I was sitting on my milk crate smoking a cigarette out by the dumpster when the mini-van pulled into the alley and stopped in front of me. The driver rolled the window down and leaned out.
“Bruce in there?” He asked.
“Yup,” I replied.
I got up and went back into the kitchen. The cook’s rush had just started, which meant my rush would be in about fifteen minutes. It’s no joke. Because this is a Chinese restaurant, so each meal comes with about ten pieces of tableware per person. You’ve got your fork, knife, spoon, and optional chopsticks (that no one ever uses but always gets set out), your soup bowl, your soup bowl saucer, your personal plate, your beer glass, your water glass, and your tea cup. In addition there are the communal dishes, the entree plates, the dipping trays, and the pitchers. Then, of course, there are the various cooking implements that need to be washed: the bowls, woks, pans, knives, and cutting boards. So, essentially, a family of five would give a dishwasher like me about a half-hour’s worth of work to do, but (of course) during a rush there’s six families of five, five couples on dates, three groups of four friends, eight loners ordering another plate of orange chicken to go with their last double-whiskey coke, three fat guys who come in by themselves every night, and a partridge in a pear tree. This happens twice a day, once in the early afternoon(which is not as bad because it’s a lot of takeout), and then the real crazy rush every night. After I finished with those dishes, and those of whatever stragglers came in afterwards, it was my job to break down the kitchen, pull all the knives and pots and pans and cutting boards and buckets from their places and put them through the washer. Then I’d put the floor mats through the dishwasher, and then while they were going I had to mop the floors. After that, I would put the whole kitchen back together again.
For this I made minimum wage and no tips, but the weekend shifts were from eleven in the morning till close, which meant that I had a bit of a rush when I got in, but then from about two in the afternoon till six I just sat out back smoking cigarettes, maybe do some homework. Also, on the weekends I worked with this kind of a weird cat who used to make art projects out of duct-tape and tampons out in the alley—which was entertaining—but also he was old enough to buy me beer and had pretty good weed most of the time. So, for a 17-year-old kid, it was a pretty good gig. This was a Thursday, but still, I come in after school and usually didn’t have to do any actual work for the first few hours. It kept me out of the house anyway.
I went in to get Bruce, an eighty-five-year-old Vietnamese man who claims to have been part of the Viet-Cong, with all sorts of white-man kills under his belt. He’s might be a bullshitter, but it doesn’t take much to believe it. That guy definitely had colon cancer for the last five years of his life and still came into work every damn day—sounds like a warrior to me. I walked behind two guys cutting up pork, backed up against the wall so I didn’t bump them while they methodically hacked away at raw pig parts with knives sharper than nails on a chalkboard. Bruce was cooking up some Mongolian Beef as I recall; I remember because they would make it for ten people the first few times someone ordered it and the smell of that stuff in huge quantities could wake the dead. I told him some guy in a mini-van wanted him out back and he laughed at me.
“Oh yeah? Did he at least offer me some candy?” He asked.
He took off his apron and walked out the back door. The mini-van driver was leaning on the back door, smoking a cigarette.
“Kenny!” Bruce yelled.
“Hey Bruce, I got a boatload for you today,” said Kenny.
They both laughed, so I assumed the guy had seafood. Sure enough, he opens the back of the van and there’s ten plastic tubs of crabs stacked up where the seats used to be. Kenny and Bruce started talking prices and whatnot, so I went back in to get cleaned up for the rush. I was putting on the plastic gloves when Bruce opened the door and tells me to go help Kenny unload. We talk a bit as we move the bins inside, putting them against the walls and thereby choking the already narrow passages. Turns out he was a Native from across the tracks, got himself a little boat, sells the crabs he catches out of the back of his van tax free, pretty good racket. As he’s telling me this, though, I notice the crabs are still moving.
“What the hell?” I said.
“What?” Said Kenny.
“These crabs are still alive?” I asked him.
“Yeah, they need to be kept alive until they are cooked, otherwise they will go bad,” he said.
My sink was stacked by the time we finished unloading. Kenny left and I got to work. Every time I got a load done, I’d have to go put the dishes in their places around the kitchen–which meant walking past the tubs of crabs along the ground, and watching their thorny arms slowly extend and retract, slowly dying. I had no choice but to just ignore them, but I could swear they were asking for help. Finally the rush came to an end. The cooks began stacking their tools and dishes on my counter, and I went through my nightly ritual. At the end, as usual, I was the only one left. I hung up my apron, said goodnight to the crabs, and went home.
