Mulholland Books Popcorn Fiction Popcorn Fiction - Steam Table Blues by Craig Ugoretz
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ABOUT

A high-school wise-ass learns about life between summer catering gigs in this coming-of-age story from screenwriter/playwright Craig Ugoretz.

Steam Table Blues

I was in the pool alone, not jerking off, arms folded on the diving board, doing that thing where you kiss the soft inside part of your forearm as if it were a girl. Practicing. Anyway I had a good-sized prong going when Arturo showed up and I had to drop off the diving board and swim to the side to hide my enormity.

"Mrs. Conoway says you have to get out and help set up."

Arturo is a moron and an ugly prick to boot. Damon and I practically piss ourselves mocking him, but Damon wasn't working that day so I was on my own.

"I'll be out in a minute. Gonzalez should be setting up."

"Gonzalez called in sick."

"Gonzalez should die. Fuck! You mean I'm working the steam tables alone?"

"I guess."

"Fuck! He should die."

"Nice."

"He should find a coffin, die, then get in the coffin."

"That's not possible."

"Try it."

"You have to get out now."

"Seriously, Arturo, try it. Go buy a coffin. Die. Then get in it."

"Come on."

"And then close the lid."

"Funny man."

"Go on, try it."

"Funny."

But he didn't laugh and he didn't leave, and I had to do that thing where you crab-walk sort of bent over, pretending something is demanding your attention around your knee when you are in fact hiding a boner.

I got into my ridiculous waiter uniform. We worked for a catering company Mrs. Conoway had the brilliant idea to call "Theresa's Treats." Damon and I had good number of hoots over that, frequently speculating on the nature and magnitude of said treats.

It used to be called "Theresa and Tony," which is a less preposterous name, but Tony split to start his own company, and Mrs. C. didn't want to have to change the monograms on our monkey suits. Tony was a rather righteous gay dude and had been a blast to work for, but I guess he got tired of second billing and started "A Taste of Tony" (don't get me started on that one) last April. Theresa's Treats had been taking a beating all summer and Mrs. C. wasn't the happiest of campers.

Hence the parties at her own place, to attract prospective clients, a bunch of stiffs in starched summer whites who would undoubtedly drink too much, make lousy jokes, and generally bug the sweet merciful bejesus out of me. I tolerated it because the pay was all right and Mrs. C. let me swim in the pool before parties.

Arturo was bartending that day, the most coveted job, because naturally you could sneak drinks all night if you were slick, which I was, and if you could hide your buzz, which Arturo can't. He's subtle as a goiter, and when he drinks, he sweats. Frankly the job is wasted on him.

Caroline was cocktailing, the second-most coveted job, because you could sneak off to smoke weed, and you didn't have to work that hard, since it was all buffet. Caroline was rather righteous and not bad looking, but I didn't have any real sexual feelings for her, except insomuch as I have sexual feelings for every living human female (and several pert animals), being sixteen and all.

I was working the steam table, which is nearly the suckiest job. You get hot food all over yourself, and the steam rises up in your face making you feel like you're sharing a sauna with some chicken Kiev. I usually worked the tables with Damon, which can alleviate the suckiness due to his hilarious ability to crack wise completely under his breath. He can be totally destroying some fat old bitch who is right in front of him and she'll never hear. Seriously, the guy's incredible. He should get a dummy and go on tour.

But by far the worst job is bussing, a grueling thankless detail entrusted only to the incompetent sub-humanoids whom the subtle workings of a ladle confound. By this I mean Burt. The guy's name is actually Burt. Staggering, right? With a name that sounds like a bodily function, how did his parents expect him to achieve anything beyond banality?

Did I mention Arturo was ugly? Well, Burt makes Arturo look like Alexander the Great done up in Italian marble. You might mistake Burt for a victim of nasty radiation burns, but then what would explain the back hair creeping up the neck of his tunic? When he gets his misshapen, hirsute ass anywhere near the food I practically toss it. I wouldn't eat anything that came within eyesight of that mess of a mandrill, not on a bet.

So that's where it stood, just me and the lower life forms, and Caroline, who at the time wasn't speaking to me because in a heated political debate I referred to Ann Coulter as "waste of a vagina."

