Saturday, July 10, 2010

No. 13: Harter Union (The Original Short Story)

Jefferson Franklin entered through the delivery doors of the kitchen of Harter Union. The aroma of pasta hit his nostrils and he realized that he was hungry. He walked past bread racks and soda syrup along with freezers and an old elevator. He came to what was his office and looked inside. The nameplate on the door read JEFFERSON FRANKLIN and SAM PERRY; under the names were SUPERVISOR and ASST. SUPERVISOR. Jeff groaned upon seeing his full name listed but shrugged it off. It was a small office but big enough to make him think he was turning his life around. Jeff went behind the desk and began dusting off a chalk marking on the desk.

“You must be the new supervisor,” said a man in the doorway.

“Yeah, I’m Jeff Franklin and you are...?” Jeff asked, still dusting.

“Sam Perry, the assistant supervisor and the one who should’ve gotten your job,” Sam revealed coldly.

“Well, we’re off to a bad start. Sam, do you know why there’s this chalk print on my desk?” he asked, still dusting.

“That’s from the previous supervisor. He was shot in the head a couple weeks ago and that’s the police chalk outline.”

Jeff stood back to get a better look at the outline. “Oh, yeah. Now it looks like a person.”

“We’re working night shift in the worst part of the city surrounded by teens and gangs. We’ve all been threatened and shot at and you actually get used to it sooner or later,” Sam came closer to Jeff. “Since I’ve been here we’ve had two supervisors murdered, three commit suicide and seven quit. You’re lucky number 13…”

“Flattering…” Jeff sighed. “Why don’t you show me around what just might be my last few moments on Earth?”

Harter Union was a 24-hour study area and cafeteria-slash-snack bar for the City of Kansas City College in Kansas City, Missouri. The college was situated near dead center of the worst part of Kansas City and gang fights and nightly shoot-out were not uncommon. Jeff is a well-educated man with a degree in Literary Arts from New York University but since he was seventeen, he has battled a problem with drinking and now Jeff is 32, broke, homeless, an admitted alcoholic and stranded in Kansas City. Jeff was actually married for a couple of years which helped turn his unruly brown hair gray at the temples. Jeff had to work for everything in his life and it showed because in the last three years, Jeff had never officially smiled but he still had a marvelous sense of humor.

Sam was younger than Jeff, 26, and has worked for CKCC for three years. He knew more about the supervisor position than any other supervisor hired but Darrell, the food service manager, once again passed up Sam for a promotion. Sam’s curly hair and tall stature made him an imposing figure when approached by gang members although Sam would never hurt anyone. Sam went around with Jeff and showed him the kitchen, cafeteria and the dish room.

Wendy Halstead was the night cook and a breath of fresh air in the dark, dingy place. Her silky brown hair was highlighted by the dim fluorescent lights but her dark eyes glowed like two distant stars. She was the one cooking the pasta and she was still in school pursuing her degree in culinary arts.

Maggie Kingman seemed to feel right at home in this environment. She mainly worked behind the line serving food to the few students who came in. She would constantly hit on the guys coming in and sometimes go home with one of them but her dirty blond curly hair and caring smile made all of her imperfections golden.

Usually in the dish room was Nathan Yoder and Aaron McPherson. Nathan was kind of a pot head with close-cut black hair and devilish grin. His eyes were also an unusual color of blue. Aaron was soft-spoken with glasses and kind of a nerdish haircut and he was very smart, although around the Union he didn’t show it very often.

And Dennis Seward was the beverage guy which meant he made sure none of the soda, milk, juice, coffee or tea ran out. He also helped out Maggie on the line if she needed it. Dennis could possibly be a little crazy, especially when he got that glint in his eye.

Jeff and Sam returned to the office and Sam went behind the desk and opened the bottom drawer. “Now I’m gonna introduce you to your new best friends,” Sam pulled a gun out and laid it on the desk. Next, he pulled out a large bottle of Jack Daniels. “This gun has saved our lives on more than once occasion and the Jack Daniels has saved our sanity more times than I’d like to say.” Sam pulled a couple a shot glasses out and filled them with the Jack Daniels.

“Oh, no thanks. I don’t drink,” Jeff said.

“At this job, you’re gonna start sooner or later,” Sam chuckled.

“I already have. I’m a recovering alcoholic but, again, thank you,” Jeff politely declined and sighed heavily.

“Well, I wish you all the luck in the world to remain sober,” Sam raised one of the shots. “Salud,” and he downed the Jack.

It was nearly midnight and only three people had come in. Jeff was out front talking with Maggie and Dennis. “I’ve never been in Kansas City before. I’ve been to St. Louis and Wichita but never Kansas City,” Jeff said.

