Work Ethic was published by Levitate Magazine in 2019.
By Bill Stauffer
It was 1982, the year I turned fourteen, the year I got Johnny’s dishwashing job. I was jealous as shit when he first got that job, paying $2.82 an hour, three hours after school and eight on Saturdays. When Johnny got fired, I biked straight down to Gerard Farms on Water Street knowing they’d need a dishwasher, with Johnny back to smoking bowls of weed up on the aqueduct.
The boss man, Ronnie Gerard, rubbed his hand back and forth, back and forth along his bald head, held a fresh cigarette in his right. Looked me up and down and hired me on the spot. From where I stood, I could see a table stacked nearly to the yellow-stained ceiling with pots and pans. His nineteen year old son wore a gold chain, thick like braided rope, and he sneered at me, and seemed older than nineteen – but I guess nineteen seemed older than nineteen back then.
Ronnie patted me on the back, showed me how to fill a five gallon bucket with pink soapy water, angle the roasting pans and scrub, scrub, scrub one side, then the other. Turkey flesh and chicken skin stuck to the pans like road kill squashed on a black desert highway. I moved through the dishes, the ladles and spoons, sharp Japanese knives and buffalo chopper pieces and parts, scrubbed the burnt flesh off the pans, tore the pink skin from my fingers.
“He’s a lot better than Johnny,” Ronnie said to his son as he rubbed his head and inhaled blue cigarette smoke.
“Beginner’s luck,” The son pulled his own pack of smokes from his T-shirt pocket, tapped out a stick, and lit it while he watched me hunched over the commercial stainless double bay sink.
Ronnie rubbed my back and squeezed my neck, said he’d be back before close. The son punched the side of my arm so hard I bent low over the bucket of soapy water so he wouldn’t see me crying. I washed harder, the metal scrubber thing separated another layer of flesh from my fingers where it must have mixed with my tears and the turkey flesh floating in the pinkish water.
The human hand contains twenty-seven bones. In the fingers are concentrated some of the densest thickets of nerve endings. These nerve endings provide the brain with an abundance of tactile feedback which are essential for both menial and highly skilled tasks. Some scientists believe the human hand evolved for the purpose of smashing the bones of its prey and digging out the delicious and nutritional marrow inside.
When Ronny returned he said, “Don’t worry about Michael. He’s harmless.” He was so close I could smell his cigarette breath.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“It’s okay,” I said again after I sieved the tears and resentment from my voice. I resisted the urge to pull up my sleeve and see if my arm had turned black.
“I’ll give you a ride home.”
“But I have my bike.”
“We’ll toss it in the back of my car.”
His car wasn’t a car but a 1958 mint green Cadillac with fins like the keel of a sailboat. The paint shiny and spotless, the silver trim polished like a mirror. I didn’t want my bike to scratch the fins or any part of the car, but Ronnie lifted it into the trunk, wide and deep like an underground bunker.
Everyone noticed that car: the joggers on Water Street, the mothers walking dogs in my neighborhood. I wanted my friends to see, my Mom and Dad to see me being driven home by the boss, Ronnie, in his fancy antique Caddy. Except, as we turned down my street, near to my house, Ronnie reached his big, hairy hand over and set it on my lap. He massaged my penis, squeezed my balls, said he liked me working for him.
It was 1982 and I was fourteen and I remember Ronnie’s hand. It was a living thing separate and distinct from the rest of his body, the fleshy palm the head and brain controlling each finger, instructing each digit how to carry out its specific pedophilic mission . I quickly lifted it up off my lap and it was big and heavy like one of those thick rubber Halloween decoration hands that people plant in the ground to look like a body returning from the dead.
A dynamometer is the instrument most commonly used to measure the grip strength of the human hand. A 17 year old athletic male can have a hand grip strength of 64 pounds. A man in his sixties can have a grip exceeding 66 pounds. A fifteen year old girl might have a grip of only 33 pounds, half that of a man. One quarter that of two men.
Thirty six years ago, 1982, the year Ronnie gripped my crotch, I didn’t tell anyone what happened. Not my Mom and Dad or the FBI. I definitely didn’t tell Johnny, didn’t even think about asking him if it had happened to him – if Ronnie’s big fucking monster hand had landed in his crotch, pulsing and squeezing, poking and grabbing. That fucking hand looking wrinkled and wiry, like a one-dimensional Dicken’s character. Johnny might have said that it didn’t happen to him and then he’d tell my girlfriend, Tina, and she’d probably break up with me. And, that would make Johnny happy, even though we were friends.
I went back to work the next day and the next because I wanted the money and my Mom and Dad kept telling everyone how cool it was to have a young son willing to work so hard with school and sports in the mix and all. My grandfather said I was a hard worker and my grandmother nodded and started a long story about how hard people used to work, but I wasn’t listening because I was thinking about Ronnie’s heavy hand in my crotch and how I would keep it from going there again.
It felt good to hear Ronnie tell me how much better a job I did compared to past dishwashers, Johnny included. In addition to my forty-two dollar paycheck (after taxes) Ronnie slipped me a twenty spot here and there. Sometimes he did it around the holidays when so many turkeys and chickens needed to be cooked that they ran the pans through the ovens twice before I got to wash them. This made the skin that much harder to scrub from the pans and that meant I sacrificed even more flesh from my fingers.
