2,007 Words by, Michael Kilianski
Day one. Hour eighteen.
There are two stainless steel knobs above the small
white sink at the restaurant where Nate works. One knob has a
tiny blue plastic tab on the top of it. The other stainless steel
knob has a tiny red plastic tab on the top of it. The knob with
the blue plastic tab is for cold water and the one with the red
plastic tab is for hot.
The water is always lukewarm whether you turn only
the knob with the blue plastic tab on top of it, only the knob
with the red plastic tab on top of it or both knobs at once.
There is a smudged mirror that is never completely
clear directly above the little sink. Nate turns the knob that
has the blue plastic tab on the top of it. He doesn't want cold
water to wash his hands with, at least Nate doesn't think that he
wants cold water to wash his hands with, but he knows that no
matter which knob he turns it doesn't make a difference either
There is a squeak, a small splash and then a sputter
and then the lukewarm water begins to trickle out of the tap.
Nate sighs. "Huhhhh," it's a long and drawn out sigh.
It's really a cross between a sort of yawn and a sort of moan.
"Huhhhh," he does it again.
From the kitchen that's just outside the thin door to
the men's room, Nate can hear loud sounds. He can hear the
clanging of metal pots and pans like a dissonant rhythm being
beat on a pair of tin drums. He hears the rattle of dirty,
semi-dirty and relatively clean ceramic plates being forcefully
stacked together one atop the other. He hears the shattering of
hard glass breaking into dozens of splintery shards as it crashes
onto an even harder tile floor. The specific causes of the
individual sounds don't matter all that much to Nate-in his mind
it's all a racket, though he does amuse himself for several
seconds by attempting to identify in his mind the true cause and
source of each individual sound, but this game lasts for only a
few seconds until Nate's attention is grabbed by an altogether
different sound coming through the bathroom walls.
Cursing, or at least what Nate thinks sounds a lot
like cursing, is coming through the bathroom walls.
Is the cursing in English? Is the cursing in Spanish?
If the cursing is from a member of the wait staff,
like Nate, than it's probably in English, but if the cursing is
coming from one of the cooks than it's almost definitely in
But it's the tone of the sound, like a cat that's
struggling to cough up a fur-ball, or a police siren wailing on
an empty street during a cold winter's night, and not the
language or the words themselves that let Nate know that what
he's hearing is a curse and nothing else. It's the tone.
Nate splashes water onto his face and then looks up
and into the mirror. He holds a momentary staring contest with
his own blurry reflection. Nate flinches before his reflection.
"Nate!" He hears his name being screamed through the
It's the yell that causes him to flinch and end his
personal staring contest. He runs a damp hand over his even
wetter forehead and then he moves his hand down to the front
pocket on his white dress shirt, and feels tucked securely there,
the shape of the one lone cigarette that he's kept in that pocket
all day and vowed not to smoke because today is the day that Nate
has decided he will finally quit smoking after a dozen years.
It's been nearly eighteen hours since he made that vow.
"Nate!" He hears being yelled again. "Table seven's
"Alright, hold on!" Nate shouts back at the sound
that's coming through the bathroom door.
Then it really begins in earnest. Nate turns both
knobs at once. He turns the knob with the blue plastic tab on top
of it and the knob with the red plastic tab on top of it each as
far as they will turn and the tepid water gushes forth in
torrents from the faucet.
He places his left hand, palm up, beneath the soap
dispenser. He slathers his hand in a thick layer of the pink
slimy substance that drips from the dispenser and then he sets to
Nate puts his hands into the small sink that's now
nearly almost full of the lukewarm water and he begins twisting
and turning them as if he's trying to wring his own blood from
the palm's of his own hands. Nate scrubs his hands like his own
skin is a tight latex surgical glove that he's vainly struggling
to remove. He scrubs them until his fingertips are wrinkled, his
skin is pink and chapped and his hands are raw to the touch.
"Nate, hurry the fuck up in there!"
That last yell through the door was definitely
different than the two yells from before. It was definitely a
different sound from all of the other cursing coming through the
walls and the racket going on outside in the kitchen.
It's the restaurant manager's voice. Nate definitely
does need to "hurry the fuck up" right now. He needs to get back
out there, out of the bathroom door, through the kitchen and back
out there in front of the house (as the restaurant's paying
customers are called) and start serving his tables. But ever
since Nate made a vow to himself to quit smoking he hasn't been
able to stop washing his hands.
He's been at work for about six hours today and this
is the ninth, maybe the tenth, time that he's felt compelled,
obsessively so, to wash his hands. He's lost count of exactly how
many times it's been that he's come in here to wash his hands. He
can't stop himself. More soap. More water. More scrubbing. His
fingertips become more and more wrinkled and his palms and wrists
more chapped, more pink and even more raw to the touch.
