By Mitchel Montagna
“When you force your employer to call the fire department and shut down, you might tend to lose your job,” said O’Riordan.
Baker listened, dismayed, as if O’Riordan’s more sympathetic judgment might help him to get his job back. In fact, O’Riordan had no influence at all regarding the matter. What’s more, he didn’t have a job himself.
Though O’Riordan acted the sage, he lived in his mother’s basement. That’s where the two sat, as Baker tried to explain that he had been fired from Howard Johnson’s that morning for trying to fix a problem—like the good employee, and man, that he was.
Baker recalled he had been in the kitchen, “sort of” loafing, as he described it, but not for “too long”, when he saw that the dishwashing machine was jammed. It was one of those industrial-grade contraptions that carried dishes and silverware on an oval-shaped belt, and when trouble occurred, it was usually due to a plate slipping off its tines and clogging the works. So Baker clambered up onto the machine’s stalled belt, intending to reach over and dislodge the offending item. “Heroically,” as Baker insisted, with steam burning his face and filling his nostrils, he tried to stand erect on the slick, soapy surface. Just as he was about there, he heard a resounding bang, and then the machine, with a quick lurch, began to move again.
O’Riordan interrupted. “Wait. You didn’t switch off the power first?”
Baker blushed. “No, I didn’t switch the goddamn power off first.”
Like a running back upended by a low, forceful tackle, Baker had had his feet cut out from under him—by a corps of hard-charging breakfast plates. He was stumbling sideways, stomping on and shattering dishes, when to catch his balance he grabbed onto a large valve bolted to a pipe. The valve was ideally positioned for someone in Baker’s predicament—but it wasn’t designed to support someone of Baker’s weight. Baker tumbled off of the conveyor belt with his hand still gripping the valve, having torn it, and the pipe, from the wall.
As he landed, he heard kitchenware clattering, as well as shrieks of panic. But at least one waitress was amused: “Hah!” she snorted. “Right on his ass!”
Baker saw above him a powerful stream of water spewing across the kitchen as if from a widemouthed hose. He also woozily noted a sheet of flame leaping from the general direction of the stove, and that its searing brightness, along with the water, created a pleasant rainbow along the ceiling.
But nobody seemed impressed by the mirage. Instead, they were sent scurrying by this man-made catastrophe. As a couple of Baker’s co-workers gruffly helped him to his feet, a harsh ringing indicated that someone had pulled the fire alarm. Baker was then escorted outside, and instructed never to return.
As he digested Baker’s story, O’Riordan sat for a moment in what looked like deep thought, his eyes brimming with knowledge.
“So whaddya think?” Baker asked. “Wasn’t I just trying to do the right thing? Should I sue the bastards for unlawful termination? This won’t do my career any good, I can tell you that.”
Now O’Riordan smiled. “Absolutely. And when they re-build the kitchen, they ought to name it after you.”
Baker for the first time in ages was being transported by a swing, gliding face-up toward the sky, then descending backward before momentum kicked him up again. Eyes shut, inhabiting his own space, he was taking in a swirl of hypnotic music. There were loudspeakers at the children’s summer camp where he had been hired to work in the kitchen (his HoJo’s experience coming in handy), and he had decided to spend his morning break in flight.
It was like riding a bicycle: you never forget how. As you rise forward, you thrust your legs out, arch your back, and yank on the chains holding the seat (and you). While swinging backward, you fold your knees till your feet are beneath you. As the air rushed by, Baker kept his eyes closed, and he focused on the harmonica solo spewing from the speakers. It went on and on, an exhilarating melody that inspired him to scale higher.
Soaring backward, reaching the crest, Baker felt the sun blazing to his right, and noted the swing set’s crossbar ahead, barely above him. He had achieved a state of weightlessness. Below, the field was a blend of grass and dirt, with staff and kids ambling, some with balls and other athletic equipment, some wearing swimsuits and clutching towels. A few male staffers were shirtless; several females wore the shortest of shorts. Baker gleefully swooped down toward them.
As he remembered doing as a kid, he decided to eject. It required keen anticipation, timing your move to the instant you’ve reached your peak. When Baker got there, he pushed off, charged with adrenaline, feeling as if the sky would absorb him. Once free of the swing, he realized he was higher than he’d anticipated. He dangled in the air, as close as he’d ever get to flying. He might have been an airborne puppet with its strings cut, arms and legs crooked and jutting out crazily.
Baker was also top-heavy with momentum. As the ground reeled toward him, his legs lagged and his head hung forward. His toes hit the earth first, then he heavily fell onto his chest, his forehead banging onto grass before he rolled over. Aside from the bridge of his nose, there was little pain beyond embarrassment.
