The kitchen of a 4 A.M. crab shack across the street from a country western bar is not unlike Hell, diarrhea, and the myth of Syphysus. In Florida, the men in the kitchen are sweating, their arms so full of taut muscle, their bodies working like machines. Exhaustion becomes like a drug so hard they forget about death.
It’s the Fourth of July. The floor of the kitchen is two inches deep of potato skins, crab legs, and half-melted blood-soaked ice from the flanks of steak melting in the open freezer. Some men are two hundred pounds of hairnet beard and Mom tattoos. Some men look like boys, perpetual high school drop-outs, only getting more skinny and adding more notches in their belts.
At the crab shack, most cooks can’t cut it after only a few hours. Some last a few days only to disappear. If you make it a month then you’re pretty much family, after Joe says so. He’s been holding his post for two years. They called him the Rabbit. 6’2’’ behind the grill in his Pantera t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, dark blue jeans, stark and stiff, not a one sweat stain even as the others are squirting corn syrup down their pants to soothe their nutsacks.
Torta had been working the line for three weeks that night. Real name, Louisa. Fifth day on the job, Rabbit christened her after the sandwiches from the Texmex place on the corner she came in eating every day.
“Hey, what’s that, torta?”
“That’s what they call your ass?”
Round in the middle, and when she sweats, she smells like ham. Her arms, legs, and head all look like they’d just been stuck on after someone threw that big football-shaped belly together, all fat and a too-tight sweater no one had any business wearing in this weather. Louisa was not about to give a single fuck about any of that. Every day her hair looked wet and pulled back, beads of sweat trapped on her moustache as she slowly and steadily turned out the orders.
The first couple nights they told her she didn’t have what it takes to make it in this swampcrotch deadfishtoiletbowl kitchen, that she couldn’t keep up with the pace, forty hours a week behind a grill in ninety degree weather, all night from seven P.M. til you get the hell out. Sometimes the sun was rising. Sometimes you missed the entire span of darkness only to find the piss-stream of morning’s light waiting for you, with the promise of relentless heat. But every night in the parking lot, Louisa would just put on her walkman and walk home. While all the men sat in circles, passing the bowl and tearing their filthy, sweat-soaked clothes off their bodies, Louisa kept her cool.
At 2 A.M., Fifth of July, 1996, the drunks are piling into the diner like bacon and eggs. The runners were going down fast. They kept buckets of ice water next to the stove. It’s what you use when the hallucinations begin. Dunk your head in the bucket, or pray that you’re lucky enough to step back from the stove before you fall.
Rabbit, with so many oven scars on his forearms, he acts like he doesn’t even care. In this state, on a night where the humidity is so thick you can cut it with a knife, persistence can be deadly. Even with the freezer doors swung all the way open, the heat just walks right in, right off the stove and out of the oven, and gets held there by subterranean tropic death grip and doesn’t ever stop.
Rabbit started talking shit. One by one, the fat dudes went down first. Backs slapping into the mess on the floor, some so hard it sent a splash of bloody water and potato skins onto the legs of those running to catch him. “The old die proud,” he’d holler over the screams of waitresses, the sound of the ticket wheel constantly spinning, papers flying in all directions to settle and scatter.
In one hand, Louisa was frying flanks of fish, four different ones at once, a fresh plate out just about every minute; the other, undauntingly, salt and peppering a stack of de-thawing steaks as they seemed to glide effortlessly into the pans, a satisfying sizzle sending sparks of grease out into the wet air to kiss her naked arms. Effortlessly, the meat floated, transitioning from ice to flame, and she never looked up at anything.
Rabbit, on the other hand, was, as always, a blur. Moving from one end of the kitchen to the other, still turning out more orders than anyone else, Rabbit had begun to think himself a war hero, taking over the stations of his fallen men. At 3 A.M., the rush hadn’t let up, drunks were throwing dishes and falling in love in the dining room, but the two of them had only kept on stronger. An unspoken competition had become so fierce that several men came to only to stand and watch, the slow, rhythmic and careful hands of Louisa, as her unacknowledged adversary practically moonwalked from one side of the kitchen to the next, still mouthing off—“I know you gotta eat, but save some for the fishes, aye, Torta?” Louisa was undettered. “Hey, you fat bitch, I’m talking to you!”
She finished one order and hit the bell. Then, not stopping her hands, she looked up at Rabbit. “You talking to me?” Before he could even get in another word, “I know I ain’t seen your fiancé thawing off in the freezer.” No one said anything for a moment. Louisa turned another one out. The bell rang again.
Someone piped in to make a distraction and everyone got back to work. The last hour, things began to slow down, until everyone was scooping up slop and mop water, laughing again like comrades. Everyone ducked out the door and Louisa took the Discman out of her pocket and put her headphones on. Rabbit pushed past her into the parking lot, tearing his threaded Pantera t-shirt right off his bare white back. He grunted, the emission of hours or lifetimes of pent-up rage glistening in the beads of sweat hanging copiously off his body. He took a lap around the lot. Louisa made her way off onto the road. The others watched with a mixture of relief and distress. Luckily, within moments Rabbit shouted out, almost as if to no one, “Let’s see that fat bitch try to fuck this!”
Everyone laughed, their discretion, acknowledged. For a moment it seemed that Torta would walk proudly and silently off in the sunrise. Maybe her music was too loud to even hear what he had just said. For the best. But she turned, from the other side of the lot, and spoke back: “Joe,” she cried out. He met her gaze, panting, his expression fading. Coyly, one side of her mouth began to curl up. Her face took on a light unimaginable, her dark eyes shining with pure entice. No words came from behind her slouching smile. As the light began to form behind the trees behind her head, her gesture became visible: she winked, once, and then turned away, heading down the road into morning.
Originally published in The Toucan Online.