The end of the "O'Ruddy's is on the clock!" campaign, Casey wrote to close the first paragraph, is eagerly anticipated by the servers, cooks, and, I must confess, myself.

He outlined other reasons, other justifications. The next one was the weather, which Casey admitted could not be blamed on the meddlers in Dallas. A vicious storm of freezing rain had struck in December, just before the deep freeze that came with Christmas, sheathing the township in ice for eight days. They were now more than two weeks into January, and each day of the new year had begun in the single digits. With the mean chill came heavy snow, although there were no snowmen, because even the children refused to stay outside long enough to make them. Headquarters and the Howards would have to adjust and be more understanding. He did not say it in these words, and in fact he euphemized the problem so much he wondered if they could even understand his desperation. He could not say what he wanted to say--that the weather was starving them of their guests.

From the Hardcover edition.