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Poem: "Her Steadfast Voice" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith
ysabetwordsmith
Poem: "Her Steadfast Voice"
This poem is spillover from the January 21, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from siege.  It also fills the "WILD CARD: Heat" square in my 8-13-13 card for the Ladies Bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by technoshaman.  It belongs to the series Walking the Beat.

WARNING: This poem contains some intense scenes.  Highlight for details. The following poem contains a restaurant fire, bystander injuries, emotional stress, lights and sirens. If these are sensitive topics for you, please think carefully before deciding whether to read onward.


Her Steadfast Voice


Dale and Kelly shared a taste for seafood.
One of the park buskers,
a black storyteller named Darius,
had turned them on to his favorite fry house,
which did a wonderful mixed platter
and also made fried ice cream for dessert.

Once or twice a month,
the two women would go out
and debate the respective merits
of fried clams or calamari,
Buffalo wings or fish & chips.
There was okra gritty with cornmeal
and fried corn salsa go to with tostitos.

Dale and Kelly went there in early March,
the windows already festooned with shamrocks
and green garlands for St. Patrick's Day.
Indoors, the heat was a welcome relief
from the raw spring weather outside.
The air smelled richly of fried chicken,
the all-you-can-eat Tuesday special.

The little restaurant was crowded,
which left Dale and Kelly crammed
around a couple's table near the kitchen.
They didn't mind, tucking their elbows in
and signing with whisper-small gestures
as they discussed what to plant this spring
in the gardens around their house.

Then something went foomp
in the kitchen. The sound was soft
but out of place, and Dale's head came up.

Problem? Kelly asked.
I don't know,  Dale replied, frowning.
I heard a sound like air moving suddenly.

Kelly half-turned in her seat,
sniffing. Do you smell that?

Dale caught an acrid note
amidst the savory cooking scents.
I smell plastic burning,  she signed.
Grab your coat. I think we should
move away from the kitchen
.

Eryn and Juste had a small table
on the other side of the aisle,
and as Dale stood up, Eryn asked,
"Is something wrong?"

"I heard an odd sound in the kitchen,"
Dale said, and then caught a flicker
of yellow light through the door window.
"We should get out of the way
in case there really is a problem."

Juste grumbled, but Eryn didn't hesitate
to take her purse and move along.
People began stirring at other tables too.

Then the fire alarm went off,
quickly followed by the sprinklers.
People squealed in surprise.

"Everybody out!" Dale shouted
over the racket, automatically
dropping into her crowd-control voice.
"Go to the front of the restaurant,
exit through the door, and cross the street.
Move, move, MOVE!"

Dale kept a firm grip on her cane
with one hand, the other
patting backs and shoulders
as she pointed people toward the door,
her steadfast voice never faltering.

Beside her, Kelly worked in tandem,
herding the tail of the crowd outward
and making sure there were no stragglers.

Some people dawdled, trying
to pick up spilled belongings.
"Leave it!" Dale said to a woman
dithering over a diaper bag.

The cashier behind the front counter
had propped the door open
to chivvy people onto the sidewalk,
evidently following whatever safety plan
the restaurant had established.

Then a cook ran out of the kitchen,
skin red with blisters,
stumbling on heeled shoes.
She almost knocked Dale down.

Kelly hauled the woman
over one strong shoulder
and hustled for the exit,
keeping a hand on Dale too.

They made it safely outside.
The cashier took one last look
to make sure everyone was out,
then shut the door to restrict air flow.

Dale took out her cell phone
to call the fire department,
reporting the address,
an estimate of the crowd size,
and the noise she'd heard from the kitchen
that might have been a grease fire starting.

Meanwhile Kelly had wrapped her coat
around the injured cook to keep her warm --
everyone was soaked from the sprinklers
and shivering in the chill March breeze,
although the fire was spreading enough
that they could start to feel the heat from it
even at what should have been a safe distance.

Dale knelt beside them
and took the cook's hands,
gently squeezing one and then the other
to give her something to focus on
besides pain or panic.

Sirens wailed in the background,
and Dale's practiced ear effortlessly distinguished
fire engines from police from ambulance.

When she heard the ambulance stop,
Dale stood up, stuck two fingers in her mouth,
and gave a shrill whistle to attract the paramedics.
It took a couple of attempts, but she managed
to direct their attention to the injured cook.

Another paramedic went around handing out
warm dry blankets to all the wet diners,
which made it easier to move them
farther away from the heat of the fire.
Licking flames showed above the restaurant now,
gilding the spray from the fire hoses
as they wet down buildings on either side.

Police officers made the rounds too,
checking to see if anyone else was hurt
and asking for reports of everyone's observations.
Dale made a point of praising the cashier
who had so capably manned the front door.

The blistered cook had been loaded
into an ambulance and whisked away,
but now Kelly had a diner crying on her shoulder.
Juste had melted away in the crowd --
he didn't like police very much --
but Eryn was still there, and looking
likely to start crying herself.

"It will be all right," Dale said to Eryn.
"Fires can be scary, but the firefighters
are here now, and they'll put it out.
Everyone in the front of the restaurant
got out safely. That's a good thing."

