“Torque” by Tim Fitts

Issue 21 / Spring 2020

 

Our boss, Frenchy, at The Sunshine Grille, let us eat for free if we got to work early enough. Fried catfish nuggets, seasoned fries, rice pudding, coleslaw, baked beans, chicken fingers. It was a sweet deal, but after two hours of dogging dishes on a full stomach, unloading bus tubs, rinsing all the leftover food and viscosity and unloading racks, stacking plates and glassware—all that fried food transformed into gasoline in your gastric chambers. For the rest of the night you pulled plates and flatware, monkey dishes, and water glasses from a bucket of chum, thick with half-eaten hushpuppies sopped in milk and pudding, napkins folded with pasted-pink lipstick, balled and greased with chicken-fried everything. One man unloaded, another man worked the hose and machine, while another restocked the shelves. All the steam and machinery amplified the Florida heat and humidity. After the dinner rush, you scrubbed floors, dragged out the mats and trash, washed the cooking ware while the last loads of the evening piled so high ancient African scribes could sit in circles writing proverbs about them. All the while, Frenchy was somewhere, shouting at you: “Cocksucker! Hey, asshole. I fed you. Stop franking spanky and get to work.”

Earlier that autumn, I had decided against going to college, and instead, moved to Gainesville to play music and, after two months, I found myself with a killer band, but with zero money. Finding any sort of respectable work proved nearly impossible. Part of the problem was, when filling out job applications, I felt the need to express myself with total honesty. When prospective employers asked if I was a student, I told them “no,” which immediately and visibly put them off. They asked me what a young man was doing in a college town who didn’t go to college? “Musician,” I told them. One prospective employer told me that in India musicians are considered untouchable. It got so bad that I even began frequenting the Gainesville Plasma Center to sell my blood plasma, ten dollars the first pint, fifteen the second pint. Even landing the job at The Sunshine Grille was something of a miracle.

I usually worked with Wolcott and Murdoch. Wolcott was the gimp of the dishpit. He had a kind of growth that made him look like he had a humpback and he had once been conned into eating partially digested food. Murdoch was the top dishdog and had been working at The Sunshine Grille for six months. Murdoch was always early so he could stuff himself with hush puppies. He claimed to have been drafted out of high school by the St. Louis Cardinals minor-league organization. Word was, the scouts had been hounding his coach. But his coach refused to relay the message to Murdoch until after the state tournament, where he ripped a ligament in a shut-out bid. Just like that, finished. But at The Sunshine Grille, Murdoch was still a dishdog and, top or bottom, he got the same treatment. The wait staff, cooks, and managers all dehumanized him the same as they did me and Wolcott: Zero, douchebag, dickface, maggot faggot, ass trooper—the same as they referred to any dishdog. One step below hookers, one step above homeless.

If I showed up late, I’d find that Murdoch had stashed a basket of hush puppies up on the dish rack for me, between the coffee mugs and monkey dishes. One night, Murdoch rigged the basket with a mousetrap, and I had to ice my fingers the entire night, but no bones were broken. He apologized later and said he didn’t think that was going to happen.

“What did you think was going to happen?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Hindsight’s twenty-twenty, isn’t it?”

I hung out with Murdoch from time to time outside of Frenchy’s. He once showed me a book that he was working on, where he had transferred the themes of hundreds of Japanese Zen poems into the dish pit setting. I was no expert on the three-lined verse, but he seemed to have broken all the rules of traditional haiku. He lacked the proper syllable count, he lacked nature and seasons. But they still functioned as true American variations, as laziness, neglect for tradition, disrespect for all things sacred, and all-around vulgarity is just as much part of the American tradition and sticking to the rules as in Japan. As it happened, he had hundreds of the poems.  One after the other:

 

The dishdog rinses

the dinner plates

uncertainly.

 

The sink drain

clogged with cigarette butts and

greens.

 

Autumn evening –

it is no good thing having

been a dishdog.

 

A shower before

work, at work, after –

how stupid.

 

Year after year,

the dishdog, still wet

with dishwater.

 

I once pointed out to Murdoch fodder for his verse, noting a teenager’s orthodontic retainer collecting leftover dinner funk in the drain. Murdoch feigned ignorance. The next time we drank beer at his apartment, I asked to see his book and he told me that he didn’t have it anymore. He had burned it.

One day, Murdoch showed me a trick with the garbage disposal. He took a spoon, dropped it inside, flipped the switch and created the sound of a beast gargling metal. He switched it off, then pulled out the mangled spoon, diseased and covered with divots. He dropped in a couple coffee mugs. Shards of ceramic spat out, but after half a minute, the mugs had been fully ingested. The garbage disposal chewed up wine glasses in seconds. “Now, watch this,” Murdoch said, and dropped in a monkey dish, the little dipping bowl for tartar sauce or ketchup. He told me he had worked in over forty restaurants, and he had never seen anybody break one of the monkey dishes. Not even a scratch. Not even a chip. He flipped the switch and a terrific racket shot out of the disposal, a Satanic, sonic blast. He turned off the disposal and told me to stand away from the switch. He was thinking about the mousetrap, too. He reached into the disposal to retrieve the monkey dish. He was right. Unblemished.

