Sound of a Sigh
The diner had hit that time between morning rush hour and noontime rush. Sheckie sighed. He turned to review the state of his part of the kitchen. Bowls all on trays, mugs set up next to them. Plates all in order of size on their right shelves. He shuddered, remembering how hard Ruby had pinched his arm his first time of putting plates away after the washing up. She’d yelled at him to take everything down. Then she’d put everything back up, but this time with plates stacked together by size in neat rows. She made him look for a count of ten, then taken them down, mixed them up and said, “Do it again, but do it RIGHT this time.” That was Ruby’s way. RIGHT was Ruby’s rule. That’s not RIGHT. Do things RIGHT. Have you forgotten what’s RIGHT? At least it had made sure he did learn to do things right. He was sure enough now so that when she opened her mouth and he knew that the word RIGHT was coming, she didn’t get mad when he chimed in with her. She’d even pull his ear and laugh at him. She also used words he didn’t know. That he’d never heard of. Like, with the plates it had been, “Don’t you remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears?” She was glaring and hissing at him. “First the smallest. Then middle-size. And lastly - closest to Chef Belsen - that’s where you put the biggest ones.” When he’d just stood there, saying nothing, she’d turned and glared right into his eyes, saying, “Don’t you know anything!?” He’d wanted to say he didn’t know any Goldilocks though he thought it a real pretty name, he just didn’t know if it was a color or a flower or even maybe - a person? But he wasn’t able to, because just then, as suddenly as she’d descended on him in fury, she broke into a big smile, patted him on the back and said she guessed as how no, he didn’t, did he. And then, THEN, and Sheckie blushed even this long afterward, because THEN she’d bussed him on the cheek. And no one but the lady Miriam at the Home had ever done that to him. And she’d only done it five times in all the sixteen years he was there. He knew. He remembered every time. She’d smelled old and too sweet somehow -- a not quite right sweet -- but those soft kisses on his cheek had made his eyes sting and his stomach feel funny. Five times. He sighed, a deep one this time, and shrugged his shoulders, setting his eyes to ride across the glassware, checking to see that each glass was clean and shiny, with no smears, and that they were all neatly lined up, in rows. “STRAIGHT, you silly pickle. By SIZE,” Ruby’d tch’ed at him, and snapped him on the neck. That was the first time he’d tried putting the glasses away. “NO!” she’d yelled. “STRAIGHT back and STRAIGHT across and by SIZE.” It had been another pull down some to show him how it should be, then make him take all of them down and put them back. “The RIGHT way! By SIZE!” Ruby hollered. That was how she trained him. And whatever she taught him, whether how to stack and size the dish- or kitchen-ware or store the chocolate pudding trays or where to put block cheese after a delivery, she always told him he was going to learn to do it RIGHT. This was because, she told him, he was on his way UP. Another of her words, UP. “UP, not back, Scheckie. Don’t you go back, Sheckie, don’t you DARE go back. BACK is DOWN. You are NOT going BACK. You are not going DOWN. You are going UP, Sheckie. You are going UP if I have to shove you all the way there myself.” She’d let him mess up and then take what he’d done apart, do it herself, which of course was the right way, and then make him do it again. RIGHT. He didn’t mind. He’d learned. He smiled at the glasses gleaming, all in their correctly sized and straight rows, both front to back and side to side. Pots, pans, kettles, cookers, skillets all correctly scoured, washed and now in their assigned places, correctly sized and ready for use. Tableware done, check. Utensils done, check. He wiped his hands on his apron and turned to make sure the dishwasher’s door was up. “Let it dry out, for Chrissake!” That was Chef Belsen. Chef Belsen had had to remind Sheckie of that three times a day every day for the first two weeks. Sheckie never had the courage to tell him it was because he’d been taught at the Home always to close things or you got rapped on the knuckles. With wooden spoons or rulers or whatever came to hand. That was how they trained you at the Home. But now he’d learned to leave the door up. “Which you do for TWO reasons,” Ruby’d said, “FIRST so it can COOL DOWN and SECOND so it can DRY OUT. That way it will last a LONG TIME.” Her eyes got like needles and she stared at him as she said, “Like you, if you’re lucky.” Now he knew, and had done it proper. He’d done everything proper this morning. It was his third month and neither Chef Belsen nor Ruby had had to yell at him for a whole week. Ruby even trusted him to wash dishes by hand if she needed ‘em in a rush time. He’d never again made the mistake of mixing up the washing powder and the roach powder. NEVER. Ruby’d caught it, she said, BEFORE EVERYONE PUKED UP THEIR GUTS. Which wouldn’t be until AFTER THEY’D CALLED THEIR LAWYERS. She’d smacked him up side the head and hissed and banged around so loud it was a marvel Chef Belsen hadn’t roared and come over to see what Sheckie’d done wrong this time. But he’d been too busy sneaking a smoke and drinking the cooking wine to bother with Ruby’s fussing, thank