As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
New York Live Arts presents
Pre-shift you stop at Valley Mart. You need two Mountain Dews to survive. The slog. See yourself when you say slog. You’ll slug Dew—wind catching your black cargo chef pants, raw chicken gunking your kitchen clogs—and mud will pour into the Mansion. Gray-brown, doom and gloom, life after your mother’s death—that’s what you need to overcome: today’s shift. Tell yourself it’s any Tuesday.
Valley Mart is next to the monument shop. You wear your mom’s ashes in a fisheye marble around your neck. What that, Carlos asked, your first day at the Mansion. You glared at him and his clouded eye.
Only Will attended your mom’s service. He’s a good guy, according to your father. I don’t worry about sending you to work for Willy Brown. Then you were just his former-boss’s daughter; now you’re JoAnimal, and he’s got you wrapped around his finger, running around his kitchen like the floor is on fire.
The display headstones are tacky. You never remember the business’s name: maybe ignoring taxonomy will protect you from death. You and your dad.
We’re all going sometime, your dad says when he’s cleaning the fish tank or charring his toast or walking you to the door. Someday you could be this nonchalant too, but in the meantime you subdue your existential crises with a crush on your boss. Might as well get it done.
Your dad. His skin is smoke-sallow since he started buying cartons. Winstons. He keeps trying to find an afternoon when you can accompany him tombstone shopping.
The memorial you choose is a personal declaration, reads the pamphlet he showed you. The limit is set only by your imagination.
The monuments are planted in a green-green lawn, the brightest on the block. None of the stones look right for your dad. They’re so awful they beg you to stare. Like any ugly thing. They come in black, gray, red like sun-faded blood, quartzy white. The worst have images: tranquil deer, jonquil roses, a treble cleft, a palsied angel. Generic surnames are etched in available fonts.
S M I T H
Polishing must be someone’s job. When your dad goes, his concrete upkeep will be on you. It will be you who ensure his headstone is weed-free, bird-shit-free, neat. Toothpick his letters’ crevices. Working at the Mansion has taught you these things: Some pots will never get clean. Also: you can eat off anything.
The monument shop and Valley Mart are on the corner of Mill Street. There’s traffic heading to the interstate and the road that spans Franklin and Hampshire counties, probably further. You don’t go further. The monuments are buffed: you’re reflected from the waist down in their faces. You are a slim body, bones and joints and muscles and fat and flesh and skin. Mourning agrees with you. Emotions agree with you: the more you feel, the less you eat. You are blood and guts.
Pass the monuments and enter Valley Mart so you can buy your Dews and drive to work.
The clerk doesn’t look up. She has pink hair. She picks at her phone with jaguar-print nails. At the Mansion, the servers wear blingy manicures, white-tipped, neon, rhinestoned; you envy them. You are a girl, too, one of the only girls working in the kitchen. You miss having nails. Well, you miss clean nails. Mushroom dirt and potato dirt won’t wash off with a brush.
Your palms are sewn with crud.
DEW is 2 FOR $1.99, any color. Voltage, Revolution, Code Red and Rushin’ Rapids Blue. Plain sewage green. Arctic White-Out reminds you of sixth grade, which seems a lot longer than ten years ago. When’s time going to speed up? Tracey Picek painted her nails with Wite-Out and, with her buckteeth, ate it off.
Twenty-two months that you’ve worked at the Mansion: it feels that long.
“Anything else, hon?”
WORMS + CRAWLRS advertised in bubble-lettered signs Scotch-taped to the counter. The tape is peeling. The writing is highlighter orange.
You could bring Chef a Red Bull. You could text him. You could say meet me at my car. Meet me behind the funeral parlor. Meet me in your street clothes. Let’s take off. Let’s get lost. You should text him: Will you or won’t you? You don’t. You shake your head.
“Two and two,” says the girl, flashing nubby teeth.
June, and the low’s eighty, murk overtaken by a fat sun. You too could be eclipsable. Present-you. Now-you. In the kitchen, you eclipsed your father. At a red light, you stare at the labels. Arctic Burst, not Arctic Wite-Out. For a minute that makes more sense. Your AC is shot: the vents leak a smell like athlete’s foot.
Two Dews sweat in the cup holders now, soaking gum wrappers and receipts. Why is condensation so gross? Like handicapped bathrooms and chicken skin. It’s water, it’s natural, you think, but nausea crawls in your mouth when you touch the wet paper.
After Labor Day, you’ll start at GCC. Two seminars, two labs. If classes go okay, after the first term you’ll get an externship at the country club or the bistro in Shelburne Falls where you ate before prom, somewhere good, better than the Mansion. Two years, you’ll be certified. You could move out of your dad’s apartment/sadness/shadow and work in a real kitchen in a real city by water more than the Connecticut River. You could stop pining over the chef. In the meantime, you’re six days a week on hors d’oeuvres at the Mansion and it’s wedding season.
The only wedding you’ve ever attended was your mom’s creepy brother’s. It was a second wedding, which is right there with bottle-sweat-handicap-chicken, or at least this one was. It was awkwardly small, in Turners, at your uncle’s little yellow house, with a mountain of trash glaring down on the backyard and a white tent staked into the patchy grass and five or six of those round eight-tops covered in checkered plastic, red and white. Hamburgers and hotdogs and foil things of pork n’ beans, coleslaw, browning lettuce, crinkle-cut cukes.
