Picking up the coffee pot, Mary refilled cups all the way down the counter. A balled up napkin whizzed past her ear. Ducking it, she stared pointedly at a boy seated on his mother’s lap.
Delia stumbled to the kitchen with a tray of dishes, returned. “Finny needs you.” She hurtled back into the throng.
Glad for the escape, Mary rushed through the swinging door. She was exhausted—they all were. The moment a table cleared, new customers arrived.
“If this keeps up, we’ll need more help,” Finney said, dealing hamburgers across the grill like a stack of playing cards. “Think about finding me an assistant. Delia needs help, too.”
She hadn’t solved the health insurance puzzle. How to add more staff? “I can’t afford to put in an ad until we’re profitable.”
Ethel Lynn, waiting by the stove for an order, threw her hands into the air. “What am I, chopped liver? Don’t I help?”
Finney whipped her spatula through the air. “You’re a hindrance.”
“And you’re grilling hamburgers too close together. Look. They won’t cook properly if you don’t make room.”
The cook whipped again, sending Ethel Lynn backwards with a yelp. “You second guess me so often I’m ready to pull my hair out. Or yours.”
Ethel Lynn darted out of reach, a gnat in mortal danger. “This is the thanks I get? Good heavens, I came in to rescue you.”
The cook grunted. “Not much of a rescue operation, are you? Go home.”
“Fine. I’m going.”
“Wait!” Mary leapt between them. “Please stay.”
The plea didn’t melt Ethel Lynn’s resolve. “Finney, you’re a hard woman,” she snapped. “You’ve got meanness all the way to your bones.”
She did a frilly turn and darted out.
Mary threw up her hands. Now what? The noise from the dining room was increasing by the minute. They’d never manage short-handed. Even if Ethel Lynn predictably dropped dishes and spilled drinks, at least she helped.
“Take a chill pill.” Finney slapped a skillet down on the stove and tossed in vegetables. “That old woman may have run this place for your aunt but she doesn’t know diddly-squat about cooking.”
Mary stalked to the sink and turned on the tap. “We needed her tonight.” She thrust a head of lettuce beneath the icy stream. “She’s elderly. Give her a break.”
“I’m happy to break her neck, if you’re sending an invitation.” The cook opened the cupboard beneath the stove and rooted around inside. “Look how Ethel Lynn was handling the cooking after she fired me. Mary—come look. She’s got an old pancake griddle down here and one of those George Foreman grills.”
The items landed on the counter with a thud. Enough grease layered the grill to grow bacteria for medical research. The griddle was worse. Large spots of metal showed through the worn Teflon surface.
Horrified, Mary approached. “This is what she used?” No wonder they’d sickened patrons on opening day. “What about the stove? Are you saying she wasn’t using the stove?”
“I have a theory about that.”
“A theory?” More bad news she didn’t need.
“This old stove has been twitchy for weeks.” Finney jiggled the control knobs. Flames burst high on all six burners, then low. “Watch number four. Hardly moves at all. Flame just stays where it is. And six—” she cranked the knob clockwise, “—look how high it goes. This stove needs servicing. Something’s punky in the gas line.”
Mary leapt back. “Then stop playing with it! You’ll blow us up!”
“How will I feed the hungry hordes with just a grill?”
“Turn off the stove. Cook whatever you can on the grill. Is the oven working?” From the corner of her eye, she noticed Delia at the pass-through window. “What?”
“Mary, get out here. You need to see this.”
Behind the counter—which was now hemmed in by customers on every barstool—the ice cream freezer made an awful clatter. Somewhere inside the ancient innards, gears shifted with a grinding racket. They sputtered into silence. Delia slid back the door on top and craned her neck.
Mary lowered her voice for fear of alarming diners. “What are you doing?”
The waitress jabbed a finger at the tubs on the unit’s floor. “The ice cream is melting, dufus.” She cast a baleful glance at the girls in matching red plaid at table seven. “Know how many kids are finishing dinner? I’ve got three tables ready to order dessert.”
Mary peered inside. With all the renovations she’d made, why hadn’t she replaced the contraption? The freezer was on life support.
“I’m no expert with appliances,” she admitted. “Did you try jiggling the plug?”
“Yeah, that’ll work. After we jiggle the plug, we’ll call the ice cream fairy. She’ll wave her wand and make this piece of crap work like new.”
“Can it, Delia.” Mary bent in farther, examined the glop on the floor. “Good grief. Who tipped over half of the tubs? There’s ice cream all over the bottom.”
“The floor inclines toward the front of the building. We could roller skate down the slant in here. When the tubs were frozen, who cared if they tipped or not?”
“It matters now! They’re melting!”
“No shit, Sherlock. They don’t even make replacement parts for a freezer this old.” She picked at the strips of paint peeling off the front panel. Papery flecks drifted to the floor. “This thing was made when Nixon was president. Customers were eating banana splits and reading about Watergate in the Plain Dealer.”
“You’re nuts.” At least Mary hoped she was. “The freezer isn’t that old.”
“It’s ancient, pal. We’ll have to eat the ice cream or throw it out.”
The phrase, eat ice cream, reached Blossom’s ears. She stopped swabbing down table six. Rapture suffused her features as she wandered toward them, a mummy in a trance.
Delia muttered a curse. “Great. If she makes herself sick on Toasted Almond Swirl, Anthony will have our heads.”
“Just give her a bowl. It’s going to melt anyway.”
“A bowl.” Delia snickered. “How ‘bout a tub? That’s more Blossom’s speed.”
“Oh, come on. How much ice cream can one child eat?”
“Mary, when it comes to kids you’re a novice.”
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