ILLUSTRATION BY

FOR A COUPLE OF MONTHS HERE WE HAD PEACE, RELative peace, more peace anyway than you expect in the restaurant business. The occasion of this peace was the delivery of Victor, our pastry chef, to a mental hospital. He went there to recover from the breakdown he’d had in the kitchen one dark March afternoon. And even for a little while after Victor returned, things were good. He was taking his medication, his wife and kid were back from her mother’s, he had a new life to think about. Once again he was in his own special zone of the kitchen, making the most glorious chocolate desserts in the tri-state area. Some people say that Victor’s creations go beyond culinary experience and into the realm of sex or voodoo. They say that on a good night finishing a meal at Inn Essence with the raspberry-laced chocolate torte or the Cointreau-bathed chocolate mousse is like having your body inhabited by the pastry chef himself.

Me, I try not to eat sweets, so I wouldn’t know. But the point is, our peace is now gone. Victor has lost his mind again.

And for this reason I’m driving Route 80 east across northern New Jersey at 10:45 A.M., sleepy-headed in the right-hand lane, my blinker on for the exit that takes me to the restaurant. Forty miles more and I’d be on the George Washington Bridge, all of Manhattan lying before me like an antipasto tray. Right now I’d like to lean back and coast straight into it. At nine o’clock my telephone rang twice in rapid succession. I let the machine do its job, slept another hour, and then rolled out and listened to the messages. They were both from Jimmy Constanopolous, my employer.

“Jeffrey,” Jimmy said to me in the first message, “my God, what a heartache this business is. Why are you working here, Jeffrey? You’re a romantic, that’s why. You think the restaurant business is romantic—don’t deny it. I used to think that too. But now I’m a realist. I’ve had twenty years, I don’t think I can take one more. Jeffrey, I’ve reconsidered our recent conversation. Go back and finish college. Get your degree. Yes, I said I wanted to groom you, turn you into a restaurateur. And I could do that. I could teach you to buy provisions, gain the trust of a staff, talk to the bank when the bank needed to be talked to. Manny could show you the famous veal medallions, the sauces that get written up in the papers. You already do beautiful salads. You could learn to mix a drink and hide cash from the registers at night. All the things I promised. But why, Jeffrey, why? So you could make the same mistakes I made? You’d stay with me a few years, I’d learn to love you like a son, and then the inevitable would happen. You’d want your own place. Because you’re too smart to work for another man your whole life. You’d come to me for help—a down payment, leverage with the liquorlicense people—and I wouldn’t be able to turn you down. I’d have to help you. And then your life would be destroyed, like mine.”

“Jeffrey,” Jimmy went on, “I’m only going to say this once. Don’t ever—under any circumstances, no matter what happens—even consider, for one minute, the idea of opening a restaurant.”

Jimmy hung up. And then the second message came on. “Jeffrey, I know you’re there. Get over here right now. I know, you’re not on until three today. I’ll make it up to you. Victor just tried to kill one of the Thai students—the little one, what’s his name?—with a carving knife, no less. He said they stole pastries from his walk-in. And then he disappeared. Victor, I mean. I can’t find him. And now the Thai students won’t come out of their house and work, and I’m short-handed already, and we don’t have enough desserts, and today is—what day is it, anyway? Christ, it’s Friday. I’ve got to get my meat man on the phone. My bread man. I’ve got to find Victor. Jeffrey, I won’t forget the way you’ve helped me. I’ll set you up in business someday, you’ll have your own place. Just get over here and talk to the Thai people. They like you. You’re their friend.” And then Jimmy hung up again.

Yes, I think to myself now, I could go for a day of hooky in Nueva York. The bookstores, the theaters, the streets full of people living lives of mysterious meaning. My foot wavers between the brake and the gas. But then I think of the thousands of restaurants in Manhattan, five or six of them on every block, and I almost lose control of the car.

THE DAY VICTOR GOT OUT OF THE MENTAL HOSPItal, Jimmy offered him a deal. If Victor would come back to work and make his brilliant desserts, take his tranquilizers, and behave himself, Jimmy would remodel the old carriage house in back of the restaurant, and Victor and his family could live in it free of charge. The desserts Jimmy had been buying in Victor’s absence were like the shadows in Plato’s cave, and this idea had a precedent, Manny the chef having occupied the carriage house rent-free in the early days of Inn Essence. Since then, true, the place had fallen into wretched disrepair, lying empty or barely keeping rain off the heads of the assorted dishwashers and busboys Jimmy was forever trying to rehabilitate. I know, because I spent my own first month in its dank and peeling rooms. But the basic construction was the solid, old-fashioned kind, with enormous potential. He would put in skylights, Jimmy told Victor, and a working fireplace, a totally new kitchen and bath, and fresh paint on everything. He emphasized the oldfashioned gentility of it—the gifted chef-in-residence on the estate, waking with his wife to birdsong each morning, strolling to work through the woods like a country squire, fishing with his son at the stream when the day’s desserts were done.

Victor came back to us a different man—quiet, productive, minding his own business, taking coffee breaks alone out back, where for a week or so, while Jimmy arranged for the carpenters to come, he could be seen staring past the dumpsters at the carriage house in a kind of reverie.

