by Megan Brillhart
Sam walked into the kitchen ready to clock in for the day. He picked up his almost full-time card and put it in the slot. Sam was the only person willing to be the new busboy for the worst Mexican restaurant in town: La Casita. Everyone within a thirty-mile radius knew that La Casita had rat problems and had been shut down for an entire year because of it. For a week before that, the pozole made everyone who ate it sick. One time, a customer even found dead roaches in their rice.
Sam picked up his yellowing apron that was at one-point white. He put it over his head and tied it. He walked over to the commercial-sized sink and took his square bucket to put the dirty dishes in when he cleared off a table. He grabbed an old, tattered rag and wet it. Sam pushed his way through the many cooks in the small kitchen to get to the door. He threw open the double doors leading out into the dining area.
The restaurant seemed larger on the outside than on the inside. Outside, it looked like any other Mexican restaurant: an outdoor dining area, a sign with fancy lettering, and the siding looked almost the color of terracotta. The inside was a different story. It had many tables crammed together, the shape of each table was not constant throughout the restaurant. The register sat at an overly large counter and the light fixtures hung very low. The crowd was not stereotypically big for a Mexican restaurant on a Saturday at noon.
Sam walked over to an abandoned table. It still had cups full to the brim with water. The ice in the cups had long since melted. Sam could see a gnat floating in one of the glasses. There was no trace of food at the table, which meant that whoever was there had never been served. Sam sighed and picked up the cups. Rings of water sat where he removed the glasses. The circle outline of water started to run and turn into a puddle on the table. He wiped the blobs of water away. He cleaned the rest of the table, even though the customers that had been there did not stay for very long.
Sam walked over to the next table. Two half-filled bowls of salsa sat next to a bowl of browning guacamole. The basket of chips was barely touched.
“‘ey boy,” shouted a middle-aged man two tables over.
Sam looked up confused and pointed at himself.
“Yes you, boy,” the customer replied, starting to sound Italian.
Sam set his bucket down on the table he was clearing and walked over to the man.
“Whatever it was, we’ll give you a refund,” Sam said afraid the man was going to yell at him for the awful service.
“I don’t want a refoond. I joost want answers,” the man stated. His “r’s” were only partially rolled, revealing that he had been out of Italy for quite a while.
“Answers? For what?”
“‘ow come a boosiness dat was so sooccessfool many years ago, be so… so… roondown and … forgotten?” the man asked, snapping his fingers at each pause.
Sam looked around at the room. He had not noticed how neglected the place seemed since he was almost always in the kitchen. The paint on the walls was peeling, showing the old wallpaper underneath it, the fake leather on the chairs was starting to flake off, and most of the light fixtures were either flickering or not working. He took all this in before answering.
“New owner. The old one died, and the place was left to his son. We all figure that he could care less if this place went under,” Sam said quietly. He looked left and right before saying, “I personally think that he only keeps it open so that he can boss people around all day.”
The man laughed at this. The cashier heard him and looked up from her phone. She shrugged and turned her attention back to scrolling through her social media pages. Whoever the cashier was for the day was always bored since hardly anyone was inside long enough to need to pay for their meal.
“You know what, boy,” the man started, “if I ‘adn’t bought de Mexican restaurant on Fourd Street, I would booy t’is one. I joost don’t like to see zmall boosinesses sooffer.”
On that, he pulled out his wallet and threw a one-hundred-dollar bill on the table. Then, he stood up and started to put his jacket on.
“If you own a Mexican restaurant, why did you come here?” Sam asked him.
“To check out de competition. Der isn’t mooch here,” he stated. “Keep dat ‘oondred for yourself, kid.”
The man patted Sam on the shoulder and walked to the register to pay for his meal. Sam was surprised that someone was actually willing to pay for their food. He quickly grabbed the tip the man left and shoved it in his pocket. He did not realize the boss had come out of the kitchen to see who was yelling and was watching the entire conversation.
Sam picked up the man’s plate, which had a half-eaten chimichanga on it, and the empty glass next to it. He walked over to the table his bucket was on and threw the dishes in it. He spent more than enough time wiping down the table he left earlier and went to wipe the table the man had been at.
