We stand on the stove, Bill and me, and I reach my fingers into the trough that runs along the vent hood’s inner perimeter. Grease, warm like putty, as deep as my first joint.
“How long since you cleaned this thing?” I say. My voice bounds through the commercial kitchen. It is Sunday morning and the restaurant is closed. Chinese-American. Three wok rings mark the stove top, empty and dark.
Bill grunts. His hands are already slimy, wife beater streaked with lard infused with soy and smoke and filth. It occurs to me that I’ve never seen him sober. He’s twice my age–at least fifty–and has been here as long as any of the cooks can remember. “He here when I come,” Bucky told me once. “He longer here than Djinn.” Bucky’s broken English is the best of the three cooks, and he likes baseball which makes us friends.
Djinn is a mean brute of a man, face heavy and expressionless as he sweats through his duties. He reminds me of a heavyweight boxer. I think his American name is actually Jim, but I’m not about to ask.
I dig in, careful not to slice my finger on the sharp edge. God only knows what raging infection would result. Goo dams against my fingers. I scoop, and drop my first wad into a plastic bucket. A fried rice smell wafts. Rice fried in rancid grease. This evokes a strange combination of watering mouth and rising gorge. I should have eaten breakfast, or maybe I’m glad I didn’t.
“Why do we do this?” I say. I don’t know about Bill, but I’m being paid less than minimum. I’m considered a restaurant worker though I never see a dime in tips.
I glance at the silver box across the room, three feet wide, three feet tall, two deep, a slide-through dishwasher. Load the rack, open a door, push it in, press the black button, and whoosh the dishes come clean. I think of steam barging out as I open the exit, a hundred-forty-degrees of dry-wet heat. Again and again and again until appetites have been sated.
I never see the people who eat these meals. Sometimes they leave a taste and I cannot resist sampling the lobster sauce, or a stray wonton. It’s probably not a good idea, but this work is hungry, soul-draining labor. At some point you no longer care.
Another brown blob splats into Bill’s bucket. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. I gaze at my fingers, slick with grease.
I do care. I need to earn enough to get out of this place. Community College, a real job. Someday I want to be able to come back to this place and order a meal. Mom told me to stay in high school, but she was loaded with prescription pills at the time. That’s the thing. You can’t help some people, only yourself.
Bill starts scrubbing with a wire brush. Grease splatters his face. The hood rings. I feel suddenly surrounded, trapped inside myself. Work hard and life will reward you. Even Bill Gates started somewhere.
Reach, dip, scoop. Another plop, another inch of trough cleared. I wipe my hand on my shirt, smearing the faded AC/DC emblem. Molly, the kitchen supervisor, told me to wear an old shirt. I’ll have to trash it after today.
Bill hops down. “Side’s done,” he grunts. “Going out for a smoke.” He grabs the handle of his bucket and heads for the door. I watch his scrawny shoulders. He does not seem broken, but empty. I wonder what he did in his youth to deserve this outcome.
Molly waddles in from the storeroom. “Boss ain’t paying you to dawdle.”
“Sorry,” I say. I scoop again. Plop. I can still see the bottom of the bucket. Will this job ever end?
Molly’s wrinkled face cranes up. Her wattles jiggle. Her eyes are dull, but I bet she was pretty once.
“Put some elbow in it,” she says.
“Yes, ma’am.” I make a longer swipe. Grease piles up, tops the trough, drips onto my jeans and shoe. I fling a handful into the bucket and reach again. Shit. My clothes are ruined.
“That’s better,” Molly says. “Don’t think there ain’t a whole line ‘a kids out there wanting this job.”
I don’t know why, I think, but deep down inside, I do.
Stephen V. Ramey’s work has appeared in a variety of places. He lives in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river. His collection of very short fiction, Glass Animals, is available from Pure Slush Books via Lulu.com and Amazon.