By this time it was early May, and one afternoon a red Mustang pulled up to Inn Essence. At the wheel was Kampon Padasha, an electrical-engineering student from Thailand. College was out now and Kampon wanted a summer job. He came in and explained this to Ethel, our hostess, who was sitting at the bar smoking and sorting out creditcard receipts from the day before. She looked him over and nodded while he spoke. His English wasn’t great. He was thin and gangly, not handsome, overly polite in that disturbing foreigner’s way. He had a sad haircut and thick black-rimmed glasses. He was not of Ethel’s race. She smiled and shook her head and said she was sorry. She was showing Kampon the door when Jimmy walked into the bar. He was probably on his way to find me. We have at least one good chat a day about the meaning of life, usually around that hour—about four in the afternoon, the happiest point in the daily curve of Jimmy’s relationship to whiskey. But he ran into Kampon first, and snatched him away from Ethel.

In his office Jimmy poured two drinks and sat the young engineer across from him at his desk. He told Kampon of his lifelong fascination with Kampon’s part of the planet. “As the years go by,” Jimmy said, “I think I’m becoming more and more of an Eastern mystic myself.” He swept his arm in a gesture meant to encompass the entire world. “The physical plane means less and less to me every day.”

“I am good worker,” Kampon said.

“Of course you are,” Jimmy said. “You come from an industrious people. Not like us,” he said, laughing and slapping himself in the stomach. “Lazy and fat.” He leaned over his desk. “Your people will inherit the earth. We will be your servants.”

Kampon was bewildered. He said nothing, but slid forward in his chair, his face hovering at the edge of Jimmy’s desk as if to inhale any life-giving vapors that might emanate from the big American. “I will teach you to wait on tables,” Jimmy said. “You will make tips—a custom we have. To Insure Prompt Service. You’ll see.” He held out his hand and smiled. The teeth in Jimmy’s smile are straight and fine and white in front, and then, going back on either side, you see generous helpings of gold.

His mouth is like another man’s purse is the rough English equivalent of what Kampon thought then in his native tongue.

Jimmy led his new employee out the back door onto the stretch of asphalt where the trucks back in to make deliveries and empty the dumpsters. They strolled together around the building into the parking lot. “This is a great country,” Jimmy said to Kampon, “even though our civilization is a tiny infant compared with yours.”

“Very great country,” Kampon said, nodding his head up and down.

“Many types of people are needed to make a world,” Jimmy said. “We don’t have to destroy each other.”

“Not destroy!” Kampon said, shaking his head and hands with alarm. He stopped alongside his red Mustang. Inside the car were four other young men from Thailand, attending college in America. “My friends,” Kampon explained, smiling and pointing to them.

Four clear-complected faces looked out at Jimmy, each one framed by a helmet of lustrous black hair. Jimmy called them out of the car to look them over. All right, he thought, I see what I have to do. After he had hired them all, Jimmy discovered that the Thai students were forbidden to hold jobs in the United States under the terms of their student visas. This in itself was not a disaster. Keeping people off the books is as common as bread in the restaurant business. But then Jimmy learned that they had no money and nowhere to live. They’d been put out of their college dormitory that very morning.

This was how Jimmy explained it to Victor: The Thai students would live in the carriage house only for the summer, three or four months, the restaurant’s busiest season. And the trees and rampant vegetation around the carriage house made it a dark, unpleasant place in the summer anyway. Then, the instant they went back to school in September, a work crew would transform the place and Victor’s family would dwell there in time for the fall foliage.

And this was how Victor responded to Jimmy’s explanation: a chocolate ricotta pie pitched against the metal door of the walk-in cooler he uses to store his decadent desserts. We’ve lived with Victor for almost a month since then, his psyche collapsing darkly like a dying star, amid eruptions of tantrums, insults, and erratic pastry production. And now, attempted murder.

I PULL INTO THE LONG TREE-LINED DRIVE THAT LEADS down to the sprawling white form of Inn Essence, nestled in a shady grove on a defunct spur of the ErieLackawanna line. Twenty years ago, when Jimmy opened this place, the train was still running on this stretch of track—stopping at the old rambling inn this actually once was—and the land out there on the interstate where you see all those Martian-looking mirror-faced corporate headquarters was nothing but pasture full of cowplops. Now our parking lot can hold more than two hundred cars, though only a handful are in it so far today.

I park all the way down at the end, near the woods behind the dumpsters. As soon as I set foot on the shaded path that leads to the carriage house, Bucky comes running out of it to meet me. He’s the sweet little guy of the Thai group, gregarious and completely devoid of guile. Just like Vietor to pick on the littlest one. Maybe I should forget about peace, I think, and just help them finish Victor off.

“Hello, Señor Buck,” I say, when he reaches me on the path. “I hear you had a little run-in with Mr. Cream Puff.”

“I get kill almost!” he says, grabbing my arm and imploring me with his wonderful almond eyes. Then he releases my arm and steps back, and makes the motions of a big knife piercing his chest. He falls to one knee with this great blade inside him, his protruding teeth making it all the more heartbreaking. “Almost!" he cries.

“Why did he come after you, Buck?”

“I do no thing!" he says.

“Nothing?” I say. “You didn’t eat any of his goodies?”

“No!”

“You didn’t laugh at him? Snicker when his back was turned?”

“Snicker?”

I demonstrate a snicker for Bucky, hand over my mouth.

“No!”

“Okay, I believe you.” I pat his back and help him stand up.

“Bad man!” he says with a shudder. “Very terrorful!”

“Calm down, Buck,” I say. “We’ll fix it up.”

“Thank!” he says, and we walk together up the path.

“Bucky" is not Bucky’s actual name. The waitresses named him Bucky because of his teeth. He doesn’t understand that, fortunately, and he likes the name. In fact, all the Thai students are quite pleased with the nicknames they were given by the waitresses almost immediately upon their arrival; it makes them feel very American. Plus, they’re much bigger flirts than even the waitresses are, and receiving any nickname at all from a woman signifies something pretty good in their book.

