The Yankee had been washing dishes at the Buck Fever Lounge for a month. He took the job thinking he was going to get laid by hot Texas girls who thought the Atlantic Ocean was exotic, but instead he only did a lot of dishes for minimum wage and took shit from everyone, including the waitresses, who were invisible on account of the strippers and who made crap tips and who took out their resentment on the kitchen staff, especially the Yankee (who no one liked).
The Yankee was more than invisible: he was cooped up in the back of the kitchen in front of a chipped grey sink with no music and no tits, and for ten hour shifts he would stand there washing dishes, listening to people having all kinds of sordid fun on the dance floor: whooping it up and doing coke and banging down whiskies more expensive than blood and spending so much money that all the strippers would have been in the highest tax bracket if all the money didn’t ultimately end up in the hands of the drug dealers who came in right at closing time and took each of the girls into quiet corners and didn’t want sex: only money.
Most of the time the job was just plain awful. Every wine glass he dropped came out of his paycheck. He went home every night smelling like salad dressing and Worcestershire sauce.
Tonight was gonna be especially bad somehow. You could feel it in the air. Jack Henry – the manager of the Buck Fever Lounge -- strolled into the kitchen, slapped the Yankee hard on the back, and said: “How you liking this free work back here? You are WELCOME, son. Work is hard to get, and you got so much that you could set up shop and start charging. Imagine the sign: work for sale! Come and get it! Bad credit, no credit, no money down!”
The Yankee was about to say: “I quit,” but before he could open his mouth, Jack Henry climbed up on the counter and put his hands on his knees and cleared his throat and got serious. Jack Henry was only five feet high in boots, so he liked to climb things whenever he could. He was always looking at you as if you were a potential perch. You got the feeling that the man would stick his foot on your hip and try to climb you any moment.
“The Rockets are coming in tonight,” he said. “We just got a phone call.”
“The basketball team?” asked the Yankee.
“That’s right. So this place has to be in top shape. We are bringing in the top man to clean some of the more esoteric entertainment accessories, but you need to make sure that the plates shine, and that nobody gets a dirty fork. Can you handle that?”
“Enough,” said the Yankee. “I quit.”
“You can’t quit tonight,” said Jack Henry. “Didn’t you hear me? I said that the Rockets are coming.”
“It’s not like I’m going to get paid any more money for making sure none of these assholes have a smudge on their spoon,” said the Yankee.
“You got the wrong attitude about life,” said Jack Henry, hopping down off the counter. He opened the back door to the alley.
“Leave if you want to quit so bad,” he said, sweeping his hand toward the open door. “But I tell you, you’ll never be a real professional with that attitude.”
“A real professional WHAT?” asked the Yankee, staring into the back alley. Light poured in. It was still early afternoon. Behind the Buck Fever Lounge was a long field of white concrete that stretched out for a hundred yards until it came up against an empty access road that fed off the freeway. As the Yankee watched, a lone green jeep hopped the curb from the access road and zipped across the white pavement headed directly for the lounge. The jeep didn’t slow down as it zoomed across the pavement toward the back door. In fact, it sped up. Jack Henry and the Yankee covered their faces – expecting a crash – when all of a sudden the jeep hit its brakes and spun sideways, coming up short in a skidding arc that swept loose gravel into the side of the building with a noise like dirt on a coffin lid.
The door of the jeep opened up and a woman swung her legs around and leapt out, landing on both feet in a crouch like a gunfighter. She tossed the sunglasses she was wearing into the driver’s seat, slammed the door behind her, and swaggered into the kitchen as if she were going to head-butt it. She had short blonde hair, lines up and down her face, and long ropy muscles like rubber tubes.
“I’m Llyewellen Weary,” said the woman. “I’m the washer. I’m here to do your poles.”
“You’re here!” said Jack Henry.
“That’s right,” said the woman. “You are kind of dumb, right?”
“It’s a blessing and a miracle you could fit us into your schedule,” said Jack Henry in an obsequious child-voice. “I know it’s a small job, but it’s real important to us. You see, the Rockets are coming here tonight…”
Llyewellen held up her hand. It was as red and raw as a skinned tuna.
“Cash first,” said Llyewellen. “And then I’ll bother talking to you.”
Jack Henry stammered and then dug into his pocket. He pulled out a wad of bills.
“Count it,” said Llyewellen.
He counted out a thousand dollars in twenties into her hand. She made a fist around the wad.
“This isn’t enough money,” said Llyewellen.
“It’s what we can afford,” whispered Jack Henry. “I know it’s a little less than we agreed on but...”
“I’ll take the money and I’ll do the job, but I’m not using my own supplies,” said Llyewellen, putting the money in her pocket. “I’ll improvise with what you’ve got and it will be good enough for this cheap, dealbreaking rat brothel, you son of a bitch.”