Michael used to be a heartbreaker, your mom said in the car. She brayed. When she was doing all right, her voice was louder. Michael was her only brother, so she abhorred and adored him. Now he’s a pharmacist.
Crossing the bridge over the falls, the water splashed like frothy ice; it hit the river so blue it looked fake. You were thirteen. Your mom was maybe fine. She dragged her garden salad through a blob of French and split your chocolate-chocolate cupcake, the frosting.
Why he’s marrying a troll, I can’t tell you, she said, almost shouting. The bride looked like a mole rat in Lennon glasses.
Nance, your dad said, winking. Be a little kind.
He watched her for you.
The Mansion is the opposite direction of Turners. A few years after the wedding, Michael and the mole rat moved to Iowa—to drown in cows and corn and cheese curds, your mom said. When Mom died, Michael and the mole rat didn’t send flowers, not even a card. Well, they missed your graduation too. Your mom’s family always doubted her, your father said, in whiskey moments, those first days after, when it was suddenly June and for the first time ever you two were alone. They expected your mom to go, Michael did, he wanted her to give up. And Audrey—she’s a piece of work. A nurse? Nurse Ratched. Give me a break.
(For your last birthday, she’d sent you a book about how family members could cope with their loved one’s eating disorders.)
When you came home from Williams, at the end of your second year, you dated a guy in Turners. He was nothing. Horror movies and vodka sodas and a lot of couch fucking. When you’d go to his place you looked for that house where the wedding was, the Styrofoam plates, the trash heap, just to find something from when your mom was still alive. Just anything familiar. You never found it. You were done with liberal arts. Also the past. It was condemned or razed, something from your imagination.
The union of creepy Uncle Michael and the mole rat had been one of shittiness and middle-aged convenience. Mansion-couples are in love. They’re young enough to want three hundred invites to ogle their nuptial bliss. Choices aren’t yet hassles, but chances. They’re drunk off a future overflowing with what’s possible, like your mom and dad in photos on the mantle: smiley, playful, touchy, easy-skinny. The sunset surges pink and orange and purple hopes. Waists are nipped. A convertible dangles streamers and beer cans.
Sometimes you see the newlyweds. You feel like an anthropologist in the bush. When you help the servers set up or if the reception comes with a station: Retro Diner Midnight (hot dogs, mini-burgers, onion rings) or Fancy Sundae Bar or Fresh-Carved Sirloin. Brides alternate between simpering and snippy; grooms are booze-flushed and benign. You never imagined a ceremony; you never tried on someone else’s last name; and these days, when you see the room all decked out before the reception, the centerpieces dripping baby’s breath and greenery, the tables strewn with pearlescent confetti or ivory beads, you feel crone-ish. Depraved. You want everything bruised and rushed and rash.
To the future! Dudes are always toasting as you’re making your way to the veranda or the hot food buffet. The guests are gleamy, teary. The future is the time when you will be more what you’ve already become.
Employees park behind the funeral home across the street from the Mansion. Everyone except Will; his truck goes on the other side of the building, in a gravel drive next to the loading dock by the river.
Even funerals require dumpsters—for old bouquets and punctured coffee pods and stale cookie platters and the cardboard tabs inside men’s collars and many, many tissues.
The average adult human takes two to two-and-a-half hours to complete its burn, you read in one of five large-print pamphlets while you stared at your legs and listened to your dad stammer.
She didn’t want to be … in the ground, he said to the goateed cremation consultant, whose expression confirmed he’d heard it all before. A body in a plot does that. She doesn’t want us tied to any one place.
Was it wrong to be wearing jean shorts at this appointment? You could just hear your mother: Look how fat thighs get when you’re sitting down. Who wants to be an average adult?
(With your mom, all adjectives were secretly about size. Healthy was her least favorite word.)
After the cremator, your mom was ash and bone; after the processor, she was nothing more than a couple uniform quarts.
Like putting gravel in a blender, the cremation consultant said. That’s crude, but don’t diamonds come from rocks?
The front of the funeral home is weepy blue; the back, salmon. Be careful with yourself, your father says. Young guns go whipping through. You, too, whip through, watching for others of you—front-of-the-house you, garde-manger-you, bakeshop-you, grill-you, custodial-you—as you turn into the lot.
In your car, you sit with the windows up, heat mounting, eighties music—Eddie Money blasting—I have a hunger, it’s a hunger. Your life has been stalled ever since. You slip your mom under your tank top. Today is two years. Her body burned in an hour. A weight between your breasts, a lump clogging your throat. You text your father: arrived. You lick the corners of your mouth for dried toothpaste. His reply comes quick: Thanks, sweetie. Hang in there today. You’re fine. You’re good.
The Mansion lot is packed. That means a luncheon, plus guests at the attached inn, which is chintzy, sprawling, unaffiliated with a chain, susceptible to erratic decor. Year-round Christmas lights. Fake ivy vines. A waterfront patio shaded by River Birches. The banquet halls are mauve and turquoise with trompe l’oeil Greco-Roman columns; the women’s lounge is a Victorian pleasure bower. You’ve never seen a guest room.