Sam picked up his full bucket and started on his way to the kitchen. He hesitated before opening the doors into the kitchen. He could hear the boss yelling at the cooks. The picante chorizo is not spicy enough and the dulce chorizo is too spicy. Sam wondered why they did not simply switch them.
No one understood the real reason why the boss was extremely particular about what the food tasted like or why he cared about the health inspector’s letter grade when there were no customers to serve. Sam took a deep breath, pushed open the doors, and went straight towards the sink.
Sam immediately started to scrape and rinse the dishes he had collected. Then, he picked the wet dishes up and set them on the belt that would take them through the industrial dishwasher. Sam, and every busboy before him, never fully understood why he was supposed to clean the dishes before putting them through the dishwasher. Once, he was told that the machine would last much longer if he washed the dishes beforehand, but he simply figured it was because, in the boss’ mind, it would actually earn his pay.
The boss stood over Sam’s shoulder, almost waiting for him to mess up.
“Worrrkeen ‘arrrt?” the boss asked Sam bitterly. His own Spanish accent was starting to fade.
Sam nodded and kept scrubbing.
The boss stayed for a while longer before going to his office.
Cook after cook bumped into Sam as they passed by him. Not a single one ever apologized. They all realized Sam was still young, and his job would not be the best quite yet, but they all considered him as scum for not having a respectable job anyways, even though theirs was not much better.
Sam walked back over to the sink and stared at his reflection in the water. His blue eyes had bags underneath them and his black hair stuck up in the back. He knew that after a few more rounds of dishes, the water would be cloudy, and there would be chunks of food floating in it from the cooks rinsing off their hands in his sink. Sam backed away, grabbed his bucket, and walked back into the dining area to clear more full cups and plates with two or three bites taken out of the meal.
Sam stopped before leaving and looked toward the boss’ office door. He went back to the sink and set his stuff down. Walking toward the door, Sam could feel the eyes of some of the cooks staring at him. He reached for the doorknob and then heard a crash. Sam turned around and saw that a cook had dropped two pitchers full of salsa on the ground. He opened the office door before he was forced to clean it up.
Sam had only been in the office once before, to be yelled at for “not doing his job”. That was all before the boss started to reprimand him in front of the entire staff. The lights were bright enough to give someone a headache. Papers were stacked neatly on the chairs in front of the boss’ desk, as well as on the desk itself. Certificates lined the walls, and his desk nameplate glinted in the new LED lights in the small room. Knick-knacks were spread throughout the room. The boss’ chair was turned around, with the back facing the world.
“I ‘abe to keep open forrr mí dearrrr papa,” the boss said.
At first, Sam was confused. Then, he realized his boss was on the phone. The spiral cord of the landline bobbed around as the boss talked.
“Mí papa woult be disappointet en mí. I ‘abe to keep open forrr ‘im. Was ‘is dyeen wich.”
Sam could hear that the person on the other end of the line was upset.
“I know, I know. I ‘abe grrreat boosbuy. Eberrryone comes because ‘e is de nicest employee.”
There was a pause from the boss and some talking on the other end of the line.
“No, but de people who do come, come forrr ‘im. Almost eberrry day I get tolt ‘e is goot.”
The boss stopped again. Sam could hear him sigh, heavily.
“I dit, I dit, but it was forrr goot rrreason. ‘E doesn’t do what I ask.”
Sam was about ready to say something when the boss spoke again.
“I guess I do,” the boss said.
There was some more said that Sam could not understand before the boss hung up. He was about to leave when the chair spun around.
“What you doeen en ‘ere?” the boss yelled.
“I was…,” Sam started before he got interrupted.
“No, no, no,” the boss said getting up. He grabbed Sam by the shoulder and walked him out of his office.
The boss pulled Sam to the front of the kitchen. Everyone was staring at him. He could see the head chef was trying to hold back a laugh.
“You see dis chilt?” the boss said addressing the kitchen staff.
Everyone was silent. People stopped chopping and others turned off their burners.
“‘E walket en mí office wid no perrrmichin. You knock beforrre you go en,” the last part was said generally, but everyone could tell it was still directed toward Sam. “Do you underrrrstant mí?” the boss asked grabbing Sam by his shirt and pulling him towards him.