We go into the carriage house. It’s dark inside even though the luminescent orange polyester curtains are open. What little light comes through the windows is soaked up instantly by wall paneling so depressingly cheap that the wood-grain pattern repeats exactly every eighteen inches. Rocky and Toots are sitting on the ratty sofa in the living room, decked out in the black, satin-lapeled toreador jackets that Jimmy has his waiters and busboys wear. But they have their clip-on bow ties in their breast pockets and they’re showing no signs of going in to start the lunch shift. Kampy and Buzz, off until dinner anyway, are sunk cross-legged in armchairs. The house is full of bad vibrations, a humid, conspiratorial air. “Hi, dudes,” I say. Nobody says anything. Kampy, my best buddy among the Thai students, stares at me with a wistful face.

“Look, guys,” I say. “Here’s the thing about Victor. Victor is a sick man. He has visions. He sees things that aren’t there. He hears voices. That’s why he was in the hospital before you started working here.”

“So why Mister C. take him from hospital to here?” Rocky says. “Why not stay at hospital if sick?”

“It’s not that simple, Rocky. The hospital is very expensive in America, and Victor is not crazy enough to stay there all the time anyway. Plus, his desserts are famous. And he wasn’t always crazy. He lost his mind while he was working here. Many years of service. Mister C. feels responsible. You understand that, don’t you? Isn’t that the way it would be in your country? Wouldn’t a boss feel responsible for a sick worker?”

“But not responsible for Thai students,” Toots says.

“Yes, responsible for you, too. He gave you this house to live in, didn’t he? He likes you. That’s what caused the problem. Victor is jealous. His feelings are hurt.”

“What about Thai worker feelings?” Buzz says.

“Yes, what about?” Rocky says, shaking the straight black luster of his hair.

Next to him on the sofa Toots holds up an arm and grabs the flesh of it with his other hand. “What about Thai worker skin?” he says, shaking his forearm and grimacing.

So things are much worse here than I thought. And meantime, Kampy is just sitting there letting me dangle in the breeze. “Kamp,” I say. “You understand, right? You appreciate this difficult situation.”

“What I can say?” Kampy says. “Bloodfall happening at this place.”

“No,” I say, “that’s not true. Nothing like that has happened and nothing is going to happen.” I turn to Rocky and Toots on the sofa. “Come on, you guys. Take Bucky inside and have some lunch. And then I want you to get out there and throw some food at those customers like only you know how.”

“Very bad man,” they say, but grudgingly they clip on their bow ties.

“Kampy,” I say, “let’s take a little walk.”

He gets up and follows me outside. In the sunlight he looks me up and down as if seeing me for the first time. I’m wearing my pink Converse high-tops, wiped-out blue jeans, and a T-shirt with a cartoon of some happy snowpeas dancing above the slogan BE A HUMAN BEAN.

I’m the salad man here at Inn Essence.

Kampy meditates on my T-shirt for a minute, moving the words around in his mouth. Finally he shakes his head and lets it go.

I put my hand on his shoulder and lead him along the path, which is dappled by flashes of yellow light coming down through the trees. We emerge from the cool, shady grove, and then we stroll along the edge of the underbrush that covers the old railroad tracks. Grasshoppers are springing out of the dandelions like trick party favors; the air is full of spicy weed smells. It’s a beautiful June. On either side of the abandoned tracks thick stands of trashy sumac trees have grown to a height of forty feet or so and then fanned out fLat on top into a canopy of pointy finger-leaves. They give the back of the restaurant a jungle feeling.

I point up at the sinewy, sour-smelling trees. “Does Thailand look like this, Kamp? These kinds of trees? Little hills like that in the distance?”

Kampy looks up at the sumacs and then all around himself. He half shakes, half nods his head. “Maybe someway,” he says. “Yes, little bit.”

I laugh. “The sky is blue over there?”

He laughs too. “Yes, sky is blue.”

We sit down on a fallen tree next to the railroad bed.

“Yes, we have railroad in Thailand,” Kampy says, not waiting for me to ask. “Very similar.”

“Hey, Kamp,” I say. “Mister C. had another brainstorm. He thinks I should have you teach me to speak Thai. So I can become more of a citizen of the world. He was telling me the other day.”

Kampy smiles. “Very hard for you. Not like English.”

“But I know you’re a good teacher. I’ve been hearing about these cooking lessons of yours,”

Here Kampy laughs out loud. “Oh, ho,” he says. “Mister C. say, ‘Kampon, I must know true Thai way of cooking. Tell me exact way you eat in your house over there. Maybe I serve some of these things here at restaurant.’ I tell him, ‘American people not like Thai home-style, Mister C.’ But he not listen.”

“Yes, he’s good at that.”

“He say, ‘Kampon, food is key to world culture. All people must learn to eat together.’”

“Sounds like our boss, all right.”

“But is not true.”

“No?”

“People are different ways in this world, Jeffrey. People have loyalness with their own way. I, Kampon, understand this. Victor scream and bang at Thai workers. Mister C. say no thing to Victor. Now Victor do violence against Bucky. You, Jeffrey, my friend, yes, but you say, ‘Kampon, have forgetfulness.’ No, Jeffrey. Thai workers must glue their selves in one lump.”

“I agree with that, Kampy. I think you should stick together. But look. Jimmy will get Victor to go back on his medicine, and then everything will be fine.”

“No, Jeffrey. Not true. Thai people can never work here tomorrow again, unless.”

“Unless what?”

