That was the summer we did our laundry in the tub.
Kyle handed over my final check when I was terminated but I wouldn’t get my tips until I laundered and returned my uniform. Never in my history of terminations had I been leveraged to revisit the scene of such humiliation but I couldn’t wait for Kyle, corporate or whomever to dock me for the missing gear and cut me a check.
We did blowout business over graduation weekend and I wanted all that cash, the limp ones and fives colored up to crunchy tens and twenties fanned out in one paw like a game show host when Margaret came home from work and I would announce that I’d been fired.
Fired by fucking Kyle. That born-again son of a bitch nailed me good.
I ran the tub up short of elbow deep. Knelt on the tile and worked bar soap into the salsa stains on my server’s apron. Rubbed handfuls of stiff fabric together and plunged, scrubbed and wrung. Filmy shreds of diced tomato and greenish seeds formed a layer that rocked gently in the bottom of the bathtub like marine life in a tide pool.
I enjoyed a faint trace of something pretty close to job satisfaction when I realized I was Kyle’s first confirmed termination. I’d finally kicked some of the bitch out of that young man during my tenure at PapaTaco.
A month ago he couldn’t find the spine to confront Jenny when he saw her stash a three-gallon jug of PapaQueso in the trunk of her car on a smoke break. Now I had to alert them, let Jenny and the rest of my comrades know that Kyle was done firing warning shots. Kyle 2.0 was a combat-ready model and he would shoot to kill.
I twisted the apron from dripping to damp and pictured Kyle rehearsing my termination speech on the way to work in his champagne Prius. Smiling at himself in the rearview mirror when he dreamed up the masterstroke of sitting on my tips. One of his unicorn-rare smiles that overrode Kyle’s tendency to purse his chapped lips and conceal his adult braces.
The effort required to hide that hardware twisted the rigging of Kyle’s mouth into a dandruffy duckface. A tense and tender expression that gave him a hint of a squint and hitched his eyebrows a bit. Made you think he was about to spit beyond a given point to win a ten-dollar bet, or emphatically pronounce the letter M to correct someone who heard Kyle say N.
I hung the apron from the showerhead and wondered whose proud neck would soon bend under the black cotton yoke as the next member of the PapaTaco proletariat.
The MADE IN CHINA tag reminded me I wasn’t the first flawed link in this fatal chain of events. Some poor fucker on the other side of the world was probably working at that very moment under harsh lighting and the shadow of a brutal overseer, racing to finish another dozen-dozen of these aprons with cramped hands and a sore back before collapsing in a cold concrete dorm rumbling with the echo of coughing restless men.
I put my feet in the tub and sat on the edge, soaped the underarms and collar of my shirt over bare knees checkered with pink and purple floor tile impressions. The craftsman who tiled this building likely worked with sons or apprentices who paid in sweat to serve a master. In return they acquired a lucrative skillset blending precision and creative expression demanding full participation of brain and body.
Before plywood sheetrock and nailguns reduced home construction to a fast-food process, the average guy could pick up a trade and live well. At least do better than just getting by. Afford to build himself a house or buy one. Fill it with a family and make it a home. Maybe have enough energy left to discover and develop a personal reserve of talent. Water that weird seed tuned in to higher forms of human expression and create something people can’t snap their fingers and suddenly have, can’t beg for or buy in a store.
I missed being on the supply side of that action.
I checked my wrinkled fingertips. Slowly dragged them over my lips to gauge the recession of my callouses. Felt how they’d faded from thick pads to faint patches, more memory than mass now that I’d officially gone soft.
I could no longer say I was a musician. Couldn’t keep pretending to be a songwriter, couldn’t even claim to be an artist working shitty jobs to nobly chase the dream of making my own music. The odd open-mic night at the Beanery was the last time, the only time I’d felt something close to happiness, standing beside Margaret and putting our sound out there. We hadn’t played together since Christmas. I’d not written a decent song in years.
Every shift at PapaTaco was another slow march in chains plus tips. That place had captured the last marketable parts of my mind and soul, ground them down to fine powder and now there was nothing left. No Me inside me anymore.
Fuck it. Kyle had won. He was probably on speakerphone with Pastor Mike right now.
Kyle was a glow-stick raver with stainless spikes in his ears until he got hold of a bad dose of sunshine and shit himself at Coachella, found Jesus Christ while sucking on ice cubes and staring at the ceiling of a darkened recovery tent. Now he was a Promise Keeper in pleated Dockers and he didn’t make a move of any size, personal or professional without consulting Pastor Mike at the beige-domed megachurch out on Highway 99. More talk show than temple, Elijah’s Fortress was a spiritual day-care center for adult souls like Kyle, weirdos who prayed and swayed with their arms in the air like moonie pilgrims riding a soft-rock roller-coaster toward Salvation.