Amidst the cars, beneath a cloud-blank sky, you feel the pull, a yanking wince behind your eyes, satellites of your heart: to turn and speed-walk away, fast, calves burning, faster, your mother told you, don’t dilly-dally, and seal yourself in your car, silence, heat, nothing, no one, then succumb to noise and cross the Connecticut River and consider swerving into the concrete guardrail (you consider this every day) and crack the first Dew and veer toward the interstate and go to the mall and wander like time’s not precious, buy actual pants, or better, a skirt, and throw out your Chefwear, leave your panties in the dressing room, smash your phone and forget your texts, fill up the tank with premium gas and buy cigarettes and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and a handful of scratch-offs, forget your dad and his morbid desire to pre-plan and forget your mom, that her mordant overgrown-adolescent-self ever existed, and forget you tried college, forget your whiling-away chef crush, drive for days and nights and the no-person’s time of sleeplessness and hunger and thirst, piss in a bottle, sleep in your car, do roadside push-ups to wake yourself up, bang a lot lizard (you can be into girls), at least try on a sexy-nice androgynous name (James) when you check in under an alias at a throwback motel with spotty premium cable and maybe a kidney-shaped pool, Do Not Disturb signs doodled with bonneted maids, and use up your breaths disintegrating into a jobless, toothless hag too weak and daffy to fuck or text or sharpen a knife.
But you don’t get paid until Friday. And maybe your dad needs you. Escape is what you want when you don’t really know what you want.
Past the dumpsters and walk-in #6 and freezer #2 and the semicircle of royal blue milk crates and the cluster of rolling racks and the narrow passage—one way leads behind the building to the river bank; the other behind #6, past the metal tubes and boxes, the walk-in, to the clearing where guys sit and smoke—the kitchen door is open.
“There she is, there she is,” says ebullient Russ. His face is pieces through the space between the stainless-steel shelves. He has a wide nose and tattoos of his three daughters’ names up his right forearm—the middle girl is his favorite. She gets the best phone.
“Hola, JoAní!” Carlos says, pushing a metal oar around the kettle. He leans over and you fist-pound; it took eleven months for you to be friends. Now you know things. Carlos is from Puerto Rico. The cloud fogging his right pupil is a disease he inherited from his father, his father’s father, etc. He’s been clean ten years, sous for nine, and he likes to rhumba with his wife. The kettle’s not really a kettle: it’s a metal bathtub-shaped vessel where he makes fifty-gallon batches of bland marinara.
On grill #1 is Dwayne, a registered sex offender in his fifties who abuses his cat. Grill #2 is CK, dying of brain cancer but begging to work. Beneath his skullcap his actual skull is knit with surgery scars. He is your-mom-at-the-end gaunt: gross-thin, too thin for a casket. Grill #3 is Elliott; he’s like a work older brother, but flirty. You can flirt with anyone you’re not into. Elliott has a buzz that makes his head look like a penis. He shoots rifles and goes skiing, takes blondes on sushi dates and lives with his grandma.
Chef station, in front of grill #1, is where your dad used to work before your mom’s last month. Your dad is how you got into restaurants at the end of that summer, when you realized you weren’t leaving home. You and your dad moved into a two-bedroom. Kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, bedroom, family room: that was plenty. You couldn’t handle a campus. School could wait. Or wait and wait and wait until the registrar lost your records and the number on your ID evaporated.
Chef station pre-your-dad was Crazy Frank: a one-armed, one-eyed dynamo, a living, blinking (just the one eye) POW. Now the chef station belongs to Will: his cutting board, his stack of perfectly-flat folded rag towels, his silver Thermos of black coffee, his tidy celery dice.
“What’s good?” says Nicole, the other girl in banquets. The bakery downstairs is packed with large-hipped matrons, but you’ve only got Nicole to commiserate with about PMS in the kitchen heat (it’s worse). She’s whisking olive oil into a bowl of mayonnaise at the hors d’oeuvres station you share. The mixture gets yellower. She sets down the whisk and holds up a little brown hand.
“Girl,” you say, setting your Mountain Dews next to the cocktail picks and Nicole’s phone playing Daft Punk on the shelf.
You’re short; Nicole is maybe a midget, even in chef clogs. Can you ask that? She’s your friend: she told you what tore when she gave birth. Nicole is tubby with buzzed hair; your age, but she has two-year-old Penelope and a boyfriend and an exciting home life: days off, she cooks things like duck-egg pound cake and bulgogi.
On the hotbox next to your station, your list from yesterday has counts for the week. You scan the kitchen. Dishes accumulate at both dish pits, and in his black-and-whites, Jason, the skeezy beverage manager, scoops ice.
“Downstairs?” she says. “I honestly don’t know. Haven’t seen the guy.”
Here, Will said yesterday, handing you a legal pad and a dull pencil. These are the parties. Figure out what you’re gonna need. He pulled out the swivel chair at his half-desk, a glassed-in box across from his station and grill #1, and closed the door.
