DIRTY DISHES • by Mary-Anne Nelligan

I really thought that Olivia and I were best friends. But, she didn’t make me a bridesmaid for her wedding. During her engagement party, the eight girls in her wedding party all wore matching bracelets. Rose gold and delicate.

It was a six-hour drive back to my little apartment in Providence, Rhode Island. I tried calling my mother, but she didn’t pick up.

***

I am twenty-four years old. The past six months, I’ve been working as a dishwasher at a small diner. The shift is from 7 PM to 1 AM. The glass racks are the heaviest, but they clean easily.

Sometimes a waitress tells me that I’m not working fast enough. Sometimes there are so many dishes that I have to go outside and sit between the walk-in refrigerator and freezer until my heart stops racing.

I munch on the fries that have been sent back. I eat them quickly, fitting three to four in my mouth at a time.

On his way out the kitchen door, Mark, one of the kind line cooks, grabs my shoulder and pushes me aside on his way to the walk-in. Suddenly, I’m crying, and for the rest of the night nothing cleans easily.

When I go to clock out, I notice my hours have been cut.

***

In the morning, after emailing and calling about dishwasher jobs in the area, I get seven replies. Restaurants are always looking for dishwashers.

***

During an interview, Oscar, the manager of a restaurant, takes my resume but doesn’t look at it. I feel my chest already breaking out in a rash. His office is small and crowded. He talks fast. Sometimes, I can only hear every other word. My heart races and my jaw trembles.

“Well, you seem like a nice girl. Not sure why you’re dishwashing. You can start today if you want. To be honest, we go through dishwashers quickly here,” he says before shaking my hand and tossing me a large blue tee with the restaurant’s logo on it.

***

A couple of weeks go by before I tell mom about my new job. She asks whether I’ve applied for teaching positions in the area. She tells me she loves me before hanging up.

I go into work at 12 PM. It’s early, so the dish room is empty and clean.

The whoosh of the kitchen door is followed by a small rattling crash. There are slices of bread scattered all over the kitchen floor.  Stepping out of the dish room, I catch a glimpse of Oscar standing near the entrance of the kitchen, the empty metal baking tray sits near his feet. Before pulling on a new tee, he sprays cologne onto his chest.

I pick up the fallen bread near his feet and feel his eyes on me.

“It’s stale, anyway,” I say, even though that’s a lie.

“No one puts anything back where it belongs,” he says.

Before I can respond, he darts out of the kitchen. The smell of his cologne still hangs in the air. After dumping the bread into the trash can, I sweep the floor.

Hours later, between the hum of the dinner rush, Oscar visits me. Suddenly, he is at my side in front of the dish machine. His breath smells of alcohol. When he lifts the handle and brings out the rack of silverware, thick steam rises above us.

“I read your resume today. You actually went to college. Makes you smarter than most around here,” he says as he takes the blue microfiber cloth from my shoulder and begins to dry the silverware.

“I figured out too late that I didn’t want to work with kids,” I tell him.

I clock out around 9 PM and head home. Lying in bed, I search Oscar’s name on Facebook and send him a friend request. He messages me almost instantly and asks if he can call me. I panic and don’t respond.

Before my eyes close, I think of his hands.

***

The next day, everything feels sticky in the dish room — the dishwashing machine, the metal counters, and the cast iron pans.

***

The following Friday, I meet Oscar for drinks at a bar close to our work. It’s lightly raining and the air is still warm. There’s an empty pint glass in front of him and a full one nestled in his hand. I’m in a blue, short-fitting dress that constantly needs to be adjusted. He talks about how his mother and father came to Los Angeles from Guatemala. When he starts talking about his ex-wife, his eyes dart everywhere and his hands tuck quietly into his lap. Between long sips of beer, his fingers trace the hem of my dress. My left hand is on his knee.

Oscar pours me a drink once we’re inside his apartment. His bulldog, Winston, barks loudly at me. Oscar tries to calm him, but the dog sees right through me. The barks grow louder and more urgent. The combination of the dog’s tilted head along with the dull shine of his glaucoma makes my body shiver back inside itself and transports me to a moment years ago. A moment that made me feel small and malleable.  Then everything is quiet. The barking stops after Oscar puts Winston in his bedroom.

The wine glass he gives me is from a wedding in 2004. The gold lettering is faded.

“Yours?” I ask, pointing at my glass.

“Yes, only because I paid for them,” he replies.

My body moves slowly while I pretend to glance at his bookshelf, avoiding his stare. He sits on the couch.

My mind drifts as I imagine his ex-wife. Her wide hips and long arms. Her fashionable clothes. She’s probably prettier than me. Despite this, I’m steadier now.

After landing on the couch, I’m practically sitting in his lap.

“You’re a strange girl,” he tells me before branching his arms across my waist.

The barks are persistent now. My heart jumps; it barks.


Mary-Anne Nelligan is Managing Editor of Five on the Fifth. Her work can be found in Gone Lawn, Crack the Spine, Duende, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Gravel Magazine.


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