Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Part V: The Way Mike Worked -- Serving Fish 'n' Chips in Shrimp 'n' Grits Country

We called her Mom. She insisted. Never found out her real name. Her husband Tally called her "dear" or "hon" in the Southern way. She was younger than Tally by a decade or so, or so she seemed. Tally walked a limp that we thought came from the war, World War II, the one that all of our father's fought in. He said it came from a gunshot, a disagreement among bootleggers during Prohibition. We had no reason not to believe him.

We met at Long John Silver's Fish and Chips across from the University of South Carolina campus. Mom was the manager. She had replaced our first manager who had been skimming a bit off the top of the nightly deposit. One day he was our boss. And then he was gone.

In October of 1970, I was one of a half-dozen employees, mostly students, at this fast-food restaurant named for the fictional pirate in "Treasure Island." Color scheme was the brown of "a dead man's chest" and the gold of new doubloons. Everything was fried in vats of hot grease that was a shimmering gold when new and a dark brown when old and ready to be refreshed but it was almost quitting time and the day crew could do it. All of us wore grease-spatter splotches on our arms. Meals were served in cardboard replicas of a chest of gold. Sides were fries and hush puppies. Condiments were tartar sauce and malt vinegar that the Brits allegedly used on the fish and chips they bought at street corner vendors in London. My co-workers and I tried to cook up extra food at the end of the night so we could carry some home for late-night greasyspoon snacks.

Fish-and-chips were a new concept in the South. Some customers ordered and then wondered why they got fries instead of chips. We had to explain that in England, fries were called chips. The potatoes were a bit chunkier over there, not flat or curved or crispy, but they still were called chips.

After avoiding work and most of my classes my freshman year, I decided that I needed a job. I had premonitions of bad juju to come. I could read the tea leaves that we used in our sweet tea. I could divine the stars. I also could read the grade reports sent home by the university. I was on probation after a lackluster freshman year. I swore to the Navy ROTC unit's marine major that I was going to do better, really I was. He looked at my grades and the report of my lackluster performance on my first-year summer cruise. I had sailed to Guantanamo Bay and back on the USS John F. Kennedy. I had neglected my duties.

I did, however, distinguish myself during a 1970 Fourth of July weekend leave in D.C. when my BFF Pat and I rescued his younger sisters and grandmother from a stampeding crowd at the Honor America Day Concert at the Washington Monument. The riot wasn't a reaction to another sappy tune by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or another joke by Bob Hope. But a cloud of tear gas launched to disperse the Yippie-sponsored smoke-in at the monument. Pat's and my quick action didn't save any lives but we were proud of it nonetheless. Too bad that didn't show up in my midshipman record. I might have received a medal. "For valor in rescuing civilians threatened by a cloud of tear gas fired on pot-smoking hippies." Something like that. Later, Pat and I and his older brother Mike smoked a joint and talked about what a weird night it was.

When I returned to Norfolk, just before our ship sailed to Cuba, I called my girlfriend and she broke up with me.

I was looking for a new girlfriend when I returned to campus in the fall. I had a crush on one of my fish-and-chips coworkers. Kaley was pretty, blonde and had a wicked sense of humor. She also had a boyfriend, a Vietnam vet named Tim whose hair got longer and shaggier every time he came to pick Kaley up from work. The duo invited me to a party one night. I hung around Kaley and Tim as I didn't know anyone and my short haircut fueled my paranoia and everyone else's, or so it seemed. Tim broke out a syringe and prepared it, junkie-style. He shot up Kaley and then held up the syringe for me. I was almost stoned enough to say yes. But I didn't. Tim proceeded to minister to himself. They were soon in la-la land and didn't notice as I slipped out of the house and walked several miles back to my dorm.

The U.S. Navy revoked my scholarship in January and I was on my own. I could finally grow my hair and major in English. I kept working at Long John Silver's. When spring sprang, Mom and Tally asked me to come to their house and mow the lawn. Mom would feed me lunch. I agreed. It was the first of many trips to their house. By summer, the mowing of the lawn was an ordeal, with sweat streaming off of me and me pining for AC and a cold drink. One afternoon, stunned by Carolina heat, I went into the house. Heading for the bathroom, I opened the wrong door into a bedroom. It had a single bed, a shelf with photos and football trophies. The photos showed a young man in football uniform, in graduation gown, in army uniform.

"Our son Tom." Startled, I turned to see Mom in the doorway. She wore a sad face, unusual for her. She walked in and stood next to me. She picked up the photo of her son in uniform. "Missing in action. Vietnam. We kept his room ready for him but he hasn't come back. Three years now. Our only child." She replaced the photo. "Lunch is ready." She walked out and I followed. Mom and Tally were the same talkative duo they always were. Now that I am an old man, I recognize the relentless nature of sorrow. Sometimes, small talk over lemonade and sandwiches with tomatoes fresh from the garden are the only things for it.

A few weeks later, a traveling circus troupe came to town with a batch of purple haze fresh from the octopus's garden. We had a wonderful time. The circus people left town but I found my jacked-up self in the campus cafeteria babbling over breakfast to a group of exchange students from Hong Kong. They were very polite. And then I was at the university infirmary, knocked down by thorazine.

At the end of USC's summer session, I ended my college career and quit my job as a fish-and-chips wrangler. I left town. My plan was to live at my parents' house and surf until I got drafted.

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