“What are you even doing here?” asked Dennis.

“Well, I was on a cross-country drinking binge after getting fired from a Denver newspaper and this is where I ran out of money,” Jeff sighed.

“Why are you working here if you have a college degree?” Dennis continued.

“I got tired of being around people who get out of the shower to pee.”

“Well, welcome aboard. You know, Sam and Wendy are a little miffed that you got the supervisor position because they have been here for three years each,” Maggie noted.

“I know but I needed something right away and this just happened to be what I got even thought I know I’m overqualified for the job,” Jeff reached around and grabbed his coffee cup and took a drink. “I’ll talk to them about it later.”

“Hopefully you’ll be here a while unlike our last supervisor. I’m only 23 and I should not be used to the sound of gunfire,” Maggie said.

“I really hope all this is just an exaggeration,” Jeff pleaded. “I just want my first night to run smoothly.”

“Hey-yo. You new here?”

Jeff turned to the voice behind him and saw three skinny black men all in bulky coats, loose pants and stocking caps. “Yes, can I help you?”

“Since yo’ new, we needs ta discuss our protection payment plan,” the apparently lead black guy said and motioned his hand not only to himself but to the other two behind him.

“Okay…what?” Jeff shook his head.

“Dis is a rough neighborhood and I, fo’ one, would not like to see you hurt so me an’ my guys here offer our services to protect the likes o’ you,” the lead guy propositioned, sounding like a used car salesman.

“No, thank you, I think I can manage by myself but I will keep it in mind,” Jeff turned back toward Maggie and Dennis.

“Man, I don’t think yo’ hearin’ me. Let me put it to you this way: pay us, don’t get shot; don’t pay us, do get shot,” at that point all three pulled out guns from their coat pockets and pointed them at Jeff.

Jeff’s eyes shot open and he took a step back. “Jesus! Look, I’m not gonna play your little game. Neither of you can be protecting me all the time and besides, I don’t have any money on me. So I’m gonna have to ask you to leave and not come in here anymore,” Jeff tried to sound tough but his knees were shaking.

“Well, look at this; white-boy thinks he’s tough. Do you think he’s tough, Ray?” the lead guy asked the one on his right.

“Pansy-ass bitch!” the one named Ray replied back.

“Now pay up. Fifty dollars and we won’t kill you in front of your friends,” he threatened again.

“I don’t have fifty dollars. I don’t even have fifty cents so go ahead and shoot me, a white guy…in front of witnesses. I don’t care,” Jeff dared.

The lead lowered his piece and motioned for the other two to lower theirs. “Well, we let you slide this time but next time, you giving us the money,” they all put their guns back and walked off. Jeff nearly collapsed and moved back to sit on a nearby stool.

“Oh my God,” Jeff exhaled. “It’s official, I hate having guns pointed at me.”

“That was very brave of you, Jeff. Do you need something to eat or drink?” asked Maggie.

“No, thanks. I’m gonna…I’m gonna check on the dish room,” Jeff got up and walked into the kitchen. Wendy was sitting at one of the counters looking over tomorrow night’s menu.

“Jeff, instead of actually cooking this meal, can I just put out extra bread and deli meat for people to make their own sandwiches?” Wendy asked.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Jeff shrugged. Jeff walked past and into the dish room where Nathan and Aaron, along with Sam, were standing around talking. “How’s everything doing?”

“Fine,” replied Aaron.

“How’s everything with you?” Sam asked.

“Fine, fine. I just got threatened at gunpoint.”

“Wow, usually Skiff and his guys don’t threaten the new people until a week later. At least you got that over with so they won’t bother you anymore,” Sam explained.

“When they pulled out the guns, I didn’t have my life flash before my eyes or tried to repent my sins. I just wished I was drunk…” Jeff said with a hint of disappointment.

“There’s that bottle of Jack in the drawer,” Sam reminded.

“I know I can do this. If I can’t make it through my first week here without taking a drink, I should’ve just had Skiff shoot me,” Jeff looked around the dish room and then at Nathan and Aaron. “You guys need anything?”

“No, we’re fine,” Nathan shook his head.

“If you need anything, I’ll be in the office.”

Jeff left the dish room and headed to the office. He passed by Wendy again who stopped him again. “Can I have the next two Wednesdays off?”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Jeff shrugged. Jeff sat behind the desk and pulled the bottle of Jack Daniels and a shot glass out of the drawer. “If you want it, come and get it,” Jeff sang as he held the bottle in his right and swirled the brown liquid around. “Did I hear you say ‘drink me, drink me?’” Jeff pressed the bottle firmly on his cheek and closed his eyes.

“Thinking of imbibing?” asked Sam, coming into the office.

