Washing Dishes in Evergreen, Colorado

Bernie holds the chopping knife, tip up, glares at Billie.
She’s come to the kitchen to ask him to leave the cheese
off a burger. It’s not her fault. She put the order in right,
but the customer changed his mind. Billie’s waited on tables
at the Little Bear since her family stopped ranching, her face
and hands like smoked snakeskin after years of cigarettes
and wiping counters. By shift’s end, peanut shells crushed
to dust coat her ankles.
Bernie smashes the dishwasher door
when he finds a greasy plate in the stack. That’d be my fault.
I’m in charge of dishes. I clear tables, haul the clanking mess
to the back, a quick rinse before loading the aluminum box.
Unloading is divine – lifting the door at cycle’s end, a rush
of wet heat, the smell of ammonia and boil.
Bernie’s snapped shirt and oily beard diffuse in the steam.
Billie keeps an eye on me so I don’t sneak into the bar.
I eat nuts, piles of pepperoni, wait for Bernie to offer a cigarette.
He holds out a pack of Tareyton’s.
I’d rather fight than switch, we say, as I slide one out of the carton.
The people in the ads wear a black eye –
proof that a puff is worth a slug.
The year before, a boy choked me, ripped my heart necklace off,
threw it across the junior high lawn. Mom said, see?
You can’t be trusted with anything good.
He was older, jealous of the crush I had on the altar boy
who sat in front of me in home-room. I’d stare at his shiny black hair,
imagine kissing his neck where the hair stopped even—
even kneeled in a pew to see him in white robe, swing incense.
Lots of things I wanted were worth getting slugged for.
I almost got punched at Sena’s Family Inn, the other place I did dishes.
The register came up short one day.
No one called me thief, but they acted like I was to blame.
I may have taken those twenties. It’s hard to remember what I did
and what people thought I did.
Stealing was easy: a paisley dress, white bikini worn under my clothes,
an Almond Joy. I got caught for the dress
but that’s another story.
The day I lost my job at Sena’s, my mom and her boyfriend came
to the side door, said they were driving back to New York.
Did I know she was leaving, or was I surprised?
But here I was at work. The car, packed with her clothes, idled.
She stood on the steps, not entering the lunch-rush kitchen.
Take care of the boys, she said. I’ll write soon.
She needed to go save her life. I turned,
picked up a tray of hot glasses fresh from the washer.
The whole rack slipped, shattered.
I can still feel the heat on my palms,
the weight slide from my fingers. I was wearing my favorite shirt,
the one that made me look free –
Indian cotton embroidered on the front, tassels at the neck.
On the street I looked for her blue Skylark.
By then, they must’ve made it to the freeway.

from Mudlark, www.unf.edu/mudlark, September 2010