(And if you're wondering why a 16-year-old knows who Ann Coulter is—wise up. They make us follow this shit. Even in ferchrissakes HIGH SCHOOL. We even have to read Silas goddamned Marner. I shit you not. I'm even going to reference Proust later. It's grim.)

Things crept along through the chow line, the privileged nimrods ooh-ing and ahh-ing over Theresa's food, until it was time for Burt to bus. I was helping Mr. Homunculus clean up a dropped tray of used glasses when I found myself at the bare calves of one Susannah Myles.

I didn't know that was her name at the time. All I knew was that she was hot, like 80's video hot, like "Hot for Teacher" hot, and that she was the only girl I'd seen at one of these parties anywhere near my age. Don't get me wrong, she was really old, maybe 26, but at least she was within 10 years, right? And those calves...Put it this way: I'm sixteen. A well-formed eggplant can lead me to thoughts concupiscent; imagine what effect close proximity to those legs was having on me.

"Dangerous job, isn't it?" she said.

I looked up from my handful of broken stemware. "You have no idea, Moneypenny." I can do a decent James Bond, not Daniel Craig but the real old ones with the older guy. The Scottish guy, not the newer Michael Moore ones.

"Don't cut yourself."

"Hey, at least it would liven things up a bit."

"Yeah, it would," she smiled.

Usually this is about as far as I get. My attack patter is still in a development phase; when things get to this point, I'll usually settle for getting a smile or a laugh out of a girl, as I stare at her, storing sensory information for future wanks.

(Interlude here: Look—I'm not a total skeev, I don't spend every waking moment masturbating or preparing for masturbation. There are the hours spent cleaning up after masturbation, for one thing, and the daily routine of eat and sleep needed to make life, and therefore masturbation, possible. I have already explained; I am not a perv. I am not a criminal. I am sixteen. This is what we do. For a long time, I even thought I invented masturbation, but that's another story.)

I stood up and she looked me over. "Say, honey, if you go get me another drink I'll give you one of my cigarettes."

"Oh? Vice bartering, are we?"

"You don't smoke?"

"Not that I'm aware of."

"Or are you afraid of getting in trouble?"

"I fear nothing, miss, except fear itself. And olive loaf."

"Go get my drink, Groucho."

"Yes, ma'am."

I was off to a pretty good start, and even managed a few more choice quips when I brought her the vodka, but then I got the hairy eye from Mrs. C., and I had to scuttle the operation.

We were finishing up, most of the affluent bozos having retreated to whatever opulent tax shelters they currently infested, when Legs approached me.

"So, are you off now, or do they lock you up with the chafing dishes?"

"They tried that, but the health department objected."

"Come on, I'll give you a ride home."

I was completely bamboozled. In fact, never before or since has my bam been so thoroughly boozled.

"Hello? Are you ok?"

"Yes, I-I'm fine."

"You don't have to come if you don't want to."

"No, no-I was just mentally composing a letter to Penthouse Forum. 'It all started at the steam table...'"

This got the first sincere laugh I'd heard all day.

"All right, wise guy, let's roll."

"Sure. Do you want a drink for the road? Can of Sterno?"

"Let's roll, asshole."

But she was smiling.


The next party was for serious banker types, the cats even fatter and wigs even bigger, Mrs. C. hoping to score a corporate Christmas party or two.

Damon and I took the customary pre-event swim.

"So, let's see. That makes you either a pussy, a fag or a retard."

Nothing had happened with Susannah on the ride home, or at the door when she dropped me off. I had trudged upstairs to my room, and sacked out and for a long time stared up at the ceiling feeling something I couldn't properly identify.

"It wasn't like that, Damon."

"Whatever, pussy."

"Whatever whatever."

"Ouch. Take it easy with the rapier wit."

Damon started in on a long description of a dream he had had the night before. (Now, can someone explain this to me? Everyone in the world knows how boring it is to hear other people's dreams. Every last one of us knows in our bones how supremely tedious it is, and yet EVERYONE STILL DOES IT. Can you explain that to me, because it goes against ten million years of human evolution to repeatedly engage in behavior known to be hazardous to your health.) I tuned him out, even the parts that involved his sister's reproductive organs and especially the parts that concerned his.