Friday nights are heavy, so that’s when my co-worker Noah comes in. He comes in right before rush and helps out till closing. On that day, he showed up with a seven-foot-tall mannequin he made out of paper towel tubes and duct tape sitting in the front seat of his car. He rolled down his window and called me over. I got into the back seat.
“Hey, meet Luanda,” said Noah.
“Well hello Luanda, what a pleasure it is to meet you. Nice face,” I replied.
“Yeah, I made it out of clay I made from mayonnaise and flour. Check her tits out,” he suggested, so I did. They felt real.
“They’re reinforced balloons with jello inside them. I installed a pocket pussy too. I pretty much never have to talk to an actual woman again. Here, hit this.” He said, passing me an apple pipe.
So, we got baked in his Corolla with his homemade Amazonian sex doll until Bruce came out and yelled at us to come back in. I remembered that Noah didn’t know about the crabs, I let him go in first to see his reaction.
“Let’s put one in each toilet” was the first thing Noah said when he saw them.
“I was thinking more along the lines of letting them all go in the Sound,” I replied.
“They’ll just die,” Noah objected.
“What? That’s where they came from, they should be fine.”
“Nah, we should just let one loose in the bar.”
“Noah, take one out and put it on the ground,” I told him.
So he did, and the crab just sat there, it’s little eyeball antennas just barely shifting about.
“Oh, well fuck it then. Have they cooked any yet?” Noah asked.
“No, I wish they would, they’ve just sat here since yesterday,” I replied.
Noah picked up on of the crabs and walked over to the window where the waitresses picked up the meals. I don’t mean to imply that there were no male waiters at the restaurant, I mean to state that specifically. Every cook was a Vietnamese male, every bartender a Chinese woman (though in fairness there was only one bartender), every person bringing out food was a white woman, and then whoever showed up washed dishes. They couldn’t give a fuck who washed dishes. The cooks saw the crab and just laughed, and kept putting up dishes next to the live crab. Finally a waitress noticed it, after she had picked up the plates she was meant to bring out to the table. She screamed and dropped the whole armful. The cooks started screaming, the waitress continued screaming, customers left, and Noah went out back for a smoke. The manager, Bruce’s daughter, came back to the dishpit with the crab.
“Did you do this?” She screamed.
“No,” I said.
“So it was Noah?” She asked.
“I don’t know, maybe it was Bruce,” I said.
She went to the door and opened it, and yelled for Noah. As she walked into the alley, I grabbed the door and kept it cracked so I could see what happened. Noah got out of his car with a lit cigarette and came over to her.
“Uh, what?” Noah asked.
“Did you put this crab on the serving counter?” She attempted to ask sternly.
“Uh, no,” Noah replied.
The manager just walked back into the kitchen. I walked out as she was walking in, hoping it would look like I had just walked out.
“That lady is a bitch,” said Noah, “What does she even do here?”
“Be’s the bitch I guess,” I responded.
We finished out the night. Noah left after rush was finished, and I broke down the kitchen. Another night had gone by with none of the crabs being consumed. Fewer of them waved back when I said goodbye that night.
One of the times I almost died
The guy I usually work with on the weekends, Noah has been suspended. Indefinitely. So, pretty much, he got fired. Frank is the new guy and an old friend. I brought him on board on the condition that he knows how to tie off a garbage bag, so it stays tight around the rim. Some people can’t do this, and it is fucking ridiculous. If you don’t tie the little knot, the bag slips below the rim, and then the garbage falls into the bottom of the bare can behind the loose garbage bag, and then I’m the one who has to spray it out with a hose; inevitably getting garbage water all over my shoes. Anyway, he’s a good guy.
