By Marian Allen
“Every other place’ll be closed for Christmas,” I told my boss.
“And everybody who wants to eat out’ll come here,” he said, “’cause we’ll be open. Do I ever close for Christmas?”
“You wouldn’t close for the Second Coming,” I said, “but you’ll close for Christmas this year, because nobody’s going to work on Christmas this year.”
My boss, whose Chinese name translates (according to him) as Bud Blossom, owned a Chinese/American restaurant on a houseboat permanently moored on Cherokee Creek. I’d been waitressing there since Mom-mom and Pop-pop (what I called my grandparents) moved to town and I came with them.
Bud wasn’t the worst boss you could ever have, but he was a long chalk from the best. Bud had about as much compassion as a wild hog, and that’s an insult to wild hogs everywhere. He was kind of a little guy, but when he gnashed his teeth and flashed his one good eye, like he was doing now, he looked like he was about to breathe fire.
“Goddamn government handouts,” he grumbled. “People can make more money sitting home on their asses than doing honest work.”
People could make more money hunting change under the seats at movie theaters than working for Bud Blossom, but we both knew that, so I didn’t bother to say it. I live on tips, just so you know.
We weren’t standing around shooting the breeze, understand; I was rolling plastic utensils up in paper napkins and Bud was filling the salt and pepper shakers. A cloud of black pepper rose up from the table where he was working. Lucky for me, I was upwind, but it blew right into Bud’s face. He never blinked, never coughed, and never sneezed; you’d have thought breathing pepper was his natural element.
“You’re working Christmas,” he said, which was a fact, since I always did. Mom-mom and Pop-pop were Jehovah’s Witnesses, so we didn’t do Christmas, even though I was raised Lutheran and I was still Lutheran in my heart. I liked the lights and the songs and baby Jesus and the idea of presents; if I couldn’t have them at home, why should I stay home?
“I’m not working no twelve hour shift,” I said, “even if the two of us could handle whatever crowd shows up.”
“Three,” he said. “Billy Balenka’s cooking.”
“Twelve hours. The stupid idiot’s still paying off what he spent on last Christmas, so he needs more than the COVID money. He wants twelve hours, and I owe him.”
It wasn’t like Bud to admit a debt, but Billy had come in every day the restaurants weren’t in lockdown, even when people wouldn’t come here because they were afraid Bud’d give them “The Chinese Virus”. He probably would have, too, if he could have.
Billy and his family were probably doing Christmas on Christmas Eve, like a lot of people do, but still. I said, “Wonder what his wife and kids think about him working on Christmas Day?”
Bud shrugged. “Do I look like I care?”
With the pepper all around him and the light catching his glass eye so it shone red, he looked like he’d rather eat the kids than feel sorry for them.
Billy was already down in the galley when I came in for my regular shift on Christmas Eve. The waitresses going off gave me quick hugs and we slipped each other goofy little presents, hoping Bud didn’t catch us. It probably looked like Drug Deal Central if goodwill was illegal.
I had no sooner glanced over the hostess station’s table chart when Billy yelled, “Order up!” from down the hatch.
“That’s mine,” Bud said, coming out of nowhere, like he does.
He pushed the button for the dumbwaiter and grumbled at how long it took (about thirty seconds), snapping his fingers and scanning the tables while he waited.
“Table twelve needs more napkins,” he said, which meant I should take them some.
When I came back, Bud had just taken a big bite of the hamburger Billy had sent up. He walked to the rail and spit the bite into the creek. He lifted the top of the bun, closed it, and threw the whole thing after the bite.
“No pickle,” he said.
That wasn’t like Billy. He never made mistakes in the kitchen, and nobody made mistakes with Bud’s order.
He clicked the order mic. “Billy,” he said softly, “there was no pickle on my hamburger. You know I like lots of pickle in my bun.”
Billy said, “Sorry, boss,” instead of, “That’s what she said,” and that’s when I knew something was bad wrong.
Bud gave that glower that means somebody’s going to get ripped a new one and plunged down to the galley.
The dumbwaiter door was still open, so I looked to make sure all the customers were settled and happy, and leaned in to listen.
“What does your house getting robbed have to do with my hamburger?” Bud growled.
