BY MARISA CHAMBERS
I lower the onion rings into the grease and hear the sizzling of the hot oil as it splatters onto my hairy arm. I don’t even feel the burning sensation anymore since this has happened to me since I started working my family’s restaurant at age fourteen.
“Double cheese with a side of rings!” I call out through the window.
“Thanks, Sam.” The waitress flashes a forced smile at me probably wishing to be anywhere but Frog Pond Diner. The booths had rusted springs that poked through the harsh plastic cover, the walls were discolored and stained with grease, and mice dropped in like it was their vacation home. The staff was depressed, the food was mediocre, and all of our regulars are retired men and women that sit on a cup of coffee for two hours.
Going back and forth between jobs as an underpaid cook has become my lifestyle. Twenty years ago, I lost my parents and our family restaurant, Keller’s Irish Pub, to a fire that I was fortunate enough to escape. Keller’s was my home away from home. I loved walking through the doors in the morning and smelling the potatoes boiling on the stove and seeing the color green in every direction I turned. My father was born in Ireland and collected memorabilia his whole life to display in the restaurant. He decorated with everything from bagpipes to leprechaun figurines to four leaf clovers.
At the time of the tragedy I was dating Alice, my high school sweetheart who my father had hired as a hostess. We had plans to own Keller’s together someday. However, the repairs for the fire cost much more than Keller’s made in profit and we both realized it just wasn’t feasible.
There was a safe in the back of the restaurant that only my parents knew the code to. Satisfied customers, tourists, and regulars during the holiday season would tip my father for his service in the restaurant. He would put these offerings in the safe as an emergency fund, I would watch him put hundreds of dollars in cash through the drop slot but never saw him open it once. This safe was my last hope at saving Keller’s. After the fire, I picked the lock only to find the safe to be empty and leaving me questioning, even to this day, what my father could have done with the money.
Both me and Alice’s incomes depended on Keller’s and we already had to live paycheck to paycheck each week. Alice packed her things and left me one day shortly after the fire, saying she needed someone to support her. The restaurant was the only hope in saving my relationship; and it was gone. Since that day twenty years ago when she left me speechless, I realized she was right.
I flipped my last burger of the day at 4:57 before I called it quits. I did my usual half-ass cleaning of the grill and restocked the meat for the night shift guy. I avoided my boss when I was on my way to clock out so she couldn’t ask me to shave my beard again.
I shuffle over to my Chevy S-10 parked next to the dumpster and lit up a Newport. I take my usual Friday night route to the liquor store and pick up two six-packs.
“Hey, Sam.” Ernie has my total of $14.98 waiting for me before I even set the beer down on the counter. As I swipe my card an unfamiliar face catches my eye through the store window. A young girl wearing a baggy sweatshirt held her head in her hands, and sobbed. This was an unusual sight for a liquor store the middle of nowhere at night. I pointed outside and asked Ernie curiously, “Is she okay?”
“Dunno, she came in I caught her tryna steal a bottle. Told her to get the hell out of my store.” Ernie bagged my beer and I walked outside.
I put my beer in the truck and looked back at the young girl, still crying. She must have felt my stare because we made eye contact. Well, shit. Now I have to go over there. I walk towards the girl, her sobbing getting louder the closer I get. “Everything all right?” She stared at me for an uncomfortably long period of time in silence. I immediately realized she may have been taught to not talk to strange, older men in any situation.
“Okay, try to have a good night.” I turned around to walk back to my truck when she called back at me.
“Any chance I could hitch a ride with you?” Hesitant, I looked back and remembered how I had no help in my time of need after Alice left me, and how awful it felt. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on my worst enemy, and especially not this innocent girl. This isn’t exactly how I pictured my night going.
“Hop in.” She got into my car as I started up the road to the gas station. There was complete silence for about 10 minutes until I finally spoke. “I’m Sam Keller by the way.”
“Jen.” She spoke softly, still sniffling. I handed her a pack of tissues. “Sorry your night hasn’t been too great, Jen.”
Her face remained stone cold. “Thanks.” “So where do you need to get to tonight?” “My mom’s house.” Jen’s one word answers definitely didn’t help this situation feel any more comfortable. Her legs were shaking and she bit her nails as she looked out the window.
I was definitely freaking her out. “Listen, I know getting a ride from a stranger isn’t exactly ideal. I can assure you I’m harmless, but if you want me to bring you to a bus station I don’t mind.”