To demonstrate this point further, Murdoch slammed the monkey dishes against the wall. We backed up at the far end of the kitchen, where you could draw a straight path through the air to the dish pit. You could tell Murdoch could still throw. When I tossed the monkey dishes, they pinged around the dish pit. But Murdoch’s body had torque. He spun a one-eighty, paused, and then unreeled his delivery with an arched back, popping the monkey dish like electricity off the tiles. The saucer ricocheted with renewed violence and velocity. He even tossed a knuckler that bounced sideways, scooting along the kitchen floor like a drunken crab, then hopped up into the fryer with a splash that sprayed hot oil in every direction. Wolcott protested, but when he tried to return to wash a sinkful of dishes, Murdoch let one fly, buzzing Wolcott’s ear and, miracle upon miracles, missed him on the bounce. After that, we kept on blasting the monkey dishes into the kitchen tiles, firing them until our rotator cuffs lit up, but not one showed any sign of damage, not even the one in the fryer.

Murdoch’s last throw demonstrated the mechanical violence of a slider, placing his middle and index fingers together, curving along the lip of the monkey dish, then popped his wrist upon release. The ceramic tiles below the dishwashing machine fell loose, crumbling, leaving a black cavity that seemed to bleed honey. Except the honey not only dripped down with gravity, but ran up the tiles as well, and on every side, little lines seeping like circuits of honey-colored jellies in every direction. We walked over to inspect the hole and found a stream of cockroaches making their way throughout the entire dishpit. Evil begets evil. Hate gives birth to destruction. The insects ran across the floor in flurries, little German cockroaches, darting where they pleased, darting in and out of the dishes, up the crates, along the surface of the machinery, floating atop dishwater, up the tiles. In another moment, cockroaches dripped from the ceiling and fluorescent lights like gumdrops from some kind of demonic dimension. They fell on our clothes and into our hair.

The dinner rush was heating up. Section B was full, and a party of twelve just showed up. Frenchy said there was no time to screw around. He pulled the tab to three D-Con foggers.

“No way,” Murdoch said.

Frenchy told us the poison kills bugs, not people.

“Says who?” Murdoch said.

“Says me,” Frenchy said.

Murdoch told Frenchy that his religion did not allow him to work in a poison fog, and Frenchy asked what kind of religion he belonged to. Murdoch said whichever religion doesn’t allow him to work in a poison fog. I laughed because I had personally witnessed Murdoch lick liquid LSD from his fingertips swallow tabs of PCP, ingest any variation and combination of cocaine, Seconal, ephedrine, crystal meth, not to mention alcohol, and all kinds of other pills—greenies, black beauties, reds, yellows, painkillers, valium, Xanax, muscle relaxers. I knew on good account that Murdoch had chased the dragon on at least a few occasions.

“You two,” Frenchy said. “You’re a couple of pricks.”

Murdoch and I backed out of the restaurant and walked home in the humid Gainesville evening. Wolcott stayed back. He said Frenchy was right. Foggers were designed to kill bugs.  That’s why they call it bugspray, not people spray.

“Damned right, assholes,” Frenchy said, pointing another can of fogger at us as if he was going to fire. “Damned right.”

The next time I saw Murdoch was in the parking lot of an ABC Liquor ten minutes before closing time. It was June, when the heat lingers all night, and Murdoch burst through the double-glass doors cradling one of those four-liter Ernest and Julio Gallo jugs like a football. My band had just finished playing the Covered Dish and we were still hopped up on free beer and adrenaline. We had closed with a song I had written on the bike ride home from my new job as a dishdog at Garofalo’s Pizza. Still wet with dishwater, the muse had descended. That night, our performance of the song had attracted the attention of a local deejay, landed us a single on the college radio charts, and helped to promote a short and ill-fated tour of the Southeast. It was a dream come true in the hospice age of rock and roll.

I shouted Murdoch’s name as he sprinted with the jug of wine, but he failed to hear me. Bolting out twenty feet behind him, two stockboys made up the distance when Murdoch’s knee buckled in the soft crab grass between the parking lot and sidewalk. The stockboys pinned him, but he held tight to the bottle. They used their fists and legs. They had his face in the grass and were trying to pry that jug from him as if it belonged to them personally, as if they had some personal stake in the estate of Ernest and Julio Gallo.

We were in the car not thirty feet away. Murdoch balled up, protecting the bottle with his body while the stockboys worked on him, but Murdoch was holding tight, his head tucked low and knees pulled up high until he finally made his move. The stockboys each laid a hand on him as if they finally had him under control. They called him asshole. They called him cocksucker. They called him cunt rag. And then Murdoch’s arms and legs kicked out and he let loose the bottle, looking for an opportunity to escape. But of course, they had him. They had him face down in the concrete with their knees in his back. But that jug of Ernest and Julio Gallo seemed to hang in the air above the concrete forever.

 

Tim Fitts lives with his wife and children in Philadelphia. His stories have been published by journals such as Granta, The Gettysburg Review, Boulevard, Apple Valley Review, Shenandoah, New South, among many others. He is the author of two short story collections, including Hypothermia (MadHat Press, 2017) and Go Home and Cry for Yourselves (Xavier Review Press, 2017). His flash fiction piece, “Teeth,” appears in Best Microfiction 2020.

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