Jack Henry looked at the ground and nodded.
“What have you got?” asked Llyewellen. “What cut of steel wool are you using?”
“I don’t know,” stammered Jack Henry. “Regular cut?”
Llyewellen looked like she was going to punch him. The Yankee stepped in.
“We’ve got eighth of an inch, and bird’s nest,” said the Yankee.
Llyewellen relaxed and licked her lips. She turned to the Yankee and looked him up and down.
“You are the washer around here,” said Llyewellen. “Good; you’re all I need.”
Llyewellen pointed at Jack Henry.
“Get the hell out of my face. I don’t want to see you again.”
“But he’s only been here a month!” said Jack Henry. “I mean look at him! He just does dishes! He’s not even from…”
“Go hide in your office,” said Llyewellen Weary. “Before I wash this lice-filled titty bar off the map. You don’t know your business, and I need to talk to somebody who does so I can get the fuck on with my day.”
Jack Henry lowered his eyes again.
“I don’t…I just…I’m sorry, Ms. Weary,” said Jack Henry. “I’ll go.”
Amazingly, Jack Henry skulked away. He looked back once like he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t get the words out.
“Never let them finish a sentence if you can help it,” said Llyewellen to the Yankee as soon as they were alone. “And never let them see you work. The real sickos like to watch. Demand your privacy.”
Llyewellen looked at the pile of lunch dishes in the sink and then she looked at the Yankee. She picked up his hand and squinted at his knuckles.
“You are what…a month in,” said Llyewellen. She dropped his hand. “Green as a fucking dragon. Go on. Wash me a plate. Show me what you’ve got.”
“Who are you?” asked the Yankee.
The woman pointed to the plates, gritting her teeth.
The Yankee reached into the sink and pulled out a casserole dish caked in slime, meat, and macaroni. He squirted some dishwashing liquid onto a sponge and started scrubbing, looking over his shoulder.
“Kid, what the fuck are you doing?” said Llyewellen. “I’m not going to tell you to move out of the way because that would be rude. But if you do, you will learn more than you have ever learned in your entire life.”
The Yankee turned the water off and stepped aside. Llyewellen plucked a dish from the dirty rack and gave it two hard swipes, flicking her fingers like she was strumming a guitar. She tossed the dish across the room at the drying rack and it flipped over the wire lip and landed straight up and down. The plate sparkled like the sun baking mica in the desert.
She picked up the casserole dish, angled it up against the faucet, and turned on the water full-strength. The muck flew off the dish in the pressurized spray. She gave it two expert swipes – front and back – and flung it over to join the dish.
“See?” she said. “Economy of form and movement. Don’t just sit there daydreaming and hating your life. Let other people do that.”
The Yankee swallowed big.
“I’m going to go ahead and finish these,” said Llyewellen. “So you will be free to assist me.”
She turned on the water half-strength and started doing the rest of the dishes, cleaning them so fast that the water never had a chance to hit the bottom of the sink. She talked while she worked.
“I got started as a dishwasher myself,” she said. “It’s where most washers start, although some start as janitors or prison guards. You learn a lot about washing while washing prisoners from a distance with a firehose. Eventually, I realized I had a talent for it. An aptitude. I worked my way up. I got big. I started washing tanks, airplanes, buildings, warheads, hospital basements, circus stables. Water does what I want it to do.”
She rolled a jet of hot steam across her palm like a tumbleweed and used it to disinfect a whole muffin pan.
“I got sick of big, and then I got small. I started doing detail work. I got hired to wash electron microscopes, and jewels, and those carvings that schizophrenic psychopaths make on grains of rice. I started washing paintings, and dead dictators, and relics for the
She pulled a gold cross from her cleavage and showed it to the Yankee.
“Then I got sick of small, and so I decided that I’d go freelance. I got sick of showing off – I just wanted the money. I stopped caring who I was working for as long as they could pay. Freelance means a lot of easy six-figure jobs like getting mysterious blood stains out of leather couches. But when you start taking criminal business, it also means you have to start coming to bullshit strip clubs and helping them out to keep your reputation solid so the big boys feel like they can trust you. What a bullshit job this is, for instance!”
She tossed the last fork into the clean rack and wiped her strong fingers on a dry rag.
“Now show me your supply closet,” said Llyewellen. “I need steel wool, the best soap you’ve got, a carrot – PEELED – and a chamois, if you’ve got one. I’ll also need a box full of basic cleaning supplies: paper towels, spray bleach, fucking flathead brushes.”
“We’ve got a chamois,” said the Yankee. “What are you going to do with the carrot?”
“I’m going to eat it,” said Llyewellen. “I’m trying to quit smoking, you nosy lawyer motherfucker.”
