Leah Beecher

Dish Pit

The dish pit is the bottom of the barrel. However, “from here, you can only go up!”

This last light-hearted phrase is the type of thing that Carlos’s Gramma Lewis likes to say. Her favorite is: “Money ain’t everything, but it sure helps.” He notices people like little sayings. His favorite teacher in school was his second-grade teacher, Miss Anderson. “Friends listen first, talk second,’’ she would sing out at least nine times a day whenever the twenty-three children inside room number forty-eight at Frederick Douglass Elementary School would clamor to tell her something wildly interesting about themselves or their pet. In Carlos’s memories, Miss Anderson is always in a polka-dot green dress, her blonde hair gathered in a floppy bun on the top of her head. When she smiles her teeth are gleaming white and luminous.

Here in the brightly fluorescent-lit kitchen of Lakeview Restaurant, catchy little phrases are not how the line guys talk. Unless you count “what the fuck!” which is spat often in the kitchen since everyone is always in a bad mood and a hurry. In the kitchen, you need to be fast. Carlos has no problem with that in the dish pit. He is fast with his hands, but clumsy when he has to leave the sink. Also, you don’t complain that it’s hot. Carlos doesn’t complain. Ever. On his first day, the manager, Chloe, told him three things:

First, “Mark, the owner, is a cheap bastard and buys dollar store dish detergent that won’t work and will dry your hands out like crazy, so most dish guys just buy Dawn themselves. But you know, whatever.”

Second, “Do whatever the line guys tell you.”

Third, “If you have any questions don’t ask Dave, the head chef.”

Then she left. She has never spoken to him again. That was over a year ago when Carlos was still in high school and only had a puny couple hundred dollars saved.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon and the back of house staff has just survived Labor Day weekend, the busiest weekend of the season. Carlos, returning from his late lunch break, stumbles a bit navigating his body through the kitchen’s employees only back door. The door is permanently open during business hours and has heavy black plastic curtains that act as flapping screens, suspended and sweeping to the ground, to keep air moving and the bugs out. It’s always awkward for Carlos to step through the swaths of netting. The open door doesn’t help the oppressive heat in the kitchen. It read ninety-two degrees on the big digital clock outside Community Bank that Carlos passed on his bicycle, pedaling quickly on the way to Biggies to get smokes. That means it is over one hundred and ten degrees, easy, in the kitchen. The dish pit, the back-back of the house, is even hotter. Only a few pans await in the gray water. The stainless steel counters on either side of the sink are shiny and clean because Carlos meticulously scrubbed them down before he clocked out for lunch. He always does this, despite how much his leg aches by lunchtime. Dave thinks it’s crazy.

“You’re not saving yourself any time, come closing,” he said the first time he witnessed Carlos wiping long, methodical strokes on the counter with a small scour pad.

With a smirk, Dave had noted the concise falling of sudsy liquid and wet food particles from the counter to the drain where Carlos was working intently. This drain sink was at the end of the counter, bolted against the dingy side wall where they store empty gallon jugs of mayo, ketchup, mustard, ranch, tartar sauce, Italian dressing, odd-sized lids, and wooden spatulas that no one uses since they are unsanitary, but no one will throw away, either.

“I know,” Carlos had said. Then, finishing his last wipe so the metal shone wet and beautifully blank, he added, “It will make me feel better when I clock back in.”

“Huh,” Dave had grunted, taking a drag from his Marlboro even though smoking inside the kitchen wasn’t allowed.

Today, Dave isn’t around. No one is at the moment. The heat hangs heavy with the smell of grease and onions. Two servers’ heads can be seen through the round windows of the kitchen’s swinging doors, which connect to the short hallway that spills into the main dining room. Carlos can tell the servers are on their phones and having a conversation at the same time, even though the mounted ceiling fan and the speaker currently playing Metallica make it impossible to hear. The brunette head of the new girl, (Kaley? or Kiley?) and the reddish-blonde head of Gretta, who has worked here as long as Carlos, are both bent down. Their faces will suddenly rise, somewhat reluctant, turn to the other and say something in just a flash, before their chins tuck down into their neck and their eyes narrow in concentration. Like smoking, being on your phone while on the clock isn’t allowed. That’s why the servers are huddled like fugitives by the swinging doors. Suddenly, the familiar sound of silverware clanging rings out. A busboy, who is actually a grown man with a receding hairline and a kid of his own, has just dropped the dish tub onto the scraping board a few feet from the girls on their phones. Kaley/Kiley laughs out.