The Saturday night he started, we went to a party after we got the kitchen closed down–around one in the morning–right after work. I had brought a bottle of rum pilfered from my parents’ extensive collection, and was taking pulls off it while I mingled with Oi Polloi. Things were going good: a lot of people were getting ready to graduate–myself included–and so the mood was distinctly celebratory. The type of mood that made talking to the cute girls I haven’t had the balls to approach for the last four years a breeze. That might have been mostly the rum though. Anyway, the guy throwing it, he said his name was Salmon, was making steak on the back porch. Usually I don’t eat meat, but I make exceptions in certain circumstances, and being drunk at a house party qualifies. Plus, hot girls in small towns don’t seem to go for vegetarians. So, he loads me up and I start chomping on it. Part of the reason I don’t eat a lot of meat because it gets stuck in my throat, and if I had forgotten that I was reminded about three bites into that steak. It wasn’t an immediate emergency, the stupid meat just got stuck in the tube that goes to my stomach, so I could still breathe, I just couldn’t swallow anything, so I spent the rest of the party unable to drink the moonshine Salmon had lifted off his dad and spitting a lot. Eventually one of those nice people who stays sober just so idiots like me don’t die drove me to my parent’s house. I invited her in–my parents were gone on vacation after all–but I imagine watching me spit out the window the whole ride might have turned her off. I was still drunk when I–alone–hit the sack. Though, I still had the cognition to bring up a little bowl to spit into during the night.
In the morning I spat again. The chunk of flesh remained firmly lodged in my throat. I got a glass of water from the refrigerator tap (or whatever you call the thing that dispenses water from the fridge). The water sat in the back of my mouth and the beginning of my throat for a few moments before I was forced to exhume it into the sink. I sat on a couch for a few minutes, thinking how stupid it would be if this is what killed me. I went to the back deck and smoked some weed, smoked a cigarette. It was nice to consume something, even though I got cottonmouth immediately. I gargled some water, teasing my body with the prospect of hydration, breaking its–my–heart when I spat it back into the sink again. I decided to go to the hospital, a place I detest, but I wanted a drink of water. I didn’t know what else to do.
I drove to the walk-in clinic, filled out the form, and waited for them to call my name. Finally, I was called to the counter.
“I’m sorry, but without your parents permission we can’t see you,” said the receptionist.
“Really? What if I broke my leg or something?” I asked.
“Well yes, if it were an emergency we could see you,” she replied.
“Ma’am, I’m not able to swallow. My parents are going to be gone till next weekend, so I’m looking at the distinct possibility of slowly dying of thirst over the next few days. Are you sure that doesn’t constitute an emergency?”
“How long has it been since you were able to swallow?” She asked.
“Since last night.”
“If you are still unable to swallow by tomorrow I suggest you go to the emergency room at the hospital, they will see you there.”
I spit into the little paper cup I was holding and thanked her. On the way home I felt like crying. I was hungry and thirsty, I had to work that night, I didn’t want to see the crabs, and I didn’t want to spit anymore. I thought that maybe I could just expedite the process, put myself out of my misery, get it over with. That thought roused me; made me defiant. I just had some fucking steak stuck in my throat! I went home and filled a glass of water and chugged it and then vomited it all back up immediately. I filled the glass again, vomited again. Again. I sat on the couch staring at the dead T.V. screen until I had to go to work.
The crabs were still there of course.
“Are you planning on cooking these or do you just like watching things die?” I asked Bruce as I put my apron on.
“Both!” He said, laughing.
Sunday nights are slow. I sat on my milk crate smoking for most of the night. It was cold, but I didn’t want to be inside. Finally, the cooks called it quits and went home. After I finished with the kitchen, I took an empty tub and filled it with water and salt. I knew it wouldn’t be the same but I was worried fresh water would be worse. I picked up a crab–none of them seemed to be moving anymore–and put it in the tub. After a few seconds it began to open and close its claw, to move its eyestalks, shift about. It wasn’t too late yet. I filled the tubs with my solution and went home.
The next morning Frank wanted to play basketball, so I walked down to the park to meet him.
“You don’t look so good man, are you all right?” He asked me.
“Yeah man, it’s just that steak,” I said, trailing off.
“That fucking thing is still in there? What the fuck man, go to the hospital!”
“Yeah man, I guess I should, I have to go to the emergency room,” I told him.
“Fine, I’ll drive, you look like you’re about to pass out.”
“I definitely don’t feel too good.”
