Helen hired me as a cook my freshman year. She sat all day at booth number one reading magazines and chain smoking Kools. Mean as a snake, four foot something, maybe eighty pounds, Helen was as nervous and twitchy as a twelve year old boy. She managed the Yum Yum Tree, a depressing Denny’s wannabe next to the Montgomery Wards at the decaying Midtown Mall. Between each magazine page flip, she would glance out the glass door to the parking lot. The mall allowed each business to reserve an “employee of the month” parking spot. There was no such honor at the Yum Yum Tree, but the owner used the spot on his infrequent surprise visits. At the first glimpse of his powder blue Cadillac, Helen would leap from her booth and alert the staff. “P.T. on One!” that was her code for the owner. To this day, I have no clue.
Still working in her mid-70s, Helen lived in fear of being fired. She viewed every employee as a potential threat to her livelihood. With a terrified smile plastered on her face she would escort the owner on a cleanliness tour and introduce him to any new employees. “This is Dwight, he’s doing a fine job.” Then, as the owner sat alone with the bank deposit books in her precious booth, Helen braced herself at the server’s station and panted, her tiny heart racing. During those twenty minute visits every other week, I would start to feel sorry for her. That was fairly hard to do. Helen would clear tables herself, pocket the tip and tell the waitresses that Dwight took it.
Then it happened. Margo slipped an order into my wheel and gave it a spin, “Ticket in!” I grabbed it. Salisbury steak dinner, no mash, sub a baked. I yanked open the meat drawer to grab one of our 1/2 pound deluxe chopped sirloin steaks. Nope, all out. I quickly waved Margo back. “Margo, see what else they want, we’re out of the Salisbury,” I whispered softly, trying not to alarm Helen or alert the owner. Margo smiled, tilted her head to the side, took a big breath and yelled, “How can we be out of Salisbury steak?!” Helen was upon us in a blur. “I’m sure we have plenty.” she said calmly, glancing back at booth number one, then glaring at me.
This was her worst nightmare. Helen didn’t trust us children with the inventory or the ordering, that was too important, “..that is what managers do.” In an instant, she was in my kitchen with murder in her eyes. I was ready for anything. Instead of going for the knives she reached past me and pulled open the meat drawer. Without a word and without taking her eyes off me, she grabbed a stack of burger patties, quickly mashed several of them into the shape of a Salisbury steak and tossed it on my grill. She took a cleansing breath then leaned toward me and whispered slowly and clearly, “In my 76 years, you are far and away the stupidest person I have ever met.”