Jack Isaak works nights as a janitor. He doesn't sleep well and worries about this as he read it can lead to a stroke. The doctor gave him pills...read more for it but he doesn't want to become addicted to them so hasn't taken even one--they just sit in a drawer.
AVANTI'S GOURMET RESTAURANT seeks to staff dishwasher position. Successful applicant will be punctual and able to work in fast paced environment. Apply in person. I was qualified for this. Punctual? From a very early age Mother had drummed into me the importance of being on time. On the rare occasion she was late for something, it was a big deal and there was much tumult, finger pointing, some swearing, even tears. Fast paced environment? I wonder how fast? I tried to picture it. I saw people moving so quickly they were just a blur. That was too fast. There was a limit on how fast paced environments could get. The next afternoon, as soon as school let out, I pedalled my ten-speed to the address provided in the ad. I found Avanti’s beside a shopping mall. I’d never noticed it before even though I went to the mall regularly. “Table for one?” asked a woman in a black dress. Her eyes caught mine as she smiled. She was so attractive I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of myself—my running shoes, my jeans, my haircut, everything. “Um… no… I’m here to apply for the job… uh… dishwasher? I’m punctual and can work in a fast paced environment… How fast is it? Do you know?” “Okay, just have a seat,” she gestured to a bank of chairs. “Someone will be with you shortly.” “Uh-huh… yes… thank you.” Sitting in a plush velvet chair, I took a good look around. This place was nicer than anywhere I’ve ever eaten, I thought. The patterned red and gold carpeting looked expensive and the cutlery and glassware glinted atop crisp white tablecloths. I felt the plant beside my chair. It was real. “You’re applying for…” I was startled by a man in a dark suit standing twenty or so feet distant. It seemed like a long way away to be speaking from, especially in the conversational tone he was using. His haircut looked expensive, as did his suit. A cigarette smoldered between his fingers. “Dishwashing job?” I answered like a question. “Mm-hmm,” he said. He didn’t seem at all happy about it. His thick dark eyebrows went up as he dragged from the cigarette. “Okay,” he said, exhaling blue smoke. “Come on.” He turned and walked around a corner. I had to run to catch up with him. I followed him down a hall and through a door that said Employees Only and into an office. The office wasn’t nearly so nice as the restaurant, obviously passed over during the last renovations. The walls were a faded toothpaste green covered in a coating of nicotine. The man sat behind a desk and I pulled up a ripped leatherette chair with chrome frame. A layer of dust and ash covered everything including the papers and ledgers cluttering the desk. The man fixed his eyes on me. He didn’t say anything for a long time and we sat there in silence.
“I’m the general manager, Paul,” he said at last. “I’m Jack.” “Jack?” he asked like he couldn’t possibly have heard correctly. “Yes. Jack.” “Okay, well… Jack… what makes you think you’re qualified to work here?” “Well… um… I’ve washed dishes before.” “Not in a restaurant.” “No,” I admitted. “But I think I can do it. I understand the… uh… basic concept.” “Is that supposed to be funny?” “Hmm? No. I just think I can do it, that’s all.” Paul stared at me again. His eyes narrowed. I felt guilty and yet I hadn’t done anything. Finally his gaze was too intense and I had to look away. “Okay,” he said, like he’d made up his mind about something. “Fill this out. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He got up and came around the desk. Just before he left he said, “And don’t steal anything.” He hadn’t given me anything to fill out the form with and I hadn’t asked because I didn’t want him to know I’d come unprepared so I took a pen from off his desk. But as I began filling in my surname I saw the ink was red. Oh my god, I thought. Who fills out a job application in red? Ten minutes later Paul returned. He held an empty wine glass with purplish lip imprints all around the rim. It made me sick, seeing those imprints. “When can you start?” he asked. He hadn’t even bothered looking at the application form. “Um… tomorrow?” I didn’t really want to start that soon but felt pressure to make myself available. “Okay, be here tomorrow at three.” “Well… I have school until three.” “Three-thirty.” “Okay.” “And don’t be late.” “No. I’m punctual.” I was about to ask how fast paced the environment would be but thought better of it. It seemed we were done so I stood and was about to leave when I wondered if I should shake his hand. I didn’t want to and he didn’t offer so I just walked out. As I left I realized I still had the pen that I filled out the application with. I slipped it into my pocket.
