Miss Chicken & Dumplings 1984

Kelsey Ronan

We knew everything was going to hell when Athel took the jelly off the tables and told us that from then on, it was two jellies per customer, which ought to be plenty, and if the customer wanted more, it’d be twenty-five cents per packet. Grape only. Pearl’s Restaurant was across the street from the Fisher Body plant, and the rumor was General Motors was going to shut it down any day. But even though the dinner rush already seemed slower, a few of our regulars laid off, we figured Pearl’s was bulletproof until we had to count jelly.

We shifted our eyes toward each other, chewed our lipstick. We could see Pearl watching through the sliding kitchen window, her eyes small and blinking behind old cat-eye glasses. Athel and Pearl came up from Nashville in the ’50s—we’ve heard different versions why, but in the story we repeated most, Athel got caught selling morphine out of the back of that pharmacy he owned. In Flint he’d worked on the line at Chevy until he’d saved enough money to open a restaurant for all the other hillbillies that had come north to get rich at Generous Motors. They were old enough to be great-grandparents now, bent with osteoporosis.

Denise was the first to break the silence. “Jesus. We counting how many times they squirt the ketchup bottle, too?” She worked the Sunday after-church shift, serving Baptists who took up tables for hours, breaking oyster crackers over cream of broccoli soup, leaving the measliest tips because they were broke from tithing. The week before, Denise told two ladies slurping their fourth iced-tea refills that she was going to have to charge them for the lemon slices—Athel’s orders. A dime per refill.

“I could go down to Kessel’s and buy me a bag of lemons for fifty cents,” one of those old women said, indignant as hell.

“And you could take those lemons home and slice them up yourself, too,” Denise answered. We repeated that line to each other all week, passing it through the shifts till Thursday when Carly said, “Denise, did you tell some old church lady to shove a lemon up her ass?”

In every version of the lemon story those women didn’t leave Denise a damn thing. If customers felt like Pearl’s was charging them for the air they were breathing, they sure as shit wouldn’t be feeling generous with their waitresses. We could see our fate spelled out in front of us, all our tips disappearing one knife-swipe of thin generic jelly at a time. Carly gathering up all the dry, uneaten toast to feed the little birds that ate out of the dumpster, even though Athel had told her for years to stop.

Marilyn, the oldest of us, with her grandchildren’s birthstones stacked on her fingers, asked, “We in trouble, Athel?”

“Just one damn packet of jelly per slice and no one’s in trouble.” Though we all knew that wasn’t what she was asking.

 

Around seven a.m., Fisher Body’s third-shift shop rats punched out and came across the street to get fed. They sleepily watched Nina, the youngest of us, an apron bowed on top of her ass like a present, as she moved between tables, refilling mugs, and Marilyn thumped the bills of their UAW caps with her order pad. “I know your name and I got a phone book. Only gonna take me about a minute to call your old lady.”

Rose Molloy, Athel’s granddaughter, came in with third shift. We’d been studying Rose for years. When she was little, her mother, Myrna, Athel’s peroxide-blonde daughter, brought her in sometimes, dressed like a doll—not the kind you drag around for tea parties and mud pies, but the kind you lock in a curio cabinet and wait for guests to admire. Athel would command her to recite some poem or the Gettysburg Address and reward her with mountains of ice cream. When she was a teenager, she’d come in with her lip gloss and bell bottoms and Athel would brag about how she was learning French, then demand one of us go get her a Coke, extra ice. The last time Myrna came in, she told us Rose was back home working the cosmetics counter at Hudson’s, helping rich ladies find the right foundation. “Just while she sends her resume out, of course.” And added, “She’s fluent in French. That might not mean much here, but it impresses the right people in Chicago.”

That morning Rose walked straight back into the kitchen like she worked there. It turned out she did. Each time we came back with an order, she was there with her grandma, a baggy chef’s coat swallowing her pretty blouse, ladling gravy over hot turkey sandwiches and wrapping fat triangles of banana cream pie in cellophane.

Rose Molloy, who, from the time she was old enough to walk into that restaurant on her own two patent-leather Mary Janes, had made it clear she knew she was too smart and pretty to be eating biscuits and gravy across from a car factory, was now in the kitchen, taking our orders.

We laughed our asses off, called each other at home with our feet up, watching Dynasty and Johnny Carson, taking bets on how long the princess would last.