“You scared me!” she shrieks, laughing. She doesn’t look down at her phone again. Carlos can’t hear the rest of the exchange, but he can guess. The new girl is very pretty and laughs at everything. Even the Dad Joke of the Day calendar that hangs in the break room. Kaley/Kiley always laughs out loud at the puns, then repeats it to whoever is in the break room with her.

“Why are piggy banks so wise? They are filled with common cents!”

“Common cents,Kaley/Kiley muses with an affectionate head shake. It’s kind of lame, but it’s nice to be around a person who laughs a lot, Carlos thinks. He has yet to admit to himself that he likes Kaley/Kiley. Knowing her actual name will help.

With nicotine in his bloodstream and gleaming stainless steel in front of him, Carlos is feeling good despite the humidity in the kitchen which makes him sweat the second he walks through the plastic screen curtains. Prep for dinner rush will start soon. The servers love the dinner rush. The back of house hates the dinner rush because they don’t get any tips; they get yelled at more. Carlos is not really impacted that much; he’s marooned with a wet T-shirt in the dish pit. No tips, no getting yelled at. Just gray water, fuzzy bubbles, and smears of food that must go. The dishes stack up faster during the dinner rush, but Carlos knows he can get through them fast. His job is always the same. His pay is always the same. Now that he has finally graduated from high school he can work doubles, meaning he can save even more money. He has become obsessed with his savings balance. Smiling to himself, he recalls the last time he rode his bicycle to Community Bank to deposit his paycheck. (Carlos always bikes, never walks.) The small, gray-colored, typed number on his last bank deposit slip read:


Halfway there. Only up from here! This is what he thinks in his head, but it’s in his Gramma Lewis’s voice.

His mom’s ex-boyfriend’s cousin promised Carlos to sell him his 1999 Softail Harley Davidson for five grand the summer before he went into eleventh grade. That was two years ago. Carlos Blue-Booked the value: ten grand. Its black metal and shiny chrome body is as sleek and perfect as glass. Its two burnt-orange fins curve in a luminous gleam, large in the back, hovering over the back wheel, smaller in the front, protecting the gas tank. It’s downright sexy.

“Classic old school,” is how Bear described it.

Bear named it Marilyn, after some old-timey movie star, apparently. Carlos can’t remember her full name, but he does remember Bear’s surprise that he’d never heard of her.

“Oh man, I am getting old,” Bear laughed. Bear only laughs at himself, never at others. That is what Carlos noticed right away.

Regardless of the name, the Softail is fast. So fast. Carlos was a freshman in high school when he met Bear. Unbelievably, it is thanks to his mom’s then boyfriend, Kyle, that Carlos stumbled on what would be his ticket out of his depressing, stunted life. Like all her boyfriends, Carlos had hated Kyle, but was grudgingly grateful that Kyle slid into their lives for a few years, or he would’ve never met Bear. He wouldn’t be halfway to freedom, finally a man. Kyle and his mom had been together for about a year then, and he was living with them, not Gramma Lewis, during this stint of time. The warning signs of their impending break up were flaring up like a bad `rash. It was a nervous time for Carlos. He hated all the boyfriends, but “without a man, the bottle is her boyfriend.” This is the only cheerless phrase Gramma Lewis ever uses. While Carlos couldn’t stand his mother’s boyfriends, at least when she had one she stayed sober. Held down a job. When the boyfriend left, she fell apart. Stopped going to work. The fridge dwindled to condiments and Mike’s hard lemonade. Then Gramma Lewis would show up. “You’re just gonna stay a week or so until your mom finds a new job,” turned into Carlos living with her for a year, or more.

