I walk out onto the back deck behind the dishwasher to smoke a joint. At the top of the stairs to the storage room where I stay Rafan prays to Allah. He is prostrate, oblivious. I don’t get it but it doesn’t bother me. Micah, the Buddhist janitor says he prays for enlightenment. I take a big puff. The ganja settles my nerves.
I am washing dishes at the Frolic Café. I keep my mouth shut. I live now on the coast smashed up against the ocean where the air smells like salt and fish and seaweed and where it rains in buckets and the wind blows hard. Maybe the wind blew me in. Maybe I escaped from a bottle thrown into the sea many years ago. Maybe I’m not here at all. Maybe there is no me.
No, that can’t be right. I’m Marciano Rosales, named after my great great grandfather. Maybe. I order a yogi bowl for lunch and think things over. The yogi bowl is Gary’s invention. After Mary Lou quit, the boss cooked days until he was worn out. Then he hired Gary. Brown rice and organic vegetables. It reminds me of something my grandmother fixed for me. Another memory creeps into my brain.
Everyone ignores me. That’s fine. People speak about their personal stuff right in front of me like I’m not there, the locals at the round table in the coffee shop, the tourists who always sit by the windows, the lovers who hide in the dark spaces in the middle of the dinning room to hug and kiss, even the cooks in the kitchen like Skipper who makes out with his girl Claudia in the walk-in cooler. I’m nobody, silent and invisible, not worth any thought at all. I like that. It makes me feel free.
Roy came in yesterday. He hardly ever goes out to eat. I heard his wife wanted children but they couldn’t have them. Now he has a whole ranch full. He likes the Anchor Steam beer on tap at the Frolic. The previous owner, Hawley Martin, took a liking to Anchor Steam the first time he tasted it in San Francisco. The beer is not pasteurized so the company doesn’t like to send the kegs outside the City. They only sell the bottles. Hawley worked out a special deal with the Greyhound Bus Company. The bus company promises to keep the beer refrigerated during delivery. Every week a new keg arrives on the bus at the bus stop outside the restaurant. It is my job to meet them and cart it inside to the cooler. The Frolic is the only restaurant outside San Francisco to offer Anchor Steam on tap. Roy loves that beer as much as Hawley does. I like it myself.
This is how I do my job. I don’t look up. I don’t speak. I bus dishes from the tables and take them into the area behind the kitchen where I wash them. The dishes bang and the dishwasher hums. If anyone asks me a question I say: “I don’t know.” Off they go in the opposite direction and leave me alone.
But, I know a lot. I know all about everyone here. I watch them all. I may not remember my past, but I remember everything I’ve seen since I came. I never forget a face or a name, who said this or who said that. I could say plenty more than people think. But I don’t. I don’t say and I don’t judge. No one asks my opinion anyway.
A gray plastic bus tray slams down on the stainless steel counter next to my sink. The trays come in piled high with dirty dishes, uneaten food and trash. The first thing I do is to pull out the trash and garbage and dump it into the big garbage can under my sink. It’s tricky. Silverware and dishes can get mixed up in the garbage. They are expensive. The boss does random searches of the garbage. If there’s silverware mixed in with the garbage, he’s really upset, so I’m careful. He pays me in cash so I can fly under the radar. I’m nobody. I don’t exist. He doesn’t ask questions about my past. He keeps a running list of broken dishes and who breaks them. Those who break a lot don’t last long.
Separate, rinse, load, dry, stack—over and over in Zen-like repetition. Micah, the janitor, is waiting for a pebble to roll across the floor when he is cleaning so that he will be enlightened. Sometimes I hang around after my shift at night and talk with Micah. He hasn’t been enlightened yet, but he will be. I became enlightened right after I started washing dishes. The job and I merged. I don’t know how it happened but I became one with the job. I know what he’s waiting for, but I can’t tell him.
The people who work here are not what they seem. Like Rafan told me about Roy’s tenants, they’re authors, poets, musicians, scientists, attorneys and who knows what else? It seems that to work here you have to be somebody else. In another time, another place, the distant past or the future. That’s why I fit in. Life is a kind of art in multiple dimensions. I don’t have to say much. When I first arrived someone called me Mac. So now that’s my name. When anyone asks me my name, I say Mac. Mac who washes dishes, busses tables, runs to get stuff. Separate, rinse, load, dry, stack. I melt into my work like a shadow hides in the dark.
“Trench Coat is in the back of the dining room,” says Marla. “He exposed himself to the waitresses again. The boss wants you to get rid of him. Scare him good this time so he never comes back.”
Trench Coat comes through town every few months. He wears a long black trench coat that hangs down over his dirty brown boots. He has black greasy hair and yellow teeth and scum under his fingernails. Under the trench coat he wears nothing at all. He opens his coat when a waitress waits on him. All the girls know about this. When a new waitress is hired, they send her to take his order. That’s her initiation. Her screams can be heard all over the restaurant. Everyone laughs. If she survives, she stays.
The boss doesn’t want Trench Coat to come in anymore. I go into the back of the dining room where Trench Coat hides in his dark corner. He looks at me like a frightened little boy.