Sam was torn on what to say or do. He had been considering quitting for quite a while, but he desperately needed the money to pay back his brother.
“Yes,” Sam responded shyly.
“This is yourrr last warrrneen,” the boss said and turned around to go to his office.
Sam stood for a moment. He knew the boss’ threats were empty. Sam had been on his “last warning” for quite a while. He grabbed his bucket and returned to work. As he walked toward the kitchen door, the hustle and bustle of the kitchen slowly resumed. He could smell the onions and peppers in the sizzling pans but could barely hear any chopping. The utensils scraped the bottom of the pans as the food was being stirred. When he got to the door, the head chef’s loud mincing could be heard above all else. Sam pushed open the door and went to wipe down more surfaces and throw away more food.
There were only four tables that had people at them. Two of the four occupied tables had kids at them. At one of the tables with kids, a baby and a little girl sat eating peacefully. Their parents were having a very quiet conversation. At the other, three boys were throwing food at each other. The parents interjected every once and while, but otherwise, there was nothing stopping them from trashing the place. All Sam could hope for, was that he was not going to be the one to have to clean their mess up.
Sam knelt down to pick up some napkins on the ground next to an empty table. The salt and pepper shakers’ lids were unscrewed, their contents spilt all over the table. The ketchup bottle was empty, and all the sugar and sweetener packets had been torn open. Sam grabbed the empty containers and threw them in his bucket. Then, he proceeded to wipe down the table, brushing the trash into his bucket.
“Excuse me,” the oldest of the three boys that were at the table said while pulling on Sam’s apron.
“Yes?” Sam asked him as politely as he could.
“I was wondering where the bathroom was at,” he asked innocently. He was pretending that he had not just caused a scene in a public place.
“Down that hallway, on the left,” Sam told him while pointing towards the right of the register.
“Thank you,” the boy said cheerfully and ran off.
Sam wondered how a boy that was just picking on his brothers, moments before in public could just act like nothing ever happened.
At one of the occupied tables, an old couple had not been served drinks yet. After clearing off what he could without interrupting the people at the tables, Sam looked around. The old couple had left, their table had nothing on it, and the table with the baby was empty. The kid’s menu had been taken with them for the little girl to color on. Sam picked up his bucket and walked back into the kitchen. He opened the doors and could immediately sense the tension inside.
“Sam, I neet you make surrrre derrre nodeen in de storrrerrrroom rrrrat trrraps,” the boss yelled from across the old rundown kitchen. “Ant while you en derrrre, make surrrre no corrrn chips ‘abe gone stale.”
Sam was once again torn between listening to his boss and finally standing up to him.
“But I’m just the busboy,” Sam replied firmly as he walked to the sink dumping dirty dishes in the foggy water. The sink had not been drained in the many hours it had been used to rinse off dishes and wash hands.
“You will not be if you keep standeen arrround,” the boss shouted.
Sam was getting scared. This was the only job on his resumé.
“That isn’t my job, though,” Sam told his boss as he started to rinse off the dishes.
“If you keep arrrgueen wid mí, you will ‘abe no jop. Is dat clearrr?” the boss threatened again.
Sam kept washing, contemplating if he should do what he was told to do or do what he was being paid to do. He knew if he ignored him, he would be fired, but he was not sure if that was a bad thing.
“Sam?” the boss asked while walking towards the young worker.
Sam decided to ignore him.
“Sam?” the boss repeated, grabbing the boy by his shoulder and turning him around.
“What?” Sam asked as calmly as he could.
“Did you hearrrr mí?” the boss spat in his face.
The whole kitchen was staring at them now. The head chef was allowing her food to burn in the sauté pan. Another cook stopped mid-mince.
“Yes,” Sam responded, almost choking on the singular word.
“Den why you not doeen what I tolt you?”
“I’m not paid to do those things, so I’m not going to do them,” Sam said starting to gain some confidence.
The boss was stunned by the sudden determination from the underpaid employee. He stood there not knowing how to respond, no one had ever talked to him that way since he became the boss. After a while, he knew what he had to do. He raised a hand and struck the boy across the face. Sam put a wet hand to his reddening cheek.