Bear was about forty, skinny, always smoking, and had a longish, thin ponytail. He looked nothing like a bear, which surprised Carlos the first time he met him. He looked remarkably like lots of other white guys around that age who lived in the trailer park side of Ontario County. The nickname was unique, but having one was not. No, the reason why Bear is one in a million is because of his garage. Twice as long and wide as his single-wide trailer. His garage is permanently crammed full of motorcycles and motorcycle parts. The walls are covered with old motorcycle license plates and a few yellowing Harley Davidson posters. Like the kitchen restaurant, it has a permanent smell: motor oil and cigarettes. Unlike the restaurant, no one ever yells, unless something catches on fire. But that’s to be expected. The “Meeting Bear Day” as Carlos has come to think of it, was when he was fifteen years old, and he had no idea why Kyle dragged him and his mom there. Turns out, they were not even there to see Bear. Some other guy was there, and the two men started to use tough guy talk, saying “dough” instead of “money.” Whatever. Bear was just standing there, smoking and looking bored, like the teachers’ aides who had to watch the students in the cafeteria. Except for the cigarette, of course, the teachers usually scrolled on their phone, observing nothing, especially not any middle-school cruelness. Carlos was genuinely startled when Bear asked him if he wanted to check out the bikes. The bikes? Carlos’s initial thought was that this guy was way too old to be riding bicycles. He remembered mumbling, “No thanks,” while looking around the front yard, at the fence, at the plastic chairs, at the folded gold and tan umbrella sticking up crookedly from the round plastic table. Everything was covered in grass clippings; someone had weed whacked the brick patio edges recently. Carlos looked at anything except the guy who wanted to show him the bikes. Kyle started to yell at his mom,

“Why the hell didn’t you grab the damn check book, Tam!”

Kyle apparently owed some money to the other guy and, of course, this was now his mom’s problem.

“Why don’t you go with Bear, Carlos.”

It was not really a question. It was his mom’s tight voice; half annoyed and half nervous. It was a request to leave the scene. Carlos decided it’d be less hassle dealing with some old guy making awkward small talk. Some adults did this. Carlos just wanted to be left alone most of the time. He shrugged and shuffled through freshly mowed grass, not looking at anyone.

The rest, as they say, is history. A door opened in Carlos’s world. One of greasy metal parts, bruised and bleeding knuckles, and shiny tools of mysterious function that were no longer mysterious, but more like faithful friends. Within the first two minutes, the feeling that Bear pitied him drained away like greasy water down a sink. It was replaced with a light, airy wonder that such a place existed and let him, Carlos, in. He knew that it was no exaggeration that the past four years had changed his life. He can’t even fathom what he’d be doing with his pathetic existence if not for meeting Bear and spending his evenings in his motorcycle garage. There were a few evenings where they never got around to picking up a single tool; instead they just talked about what he hated about school and what confused him about his mom. Bear always listened, and gave only a little advice.

He usually ended with, “Have patience and try to forgive Tam.”

Carlos never made a reply.

So many changes in four years. Hot water running, steam rising, lunch pans soaking, Carlos is shaking his head thinking about how ninth-grade Carlos had yet to go through all of puberty. Now, graduated-from-high school Carlos has a full-time job and is an almost-owner of a vintage Harley Davidson Softail. Soon, he would never have to pedal up that stinking, long Sunnyside Hill Road to Gramma Lewis’s house again. He would fly up there.

Gramma worries about him on his kid’s bicycle. He knew she was not a fan of those loud, dangerous machines, but she didn’t forbid him from saving up to buy the Softail. Even if she tried, it wasn’t up to her anymore. When he was little, she forbade Carlos from doing almost anything except going to school and sometimes visiting Mom on the weekends. He couldn’t go to the park a block away by himself until the sixth grade; the grade that kids stopped going to the park because “it was for babies.” Soon though, no one would be able to stop him from going anywhere he wanted. Wherever he went, people would notice the sleek machine under him first.