When Kyle considered adopting a dog Pastor Mike prayed on it, then advised a tank full of tropical fish would contribute more serenity to Kyle’s household. When my beloved coworker Liz gave two weeks’ notice we took her to Lobsterhaus Buffet for dinner in a side room with a banner and balloons. Before we ordered Kyle tapped on his crusty Bluetooth earpiece to speed-dial Pastor Mike and ask whether it would be acceptable for him to eat shellfish. Like Pastor Mike was some kind of ultrakosher Haredi rabbi from the old country.
What dietary advice did Kyle expect to receive from a spiritual leader who hosted Thursday night men’s Bible study at Buffalo Wild Wings?
Unable to reach Pastor Mike, Kyle chose jalapeno crabcakes and a Sprite. Our server brought Liz a complimentary wad of spongecake drizzled in sundae fudge and sprinkles, then led the table and a press-ganged chorus of servers and busboys through a double-time variation of “Happy Birthday”. We clapped along at a stinging pace and watched the lit sparkler buzz on top of the cake. Chives and crabmeat clung to the wire in Kyle’s teeth as he sang.
I was ready to bet every penny of my ransomed tips that Kyle called Pastor Mike to beta-test my termination speech from his car, or from PapaTaco at his desk on speakerphone. Kyle was one of those assholes who makes calls and checks voicemail on speakerphone. Among the daily amplified transmissions to and from corporate SYSCO and our beverage guy I’d hear bits of Pastor Mike’s topical wisdom echoing off the cinderblock walls of Kyle’s office, a digital burning bush heralding the divine word of God.
Maybe the tip thing was Pastor Mike’s idea. Or maybe Kyle had done more than locate his backbone. Perhaps my skills were in sharp decline.
I was invited to pick up some extra hours catering a group baptism of seven born-again adults in the swimming pool at Pastor Mike’s house, back when Kyle was new to the job and still pulling me into his office to share more of his “story” or propose a professional mentorship.
Kyle thought my tattoos and my attitude were holding me back.
“Corporate will help pay for laser treatment,” he said. “They’re working with Jenny to put her gang past behind her. Now she’s on track for assistant manager.”
The draft of Jenny’s hate for Kyle drew fathoms compared to my feet but she was smart enough to only say so in private. Like the day before I was fired, when we met in the walk-in to get very high before opening.
“I’m not using this word as a slur,” she said, speaking from the bottom of a bucket in a distorted voice, holding her hit.
I shivered and she passed the joint back. Jenny exhaled, scratched at the square of gauze taped to the side of her neck. She had to wear rubber gloves in front of customers until the scabby spiderwebs between her thumbs and forefingers healed completely.
“But I honestly think in some ways Kyle’s like, borderline retarded. Like, I don’t think that dude could hold down a job proofreading M&Ms.”
Jenny was dead right about Kyle being, as Margaret liked to say, on the pointy part < of Less Than. I slept through the baptism gig and woke up hungover to find a dozen texts from Kyle. His tragically misspelled messages formed a timeline that made it possible to chart the half-life decay of my mentor’s faith in me as it wavered, then fell away completely like scribbled spikes of a heart monitor dropping to sawteeth, growing weaker and fading to a flat line:
i guess well chat later when your ready
I’ve got no respect for anyone who fails to master the proper use of your and you’re, their and they’re or to, too and two. Those things don’t vary overnight like the value of a volatile commodity. The alphabet is a simple, closed set of twenty-six symbols. It is not the fucking Matrix. Don’t get me started on the apostrophe.
Until that morning I’d never seen him near the restaurant before noon but when I showed to open Kyle was waiting at the back door, a lonely chicken scratching the blacktop, dragging the soles of his shoes over fuzzy-flat cigarette butts accumulated since the last good rain. Each time Kyle kicked a leg forward and scraped at the ground a bullfrog roll of belly fat wrapped in his lime-green manager’s polo shirt popped over the top of his khakis.
His head tipped up at the sound of my keys as I moved to open the kitchen door. I’d caught him off guard and his mouth gaped, giving me a glimpse of pink gums and wet wire. He’d missed his cue, lost in meditation walking the kitchen staff’s infinite cigarette-butt mandala but his eyes explained everything. I was about to lose my goddamn job.