“Mister C. must punish Victor.” He stands up and walks away from me, out to the parking lot. “Farewell,” he says, holding up his hand.

I stand up too. “Kampy, I’m going to see you in a few hours,” I say. “When you come on for dinner.”

“My heart flows,” Kampy says, his hand on his breast. Then he cocks his head quizzically and stares at me, and suddenly he starts to laugh. “Oh, human bean,” he says. “I got you. That’s a funny one.”

I SCUFFLE BACK THROUGH THE UNDERBRUSH TOWARD the restaurant, passing by the Aqua Marie on the way. This is Jimmy’s cabin cruiser, a thirty-two-foot monster he keeps parked on its trailer in a clearing next to the dumpsters. The boat is named in honor of Jimmy’s wife— the Invisible Woman, we call her. I’ve heard Marie Constanopolous’s voice on the phone but I’ve never seen her; except for Manny, who’s been here forever, no one at Inn Essence has ever met the woman our boss is married to. Part of Jimmy’s arrangement with Marie is that she has nothing to do with the restaurant and is expected never to come here for any reason. Other aspects of Marie’s conjugal life are speculated upon endlessly by the waitresses, who get what they can out of Manny and invent the rest. Marie is commonly presumed to have an unbelievable wardrobe, unlimited money to spend, and at least one handsome lover, if not a brace of handsome lovers—nice young ones in their twenties, the waitresses say, if she’s got any brains. Even a nineteen-vear-old wouldn’t be out of the question; any woman can stand to recharge occasionally with a nineteen-year-old, the waitresses tell me.

The waitresses think that Marie Constanopolous’s situation comes as close to perfection as anything women have achieved in the history of the world.

But, even more than Marie, the waitresses have to wonder about Ethel, our hostess here at Inn Essence. How has she hung on all this time? Why does she put up with Jimmy’s crap? What is she getting? What lies is he telling her? What does she feel when she answers the phone and hears Jimmy’s wife on the other end? What goes through poor Ethel’s mind when she walks out back and sees a huge, fine cabin cruiser with the wife’s name painted on it in letters two feet high?

I understand the waitresses’ fascination, but I think they might as well be doing algebra with angels, or trying to see the human soul by sprinkling cornstarch on people as they die. Me, I have an old friend in California named Ricky, a psychologist. Ricky has the word on this. “Nobody understands the boy-girl stuff, Jeffrey,” Ricky says. “Not even God.”

I walk across the loading area to the outside door of Jimmy’s office, which is actually a one-bedroom apartment in its own small wing at the back of the restaurant. This is where for three years now Jimmy has been making love to Ethel. The blinds on the office windows are shut today, but behind the closed screen door the wooden door is ajar. I rap on the aluminum frame and call through the screen. “Bwana Jim, the natives are restless. I think you may have a revolt on your hands here. Spears and arrows may start flying out of the trees any minute now.”

He doesn’t answer me. When I cross the threshold, I smell Ethel’s strong perfume. The waitresses say she alternates between Opium and Poison. If somebody comes out with a perfume called Sex or Death, straight out, Ethel will wear it. But then, so will everybody else. The woman herself is on the sofa, with a Scotch sour in one hand and a handkerchief in the other. She’s had her hair done since yesterday, tinted a light bronze this time and sprayed into stiff swirls around her head. She’s wearing a white silk blouse and a baby-blue suit. Her eyes are red and she’s dabbing at her nose with the hanky. The bottle of Dewar’s is on the coffee table—one third gone and it’s not even noontime. Between Jimmy and Ethel, they’re killing a good liter of it a day.

“Trouble in Thailand?” she says, tilting her head toward the carriage house.

“Well, Victor tried to murder Bucky this morning, and they’re a little upset about it, that’s all.”

“I know, I heard,” Ethel says. She takes a long drag on her cigarette and then sips her drink, smoke pouring out of her face over the glass. She puts her stockinged feet up on the coffee table. “They’ll get over it.”

“I don’t think so, Ethel. This was pretty abusive, even for Victor. ”

“Honey, we all have to take our share of abuse, now don’t we?”

“Some of us have to take more than others.”

“Tell me about it,” she says. “Actually, I thought it was kind of amusing, Victor running around the parking lot in those little Italian shoes, waving that big knife. We don’t have enough excitement around here.”

Ethel has her own waitress-given nickname. Miss Frosty, they call her.

“Jimmy around?” I say.

“No, he’s out looking for the mad muffin.” Her own joke makes her smile. “The king of pork loin is searching for the mad muffin.”

“That’s pretty good.”

“It really is, isn’t it? I’m pretty creative, aren’t I? I don’t give myself enough credit.”

“Most people don’t.”

“Some people give themselves too much,” she says.

“ The Thai students want Jimmy to punish Victor,” I say.

“Ha,” Ethel says.

“They say Jimmy must make some show of righting this wrong. Their heritage demands it,”

Ethel leans her head back and cackles at the ceiling, coughing on her drink. “I didn’t think anybody could do it today,” she says. “But you’re doing it. You’re making me laugh.” She giggles in a macabre way for a half minute or so, until, with no perceptible transition, she’s weeping.

“Ethel, is something wrong?”

We all have to pretend that we don’t know about Ethel’s life, how her husband left her on account of Jimmy and how she’s been waiting two years now for Jimmy to do the right thing.

“None of your business,” she says through the handkerchief. After a minute she gets herself under control, blots her eyes, and has another taste of her drink. “What exactly is it that they want Jimmy to do to Victor, by the way?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “A gesture. Something to restore their dignity. Make him apologize, I suppose.”“Can you imagine Victor apologizing to anybody about anything?”