Carlos turns the huge Dawn container upside down, squeezing the last of the blue liquid soap into a white, frothy foam of hot clean. The kitchen door slaps open. Craig, the man busboy, walks through. A large gray busser bin, filled to the top with silverware leads the way; Carlos will have to sort through the bin and then run it through the industrial dishwasher. Craig smirks at Carlos.

“What’s up, bro?”

Carlos doesn’t reply because Craig isn’t really inquiring. Carlos knows this. “What’s up, bro?” is basically Craig’s filler.

“That Kaley is hot,” he announces, exaggerating the word hot.

“It’s Kiley,” says Carlos with conviction, even though he has no idea if that’s actually her name. He hopes to God he’s wrong.

“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” says Craig with the faith of a child.

He does a weird quirk with his mouth, the top lip going up and to the side, which Carlos assumes to be part conspiratorial, part ironic, all bro. He saunters out, pushes the door open, and says very loudly in mock surprise, “Kiley, you are still on your phone?”

A giggle and, “It’s Kaley,” is all Carlos can hear before the door swings shut with a bang.

Carlos smiles into the billowy white suds and the perfectly smooth gleaming stainless steel counters, mooring him, to his left and to his right.

It was a slow night and the dishes were done before 9:30 p.m., which makes the night feel like a vacation compared to the holiday weekend. The dishwasher is almost always last to leave. Carlos wipes down every stainless steel surface one more time and walks out of the kitchen towards the breakroom. He’s surprised to hear laughter coming from it. It’s high and female, so, a server. Usually, the servers are gone by the time he clocks out. The door is half open and Carlos’s frame is small so he just slips in. He sees Craig’s backside first and Kaley’s laughing face, hand covering her mouth, trying to stifle her giggles, shaking her head, and saying through her hand,

“You’re so bad,” to Craig who is doing something strange.

In that first second Carlos, for some reason, thinks of the Dad Joke of the Day calendar, and feels a stupid laugh bubble, despite not even knowing the pun. Then Craig drags his left leg with an exaggerated limp and Carlos goes cold. At the same time, Kaley’s eyes go wide, she stops laughing, and stands up straight. Carlos says nothing and takes a very slow deliberate step to the left, where the punch-out clock is located.

“What’s wrong? Oh, shit,” Carlos hears Craig say.

Carlos’s back is turned. His heart is thudding, erratic, and uncomfortable. He can feel his face burning red. He can’t remember his employee number to clock out, even though it’s his birthdate.

“Have a good night, bro,” Craig sings out before leaving the silent break room, Kaley trailing behind like a puppy, her head down.

Of course, the dishwasher with a limp is an easy target. Carlos graduated from high school that June, thus ending four years of predictable hell. It is easy to simply shrug it off, lie to himself, say, “I’m used to it. It doesn’t matter.”

The restaurant’s back of house men are all gruff, foul mouthed, and show zero sympathy, but they never mock him. Once on a smoke break, Carlos with his menthol lights, Demitrie with his vape had asked him how he got the limp. No sarcasm. No sympathy. Just a question.

“Car accident,” is all Carlos replied.

A normal story.

“Fucking sucks,” was Demetirie’s reply.

A thing he said about everything.

“Yeah, sure does.”

After finally punching his employee numbers in correctly Carlos walks as fast as he can to reach his bicycle in the narrow alley behind the restaurant. It’s dark here and smells of rotting garbage. He hitches his leather backpack with its Harley Davidson patch a bit and gets on the grungy bicycle he’s had since ninth grade. It takes a moment to kick the rusty kickstand up for some reason. His leg hurts. He finally manages to get a good push-off and pedals slowly down the alley that cuts to the north end of Main Street, which will eventually lead him to Sunnyside Hill Road, then home. Gramma will likely still be up and watching recorded episodes from the History Channel or cooking shows. Emerging from the dank alley and into the pretty, warmly lit up Main Street, Carlos can clearly see his hands gripping the bar handles. Dry from all the dishes, but sweaty from the humidity. He can count on what his hands can do, in a way he can’t ever count on his feet.