The guests were a full complement of the usual inbred aristo-twats. The steam table was almost unbearable, and a few of the dippier matrons will never know how close they came to a scalding. Damon could tell I was distracted and was sensitive enough to gently inquire as to my well-being.

"Would you snap out of it, queerbait?"

"Let's get out of here early. Arturo and the blob can clean up."

"Sure, because they love doing all your work for you."

"Arturo will do it. We can threaten to rat him out for drinking."

"OK."

"Have you any weed, perchance?"

"Alas, nay."

"Then mayhap a forty of fine mead we shall procure."

We do this a lot, and it sounds pretty weak written down, I admit, but in person it's totally hilarious. Seriously.

We left the heavy clean-up and put-away to those whom God has forsaken and took Damon's car. I used to own a Toyota, but it proved to be demonic and had to be put down.

We hied ourselves to Crendell's Liquor, owned and operated by a kindly half-wit who either doesn't believe in liquor laws or isn't cognizant of them.

I waited in the parking lot, because, according to Damon, I am a "shit magnet." He even tried to write it in the collected dust of my filthy (late-lamented) Toyota, but he can't spell due to a youthful Ritalin addiction, and wrote "shit magnate," which was infinitely more hilarious, though he'll never know.

While I was waiting, a familiar car pulled into the parking lot, and a familiar leg emerged, the high heel alighting just so on the pavement, a private little pose God arranged for me.

"Well, well," I managed.

"Hey, Groucho! Good to see you again. No party tonight?"

"We were paroled."

"Not for good behavior, I hope."

She was close enough that I could smell her. It brought me right back to the night in her car, to all I missed out on or never had a chance at, just that whiff of her perfume. Fuck Proust.

I told her, "You missed a good one tonight. Burt was blinded when a chicken cordon-blew."

She was doing that thing where you don't stop to talk to someone but don't blow him off completely, a sideways-walking thing, turning, showing me her fine body, coy. The kind of walk that says "I'm going to keep moving because, let's face it, you're too young, but I'm going to take my time so I can hear every word out of your adorable mouth."

"You, uh, need anything from inside?"

"Ever the vice procurer, you. Thanks, no, I'm all set."

"OK, hon. See you at the races."

She waved and sauntered inside, that goddamned smile and those for chrissakes legs disappearing just as Damon came out. He didn't see her.

"Forty ounces of glory, my friend. That's, oh, let's see, how many ounces each? You do the math-What? What is it?"

"Huh?"

"What's wrong? You look like somebody sunk your battleship."

"It's nothing. Let's roll."

"You want to talk about it? Maybe have a chamomile and a good cry?"

"Let's roll, asshole."

"Sure."

We got into the car.

"Hey, try not to slam the door on your skirt, OK?" he said.

"Fuck off." But I was laughing.


The next promo shindig Mrs. C. threw for a bunch of extremely old lodge guys, the kind with little hats and little miniature cars, and it got off to a bad start. Mrs. C. stopped me before I could get in the pool.

"Sorry, Mark, no more swimming."

There had been a massive hair clog in the filter. Expensive and risky repairs had been made, but no one was to swim anymore.

"Why? We'll just keep Cousin Itt out of the pool."

"Now, Mark, it's not only Burt's fault."

"Of course it is-you've seen him! He's not just hairy, he's forested!"

"Nice. He is a human being, you know."

"He's a primate, I'll concede that."

But it was no use. The pool was off limits.

Then, just as the guests were arriving, the inevitable happened-Arturo threw up on someone. None of us knew how drunk he was; he wasn't sweating any more than normal, if by normal you mean Nixonian. Luckily no one was killed, but in order to protect his job he had to fake a stomach bug, so Mrs. C. just sent him home.

We would be shorthanded all night. I had to work the steam table alone, while Damon got to suckle the liquor tit all night, the lucky prick.

Caroline, who had only recently started talking to me again, came over when the swine were at their troughs and things had quieted down a bit.

"Someone just called me 'doll,'" she said.