The next day, after school, on my way to Avanti’s, I was filled with dread as I anticipated my first day on the job. I really didn’t want to do it. My arms and legs were weak and I felt like I wanted to cry. But I pushed through and made it to Avanti’s with two minutes to spare. Paul met me at the reception area. He smelled like alcohol. It clouded the area around him as though it was coming out of his pores. He gestured wordlessly for me to follow him. We went through a set of swinging doors and the lighting went from atmospheric to bright institutional. And instead of plush carpet, hard rust-coloured tiles covered the floor. Stainless steel gleamed everywhere. Paul walked me up to a little office. He leaned in through the open door. “Gerd, this is the new dishwasher. Okay? So I’ll leave you to show him around.” A moment later a man stepped out from the office. I was surprised by how large he was—tall and broad in the shoulders. He had magnificent blond hair and a mustache that turned up at the ends. His eyes were blue and fierce. He looked grand in his white chef’s coat and black and white checkered pants. He didn’t smile or make any attempt to make me feel welcome. “My name is Gerd. I am the head chef.” He spoke with a heavy accent. It sounded German. “Hello,” I said. I was tall for my age—six feet—but felt small beside that giant of a man. “Come with me.” I followed him to a small room near the back door. He made a clip-clop sound as he walked. I looked down and saw he was wearing a pair of wooden clogs. It seemed an impractical footwear choice for a kitchen. “From here you will select a jacket,” he said. “Then come to find me in the kitchen.” He clip-clopped off. I looked around and saw a bunch of white kitchen jackets hanging on hooks. All of the jackets were filthy. Some looked like they were smeared with blood. I chose the least dirty one. It smelled strongly of the body odour of whoever had worn it before me.
“Dishwasher!” Gerd called from the kitchen. It was a strange jacket, having two rows of buttons, and I couldn’t figure out how to do it up. “DISHWASHER!” Gerd yelling didn’t make it any easier to get the jacket on. I didn’t understand why there were two rows of buttons. “DISHWASHER! COME ON, MAN!” I finally just went out into the kitchen holding the jacket closed with my hands. “We must do things quickly in the restaurant,” said Gerd as I walked towards him. “Sorry, I was trying to—” “This,” he said, talking over me, “is Rolph.” Rolph sat on a stool beside a large gray waste bin. He was handsome with nicely styled hair and a healthy complexion. He looked up and nodded noncommittally. He had the same fierce blue eyes as Gerd. Rolph was separating eggs over the waste bin. The yolks he put into a giant silver mixing bowl. There must have been a hundred egg yolks in that bowl. The whites he just let fall into the garbage. I’d never seen someone waste food like that, so openly and on such a large scale. I nodded at Rolph who kept his striking blue eyes on me while he continued working. It was a pretty good trick, separating an egg without looking. “And here,” said Gerd, moving past Rolph, “is the dishwashing station.” The dishwashing station was a disaster area. It was so bad I thought it might be a joke of some sort. They’re having a laugh at your expense, I thought. Putting one over on the new guy. But it was no joke. My mind just didn’t want to believe it. Teetering piles of dishes were stacked anywhere there was space. Not neat, organized piles but chaotic, random stacks leaning this way and that like something from a Dr. Seuss book. On one end of the dishwashing station were two deep and very wide sinks. The sinks were filled with a jumble of assorted pots and pans. At the opposite end of the station was another sink above which hung a sprayer on a stiff arching hose. More dishes were stacked there. There were also three tubs full of cutlery soaking in filthy water. The smell was terrible, like things were rotting. “We have had no dishwasher for three days,” said Gerd. “I NEED PIE PANS!” I heard Rolph shout. He had the same accent as Gerd. I learned later that they were Austrian. “Yes, we must have pie pans,” said Gerd. “Dinner is in one hour so move quickly!” “QUICKLY, DISHWASHER!” added Rolph. Gerd gave me a tutorial on how to use the dishwashing machine. He spoke rapidly without pausing to ask if I understood, then moved off and started cutting up meat. It was overwhelming looking at the confusion of dirty dishes as a whole so I focused in on one area. Without overthinking it, I grabbed a plate, rinsed it with the sprayer and put it on a green plastic rack. Then I grabbed another plate and repeated the operation. Soon I had a whole rack of plates which I slid