The dream wavered.
The basketball hit the backboard.
His brother jumped and caught it as it rolled off the rim.
“Dang it,” his father yelled.
He waved his hands to get his big brother’s attention. “Throw here, throw it here.”
Instead, his brother threw the ball at the net.
It hit the backboard and dropped in.
The dream wavered again. He knew it was dream because his father left the family before he was old enough to play when Dad and his brother took to the courts. He was the little brother, not old enough to join, the stay-at-home-with-Mom kid.
He cracked his eyes. There was a shelf to his left. Not part of a ball court. He slipped back into sleep, but the dream was gone. He yearned to play with his father, which was probably the cause of the dream, especially now that he was in the same town, Detroit Michigan. Who would have thought?
Bang! Bang! Bang! Was someone pounding on a door?
Crack! The door hit the wall when it flew open.
He sat straight up and looked at the man standing in the doorway to the utility closet he’d rented as a guest bedroom for the night. Bony as a skeleton, the man’s weathered face sported tattoos that curled around his temples, scrolled over his cheeks, and down his neck.
“Up and at ‘em. Cook’s been slavin’ in the kitchen by hisself.” The tattooed man leaned over the foot of the cot, lifted it, and then dropped it. The legs bounced on the cement floor.
The boy woke completely.
The man sneered. “Did you hear me, Topo?”
The boy bolted to the edge of the cot as far from the man as he could get. The green and gold jacket he had somehow placed over his face during the scant hours of his sleep fell to the floor. He mumbled, “My name is Sawyer.”
“Eh. Sawyer, Topo, Topino, whatever. Get up Mouse. Restroom on the left has a small shower if you need hot water to wake up. Courtesy of the Boss.”
He assumed the ‘Boss,’ was Charlie Marchesi. “Thanks,” he said. He picked up his jacket and hugged it.
With the tattooed man out of his space, Sawyer pulled the bedding off the cot, hastily folded it, and stuffed it back where he found it, on the top of the shelving unit. Seven minutes later, he was showered and dressed again. As he stepped into the hallway, the tattooed man threw a white full-body apron at his chest. One of the ties flicked him in the eye.
“Ow,” said Sawyer. His eye watered, but he could not afford to be angry with a host who gave him a place to stay for a few hours of work. He gritted his teeth and flipped the apron’s neck strap over his head, tied the waist straps around his waist, and followed the man into the stifling kitchen.
The cook, a man as tall and as wide as a door, hulked over the stove. Five forty-two in the morning and the grill was hot, two gigantic slow-cookers steamed, and two slabs of salt pork were on the cutting board. Clearly frazzled about Sawyer’s tardiness, he yelled, “Quit gawkin’ and get to work.”
“Get that bacon sliced,” said the cook.
“Uh, okay. Where are the knives?” said Sawyer.
The cook turned and glared at him. “Don’t you know nothin’ boy? The slicer is on that counter over there. Plain sight.”
“Uh, uh…can you show me how to use it?”
Fire shot out of the cook’s eyes. To the tattooed man he said, “Whatcha bring me? A dimwit?”
The tattooed man grabbed Sawyer’s arm. “Here, I’ll show you once how to use this thing before I get outta here. Look sharp at what I do.”
He grabbed the pork, slammed it onto the slicer and showed Sawyer the technique. Sawyer was quick, he’d always been quick, so he hustled for thirty minutes, slicing first one slab and then the other filling trays with side pork. By the time he had sliced all the meat, he had filled three industrial sized trays with it.
“Bring those trays over here,” growled the cook.
Sawyer’s hands shook, a deep tremble, the kind that worried the bones. The kitchen was hot, but he was chilled and running on empty. He said, “Sir, I need to eat. Last night I was promised breakfast if I stayed to work the kitchen. I’m only here to pay for money owed on my room.”
The cook stopped grilling bacon. He knocked the side of the spatula he held in his hand against the grill, set it on the sideboard and rounded on him. “Firstly, ain’t nobody ‘round here calls me ‘Sir’. Name’s Hawg. Second, you think you done paid for that room?”
“Ten dollars. That’s all I owed.”
Hawg laughed, but it sounded more like a gruff bark.
It scared Sawyer.
“Ten whole dollars plus seven for breakfast, and you’re workin’ minimum wage, so I guess that’s your answer.”
“I was told breakfast was free.”
“Empty those buckets. There’s a grease bin next to the trash in the back.”
Hawg added, “You can have any extras that don’t get plated or that fall short of ‘excellence’.” He said the last word with a flair suggesting haute cuisine. “I will hold them for you.”
Sawyer’s trembling intensified. “I am sorry, but I need to eat.”
“You need to empty those buckets. Get going,” barked Hawg. He turned back to his grill. “Stupid kids. Where does he find them?” He looked over his shoulder at Sawyer. “I said, get moving!”
Begrudgingly, and too hungry to put up much of a fight, Sawyer grabbed a bucket in each hand and hefted them. Immediately, he set them down to get a better grip. He lifted again, took one step, felt the strain in his shoulders and back, and set them down again. He took three more steps, setting the buckets down after each to reposition his hold on the thin metal handles.
The back door banged open. A younger man almost as big as Hawg stepped in.
“Where the hell you been?” yelled Hawg.
“Had some business upstairs.”
“Take those buckets from him before I break yo’ head.”
“That’s such a nice thing to say.”
The big man at the grill came at him, but the kid puffed up like a grizzly and stood his ground. Hawg stood nose-to-nose with him and growled, “You be disappearin’ again, Snatcher, you’ll find yourself in a cage.”
Snatcher said, “You wish, Hawg. You plan to run this kitchen by yo’ self, Piggy?”
Hawg whacked him upside the head with his spatula. It left a mark on his cheek. “Go ahead. Sass me again. I already gots me a new boy.”
Snatcher laughed, though he covered his cheek with his massive hand. He grabbed an apron off the hook by the door and threw it over his head. He strode to Sawyer, who was a deer frozen in headlights, and took the buckets from him. Then he stomped out the door, easily swinging a bucket in each hand.
“What you standin’ there for. Wash those pans,” yelled the cook.
Startled out of his stupor, Sawyer gaped at him. Hawg raised the spatula.
Sawyer was elbow deep in the sink, washing pans, when Snatcher came back in. He leaned over Sawyer’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Mind yo’ business here. Hawg will watch out for you, but if Marchesi catches you slacking, one of them will beat you to a pulp. Believe me.”
Oh, Sawyer believed him after getting a glimpse of the kid they carried in last night. He didn’t know the particulars about Evan, but he did overhear that it was payback for a fight of some kind. He would have nightmares about his mangled face for years.
He eyed the big cook who turned his back on them while he fried platter bacon. Then he looked at the big kid standing beside him. “Who, who are you?”
“Rat Snatcher. But, you, Cutie, you can call me Rat. Anytime.” He winked.
Sawyer didn’t roll that way, but he felt like a stupid fourteen-year-old that had just been flattered by the star quarterback of the football team. He edged away from Rat, and as he did, Hawg handed him a platter of bacon, four runny eggs, and a generous, greasy stack of pancakes.
“Syrup’s on the counter over there,” said Hawg. He glared at Rat Snatcher. “Well, you plan on standin’ around?”
Rat stepped up to the sink. “Naw.” He grabbed a pan and started washing.