First Chapters - A first look
at novels in progress
Days at the Chinese Buffet
was perhaps in her late fifties, the kind of late fifties where
eclectic, artistic, outrageously dressed people suddenly tip over
the edge and begin to wear the same clothes every day.'
who work in the movie business are glamorous.
People who work in the movie business are rich and fancy, and spend
their days hobnobbing with Michael Douglas and Gwyenth Paltrow, discussing
cinema, fashion, and the newest hottest script to be filmed and showcased
People who work in the movie business are unique and special and belong
to a very exclusive club that few can enter and everyone envies.
That is what people who work in the movie business like everyone else
In reality, people who work in the movies are generally out of work,
looking for work, talking about work and spending an inordinate amount
of time at the unemployment office while bravely attempting to keep
up the premise of being rich and fancy.
Kade Kallahan and Sam
King were just two of those thousands of people across the country. Their
misery was doubled by the fact that not only were they out of work and
wandering aimlessly about Miami, the most dangerously glamorous city in
the United States, they also had virtually no money to spend.
"Why dont we live some place like Idaho?" Kade complained
as they sped north across Miami Beach in Sams leased BMW. The roof
was open and the sun beat down on them. She flipped her long dark hair
out of her face and checked her lipstick while lighting a cigarette. Ashes
danced around the car. She tore through her bag looking for suntan lotion.
"Do you MIND?" Sam complained as he inhaled gray snowflakes.
"This car is brand new!" He drove with one hand as he brushed
off his black silk shirt.
"I do, as a matter of fact!" Sam hit a bump and Kades
red Dior lipstick rutted across her teeth. "Watch where youre
going! This car isnt new, youve had it for two years."
She rubbed at her teeth with a tattered tissue. "As I was saying,
why cant we live somewhere else?"
Sam eyed his friend as she began slathering herself with suntan lotion.
It smelled suspiciously like pot.
"Because we have no jobs and therefore we have no money in which
to utilise for relocation purposes. Besides that," he continued as
he swung into the left lane toward the mainland "there are no film
jobs in Wisconsin."
"Idaho, I said Idaho!" Kade noticed a small spot of lotion already
drying on the black leather seat. She casually covered it with her leg.
"I saw that!" Sam groaned. "I dont think there are
too many films in Idaho either."
The woman was standing on the corner of Kane Concourse waiting for the
bus as they approached. She was perhaps in her late fifties, the kind
of late fifties where eclectic, artistic, outrageously dressed people
suddenly tip over the edge and begin to wear the same clothes every day
and carry a multitude of shopping bags with banner names like Neimans
and Saks stuffed with unrecognizable items save the occasional egg beater
which just at this moment dropped off the pile and onto the sidewalk.
Not a homeless woman then, not with vintage Bakelite bangle bracelets,
a fifties poodle skirt and Hawaiian shirt. Her waist length hair was shiny
clean and dyed jet black, with sunglasses perched atop her head and heavy
penciled eyebrows, a woman on the edge of something with a definite lack
of focus in her eyes. Aunt Sis, Kade thought crazily as she gave the woman
a brief glance.
Kades Aunt Sis had slowly gone insane as the sixties jumped into
the seventies and slid into the eighties. Her husband, who was having
an affair with a cocktail waitress would sit in the living room on his
battered green recliner, reading the Boston Globe and suddenly shout out
"Sis, answer the GODDAMN PHONE! What are you deaf? The phone is ringing."
The phone, of course, was not ringing; but this became such a regular
occurrence that Sis began to respond, running for the phone each time
and snatching up the receiver before the caller, who was not there, had
a chance to hang up.
"Hello? Hello?" Sis would say to the dial tone.
Charlie would snort disgustedly. "I dunno what the hell is happenin
to ya, I swear to God, you must be goin deaf or crazy. You dont
even know enough to answer the phone unless I tell ya its ringing."
Then there were other times when Charlie would stand by the stairs, talking
into the one phone in the house, making plans to meet his mistress when
Sis would come around the corner and ask "Whos on the phone?"
He would stop his conversation and point a finger at his wife.
"What the hell is wrong with you? Im not on the phone, Im
sittin on my chair readin the paper. I swear to Christ, Sis,
you must be goin nuts!"
So eventually, she obliged.