"Oh, swell. Did he say you were 'a pip?' Maybe you could tell him '23 Skidoo.'"

"Right? Half these old tools think 'harass' is two words. How's it going for you?"

"Not bad."

"Well, hang in there, baby."

I looked at her. "Did you get that off a calendar? With a photo of a cute little kitty holding onto a twig?"

"Screw you," she laughed, then leaned in to say, "you know I think you have an admirer over by the gazebo."

"Oh yeah? What's his name?"

She pointed with her eyes, and damned if it wasn't Ms. Susannah Myles, now looking over to catch me staring.

"Well, shit and shove me in it."

"You know her?"

"Yes. No, uh, sort of. She was here before."

"My God, Mark. I've never seen you blush before."

"Sure you did. Remember the tuna tartare incident?"

"No, this is different. You look nervous, almost - boyish. It's a nice change from arrogant and cocksure." Fill in your own joke here, I was too flummoxed.

And not very much later Susannah came right on up to me, as if blissfully unaware of the tectonic plates of lust shifting beneath her perfect feet, sauntered right up and asked me if I wanted to go out for a drink after the party.

I said sure. She said OK. She went back to her seat. Caroline grinned at me, chuffed. Damon stared at me, poleaxed. And that was us: chuffed, poleaxed & flummoxed. Like a law firm.


Susannah turned out to be 24, which was not a surprise, and divorced, which was. I tend to think of marriage and divorce as endemic to middle age or Middle America. It just didn't seem right that a stone fox could have been somebody's wife, especially ex-wife. Some guys get all hot about divorcees; I generally prefer girls who have allowances, not alimony. Susannah was going a long way toward changing all of that.

We went to a rather righteous little bar called the Old Style Inn. Susannah informed me she and her friends used to call it the Doggie Style Inn, the Mold Style Inn, and the Shit Pyle Inn. In high school they used to get in with fake IDs.

"Oh, they had drinking age, back then?"

"Yeah, they had indoor plumbing and electricity, too."

"But the beer all had pull tabs, and the cars had big fins, right?"

I had been nervous about getting in, but she just walked past the bouncer with her arm in mine and he never blinked. She had a way of doing that, taking whatever thing you were afraid of and showing you how it was no big deal.

We talked a little bullshit, about my job and her marriage, and how much most things suck, and about how the things that don't suck tend to be difficult to achieve, impossible to maintain, and dangerous to your health.

I even found myself explaining why I was working all summer instead of contributing to the decline of the American values system like the rest of my classmates, telling her about Dad dying and Mom's financial woes. I usually can't talk about that kind of shit without sounding like a retard or an Oprah guest, but like I said she made things easy. She took awkwardness and forged it into ease. A true alchemist.

It got late fast, which I now understand is how you can tell a date is going well (you can tell a date is not going well when the words "restraining order" arise).

But something turned on the way home. I don't really know what happened. I was in the middle of one of my pet theories-that cabs should be equipped with a system of lights on the roof that the passengers can turn on to warn other passengers of the driver or cab conditions. A yellow light would indicate the cab smells of urine, a brown light would indicate B.O., a red light for an especially dangerous driver, and so on.

It seemed to be going well, but when I looked over, Susannah's jaw was set and she had the same look Caroline sometimes gets when I go too far.

"What? You don't think it's a brilliant idea? You don't think I'm the next Edison?"

"Edison didn't generally use the phrase 'towel-head.'"

"He did so. He called George Washington Carver a yard ape once, too."

"I'd forget about the inventing game if I were you."

"You're just saying that because you're jealous."

"I'm saying that for your own good."

"You're jealous. Jealous of my money, my mind, my good looks. Jealous of my youth."

I said it in a hilarious Bette Davis kind of voice, but I think it grated on her. Something imperceptible between us had soured, the milk of possibility curdled into pessimism.

At my house, she turned to look at me. "There's a really sweet, funny, crude, Mark and a rather nasty, funny, crude, Mark—isn't there? Guess which one you should cultivate? Guess which one will get laid more as he grows up?"

"I take it neither is getting laid tonight."

"Give the boy a cigar."