An image flashes, unprovoked, as he pedals north—fuzzy mittens. Specifically, the fluffy red mittens his second grade teacher, Miss Anderson had bought him for Christmas. He never wore mittens to school and after a while, his teacher stopped asking where they were. All the students got a book and some candy but Carlos had a little extra present; those mittens. Bright red and definitely not from Walmart. He can still see the neat, green stitching at the bottom cuff that spelled out L.L. Bean. He had never heard of it and thought it was weird it was named after food. Thick red mittens, white fuzzy lining, green stitching. Perfect Christmas colors. It was the last day before the long Christmas break. Students and teachers alike were relaxed and in a good mood. His mom was the opposite: uptight and sad. She’d had a bad break up the week of Thanksgiving. It was the first time he heard Gramma use the phrase “without a man, the bottle is her boyfriend.” That same Friday night his mother pulled into the parking lot of some local dumpy bar just as the evening was turning purple. Seven-year-old Carlos, who was still so short and weighed next to nothing, was forced to be strapped into a booster seat.

Twisting around from the front driver’s seat she had told him, “I’m just gonna pop in to say Merry Christmas to Rachel.” Rachel was her best friend. She came over a lot and they got very happy and turned the music up loud and danced. Carlos doesn’t remember much after he watched his mom walk towards a windowless building. He remembers reading “L.L. Bean’’ over and over. He remembers trying to unlatch himself out of the booster seat, but for some reason, he didn’t want to take off those mittens. With them on he couldn’t get the seat belt buckle unlatched, and gave up. He was tired and fell asleep. Then it was black outside. He remembers being cold. So cold. Then, a lot of pain. Lots of lights. Red and blue with snow shooting between them. Not really Christmas colors, but close. He was in the hospital for a long time. He didn’t see his mom again until he was ten. He didn’t return to school again until Saint Patrick’s Day. The festive day he finally returned back to school, unbeknownst to him, was also known as “naughty leprechaun day” in Miss Anderson’s second grade classroom. The students had been preparing and looking forward to it. Carlos knew none of this, of course. Upon arriving that morning, he was greeted by his fellow classmates whom he hadn’t seen in three months, jumping, pointing, and laughing, at something just inside the room. Very confused, Carlos was finally able to peer inside the classroom and saw that all the tables had moved to the center of the room and a few chairs were even upside down. Green crepe was paper drunkenly strewn all over it. Carlos burst out crying, thinking something horrible and unexplainable was now happening at school too.

Miss Anderson had taken him to the hall, and kept saying over and over, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

His Grandma Lewis had made the comment, just once, that it was too bad that Carlos had those fuzzy mittens on the day her daughter forgot about him and left him locked in the car for six and a half hours. His grandmother insisted he would have been able to unbuckle himself and figure out the locked back door with bare freezing hands. Then Carlos would not have lost three toes on his left foot and the pinky on his right from frostbite. Carlos used to wonder about this too. But now he knows the truth: it was a miracle of Saint-like proportions that he had those mittens. He probably wouldn’t have figured out the buckle or how to unlock the door, and even if he did, he would’ve been too scared to walk into the bar at night looking for his mom. He would’ve still fallen asleep and lost some fingers, too. Without fingers, he really would be completely worthless. Bear would’ve never been able to teach him to drop a tranny, to make a bike ride and sound new. He would be mocked by some because he was the kid with a limp, but those mittens, saving his fingers, meant soon, he would be the guy with a Harley, who was fast. Carlos, lost in his fantasy, has forgotten about the man busboy, about Kaley laughing at him. He’s forgotten how much he hates pedaling up stinking Sunnyside Hill Road. All he sees is himself hugging the curvy, paved State Route 21 that runs the entire length of Canandaigua Lake, leaving it all behind in a cloud of dust.

Leah Beecher lives in the beautiful and secluded little corner of New York State known as the Finger Lakes. While the region is famous for its wines and lakes, Leah seldom drinks New York State wine or swims in lakes, preferring Italian red wine and oceans. She is a mother of four daughters and has been married for over twenty years. Ever since she finished reading The Secret Garden, the summer she turned ten, she’s known she had to write stories.