The regulars were surprised, too. The first time Rose came out of the kitchen and the shop rats spotted her, with her hair pulled back and flour dusted over her tits, they elbowed each other and hissed to us, “Who the hell’s that?”

We warned them about her grouchy grandfather and the baseball bat he kept in the kitchen in case any drunks got testy.

“She ain’t even that pretty,” repeated Nina, though since Rose showed up she’d taken to teasing her hair a little higher, shellacking on her eyeshadow a little thicker.

 

Rose worked from breakfast to dinner, pulling twelve-hour days like her grandma had. We were sure her cooking couldn’t be as good as Pearl’s, and we braced ourselves for the complaints that didn’t come. Nina seemed the most shocked by this; we overheard her asking customers more times than necessary, “You sure the food is all right?” The only customer to ask for extra jelly was Bobby, and when Nina told him it was going to be an extra twenty-five cents, he chuckled and said, “I think I can spare that, sweetheart.” He left two dollars on the table, same as usual.

The shop rats had bigger things to worry about than jelly, and we did, too. The day they announced Fisher Body would be closing in three weeks, we heard the date repeated over and over. Some men came in from the bar next door, gloomy as if they’d just left their fathers’ funerals. The radio suddenly seemed so bright and happy we turned it off in respect.

“Mexico,” they told us. “That’s where the plant’s going. They can pay those sons of bitches two dollars a day.”

“I hear Burger King is hiring,” they said, a joke with the humor wrung out of it. “Can’t wait to pump gas.”

Athel came in that evening, sitting at the counter eating circus peanuts out of a plastic bag and working out next week’s schedule. One of the shop rats told us Reagan was coming to Flint to give a pep talk to the workers getting laid off by the hundreds. We poured each other coffee and debated where Reagan might go out to eat. “Bet he’ll go to Luigi’s,” Denise said. “Try to pull some ‘I’m a Blue Collar Joe, Let’s Get a Pizza’ bullshit.”

“They better have Secret Service all over his ass,” Carly said. “Lotta broke and pissed off people with time on their hands.”

Marilyn and Carly lapsed into an exchange of memories about John Hinckley. Athel growled from the counter. “Pity that boy wasn’t a better shot”—all he had to say that evening.

He posted the schedule next to the back door on his way out. We waited till he was getting in his Buick to crowd around it. He’d spread us thinner, everyone’s hours cut but Marilyn, and Rose, who was working overtime.

“He thinks I’m gonna do the lunch rush on my own?” Denise said. “Just me and Miss Chicken & Dumplings 1984 back there?”

We went quiet, letting it dig in, listening to the running water as Rose finished washing up on the other side of the kitchen door. We clapped our hands to our mouths to hold in our laughs.

 

The closer to the plant’s closing date, the more drunks we had to deal with. It wasn’t that they were drunk that bothered us so much—we were used to drunks. The shop rats drank in their cars on their breaks, covered for each other while they snuck off to get high or made beer runs, came to us for something greasy after getting loaded in the bar next door. But as the plant got ready to close they came in pissed off, depressed, talking about their mortgages, their out-of-state in-laws pulling them south and west. We called the police twice one week for fights, once watching a man get hauled out in handcuffs with banana pudding dribbling down his chin.

Some when they got hammered went for our asses with slaps and pinches, gave us propositions we turned down flatly. We told them to clean it up or get out―never anything we couldn’t handle. A few of the regulars would ask after Rose. They knew this new girl was back in the kitchen frying their chicken, and she became a mythical creature, like a pretty Bigfoot. They waited for sightings of her, exchanged notes, asked us for details.

The first time the good-looking second-shifter came in on his lunch break and asked to see her we laughed. “Get in line, buddy.”

But this man looked confused. “Rose Molloy?” He was lean and tall with bright blue eyes—more handsome than we were accustomed to, but otherwise just another guy in a UAW cap and that sharp grease and metal smell on him.

When we told Rose there was a man with a mustache asking for her, though, she didn’t sneak a look through the window or ask for details. As if there was only one mustache in the whole world.

We started to see him three or four afternoons a week. When it was slow, Rose came out, still wearing her baggy chef’s coat, and sat across from him, her arms crossed over her chest or twisting in her lap, nervous. We couldn’t decide if she wanted to marry him or if she owed him money.