Inside his office, the kitchen sounds were muffled. You rolled up the sleeves of your chef coat and slipped your stockinged feet out of your clogs and pointed and flexed your toes and felt the always-astonishing pleasure of sitting mid-shift. Above you, stuff too expensive for dry storage: saffron threads, vanilla beans, jarred truffles. You heard your breath. As you tallied up the number of guests and the number of parties, the weddings per day that had ordered brie-pear purses, sesame chicken, asparagus in phyllo, stuffed mushrooms, mini margaritas, lamb chops with maple mustard, short ribs and sushi and samosas, you lifted your gaze from time to time to look through the glass and watch for him watching you.
“Hey there, gorgeous,” says Snoop in the basement. Rasta from his phone bumps out a scratched-up boom box on the counter, next to a cut-out of when-she-was-still-skinny Tyra Banks, oiled-up in a snakeskin bikini. Even her eyes look like they could yank you from the garden: dilated and green-apple green. A rack of cold salads and rainbow crudités.
Everyone has a nickname, but Snoop is Snoop because he’s a sex offender and he’s young: anonymity means he still has a chance with the servers. When you punch in, you’re one of two hundred employees and you couldn’t look up his name to research his crime if you wanted to. You have no clue about his last name. “You helpin’ me?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “Where’s Will?”
Dwayne’s record you checked. Watch out for him, your dad said, he’s a prick. After your mom died, niceties disappeared. Your dad leveled. You’ve gotta be friendlier, he said when you came home from your first shift crying. Your mom was big on that standoffish thing. You’re not in a classroom anymore. This isn’t symposium. Guys’ll think you’re a bitch, sweetie. And just like I’m telling you Dwayne’s a total dick, you don’t want to be a total bitch. You treat people how you wanna be treated.
What you couldn’t tell your dad was that you didn’t know if you wanted guys to be dicks to you. Sometimes it felt good to cry or be treated like shit. Sometimes it felt good to make someone else feel bad, like Gus, who claimed to be an opera singer back in the DR but now was annoying and fat and, according to Carlos—Gustavo, he love you. Knowing that he liked you, you made Gus pre-fry all your vegetable spring rolls just so you wouldn’t stink like Fry-o-lator. And then when he got them too dark, you acted like a bitch, which, the bad feeling, the guilt, you waited for it to sink in, but you just kept waiting.
Snoop spatulas hummus into two eye-shaped bowls. He scrapes the blades of the buffalo chopper clean.
“Willy, Willy, Willy,” he says, gaze on the counter. He pauses, purses his lips. “I don’t even know.”
At night, when you got home, you read about Dwayne’s convictions on your phone. A street-view map of the county popped up. A sex offender lived just down the block, between you and your dad’s apartment and the retirement home.
“Let me find out,” you say to Snoop, laughing for no reason. Friendliness means giggling and smiling and joking and high-fiving without a second thought. “Let me get back to you.”
In the locker room, you search for a dishwasher’s shirt amongst the chef coats. L, XL, XXL: all for men. You swim in an L. Most days, you borrow one from Will: he’s a Medium, no more than five-ten in Nikes. He doesn’t wear chef clogs. Underneath his coat: a tight white T-shirt.
His chef coats are embroidered with his full name. The stitching touches your left breast, or your left breast through bra and black tank top. Read me!, you want to say.
Long sleeves: brutal, cumbersome, always dragging through plates. Polyester doesn’t breathe. The dishwasher shirts are short-sleeved, better. They snap-up, which passes for sexy. Your arms. There aren’t other skinny girls in the kitchen. You jam your bag in your locker; you check your phone. The nothing disappoints you. Sometimes you still expect an inept message from your mom: Don’t eat 2 much pork or Gr8 job on ur lit ppr! Sometimes you’re running late, just so you can text Will and get back an Okay and totally lose your appetite. Dwayne molested a twelve-year-old boy and was in prison for fifteen years.
You, too, are taller in chef shoes.
Now you and Snoop are cool. It just took time. A few months. One shift, when you were facing a wall, washing heads of Bibb lettuce for a private party (Russians who only drank Cristal and Stolichnaya), mind off, not in the kitchen, Rihanna radio—we found love in a hopeless place—mind on sucking in your stomach, washing lettuce so quickly and thoroughly that Will would see how fast/focused/knock-out you could be in your better-than-anyone concentration, so he could see, wow, she’s really intense but in a good way, which even your dad told you was important, Don’t act like an airhead, Jo, those servers are more than enough trouble for anyone, it’s not fair, no, look, it’s not fair, but as a woman—yes, as a woman—you’re going to have to work twice as hard in the kitchen, even if the guys try to tell you otherwise. I don’t care how heavy that pot is, you lift it. Those sheet trays, those boxes—okay, and don’t get offended if someone asks if you need help. You smile, say thank you, all right, maybe let them lighten your load, but you sure as hell don’t go whining about it, not that you would, sweetie, but you just—there’s biases, conscious or—and the cold water poured over your fingers, your fingers shrinking in the cold, and the grill searing and oven doors swinging and squeaking and that’s when you felt it. Two hands on your head, settling in for a scalp massage.