So we drove. I passed out in the car on the way, and Frank woke me up in the parking lot. We high-fived and I went inside. I went through the process with the lady, and she tried to tell me they wouldn’t see me. At this point I was desperate, I told her it had been almost 48 hours since I’d had a drink, much less a bite to eat, so if they didn’t want to see me I would be in the waiting room, dying. She acquiesced, gave me the forms to fill out, which I never did. I just sat there, slightly slumped, trying not to pass out again before I heard them call my name, I’m not sure if I made it.
I woke up in a surgical gown with IVs in my arms. No one was around. I lay there for a few moments just staring at the ceiling. I swallowed reflexively. I realized what happened and swallowed again. I reached for the cup on the table beside me. Relief, sweet cool relief, ran down my throat and filled my shriveled stomach. It was like I’d been given a stay of execution seconds before they put the needle in me. I felt amazing. The doctor came in and told me what they had done, essentially they put a deflated balloon down my throat, inflated it, and the steak just dropped through. He also told me the hospital would only be able to release me to a relative. I thanked him and he left. Then, I took the IVs out, put my regular clothes on, and walked out the front door.
I took the bus directly from the hospital to work, where I passed out again. I still hadn’t eaten anything since two days earlier. The cooks insisted I go home, and they insisted I call Frank and tell him to come in. I tried to convince him it wasn’t my idea, but he wasn’t having it. At any rate he was supposed to work the next day, so I traded him. I went home, got stoned out of my mind, ate two frozen pizzas, and slept like a baby.
The morning of the last day at my job washing dishes, my older brother Ash came over. He woke me up as I lay on the couch with marinara stains on my face and cheese on my t-shirt.
“Hey,” he said.
“Oh hey,” I said, wiping the sleep out of my eyes.
“You graduate in about a month right?” He asked.
“Yeah, little less.”
“You got any money?” He asked.
“Yeah, shitloads. I was gonna buy a van,” I replied. My plan in full was to buy a van and then drive it to California and live in it, but I hadn’t really discussed that with anyone yet.
“I got a different idea. I’m moving to the U.K. I found a kind of host-employment company called Bynak that helps you get the visas and find a job and a place to live and everything. You should come with me.
This was unexpected. Ash and I had gotten along alright the last few years, but we weren’t exactly close. I told him I had to think about it, but that was just to play it cool. I already knew I was going to go.
“Well, the thing is the application is due to tomorrow, and we would be leaving the day after you graduate,” he told me.
“Oh. Yeah then, I’ll go. Where do I fill out the application?”
He directed me to the website. I filed, paid the fee, and was in. We booked tickets. That was a particularly awesome moment; I immediately felt as though I had no problems in the world. It’s addicting. I still get that feeling every time I buy plane tickets. Then we filed for the visas per Bynak’s specifications, and that was it. Some people will tell you it would have made sense to contact Bynak, maybe research where in the U.K. we wanted to live, look for jobs in advance, that kind of thing. Those people are probably right, but I don’t make a habit out of thinking about the future and everything always seems to work out anyway. Ash and I went to the back porch and smoked a cigarette.
“What are you doing for your birthday?” He asked me.
“I don’t know, nothing I guess.”
“Fuck that, your turning eighteen, that’s a big deal.”
“I guess so, I don’t really care that much. The mini-mart already sells me cigarettes, and the internet keeps me in porn, being eighteen doesn’t matter that much,” I replied.
“Well, maybe you should come to Seattle or something, we’ll get drunk and walk around the zoo or something.”
“That sounds like the best fucking birthday ever Ash, I’ll see you there.”
“It’s a Friday though, don’t you have to work on Fridays?”
“I quit,” I told him.
“When? This morning?” He asked.
“No, now. I mean I’m going in tonight but not to work, even though I’ll have to do that too.” I said.
“So you’re going to quit tonight then,” Ash stated.
“No, I quit now. I just have to do a few things.”
Ash just laughed. We went back inside, and said farewell. I sat on the porch and smoked weed. I was just about to doze off when the phone rang. My parents were calling. I told them I was moving to Europe after I graduate.
“You mean a few months after or what?” My mom asked.
“No, the day after.”
“Well that’s pretty abrupt, what are you going to do?” She asked.
“I don’t know, Ash found some company that will get us a job or something. I already bought tickets.”
“Well, ok, if that’s what you want to do. Have you thought about college?” She asked.
