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The Reason for Muttering

Hanna Etu

The dishwasher job in any place of employment is always a degrading position, but at my work it was a whole deeper, darker, dingier crawling-around-in-the-bottom-of-the-dumpster level of humiliation. Lynn was our combination dishwasher, bathroom-cleaning lady, garbage lady. She did the jobs nobody else wanted to do. I assumed for the first few weeks of my job that Lynn was just another cook in the kitchen until I finally realized they would never allow her near sharp objects of any kind.
Lynn was a stout, middle-aged woman with a mouse face and long gray hair she kept yanked back in a bun. She wore the same faux-velvet jumpsuit with the standard white apron nearly every day, with a pair of shoes that must have been sneakers at one point in time, but were mostly a few pieces of fabric and rubber desperately attached by a couple threads. Her face was usually crunched in a concentrated frown, which made it all the more startling when she actually got animated about something, and her eyes would bulge out of her face like a squeezed doll.
I worked mostly at the bakery and prepared foods counter, which consisted of several long cases full of cakes, pastries, and brownies followed by a long reach-in case with bowls of various mayonnaise-coated salads. At the end of the bakery cases was a dividing wall that led into a long galley kitchen, where two stainless steel tables took up the expanse of the middle of the room. At the very, very end in a corner that always appears dark and almost cave-like in my memories of it, was a sink with a pull-down faucet with an industrial dishwasher next to it. Underneath and to the side were a collection of spray bottles, paper towel rolls, and other cleaning supplies. This was Lynn’s corner, her little home, her sanctuary of sorts.
On my afternoons at work, I would barely make it into the kitchen without hearing a sudden, high-pitched squawk.
“Watch it!” She’d say. “The floor is wet!”
I’d see her wildly brandishing a wet mop taller than herself, dragging it over the mucky concrete floor. Swish swash. I’d tip-toe by her, so as not to ruin the floor, deposit a dish in the sink (at which she would sigh “all right”), and hear another sing-song “caaareful,” before making my way back to the bakery counter.
I soon realized that Lynn was obsessed with her floor, and obsessed with reminding you when it was wet, as if the five different Wet Floor signs positioned perfectly equidistant from one another weren’t enough.
“I’m gonna hit the floor now,” Lynn would say, for whose benefit you were never quite sure. Either way, it sounded painful.
“Did you hear the floors were wet?” Shauna would say, leaning against the counter, her arms folded in furious defiance of Lynn’s over-cautiousness of our well-being. “Because I honestly didn’t know.”
I imagined Lynn being scarred by someone else’s tragic wet-floor-related accident. I pictured someone power walking into the kitchen in the middle of a rush, distracted by thoughts of brownie bars and cheesecake slices, skidding on the slippery concrete, their arms flailing in pointless resistance, their skull hitting the floor with a resounding crack! I imagined Lynn falling to her knees, wringing her hands and proclaiming “if only I’d been there to warn them!” The imaginary camera shot would pan out and up to view a Quentin-Tarantino-style pool of blood trickling through the cracks in the floor.
I slipped ever so slightly on the floor once, walking quicker when I thought Lynn’s back was turned. But I was caught in the act.
“Careful there!” she piped up immediately as I gained by bearings, skull intact.
I kicked myself for days, months, years afterwards. Oh, the humiliation.
Many afternoons I would be lining up kifli cookies (little crescent shaped cookies with assorted fillings that every customer pronounced wrong for the sole purpose of seeing the frown lines on my forehead) on a tray, boxing up a slice of cake, or filling up cannoli shells, when I would hear an assortment of profanities echoing from down the way.
“Fuck!” the kitchen would exclaim.
No, that couldn’t be right, I thought. I just have a dark mind, that’s obvious, right? I’m not really hearing that.
“Shhhhit!” the kitchen would declare, as several pots went slamming into the sink.
The profanity parade was a regular routine, as I came to realize. It was complemented by the slamming of dishes or the rough scratching of the broom against the wet concrete tile. At least someone was expressing themselves.
Around the store, Lynn was our favorite subject for imitation. We would enunciate various profanities—“fucking shhit”—remind each other that the floor was going to be wet, or announce repeatedly that we were going to take out the trash. Her voice would rise and fluctuate at random intervals that filled you with an odd sort of fear. The wet floor warning would be in the high pitch of an angry grandmother telling you to come inside for dinner, while trash-time Lynn was more like that uncle that drank just a little too much whiskey at family parties.