Hey pretty mama, you heard Snoop say, and you screamed. You couldn’t help yourself. You were frightened. Your heart pounded. As though you were suddenly alone, not in the kitchen, not surrounded by men; as though you were any girl, anywhere, behind a closed door.
What the fuck is wrong with you? you said, panting. Cold water pummeled the lettuce waiting in the sink. It was so delicate the leaves would be bruised with forest green teardrops.
Honey, hey, hey, Will said, wiping his hands in a towel. He walked like a wind-up toy, unless he ran. What’s going on, what’s going on?
Snoop had his hands in the air and a not-this, not-me expression on his face.
I scared her, he said, backing up. I was just messing around. Gonna ask if she needed help. My bad, my bad.
Will nodded. He looked at you, assessing. In the thick of that moment, when you felt like there wasn’t one more emotion you could possibly be experiencing, something in Will’s seriousness made you think he got you: did he know that? You pretended his face wasn’t his face; he wasn’t hot when you really saw him. He just stood there, bug-eyed and quiet.
I’m sorry, baby. I swear. We good? Snoop said.
You sniffled. You turned off the water.
Upstairs, no Will. You look for Carlos, who’s moved twelve feet, from the kettle to the stock vat. The stock vat is taller than you and it ends in a spigot that spits out smelly broth like bad breath.
“Hola, guapita,” he says. “How you doing? You okay?”
“Better than okay,” you say because now you know. If you’re sad, pretend you’re not. Scared, no way. If you’re hungry, pretend you’re full. If your mom died two years ago today, pretend that every shift isn’t a dice roll of grief’s five stages. Lose your mood at the door. “Where’s Will?”
“Willy, he meet with Jill,” says Carlos. “Upstairs.”
Without teeth, Carlos’s smile erases his lips. He opens his mouth.
“They fucking,” he says, quiet and serious, watching your eyes. You remember how a week ago, when you brought Carlos a Red Bull so you weren’t just bringing one for Will, he pulled you aside when the kitchen was quiet and said: There anyone you like? Anyone you watch, JoAní?
Uh-uh, no way, no. But it feels so big inside you of course he must know. Everyone probably does. Maybe you should talk to your dad.
“Ella es gorda … como un cerdo. Oink, oink.”
He cackles. He holds out his fist.
“Boom!” he says. “Boom city!”
Everyone checks with Chef before beginning work. That’s basic kitchen respect, your dad told you before your first day. There’s a ladder. An order. You talk to the guy in charge, no matter what else anyone says. Lotta guys who think they know lotta things in the kitchen, but chef’s the only one who’s not blowin’ smoke up your ass.
“What do you need,” you say to Carlos, rolling up your sleeves. When Will’s not around, Carlos is next in command. He’s good, but you can tell he didn’t go to culinary school. Everything I learn from Willy, he says.
You pull open the drawer and grab a chef’s knife. You’re not serious enough to bring your dad’s old ones.
The kitchen is muggy. Carlos’s eyes dart through the clouds. He puts a hand on his forehead. His nails are suspicious and long.
“I tired,” he says. He’s salary. Salary guys, like him, like Willy, work seventy-hour weeks. Sometimes, Carlos will say, no day off. He yawns. “I’m good, baby, you check Nicole?”
“You help. You good help. Thank you, baby.” He touches your shoulder and aims his grin at your cheek. “Help Nicole. She slow.”
“Aioli, done. Shrimp purses, done. Brie-pear, done. Short ribs, done. Gnocchi, yeah,” says Nicole. Even her handwriting is tubby. She’s one of those girls who likes to see herself print.
“Lamb,” she says. “You good with that, JoAnimal?”
“Yeah,” you say. You pull your phone out, tell yourself you’re checking that it’s silenced just to check the messages, and set it with your disappointment on the shelf.
Lamb you grabbed from the freezer yesterday; lamb is unthawing in #5, the meat cooler, behind Will’s office. You pull through the suction to open the door, and push away the strips of plastic curtaining the walk-in. The iron unctuousness of organs, bones, bleeding. Boxes of chicken thighs and steaks and uncoiled sausages, seared tenderloins and withering bacon, gray-scaled tilapia fillets, lamb comes two racks to a plastic-wrapped package and eighteen bundles are unthawing in a pool of watery blood on a sheet tray.
Ever since Elliott told you about Will hooking up with waitresses around the building, you’ve been waiting. You linger in walk-ins and shiver in freezers. You ponder dry storage, ignoring what’s right in front of your face. Where are the wasabi sesame seeds, you ask yourself, heart racing, staring at them, six bottles of them, right there, next to the black sesame seeds, the white sesame seeds, the plum, the garlic. When will he pick you? You dawdle in the bakery, through the restaurant kitchen, a whole other entity from Will’s banquet-side domain, a downstairs connected to the locker room basement through old tunnels and molded-shut doors, and sneak handfuls of chocolate chips when you run to fetch dinner rolls. You’re ready to get caught.
You hear the cooler door open and pause. Dwayne squints as he brushes aside the plastic curtain.
