(Departures . . .)
Dante told me that he’d worked at the university cafeteria when he met Roberta. He’d started as the summer pot washer and moved up to full-time dishwasher. The other dishwashers and busboys respected him because he was the only person in the kitchen who could handle Aldo and Bettina, the big, temperamental dishwashing machines. When their conveyor belts jammed or they shut down in the middle of the dinner rush, Dante would climb under their long, steaming, dripping frames and remove a bent spoon or butter knife lodged between a drive chain and one of the sprockets. He would open a panel, and push the red reset button. Then the anxious busboys and dishwashers would smile as white ranks of clean plates, saucers, and hot silverware emerged from the machines.
I let Dante go on. I could be patient, knowing that he would get around to talking about Roberta.
He said that he did well at work, that the kitchen guys thought he was a little crazy but they didn’t think he was a “Baby Huey,” which was what they called big, stupid guys. Mariano, the fry cook, liked him and no one wanted to cross a cook. Dante treated the old man with respect and Mariano responded by teaching Dante how to work the grill. He taught him how to pour pancake batter, in even-sized circles, filling the top of a four-by-three griddle in four graceful sweeps. He showed him how to turn eggs by flipping them a foot in the air, so that they did front flips and landed face down in their pans, without disturbing the yokes.
“All in the wrist,” Mariano told him.
Then Mariano got serious and taught Dante how to throw thirty burger patties onto the grill, toast the top buns, and lay the garnishes on the bottom buns, so that everything was ready at the precise moment the patties hit the medium rare stage.
“Never rush things. It breaks the rhythm. Rushing is for amateurs,” Mariano told him. Mariano said Dante was a natural grill man with a good spatula hand. When Mariano quit, Dante took his place out front, on the border between the kitchen and the customers.
From where he worked, Dante looked out on those smooth, flawless faces and bodies, and knew that he was seeing through a one-way mirror. His eyes would slide over the weave of a turquoise sweater, or a starched, casually worn, forty-dollar dress shirt. After closing time, he would go out into that deserted other place, among the abandoned tables and pulled-apart newspapers, and wade through the alien smells. Dante told me that once he came upon a forgotten art history text lying on a back table. He picked it up and ran his large hand over the colorful binding and hefted its uncommon weight. He opened the book, leafed through its glossy pages, and looked at the reproductions of madonnas, saints, burghers, warriors, and landscapes.
Dante laughed and put his hands together, edge to edge, making the shape of an open book. “That book smelled so good. It was like the paper was made of something really rich, man.” He brought his thick hands up to his face, inhaling through his nose, his eyes closing, and he smiled.
Dante told me he used to notice Roberta making her way along the food counter, during class breaks. Her eyes always seemed somewhere else.
“I could see she was thinking about really important stuff, art, itics, history. Those kinds of deep things.”
Sometimes Dante would try hard to penetrate the aroma of cooking food to catch the smell of her dark, square-cut hair. To him, she was one of the children of grace and learning, of that other race beyond the sizzle, slice, and clatter of his world. She belonged to the soft realm on the other side of the stainless steel, gas flame, and white tile at Dante’s back.