“What you goeen to do now?” the boss asked one last time.
“I’m going to check the rat traps and make sure the corn chips aren’t stale,” Sam replied as he lowered his hand.
He received a look of approval from the boss. Sam turned and sauntered off into the storeroom.
Sam went to the farthest corner of the room. It was just as dark and stuffy as it had always been. He knelt down to check under the shelves. The traps were clean, like they had been for the past two weeks. He then stood up and walked over three shelves. The bags of chips were expired by two weeks. He was told to never throw something out until they either turn moldy or taste bad. Sam opened each bag slowly. All except one was ready to be thrown out. He grabbed the bags that were bad and walked out the back door. Sam opened the trash bins and tossed the chips inside.
“I’m done with this,” Sam said aloud and kicked the trash bin.
“Why?” a familiar voice said from behind Sam.
Sam turned around looking for the source of the voice. He found the boss of the other Mexican restaurant. Sam was stunned, but not surprised at the same time.
“I am treated terribly, and I am not even being paid enough to deal with it,” Sam told the other owner.
“Ragazzo,” the new owner started to say. Almost trying to sound sympathetic. “Why do you deal wid t’is?”
“I have to pay my brother for wrecking his car,” Sam confessed. “This was the first job that I could find.”
“I oonderstand,” the owner stopped and let some silence enter the conversation. “If you need a new job, joost let me know,” he finished and turned to leave.
“That’s it?” Sam asked, “That’s all you’re going to say to me?”
“Like Galileo said, ‘Non puoi insegnare niente a un uomo. Puoi solo aiutarlo a scoprire ciò che ha dentro di sé’.”
“And that means?”
The man laughed again and said, “‘You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help find it within himself’.”
Sam watched him walk away and disappear around the corner. He contemplated on what the other boss said before he knew what he had to do. Sam walked back into the kitchen to be greeted by the head chef on the other side.
“Vat are you doing?” she implored while pointed the knife she was holding towards him. Her thick German accent made her sound intimidating.
“I was throwing away the stale chips,” Sam told her.
“Vere zey really pad?” she asked while waving the knife around.
“Zey petder pe or elze,” she said while hovering the back side of her knife over her neck. Then, she started to slowly move it across her own neck, suggesting that Sam would be dead if he were wrong.
Sam ignored her and looked around to try to find the boss. He figured he would be in his “office”, which was originally part of the storeroom, but he split the room in half to have a place to run to. Sam walked towards it. He knocked on the door.
“Come en,” the boss yelled impatiently.
Sam opened the door and slowly walked in. It was now cluttered, and papers were everywhere. Sam concluded the boss had been looking for something. The wall seemed to have more certificates than before.
“What you want?” the boss asked while typing at his computer.
Sam took off his apron and threw it on the boss’ desk.
“What is this?” he asked Sam picking up the apron. “I thought I tolt you leabe mí alone?”
“I’m quitting,” Sam responded finally fed up with the boss’ attitude.
“Why?” the boss asked, trying not to beg.
“Why not?” Sam said confidently.
“You de best boosboy I ‘abe eberrr ‘at.”
“I am tired of the way you treat me. I get yelled at for ‘not doing what I am supposed to’ and nobody respects all I do around here,” Sam stressed his concern by adding quotes with his fingers.
The boss was once again shocked at Sam’s confidence. The boss put his head in his hands in defeat.
“I expect my last paycheck to be deposited soon,” Sam said.
“Yeah, surrre,” the boss said still in shock that his best worker was quitting.
Sam stood for a few more minutes. After he figured the news finally sunk into the boss, he walked out. Everyone in the kitchen stared at him. They all noticed he did not have his apron anymore. Sam was not going to let them bring him down anymore. He kept his head up and walked confidently out the kitchen doors. He walked past the mess the three young boys left. He walked past the cashier who paid no attention to him.
“Have a good day,” she said without taking her attention away from her phone. “Come back soon.”
Sam knew he was never going to come back. He pushed open the front doors. The air outside seemed even fresher, and the sun seemed even brighter. The bell attached to the door signaled the new life he was about to begin.