“Nothing,” Jeff quickly dropped the Jack Daniels into his other hand and hid it behind the desk. “What? No, just wondering what could be. I don’t know why I want a drink so much because the stuff ruining my life, destroyed my marriage and got me fired from seven jobs.”

“You were married?”

“For two years. It didn’t work out because I like to drink and sleep around and for some reason, she didn’t like me to,” Jeff tried to laugh but couldn’t.

“Oh my God! Jeff, Sam, come here!” shrieked Aaron from the dish room.

Jeff and Sam dashed from the office into the dish room where Jeff then slipped on a wet spot on the floor and landed on his butt. “Ow! What’s wrong?” Jeff pulled himself up and looked panicked at Aaron and Nathan.

“This outlet just spontaneously combusted,” Nathan pointed at an outlet in the area of pots and pans.

Jeff went over and looked at it. He noted the burn marks surrounding the outlet. “So what were you doing before it exploded?” he asked.

“Um, I was spraying it with water…” Nathan began, “after I splashed it with bleach and poured Comet and liquid soap on it.”

“Well, no wonder it exploded! You probably corroded the wires. I’ll call maintenance tomorrow morning. Just don’t play with this anymore and I’ll shut off the power to it. Oh, and don’t do that again please.”

“Can do, boss,” Nathan saluted. Jeff and Sam slowly walked back to the office but stopped in the doorway.

“Get in here and close the door or you’re both dead!” shouted a dreadlocked black man brandishing a gun.

“I’ve more guns pointed at me today than ever in my entire life,” Jeff said, closing the office door behind him and Sam.

“So you shot your way into an ATM and now the cops are after you. So you run into a 24-hour student union and hold two people hostage,” Jeff said. The robber nodded. “Okay, good. I thought it was just me.”

“Is there anybody else here?” asked the robber.

“Yeah, two up front and three back here. One of them is bound to notice we’re missing sooner or later so why don’t you just let us go and leave out the back door like a good criminal?”

The guy cocked the gun as the office door opened and Wendy walked in. “Hey, Jeff, Sam, I’m thinking of fixing some biscuits and gravy for breakfast and I was…whoa!” Wendy stopped suddenly as she noticed the gun. “…Was just going out to the line.”

“Stop right there!” the gunman said. “You’re in this now so you might as well make yourself comfortable.” Wendy sighed and shut the door. I stood up and backed away from my chair. The gun went off. “Sit yo’ ass down!”

“I’m just being a gentleman and giving her my chair!” Jeff screamed as Wend fell to the floor. “Don’t be so trigger-happy, you’ll bring the cops.”

“Oh, yes, heaven forbid,” Sam said sarcastically.

Within seconds the rest of the staff was outside the office door and looking at awe at the gunman who was pointing the gun at the ceiling; Sam sitting comfortably in a chair; Wendy cowering on the floor and Jeff covering his head. “This is a pretty scene,” Maggie said as she opened the door and walked in. “What are you boys doing in here?” she smiled.

“Nothing, just listening to Mister…what is your name, sir?” began Sam.

“Shut yo’ mouth, man!” the gunman shouted.

“Mr. Shutyourmouthman tell a story about Jesus, weren’t you, sir?”

“Hell, no! I’m hiding from the po-lice!”

“Jesus, po-lice. Same thing. Look, breaking an ATM and stealing money is small beans compared to holding hostages and possible attempted murder,” Sam pointed to the ceiling, “so in an effort to help you out, we promise not to tell anyone you were here so you can make your getaway, capishe?”

“Everything but capishe…I don’t like that. Suppose the cops have this place surrounded?” asked the gunman.

“Then you’re doomed and you might as well commit suicide.”

The gunman had something quickly race through his mind and waved the gun around. “I got an idea and you’re comin’ wit’ me!” the gunman grabbed Jeff’s arm and dragged him out of the office.

“Hey, what the hell?” Jeff fought out of the gunman’s grip but still ended up with a gun pointed at his ribs. “Crap…Look, you don’t want me. I’m a bad hostage. I cry and I moan and I talk about how much one sucks so you might as well just shoot me. I’m a horrible hostage. Horrible,” Jeff pleaded.

The back door opened and a policeman rounded the corner. “Excuse me but I’m trying to find someone who…” the policeman noticed the gun pointed at Jeff’s side and drew for his gun. “Hold it right there!”

“Ah, man! I knew I wasn’t going to get away with this! All right officer, I’ll go peacefully. And the $60 I stole is in my back pocket.”

“Wait,” Jeff gasped. “You only stole $60?”

“And I shot an ATM. I was only able to pull out $60 before I heard a siren so I ran.”

