My damp legs make a gross thwapping noise every time I peel one from the chair, but the ripped vinyl itches too much for me to keep still. The windowless American Legion kitchen where Mom works nights as a short-order cook is blazing hot. “Indian Summer” my teacher called it. Mom is in a mood on account of the thick heat and how many orders she’s getting. She takes it personally when the place gets busy like everybody is coming in hungry just to piss her off. I’m tucked against the wall at her wobbly prep station that doubles as my desk, wishing I hadn’t finished my homework because now all I can think about is my grumbling stomach.
Mom expected a slow night since it’s only Tuesday. That means her on the chair across from me reading a Good Housekeeping and me keeping quiet with homework and hoping she’ll let me play pinball when I finish. Instead, Mom’s hovered over the grill, furiously working scrawny slices of gray meat across it and muttering on about “these goddamn people.” Sweat collects in her glasses and rolls off her forearms, sizzling as it hits the hot steel.
Lil pokes her head in the pass-through window between her bar and our kitchen and screams out, “Two Philly steaks, two wedgies, a meatball hoagie hold the cheese, and five fries.”
Mom can’t hear Lil no matter how loud she hollers for the roar of the grease fan over her head, so I take it all down on a little green pad, feeling important.
“Look out there and see who’s eatin’ all this shit,” Mom says when I pass her the order.
I peek out the pass-through and report back, “Looks like a bunch of ladies playing Euchre by the jukebox. Dad’s here now, too.”
Mom gives an angry “humpff,” which has nothing to do with the ladies. She nods at the Philly steak she just finished making. I hurry the sandwich out to the bar without Dad seeing me and collect my tip with a fake smile—fifty cents, double what I’m used to and enough for two games of pinball.
Back in the kitchen, Mom is hustling. Open buns are face down on the grill next to heaping piles of beef steak hidden under slices of unmelted cheese. She drops the metal basket of fries into the hot oil. It splashes her arm and floor, both unnoticed by Mom. She moves on to the wedgie sandwiches. Two slices of pizza—the sandwich’s bun—get layered with provolone, lettuce, roast beef or ham, and a generous slather of mayo. I’m not sure she invented it, but anyone that eats Mom’s wedgie sandwich acts like she has. They sell out even on slow nights, so I’ve never tried one. Not that I care. My favorite is her meatball hoagie, a sub roll grilled crisp inside, filled with meatballs then covered with slices of provolone and slipped under the broiler until the cheese browns and bubbles. Mom pulls the piping hot sandwiches out with her bare hands, and if it’s one we’re sharing cuts it sixty-forty.
She loads the order on two big trays. I carry the first out to a, “Well, look at our little waitress would ya.” My cheeks go hot as I ask around for who gets what then race back for the second tray. On my return I get, “Aren’t you just the sweetest thing. I’ll bet you make your momma so proud.” A cigarette vibrates in the corner of the lady’s mouth as she talks and takes her wedgie from my tray. I smile like one of the Miss America contestants on TV and hurry off with a fistful of quarters.
I slip back into my seat and Mom surprises me, “Why don’t you go play pinball while I fix us a sandwich.”
I’m not used to her offering something without me asking, so I run out before she can change her mind.
“Just two quarters and no more,” she yells after me.
The Legion regulars are lined up along the bar. Dad has his usual seat closest to the keg taps. I can tell from the way he’s leaning that Lil’s sneaking him shots of ginger brandy, which means there will be a fight at home later. I pass him on the way to the pinball machine and wave. My first quarter brings the machine to life, and the slutty blonde facing me on the glass lights up. Dad starts telling anyone in earshot how proud he is of his “little girl.” I launch the ball into the mechanical maze. Behind me, his words run together in a way that makes them into a lie. I whack the ball so hard it ricochets off the glass, then keep snapping the flippers rapid fire for the noise of it. The silver ball bounces and rings, but not loud enough to drown out Dad’s bragging. I let the ball slide through my flippers and the next two after that. “You want another quarter,” Dad calls as I head to the kitchen. I shake my head no and hurry past like Mom’s waiting for me.
My forty of our meatball hoagie is sitting on the table. Mom’s wearing dabs of red sauce in the corners of her mouth, her sixty long gone. Lil announces that the kitchen is closed. This Mom understands without needing a go-between. She smacks the fan switch with the burger turner, and an eerie silence falls over the tiny kitchen. I savor small, slow bites of my sandwich and watch Mom limp to the sink for a bowl of cold water then dump it on the grill. The fleshy top half of her disappears in a cloud of hissing steam.