“They tore the place apart while we was at the movies! They found all the Christmas presents and took ’em! They took the TV and the Ginsu knives Barbara’s Aunt Katie gave her for her birthday! Barbara and the kids are scared to stay home without me, and I don’t blame ’em. They’re sitting in The All-Niter right now, waiting for me to come off shift. Don’t know where we’re gonna stay tonight or what they’re gonna do tomorrow while I’m working.”
“None of this is my problem,” Bud said. “Don’t you have any friends or relations?”
They did, of course, but bringing a family of six into a house that already had Christmas plans, much less bringing four kids with no presents into a house with kids who were getting presents …. Not something any of them wanted to be a part of. It isn’t like Billy and Barbara had any friends with big houses or big budgets, and their families were poorer than they were and lived in apartments and trailers. Bud would know that, if he cared anything about his workers.
All the time they were talking, Billy must’ve been remaking Bud’s order, because Bud came back on deck with a hamburger that dripped pickles all around the edge.
“Idiot,” he said, grabbing a handful of paper napkins.
I was wiping down the last table when I heard people coming up the gangway.
“We’re closed,” I called.
A trembly voice said, “We’re here to see Billy.”
It was Barbara and the kids, the kids aged ten down to four. There should have been two, but “protection” failed and one little oopsie came out twins.
Bud had strings of white lights trimming the roof-edge of the dining area. He was on a step stool, replacing every fourth bulb with a red one or a green one. It was his only concession to Christmas Day. He ignored Barbara and the kids and he sure didn’t join me in hugging them and trying to comfort them where there was no comfort to be had.
Billy came up from the galley and hugged Barbara and the young ones. He might as well have been talking about somebody else when he said, “Bud says we can stay here tonight! We can bunk in the storeroom and the pantry.”
Barbara whispered a tearful, “Thank you! Thank you!” The twins pogo’d up and down and shouted, “An ambenture! An ambenture!” which was four-year-old for adventure, I guess.
Billy cocked an eye at Bud, and I knew he was quoting something Bud had suggested, probably sarcastically, “Santa’s presents this year will be to make the house safe for us to go back to tomorrow night.”
When I left, Billy and his family were below decks, chattering and singing three different Christmas songs at once. Bud walked me down the gangplank, which I thought was a Christmas miracle in itself, until he said, “I’m not staying here with all that going on.” I knew he would ignore my Merry Christmas, so I kept it to myself.
We actually had a breakfast rush Christmas morning after the churches let out. Bud was back, and I asked him how Billy was keeping up with the orders.
“Barbara’s helping him, so it’s going fine. The kids did our side work. Who did you think rolled all those napkins, Santa’s elves?”
He spoke into the order mic. “We need some hands on deck.”
The kids pounded up the steps, giggling. They lined up and saluted.
Bud said, “Can any of you write?”
The ten-year-old and the eight-year-old nodded, while all four of them giggled again.
Bud ground his teeth and told me to give the older ones order pads.
The twins followed them around for a while, then they followed me around for a while, then they amused themselves by going from table to table, saying things like, “Is the meal to your liking?” and “Can I get you anything else?” like Bud had drilled into me to ask.
Of course, everybody wanted to know the story on kids on Bud’s boat, and the kids and I told them. The customers went home and told their friends and relations, and the local radio station ran a story on it that repeated every hour. A reporter showed up, but Bud refused to be interviewed and refused to let anybody else be interviewed.
We were slammed all day, and the tips were out of this world. People slipped the kids twenties and told them it wasn’t a tip, it was a gift, and they didn’t have to share it out. People brought toys and “left” them at their tables with tags like, “From Santa”.
At the end of the twelve-hour shift, we’d had our best day since the Fourth of July, when people booked places on the upper deck to watch the fireworks. The kids had fistfuls of cash and a trash bag full of toys.
When they tried to thank Bud, he raised his eyebrows and said, “What for? Did I lose anything by it? Kids at Christmas is like coining money.”
Barbara and the kids hugged me, side-eying Bud like lambs with a sheepdog glaring at them.
Billy took a call on his cell phone and came back looking puzzled and happy.
“Santa did it!” he said. “The guy who robbed us turned hisself in. He already dumped the stuff he stole, so we won’t get it back, but he’s going to jail.”
The kids cheered. Barbara threw herself against her husband and sobbed with relief.
I could barely hear Billy when he kept talking: “The cops said the guy seemed like he was scared to death. When he found out they kept a light on in the holding cell all night, he said, ‘Thank Jesus!’”