Bill “Bunson” Edwards had always been the top cook at the Atomic Cafe. People from all over came to eat his ox tail and gravy stew and they would all compliment him on the potatoes being just right and that the turnips were “to die for.” Over the last twenty years or so, tucked away in the back of the restaurant amid the grease stained white tiles and the stainless steel ovens and stoves, Bill heard the same thing again and again, “tell that cook in the back there that this stew is to die for!” But lately, things were just not the same for Bill “Bunsun” Edwards. More and more over the last four months he thought about what those words–”to die for”–really meant.
He never considered himself a chef, no that was too lofty a title for him; instead he preferred to be called a “cook,” thinking that the title suited his style and personality much more. It was utilitarian and blue collar, suggested hard work and sweat. For this was the life Bill had known. Oh sure, he had the respect of the prep cooks and the waiters but no one really ever bothered with him, so he felt good about that. It was like he had a little slice of protection around him and sometimes he even felt like he was his own boss.
So it was in a silent shadowy way, that Bill cooked and went about his business. And he was well aware of the stereotypes surrounding cooks, knew full well that for most people cooks were considered spidery figures with quick tempers. But not me, he thoughtone day long agoas hetossed a handful of bay leaves into a broth. I’m never going to be like any of those guys. Those prima donna chefs, whoever they think they are.
And over the years he had kept true to his oath. He was a cook. Content to get food off the line and into people’s belly’s. And at first the compliments came in and pleased him. Now and then a black and white clad waiter with a slightly soiled apron would whizz by and pat him on the back, “table five loved the pot pies! To Die for, Bill! To die for!” and Bill would smile and hitch up his rag hanging around his waistline and get at it, stirring his sauces with even more vigor than before.
There was a dance and timing to it all, a rhythm that, as the cook and conductor, he set for the Cafe and it was this that he loved most. Snapping on the coffee pot early in the morning and letting the coffee’s rolling aroma drip into the silver pot, its acrid scent carrying to all corners of the kitchen as he started about his day, heating the sauces, chopping the onions, firing up the stoves. The coffee was the cure all. It hid the smell of the putrid boils of rotten food that clung to the countertops and the salty sting of vinegar that arose from the two gallon buckets of butchered hunks of beef; beef that was once a herd of cows forced into cannibalism and who were now mad beyond belief. According to Bill the cow had really jumped over the moon. But Bill still didn’t get it. How could cows be mad if they didn’t think in the first place?
He loved this time alone, the music blasting from the little plastic radio perched on the shelf next to the bottles of paprika, thyme, cayenne. Sometimes he sang along to an Elvis tune or some other oldie from the past as he diced onions or chopped fresh parsley. He liked those kinds of songs, the oldies. Because he was starting to feel old; the knives had molded their hilts to his hands, the pots, like Bunsun, were slightly dented and deformed.
The work wore him down, but he kept at it in his slow shuffling way. Always silent, in the back with the pots and pans, hoping the customers liked the latest daily special. The years greased passed him and he never grew jaded, just rounder around the stomach and more hunched at the shoulders. His hair thinned and his hands thickened. And so was life for Bill “Bunsun” Edwards at the Atomic Cafe.
Bill’s slow simmering reduction through life lasted a smooth and creamy twenty two years, until three years ago when a new manager, Dick Cheevers, took control of the Atomic Cafe.
Dick Cheevers was a self-stylized cowboy, a bombastic cigar smoking Boss Hog figure who proclaimed that he was “the man with the plan.” His new plan? To squeeze the Atomic Cafe for all it was worth.
”We gonna squeeze this puppy–squeeze and squeeze boys–squeeze’r for all she’s worth,” Dick would exclaim. “For Christ sakes, Bill. We just a few short miles from Area 51! If we can’t exploit that, then gosh darn it, Billy, we ain’t worth a fart in hell.”
But no one had, really; exploited it that is. The Atomic Cafe had always done well, but never to the extend that, Sal, the previous owner had ever dreamed of. For one thing, it had been fifty years since the interior had changed. The bar was a long stretch of currugated steel that curved gently at on end and the mirror behind it had a skyline of soda pop bottles along its bottom edge and throughout the day the mirror caught the sunlight and cast a rectangular beam of white light across the room which, on slower days, highlighted the floating whorls of dust. Bar stools with highly rounded plastic seats colored Coca-Cola red and white were spread out at equal intervals along the bar. Nothing had been done since the fifties. The booths had little dime juke boxes at the end.
The menu also varied little over the years. The number one seller was the Atomic Burger with a side of Fission Fries and Cruise Missile Chili. The burger was loaded with beef stuffed with chillis and onions and toped with lettuce and tomatoes and this whole thing was drenched in none other than Billy’s own secret hot sauce which he called “The Reactor.”
”First orders in, Billy. Three breakfast specials and an Atomic Bomb!”
”Comin’ up, Gord.”
To the Rubble Reader: Part II is due out soon. Be sure to come back and check it out. –W.H.