by David Barrett
The first time Billy Bettis saw Ben Ailing, his boss, Billy thought he was a bum.
Billy had been gleaning the alley behind the El Sombrero for half-spent cigarette butts (he’d later cannibalize the tobacco from and roll fresh cigs with from his own papers). It was early morning summertime. The sun was still blocked by the tall two-story brick building that housed the restaurant and there was a bit of nip in the air. And Billy remembered being startled when a 60-year old man suddenly sprang out of the dumpster behind the restaurant with a frying pan in hand.
Like a goddamn Jack in the box! Billy would later joke.
What happened next was even more amazing to Billy. The man—Ben Ailing—called out to Billy and asked him if he needed a frying pan!
“There’s nothing wrong with this one,” Ben told him. “One of my cooks must have tossed it without thinking somebody could use it. It’s yours if you want it.”
Billy recognized this strangely agile old man—built like a pit bull dog—as the owner of the El Sombrero. Billy had come by the restaurant a couple of days before looking for work and he’d remembered Ben sitting at the bar drinking coffee and talking with a delivery driver. Billy had asked Ben’s wife, Myra, if there was any work available and Myra, agitated about something or other, had dismissively looked Billy up and down and told him no.
I know she thought I was a goddamn hobo! Bill would later say.
“Sure!” Billy had told Ben. “I could use a frying pan.” Then, after Ben had handed him the cast iron pan, Billy added, “But what I could really use is a job!”
Billy remembered Ben looking him up and down: but, unlike Myra, Ben had looked him right in the eye, smiled his perfectly level false-teethed smile at him, and asked if he was a good worker.
“Damn, right!” Billy had told him.
Ben, still smiling, had then asked:
“But do you like to work?”
And Billy had smiled back and answered:
“It’s what I do!”
Ben removed a cigarette from the crushed pack in his jacket pocket and lit up. He gave one to Billy.
“You’re hired!” Ben told him. “We’re in need of a new dishwasher.”
Billy began to tell Ben how Myra had turned him away, but Ben cut him off and asked Billy who he thought the boss was.
“You are!” said Billy.
“Damn right!” said Ben.
When Billy asked when he would start, Ben told him that very morning.
“9 a.m. sharp!”
And Billy remembered Ben reaching out with the same hand that moments before had held the frying pan and shaking Billy’s hand so hard it hurt the rest of that morning.
This had happened five years before. And Billy Bettis would be at El Sombrero until the final day.
Dave Barrett lives and writes out of Missoula, Montana. His fiction has appeared most recently in New Reader Magazine, The William and Mary Review and fresh.ink. His novel–GONE ALASKA– was recently published by Adelaide Books. His micro-story–THE HUMMINGBIRD CAFE–appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Thimble Lit. He teaches writing at Missoula College and is at work on a new novel.