“No.”

“Me neither. Maybe you and Jimmy can philosophize about it when he gets back. Maybe he’ll have a theory about it. He was looking for you before. He wanted to ask you about a word. It’s on his desk.”

I walk over to Jimmy’s desk. There’s a legal pad with the word epistemology written on it, spelled incorrectly.

Ethel says, “He wanted to know if that word meant there were some things he’d never get to the bottom of.”

I think about it for a minute. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”

NINE MONTHS AGO I STARTED HERE BUSING TABLES. Then, after a couple of weeks, Jimmy gave me my choice of moving up to waiter or going to the kitchen. Most people would have chosen to be a waiter, for the tips. I didn’t think I needed daily contact with the public, and I certainly didn’t need to work under Ethel out there. But I chose the kitchen for another reason, one that surprised me as much as anyone else. After two weeks of observing the impeccable ballet of our chefs, and tasting the results, I discovered that I wanted to be able to cook like that.

So they brought me back and started me in on salads. At most restaurants this would have been like permanent exile; salad chefs are usually a notch above busboys and not going anywhere. But at Inn Essence people have respect for salad. I’m a colleague here, encouraged to be creative. And I’m in training for bigger things.

Ordinarily I show up in the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon and scrub my vegetables. I wash my lettuce, reserving the best leaves for cups and baskets, tearing the rest into pieces. Then I get out my gleaming little knife for the magical part—the radish roses, the kiwi-fruit lotus pads, the celery palm trees, the gift bows out of canteloupe shavings, the apples peeled and carved into carnations, the whole vegetable fantasy world I’ve learned to do so well.

But now, early in the dinner hour, all my salad chores are done and I’m having my latest cooking lesson. I’m learning to make the famous stuffed medallions of veal, as done by the Venezuelan-born Manny Quintero, the head chef of Inn Essence. We’re together at his counter, our backs to the ovens, cutting the veal and talking about the stuffing of legend.

So far I’ve heard nothing from Jimmy. If he’s lost interest in where things stand with the Thai students, that’s his lookout.

“I use butter,” Manny says. “You hear? Butter. I use fresh garlic, fresh mushrooms, only fresh herbs. Some socalled chefs, they use soybean oil, garlic and mushrooms from bottles, herbs from little cans.” He tosses a veal medallion on the pile and wipes his hands on his long cook’s apron. “I pity the bastards.”

“Me too,” I say, nodding my head.

Manny’s two assistant chefs are working to our left, at the range, in a flurry of smoke and steam, putting up orders for the dining room. Rocky and Toots arrive to load the plates onto their trays. They’re aloof and businesslike, still full of fear and hurt pride.

“Are the citizens of America happy tonight?" I ask them. “Do they have that hungry light in their eyes? Men, are they ripping those salads apart?”

“Citizens pretty happy,” Toots says.

Manny says, “When I cook, I like to think of them as people who stayed in this inn when they were young, and now, tonight, they’re back for the first time in twenty years. It inspires me.”

I take a step backward to look at him. “You’re getting as dreamy as the guy who owns this place,” I say. “And all this time I thought you were secretly driving the bus.”

“I thought you were,” he says.

Suddenly a high-pitched burst of Thai exclamation comes out of Rocky. He’s staring at the back door of the kitchen, around the corner from Manny’s ovens. Victor has just strolled in, dressed in his dazzling whites, right up to the towering puff of chef’s toque. He must drive his car in this outfit. His feet are as tiny as a girl’s in their little black pumps.

“What do you know,”Manny calls out. “It’s the mousse man. Hey, mousse man, we don’t have any desserts tonight. What happened, Mister Mousse?”

Victor ignores Manny. Instead he looks at me. “Will you get a load of this,” he says, pulling the big metal handle of his walk-in to open it. “Manny is training Jimmy’s little pet.”

He waits for me to respond but I don’t give him the satisfaction. He steps into his walk-in, and the door snaps shut behind him. Rocky and Toots are simmering in the hot red light of the warming lamps, looking mean. “Waiters,” I say to them, “pick up your orders and take them out to the people. Be professionals.”

They do so, but their concern is justified. There’s something very eerie about seeing Victor in the kitchen at this hour of the day. His routine is to start in the early morning and be long gone by the time the first blackened red snapper comes off the grill at night. I refuse to believe he’s here out of guilt over leaving us without desserts.

“We have to send that boy back to the nut bin,”I say to Manny.

“No, they can’t help him there,” Manny says, shaking his head. “They just give him the drugs and stare at him all day, make him worse than he was before. He’s happy when he bakes. So I say let him bake. And when the man gets crazy, knock him down.”

I look at Manny flexing his nut-browm arm. He’s referring to the way he handled the episode last March. Victor comes out of his walk-in and installs himself in the Lshaped baking zone at the rear of the kitchen, where he has his long counters of work space, his own special ovens and range. He doesn’t look tranquilized to me. He’s removed several big aluminum trays of flaky pastry puffs from his cooler, and now he sticks them in their sides with the business end of a pastry bag, squirting them full of chocolate-cream filling. He seems to be taking unusual delight in this operation.

I hear Ethel call my name. She’s standing inside the kitchen’s swinging doors. “Jimmy wants to see you,” she says, nodding in the direction of his office. I see her take note of Victor’s presence. Then she shoulders open the right-hand door and spins away through it.

“Boss wants to see his little pet,” Manny says to me, really enjoying himself, showing all of his gleaming tusks.

“Give me a break, Manny,” I say.

“One break coming up,” he says.