into the dishwasher. I pulled down the handle and the machine came to life with a whoosh. While the machine worked, I filled another rack with plates. The next time I did a rack of bowls. “DISHWASHER! COME ON, MAN!” shouted Rolph. He’d finished separating his eggs and was now furiously whisking them. His face was red and shiny with exertion. I imagined mine was too. I was working as hard as I could but it went slowly as I kept having to ask where things went. Gerd and Rolph were terribly impatient with me. They seemed to think I should know everything already and spoke to me as though I was defective in some way. The unreasonableness of it irked me. “WHERE’S MY PIE PANS? COME ON!” I focused in on the pie pans. They were all crusty and burnt. I had to use a big stainless steel pad to scrub them. I ran a rack of pie pans through the dishwasher and got them out to Rolph. “JESUS CHRIST, MAN! JUST IN TIME!” He pulled a piece of meat off the grill with a pair of tongs, placed it onto a pie pan, threw it into the oven and slammed the door. I’d been so busy working I hadn’t noticed orders were coming in. There was no way to get everything done. It wasn’t physically possible. So I just made sure Gerd and Rolph had what they needed to make it through the night. Several times I brought things to them at the last moment. When they were running low on something they didn’t hesitate to let me know. “HOLY FUCK! FRYING PANS!” “DISHWASHER! I NEED LADLES!” “DINNER PLATES, MAN! COME ON!” Maybe I was just young, or maybe it was their accents, but as the night wore on I started wanting to laugh every time they lost their tempers. In their desire to get food out quickly they’d abandoned all the rules of respectful interaction. Getting food out quickly was an all-consuming obsession—their whole reason for being. I realized they didn’t mean anything by their abusive ways and the ruder they were the funnier it seemed. I got through the first night. The front of my jeans were soaked through and my teenage genitals were sopping wet. The water made my jeans heavy. I had to constantly pull them up. I made a mental note to buy a belt. My fingers were red and raw from all the scrubbing. “Very good, Mr. Jack,” said Gerd. “But you must work more quickly. Always more quickly. Come back tomorrow at the same time.” On the way home I had to walk my bike up a hill that normally would not have been a problem. My legs were gone. Once home I collapsed on the couch and stared at the ceiling a few minutes. Mother was at her boyfriend’s so I poured a drink of vodka from a bottle I kept hidden under my bed and fell asleep in front of the television. I showed up to algebra class twenty minutes late the next day. A mass of formulae filled the blackboard, scratched up there by Mrs. Dancette. I understood almost none of it. “What is she talking about?” I asked of Paula, the black girl who sat in front of me. “I don’t get it. How can you combine letters and numbers?” “I don’t know,” said Paula who I noticed was doodling in her binder. After school I pedaled straight to Avanti’s and made it there just at three-thirty. Excitement had replaced part of the dread I’d felt the day before and I was anxious to get started. “Mr. Jack! You have much to do,” said Gerd as I came in the back door. I looked for a clean jacket but there were none so I settled for the least filthy again. When I got to the dishwashing station I saw it was stacked with dirty dishes again. “Where did all these dishes come from?” I asked Rolph as he came out of the walk-in cooler carrying a box of onions. “From today, man. Lunch and prep work. There is no daytime dishwasher. Quickly now!” So that’s how it was going to be. A game of catch-up every night. Without thinking about it, I chose a random starting point and got to work. I kept my head down and focused in. As I worked, I began to see what I should do next. Each new step came as a realization more than a thought. It felt like divine intervention, like I was channeling a higher power. In the background I could hear Gerd and Rolph shouting. The clip-clop of their clogs was like the sound effect of horses on a cobblestone street. They ran this way and that, sliding around on the wet greasy floor. “DISHWASHER, WHERE’S THE FUCKING SPOONS?” “I NEED A WHISK, MAN!” “QUICKLY, MR. JACK! QUICKLY!” I returned the next day and the day after that. Gerd even asked me to come in on Saturday so I was working six days a week. I didn’t mind it though. I felt a camaraderie with the staff. It must have been like what soldiers felt during a time of war. As the weeks went by I became very good at my job. The stock pots were the worst. Massive vessels that sat bubbling for hours on their own special burners. The bottoms would