Tiffany would scold us, though she mainly scolded Alan, our class clown, the king of impersonations.
“You really shouldn’t make fun of her, Alan,” she’d say. “You know she has issues.”
Lynn clearly suffered from some kind of mental disorder, though we never discovered which. There was evidence for several different possibilities: the talking to herself could possibly indicate schizophrenia, the swearing could potentially mean Tourette’s syndrome, and the social awkwardness combined with an impeccable ability for crossword puzzles could possibly be a sign of autism. But none of us really did the research. I did feel guilty as my Lynn impressions improved and I would continue to feel bad as I continued to imitate her. Alan never seemed to feel guilty at all. I guess the key was remembering the times we’d hear Lynn complaining to herself about us when she thought we weren’t listening, in the midst of the profane outbursts. You kind of accept your hell-bound status when you work in retail, and impersonating Lynn as daily entertainment was just signing the contract.
By now I understood why Lynn was not in a position to interact with customers. Just the sound of the phone ringing would agitate her. If Willie, the head chef, had left for the day or stepped out of the kitchen for a few minutes and the kitchen phone rang, Lynn would stand and quiver over it like a dog watching a cat; she was highly uncertain of it, and ached to pounce, but couldn’t quite get up the nerve to do so. She’d stare at it, listening to the incessant ringing, rolling her feet back and forth as she grasped her broom in her hand.
“Uhhh…” She’d shout over the ringing. “Can you uhh…answer the phone?”
If Lynn did not know what to make of the customers, the customers certainly didn’t know what to make of her.
“Comin’ behind ya,” she would say as she snuck by a customer, bringing some garbage or cleaning supplies to the back of the store. The customer would often jump or attempt to make raised-eyebrow eye contact with one of the other employees. Hey, I wanted to say. You’re the outsider here.
What was a little worrisome was Lynn’s adoration for little babies in strollers. Without asking, she would walk up to the stroller, peek in, and say with the voice of Goofy but the stature of Mickey Mouse, “Hey there, little fella!” Often times the parents weren’t sure if Lynn was an employee or not, and would politely nod and answer questions until she shuffled back to work.
Lynn’s most amusing moments were the ones she did not know anyone else was a part of, or so we thought at first. Nick was in the back warehouse once while she was on one of her personal rampages, off to fetch a bucket or something of that nature. He couldn’t hear much of what she was mumbling to herself until a sudden “Where am I?” flew out, in, according to Nick, the angry grandmother tone of voice. At first I attributed this to more of her own personal issues that we were either too ignorant, insensitive, or just plain unobservant to determine the specifics of, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt she was, unknowingly, posing a philosophical question. Where was I? Where were any of us, really? Work might have thrown her into the untouchable category of our segregated society where we could giggle and point at her absurdities, but we were all working there, suspended between productive points in our lives. Lynn was just suspended for far too long.
Lynn also had an unorthodox manner of maintaining her self-esteem. Alan liked to reenact a scene at the lockers when Lynn was getting ready to leave in the evening.
Lynn was trying to unlock her padlock, repeatedly getting the combination wrong and not being able to open it. She was clanging against the locker, trying to force it open and getting frustrated, grunting in-between clangs.
“I can’t do it,” whined sad grandma.
“You can do it ba-by,” urged whiskey-drinking uncle.
These full on conversations were very common. Many days I would be getting ready to punch in for work when I would hear multiple voices drifting out of the break room, a deeper one and a higher one. I would generally assume a male and female coworker were having a conversation in the break room until I walked by and saw Lynn sitting there alone, in the same metal folding chair she sat in every day.
My brother once walked by her while she was puttering about the back warehouse, pushing her cleaning cart to straighten up the employee bathrooms, muttering angrily to herself. Tom was accustomed to her constant dialogue, but she must have finally realized he was there and noticed the undoubtedly puzzled look on his face, because she suddenly turned in his general direction and said, “I’m not crazy—”(in true panicked-grandmother fashion that suddenly altered to uncle smoking a cigar)—“I’m just stressed.”
