I found out recently that Steve Bailey died in 2013. There were some pictures in the in-memory section of the reunion builder website for my high school class, and a writeup about the man I knew as a high school kid. Steve had worked in food service – maybe all his career – and it seemed he had done well as a chef at some prestigious restaurants.
Naturally I am not aware of this when he calls me one summer day before our junior year of high school and asks me to cover for him at his job washing dishes at a local lunch and dinner place I drive by all the time but at the same time have no plans to visit. I want to say no, out of a tendency to avoid new experiences, especially ones that mean hard work. But Steve parries all of my excuses with pleas that he must find a replacement, and I show mercy, not because I am a merciful person, but because I can’t figure any way out of it.
Every summer in the small Oklahoma town of Bartlesville seems to bring at least one case of poison ivy, and the summer of 1968 is no exception. I have a raging dose of it when I show up for the first day of a week of labor. The restaurant is dark and cool compared to the cicada-buzzed humidity just outside the door. I walk cautiously into the dining area as my eyes adjust, and I meet the man who runs the place, one Al Jay Kester. Al Jay is in his prime, 28 and chubby, either by nature or lifestyle. He cooks me a sandwich at some point, a grilled cheese and ham sandwich that he opens up to insert crisp iceberg lettuce and Miracle Whip before serving it to me.
Later in the year, on a fine October day, Al Jay will kill a woodchuck while hunting along the banks of the Caney River. His picture will be in the local paper, the Examiner Enterprise, on Halloween Day 1968. He will not yet be 29 years old, and he will be just beaming with pride displaying his kill. I will tear out and save the small newspaper article and goof with my friend Steve about how the caption makes it unclear whether the woodchuck or Al Jay was climbing a tree when he shot it.
Al Jay leads me out of the dining room and into the kitchen and then further into another area that is my work place, the dish washing station. Heat is bad news for the sufferer of poison ivy. It makes the rash bubble and blister. I have it on my forearms and torso, but it is really bad on my legs. What is worse than the general heat of the kitchen, the water in the metal sink for washing dishes is heated by an open gas burner at about knee height and right under the sink.
Al Jay will give me no instruction on operating the sink. For all I know, the burner is to remain on the entire time I am in the restaurant. The water will be so hot that I will be scalded multiple times in the week ahead, especially when I reach to the bottom of the sink to fish around for the stainless ware, plates, and kitchen utensils. The heat from the burner will turn my usual bad case of poison ivy into my worst experience of this allergy.
After showing me my work place, Al Jay takes me to where a small primate, maybe a rhesus monkey, lives behind the restaurant, tethered by a chain to a stake in the ground. He tosses some bits of food to the monkey.
When I learned about Steve Bailey dying of cancer, I thought about that restaurant where he worked and about some of the old times, and old places in and around Bartlesville, about another restaurant called Marie’s that was near the go kart track, and not far from there the road that used to go over the memorial bridge over the Caney, right before you would get to Floyd’s gas station where we always stopped to fill up. I thought about driving around and knowing all the back roads, to places like Hudson Lake and Hula Lake, and places in Osage County I didn’t know, but that I knew how to get to. I thought about Circle Mountain, and going there for a bonfire with my brother and his friends and girlfriend Roni back from college, drinking Boone’s Farm into the night, and remembered not remembering them helping me to bed, back home at my folks’ house.
From what I can tell, Al Jay is still in the area. There is a webpage entry from February about him on a Bartlesville website, and he was preparing to write his memoir at the time, according to the entry. I wonder if Al Jay remembers things the way I do, whether he remembers about Floyd’s, about the lakes and Circle Mountain, and about cicadas and the restaurant where Steve used to work.