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 way.
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 Spanish.
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 door.
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 order’s ready!”
“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 scrubbing.
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 food.
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 hygiene anyway?
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 kitchen!”
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 shoulder.
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.
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