I was in the middle of the church rush when my boss walked in.
Brian Ingram had been with the company for six years. A retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, he was now our division manager, responsible for nine restaurants spread across eastern Alabama from the Georgia border almost to Birmingham.
He’d taken a big chance on me.
When I first interviewed for the job, I’d been desperate. More than a year of job interviews after I got out of jail, and not a single bite. Even under the circumstances of Brenna’s disappearance, my status as a convicted felon was a roadblock too hard to overcome for any of the companies I’d interviewed with. We’d completely run out of cash, and the house was in foreclosure. I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment, because I’d been fired while in jail, and every company I had talked to declined a second interview.
That’s the state I was in when I got a call from Jeremiah. While I’d worked a seemingly glamorous high tech career at a company that was now nonexistent, he’d taken a decidedly non-technical job, as unit manager for a restaurant. I’d hassled him about it at the time, but he’d risen quickly through the ranks.
“Like it or not, there’s a good ol’ boy network. At Waffle House, that’s the Georgia Tech alumni.” When Jeremiah had said that to me years ago, I’d shaken my head. How could he choose that when he had so many other options? But Jeremiah had his own pressures. And that had turned out to be my saving grace after I got out of jail.
When he called me to suggest I interview for a job here, I jumped at the chance. Jeremiah set up the interview with Brian, and I was blunt about the conviction, and why it happened. He was blunt at the time: company policy said no convicted felons. But both of them went to bat with the company security department to make an exception in my case.
We’d have ended up homeless if it hadn’t been for that. Sometimes you have to be grateful for whatever you can get.
When Brian walked into the restaurant, it was obvious I was in the weeds. Plates were lined up on the sandwich board, the restaurant was full, and all three of my waitresses were calling orders faster than I could get them marked. Brian immediately came out on the floor, washed his hands and put on gloves, and took a position on the grill next to me.
“Morning, Cole,” he said, a grin on his face. “Busy?”
“Yeah, it’s been nuts the last little while.”
“Well, that’s a good thing,” he replied.
We worked through the rush, and I was grateful for the help. I hadn’t been in this business long, and I’d had my own restaurant just a few weeks. I didn’t have the skill or experience to keep up with this kind of rush.
Waffle House wasn’t the kind of job where managers sat in the back office doing paperwork and watching other people work. As a manager, my job was to be on the grill seven hours a day, six days a week. Paperwork, keeping the restaurant supplied and staffed, scheduling, orders—everything else happened outside of production hours. My usual day started at six a.m. and ended at four or five p.m., and I came back to the restaurant three nights a week, sometimes for hours. I’d been riding on the edge of continual exhaustion ever since I started training, and it didn’t look to be getting better any time soon.
The lunch rush ended, though. I cleared the grill area then walked up the line, checking in with customers. Finally, I ducked into the back room. Brian was in my office, looking at the computer. I grabbed the bottle of water off my tiny desk and gulped back a drink.
“You’re getting better,” he said. He slid off the stool and stepped into the doorway. I traded places, sagging onto my desk.
“Thanks,” I said, almost gasping.
“Still, going forward, you need to schedule a second cook on the weekends. Sunday morning’s no time to be working alone. Especially on a race weekend.”
I nod. “Yeah, I had Jimmy on the schedule to come in at nine and work a double. He was going to back me up, then work second shift.” I said. “He called in around 8:55, and by then I was so busy I couldn’t get on the phone.”
Brian chuckles. “You can take a minute to let me know. That’s not just to save your ass. It’s so our customers don’t get stuck having to wait too long.”
I sank onto my stool. They’d start calling orders again any second. I was exhausted, it was only noon, and I didn’t have a second shift cook.
“Who you got coming in for second shift?”
I shook my head. “Nobody. I’ll start calling.”
“You know, you can always work it yourself. Save you some payroll.”
I swallowed. True enough. It would be my second double shift in two days: this was a race weekend at Talladega, and our business was way up. Plus, today of all days, I did not want to go home.
It was September 14.
Today was Brenna’s eighteenth birthday.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a good idea.”
I looked through the one-way glass to the restaurant. Everyone was eating except one table, three men. They were regulars, each of them around fifty to sixty years old, and they always sat in Julie’s section. She was over there, taking the men’s order. You could practically see the old farts salivating.
“So it’s been a few weeks since you got your own restaurant. How you holding up?”
I kept my gaze on the restaurant on the other side of the glass. What I wanted to say was, This is the worst job I’ve ever had in my life. I was exhausted, pushed harder than I could really take. But this was the bed I’d made. “It’s going well,” I said. “I’m not fast enough yet. At anything.”
He nodded. “Yeah, that’s the way it is. You’ll get there, it just takes time and lots of practice. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And this is a big change for you.”
I shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, Brian. I’m grateful for the job. When I finally get it down, I’ll be the best manager you have. It’s just taking some time.”
He grins. “I like that. You should be gunning for my job.”
“In the long run,” I said. Not the least being because he wasn’t working a grill forty hours a week. At my level and the one higher, all you did was work to the bone. But if you survived long enough to get a division, the job was very different.
Today I didn’t mind staying busy. Today I needed to stay busy. I needed it so I wouldn’t think about where my daughter was. If I thought about it, I might break down. Again.
I wondered how Erin was doing today. How she dealt with it? Would she sit at home and drink and dredge through all those awful ads? Or would she be keeping busy too? At least Sam had school to keep him busy.
But I knew it wasn’t enough.
Julie was heading to the back room.
“Looks like I got an order,” I said, slipping off the stool.
“All right,” Brian said. “Keep up the good work.”
I returned to work.
Note: This is an unedited preview of my upcoming novel Winter Flower, releasing June 22, 2019. Pre-orders are available at all major retailers.