Not soon after, and due in part to the fact that she was never really
sure of anything again, Aunt Sis shaved off her eyebrows completely. In
that way, each day she could pencil them in to suit her mood. If she woke
up angry, she would draw two thick lines pointing down from her forehead
toward the bridge of her nose. Happy days brought smooth half moons of
surprise. Blah days were simply two straight lines. As children, Kade,
her sister, and all of her cousins learned to check their aunts
eyebrows prior to tearing the house up or filling the backyard up with
water from the hose. The half moon days were the best.
"God, look at the womans eyebrows!" Kade pointed across
Sam and out his window as they waited for the light to change.
"Kade! Must you point?"
She pulled her hand back. "Sorry, but take a look. Scary, huh? Im
afraid that could be me in another fifteen years."
"Im afraid that may be you next year."
The woman, who was chattering to the other people waiting, moved closer
to the street and revealed the man standing next to her. Late twenties,
blond and good looking. An excellent physical specimen except for the
fact he was missing one leg. Leaning on crutches and dressed in a decently
priced business suit, he was also awaiting public transport.
"Lets give that guy a ride," Sam said. He leaned out of
the drivers window called out to the guy. "Sir...hello?"
"He is so not your type!" Kade dug an elbow into his ribs. "He
definitely is not a candidate for your favorite show, what the hell is
it called - Gay As Hell? "
"QUEER AS FOLK!" Sam snapped. "And yes he is. I can tell,
my gaydar is way up today."
"Lets hope that is all that is up because if he gets in this
car and you try to kiss him, hes gonna beat us to death with his
"No, YOU shut up!"
Sam hung out the window. "Sir? Hello?" The guy was politely
nodding at the eyebrow lady.
"Say Hey you with the one leg! " Kade ordered.
"Hey, you with the one...SHUT UP!" Sam turned on Kade. "I
HATE when you do that! You know Im going to repeat everything you
"Sir!" The guy turned toward the car. "Can we give you
He waved one crutch at them and flashed Sam a smile. "Thanks, Im
Kade folded her arms triumphantly. "See? Told ya! So not gay."
"Id love a ride," exclaimed the eyebrow woman as she grabbed
her shopping bags and flapped toward them.
"Oh great!" Kade pouted. "Now were just gonna pick
up anyone on the street."
"Dont be such a bitch," Sam snapped. "Have a little
Christian charity, why dont ya?"
"Youre Jewish so that doesnt even count. What if she
wants to go to Georgia?"
The woman reached yanked at the car door handle and jumped in the bag
seat pulling her shopping bags in behind her.
"Oh thank you so much, youre saviors, just saviors!"
Kade immediately felt guilty. Damn Sam and his secret Catholicism! Now
she would have to go to confession which she had been avoiding for months
as she didnt want to have to tell the priest that she was masturbating
daily. The last time she had gone things had not gone well. After she
confessed that she had said the "F" word one hundred times that
week and it was only Wednesday, and also admitted that she thought "unprotected
sex" meant intercourse without firearms. The priest asked her why,
if she could not restrain herself from profanity during the day, could
she at least not use the word in the confessional, especially in the context
of "Bless me Father for I have fuckin sinned."
"Heres the deal Father," she told him frankly. "Since
Im not getting to DO it, I should at least be able to SAY it!"
Although Kade felt that surely Christ Himself would have understood her
logic, the priest did not, and she was booted from the confessional and
told she was not welcome back for at least one month or unless she had
committed a sin equal to murder - whichever came first. So she was carrying
around a lot of extra guilt as it was.
"Sylvia Gardenpather!" the woman extended a liver spotted hand
across the seats. Kade shook her hand and shot Sam a glance.
"Gardenpather? What an interesting name," Kade said.
"Oh is that your name?" Sylvia asked amiably. "That IS
interesting! Ive never heard it before.
"Oh boy," said Kade under her breath.
Petula Clarks voice hummed out of the car speakers, an oldie warning
them not to sleep in the subway.
Sam peered into the rearview mirror. "Where are you headed, Sylvia?"
Sylvia was rustling through her bags. "Well, now let me see. I had
a message today that I was to go down to the rectory down Biscayne Boulevard
and see Sister Wendy."
Sam headed toward the mainland. "Thats very near where we are
going. No problem."
"Where ARE we going?" asked Kade.
"What does it matter? We dont even have jobs." Sam whispered.
"Oh right," Kade nodded.
"What do you two kids do for a living?" Sylvia inquired.
"Not much lately," Sam muttered. "Except drive around town
doing errands that we dont even need to complete while she chain
Kade shushed him. "Were in the movie business, were freelance."