“Who’s Mr. Handsome?” we took our turns asking.

“A friend,” was all Rose would ever say.

“I wouldn’t mind being friends with him myself,” we said. Or, “Your friend have any friends he could bring with him next time?” but Rose never took the bait. We thought we’d been getting to know her better. The afternoons seemed to be stretching out slower, and she’d come out to the dining room with a mug of tea. She liked cooking, but the smell of raw chicken made her nauseous. She thought they played Madonna too much on the radio. She hadn’t cared for working at Hudson’s, but she did get a lot of samples. She brought Nina a bag of lipsticks that she said would complement her complexion and dark hair, and Nina hated her less. But always when we talked about our old men she kept quiet.

We couldn’t figure out what Rose was hiding him for. A handsome man with a job―all any of us had prayed for.

“Maybe he’s some kooky religion,” Carly guessed. Mormon. Scientologist. Devil worshipper.

We tried to be more practical. Maybe he was married. Maybe he was an ex-con. Nina, who watched a lot of Hill Street Blues, believed Rose was a drug addict and he was her dealer. Nina worked mornings and insisted Rose ran to the bathroom a lot, which was a sure-fire sign.

Mr. Handsome was worse. We tried to bullshit with him, asked him about the Tigers and the weather, and he never seemed to have an opinion. We asked him if he was sorry to miss out on pizza with the Gipper, and he scoffed, “Shit,” so we knew he was a Democrat. The story goes that once a preacher came in the restaurant warning about Kennedy the Catholic and Athel declared he’d vote for the devil himself if he was running Democrat. You wouldn’t want to bring your Republican boyfriend into that family.

Then one Friday we asked Rose if she had a hot date with Mr. Handsome, and she said, with a forced smile, “Athel always told me to stay away from the men in the shops.”

“If that ain’t the damn truth,” Denise huffed. “I’ve married two of them.” We laughed. But later we rehashed it on the phone. “Maybe there’ll be someone good enough for her in Chicago,” we sneered. Or wherever the hell she was going. The uppity bitch. The snob. We wouldn’t hold our breath for shower invitations.

 

We knew the man in the flannel was hammered, smelled it when he came in. The plant was closing in a few days, and we’d seen our share of drunks. Mr. Handsome was in the booth nearest the door and turned when the guy came in, probably drawn by the booze smell he was carrying through the air with him. The drunk ordered the all-day breakfast special, and when it arrived in front of him, he dropped the knife and then the fork. He dumped both packets of jelly on one piece of toast and then dug his tongue into the plastic to dig out the rest.

“Woman,” he shouted at Denise. “Need more jam.”

“How many?” she said, reaching into her apron.

“Shit. Gimme a hundred of the fucking things. Gimme the fucking jar.”
“I don’t have a jar, but I can give you some of these for a quarter each.”

“Twenty-five cents for that shit?”

She nodded, two packets cupped in her palm like dice.

The drunk laughed, loud and joyless. “Times sure are hard. Twenty-five cents for some fucking jelly.”

“You taking it or leaving it?”

“Well fuck, Pearl needs to take her ass down to Mexico City with the money. She know how to make tamales? Bring her out here. Let me ask her about it.”

Marilyn had appeared at Denise’s side for maternal authority, which worked on the right kind of vulnerable man. “Calm down,” she said sternly.

The man slammed his hand onto the table so the plate and silverware rattled. The few people in the restaurant who weren’t looking at him already were now. Mr. Handsome had put down his newspaper.

“Bring her out. Bring out Senora Pearl so I can ask her about enchiladas and shit.”

“Buddy, why don’t you get some air?” Mr. Handsome called over. He pulled a pack of Marlboros out of his breast pocket and shook it in the air.

“Lemme go ask,” the drunk sneered, ignoring him. He lurched to his feet, the chair tumbling behind him. He pushed past Denise and Marilyn to the kitchen. Denise yelled uselessly after him, “Just get out of here, huh? Go the hell home.”

But the drunk pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

Rose turned from the grill. We could imagine it easy. The prickle of sweat along her hairnet and her hands shaking in her plastic gloves.

But was she scared? Surprised? Did she see herself a damsel in distress, her prince wiping barbecue off his fingers to come save her?