"Nate, I swear to God I'll fire…." It's the manager
yelling through the door again.
Shit. Damn, he could really use a cigarette right
now. Nate feels like he's going to panic, or maybe, he feels more
like he's about to puke. He's not exactly sure. Nate's only
positively certain of one thing at this moment-God damn it, he
could really use a smoke!
If this guy, his manager, would give him just a few
more minutes and let him finish washing his hands this one last
time then Nate will finally be able to get these damned things,
his own two dirty hands, clean.
It's funny, but Nate, like all the other members of
the wait staff at the restaurant where he works, never used to
wash his hands on any of his breaks. Never, that is, unless
something unprecedented like the health inspector coming for a
visit on a busy Friday or Saturday night happened to take place.
Except for when they are leaving work at the end of
the night, no one here appears to wash their hands at all. The
only reason that you wash your hands at the end of your shift is
because you don't want the steering wheel on your car to end up
smelling like beer, or French fries or worst of all onion rings.
Smoking, using the bathroom, sneezing, picking your
nose-anything really-is fair game to do on your break before
going back out there in front of the house to serve some more
Waiters and waitresses here are paid below the
minimum wage and most people don't tip well at all so that among
the members of the staff here there really is no moral dilemma
when it comes to not washing your hands. And who can really be
bothered to wash their hands on a short fifteen minute break when
your job is to serve food to people who are for the most part a
bunch of assholes and not all that into their own personal
Well, apparently Nate can now that he's vowed to quit
smoking. He can't stop washing his hands. He can't get them clean
enough. Out! Out! Black spot! He's like Lady Macbeth (or was it
Ophelia?) scrubbing for dear life while wearing a white shirt and
black dress pants.
Damn, he really could use a cigarette! It's always
there, it's cylindrical shape pressed against his heart,
reassuring him in the breast pocket of his shirt…and the book of
"emergency" matches he always carries in his wallet. A dozen
years of smoking, a dozen years of this addiction, have taught
Nate tricks that he thought he would never learn.
Okay, eventually Nate realizes that he does have to
stop washing his hands and get back to work.
"That's it," he hears his manger Don's voice through
the door and the door handle begin to turn.
"Alright…alright…alright," Nate says hurriedly in
order to reassure his boss that he's leaving the bathroom,
leaving the bathroom now, leaving the bathroom immediately and
going back to work. He's trying to assuage some of the anger he
knows he's going to receive. "Just gimmie a sec," Nate says as
the door opens in a last ditch effort.
Nate takes the one cigarette, slightly crumpled from
being in his pocket for six hours, but thankfully not cracked
anywhere, still whole and still able to be lit, out of his
pocket. He takes out his book of matches, fiddles with it and
nearly drops it into the sink full of water which would have been
a true disaster, but he finally gets his hands steady enough and
puts the smoke in his mouth.
He lights one bent match but it sputters and goes
out. He lights another and a small flame catches. Nate takes the
dot of blue flame to the end of the cigarette and lights up. He
inhales deeply and he feels whole again.
Slowly, deliberately and with swirls of smoke eddying
upward towards the ceiling in the small bathroom, Nate turns the
taps of running water off. He watches the water swirl and go
down the drawn.
One last time Nate looks at his reflection in the
smudged mirror. He sighs a long and drawn out sigh, "Huhhhh,"
something like a cross between a sort of yawn and a sort of moan.
His manager is walking into the bathroom now.
Nate turns around abruptly and he nearly knocks head
on into his boss, Big Don. He almost burns his arm.
"Okay, okay I'm ready Don," Nate says.
"Jesus Christ Nate," Don says as he waves his hand to
get the smoke in the bathroom out of his eyes, "thought you were
gonna stay in here all freaking day."
"Nah, I'm done now," Nate says hurriedly, not wanting
to explain anything.
"Okay, well get out there."
Nate begins to scamper through the bathroom door and
out into the kitchen but his manager calls one last thing out to
him as he's leaving. Nate, who's walked away and has his back
turned, stops and faces his manager. He pulls the butt to his
lips and takes a cool, relaxing drag.
"And Nate!" His manager screams.
Feeling a lot like James Dean, Nate faces his boss
who towers over him, and says as diffidently as he can, "Yeah?"
"Put that damned cigarette out before you get in the
Nate walks away. He inhales deeply, blows plumes of
smoke up to the ceiling and trots into the kitchen. He grabs a
big tray of heavy dishes of friend food and lifts it up to his
Before he goes out in front of the house to serve the
food Nate throws his half smoked cigarette on the tile floor and
grounds it out with his shoe. He inadvertently gets a little ash
on somebody's French fries….looks like pepper.