“You’ve got to leave man or the boss is gonna call the sheriff,” I say.
“I’m hungry. Send me a waitress to take my order,” he growls.
“None of the waitresses want to take your order. Look, you really have to leave. The boss means it this time. And, you better go out the back door. I don’t know what he might do if he sees you in the front.”
Trench Coat stares at me. He looks so sad, so alone. I feel bad for him. He’s ugly and pitiful and he has no friends.
“Go out the back. Go around to the garbage area behind the restaurant. I’ll bring you something to eat. Get out of here and don’t come back. If the boss calls the cops they will take you away to the nut house. You know what that means? They’ll stuff you full of drugs and turn you into a zombie.”
Trench Coat is shaking when he leaves through the back door. I go back to the kitchen. The boss doesn’t like me in the dining room with my apron on.
On my way to the dishwasher I pick up some bread and cheese and steal some bacon off the grill while Marla is busy with a waitress. I wrap everything up in tinfoil, put it in a white to-go bag and take it out the back door. Trench Coat is not there. I wait as long as I can, but he doesn’t come. I leave the bag next to the door and go back to work.
Separate, rinse, load, dry, stack. Separate, rinse, load, dry, stack. When my garbage can is full, I go out back to empty it. The white bag is gone. “Good,” I say. “Good.”
The Frolic Café has had many lives. It was a blacksmith shop, a Greyhound bus station, a Gospel Hall, the Little Club, Casa Mendocino. People say ghosts still roam through the place but I’ve never seen one. I’m going to try to see one sometime when I’m alone here late at night. Micah hasn’t seen one. His black eyes pierce right through me when I ask him. I look away. I look back and a sly smile crosses his lips.
“I’ve never seen a ghost, just Ernest the skunk,” he says. Micah tells me the story.
Ernest lives under the building. He comes out at night to rummage through the garbage area. The boss tries to shoot Ernest one right after he buys the place. He takes a 20-gauge shotgun and one shell out to the garbage area. When the sheriff drives by, he flags him down.
Micah sits down on one of the stools in the coffee shop and gets into the story.
“Hey Officer,” says the boss. “I’ve got this skunk in my garbage area. He stinks up the place. I want to shoot him. It’ll take just one shot. I’ll shoot him while he’s in the dumpster. The garbage truck will haul him away tomorrow. Neat and clean. You got a problem with that?”
The Officer looks amused.
“No problem. Go ahead. But don’t shoot that gun in town again or I’ll have to arrest you,” laughs the Officer.
“Thanks Officer,” says the boss.
After the sheriff’s car turns north on Lansing Street, the boss stands on a milk crate and points his shotgun in the direction of Ernest. About now I’m feeling bad for the skunk.
The smoke clears and there’s Ernest still rooting around in the garbage.
“Damn, missed him,” says the boss. He goes back into the house.
“I laughed so hard I almost pissed my pants,” says Micah. “No one’s ever tried to kill Ernest again.
The grease renderers come by in a large truck filthy with grease and grime. The son of the man who owns the company walks in the back door by the dishwasher.
“We’re here to pick up the grease,” he says.
“Okay, I’ll tell the boss,” I say.
The grease from the kitchen grill rolls off into a metal trap that I empty for the cooks when it gets full. I pour the grease into empty five-gallon white mayonnaise buckets. We store the buckets outside the back door of the restaurant. It’s a fire hazard but we do it anyway. The grease renderers only pick up the buckets once every few months and they pay the boss something, not much, to save the grease for them.
“What do you do with that grease anyway?” I ask the boy.
“Back at the factory they mix it with grain to enrich the feed for the cattle. Cattle love eating their own grease,” says the boy with a nasty smile.
He stares at a cute waitress who wiggles by.
“Grease to cows, cows to grease,” I mutter.
“What’d you say?” asks the boy. He really doesn’t care. He’s more interested in the girl.
I don’t answer. I’m nobody.
The kid walks back out to help his father. The old man glances at me and shakes his head.
It’s Sunday morning. Crazy busy. People line up out the front door into the street and wait for a table for breakfast. I hear a scream in the kitchen, then laughter. Soon everyone’s laughing even those upset by the long wait for breakfast.
“What happened?” I ask Henrietta who is busy making pies.
“Red-haired Sandy dropped the bucket of pancake batter,” cackles Henrietta. “The batter splattered all over her. It’s in her hair, in her eyes and face and arms and all over her cook’s outfit.” Henrietta is difficult, ornery, but she does have a sense of humor. She calls scrambled eggs crazy mixed up kids.
“Really? She splattered the batter everywhere.” I say.
“Go see for yourself,” says Henrietta as she rolls out the dough for another pie. She doesn’t miss a beat.
I dry my hands and step into the kitchen. Sure enough, there’s Sandy with white goo all over. It has crusted up from the heat of the grill. She wipes her eyes clean and goes on cooking. There’s no time to clean up the mess. It’s a long line outside the door.
There’s gonna be a lot a dishes.