Eryn nodded and gave her a watery smile.
"Thanks. I should, I should probably go,"
she said. "They asked if I had anyone to call,
so a friend is supposed to pick me up soon."

"Go on, then," Dale said. "It's better
if you have someone close to you
who can take care of you tonight.
Seeing a fire like this can shake people up."

"You did an excellent job here,"
one of the paramedics said to Dale.
Several of them had stayed in case
any of the firefighters got injured.

"I used to serve on the police force,"
Dale explained, then tapped her cane,
"at least until this happened."

"Hmm," the paramedic said thoughtfully.
"One of my old partners retired after
he lost a hand pulling someone from a car crash.
He went into community counseling, trauma response --
it helps to have people who know how to handle
things like fires or tornados, the impact those have
on individuals and neighborhoods.
You might look into it."

"Thanks, I'll think about it,"
Dale said with a nod.

Eventually Dale and Kelly
made it home, and into a bath,
because they both reeked of smoke
and fear-sweat and the stuffiness of clothes
that had gotten wet and started to dry on their bodies.

They made soup, because neither of them
had managed to finish supper
before the fire drove them away.

Then they huddled in bed together,
under the warm fluffy blankets,
sharing body heat and relief
at how they both survived the fire.

They left on a blue nightlight,
because they didn't want to see
yellow or orange light again tonight,
and in the blue-lit dimness
Dale slowly spelled onto Kelly's skin
messages of love and hope.

Dale and Kelly talked, a little,
about the idea of crisis counseling,
because it seemed like a good way to help.
You didn't need two strong legs to deal with
problems that people couldn't run away from,
and you didn't need working ears
to give friends a shoulder to cry on.

Then they wrapped themselves
around each other in the warm bed
and went to sleep.

* * *

Notes:

A fry house is a restaurant that specializes in fried food such as chickenseafood, or a combination.

Popular fried foods include mixed seafood, Buffalo wings, fish and chips, okra, and corn salsa.

Most restaurant fires start in the kitchen and often involve grease.  Restaurants should have good fire safety guidelines in case of emergency.  It's often difficult to tell what's happening at first, but if you think there might be a problem, quietly getting out of the way is usually advisable.

The most important thing in crisis response is to stay calm so that stressed people will follow you.  Onsite trauma support differs from traditional counseling, because what people need in an emergency is a calming presence so they don't panic or dissociate in ways that make the situation worse.  The right response can help a lot with damage control.

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Comments
thnidu From: thnidu Date: February 18th, 2014 02:22 am (UTC) (Link)
Like the rest of this series, I like this. The ladies are cool, in every sense. :-)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 18th, 2014 02:40 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

I'm glad you're enjoying it so much. I like writing competent women.
From: technoshaman Date: February 18th, 2014 06:12 am (UTC) (Link)
I like the way you talk story. :)

You've given me a tool I may need (keeping people focussed on other than pain/panic)... and another "awww" outcome with a side of "cool"... those two would make a good counselling duo.

Fried okra? In Boston? Really?! YUM. I hope this place is real and either didn't actually have a fire or has been rebuilt... :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: February 18th, 2014 06:28 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> I like the way you talk story. :) <<

I'm happy to hear that.

>> You've given me a tool I may need (keeping people focussed on other than pain/panic)... <<

*bow, flourish* Happy to be of service. I've collected a lot of resources on coping skills.

>> and another "awww" outcome with a side of "cool"... those two would make a good counselling duo. <<

Sooth. Dale needs ways to adapt her hero-urge to current circumstances.

>> Fried okra? In Boston? Really?! YUM. I hope this place is real and either didn't actually have a fire or has been rebuilt... :) <<

Sadly this is not one of the Boston restaurants I found online. But it is similar to fry-everything places that I have found elsewhere. Seafood fry houses are more common near the ocean, but if they have workers familiar with other cuisine, the menu can branch out.
helgatwb From: helgatwb Date: June 13th, 2014 12:33 am (UTC) (Link)
No professional cook I know would wear heeled shoes to work(I earn a living cooking). It's a safety hazard, and being on your feet for eight, ten, or twelve hours in heels is hell on your feet. Some professional, non-skid shoes have wedge heels, because having a half-inch rise on the back of your shoe can help your back, but not heeled shoes.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 13th, 2014 12:48 am (UTC) (Link)

Well...

It's not a good idea, and tripping like that is one example of why not, in addition to the reasons you cited. But it does happen, not least because many employers mandate heeled shoes for female employees. People have on occasion sued over that. I've seen people, including cooks, come out of kitchens wearing heels -- low ones, usually pumps or sandals, not high heels. Women's professional shoes are often designed for sex appeal rather than safety or comfort. I'm with you; I think cooks should be in flats.

Cook in heels, kitchen on fire: clues that a place which puts out good food does not necessarily have equally good sense behind the scenes. Fortunately they did have a good emergency plan.

