Many things happened on Eric Backstrom’s seventeenth birthday. He got a card from his mother, the first personal mail he had received from anyone since moving into the apartment. The letter was signed, Amethyst. Then his landlord came down to the basement and asked whether he was keeping an animal. Eric lied about his dog, Booger. And, although it was his birthday, he did overtime at Buster’s where Bill Withers, his job developer had placed him almost a month ago.
Eric often did overtime at Buster’s because Dung Nguyen, or Francie as she preferred to be called, didn’t come in for her shift. Bill Withers had placed Francie at the Buster’s too, before Eric started there. Francie was supposed to be his peer mentor and a major part of his work support system, as Bill Withers explained, but Francie was seldom at work. Or perhaps she didn’t have a job at the restaurant any longer, Eric wasn’t sure.
Francie had promised to meet him for his birthday. She was the only person in the world, besides Amethyst, that knew he was seventeen. They would celebrate, she’d said. Maybe walk along the river and drink a pounder in the park if they could find someone older to buy it for them.
Eric walked from his apartment to his worksite and leaned against the backside of the building where there were no windows. He knew that if Francie weren’t coming to work today she wouldn’t want Buster, the owner of the restaurant, to see her.
Francie had said she’d come by after his shift. “After his shift” was really after he finished filling the sugar containers and wiping down the tables and counters. These were Francie’s job duties, as Bill Withers called whatever tasks Buster told his employees to do. Eric’s duties were similar although he also scrubbed the pots and pans back in the kitchen before loading them into the dishwasher.
Eric owed a lot to the job placement program for homeless youth and some times he was grateful, especially to Bill Withers. Six months ago, he could not have imagined having a steady job, any job, plus his own dog and apartment. It was not an easy, natural thing for him to have left home, the trailer back in Ashland, Oregon, where Amethyst hoped to get a part in a Shakespearean play. Other kids in the program had left home easily, he gathered from the way they’d talked, but it had been a hard decision for Eric. He’d taken off while Amethyst was working at a restaurant just as he was.
He’d left home and come all the way up I-5 to Seattle and now he had the same job Amethyst did. He wasn’t sure what that meant, but it seemed significant. When Francie Nguyen waved him over from across the street, he called to her, “What’s your mother do for a living?”
“Be quiet,” she said. “Come on.”
Francie wore a camouflage jacket, a long one, baggy khaki pants and heavy black boots. She’d worn the same outfit in skills classes before Bill Withers told her it was inappropriate for a job seeker. Today she wore sunglasses with metallic lens although the sun was down by now. She looked bulky under the streetlight, but she was tiny under all those clothes. Eric knew this because Francie wore a tight short skirt on the job and a tight blouse that didn’t cover her stomach. Bill Withers had put the kibosh on that outfit when he dropped in one late afternoon to see how they were doing. Bill had been nice about it. He’d taken Francie aside, away from where Buster was stirring chilli and scraping the burnt bottoms off the cornbread, and reminded Francie about dressing professionally. He’d taken Eric aside too and said he was doing a good job and to keep it up. Eric knew he was doing a good job; really there was nothing to it, but it made him feel proud anyway to hear Bill Withers say so.
“So,” Francie said, when Eric caught up with her, “Birthday Boy.”
“Yep,” Eric said. He followed her to the end of the block where they turned on to a tree-lined street with cars parked along both sides. Francie opened the door of a late model pickup. “Get in, Birthday Boy,” she said.
“You have a pickup?” Eric said; “You drive this?”
“Nah,” Francie said. “We’re just going to sit in it.” She pulled a quart of beer from under the seat and twisted off the top. She handed it to Eric. “You first, Birthday Boy.”
“Okay,” Eric said. He took a sip. It was cold. “You just buy this?” he asked.
“Maybe not buy,” Francie said. She was looking in the rear view mirror.
“I don’t think Buster’s going to come over this way,” Eric said.
“That fat pig Buster,” said Francie; “You asked a question about my mother back there. What does my mother do? Why’d you ask that?”
“I was thinking,” Eric said, “That I have the same job as my mom. She works in a restaurant, too. Not here. Down south in Oregon. It’s just funny that I came up here and I’m working in the same job she is.”
“Ha ha,” said Francie.
“Not ha ha funny,” Eric said. He handed back the beer; “Just odd, interesting maybe, that her and I end up doing the same thing. That kind of funny.”
“They were supposed to get us good jobs. Anyone can work in a restaurant. Can you live on seven dollar? I can’t live on seven dollar.”
“I’m doing okay,” Eric said; “I’ve got an apartment. It’s okay.”
“Not too far from here.”
Francie opened the door of the pickup and started to get out, “Come on,” she said. “let’s go to your apartment.”