“No, I was thinking about buying a van and living in it in California though.”
“Yeah, ok, Europe sounds fine. Well, we’ll be home by Friday, what do you want for your birthday dinner?” She asked.
“I’m going to Seattle to hang out with Ash.” I told her.
“Oh, well it’s nice you too are suddenly becoming so close. Breakfast then?” She asked.
“Swedish pancakes, and Dutch babies.”
“Both?” She asked.
“Well that sounds great, I should let you go, everything ok at home?” She asked.
I told her it was, and we said goodbye. I grabbed a beer from the fridge, made a sandwich, and sat on the porch. The cat showed up and sat with me for a while. For the first time I felt bad nobody ever named him. It seemed arbitrary to do so now, since he’d been living with us for ten years already. I scratched his head, told him he was pretty, and went to my old job to finish.
The crabs lay in their tubs. There seemed to be less of them–perhaps some got eaten, or perhaps they were simply discarded carcasses, sitting on top of bags of half eaten chow mein and empty soy sauce bottles in the dumpster. I watched them carefully as the night progressed. The majority seemed to still be alive. Their tenacity was admirable. If I had lived in that kitchen for four days in a row I wouldn’t have made it, wouldn’t have wanted to. But these crustaceans were too stupid to die: they just waited.
It was busy for a Monday. The dishes piled up high, the cooks yelled for their tongs and woks. I took my time, enjoying the ritual of loading up the glass cleaning tray, with its individual slots for each glass, putting that into the washer. While they were running I’d take the silverware and separate it, as quickly as possible–and at this point I was basically a gunslinger, fastest hands in the west–and then load them into their washing tray, forks and spoons up, knives down. Take out the glasses, load in the silverware, put the glasses away, load the plates into their tray before the washer stops, take out the silverware, push in the next set of plates. Have the silverware put away and a new tray of dishes loaded before the washer stops. Winning the race against the washer was significant, if the previous dishes were put away, and the following dishes were loaded, while the current dishes were in the machine. Then, it was impossible to work any faster. This simple, stupid, boring job had an attribute that escapes the noblest of professions. You could be perfect at it. When I sat against my counter, no dishes to put away, a tray loaded, space eliminating the possibility of loading multiple trays as the washer ran, a cook might come back and tell me to hurry and I would look him in the eyes and say, “I did.” At that moment of dishwashing Zen it was literally impossible for me to work harder: going any faster was prohibited by the laws of the universe. I was master and commander, king and queen, judge and jury. In that state of anticipation, those moments when I had nothing to put away, nothing to load, I was granted immunity by logic. It would be over soon.
Soon enough the rush ended and the last hours of the night dragged on. Finally the cooks began stacking their tools on my counter, and the lights out front went low. Bruce was the last to leave.
“You leaving soon?” He asked me as he left.
“Yeah Bruce, real soon,” I told him, surprised but also understanding.
“Ok, good,” he said, and he walked out the back door.
I watched him drive away. I wondered if he was asking if I was leaving soon for the night, or if he had intuited that I wouldn’t be coming back. It didn’t matter. I finished up. Every pot was washed and returned, the floors mopped and dried, the mats down, the garbages emptied. I grabbed a tub of crabs and put it in the trunk of my car. Then another. I put the last three on the passenger seats and drove out to the reservation, back to where the crabs had come from. I pulled into the sandy parking lot and turned off my car, but kept my headlights on. I carried the tubs down to the shore and sat with the crabs for a while, staring out at the sea. I took a crab from the tub and placed it on the beach. It just sat there, not moving, not rejoicing, not being relieved. I picked the crab up and placed it in the water, it’s eye stalks shifted, but it still did not rush into the sea. I carried it out further and let it sink beneath the waves. I couldn’t see the crab, so I knelt down to feel for it and a wave toppled me, covered me. The crab was gone, out with the tide perhaps, but maybe it finally realized its release. I grabbed a tub of crabs and rushed out into the water, running until its weight halted my legs and I flew forward, flinging the tub and the crabs ahead. I ran back and grabbed another tub, ran back in. In the end the tubs floated silently on the sea’s surface. I waded in slowly and retrieved them, and sat beside the stack on the beach, watching as crab carcasses floated back to shore.