When he looked up, one of those splendid creatures in short shorts was watching him. He’d noticed her before—he thought her name was Fatima. She looked puzzled, as if Baker was wreckage dropped unexpectedly from the sky. Fatima held the hand of a small girl whose mouth was fixed in an astonished oval. Baker rose to his knees, and winked at them. At which point they resumed walking, putting some juice into their step.
“At least,” O’Riordan said, “this time you didn’t destroy an entire kitchen.”
“Just my pride,” Baker admitted, holding Kleenex to his nostrils.
But not much pride left to destroy, he was thinking. Sure, he’d secured another job, but there was no future in it. He was 24 with a college degree—albeit in sociology, which hardly counted—but scrounged for whatever work he could find. Meanwhile, assholes he grew up with wore suits and had professions. Some were actually married.
When the hell had all that happened?
The only guy he knew like him was O’Riordan. Not quite a role model; though if you spoke to O’Riordan about it, the man would say: “Yeah, you could do a heck of a lot worse than emulating me!”
After Baker had been hired at Camp High Point, he had tried to convince O’Riordan to apply there, too. This was pretty much a joke, as O’Riordan was as averse to working as a sloth. But to Baker’s amazement, O’Riordan had taken him up on the suggestion, and even further from likelihood, had secured a job—as an arts and crafts counselor.
“You have to know what to say, and when to say it,” was O’Riordan’s cryptic response to Baker’s query about how the hell he had pulled it off. Baker felt he had missed out yet again—while he sweated his ass off washing pots, community college dropout O’Riordan held one of the camp’s cushiest jobs.
The previous day, Baker had decided to see for himself how O’Riordan got away with pretending he knew anything about arts and crafts. Baker walked into the camp’s main pavilion where O’Riordan sat at a table with about a dozen ten-year old boys. Speaking in a voice somewhat deeper than usual, O’Riordan held up a piece of paper and announced that today they would construct “something special—paper airplanes. Or, as I like to call them, paper fighter jets.”
“Watch closely,” he intoned to the rapt group of boys. “And learn something.”
Baker noticed that the boys’ regular counselor stood to the side, smoking a cigarette and ignoring the charade.
O’Riordan folded paper. “I collaborated with Lockheed to develop these crease patterns,” he said. “You have to be geometrically precise. Now, voila.”
O’Riordan tossed the paper, which sailed a few feet then plummeted. “Amazing!” he cried. “Now let’s see what you got.”
Baker watched the boys eagerly folding papers and tossing them. They yelled in delight and contributed sound effects: “BAM!” “BOOM!” “WHEEE!” “KKKRRRUNCH!” O’Riordan applauded and encouraged them, as if having the time of his life, too.
Baker had seen enough. He left the pavilion, muttering to himself, and walked toward the kitchen where a dozen filthy pots awaited.
Now, as they sat in the small cabin they shared, O’Riordan changed the subject and asked Baker whether he liked any of the female staff members.
“Well,” Baker said. “I got eyes, same as you.”
O’Riordan said, “But what are doing about it? Your youth is running out, my friend.”
“Listen” Baker said. “I’m the kitchen help. I wear this silly costume and a fucking apron. What woman here would even look at me?”
“One looked when you fell off the swing. Fat…uh, or whatever her name.”
“Well, if I need to go to that length,” Baker said.
“Market yourself,” O’Riordan said. “You got one or two things going for you. You went to college, right?”
“Fuck you,” Baker said.
“There’ve been some gals coming around watching me work,” O’Riordan said. “I think I got groupies.”
Baker laughed. “Yeah, to see the latest line of bullshit you’re throwing.”
“Not necessarily.” O’Riordan looked offended.
“I will say this,” Baker said. “You know who’s gorgeous? That nurse, Resa.”
“Resa? She’s old enough to be your mother.”
During meals, Baker would sometimes peek out of the kitchen to enjoy the sight of this tall, commanding woman who patrolled the dining room, watching alertly for choking campers and other medical emergencies. Resa’s expression was usually beetle-browed and serious, befitting her heavy responsibilities, yet Baker discerned soft, sultry features behind her oversized glasses.
That she was obviously in her 30s only heightened her appeal for Baker. He didn’t bother to counter O’Riordan’s crack about mothers, as he was sure straight males of any age prone to arousal would gladly hurtle toward Resa like a shooting star.
At lunch the next day, as Baker spied on Resa, he found her posted regally in the middle of the dining room, chin aloft and vigilant as ever. She happened to be standing a step away from O’Riordan, who sat at a table with the other specialty counselors. Resa was monitoring activities throughout the large room, missing only what may have been happening under her nose—which is where O’Riordan sat, candidly appraising Resa’s skimpy shorts and the delectable body that filled them.