Eric knew the landlord would not want him bringing Francie there. In fact, he’d been warned about making noise because his apartment was under the landlord’s. Bill Withers had warned him too when he helped him find affordable housing. “You’re going to have to make some compromises to get anything in your price range,” Bill Withers had told him. “If Buster doesn’t give you the raise he promised, we’ll find you another, better paying job once you’ve been there long enough to put it on your resume. You just need to go along with whatever your boss and your landlord say until you’re in better financial shape.”
“You said we’re going to walk along the river,” Eric said.
“You doofus,” Francie said. “You birthday boy doofus.” She climbed back in the truck. Her elbow hit the horn and the honk made Eric jump. “Crap!” Francie said.
Francie was making Eric nervous. She was reminding him of Amethyst just before she would decide that they needed to move on to a place with more opportunities for her to express herself. Eric was never sure what his mother meant by that. She seemed to express herself quite a lot if expressing herself meant doing exactly what she wanted to do without taking him into account. He decided to take Francie’s mind off going to the apartment by asking questions. He was able to divert Amethyst that way some times. He was always careful to ask Amethyst questions about herself and get her talking so she’d forget about moving on or moving in with someone Eric didn’t trust, “Come on,” he said to Francie, “Tell me what your mother does for a living.”
Francie removed her sunglasses and polished them with the sleeve of her jacket. She put them back on and faced Eric. “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m interested in occupations,” Eric said. “Career pathways.” He was using words Bill Withers used when they discussed Eric’s future. And Francie’s.
“You pay attention to that bullshit?” Francie said, “You believed that the Wither Man was going to get you a good job and then he stuck you with Buster Chilli Breathe. Ha ha ha.”
“Come on,” Eric insisted, “What does your mother do? I told you mine works in a restaurant.”
“Mine sits on her skinny butt and collects money from the government only they don’t give it to her any more so she doesn’t do nothing.” Francie stared into the pickup’s rearview mirror.
Eric turned around to see what she was looking at. There was an empty parking space behind them. Back across the street he could see the closed sign at the café, but the light was on back in the office were Buster was finishing up the bookkeeping and making out the weekly deposit slip, “Know why I wear these clothes?” Francie said. She rolled down the window and threw the empty beer bottle into the street. It rolled back under the pickup.
“Boy, you’re lucky that didn’t break,” Eric told her. She was making him very nervous.
“Because,” Francie said, “That’s what my dad wore in the jungles when he was sneaking up on your dad.”
Eric thought about that. He was pretty sure she was talking about Vietnam. He was pretty sure she was Vietnamese or maybe Korean. Amethyst sometimes talked about Vietnam. She’d marched against the war, she said, and she had pictures to prove it although she never showed them to him. As far as he knew, her pictures had been lost in one of their moves. Maybe when they had the tent fire in Northern California. Lots of stuff got burned up then. The moccasins one of Amethyst’s boyfriends had made for him. His medicine bag where he kept his baby teeth. Amethyst’s medicine bag where she kept her agates and dope and tampons.
“You probably think we eat dog, don’t you?” Francie said.
Eric didn’t, but it reminded him that he’d left Boogers in the apartment. Boogers didn’t bark, but he might whine to go out which would alert the landlord. “I’ve got to go,” Eric said.
“Wait, Birthday Boy,” said Francie. “We’re going to walk by the river, remember?” She turned and looked out the back window. “Here they are,” she said. A car had pulled up behind the pickup. It flashed its headlights, “Come on,” Francie said.
Eric got out of the pickup on the passenger’s side. Four men got out of the car. One of them carried a car club, “Is that him?” the man asked Francie, pointing the club at Eric.
“Are you going to rob, Buster?” Eric said; “’Cause if you are, I don’t want to be a part of it.”
“He’s not dumb?” the man said.
“He’s smart,” Francie said; “He don’t know how to express himself.”
Bill Withers had said the same thing during one of the group discussions, “You seem to be having problems expressing yourself,” he’d said. Eric didn’t contradict him. He’d thought about it later and decided that he wasn’t having problems; he just had nothing to express. Amethyst always expressed everything for both of them, although he had sometimes expressed his feelings about living in a trailer with her and her boyfriends, the last time a girlfriend. He’d expressed his feelings by moving himself right up the freeway to Seattle where he got his own job and apartment. Okay, a studio apartment, but larger than the sofa in the trailer. He wished Bill Withers had not assigned Francie as his peer mentor. Bill Withers had used good judgment on everything else, the skill training, the job and the apartment. Withers somehow knew what was needed, but he’d made a mistake about Francie Dung Nguyen. Eric was now sure of that Francie had quit her job before sixty days and forfeited the bonus Bill Withers had promised, And Eric was pretty sure her relatives were going to rob Buster.
“Come on,” the oldest man said.
“We can wait here,” Francie said.
