I spend my day scraping plates clean of my high school friendships, mashing the potatoes of my Irish heritage, and tearing the meat from the bones of my former self. I arrive at dawn to serve the eggs of my scrambled life, to bake a casserole of sadness, and to wipe 150 college cafeteria tables clean of my sorrow.
At 20 years old I still live with my mother and step-father. I don’t plan on leaving. My mother has never had a job. She sits at home all day and watches those daytime talk shows. My step-father works out of town. He is a traveling salesman, peddling vacuum cleaners that have never been run on our carpets at home. A real job for him is sitting at home and getting drunk.
I was kicked out of school when I was 16. Apparently the school lost state-aid money when kids didn’t come to school. I hadn’t always gone to school so I was out. From the time I was 14 or 15, my average day started at 11:30 when I woke up. I would wear the same clothes every day: brown corduroy pants and a green shirt with “Snapple” silk-screened on it, a stipulation of a 50 dollar bet I had with one of my friends. I would stumble out the door at noon and walk down the street toward the school. I would stop at the Red Apple food mart across the street from the school every Wednesday, when I knew April was working. I would walk in and spend $4.25 on Camel soft pack cigarettes, handing her $5 and not waiting for change. I would get to school at 12:15, when classes were changing and the seniors were leaving for lunch. No one would see me enter.
I would stand at my locker and watch Caitlin glide by as she would every day on the way to class. Her long golden hair would twirl through the air when she turned to gaze at me with her deep blue eyes. She would never break her stride on her way past. We spoke occasionally, muttering the meaningless phrases of unfamiliar acquaintances.
“Hey there, Ben,” she would say with her quiet voice.
“Morning,” was my usual drowsy response at 12:15 in the afternoon.
In a staccato tone that told me she was lending me a favor, the conversation would end with: “I guess I’ll see you around, Ben⎯” and she would be gone.
I could see in her blue eyes the sea of destiny: the sway of her long golden hair was the sandy beach where we would make love on our honeymoon; her soft voice was my comfort in the murky depths of life. I knew everything about her and our future. She knew nothing about me.
When the late bell rang, I would make my way to computer graphics class. I never did work or complete assignments. I would simply sit and play solitaire on the computer or browse the Internet, watching the people around me work. After computer graphics class I would sit in the hallway and read. Each day I started with Thoreau and worked my way into Emerson before I realized they were full of crap. To cure my boredom I would people watch. By studying the traits of the artsy kids scribbling on notebook paper and jocks fidgeting in their seats, I learned to read people. I would listen to the dull murmur of lecture through half-open classroom doors, gauging reactions and noticing subtle behaviors.
One afternoon at 2:15 the principal of my school walked up to me in the hallway. He bellowed at me with an artificial deep voice that he wore like a mask in an attempt to intimidate.
“Hard at work?” He asked.
“More like hardly working,” I replied.
“You know wha,t Ben,” he said. “I don’t think this is the right place for you.”
He caught me off guard. I was expecting the usual “come with me to the office,” or “I see that you are doing poorly in all of your classes and you have been tardy four times this week.”
Trying to collect my thoughts, I muttered, “What’s that?”
“We don’t want you to show up for school anymore,” he said in his imitation deep voice.
“No, I’m not joking. I don’t think this is the right place for you, either does the administration.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Go home,” was his only response.
I looked down at the book I was reading and replied with the last line I read. “I guess it’s true,” I said under my breath, “’Schools hate geniuses, just as convents hate saints.’”
I sat and read for a while longer before leaving. I thought if I stayed long enough the police would come to escort me out. I had always thought they made a big deal when you were expelled from school. In reality it was nothing; for the principal it was like turning the ignition to start his car in the morning. I left under my own power when school was over. I never returned.
I sat at home and did everything I wanted. I stayed up late and played poker on the Internet or with my friends, using my, self-taught people-reading powers to win money. I would go out and get drunk. I had a good time. I would wake up in the morning and watch daytime TV with my mom. I would play team trivia on Thursday nights at the bar down the street from my house. I was doing everything that a teenager could want to do while living a life of leisure. I would lie awake at night and dream of what I would do with my life. I would be an entrepreneur, a professional poker player. I would get married to Caitlin, the beautiful girl that would walk by my locker. I would be rich, successful and happy.