But O’Riordan wasn’t being crude. In fact, he was behaving in the respectful way of a connoisseur inspecting a valued piece of art. As Resa focused on her duties, O’Riordan focused on her, his face rapt with concentration. Sometimes, he’d lift an eyebrow as he perused something especially fine. He appeared to be taking the time and care required to formulate an evaluation worthy of its subject.
Finally, O’Riordan nodded his approval, conveying the lofty certainty of a cultured man. He looked over at Baker and indicated “A-OK” with a circular thumb and forefinger. Baker made an “A-OK” sign in return, proud that his manly instincts had been vindicated.
Later that week, a two-day intersession period began. No campers were present; it was a time for counselors to undergo training as well as enjoy some free time. Baker had learned that Resa was scheduled to host a refresher CPR demonstration and although kitchen workers weren’t invited, he showed up anyway.
He stood among a couple-dozen counselors, including O’Riordan, who had assembled near a picnic table next to the swing set. A few smoked cigarettes. Others sipped from Styrofoam coffee cups. Some did both. The day was humid, with the sun large and hazy, so everyone had taken a minimalist approach to their wardrobe.
Resa’s bikini briefs and tank top may have been inviting, but her face had assumed its usual stern look. She thanked everyone for coming, and reminded them the topic of today’s demonstration was “life and death.”
“If a camper is in medical trouble, instantly notify me or one of my staff,” she continued. “But if we can’t get there immediately, you’ll need to take proper lifesaving measures until one of us arrives.”
She paused to let that sink in. “Can I get a volunteer, please.”
Baker had barely registered that when he felt someone push him from behind—hard. The shove felt like a solid blow that vibrated his spine and cut off his breath. The culprit was O’Riordan, the bastard. Baker took several loping, stumbling steps forward, his arms twirling for balance, then he fell to his knees.
Resa stood over him. “Well, that was an entrance, all right.” she said. The counselors chuckled. “Thanks for your generous decision to help. We haven’t met, have we?”
Baker clambered to a standing position, his face burning from heat and embarrassment. “My name’s Mark Baker, mam.”
He was awed by the force of Resa’s eyes, a penetrating blue, and the abundant waves of her dark hair.
Resa directed Baker to lay supine on the picnic table. She explained that if a child isn’t breathing, they should lay the camper on their back and place the heel of one hand in the middle of their chest “at the nipple line.” This remark drew a few titters, and the titters grew to giggles as Resa approached Baker, who had put an arm across his eyes to protect them from the sun. As he sensed Resa getting closer, he peeked. A rich, winding curtain of her hair swung toward him.
For a moment, Baker was terrified that the close proximity of a scantily-clad, beautiful woman would embarrassingly excite him. But he was so self-conscious about the entire situation and all the eyes on him that he was too drained for stimulation. In fact, he was more likely to faint.
“It seems Mr. Baker’s nipple line is right here,” she said, placing her hand on the appropriate spot. “To do this properly, you’ll need to push down on the breastbone about two inches.”
Resa demonstrated by pressing on Baker—twice. She may or may not have driven down the full extent, but Baker felt the weight like a tightening vise. The sensation fused with the lingering ache from the blow O’Riordan had struck, sending a throbbing pain through his upper body.
Baker tried to stifle any expression of discomfort but failed and emitted an audible groan: “Unnnhhhh!”
Resa stepped back. “Looks like I got a little carried away. And it had nothing to do with Mr. Baker calling me ‘mam.’”
Everybody laughed. Apparently, this woman did have a sense of humor.
“I apologize, Mr. Baker.”
“Call me Mark,” Baker gasped.
“The recommended number of compressions is 30,” Resa said. “That, I will not do to Mister ah, Mark.”
She also demonstrated what she called “rescue breathing,” lifting Baker’s chin, tilting his head back, and pinching his nostrils until they felt enflamed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, he couldn’t decide which, she declined to press her lips against his. “One of us might have cooties,” she quipped, and Baker’s grin looked aghast while the counselors roared as if Resa was Joan Rivers.
Finally, she reviewed the Heimlich maneuver, and Baker’s breastbone was again attacked, this time from behind. Then Baker stood unsteadily, sweating, while Resa thanked him for being a “good sport.”
As the gathering broke up, Baker looked around for O’Riordan so he could chew out his ass. But of course, O’Riordan had fled. As Baker stood wondering how to kill more time before his shift began, he heard a female voice call his name. He looked up to see Fatima approaching.
“Mark,” she said with a grin, practically laughing. She stopped a few feet in front of him.
Fatima’s brown hair was pulled back so that it streamed behind her. The sun flared in her eyes. “Your name’s Baker and you work in the kitchen, right?” she said.
