II: Big Sea

Chef One-Eye

That spring Bruce of the one eye had become very temperamental, often threatening to quit—for lack of respect, he said. If it hadn’t been for him, he declared, after Florence left there would have been no trade at all—since the customers who continued to come to the Grand Duc now came only to eat his food. Yet, Bruce said, the management put up in big letters the names of various knock-kneed tap dancers and a male soprano as the featured attractions, and never mentioned the name of the chef in any of their publicity. Bruce’s feelings were hurt and, before Bricktop came, he would sometimes roll his one big eye ominously and look toward the French proprietor at the caisse or the Negro manager at the door, as though he could cut them in two. Then he would go out to a corner bistro and drink a whole bottle of black rum. Often he would come back rolling drunk and sit down in the coal box—which made it very difficult for me to keep the fire going. He sat in the coal box, he said, because it would not be right for him to occupy the only chair in the kitchen all the evening—since, when he got drunk, he meant to sit down a long time. So he politely left the chair to me.

One night, the French proprietor decided to fire Bruce, his salary being high and the income of the place low, and Bruce’s temper that week having been surlier than ever. So the boss came back with his pay, and told Bruce in polite French that he wouldn’t need him any more.

Bruce said: “Y quoi?”

The boss said: “Oui, you may go right now, if you like. I’m tired of your impudence and that frown of yours you carry all the time.”

Bruce said: “Alors?

The boss said: “Allez!” and went back to his cash desk behind the bar, leaving Bruce’s money on the kitchen table.

Bruce was a very big fellow, six feet or so, and in his white apron and tall chef’s hat he looked even bigger. The white hat made his huge dark face stand out like a round Dixie moon. And tonight, with its single eye, it looked like a moon in a cyclone cloud, as he regarded the money on the table.

Silently, Bruce selected the longest of the butcher knives from the kitchen rack. He calmly parted the red curtains that separated the kitchen and pantry from the club proper. He walked slowly across the dance floor, where a few couples were dancing as the band played. Then he stopped at the cash desk at the end of the bar and calmly raised the butcher knife as he demanded of the boss, “Now, qu’est-ce que vous voulez, m’sieu?

The Frenchman looked up and saw the knife descending. He dived beneath the bar.

The colored manager rushed up to Bruce and said: “Say! You’re fired! Get out of here.”

“What?” said Bruce, brandishing the knife. “Who’s fired? Do you want some of this, too?”

The manager backed right on out into the street.

Bruce then went without haste around behind the bar, which move sent the proprietor and the bartender leaping for safety over the counter, across the dance floor and out the door. His long knife gleamed. The customers fled. The danseuses screamed. The house emptied. By this time Bruce had the place to himself, except for the orchestra, that stopped playing to laugh.

Bruce then calmly returned to the kitchen, put the butcher knife back in the rack, and sat down. “Jim, did you see me?” he asked.

“I saw you, Bruce,” I said. “You really did your stuff.”

“Talking about I’m fired!” he snorted indignantly. “You saw who left here, didn’t you?”

“The boss!” I said.

“And all his assistants, little and big! Lit out and gone!” He rolled his one good eye and it rested on me. “But we still here, ain’t we?”

“We’re right here,” I said.

“And here we’ll be,” he affirmed. “Life’s a bitch, but I’ll beat it—and stay here, too.”

His final statement was absolutely correct.

The piano player went out and told the boss Bruce had quieted down. The manager came back in from the street, and Bruce was not fired. And that is how I got my job as a waiter, because, the following week, when they wanted to discharge me, saying they couldn’t afford two men in the kitchen with business so bad, Bruce said: “If he goes, I go! And I’ll go mad! Give him a job as a waiter.” So I got a job as a waiter.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.