goodness. Sheckie knew what puked and guts meant and that was bad enough. He hadn’t any idea what LAWYERS meant, but Ruby’d been so mad he figured it’d’ve been real bad - terrible - if anyone else ever found out, never mind Chef Belsen. Gummy, but Ruby could scare him. He’d stayed scared that time right through the whole day. Was still scared when he left work and was scared all the way home to his room in Ma Curtin’s Rooming House. He’d got that room he figured just because he guessed Ruby’d said so. Ruby could tell anyone what to do and they did it. She’d sent him to Ma Curtin’s at the end of his first day. When he asked what he was supposed to do there, she just turned him around, put the parcel containing his few belongings under his arm and pushed him out the door, yelling at him to GIT ALONG NOW. Ruby talked that way whenever she was excited. Could be excited good or excited bad. It’d taken him some time to understand this. That first night it seemed Mrs. Curtin - as she told him right away he was to call her - was expecting him because she just took him by the shoulder and led him around back and into the little room, saying, “The diner pays me your rent. Which is in lieu of you getting any wages, you understand.” He didn’t. He didn’t know what rent or loo or wages meant - none of it, but he had come to understand she was showing him a place where he was to live. She punched down on the little cot, pulled back its bedclothes, shook out the pillow and told him she was providing these for him. Then she’d taken the little parcel with his clothes and toothbrush and razor and soap and his picture book and put his clothes in the little cupboard, his book on the bed and the other things on the sink in the corner. She’d turned the lights on and off, run the hot and cold taps, pointed to a little table set by the bed, showing him the alarm clock sitting on it that had its alarm set for 5:30 AM with its alarm button already pulled out, and saying, “That’s so you won’t be late for work tomorrow morning and remember that you must re-wind it up every night,” and then showed him how. Next she’d taken him into a little hallway and showed him the toilet, which she said he’d share with Mr. Iwi who lived right up the hall from his room. Then she’d left him there. He had nowhere else to go. The Home closed when the lady Marian died. Which was why he was even in Little Falls. Besides, he liked the little room. And she’d let him keep the little puppy dog he’d found in the dumpster that morning. It had been tied in a bag. The bag had squiggled when he’d gone to put the garbage out at noon. He’d pulled a puppy out of the bag and he didn’t know which of them was the more surprised. She’d been real little and squiggled in his arms and licked his face until he made her stop. Then he’d tied her to the stand pipe behind the dumpster with one of his apron strings. As soon as he could he’d brought her water in a tin he’d rinsed out, and later he’d given her plate scrapings he’d saved up for her on a piece of cardboard. He’d named her Squiggles because it was her squiggling that made him find her. It was sad, because she would open her mouth wide and look like she was barking, but nothing came out. Seemed to him like she couldn’t bark, but he didn’t like thinking about it. He didn’t like thinking about being tied in a bag and left in a dumpster, either. He told Mrs. Curtin that the pup had no voice and couldn’t bark. He said he’d tie her outside if that was all right, but Mrs. Curtin said, nonsense, the pup should be with him. So Squiggles stayed. He didn’t know if he would like Mrs. Curtin. She didn’t seem like someone who’d like being liked. She made him feel small. But at the same time, somehow she made him feel safe. Which was a good thing. Because there were things that scared him. Like Ruby. Like the night of the big mistake. Ruby’d scared him so bad that even after he’d played with Squiggles and they’d shared the left-over meatloaf Ruby’d sent home with him, he still was scared. Even after he’d gotten ready for bed and knelt down to say his prayer - always the same one - “Help us all we ask, please, sweet Jeesus.” He didn’t know Jeesus or who he was. He did know he needed all the help he could get. The lady Miriam at the Home had taught them all to kneel by their cots and say those words before getting into bed. She’d called it a prayer and said if they asked him, Jeesus would help. Sheckie’d wondered if Jeesus was simple, like he is, so you might get a Ruby after you got a lady Miriam. Well, what did it matter? Everyone he’d ever met needed help. Him especially. He wasn’t smart. He was a good boy, he knew, because that’s what the lady Miriam told him every time she’d kissed his cheek. Five times she’d said, “You’re a good boy, Sheffield.” Five times. Sheffield was his real name but only she ever called him by it. The big kids wouldn’t speak to him at first and the little kids couldn’t say “Sheffield,” so somehow he’d ended up Sheckie. All except for her. Who’d called him his real name and said he was a good boy. Which he believed. He sighed again and wiped his hands on his apron once more. Then he stood there waiting for Chef Belsen or Ruby to yell for him. He was pretty happy with himself. He shifted his weight on his flat feet and wondered what he and Squiggles would be having for dinner that tonight. His sigh was long and light and had the sound of contentment.