“If I had any fucking money for a bus do you think I’d be sitting here right now? I’ve been living with my boyfriend. We got into a fight today while he was driving and he kicked me out of the car.” Jen’s voice cracked. “I told him I got fired from my job and he just told me to get my shit together.”
I had absolutely no idea how to handle girl drama—I may as well have been flying an airplane. I stayed quiet. Jen took a deep breath. “Sorry, you’re doing me a huge favor here. It’s just been a really rough day. I depended on my boyfriend for much more than I should’ve.”
I think she was starting to crack. I wanted to help and get through to her. “Sorry to hear that. Were you together long?”
“Nah, three or four months. I’m mostly upset because I have to move back in with my batshit crazy mother.” Jen let out a loud sigh, like going back home was a chore she had been putting off. Feeling uneasy, I tried to comfort her. “But I’m sure your Mom missed you while you were gone. I bet she will be excited to have you home.”
She rolled her eyes. “She hasn’t been happy to see me once in the nineteen years I’ve been alive.”
I am definitely no Dr. Phil. Teenage girls may as well been aliens to me.
Jen picked at her black nail polish and sucked her teeth. “I’ll tell you what does make that bitch happy though. Money. She comes home at three in the morning almost every weekend with a different man’s wallet and adds it to her stash. She’ll take their gold watches, signed sports memorabilia, expensive clothes, anything she can get her sticky fingers on. I hope I never end up like her.”
I stayed silent thinking about how my mother always taught me to never be greedy and my father who put everything he had into making Keller’s successful while still providing for me. I just wish I knew what my father did with that damn money in the safe. I pull into the rest stop to fill my tank and pull my GPS out of the center console. “Where’s your mother live?”
“Just put in Pine Street Pawn, she lives above her shop. This isn’t the part where I find out you’re a serial killer is it?”
I chuckled. “My life isn’t nearly that eventful.” The computerized voice spoke. “Estimated travel time: 51 minutes.” I glanced at Jen. “You wanted to get pretty far away from your mother huh?”
She shied away. “Yeah, sorry it’s a little far. I can hitch a ride from someone else, no worries.” Jen started to get out of the truck. As much as I was looking forward to my Friday routine of drinking some brews and watching late night television, I really could use the good karma. “Jen.” She paused and looked back at me. “Let’s go inside and grab some dinner my treat. We got about an hour drive ahead of us.”
We sat down at a booth inside Johnny Rockets and ordered drinks. I felt like getting a beer was a bad judgment call, so I ordered a Coke. It was weird how having a kid around made me feel like I had to be responsible for once. We sat in an awkward silence until the waitress took our order.
“Grilled chicken sandwich, please.” I closed my menu. Jen glared at me and spoke softly to the waitress. “Bacon cheeseburger with extra pickles and fries.”
I sipped my Coke. “When was the last time you ate?”
“A couple days.” Jen looked down. “What kind of American orders grilled chicken at a burger joint?”
“Someone who flips burgers for a living.” Jen’s eyes widened as she sipped her milkshake. “That’s what you do for a job at your age? You’re kidding.”
I ignored Jen’s snarky comment. “Well, it wasn’t exactly my original plan.” I started to reminisce to Jen about Keller’s. I told her the ins and outs of the restaurant; everything from the daily menu items to the cooking techniques my father taught me as soon as I was tall enough to see over the kitchen counter. Jen just listened to me. I never got to talk about the restaurant, there was never anyone around. But she didn’t even seem to get bored.
When our meals arrived, Jen devoured her cheeseburger. She spoke while continuing to chew. “I forgot what anything besides Ramen noodles tasted like.”
Jen was eternally grateful that I paid the bill for dinner. “When my Mom would take me out to eat as a kid, we would dine and dash like it was a game.”
Great role model, I thought. We got back in my truck and started driving. After about twenty minutes of silence Jen seemed to doze off. I turned on my Kenny Chesney CD which woke her right up. She turned down the volume. “Ugh. How do you listen to that trailer trash music?”
“Harsh. I grew up with this stuff,” I argued. “Don’t tell me you’re into that rap scene.”
“Hell no!” I didn’t know her voice could go that loud. “I’m a musician. I like rock, bands that use real instruments. Bon Jovi, Skid Row, they sing about real life stuff. No offense, Sam, but I don’t wanna hear about tailgating in a pickup truck in every song.”