Sylvia clapped her hands and her bracelets clunked loudly. Sam almost
drove off the road.
"I LOVE movies! Now what movies have you been in? No, let me guess,
I am very good at guessing games!"
Kade turned around in her seat. "No," she said patiently. "We
work behind the..."
"Gone With The Wind!" Sylvia bounced enthusiastically on the
back leather seat causing Sam to glare into the mirror.
"Gone With The Wind!" Kade exclaimed. "How old do you think
"Oh," Sylvia was disappointed. "Is that an old movie?"
Sam stopped at the bridge toll and dropped two quarters into the slot.
"Uh Sylvia, tell me, what did Sister Wendy say? I mean, why did she
"Sam, dont be so nosy!" Kade felt bad for Sylvia, she
was just trying to be make conversation.
Sylvia studied the street signs as they drove. "Oh, Sister Wendy
didnt call me. I didnt say that? Did I? I said that I got
a message. I got a message that Sister Wendy wanted to see me." Sylvia
tapped the side of her head with one jeweled finger.
"Beg your pardon?" Sam asked. He looked at Kade, giving her
a "did you just see what I saw and do you think it means the same
thing I do?" look.
"A message," Sylvia said patiently. "You know, like the
messages you sometimes get in your head when youre walking down
the street or sitting watching TV..."
"YOU get messages when youre watching TV?" Sam asked,
stepping down a bit on the gas, hoping not to get caught at the next light.
Kade was gripping the side of her door with white fingers.
Sylvia shook her head. "Not me, but some people do, is what I meant."
The couple relaxed. "Oh," said Sam. "Not you."
"No!" Sylvia shook her head and laughed. "I dont
have a TV, so I couldnt get messages from it. I USED to get messages
from it and that interfered with my programs so I threw it out in the
trash. I just have a radio now."
Kade looked at Sam. The car seemed to be getting hotter and Sylvias
perfume was starting to permeate the car. "Sam are we there yet?"
Sam looked at Sylvia. "Do you hear voices from the radio, Sylvia?"
Sylvia looked at Sam as if he were stupid. "Of course I do. Its
a R-A-D-I-O! I hear all kinds of voices, Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, that
nice Jamaican man who talks about security at the airport, oh whats
Sylvia froze, her eyes wide open. Sam saw her in the mirror. "Sylvia?"
he said. "Kade, I think theres something wrong with Sylvia."
Kade twisted around in her seat. She reached a hand out and grasped one
of Sylvias hands. It felt clammy.
"Sylvia! Are you OK? Do you need a doctor? Sam! I think we need...
Sam was trying to look at Sylvia, Kade, the road, the lane next to him
and the upcoming intersection at the same time. "Hang on, hang on!
I cant pull over here!"
"Hold please!" Sylvia intoned as if she were some kind of automotive
telephone operator driving aimlessly around town and taking calls on a
headset. Sam slammed on the brakes, nearly causing a three car collision
behind him. Car horns honked and a pick up truck loaded with day laborers
swerved passed them, the workers screaming insults in Spanish.
"That guy just called me a fag! Did you hear that? I should call
a cop!" Sam was screaming.
"Hold please!" Sylvia repeated. "Hold for another call,
go ahead please."
The three of them sat in the middle of the Boulevard, vehicles maneuvering
around them, for a full minute.
Sylvia snapped back to life. "OK, chickadees! That was Sister Wendy.
Shes out to lunch."
Kade and Sam both turned completely around to stare. "Huh?"
"Sister Wendy. She left me a message. She suggested that we go to
the new Jumbo Buffet up the street."
Kade shook her head. "The Chinese buffet?"
"Buffet? Like, lines of food in tubs?" Sam had lost his place
and was just fiddling with the radio as traffic screeched around them.
"We dont usually go to buffets," Kade said, sniffing as
if to say that was below them as lunch fare.
Sylvia leaned forward. "Are you unemployed?" she asked.
"Uh, at the moment," Kade had to admit.
"All you can eat for five ninety nine!" Sylvia beamed.
Kade elbowed Sam as flashing red and blue lights came across the bridge.
The Jumbo "All You Can Eat For $5.99 Chinese Buffet encompassed three
huge rooms and a free-for-all buffet area with six long stations. Upon
entering the buffet and being greeted by one of the young Asian hostesses,
one was assigned a number for service.