Thanks for the input though. I'm glad that one of the trouble-markers popped right out.
helgatwb From: helgatwb Date: June 13th, 2014 05:21 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

Huh. That goes against my experience. All of the places I have worked, if one of us showed up in sandals or pumps, we would have been sent home. The dress code on shoes runs as follows: Black, non-skid, closed toe and heel, no heels, sandals, pumps, crocs, etc. Literally every restaurant I have worked. And all of the work shoes I have seen for women, looked pretty much like the men's shoes. I have seen some that looked superficially like flats but had the same sturdy, comfortable construction as the others, but most were interchangeable to the point of being labeled 'unisex' and having both men's and women's sizes listed. Mind, I'm talking /work/ shoes, not /professional/ shoes. Shoes specifically aimed at food workers are not sexy. None of the clothes are, you should see the catalogues.

Of course, I've only ever worked at family restaurants and diners, so we're supposed to be neat and clean, not sexy.

Yeah, it was a trouble-marker. At first I was thinking 'inexperienced cook', but then I started thinking 'what's wrong with the management?' I was also thinking 'where are the fire extinguishers, and why is no-one using them?' I have personally seen two grease fires in my career, and neither one got to the point of needing the overhead sprinklers, much less the fire department. All taken care of with hand-held fire extinguishers.

I hope I'm not being rude, but it just kind of threw me, being different from my experience.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 13th, 2014 05:33 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

>> All of the places I have worked, if one of us showed up in sandals or pumps, we would have been sent home. The dress code on shoes runs as follows: Black, non-skid, closed toe and heel, no heels, sandals, pumps, crocs, etc. Literally every restaurant I have worked. <<

Yay! It makes me happy that sensible standards are prevalent.

>> Of course, I've only ever worked at family restaurants and diners, so we're supposed to be neat and clean, not sexy. <<

I've seen impractical shoes in two different situations: slightly fancier restaurants like Red Lobster, where sometimes people try to look more attractive, and there's a band where this gets worse before the higher places seriously buckle down on professionalism over eyecandy; and places that are significantly lower and maybe not as careful as they should be. I'm usually reluctant or unwilling to go back to places where I spot errors, unless the food is truly exceptional. Problems are like cockroaches: for every one you see, there are a hundred you don't.

>> Yeah, it was a trouble-marker. At first I was thinking 'inexperienced cook', <<

She probably is that too.

>> but then I started thinking 'what's wrong with the management?' <<

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that one sexist boss could do all the damage: not dressing employees appropriately, and not listening to something like "Hey, don't turn that knob so high."

>> I was also thinking 'where are the fire extinguishers, and why is no-one using them?' I have personally seen two grease fires in my career, and neither one got to the point of needing the overhead sprinklers, much less the fire department. All taken care of with hand-held fire extinguishers. <<

Code requires extinguishers in kitchens and people are supposed to (but don't always) know how to use them. The catch with grease fires is that they can spread very easily because there's liquid fuel. Hopefully people knew not to throw water on it. But if something tips over, it can go whoosh very fast.

Grease fires I have seen were handled by smothering, and that worked. But it's easy to see how it could get out of hand if people weren't fast and smart in responding. I went with grease fire not just from my own experience, but looking up causes of restaurant fires. That topped the list.

>> I hope I'm not being rude, but it just kind of threw me, being different from my experience. <<

Experience is welcome! If I hadn't been waving red flags marked "Somebody Fucked Up Here" then those would've been things to fix.
kengr From: kengr Date: May 29th, 2017 05:37 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

A bit of misdesign that I've seen in several restaurants (including a couple I've worked in) was having deep fryer(s) next to the gas burners for the pots.

One of those restaurants had a close call (I wasn't on shift when it happened, but I heard about it the next day.

One of the cooks dumped a bag of fries(?) into the deep fryer. Apparently there was a fist sized chunk of ice in the bag.

So he just had time to turn the corner to get something else from the freezer when "Whomp" the oil "exploded" everywhere. Including onto the burners, where it promptly started burning.

they caught it with the extinguishers, but then had to shut down the kitchen to clean everything...

If the cook hadn't had to get something else from the freezer, he'd have been in bad shape.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 29th, 2017 05:50 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Well...

>> A bit of misdesign that I've seen in several restaurants (including a couple I've worked in) was having deep fryer(s) next to the gas burners for the pots. <<

I am having a hard time imagining a worse design.

>> One of the cooks dumped a bag of fries(?) into the deep fryer. Apparently there was a fist sized chunk of ice in the bag. <<

OH SHIT O_O

>> So he just had time to turn the corner to get something else from the freezer when "Whomp" the oil "exploded" everywhere. Including onto the burners, where it promptly started burning.<<

Yeah, I've been impressed with how much kerplowie can be gotten from ice in hot oil.

>> they caught it with the extinguishers, but then had to shut down the kitchen to clean everything...

If the cook hadn't had to get something else from the freezer, he'd have been in bad shape.<<

Yikes.

Thanks for sharing your observations on how grease fires can go in a kitchen. It sounds about like what probably happened here: something went into the hot oil that shouldn't have and spread flaming doom everywhere.

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