When the doors swung open again behind the drunk, he didn’t suspect Mr. Handsome—probably thought it was one of us behind him, coming in to shout at him some more. Before the man could turn, Mr. Handsome grabbed him by the back of his collar and yanked him backward. The drunk wobbled, his back falling into Mr. Handsome’s stomach as if his spine had suddenly gone loose. Mr. Handsome reached to prop him up by the shoulders, but he pitched forward instead, landing on his knees, hands gripping the rubber floor mat.

“All right, buddy,” Mr. Handsome said. “Let’s not cause any trouble.”

The man pulled himself to his feet, holding onto the counter. His breathing was labored, his liquor-red eyes flaring with anger and pain. Probably he’d forgotten about the tamales and maybe even forgotten his pink slip, his outrage lost in the booze and adrenaline. As he stood there blinking, gripping the counter, in the space beside the refrigerator where the knives were kept, maybe he tried to justify why he was in the kitchen with a woman in a chef’s coat letting the pork chops burn all to hell.

It could have been anything. The indignity of being picked over. The indignity of losing work to people thousands of miles away. The terror of joblessness and poverty stretching beyond Pearl’s. The rage of being humiliated in front of a beautiful woman by a man better looking than himself. He let himself be tugged out of the kitchen, then showed himself the door.

We were getting ready to close up. Mr. Handsome was working through the crossword puzzle, waiting to see Rose to her car, and Marilyn was sorting the cash register for the night. Those last nights, business was lousy but the tips were great, the men who still treated themselves to dinner at Pearl’s feeling sentimental and generous. A last plate before they were calling in their unemployment and looking through the classifieds.

We should have seen that the drunk kept walking, or got in his car to sleep in the back. Instead the son of a bitch only made it as far as the bar next door. He came back drunker while Marilyn stood in front of the exposed register, counting the dimes out loud. She looked up, terrified he’d come back to rob the place. Instead he charged through the kitchen doors with Mr. Handsome behind him. The son of a bitch had the layout of the kitchen now, and went straight for the knives. Gripping one, he squared off to Mr. Handsome, who shouted for us to call the police.

No one was there but Rose, who didn’t want to talk about it. We couldn’t see most of it ourselves, but the blood spelled out all the details we didn’t overhear when the police questioned her later.

Rose was behind the drunk, scraping grease off the range. Quietly, she put down her sponge and picked up Athel’s baseball bat from its place in the corner. She stepped toward the drunk, silent on the slip-proof mats laid over the linoleum. She lifted the bat over her head and brought it down on the drunk’s back.

His body accepted the first blow, a wave of unsteadiness rippling through him. Marilyn was on the phone at the counter, giving the cops the address.

When the drunk turned to face his attacker—the woman he hadn’t given a thought while he plotted his revenge at the bar—she swung straight for his face. The bat connected with his jaw, and he crumpled to his side. The knife clattered to the floor. His skull connected with the edge of the counter before he hit the floor. We ran in. The kitchen told us what Rose wouldn’t, everything spelled out in the spits of bright blood and the boot prints stamped into the shreds of onion skin and flour on the floor. Mr. Handsome squatted down to confirm that he was still breathing.

As the sirens swung closer, Rose leaned back, chest heaving, against the wall. It wasn’t tears but sweat that had loosed her mascara from her lashes and muddied the skin beneath her eyes.

Then she pulled off her chef’s coat and threw it to the floor, and we saw for the first time the tell-tale bump rounding her sweat-soaked T-shirt. Carly, who’d hidden a pregnancy through most of eleventh grade, guessed her to be about halfway through her second trimester.

God bless her, she was only knocked up. All this time. Pregnant and saving up to run off and elope, or maybe to leave behind the shop rat Athel had warned her about and start over somewhere else, with her French and her baby. Television had made us overlook the old stories. Her beauty and her education made us forget she was just as luckless as us.

The customers confirmed to the cops that the man had left Rose with no choices. Again and again the officer asked questions over her head to Mr. Handsome, and each time she drew his eyes back down to her as she answered, clearly. “Yes, I hit him with a baseball bat.”

We gave Mr. Handsome his dinner for free. Denise wrapped up the rest of the day’s pies and put them in to-go boxes, offering Rose first choice. “I think we all deserve a damn treat,” she said.

After we put the chairs on the tables and mopped up, we found Nina crying in the bathroom.

“I been spitting in the food for weeks,” she stammered. “I wanted her to get in trouble.”