Parrillo, Jumbos owner-slash-manager and displaced New Yorker, had
devised a system for seating customers that was a constant cause for confusion
and consternation amongst the staff and customers alike. He had one hundred
numbers printed up on heavy duty plastic rectangles which hung on a pegged
hook at the hostess station. As customers arrived, the hostess on duty
would discern the number in the party to be seated and assign a number,
seemingly at random. A young couple may be assigned the number thirty-two
and a huge circus fat man right behind them could be assigned a number
fifty-five. The numbers were assigned according to how much and how quickly
the patrons could load up, shovel in, and get the hell out to make room
for the next round of hungry visitors all paying "cash no check no
Parrillos system made perfect sense to him. Although a slim young
couple would probably not eat too much, they would instead be picky about
what they ate and tend to dawdle over their plates discussing the crispness
of the vegetables, the sweetness of the sweet and sour sauce, the lighting,
the seating and other things unrelated to cramming General Paos
Chicken into their pie holes at lightening speed. Because, Parrillo reasoned,
these skinny people ate little, they would tend not to recommend the buffet
to their other skinny friends and business would drop off.
Now give him a big fat slob whose discount store shirt was bursting at
the buttons and eyes glazed over at the possibility of eating himself
into oblivion without having to worry about the bill and that was the
customer who would bring in more business. Sure, that guy would eat and
eat and eat, but thats why Parrillo made sure to fill up the serving
trays with mounds of high caloric but low cost offerings that the fat
folks would flip over like fried dough, French fries, fried potatoes,
and fried just about anything that frying dough would stick to long enough
to be slapped in and out of a fryer and under the hot lights for display.
As a rule, the clientele who began flocking to the Jumbo Buffet from the
day Parrillo unlocked the doors and plugged in his neon sign were not,
shall we say, members of society who demanded satisfaction for their discerning
palate. The Buffet was the twenty first centurys equivalent of the
corner diner back in the 1950s and quickly became a meeting place
as well as a source of cheap, filling eats. The customers were locals,
blue collar workers, low income families and the occasionally and becoming
more frequently) unemployed. Like Kade and Sam. These customers understood
that when a restaurant advertised "All You Can Eat For $5.99"
this phrase should be interpreted to its literal meaning - "All You
Can Stand For A Bit More Than The Cost Of A Pack Of Smokes But Still Less
Than Going To The Movies."
There were the few customers who actually expected a bit more. One of
these was a woman in her fifties with short, cropped blonde hair, bright
coral lipstick and her name - LIZ - emblazoned in sequins across her massive
messenger bag. She had been a regular visitor to the buffet for the past
two weeks and arrived at 12:15pm sharp daily, demanding to be seated in
a booth, despite the best efforts of Shaunna the hostess to steer her
toward a tabletop.
"Im not sitting at a table!" she almost yelled at the
slim Asian girl with the horribly dyed blonde hair. "I need a booth.
Im working and I have a lot of stuff I need to spread out!"
Then the woman would stare suspiciously at Shaunna, whose real name was
Kim, and purse her lips. "Are you Oriental? Whats with the
Shaunna was putting herself through beauty school by working for Parrillo
and although she would rather have been waiting tables at a trendy South
Beach bistro where the customers had the decency to claim they were either
casting agents or movie producers, this was all she had at the moment.
She managed to hold her tongue every single day.
"Yes, maam, I told you yesterday that Im Chinese,"
Shaunna said patiently as she led the woman back toward a booth in the
"What kind of Chinese name is Shaunna? That doesnt sound Chinese
at all!" Liz demanded as she slid into the booth and immediately
began emptying the contents of her battered brown messenger bag onto the
Shaunna sighed and rolled her eyes.
"Young lady, did you just roll your eyes at me?"
Shaunna rolled her eyes again. "I may have, maam, I have a
degenerative eye disease." Thatll teach her, thought Shaunna.
"Then get the hell away from my table! Im getting ready to
Shaunna flounced away, muttering under her breath. "There has got
to be a better way of making a living than this..."
Parrillo passed her on his way to the kitchen. "I heard ya, and lemme
tell ya, you better spend some more time on your homework if you wanna
get a better job than this one. Your hair looks like shit!"
It was this restaurant that Kade, disheveled and badly in need of lipstick,
and Sam, ruffled and in the grips of a major anxiety attack, and Sylvia
the possible bag lady found themselves for lunch. A lunch that somehow
would end up in an Irish wake that would last three days and become a
featured story on every cable news network as well as CourtTV.
© Elayne Keratsis August 2003
Want to know more? then email Elayne
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