“Bad idea,” the man sai;. “You and him need to be there. Chilli Breathe needs to know that you understand the deal so he won’t try to cheat me.” He grabbed Francie by her jacket and pulled her toward the street. The other three waited for Eric to follow.
When they all got to the back door of the restaurant, the man gave Francie a little shove. The four arranged themselves on either side of the door, “You,” the man with the car club said to Eric; “Knock.” Eric knocked. He heard Buster’s chair scrape on the office floor as he got up. He saw a shadow fall across the peephole and then Buster opened the door.
The men crowded inside. One of them closed the door behind them. The one with the car club tapped it against the sole of his shoes, first one foot then the other. Just like the old movies Eric sometimes watched on TV with Amethyst. “Shit’s going to fly,” Amethyst would say when the Mafia found who they were looking for.
“So Eric,” Buster said. Eric could see the canvas bank bag that Buster used for the week’s receipts. It was on the table filled with coins and bills. The youngest man picked it up and handed it to the older. The older man set it back down carefully.
“How many hours did you work this week?” the older man asked Francie.
“Maybe five,” Francie said.
“Five?” the man said; “You told Auntie you had a full time job.” Francie was silent. She straightened her sunglasses. Eric couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew she was lying. She hadn’t been at Buster’s all week.
“Okay, five” the man sai;. “How about you?” he asked Eric.
“What’s going on?” Buster said; “Take the goddam money and get out of here.”
The man with the car club banged it down on the table. The blow made the money bag jump.”
“I ask how many hours,” the man said; “Did you work? Forty, huh?”
“Fifteen, maybe,” Eric said. He could see Buster watching him.
“Fifteen,” The man said; “Plus her five makes twenty. At ten dollars an hour is two hundred even.” He nodded at the youngest man who picked up the bag and counted out ten twenties, “See how this works,” the older man said to Buster; “You just gave the kids a raise. Brother Noi will come to collect for them every Friday night. If he don’t, you just save out the correct amount for me ‘cause I’ll be in on Monday.” He nodded toward the man with the car club. The man looked around the office and then walked over to a case of new drinking glasses. He brought the club down on the box several times then kicked it so the glass pieces shot across the office floor. He stepped up to Buster and brought the snub end of the club down hard on Buster’s foot and held it there. Buster jerked his foot out from under it, “Goddam!” he gasped; “Goddam it to hell.”
The older man pointed to Eric, “He’s a good worker, this one,” he said; “You’re not going to fire him.” Buster was leaning with both hands on the table. Eric imagined that he’d heard bones break when the man had mashed Buster’s foot.
“And Nguyen Dung is going to show up for work everyday, aren’t you?” the man said to Francie; “And you and your boyfriend are going to be very careful about filling out your timecards.”
He turned to Buster again, “No one can live on seven dollar,” he said; “You are ripping them off, you old fat man.” He jerked his head at the other men and they started to leave. He grabbed Francie.
“It’s his birthday,” Francie said; “We are going to walk along the river.”
“You get home so you can be to work tomorrow,” the man said. The four men left without shutting the door.
Eric heard their car and soon after that the pickup start up. They drove away slowly as if nothing had happened.
Buster looked at Francie. “Don’t come back in here,” he said. “You neither,” he told Eric.
My job, Eric thought. I lost my job.
“I think we have to come back,” Francie told Buster; “They mean business.” Buster stared at her.
“You can tell them not take so much,” Francie advised. “Other businessmen tell them not so much. Don’t take so much.”
Buster reached for the phone, “Don’t Mr. Buster,” Francie said; “They’ll burn it. They burn things when people call the police. You pay them, but tell them not so much.”
Buster punched in 911. Eric walked out and leaned against the side of the building. Francie came out, too; “He’s making a mistake,” she said.
“I’m coming in tomorrow,” Eric said; “Like nothing happened.”
“Not me,” Francie said. She took off her sunglasses and blinked in the streetlight;. “I lost many jobs. I want to be a cosmetologist.”
Eric started down the street. Bill Withers would say that the road to a career and stable employment is a bumpy one. You need to change jobs, move up when the time comes. But Eric knew he didn’t want to leave Buster’s. The first day on the job he knew he wouldn’t leave soon. Maybe never. It was warm enough at Buster’s for Francie to wear short skirts when Bill Withers wasn’t expected. It was cozy when the big front windows fogged with steam. It smelled good there, the chilli and cornbread and the coffee. And Buster was a kind man, a good boss. He let you make mistakes and didn’t criticize.
Francie followed him. She caught up and took his hand, “Birthday Boy,” she said, “I’m afraid to go home. Can I come to your place?
“No,” he said without hesitation. He might change apartments some day, rent some place where he could legally keep Boogers; but he was staying on that job. And until he was in better financial shape, he’d go along with whatever the landlord said, just like Bill Withers advised. He’d do whatever Buster told him to do.