Ronnie would slip behind me, in the narrow space between the double bay sink and dish table. I pictured his sweat stained T-shirt and army green trousers quiet and still, yet violent with anticipation. Sometimes I smelled his cigarette body. If I backed up I’d push into his crotch. So I remained stuck against the metal sink, pretending to focus on the pan at hand but my mind kept wanting to know: where is his hand, where is the hand?
A time or two, he’d pick up my hand, turn it over, and say, “you’re girlfriend’s not going to like those rough hands on her tits.” Truth is, I liked Tina’s tits, but I didn’t like Ronnie talking about her like that. Ronnie was older than my Dad, maybe as old as my grandfather.
After I got the hang of dishwashing, Ronnie taught me how to prepare the chickens for cooking. Truth was, I liked stuffing chickens. It added variety to the boring routine of washing dishes. And, it made me feel like I was part of the cooking team, even though I wasn’t cooking. I was getting the chickens ready to be cooked.
Two cases stuffed per day. Rarely was there a chicken left over, unbought. Mostly it was working mothers. Or mothers who didn’t like to cook but wanted to give their family something close to a home cooked meal: a perfectly browned-skinned stuffed chicken with a pint of gravy. Some may have come in for a quart of potato salad or a blueberry pie and smelled the fresh-from-the oven chickens sitting in a pan of grease on top of the faded black gas oven. I don’t know because I rarely talked to the customers even though I had a role in preparing their chicken.
From the big walk in I would pull two cases of chickens. Sometimes I used the hand truck and sometimes I pulled a case at a time with my skinny adolescent arms. A time or two Michael waited until I was deep in the recesses of the cooler and would turn off the lights and slam the door. I had to feel my way around watery buckets of diced potatoes, blocks of cheddar cheese, and those nasty smelling number ten cans filled with chicken livers, steamed eggs, and chopped onions.
The stuffing area held a commercial single bay sink connected to a long stainless steel table. The chickens first had to be dumped into an icy cold bath. I’d pull one from the water, pluck off the fatty skin attached to the anal cavity, and plop the pieces into a number ten can to be used later for basting. From inside the cavity, I’d then pull out the giblet bag: liver in one can to be used later to make pate, neck and heart in another to be used for gravy.
Once cleared of organs and other parts, I folded each wing under itself into a sort of triangle. I liked best when the wing bones clicked and snapped into place. It felt like a disappointment when that didn’t happen. The bird was then flipped over, with the butt cavity facing up, and filled with homemade stuffing. We mixed the stuffing in a yellow cement mixer and I loved telling people that, even though I didn’t feel like telling them about the other stuff.
Hot, humid spring days were the worst for stuffing chickens — absolute worst for stuffing chickens, especially if I had worn shorts to school. The chicken stuffing operation had been set up in the back of the kitchen, around the corner from the black ovens, Big Bessie, the white rotisserie oven, and the twelve burners of gas stove. Customers couldn’t see me back there, but Ronnie knew when I was back there alone – just me and the chickens.
Most times he’d just rub my back or stuff one of those extra twenties in the front of my shorts’ pocket. One time he had me stand up on the table to try and fix something high up on the wall. I can’t remember what it was, not after his hand scurried up along my thigh and crawled under my shorts. I can remember what my shorts looked like, how the front of them were stained pinkish-red from the red cloth aprons that bled through from washing dishes and wet chicken skin. I recall with clarity the dimples in the stainless table top where cases of frozen birds had been dropped heavily over the years. I know well the feel of Ronnie’s hand on my leg and crotch and how it conflicted and repulsed me at the same time. How I moved along the table to escape the hand that followed, followed, followed, until I jumped off the table and ran into the bathroom.
I remember later in the week when Ronnie gave me the silent treatment, stopped stuffing twenties in my pockets. One of the other kids who worked off and on for Ronnie, the son of a family friend of Ronnie and his wife, said to me, “Ronnie’s mad because you won’t give him what he wants.” What did he want? I understood he wanted something from my body, but I didn’t know if he just wanted to touch me or he wanted me to touch him. It felt like a conspiracy. Maybe Michael liked punching my arm because I wasn’t giving his father what his father wanted. I remember so many details. Yet, for the life of me I can’t remember why I was standing on that table.
In the English language there are certain verbs that imply the use of the hand to convey a specific action. For example: “To punch.” As in, “I’d like to punch him in the face,” which implies the hand, in fist format, hitting someone. Or the action verb “To grab.” An example of which might be, “I just grab them by the pussy,” perhaps notating a cupped hand swiping, prodding, or penetrating the female genitalia. Likewise, in most of these cases the subject is implied to be male.
After I left Gerard Farms I never returned. I was living in Portland with my wife when my Mom called to tell me Ronnie had died of a heart attack. She sounded confused why I didn’t send a card, didn’t go to the funeral, or didn’t seem to care much at all. I still couldn’t tell my folks what had happened, couldn’t tell anyone. I don’t know why. It’s just the way it is.
I always thought about going back to visit Michael, to ask him about his father. I wasn’t sure how I’d bring it up. Maybe we’d smoke a joint like the old days cooking together, blowing the smoke out the industrial exhaust fan in the back of the kitchen. I’d broach the subject cautiously for fear of insulting him, especially if he’d had no idea about his father’s pedophilia. I can’t tell him now, though. Michael took his life a few years ago.