She grabbed the Yankee by the shoulders and pushed him forward. They rounded up what she needed, and then she stalked away to the dance floor, gnawing her carrot with the side of her mouth as if trying to savor it. The Yankee stayed timidly in the kitchen – protesting that he was not allowed to leave the kitchen during business hours -- until she yelled at him to follow her.
“You can hold my carrot while I work,” said Llyewellen.
It was between rushes, so the place was empty. No one was dancing, and even the bartender was leaning up against the wall reading a fashion magazine. Some of the girls were sleeping on the couches, and one lonely drunk was kicking the jukebox, trying to get a quarter back.
As Llyewellen stalked to the stage, she cleaned a trail of dishes and cups in a straight line, wiping down tables and making the floor shine underneath her. She was a whirlwind.
“This place is poison,” she said. “It’s a wonder you are not all dead of dysentery. I smell at least four different kinds of fatal bacteria on this floor. If something falls on this floor and you eat it, you will be dead by morning.”
She ran down the length of the stage, simultaneously wiping it down with a roll of paper towels and buffing the beveled edge with a blackened toothbrush.
“This place offends me,” said Llyewellen to the Yankee. “Does it offend you?”
“I keep saying,” said the Yankee. “But I’m only the dishwasher. In fact, right before you showed up, I was trying to quit.”
“NEVER QUIT,” said Llyewellen. “Always get fired. You learn things as a washer in the time between deciding to quit and getting fired that you can’t learn anywhere else, not even on the street. You learn how to wash for the love of it. You learn not to let anybody stand in the way of doing a good job.”
“Never quit,” agreed the Yankee.
“The kind of person who would allow his business to be this dirty does not deserve to have it clean,” said Llyewellen. “How do you feel about that sentence?”
“I agree,” said the Yankee.
“It’s too bad he paid up front, otherwise I would find him and spit in his face,” said Llyewellen. “I would spit in his face and make a clean spot and charge him a hundred dollars for it.”
“That’s good business,” said the Yankee.
“But he paid up front, and I’m a professional,” she said.
The Yankee frowned.
“Now for these poles,” said Llyewellen.
“Of course,” said the Yankee.
She handed the Yankee her gnawed carrot and attacked the stripper poles with the steel wool. She was brutal. She put a scuff on the poles as thick as a fine coat of dust, grimacing and contorting her body like an accordion. The poles went from steel-colored to white in minutes under her high-powered scouring. Next, she made a thin paste out of six different kinds of detergent and slathered it on using an old paint brush. The poles started to sizzle, but she only laughed like it was exactly what she expected.
“Look at ‘em burn!” she shouted.
Finally, she washed each pole up and down with soap and water, waxed them, and then polished them by spitting into the chamois and rubbing so gently that it was like surgery. Everybody in the Lounge came over to watch her work.
“Sickos, you see?” she said.
When she was done, the poles shined as if they were on fire. They were as bright as mirrors and you could see your reflection in them from across the room. The whole lounge was reflected back at you in the curving cylinders; distorted and mesmerizing.
She licked one of the poles and smiled.
“Perfect, as always,” she said. She pointed to one of the girls in the room: a young girl wearing a cardigan sweater.
“Do a dance for me,” said Llyewellen. “No music.”
The girl climbed on stage and awkwardly gyrated her hips. The pole flowed effortlessly in her hands, and she gave Llyewellen and the Yankee a weak, sad smile.
“Haw haw haw,” said Llyewellen. She held out her hand to the Yankee.
“Give me back my carrot,” she said. He gave it to her. She took a huge bite out of it, snapping it in half. Then she handed a glossy black business card to the stripper on stage.
“My number’s on the back if you ever feel dirty,” she said with a wink. “And now it’s time to go!”
She grabbed the Yankee by the arm and dragged him out of the lounge with her. Everyone watched them go, fingers in their mouths, muttering to themselves.
Back outside, she pulled out one of her twenties and stuffed it into the Yankee’s pants. He fished it out and looked at it.
“Let me tell you something,” said Llyewellen, climbing into her jeep. “As poorly as this place is run, it isn’t a bad place to train for awhile. Keep this job. Work your way into getting paid by the sink and not by the hour. Do lunch, do dinner. Get your sink time down to nothing. Start looking around for bigger gigs. Get the trade magazines: “Clean Living,” “Suds.” Read the product reviews. Know your products. Save your money for a good mop. I don’t do references, but you can tell people you know me. Maybe I’ll remember you if we meet again someday.”
She squinted at him as if trying to remember his face. Finally, she shook her head as if this was hopeless.
“Look at you. You are nothing but a baby. You don’t know anything, do you?”
She put her sunglasses back on and slammed the door on her jeep, almost hitting the Yankee in the jaw with the swinging door.
“You think there are bottom jobs,” said Llyewellen. “But there are only bottom people. Flip yourself over, goddammit.”
And then she was gone.