“You comin’ out?” he says. You smell coffee on his breath. He takes his sugary, milky, which grosses you out. So milky, it’s almost milk. You’re a little afraid. You are what you eat, etc. He is sweet, creamy, hot liquid, guzzled. He has silvery white hair and a beard. A red face. A good smile, which you saw the residue of when you checked the registry and, under your sheets, your dad sleeping in the next room, were confronted with Dwayne’s mug shot. He looks like Santa Claus, which is a way the universe messed up.
“Hellooo? Anyone in there?” he says. His voice is deep. “JoAnimal?”
You heft the sheet tray onto your shoulder, tightening your stomach to balance so you don’t spill the blood.
Dwayne backs through the plastic. “I’m trying to hold the door.”
There are some things you wish you could forget. Dwayne’s banana bread is one of them.
A week when you didn’t work brunch. Brunch means Will has you make breakfast bread pudding because he knows you like pastry; sometimes he even puts you on desserts for private dinners, lets you come into the kitchen on nights when there are no parties and prep, because he hates the Mansion bakery—everything is fake-butter and three-letter shortening and vanillin and fruit cobbler biscuits that bake up raw. Nights you prepped for private dinners, you thought maybe you were reading the signs. Your Concord-grape focaccia was that good. Your espresso granita. Your pistachio biscotti. He was going to wait with you. Work side-by-side on something. Push you up against the grill. Burn your back.
Your brunch bread pudding is so ooey-good that once a server ran back to you with a pen and paper because a guest wanted the recipe.
This one day you weren’t on brunch so Dwayne made the bread pudding. Watch out JoAnimal, he said, when you showed up. I’m coming after your job.
What would this man have to do to become self-conscious about his threat potential?
What kind did you make?
Dwayne grinned like a guy at a bar watching two girls make-out.
I make really good banana bread.
Nice, you said. Banana bread was the one thing your mom could make. Seventies food, she called it. She gave you that if you had to bring treats for school.
I make a great banana bread, Dwayne said. But my goddamn cat likes it.
He likes it so much, the other day I was home—I’d made some. And I sat down with a big glass of milk and nice warm slice of banana bread. So I’m watching TV, and the cat comes over and bends down and the little guy’s got his pink tongue out, and what do you know, he’s going to town on my banana bread! So I grab his neck and stick his face in the bread and hold him there, you know, and really let him know what he did wrong. ‘NO. That’s not for you. You don’t touch my banana bread. Bad kitty!’ His little face was all messed up. But you know—. Dwayne shook his head, shocked and proud.
In the calm before parties, your feeling is charitable-good. You love, for instance, Carlos’s accent, which makes upstairs sound like oh-p-stairs. You love how Snoop and the other garde-manger guy, Dee, guzzle coconut-nectar-pineapple-juice smoothies. You love that Will doesn’t end a text with a period, like your messages might never need to stop. You love how you’ve committed to Mountain Dew, an at-work ritual, thus sacred. Ceremonious. Like you’re cementing your nostalgia for this time and place forever, once this time and place are over. The best thing about Mountain Dew is pouring it over ice in a plastic deli quart container. Arctic White-Out bubbles like funky mineral water and fizzes tiny fireworks above the rim. Arctic Burst. Before you sip is the ultimate. Before sweetness and invisible caffeine. When the Mountain Dew is a cold calculation: two bottles and you consume under six hundred.
Growing up, your mom banned soda and white stuff: white sugar, white flour, white potatoes, white rice. She sprouted spelt and ate it with chopsticks. She presoaked oats. College was when you started sneaking, but now you’re a slut for sugar. You just limit how much you need. Your father could never eat after being in the kitchen, and these days neither can you.
Before your crush, once you asked Will: Don’t you get hungry?
Who’s got time for that? he said. Coffee pretty much shuts my stomach up.
You take a sip. Mountain Dew hurts your teeth and your tongue. All the colors taste the same: sweet, blunt, thought-muffling.
A fifty-person luncheon means three round plates of sesame chicken. Two squares of lamb. Two rectangles of shrimp shumai, stuck in pineapple hoisin.
How do you make that, you asked Elliott in the back-in-the-day days of the beginning.
You go to dry storage, he said, narrowing his eyes, looking like a very concentrated penis. You get a five-can of hoisin. You open it up, dump it in one of these. Whack up a pineapple and hit it with the stick.
The stick: an immersion blender as tall as your calf. The plastic container of hoisin and pineapple wiggles with the vibrations and you have to steady it between your feet while you squeeze the motor and the blender roars in your grip. If Elliot’s working, he snickers until you tell him to shut up and then he lifts his dark eyebrows up his pale pink forehead and fake-focuses on what he’s doing and you smile, but just with your mouth.
The first few months at the Mansion were ugly. You couldn’t remember how to turn on the buffalo chopper or how to jimmy the robocoupe with a chopstick or where to find the blender. You wore regular gym shoes and slipped a lot and the guys were like Whoa, whoa, whoa, there she goes, is she—is she—she’s okay! You wore the stupid skull cap. You were slow, you couldn’t remember what went in which walk-in, you were afraid of making eye contact with anyone. Because what would they see? A girl playing tough. A girl who wanted to work herself into someone else.