“Right,” Baker said emphatically, trying to maintain a firm posture.
“Kind of cute, isn’t it, a guy named Baker in the kitchen.”
Fatima’s smile was playful, but there also was something focused and searching in her look. Baker guessed that she hoped for a response of some substance. Uncertain of whether he had it in him, he looked around fretfully, as if for rescue or inspiration.
Across the field, he saw O’Riordan walking near their cabin. O’Riordan moved with long strides, confident as a surgeon, his jaw pointing the way.
“You mind if I ask you something? Fatima said.
Cautiously, Baker looked back at the wondering light in the girl’s eyes.
Later, with a scouring pad in one hand and a steel brush in the other, Baker saw a huge billow of steam wafting through the kitchen like a malevolent fog. It approached, then engulfed him, and the quantity of perspiration that already drenched his skin and clothing quadrupled. He felt like he’d been dropped into an oven.
It appeared that the steam’s origin was Baker’s old nemesis, an industrial-grade, assembly-line dishwasher of the type that had ended his career at Howard Johnson’s. The steam spewed from behind a square metal panel on a side of the machine, and had quickly saturated the entire kitchen. Baker inhaled the vinegary body odor of himself and the other employees. Gobs of sweat slid into his eyes.
The cook, a man named Ford with a tattoo of an anchor on his forearm, shouted curses that would have projected to the back row of any theater. He hustled to the dishwasher and hollered that he “needed some dipshit to shut it down.”
Baker, sometimes a dipshit but presently feeling good about himself, ran to the far side of the machine where, with his fist, he pounded on a large red button. When nothing happened, he did it again. The dishwasher rattled, moaned, then gradually settled to rest.
But steam continued to flow.
Baker approached the fuming Ford. He bowed, interlocked his hands, then indicated that Ford should step onto Baker’s hands to assist his climb over and behind the machine. Ford gave Baker a flashing look of surprise, like a teacher might give a dunce who unravels an algebra problem.
Ford lifted a heavy, booted foot onto Baker’s palms. Using Baker’s shoulder for support, he scrambled up over the machine to reach the panel from which the steam leaked.
Ford twisted screws and bolts, added WD-40, and the dishwasher more or less sputtered back to life. Soon Baker took a break, and he walked out through the kitchen’s back door into the late afternoon humidity which, given the steam bath he had just emerged from, felt like a relief.
O’Riordan was nearby, perched on a railing when he saw the bedraggled, sopping Baker.
O’Riordan feigned concern and said, “Son of a bitch. With the working conditions you guys got, you oughta form a union.”
Baker laughed and clapped O’Reilly on the shoulder. He headed for their cabin to change his shirt, looking forward to meeting Fatima at the swing set.
When Fatima had asked whether she “could ask him something,” it turned out to be a lighthearted inquiry regarding how he occupied himself when he wasn’t working. Baker couldn’t easily respond. The query made him ponder: What did he do? Well, in truth, he sat around, and he brooded. Sometimes, he wandered around and brooded. Even watching TV, he brooded.
But on this occasion, Fatima’s wide-set, lustrous eyes lifted him out of himself. Fascination swept away timidity. He suggested to Fatima that they could talk more when his upcoming shift ended, say around 4:30? And maybe they could meet at the swing set?
“There’s something about this,” Baker said, as he pulled the chains and thrust out his legs, “that’s liberating. And not just for kids.”
Fatima, on the next swing but manipulating hers with less urgency, said, “I’ve seen you doing this before.”
“Oh really,” Baker said. “I didn’t know that.”
The camp’s sound system was switched on to the same song that had inspired Baker during his previous adventure on the swings. Its rousing harmonica solo re-entered his blood, further charging up the electric excitement he felt at Fatima’s presence.
Baker swung down, leveled, then arched back as he ascended. Air rushed against his face. The sun glimmered gold to their left.
“Anyway,” he said. “When you asked what I do outside work, it reminded me that this can be a pretty fun activity.
“Who is this, by the way? The music.”
Fatima flew past him, a colorful blur. “Stevie Wonder,” she said. “Where have you been?”
Good question. How could he not know that? “Oh,” he said. “You know. Around.”
As he climbed again, he knew he would leap off. No planning or thinking; just do it. He anticipated gliding earthward with his fall softened by some kind of mysterious entity. Like an invisible elevator. Or palms gently easing him down.
“Ha! Watch this,” he yelled. As the swing lifted him toward a sky of glittering blue, he let himself go.
Mitchel Montagna has worked as a special education teacher, radio news reporter, and corporate communicator. Publications include Amarillo Bay, Yellow Mama, and Leaves of Ink. He is married and lives in New Jersey.