“Wait, back up. You mean to tell me that I am standing here, scared out of my mind with a gun jammed in my ribs for $60?” Jeff shouted.

“And I used my only bullets on the ATM and your office ceiling…”

“You mother…Get him out of my sight!” Jeff pushed the gunman’s arm away and turned around.

Jeff and everybody went back to their respective posts with Jeff, Sam, Maggie and Dennis up front. “You handled that fairly well,” said Maggie.

“Sure, sure,” Jeff began. “He threatens to shoot me using a gun whose bullets were used in a botched robbery and scare tactic. This is not my night but thank God it can’t get worse.”

“Look, if you want to take a swig of that Jack do so. We all would understand,” Sam said.

“I have faced a lot in my life and nothing has equaled what has happened tonight so I figure if I can make it through tonight, I can make it through any night. I’m gonna drink some wholesome chocolate milk,” Jeff walked over, grabbed a cup from the rack and filled it with chocolate milk. He took a long drink and smiled at the three workers. “Yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy.” And he went back to the office.

Nearly 4 a.m. and Jeff was lying back in the chair with his eyes closed. His eye twitched as he heard the back door open and then slam shut. The shuffle of feet got closer and seemed to stop at his door. Without opening his eyes, Jeff spoke. “Can I help you?”

“Please…” said a weak voice, “help me.” Jeff’s eyes shot open to see a bruised and battered woman wearing only a tattered shirt who soon collapsed to the floor.

Jeff shot out of his chair and over to the woman. He helped her to her feet and into his chair. He went to the clothes rack just outside the office and grabbed a chef’s jacket and wrapped it around her. “Ma’am? Can you hear me?”

“Mm-hmm,” she said weakly.

“What happened?” Jeff asked.

“I was…was partying with some guys and other girls and they were all…hooking up but I didn’t want to so when I left, they followed and…” the woman began to cry and big tears streamed down her cheeks. “They raped and beat me.”

“All right. I’m gonna call the police and call someone else in here to be with you but I promise that you’re safe,” Jeff made sure the woman acknowledged what he had said and ran out into the kitchen. “Wendy?”

Wendy appeared from around the corner of the stoves. “Yes?”

“I need your help,” Jeff pulled Wendy over to his office and explained the woman’s situation. “Just keep her calm and talking while I call the police. I’m also gonna send Sam and Aaron back here in case her attackers want seconds or something.”

“All right,” Wendy agreed as calmly as able.

Jeff ran upfront and used the phone behind the line. “Sam, could you grab Aaron from the dish room and help Wendy in my office? It’s important,” Sam nodded and took off as Jeff began dialing 9-1-1. “This is Jeff Franklin and there’s been a rape at the Harter Union on the City of Kansas City College campus…”

Soon everything was sorted out and Jeff was back in the office along with Sam, Wendy and Aaron. “The police are on their way but it’ll be awhile since they are never in this area,” Jeff said and kneeled down next to the woman and carefully placed his hand on her back. “Do you want to tell us your name?”

“Emily. Emily Morris. And I want to thank you all for being so nice. You didn’t have to get involved,” Emily said between sniffs.

“What kind of people would we be if we didn’t?” Jeff said, smiling. “Do you want anything to drink?”

Emily shook her head.

“Okay, well, I’m Jeff Franklin and this is Sam Perry, Aaron McPherson and Wendy Halstead and they should all be getting back to work now.”

Everyone grumbled but obliged and soon left Jeff alone with Emily. “It all happened so fast…” Emily began, starting to cry again, “and I couldn’t stop it, I…”

“Ssh. Don’t get yourself worked up over it again. I’m gonna get you some water, okay? I’ll be right back,” he stood up and went out to the dining area. He grabbed a cup, filled it with ice and water.

“How’s she doing?” Maggie asked, having just been filled in by Sam and Wendy.

“She’s fine. Shocked and ashamed it happened to her. You know what I was thinking? If I was drunk, none of this would be bothering me. Heck, I’d probably be trying to get into her pants myself.”

“Then it’s a good thing that you’re not drunk,” Sam said. “You’re looking pretty haggard, Jeff. We’ve had three supervisors commit suicide. Don’t make it four.”

Jeff smiled and walked back to the office with the water.

The police had picked up Emily and everyone was up front around the line. “Tonight,” Jeff began, “has been the worst night of my life and if every night is like this, I can’t handle it without a drink!” Jeff grunted and went into the kitchen. Everybody shrugged and talked amongst themselves and then a gunshot rang out. They all ran into the kitchen and saw Jeff standing in the office doorway holding the gun in one hand and the bottleneck of a shattered Jack Daniel’s bottle in the other. “Got ‘im!” Jeff smiled.