During plating, when everyone gathered at the line to heap plates and pass them down and get covered with a plastic lid, there was the night Dwayne screamed at you for scooping mashed potatoes wrong.
Don’t level it off every time, he said, standing across from you on the line, carving a bloody tube of meat.
Will stood next to you, overseeing. You watched his arms. Was he touching your fingers on purpose when he passed you the plates? You stepped a little closer to him. He was placing three spears of asparagus, tips pointing to twelve o’clock, between Dwayne’s meat and your potatoes.
There were four hundred plates to scoop for. You nodded, but didn’t think. You kept leveling.
What are you doing? Dwayne barked. I told you, quit it with those potatoes. This isn’t a lunchroom. They look cheap.
You threw down the scooper and faced the ovens.
What the hell are you doing, Dwayne asked. Sweat poured down his red face, and some kid who only lasted a few days oooh-ed.
I’m not doing anything, you said.
Honey, honey, Will said. Get back on the line and let’s everyone calm down.
You threw down the scoop.
Who do you think you are, you said to Dwayne. The kitchen stopped. Where do you get off telling me how to scoop? If they weren’t supposed to be level, wouldn’t I be using a goddamn spoon? My dad told me all about you, you scumbag, so don’t you tell me that I’m doing something wrong.
All right, Dwayne, you said, setting down the scoop. How about I carve the roast and you scoop the potatoes? If you let me cut the meat, I’ll let you make these portions any way you want. I’ll let you do potatoes.
You threw down the scoop and ran down to the locker room.
Fuck this, fuck this, you thought. Six months at the Mansion was long enough. Respectable. You wished your dad would save you; you immediately took it back. He didn’t need another woman with problems. You sat on the bench, facing your stuff. You could leave. Drive back to the dorms. Someone would hide you out and you could do another dirty job there.
You heard steps, running down by twos.
JoAnimal, Will called.
Your stupid nickname. You chopped off the tip of your thumb making lobster salad and wouldn’t let anyone call your dad to take you home. You worked through: that made you an animal.
He rounded the corner. Blue eyes. Golden-brown fade. He sat next to you, his thigh against your thigh.
Hey, he said, like a guy from your twentieth-century European history class. He didn’t have something weird or criminal about him. He liked baseball and Cormac McCarthy novels. Maybe someday you would be this responsible: Will was only a few years older than you, but in charge of a whole kitchen.
Dwayne’s an asshole, all right? Will said. He looked embarrassed. Your dad had to tell you that. Everyone’s cranky by Saturday, but Dwayne—that fella’s king.
You nodded. You blamed your mom: you missed her, and she knew you were going to miss her, and she was the one who kept ignoring her doctors, and you were the one who kept expecting things to change, and your dad was the one who kept pissing you off, but really he was just being a realist. She’s on her own course, he said, a few days before she died. She was the one who passed out three times on the elliptical.
I’m sorry, you said, but it was only-maybe your fault. For a moment, you were honest with yourself: you just wanted someone to tell you that you weren’t all wrong.
He patted your knee and left his hand there. Up and down his arms, burns and scars and scabs were rashy, flushed from heat. This close, he looked reptilian.
“I’ll scoot,” Nicole says. Estimating, you bet her hips are ten inches wider than yours.
“Can you just push over that garbage?”
“You got it.”
You set the sheet tray over the lid. From under the first dish pit, you grab a stack of sheet trays—wet and still greasy and sometimes sudsy, even after the ice-pink sanitizer bath. Nothing at the Mansion ever feels clean.
Knife the plastic packaging, pull out the lamb, discard the plastic, untangle the racks, set them on the tray, repeat. You listen to Nicole tell you about her boyfriend’s sweet sneaker commission at Dick’s. You drizzle the racks with olive oil and sprinkle them with salt and rough-chopped rosemary. Massage the meat and flip. With the topsides facing up, they look like cave paintings of extinct mammals.
“Jooooo-Anna, Joooo-Anna,” says Tito, the morning dishwasher. His baseball cap is flipped inside-out. How does that even work? He clutches a plastic pitcher of fruit punch.
“Tee-toooh, Tee-toooh,” you echo.
“Tee-toooh, Tee-toooh,” he says back, spraying water into a sixty-gallon pot.
You heft the tray of lamb and head to the grill. Otherwise this will never end.
When the servers parade, it’s time to get it in gear. You better have your station set up. You better have a hotel pan on a wet towel so the pan won’t slip. Squeeze bottles of aioli and squeeze bottles of olive oil, sesame seeds for garnishing sesame chicken, chopped scallions, chiffonade basil, minced parsley, edible orchids. Your Mountain Dew loaded with ice. Your hors d’oeuvres fired and ready and pushed to the front of the trays in the hotbox. Cocktail napkins fanned on trays. Flowers from centerpieces scattered on trays. Picks and mini-silver forks and mini-silver spoons and tiny porcelain plates and edible wafer cones.
“Your plates look the best,” pig-nosed Jill tells you, shaking her graying blond hair. She’s the server manager, and she’s in-charge of assigning limp high school girls to Butler Passed hors d’oeuvres. Even her boobs look fat. She’s wearing a sleeveless satin blouse with a plunging neck and you can see the sweat beading her cleavage.
