by Alonso S. Hernandez
Hot water splashed on stained ceramic. Lather built up and disappeared through the drain. Steam rose from the sink and wafted out to the rest of the dirty, dingy kitchen. When the man was done with a plate he loaded it onto a tray filled with cups and silverware and other stained ceramic plates and pushed it through the prehistoric dishwasher tunnel, where more steam filled the room. The machine groaned and clanked as it dumped near-boiling water on the dishes. Scalding water splashed onto the man’s forearms and hands every time he put a new rack through, but years of practice left his nerves numb to the point he hardly noticed it.
That was how he spent the night. Every night, for the last couple years. He’d arrive near midnight and, some nine hours later, he’d emerge from the restaurant’s backdoor; the raw, red skin on his hands and face, the fifty dollars tucked inside the man’s jean pocket, and a neat stack of mostly clean, if slightly splotchy, plates, cups, and silverware the only proof that he had been there.
That was how it had been the last two years. Really, the man was supposed to arrive at 4 p.m., leave the time he came in, and make double what he actually got paid every night. But, according to the books the owner kept, the man didn’t work those hours. According to the books, the man wasn’t on the payroll, nor was he on the staff list. According to the books the man didn’t work there at all; he had quit two years ago. Because, two years ago, the man came to the owner with a request to switch to the morning shift.
The man had requested the switch on a day where he had been a few minutes late to work. The man told the owner that the bus he took to get to work only came at certain times. The days that he did have the car, he said, he had to pick up his daughter up from her elementary school and his wife had to take the bus home. It would be easier, he continued, if he could take the morning shift so that he and his wife could take their daughter to school, he could be dropped off at work, and then his wife could take the car and their daughter home.
“You want me to do you a favor after you came in late again?” the owner asked incredulously after hearing everything the man had to say. The owner sat back in a black leather chair and let out a heavy sigh. He sucked his teeth and pawed at his thin, orange goatee.
“How about this? I don’t need another body taking up space in my kitchen in the morning. But you can come in after the restaurant closes. I’ll wait for you, I’m usually still doing paperwork ‘til damn near midnight, anyhow. I’ll leave the back door open and you can come in then. You just make sure it closes when you’re done. And for the love of god, don’t make me wait up for you, okay?”
The man had been beyond grateful. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
The owner continued. “Now, since your hours are going to change and there’s no tips coming in at that time, your pay might look a little different, okay? And it might just be easier paying you up front rather than me forgetting to get you a check in the middle of the night when my brain’s fried, okay?”
The man turned and began to walk away.
“Juan, another thing. I’m doing you a solid here, okay?” The owner was still sitting back in the chair, rubbing his chin. “Know what that means? It means I’m doing you a favor, I’m helping you.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
And that’s how it came to be that the man, Juan, stood alone in front of a drop-in sink, his back to the empty and dimly lit kitchen in the dead of night. A ghost, shrouded in mist.