I laughed. “Hey, you’re a little before your time, that’s my generation. I can appreciate rock and roll. My ex-girlfriend got me into The Doors when we were together, but she refused to listen to my country music.”
“Ew, my Mom never stops listening to The Doors, now I can’t stand ‘em. But when I would play my own music, you would have thought I was committing a crime.” Jen sighed and sunk in her seat.
“So a musician, huh?” I was curious. “You know how to sing?”
Jen cracked a smile. “I mostly play guitar. I walked dogs for two years to save up for my black Les Paul. I used it every day, any chance I got. Taught myself to play all my favorite songs. Came home from school one day, gone. My mother somehow got her hands on it and sold it in her shop.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?” “Dead-ass.” Jen continued. “I went downstairs to the shop to see if it was still there, only to see my mother counting a fat wad of cash. I wasn’t surprised it got sold so quickly though, it was beautiful, great condition.”
I was baffled that someone with this kind of behavior was raising a child. “Why did she do it? Did she have anything to say for herself?”
“She used the same excuse she always gave me. ‘This shop puts a roof over your head, we really needed the money this month.’ It was hard to argue that, but at the same time I knew it was bullshit. As soon as that guitar was gone my mom came home with shopping bags full of clothes and other useless shit. She’s just a money hungry, selfish bitch. I never forgave her for that.”
It was hard to wrap my head around everything Jen was telling me. Although I didn’t have my mother for long, she gave me unconditional love my entire life. I didn’t believe anyone had it worse than me because I was too busy feeling bad for myself.
“So what about your Dad?” I asked Jen, still taken back. “Was he around when all this was happening?” Jen paused and hung her head.
Crap. I’m such an asshole. “Sorry, it’s really none of my business.” “No worries. I’ve talked about it my whole life. I never met my Dad. Mom said she found out she was pregnant and left him, never even told him they were having me. Apparently she was just using him because him and his family were rich. At least that’s what my Gramma made it seem like. The worst part is she could only afford raising me and rather than getting an abortion because she stole a shitload of money from my Dad and his family. That’s how she justifies her kleptomania. She refuses to get help because she says she’s doing it for me.”
Poor guy, I thought. This woman sounds like a piece of shit. Jen continued. “The funniest part is she tried to call him the loser, saying he would have had nothing to support me, so she was better off doing it on her own. What she never understood was that having a father around would have been the best gift of all. I’m not like her, I don’t care about material things and money. I just always wonder what it would be like if my Mom told him about me.”
I stared blankly at the road and kept driving. “I’m sorry, kiddo. If it makes you feel any better, I lost my parents to a fire when I was around your age. Wasn’t the same for the rest of my life. I had to figure out a lot of things on my own, which you probably know all about.” I took my eyes off the road because I heard Jen sniffling again. She tried to hide it. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the parent to my Mom, but nothing wrong with being independent, right?”
“In 1000 feet, the destination is on your right.” I slowly pulled into Pine Street Pawn and silently put my car in park.
Jen looked like she saw a ghost. She looked at me with teary blue eyes. “Will you walk me in, Mr. Keller? I’m afraid my Mom will have a ‘friend’ over.”
I smirked. “Only if you call me Sam.” I shut off my truck and followed Jen toward the door.
We walked over to the main shop door where Jen entered a code on a padlock. She turned on the lights exposing cases and shelves of miscellaneous items. There was jewelry, electronics, furniture, decorations, you name it, this place had it. I walked over to a shelf full of random items and observed it. Most of these things were junk. “Your Mom will put anything she gets her hands on in here, huh?” Jen was scanning the room. “Yeah, sorry. It’s become a habit to check in here to see if any of my stuff is around. But knowing my Mom anything of value is probably long gone.”
I continue to look around the store when something on a shelf catches my eye. I look closer and see a familiar leprechaun figurine. It was wearing a custom made t-shirt.
“Keller’s Irish Pub” I read the print on the t-shirt out loud. What the fuck...
I heard footsteps above me coming down the stairs. A woman’s voice called out. “Jenny? Is that you?” The door opened.
I looked at the woman standing in the doorway. Our eyes met and our stares stuck on each other like glue. She was just about to open her mouth when Jen interrupts.
“Sam, this is my Mom. Alice.”