“The guys did it Sunday and everything looked like shit.”
“Have you seen Will?” you say, arranging bacon-wrapped scallops on a bed of arugula.
When she chews, her mouth puffs like a bellows. She shakes her head.
“Mhmnm,” she says, swallowing. You see the wad go down her throat. “No.”
You hate Jill for at least three reasons:
1) On the cardboards tents she prints out for the trays, she spells phyllo pilo.
2) She picks sticky nuggets of sesame chicken right from your box.
Maybe you’re only telling yourself today feels different so that today will feel different. By the end of the luncheon, the first Mountain Dew is gone.
“I made you a plate,” says Nicole. “You need help?”
“I’m good,” you say. “Take a break.” When she goes out to sit on the milk crates, you scrape the food into the trash.
You test yourself: are these shallot tears or real-tears? You are glad you gave up mascara.
It isn’t a shift without imagining yourself bold.
Parties over, you find him in his office cube, across from the line, reviewing tomorrow’s schedule. He’s any guy staring at his Mac. His chef coat is unbuttoned.
You knock on the window, even though the door’s open.
Hey, he says, and his voice isn’t yelling or instructing, but already listening to you. Focused.
Do you want to smoke? you say, swallowing your pulse.
He feels for the pack in his pants. He looks at you.
Give me five.
You’re face-to-face behind the building; you’re leaning on the kitchen and Will’s leaning on the fence. Gravel and cigarette butts beneath your feet. Mosquitos flocking to the floodlight that spills on the bucket shed. You lean back, with your legs extended in front of you. You can see his pecs through his T-shirt. V-neck, matted blond chest hair. He slouches and surveys the ground, but then he looks up, his mouth a serious yes.
Inside everyone is no one, a bunch of guys smearing soap with tangled-steel scrubbers on the tables and ovens and stoves and grills and hotboxes. Others following with towels. Not you. Not Will.
You’re stubbing out your cigarette when he asks you what you’re doing. What your plans are. He doesn’t ask about your dad. You say something great: you say, I’m planning to ask you to go for a drink.
He laughs. Smooth, JoAnimal.
You get in his truck. He drives you across the river.
Where are we going? you ask.
He keeps driving. He plays jazz. He’s not talking.
You live here? you say. He parks in front of the yellow house. The mound of trash still towers, garbage in the dark. Inside the rooms are Mansion ugly. Mauve carpet.
When he peels off his white T-shirt, his body is covered with red scales and scabs.
He presses your face into the turquoise couch.
When he touches you, you pass out. He sets you in bed. He sets you in the bed of his truck. He gets you a queen bed at the inn. He drives you to the foot of a mountain and wakes you, feeding you ice chips from a Styrofoam cup.
You put down your knife and check your phone. Your dad: I love you always but extra today.
You picture him: swiping a dirt-worn finger across the glass of the fish tank, trying to make the catfish vacuum up the algae; adjusting the band on the basketball shorts he still wears even though he hasn’t played pick-up at the gym in years; checking the clock—2:35 p.m.—and what are the odds he never remembers what time he was born and he’ll always remember what time his wife died?
“Smoke one?” Carlos says, halfway to your station. You wipe your shallot-tears with your sleeve and grab your phone. Text your dad: want me to come home?
You don’t really smoke, but you like to hold a cigarette and listen to men talk while one burns between your fingers. Carlos leads you behind the building, over the stones and the pipes and the generator, to where the gazebos spit paths leading down to the river.
He holds out a tired fist.
“Boom city,” he says, with a wan smile.
“La ciudad de boom,” you say.
You exhale menthol. You’re uneven; there’s breaded chicken smashed on your shoe.
“I tired,” he says. “Can you help me, JoAní?”
The sun leaks through the clouds, bluing the sky. Everything looks greener against the approaching dim.
“I still haven’t seen Willy,” you say. You scrape the bottom of your shoe on the ground. There are days you can’t get through and days you will yourself to become capable. “Is it supposed to storm?”
“No sé,” says Carlos. “Why? You wanna go home?”
You threw down the scoop. One-in-ten were your mother’s odds. Those I’ll take, she said. Heart attack: one-in-three? Cancer: one-in-two? Just don’t bet against me—or bury me. I want to be burned.
At the end, you could fit your purse inside the gap between her thighs. At the end, her skin was dishrag gray and baby-puppy furred. Her breathing was stitches, ripped up and ripped up and ripped out, the hem of her undone. Her heart was a moldy prune. At the end, you felt fat at her funeral. You walked out the kitchen door without gathering your things. You sat on a milk crate. No one joined you. No one touched your thigh. You were in the kitchen one minute and the next you were gone.
JoAnna Novak is the Pushcart-Prize-nominated author of two chapbooks: Laps (Another New Calligraphy, 2014) and Something Real (dancing girl press, 2011). Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Joyland, DIAGRAM, Guernica, Hobart, The New Orleans Review, Caketrain, and The Los Angeles Review. She is a founding editor of Tammy. She lives in Massachusetts, where she is editing a memoir about living with a chronic eating disorder.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.