I walk out from behind the chefs’ area, untying my apron on the way. I stop at the swinging doors and look through their windows. Ethel is at the waiters’ station, talking to Kampy, Buzz, and Bucky. They’re gesturing with their hands and she’s nodding her head. Rocky and Toots appear with their empty table trays and join in this conversation. Ethel is actually listening to them, which is odd; she’s not known for her sympathy, certainly not to the Thai students, whom she’s tried to ignore from the day they started.

Two waitresses, Cheryl and Nadine, are sitting here in the kitchen by the uniform closet, having a cigarette. I mention what I’m seeing out there—Ethel being chummy with the Thai waiters.

“Oh, yeah, she’s the good mother tonight,” Cheryl says, nodding her head so that the plumes of smoke from her nostrils make waves. “She had a big fight with Jimmy, and now she’s being real nice to everybody.”

“They should fight all the time,” Nadine adds. “It makes her almost like a person.”

A smoke ring leaves Cheryl’s mouth. “They do fight all the time.”

STEPPING OUT OF THE KITCHEN, I NOD TO ETHEL AND the guys. I walk into the open corridor with the restrooms and pay phones, turning to take another look at them from the quiet, carpeted dimness. Sometimes, in the middle of the dinner rush, Jimmy will stand here like this, next to the cigarette machines, watching the Thai waiters interact with the public and each other. He has an anthropologist’s fascination with them as they make their way through the world; their customs and doings are deep, mysterious things to him.

His office door is all the way down at the end of the hall. I knock on it.

“Oh, it’s you,” he says when I walk in. “So what’s going on out there? Do I still have a restaurant?” He’s sitting slumped on the sofa, a heavy man in a gray tropical suit, shirt collar open, no tie, holding a Scotch-and-water in his lap.

“No man ever knows what he really has,” I say.

He laughs with great Greek delight, eyes wrinkling, golden teeth flashing in the corners of his mouth. “I like you, Jeffrey,” he says. “I can always count on you.” He points to a chair and I sit down. “You think it’s easy being the guy in charge?”

“Of course not,” I say. “It’s hell.”

“Correct.” He sips his Scotch. The liter of Dewar’s is still on the coffee table, maybe one drink left in it now. “Have I ever told you about when I was in Korea?”

“You’ve mentioned it.”

“You wouldn’t even have been born yet.”

“No.”

“I was a sergeant, did you know that?”

“You told me.”

“It was an amazing thing, Jeffrey. Koreans were all around us. Everywhere you looked you saw Korean people and Korean life.”

“Well, Jimmy, you were in Korea.”

“Exactly. I’m saying it was their country, but we were there. We were the strangers.”

“I’m with you so far.”

“But the weird thing was, Jeffrey, we were in charge. We were there to solve their problem. They were looking to us for answers. And Jeffrey?”

“Yeah?”

“We didn’t even know what the question was. We didn’t know the first thing about those people’s lives. I was giving out orders, for Christ’s sake, and I didn’t even know what I was doing over there. But for the first time in my life I had incredible power. And I discovered something.”

“What?”

“I loved it. I loved the powder. It didn’t matter at all that I was an ignorant schmuck. Having that power canceled out everything else.”

“Strange. Listen, Jimmy, Victor’s here. He’s baking in the kitchen right now.”

“Yeah, I know, I just talked to him.” He parts the blinds on the window next to the sofa and looks out at the carriage house. Often he secretly observes the comings and goings of the Thai students from this window. “I learned another thing in the service,” he says. “You always hear that people everywhere are basically the same, that all anybody really wants is to be loved. That’s true, but they also want to make sure nobody gets any but them.”

“Jimmy, I think a lot of those people in Korea just wanted not to get shot by you or have a bomb dropped on their house. They wanted to wake up the next day, and that was about it.”

“Those are the accidents of history, Jeffrey. I’m talking about the big, eternal things, like the fact that all people are greedy and self-centered and they make excuses for it with ideas like ‘honor’ and ‘saving face.’”

“You talked to Ethel about the Thai students.”

He shakes his head and deeply sighs her name. “Ethel.” Then he belts down the rest of his drink. “What am I going to do about Ethel?”

“She was crying in here before.”

“She cries all the time,” he says. “Okay, everybody wants a piece of Jimmy. All right, fine, I accept that. But Ethel’s not satisfied with her piece, and she’s letting it ruin her life. Let me tell you something, Jeffrey. I never promise anybody anything I can’t deliver. If I can’t deliver, I don’t promise. It’s a good rule, one you could live by if you’re interested. Ethel has gotten everything she was ever promised and a lot more. If she wants to walk out, she can walk out.”

“Is that what she wants to do? Walk out?”

“No, I told you. She wants to be the only puppy in the litter. Since she can’t have that, she’s going to find a different way to make me miserable every day. But tonight she’s unbelievable. Tonight—get this—she wants me to punish Victor for running after Bucky with the knife.”

“No kidding.”

“Yeah, she insists on it. The dignity of her staff requires it, she says. I said forget it. I’m not punishing anybody.”

“Maybe you should. If it would keep her happy.”

“Jeffrey, yesterday Ethel couldn’t stand the Thai people, all right? Don’t argue with me, I know how to handle this. Now listen carefully, kid, you’re about to learn something. Here’s what I do. I call the Thai students in and— humbly, with gratitude for good service—I offer them more money. Right out of the blue, I give them a big raise.”

“I’m sure they’ll appreciate that.”