I was ready for this. I just wasn’t expecting it now. Thought I’d have a chance to make a cheese-heavy shift meal and sneak a pint poured into a large to-go cup. I never broke stride as I stepped past Kyle to unlock the kitchen door.
Kyle clapped a chubby hand over the keyhole. In the other hand he held a crisp PapaTaco envelope.
“Your services are no longer required at PapaTaco. I need your keys please.”
His chapped lips drew tight like a powdered-sugar scar. He held the envelope high, cocked up near his ear as if he were about to take a winning trick in contract bridge.
I separated the PapaTaco keys from my ring and surrendered them. Kyle aligned their teeth and spines, sorted them by height before notching them onto a custodian’s retractable ring. They jangled backward and hung in a cluster between his Otter Box phone holster and a pouched Leatherman multi-tool. Batman’s burned-out regional manager come to give me the axe.
My act of compliance and the calming ritual of organizing the keys got Kyle back on script. He looked into my eyes for the first time. Put the envelope in my hand and began Act Two.
“Thank you,” he said. It was the same chirpy tone he used at the register when comping an appetizer for a difficult customer. Kyle used that tone after every one of our “coaching conversations”. In my final week of shifts I’d tallied a human-resources trifecta of absenteeism, portion-control violations and multiple incidents of insubordination aggravated by using obscene language while speaking to a guest. Even Kyle declined to prosecute that last one and agreed that yes, an extremely unsatisfied guest heard me refer to her as a primitive fucking thinker but I had not directly addressed the guest when I said that, and Kyle agreed she wouldn’t have heard a single word of my opinion if she hadn’t followed me into the kitchen to complain about her order. She wasn’t even in my fucking section.
Corporate implored us to refer to customers as guests and Kyle flavored that word with a special tone of its own, a grossly overcooked intimacy that made me want to wash my hands twice.
My mind connected the word guest with sepia-toned portraits of elegant patrons summering at an Alpine health spa. Cello-curvy women in fine linen, handsome faces shaded under broad-brimmed straw hats. Unsmiling men with waxed mustaches dining with dignity, speaking softly of kaisers and kings. A fascinating salon of gracious ladies and gentlemen worthy of special attention.
I did not feel hospitable toward the Groupon-grubbing students, the burned-out office workers eating in dogpacks flagging me down during the lunch rush demanding another salad bowl filled with sour cream for dunking forkfuls of chicken enchilada. I could not find common language with the slack-jawed kindermensch in flowing shorts below their knees, ears pinned under oversized flat-billed ballcaps, shuffling in sport sandals like tranquilized members of Charlie Brown’s infield and forever fucking with their phones.
These people weren’t real to me, not in any sense beyond aggregated commercial data. They were only another bottomless source of noise that I wanted to make stop.
My final coaching conversation was a speakerphone three-way with Sharon at HR in Salem. Kyle rubbed a flaky hole in his earlobe and nodded while Sharon charted my course according to PapaTaco’s flat-Earth map of corporate expectations. My current heading had long ago sailed beyond the point of here be dragons, she explained. I was now running swiftly toward the edge of the world.
I was about to press Kyle for my cash but the little Machiavelli with a mouthful of rebar was on a roll.
“Your uniform is PapaTaco property. Jenny or I will pay out your tips when your complete uniform is returned clean. The cost of cleaning or replacing your uniform will be deducted from your tips. We have that right.”
Fucking hardcore. Never had I dreamed the kid would fizz like this when shaken.
He licked his powdery lips. I knew he was dying to pull out a mucky tube of Carmex and grease them up. Kyle was also one of those assholes who is constantly smearing Carmex on his lips.
Kyle offered his hand, palm down. A flaccid fascist salute that ran out of gas.
“Good luck to you Vincent. And God bless,” he said.
I stepped into the space between us and gently turned Kyle’s hand to make his palm perpendicular to the pavement.
“Kyle. This is how men shake hands.”
I looked into his eyes and clasped his hand, no tricks. No jacking up and down, no absurd Hulk Hogan grip. Just an honest analog reading of my emotional temperature. A genuine gesture of farewell.
“See that? I asked. Our palms are parallel. Now I don’t feel like you’re waiting for me to kiss your ring and we’ve created a brief moment in time where neither one of us looks like a dick.”
Kyle’s eyes flickered and fell.
I released my grip and dropped his hand. Rubbed my palm over my trouser leg to wipe away the feeling I’d been holding something fragile that died and started to cool.