I walk outside and smoke to escape my lazy mother and drunken father, trying to stay away from the cesspool that is my house as long as possible. I think of those pictures they show in health class of black rotten lungs dripping with green and yellow puss, reminding myself that anything is better then being inside the house. When you first walk in it reeks of cat piss and rotting food garbage. When you see the garbage piled knee high in places, and the actual piss stains on the floor, turn you off even more. It was one of the reasons I decided to get a job.
When everyone I knew went to college, I filled out a job application. I got the job.
Every day I get up at dawn and wait for the local transit bus to pick me up. Three years ago I stole a car while I was drunk and dove it into a fence by the four-lane: when I get my license it will have 14 points on it, an automatic suspension.
I get to the college-dining hall by 7. I climb the three flights of stairs that lead up to the kitchen and punch in by 7:05. The first task of my 10-hour shift is always washing dishes in a watery hell. As soon as I enter the dish room my feet are submerged in 3 inches of water. Food garbage is everywhere. It smells like a garbage can. The other employees are from the local home for the mentally challenged. They work in three-hour shifts for less than minimum wage. They don’t get their work done. By noon I am ferrying cups to the drink machines and dishes to the serving lines. At 3 o’clock the morning shift goes home and I do whatever needs to be done. The managers don’t manage; they assume the work will get done without telling me what to do. I help the cook make dinner, I refill the drink machines, I sneak away for 15 minutes at a time to smoke a cigarette and escape the monotony. Time ticks away slowly. Minutes seem like hours, hours turn into days.
From the kitchen I can see out into the dining room. To pass the time I put familiar names to the faces of the people I see. The girl with the short black hair that barely touches the top of her shoulders and paint-covered overalls is Artsy Mandy, a girl that sat to my left in computer graphics class, always scribbling on her white notebook paper; the tall trim guys with loose fitting football t-shirts are named Athletic Scott, after my high school football team’s star receiver; the short girls that wear tight shirts with low necklines are Peppy Jill, the cheerleading squad leader. All of the gorgeous blond girls with blue eyes are named Caitlin.
They seldom glance at me because I am invisible. I am a fixture in a world that is constant and never changing. To the students that grace the cafeteria I am not a person, I am an object. I serve a plate of the chicken tortilla casserole. I make the cookies magically appear on the desert trays. I walk by with a white cart full of glasses and stack them next to the soda machines. The students stand idle and wait for the fresh glasses, looking away from me the same way you would look away from a wall.
The only people who notice me are my co-workers. Gary stands outside in the freezing cold to smoke five cigarettes a shift with me. He is a father of four kids who is still unmarried. He lost his license after being pulled over three times for DUI. Cindy is 50 years old and has never received a high school diploma. She ran away from home and dropped out of school to chase a dream she would never achieve. They work, like me, for little more than minimum wage, 50 hours a week.
“So little Ben, when-in-the-hell are you gettin’ out of this shithole?” Cindy always asks.
With a smile I say: “I only come here for you, Cindy. The day you’re on your deathbed, I am done with this lame job,” and we both have our laugh.
Before any of us leave at the end of the day, all of the tables in the dining room must be washed and sanitized, the floors must be vacuumed and mopped, and all of the dishes must be washed. I always scrub the tables. State sanitation standards determine everything about the procedure, right down to the type of bucket you put the solution in. I am the only person that washes the tables. It is a long process at the end of a long day, but I don’t mind. It gives me time to think about where I am going and what I have done.
My favorite place to reflect is in the west end of the dining room. I always clean the tables there last. It has large gabled windows that overlook the main road the college campus runs down. In the winter the snow reflects pure white light into the room, illuminating everything. I stand and scrub the tables and gaze over the campus, sorting through thoughts in my mind. Every night the same urge comes over me. In my mind I can see myself casting a table through the laminated glass window and freeing myself. I pick up the table and smash through, breaking the torment and the pain. I gaze out into the dark star-filled sky and see opportunity. I leap from the window into the mounds of pure white snow that cloak the ground beneath, the feel of cold on my body refreshing my mind and senses. Standing up, I run as fast as I can until I can run no farther, free from my prison of stainless steel and concrete, free to do whatever I wish, with a clean slate and a new start. I race to my high school and attend all of my classes. I graduate in the top of my class. I sweep Caitlin off her feet and we are married after high school.
When the last four tables of the west-end dining room are clean, I punch out. I stand in the cold, waiting for the bus. The snow by the bus stop is brown and dirty, covered in salt and grime from the road. I sink back into reality and realize that I will live my life scrubbing tables, invisible to everyone.