"Maybe you can just pick one and fuck him some time soon?"

"Maybe they should fuck each other."


Mrs. C. held the last party of the summer just for her friends. I think at this point she was ready to just give up. Tony had already hired one of her cooks out from under her, and I was thinking of jumping ship, too. Theresa could hardly tout her treats while Tony's tantalizing tidbits were available. She seemed like she had had enough, but wanted to go down with a splash, or out with a bang, or whatever.

I got there early, and got in the pool. Mrs. C. either didn't see me or didn't care. I was swimming in a special way I like to call "water ballet of the recently drowned." I've perfected it to the point where I can incite lifeguards to action.

There was that light in the sky like God telling everyone that, yes, summer is still here, but fall is coming and so hold your shit together and don't go nuts on me, OK?

Arturo came up to get me. I was bonerless, so I de-pooled without incident.

The party had the same summer's-almost-over feel, the laughter too forced, the smiles too taut, the drinking crossing the border from social to sociopathic. In other words, a bummer.

"This is a bummer, Damon."

"Man, Dachau was a bummer. This is a disaster of epic proportions."

Damon and I barely spooned out half the food. Nobody wanted any troublesome carbohydrates or meddling proteins to interfere with the rapid metabolization of alcohol.

Damon found it so depressing he felt the need to go do a whip-it in the car. I covered for him.

Mrs. C. found me. "Mark, you and Damon can leave early. Just cover everything up and Arturo will get it all later." She handed me two envelopes. "There's something extra in there for you guys. You've been a great help to me. Not that it mattered in the end."

"Mrs. C., don't despair. Things will pick up."

"I don't think so. I wanted to book a couple parties to tide us over before the holidays, but..."

She looked pathetic, in a way I understand to be Chekhovian, though I slept through much of that part of Drama. Three months earlier I would have probably made some crack at her expense, but now it didn't seem right. So I made a crack at Arturo's expense. It made Mrs. C. smile, but I could tell it was the end.

I met Damon outside by his car. His lips were blue.

"Did we get bonuses," he moaned.

"Indeed and in faith. The approximate cash value of a tenth of an ounce of weed, as fate would have it."

I handed him his packet. He handed me a balloon.

"Let's pool our bonuses and go to the river," he said.

"Is that what the youngsters do these days?"

"I'm told it's all the rage."

"Onward, Banquo."

But on the way to the river we stopped at that same liquor store, and wouldn't you know it.

"Wouldn't you know it," I called to her.

"Hello, Groucho." She crossed the lot to me.

I could make up some elaborate coincidence or reason why she was there, something out of a sitcom, but the simple fact, folks, is the chick liked to drink.

"You been behaving yourself, Mark?"

"Sweet and crude, scout's honor."

"I'll bet."

"I think about you a lot," I said.

It startled us both, the way it popped out like that, no attitude. "I've been wanting to talk to you."

"Oh?" She watched me.

"Yeah. I just had some things on my mind, and you were about the only person I could think of who would even know what I was talking about."

It's like I told you, she had a way of making the insurmountable, well, mountable.

She said, "But you didn't call."

"No."

"Because you're not cultivating the right Mark?"

"Because I'm not psychic. You never gave me your number."

That got a smile.

She wrote down her number, and she could have used the car or her hand to put the paper on, but she used my chest, by the shoulder, pressing me against the car, her body leaning into mine.

"You call me anytime, Groucho."

And then she kissed me, just like that. Easy as walking into a bar, easy as a quip off the cuff, easy as anything. She simply leaned in, and I leaned in and our lips met, no big deal, until it felt like the whole world lit up like a rocket, only inside my chest.

I'll remember a lot about that moment, and all the other moments that were to come, but mostly it's all about that one perfect instant, me leaning on the car, her leaning on me. The last light of summer. Her lips, warm and soft and wonderful and not a bit like the inside of my forearm. Her smell, her smile. The moment stretching out until it felt larger-than-life, diamond bright and summer-long.

About the Author

Craig Ugoretz is a screenwriter, playwright and theater director living in Los Angeles. He has written a pilot for NBC/Universal, and his plays have been produced in Chicago and New York.