That was certainly true, to some extent. We were all stressed—Lynn just had her own special way of articulating it. One night, after the managers had left for the evening, Alan and I went to Lynn’s back corner area of the kitchen. Amongst various spray bottles, sponges, rolls of garbage bags, and (oddly) dirty crumpled up scraps of paper towels, we found a decrepit yellow legal pad. Lynn’s slanted scrawl covered each page, listing each activity of every day.
“Started doing dishes,” Alan did his best high pitched impression. Next chore: “Ended doing dishes! Look, she even listed the load number.”
We flipped to the day before. Started doing dishes. Next: Ended doing dishes.
We flipped back a couple years, for the pages, crumpled and water-stained as they all were, went back to the beginning of time. First task: Started doing dishes.
I wanted to both laugh and cry for very different reasons.
Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But did Lynn expect anything different? I wasn’t really sure what Lynn expected at all. Consistency? Fulfillment? I feared that Lynn was the manifestation of what just too many days, weeks, months, years in that place could do to a person. What dish load number would it take to reach fulfillment?
“Lynn’s always been like that,” Jack, our general manager, once said to me. “Have I ever told you we went to high school together? We were a couple years apart. She’s always been like that, and well, you know how kids can be.”
I wanted to say, Kids? I know how adults can be, too, thinking of how many times Jack and I had impersonated her while she was not around.
“She came to me in the eighties, she’d just been fired from K-Mart and she was devastated,” Jack said, his arms folded in his usual contemplative stance. “I showed her application to our manager at the time and he said, ‘eh, give her a job.’”
Lynn cashed for her first few years, or possibly months, I’m not sure how long that could possibly have lasted. Jack said she had a habit of perturbing customers with the way she moved the items—“blueberry jam, huh?” SLAM—and announced the products to herself as she went—“cold…cuts!” That could not have gone on very long before they hid her in the kitchen, where she would dwell for the next thirty years.
On one of my later days at work, after our store moved to a new location, I was getting ready for the day—gathering my apron, hat, and headset—when Jay came up to his locker to gather his things.
“You haven’t been here in a while, have you?” he asked.
“No, not since Sunday,” I said, pulling my apron over my head and tying it around my waist.
“So then I’m guessin’ nobody’s told you.”
“Told me what?”
Jay got down to a whisper and hunched his head down in the way people do when they’re either telling you a secret or pretending to confide in you to make sure you’re listening.
“Lynn got fired yesterday,” Jay said.
There weren’t any words to describe that moment, because there is a blankness that takes over your ability to think when you’re in a state of disbelief. But when I started to think, I wondered what kind of a person you have to be to take away the tiny income and entire world of a person just to save on providing that tiny income. I thought about her having to clean out her locker, gather all of her belongings. I thought about her not knowing where she was going to get herself up to go the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.
I imagined Lynn just coming in to work the next day, as if nothing had happened, simply because she didn’t know what else to do. She’d start the day as she always did, cleaning the dishes out of the sink, then getting her cart and taking on the bathrooms, mumbling all the way.
Lynn did not do this, but she did return several times, begging for her job back. It’d worked once years before, with a different owner of the store, but it wasn’t going to work now. I pictured her trying to apply to every kitchen within a ten-mile radius of her house, going to an interview with every one of her personalities.A month or two later she came in and it was the first time I’d seen her come in since she’d been fired.
“So I guess you may have heard,” Lynn said, lowering her voice. “I don’t work here anymore.”
As if it was some kind of secret.
She told me that she’d gotten a job at a restaurant washing dishes, of course. But they weren’t giving her as many hours as she wanted, and it just wasn’t cutting it. Even if it was going to eventually get better for her, it was never going to take up more of her life than our store had.
Lynn was not replaced, but it wasn’t like people were lining up at the door to be the dishwasher in our little grocery store. The cooks and bakers just piled up the dishes in the sink until they accepted the fact that, for once, they were going to have to do them on their own.
The stock department absorbed the bathroom-cleaning job, and therefore on occasion I absorbed the bathroom-cleaning job. I would push the cleaning cart to the bathroom and put on a pair of rubber gloves, feeling like I was going into someone else’s bedroom and rifling through their underwear drawer. I could still picture Lynn grunting as she tried to get the cart over the little edge in the door frame, muttering to herself as she swept and mopped the floor. And I, after four years of working a bakery counter, finding myself scrubbing old trails of urine dribbling from the toilet bowl rim to the floor, began to see the reason for muttering.