We clucked sympathetically. How could we have known?

 

The day the last car rolled off the line at Fisher Body, there was no one in the restaurant, so we stood near the windows and watched the shop rats come out holding flowers the management had handed out as a parting gift. Some lingered in the parking lot, talking. Some rested the arrangements on their hoods while they unlocked their doors, then pulled the flowers down after them. At least one peace lily was abandoned beneath a lamppost.

“They should bring those over to us,” we said. “God knows no man’s going to bring us any,” we said.

“Funeral flowers,” Marilyn pointed out. “Nobody wants those stinking up the house.”

Athel came in to tell us the restaurant was done. It was no touching eulogy, no thank yous for our commitment to bringing home-cooked southern food to Flint or our patience with stingy church-goers and drunk autoworkers and unemployed assholes who moped their way through endless coffee refills. “I’m putting this damn place up for sale,” he said. “I’m too old for this shit.”

Only Denise had the courage to ask after her. “How’s Rose?”

We pitched forward, waiting to hear she’s resilient, happy, riding a new Chevy off into the sunset with Mr. Handsome, planning a pretty wedding, but Athel grunted, “Fine.”

When Pearl came back to take up her old place in the kitchen for those last days, we got the details, even though she made it clear she didn’t want to give them. She pushed her old cat- eye glasses up on her nose and moved around the kitchen in a way that was unfamiliar: quick, not asking us how we were or if we were hungry, but like she was trying to get out of there. Marilyn offered to help her carry a few things to the car, and only outside of the restaurant would she talk about her granddaughter. As Pearl pulled away, Marilyn came in with the report.

The baby was due around Christmas. Gary—that was Mr. Handsome’s name, all this time, ordinary as dirt—had taken her to Vegas over the weekend. She was Mrs. Handsome now, living in his house on the south side. It wasn’t what they’d hoped for Rose, she admitted, but he was a nice man.

On closing day, Pearl gave Marilyn and Denise turkeys from the freezer. Boxes of chicken legs and breast were divided up. Carly took a set of plates and bowls because her son was getting ready to move out, and he could use some things to get him started at his new place. When we left, Athel was sitting at the counter, listening to a Tigers game on the radio. He didn’t look up as we filed out.

• •

If anyone threw Rose a baby shower, we didn’t hear about it. Marilyn ran into Myrna at Kessel, buying discounted Valentine’s Day candy. Myrna stuffed a jeweled hand into her purse and pulled out a photo of a baby girl, newborn-red and squinting, her tiny fingers curled into fists near her face, like a boxer ready to throw a jab. Denise dropped her voice into her twangy Athel impression, already growing more precise with distance, the real sound no longer there to remind us of the difference. “That’s just what we need around here,” she growled. “Another girl.”

We can’t remember who was first to say something like, “What kind of a place is that baby growing into?” We watched the news and got the Sunday papers, and we talked with each other and our husbands. Buick City had closed. One of the Chevy plants, too. Carly had her house broken into, the bastard making off with her TV and eight-track player and the opal necklace her husband gave her for their anniversary. Denise’s neighbor had her house broken into in broad daylight. She walked in from mowing the backyard and the man was in her bathroom, looking through her medicine cabinet. She thought she was hallucinating.

Marilyn got a job managing a Taco Bell, and on the phone told us the money wasn’t great but they said they could transfer her eventually, maybe to some place warmer. It didn’t sound too bad, serving Nachos Bell Grande in Florida till Social Security kicked in. Nina went to Mr. David’s School of Cosmetology like her mom was trying to get her to do for years, and she told us not to pay money anymore for waxes, just to stop by. “I’m not saying you have a mustache or anything, I just need the practice,” she insisted. Denise and her husband moved in with her mom, down in Ohio, and she said it’d just be temporary. Carly didn’t have anything going on, but she said she wasn’t too worried. She had her daughter. They were tough.

Carly was the first to tell us that For Sale was lettered across the Pearl’s sign where we used to advertise the specials. It took a long time before we stopped thinking about it. The lights off. The doors locked. The birds circling for Carly’s hamburger buns, then swiftly flying off to look somewhere else, too hungry to linger long and get nostalgic about it all.

We thought about that refrigerator still humming in the kitchen. We could imagine a picture of Rose’s baby on a left-behind magnet. The doomed little thing squalling in an empty room.

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