become encrusted with cooked-on bones and herbs and vegetables. I had to chip away at the deposits with a metal serving spoon, scraping away until I could switch to the scrub pad. My hand barely reached the bottoms of those pots. There was no trick to it. It was all elbow grease. I developed an obsession. I had to get every last bit of black off. A ticklish sensation at my very core forced me onward. Sometimes I’d get erections as I worked on them. Like most workplaces, Avanti’s had it’s share of politics. There were two main factions—front of house versus back of house. The wait staff hated the kitchen staff and vice versa. “JESUS, ROLPH! TABLE EIGHTEEN HAS BEEN WAITING HALF AN HOUR FOR THEIR ENTREES!” “GO FUCK YOUR MOTHER!” “JUST GIVE ME MY ORDER!” “I’LL JAM IT UP YOUR ASSHOLE, FAGGOT MAN!” “YOU FUCKING NAZI!” “THAT’S RIGHT! I LOVE HITLER! I BELIEVE IN HIS WAYS! HE HAD GOOD IDEAS!” Rolph didn’t really love Hitler, he just had a strange sense of humour that only he seemed to get. “Dishwasher!” he called one day as he moved back and forth between the stove and the pass. “I’m going to take a nice big shit. You want to come watch?” “Uh…” I acted like I was thinking it over. “No. I think I’ll pass.” “Come on, man!” he said, placing a steak on the grill. “I need help! I can feel it coming!” “You’ll be okay,” I said. “BUT DISHWASHER, THIS IS A BIG OPPORTUNITY FOR YOU!” Another time he just started randomly apologizing. “Dishwasher, I apologize.” “For what?” “Come on! I apologize, man!” “Okay.” The head waiter came in the kitchen with an order. Fletcher. Fletcher and Rolph really got into it at times. “Fletcher, I apologize. Okay?” “Don’t apologize, Rolph. Just don’t do it again.” “Fletcher, come on. I am serious, man. I apologize, okay?” “Okay, Rolph, sure.” “FLETCHER, YOU FAGGOT MAN! I APOLOGIZE!” Fletcher really was gay. “Don’t call me that, Rolph.” The hostess, Sarah, came in. I had a thing for Sarah. She was so good looking, and very often drunk. “SARAH, I APOLOGIZE!” “For what?” “I APOLOGIZE! TELL EVERYONE! TELL THEM ALL! I APOLOGIZE!” The night of the staff Christmas party I put on my good jeans and the shirt and shoes I wore for specials occasions. I arrived at Avanti’s and was greeted by Sarah. She was already quite drunk. She kissed me… on the lips. A wet one that tasted salty. I liked it. Rolph was standing off to one side. He looked handsome in his civilian clothes. I waved to him and he nodded. He seemed uncomfortable. The fierceness he displayed in the kitchen was gone. He held hands with a woman who was talking and laughing with the front of house staff. Rolph’s enemies. He was in their world—and without his knives. I sat beside Mark the busboy at the bar. All the wait staff were there. I was the only one from the kitchen. Every single person was smoking. “Hey, Paul,” said Mark. “Give Jack a beer.” Paul the general manager was acting as bartender. He looked over, staring at me for a weird amount of time, then put a beer down in front of me. “Thanks,” I said but his back was already to me. I took a healthy swallow from the bottle. It was so cold and tasted so good going down. It felt well-deserved. I took another long drink. “Hey, Jack.” I was being addressed by one of the waitresses—Catherine. Catherine was a tall, leggy blonde with a cute little nose and pouty lips. She was highly attractive, as were all the wait staff. “Yes?” I said, my voice wavering a little. “You’re doing a great job.” “Yeah,” said another waitress, Marie. Marie had long straight black hair. Her hair was so shiny, I imagined women stopping her on the street to ask what kind of shampoo she used. “I’ve never seen it so clean and organized back there,” she said. “Too bad the whole place couldn’t run that smooth.” Paul’s head jerked over when she said that. “Here’s to the dishwasher,” said Catherine. Everyone raised their glasses. I could feel myself turning red. After I finished my beer Paul put another one in front of me. The night unfolded and at one point I went into the kitchen. Most of the lights were out. I saw Gerd standing in the gloom. Without his clogs on we were almost the same height. He wasn’t such a giant of a man after all. “Hey, Gerd! How the hell are you?” I asked, very drunk. I thrust my hand out. “Merry Christmas!” Gerd took my hand. His grip was firm. He looked me in the eye as he shook my hand. He kept shaking it past the normal amount of time, his grip gradually tightening. Then he stopped shaking. He was just squeezing. My fingers crunched against each other. I was whimpering and laughing at the same time. I sank to my knees and looked up at Gerd. He was huge again. “Okay,” I said, wincing. “I get it. You can let go now.” “Say, please.” “Please.” He let go and the relief was immediate. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Jack.” I went back out into the restaurant, rubbing my hand, leaving Gerd by himself in the semi-darkness. The party continued into the early morning hours. I saw Paul talking with one of the waitresses. They were both very drunk, looking into each other’s eyes. He ran his finger along the edge of her dress where it dipped in front, showing off her cleavage. It made me sick to see him doing that. Couldn’t she see how creepy he was? Sarah the hostess, the one I had a crush on, was passed out in one of the booths. I walked to where she lay across the seat. Her skirt had bunched up around her hips and I stared at her panties. They were white. It was a breathtaking sight. Then her eyes opened. I couldn’t move. I stood there, gawking, slack-jawed. She smiled. “Dishwasher,” she said, sitting, pulling her skirt down. “What are you looking at?” “Hi,” I said, unable to move. A few moments later she patted the seat beside her. Her skirt was still hiked up quite high and her milky-white thighs had a power over me. My body sat beside her of its own will. She took a drink of her wine then handed the glass to me. I drank from it, placing my lips on the spot she’d just sipped from. Drinking from the same glass felt very intimate, like I was kissing her. She looked into my eyes, playing with her hair, smiling wickedly. “You’re so cute,” she said and laughed. I put my hand on her thigh. She didn’t protest. I ran my fingers down to her knee and back up to the hem of her skirt. Suddenly she pushed me away. “Okay,” she said, “you better let me out now.” I stood and she slid out of the booth and walked over to one of the waiters, Jonathan. He was strong and very handsome. They started talking. She looked over at me, then he looked over and they both laughed. I showed up late for algebra the next day. Actually, I’d been showing up late everyday. Often I was hungover. I don’t know how I got away with it but Mrs. Dancette never said anything to me. I’d given up on passing the course. I didn’t even have the basic concepts down. X, Y and Z were all the same to me. “Paula, I’m going to fail. I understand less each day.” “You smell like booze,” she said. “Oh my god.” “Okay, just keep it down.” One day I got a call from the bank. The person on the phone told me my paycheque from Avanti’s had bounced. When I got to work the next day there was a buzz in the restaurant. Mine was not the only cheque that had bounced. “It was just a mix-up,” said Paul. “We can’t do anything about it until Friday. You’ll all get new cheques on Friday.” Friday came and Paul gave us all new cheques. “You can’t cash them until next Friday, though.” “What the fuck, Paul?” said Marie, the waitress with the beautiful black hair. “I have bills. I’m behind on my rent because of this.” “I know, and I’m sorry, but it’s just the way the accounting system works. Don’t worry, everything is fine…” etc. But the new cheques bounced, too. When I went into work next, Rolph wasn’t there. Only Gerd. He looked tired. The fire was gone from his eyes. The clip-clop of his clogs sounded somehow muted. “Where’s Rolph?” I asked. “Rolph is gone.” “Why did he go? Did his cheque bounce too?” “Everything has bounced, Mr. Jack. Everything…” Gerd walked into his office and shut the door. I went out into the restaurant and the place was a shambles. The wait staff and Mark the busboy were all getting drunk. There were no customers. “What’s happening here?” I asked Mark. “It’s over,” he said. “The owner filed for bankruptcy. The trustee is coming tomorrow to do an inventory so we’re looting the place tonight. You better act fast if you want something.” I saw Paul on the patio. He was passing furniture over the fence to one of the waiters. Sarah walked by with a box of meat. All the plants were gone. I went behind the bar. There was a lot of liquor back there. I thought about taking something but didn’t have the nerve. I poured myself a beer and sat down. We drank all night. When Gerd left we raided the fridges. By the time we trickled out in the early morning hours, the place had been gutted. Paul was the worst offender. He’d taken entire cases of wine, tables and chairs, paintings, an antique clock. One day, about a month later, I rode my bike by Avanti’s. Future Home of Red Robin read a banner hanging over the old Avanti’s sign. I looked up in the sky and saw a hawk. It soared high above the restaurant, carried by unseen wind currents. But then I studied it more carefully and realized it was actually a seagull. And I failed algebra. I didn’t think I’d ever need to use it but as I grew older there were many instances where it would have come in handy.
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