“But I say nothing to them about Victor. Victor’s name is never mentioned. I make no connection between Victor and their reward. Okay? And now, do I then turn around and punish Victor? Far from it. Pay attention, Jeffrey, I’ve never let anyone else in on this. I call Victor in and I give him more money too. In fact, I’ve already done it. You see what I’m saying? Money is love, Jeffrey, and now everybody has more than they had before. Presto, peace is restored to the garden. All the animals can live happily together again. But the brilliant part is that this love doesn’t make judgments. It doesn’t take sides. It’s love that forgives. Frankly, Jeffrey, it’s the love Jesus was talking about. I resolve the conflict by giving everybody more money, Victor and the Thai students equally, even though Victor did something very bad.”

“He tried to kill Bucky.”

“Oh, no, something much worse than that. Something to hurt me personally, his benefactor and friend.”

“He did? What?” ‘

“He called Immigration, the jerk.”

“He didn’t.”

“Oh, yes, he did. He ratted on me about the Thai students. He admitted it to me here in this office just now. He called them from his house, and then he came back here to be on hand for the excitement. He strolled in and sat right there, puffed up with his secret betrayal. But he couldn’t carry it off. He became remorseful and confessed. I let him stew in his own guilt for a minute, and then I just blew him away with his raise. You think he was confused before? Now he’s really confused. But he’s confused by love, which is good.”

“Jimmy, what about Immigration?”

“Yeah, them. You’re right, we should take some defensive action. We should hide the Thai students. Would you do that for me? Go hide the boys and then buzz me when the feds get here.”

I’m up out of my chair and walking away when something occurs to me. “This idea of putting love in people’s paychecks—you ever try that on Ethel?”

“Are you kidding? Ethel makes so much money here now it’s ridiculous. But that doesn’t work for her anymore. It’s my fault, I let Ethel get keyed in to a different symbol. You know, I always wondered why mystics and saints denied the body, why priests, those poor bastards, had to be celibate. Now I think I get it. Jesus kept the company of whores, but I’ve never read anything in there about him messing around with them. Sex changes everything, Jeffrey, don’t ask me why.”

I tell Jimmy my friend Ricky’s line about boy-girl business.

“A friend of yours said that?” Jimmy says. “Hey, does this guy want a job? The man who said that can come work for me anytime.”

“I’ll let him know,” I say. “Now I better get out there and save our butts.”

“Good. You do that.”

I’m halfway out the door when he calls me back again.

“Hey, one second,” he says. “I had a few recipe ideas I wanted to run by you. Wait till you hear these. What would you think of moussaka with—brace yourself—hot curry and a peanut sauce? Or feta-cheese pie with ginger and snow peas? And how does baklava with coconut milk and litchi nuts grab you?”

“Don’t tell me,” I say. “Greek-Thai cuisine.”

“You got it,” he says. “Inspired, right? A whole new contribution. East meets West. Two ancient cultures united. I hope Manny doesn’t give me a hard time about it. You get to be my age, Jeffrey, and you start thinking about the big picture. You start asking some basic questions about your existence. ‘Did his menu reflect his vision of life? Did he have a vision of life? Did he have anything new to offer? Did he have anything to say?’ Things like that.”

I HURRY OUT TO THE HEAD OF THE CORRIDOR AND stand behind the cigarette machines, scanning the dining room. Just inside the front door, next to the sign that says OUR HOSTESS WILL SEAT YOU, are two hard guys in rumpled suits. They look hungry all right, but not for anything we serve here. They’re swiveling their heads on their big necks, checking the place out real good. Our hostess will seat you! For the first time in my career at Inn Essence I’d give anything to see Ethel walk around the corner—her face carved out of flesh-colored ice, her hair sprayed into a bronze battle helmet. She could make crème brûlée out of these guys. But, incredibly, in the middle of the dinner rush, she’s not on duty. Just across from me Nadine is picking up a drink order at the end of the bar. I sidle up to her and point out the feds. “Head those guys off, Nadine!” I whisper. “Stall ‘em. They’re here to bust us for illegal aliens.” She looks back and forth between me and the front door like I’ve just dropped down from Neptune.

“Do it, Nadine!” I cry. Then I burst through the swinging doors into the kitchen. The Thai waiters are nowhere to be seen. Neither is Victor. But then I see that all the way at the back of the kitchen, by the exit to the parking lot, the door of Victor’s walk-in is just closing.

Manny, still doing the veal medallions, sees me standing there. “Here’s how they look when you’re done,” he calls out, holding on his palm the glistening meat wrapped neatly around its stuffing.

I run up to the glass partition beneath the warming lamps. “Never mind the veal, Manny!” I bark at him. “Where are the Thai students?”

He looks around. “I don’t know,” he says. “They were just here.”

“Manny, Victor called Immigration! They’re at the front door!”

He catches this hot potato like the pro he is, dropping the veal and bolting out of his work space toward the dining room. I run the other way past him and around the corner to Victor’s walk-in. I’m going to take care of Victor, I think to myself. I’m going to fix this clown. I yank open the door of his cooler and leap inside.

In doing so, I smack into Ethel and nearly knock her down.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” I snap at her. She snaps the same thing at me. Then the heavy door of the walk-in snaps shut and I can’t see anything. The only light in Victor’s huge cooler comes from two low-wattage bare bulbs on either side of the ceiling fan, and my eyes are accustomed to the brightness outside. It’s cold, but deliciously so, compared with the swelter of the kitchen.

I’m about to tell Ethel what I’m doing in here, when my eyes adjust enough to see that all the Thai workers are standing in here with her. I throw my arms around her shoulders. “You’re beautiful, Ethel!” I say. “Good going! But is it safe enough?”

She pushes me away. “Safe enough for what?” she says with great irritation.

