Ben stood outside the back of the restaurant looking at the overflowing dumpster and breathing in the distinct smell of grease and fried food. Not all the food at his place of employment was bad; in fact, he quite enjoyed the free meals he got each shift that he worked. Being the dishwasher was about the worst gig he could think of, but he’d always been a hard worker and for now this job was just a means to an end. For the most part, the waitresses were nice to him, even though most of the time he felt kind of invisible.
It had been a busy night thus far at The Sizzling Griddle. The restaurant wasn’t open twenty-four hours but it may as well have been. They stayed open until midnight and then opened again at 5 the next morning. Usually, the night crew didn’t leave until past 1 am. Being situated near a busy interstate, they easily could keep the place open all night. But what did he know? Ben was just a dishwasher with big dreams.
He was only a couple of minutes into his break when the back door bust open. One of the waitresses, a little spitfire named Gina, didn’t notice him right away.
“Fuck!” she said, pulling a fresh cigarette up to her mouth while digging around in her apron for a lighter.
He watched her for a moment.
“Need mine?” he said, obviously startling her.
“Shit. You scared me. Yeah, I think Elaine stole mine”, Gina replied, walking towards him. Ben had the lighter held out and Gina leaned in, letting him light the long skinny cigarette she’d removed from a fresh pack.
“What a disaster in there. Table 16 wouldn’t stop complaining about their grits being too watery and the new girl who’s in the section next to me is a complete ditz”, Gina said, taking a long drag from her cigarette. “Who hires these people, anyway? I’ve been here for ten years and have seen them all come and go. This is the worst bunch we’ve had in awhile”.
Ben looked at her, trying to guess her age. He didn’t want to be rude and ask, but guessed her to be somewhere in her early 30’s. He’d worked at the restaurant for a couple of months but had never really had a conversation with Gina. He hadn’t planned on having a smoke, but since she was there and seemed to want to chat, he felt bold and asked her if she could have one.
“You’re too young to be smoking. No one should be smoking, come to think of it”, Gina said as an afterthought, pulling out one of her cigarettes to hand to him.
“What is this, anyway? It’s so long and skinny”, he laughed, lighting it and thanking her. “I’ll hit you back later, I wasn’t planning on smoking. I just came out here for a minute to get some fresh air. Which is obviously a joke since it smells like dumpster, old grease and cigarette butts. Kind of like the state fair”.
Gina eyed him and breathed out a large plume of smoke. She’d been in the business long enough to know when certain people belonged and when someone didn’t.
“You’re the dishwasher, correct? What are you doing here, anyway? You seem too smart to be stuck in the back of a restaurant doing the worst job there is”. Gina didn’t mince words and Ben immediately appreciated that. He laughed and looked to his side as one of the employees was walking out to their car in the back parking lot.
“Yeah, I’ve been here a couple months. What am I doing? Washing dishes”, he said coyly, smiling as she rolled her eyes at his sarcasm. “But really, I’ve been bouncing around doing a bunch of side hustles so I can save up enough to travel and eventually move out of the country. College just isn’t for me”, he added, knowing this was the path for most people his age.
“Move out of the country? Why?”, she asked, curious about her new friend.
“My parents aren’t from the US. The emigrated back in the day from Hungary. They adopted me when they were a lot older. I can’t explain it, but I have a deep wanderlust and just need to get out of here. They are still around and I probably won’t go too far while they are still living.”
“What, you don’t want to stay at The Sizzling Griddle forever?”, Gina responded with equal sarcasm. “Like me?”, she added, knowing that ten years in any restaurant was enough to qualify as a “lifer”.
“From what I can see, you do pretty well. I’ve seen your car”, he intoned.
“Oh, that showboat? It’s not mine. My boyfriend lets me drive it when he is feeling guilty about whatever latest screwup he’s trying to make up for. Personally, I don’t care what I drive, as long as I can get to where I’m going. His ride is fun to use sometimes”.
They smoked in silence for a minute while Ben absorbed what she said. He was trying to surmise why someone would stay in such a relationship. He was only 20, but was born an old soul. He knew things. And he’d had a few experiences with women. Enough to know that any relationship, even a good one, could be tough.
“Well, you can come travel with me if you want”, Ben said, joking. He was a very solitary being and couldn’t imagine someone joining him on his adventure.
The back door to the restaurant flew open again and the general manager, Don, walked out to the parking lot where they stood, talking.
“Gina. What are you doing? You have a table that needs you. I brought them some more drinks, but get your butt in there”, he said, taking Gina’s cigarette and inhaling a long drag. The two had known each other for years, and while they could be considered friends, he was still the boss. “Hurry up”, he said, and added “You too, Ben. There’s dishes piling up in there. Let’s get done and all get the hell out of here”. Don turned and walked back in, leaving Gina rolling her eyes.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ll be stuck here forever”, she said, quietly.
“You know you can leave anytime. There are jobs everywhere! There is more to life than The Griddle, lady. There’s more to life than this city, too”. He didn’t intend to sound condescending, but Gina took it that way.
“You’re just a kid. What do you know?” she said, and then realizing how harsh she sounded, softened her tone. “But you’re right, and I know that. I probably act like I hate it here more than I really do. I’m comfortable and can’t imagine working somewhere else. Plus...” she trailed off, hesitating on talking any further.
“Ok, well, I guess we need to get inside. The Griddle calls”, Ben joked, anticipating a huge pile of dirty dishes and crusty utensils. But he smiled to himself, knowing that there were bigger things on the horizon. He just wasn’t sure when those bigger things would happen.
Ben followed Gina inside and before she tightened her apron to get back to work, she turned and gave him a half smile.
“Thanks for the chat. And don’t forget, you owe me a smoke”, she said and winked before walking through the small hallway that lead to the dining room. Ben grinned back at her and got back to the task at hand. He was right. His 12 minute break outside left him with a giant pile of dinner dishes. It was worth it. He liked talking to Gina and was happy with the conversation they’d had.
The next afternoon, Ben walked into the diner and readied himself for another busy night at work. He worked all different shifts, but had lately been put on the evening schedule. He didn’t mind; he’d work whenever they wanted him to. He’d been there only a couple of months but had created a reputation for himself as a diligent and reliable employee. In the restaurant business the retention level of dishwashers was astoundingly low. In many ways, it was a thankless job.
He clocked in on one of the server computers and said hello to Cody, a younger male server who had also just clocked in for his shift. He was a friendly gay college student who tended to enjoy the restaurant gossip.
“How’s it going, man? Do you know if Gina is here?” he asked nonchalantly.
“She’s off today, but holy shit, did you hear the big news?”
“No, what’s that?” Ben asked, expecting to hear something further about one of the latest cook/waitress escapades.
“She gave her two weeks' notice this morning! After ten years, she’s out.”
“Seriously? Is she okay?”
“She’s fine, and yes, I’m serious. Management is in a tizzy. She’s the best one they’ve got. Gotta run!” Cody said, walking away to greet a table.
Ben walked away in silence. He thought of their brief conversation last night and the things he’d told her about not being stuck anywhere. He would be sad to see her go, but he felt instant happiness at the news.
I guess she will be moving on to bigger and better things, too. He smiled to himself and dumped a huge pile of dirty silverware into the hot, soapy sink. Life is good.