And then I see Victor. He’s sitting against the rear wall of the walk-in, legs stretched out in front of him, arms behind his back, hands and feet bound with crisp cloth napkins fresh from the linen service. His mouth is wide open as if in amazement, but that’s because one of his own cream puffs has been stuffed all the way into it to gag him. His narrowed eyes are fixed on me—not with fear or rage or even supplication, not with any emotion at all, but with the unnerving vacancy of a man in shock. I look at him more closely in the thin yellow light. Squiggles of dark brown chocolate cream are all over his body—stripes of it up and down his arms and legs and outlining the pockets and buttons of his baker’s uniform. He looks like a gingerbread man in reverse, brown frosting on white. Bucky is kneeling on the floor next to him, the chocolate-creamfilled pastry bag in his hands.

“Do his face now, Bucky,” Ethel says. “He needs some nice eyebrows, doesn’t he, boys?”

All the Thai students giggle their agreement. Bucky chortles with delight and sets to work on the brows, squeezing thick lines of chocolate onto Victor’s face. Suddenly Victor comes to life and struggles violently for a moment, making scary animal noises around the cream puff in his mouth and messing up the frosting on his eyebrows.

“Baking man not want to be cookie,” Bucky says, flashing all his protruding teeth. He puts some chocolate on Victor’s nose, and then he sets to work decorating Victor’s tall white hat. Kampy and Toots and Rocky and Buzz are all smiling and nodding their heads up and down. Then Kampy turns to me.

“Mr. C. understand Thai worker feelings,” he says. “He send Miss Ethel to tell us good idea of punishment for Victor. We have such ways like this in Thailand, too. No person get hurt, and Thai workers have honor restored. Mister C. is very wise man. America is fair country.”

I look at Ethel. She glares at me. I turn to the metal door of the walk-in and press my ear tightly against it. The bitter chill gives me a headache instantly, but I stay there.

“We have a report that you have employed illegal alien workers from Thailand,” I hear Immigration saying, faintly through the door. “Let’s go, chef. Where are they? Let’s see these Thai workers.”

Victor sees me listening at the door, and he starts making a fuss again in the back of the cooler, bucking and snorting some guttural sounds. But his walk-in was once the inn’s meat locker, with solid walls and a heavy rubber seal around the opening; no one will ever hear him out there.

I put my ear back to the cold agony of the door. Manny’s distant voice materializes, the volume fluctuating up and down. He must be following Immigration around the kitchen. “Thailand?” he says. “You must mean Venezuela! It’s me you looking for? Manny Quintero from Venezuela? But I ain’t no illegal, man! I got my papers twenty years now! Just ‘cause I’m a foreigner one time you come after me? Let’s go to my house, I show you some papers. Gonna be egg on you faces, misters.”

Ethel slides a tray of Victor’s cream puffs halfway out of a rack, picks one up, and raises it above her head. She throws like a girl, but her aim is good. Chocolate cream and flaky pastry splatter across Victor’s face. The Thai students applaud. Then Bucky stands up and Ethel passes cream puffs out to the boys. They all get one and wait for me to get mine.

Now Jimmy comes storming into the kitchen. “Where did you get this crap?” he says. “Who said these things about me? Where is my accuser? Let him show his face. Come out wherever you’re hiding, you bastard.”

“It was an anonymous tip,” Immigration says. “On the telephone. We don’t know who it was.”

“Come on, Jeffrey, take your cream puff,” Ethel says.

“You don’t know who it was?” Jimmy screams. “You don’t know who it was? Well, I know who it was! I’ll tell you who it was! It was the man in the moon! You come to my place of business with this slander, this libel, these filthy lies, trying to get my name in the papers, trying to ruin my good reputation, trying to shut down the nicest restaurant in New Jersey on the basis of a telephone prank? I could make a stink about this you wouldn’t believe! I know people in Trenton! I could have your jobs! I could get you Border Patrol in the Texas scrub! For life! Get the hell out of my restaurant!”

“I don’t want one,”I say.

“I knew it,” Ethel says. “Sensitive Jeffrey doesn’t want a cream puff. That’s because you are a cream puff, Jeffrey. This is a ritual, everybody has to do it. Take it.”

I remove my ear from the door. “No, Ethel.”

Now the Thai students are confused. Jeffrey’s not taking a cream puff. They stand there looking at me, not knowing what to do.

“Fine, Jeffrey. You don’t have to participate. But you don’t get to stay and watch the fun, either. Just open the door and get out.”

“No,” I say. “I can’t do that.”

“Oh, you are such a wimp, Jeffrey. You are such a little teacher’s pet. Never mind him,” Ethel says to the Thai students. “This is the ancient American way. Mister C. knows it, I know it. You have your old customs in Thailand, we have ours here. Throw those cream puffs, boys. Jeffrey’s just anti-American, aren’t you, Jeffrey?”

Pressing my head against the freezing metal door must have numbed my brain, because suddenly I’m dizzy and can’t even talk to Ethel anymore. I have to close my eyes for a second to collect my thoughts. I have to see if I have this straight. I’m one of eight people hiding in a dim restaurant walk-in, our breath coming out of our faces in little mingling clouds. The proprietor of the walk-in is tied up on the floor, and federal agents are outside trying to bust us, but not for tying him up. The owner’s mistress is calling me names because I won’t take a cream puff she’s offering me, while five young men from a distant land are looking at me with questioning eyes, the sweet pastries of revenge already in their hands. They’re waiting for me to confirm that whatever we’re doing is indeed the way justice is done in my country.

Can I deny it? □