Nothing’s Free

In the early nineties I worked in a sandwich shop. It was my first real job. I hated it. I didn’t even get to serve people the soup or sandwiches. I cleaned tables, washed dishes, and mopped floors. Apparently serving people their lunch was a privilege I had to earn. My boss was an asshole. Of course he was, he worked in customer-service. All that shit he had to smile and eat every day from the customers, he couldn’t spit it back out in their faces, so he spit it at me. We worked in the lobby of an office building at Bay and Bloor. The building was so tall it could intimidate giants. Mirrored glass and a stone exterior made it strong and beautiful. All day heels clacked importantly across the champagne coloured marble floors in the foyer. Shiny-shoed and finely suited men, and well dressed, hair-slicked, and lipsticked women would come into the shop for lunch. We braced for the noontime onslaught of customers. Nobody cared about me. I was invisible. None of those customers ever asked me how my day was, and in the off-chance that they did speak to me, it was only to prove some point to their minions about how graciously they could suffer the plebs. For some reason, however, I wanted to talk to them; for them to know I was a person. I felt compelled to tell them that I saw them and ask them if they saw me. I wanted to explain what I was doing working in this shitty sandwich shop, and what a complete jerk the owner was. How he made me take the napkins from their discarded trays and, if they didn’t look dirty or used, return them to the dispenser in order to save money. How he let dirty dishwater splash into the big pots of soup when he impatiently snatched dishes from my wet hands to show me how to wash them faster, forget about clean, it was all about speed. It sickened me. I’m sure any of these people would be happy to wait a few extra minutes for a properly washed plate, or a soup less likely to be laced with bacteria in traces of their coworkers’ minestrone backwash.

Every day I wished for some excitement. I’d look out the window, up to the top of the towering grey skyscraper next door and imagine the man of my dreams confessing his undying love for me and plunging to his death, my name still on his lips, shattering his body the way I shattered his heart with my sad and fearful rejection, terrified of angering my big-daddy who kept me locked in a tower, and entirely weak and dependent. Then these people would know my name.

But alas, my suicidal Prince Invisible never came. I kept mopping floors. I kept dealing with my asshole boss, his asshole wife, and the biggest asshole of all, their kid. I was kid myself, an outsider, not from wherever the hell they were from so of course they gave me all the shit jobs, of course they made me get there early and stay late after every shift so I could finish doing an actual good job of mopping their floors, for free, of course. They said if I was faster, I wouldn’t have to stay late, but if I was faster, then it wouldn’t be done properly. I don’t even know why I gave shit. Fuck their floors and fuck their dirty dishes. If they went a little slower, if they cared a little more, then maybe they’d be serving good food instead of dirty shit soup.

I didn’t even last two weeks. I was at the phone-bank in the foyer of the office building, telling my big-daddy that I had quit. He was thrilled. He was against it from the start. The last thing he wanted was for me to find a way to wriggle out of his hooks.

“You were right.” I said. “I can’t do this. They’re always making me stay late. I can never just leave when it’s supposed to be over… Yeah, I’m leaving now – finally! I’ll see you at home.” I hung up the phone and their son, who wasn’t much older than me, had snuck up behind me.

“I don’t ever want to hear you complaining about this job to anybody,” he hissed at me. “If you can’t do the work then don’t bother coming back.”

Fuck you! Is what I wanted to say. This job ended half an hour ago when you STOPPED FUCKING PAYING ME! But I just stood there, saying nothing, until he stormed off with a disgusted snort.

Something about the furrow of his brow, the curl of his lip, the way he squared his shoulders; he was thrilled to finally have someone beneath him the way that he was beneath his parents. He knew his father would be proud of him, telling me off. I knew it too. He revelled in his moment of tyranny, obviously not hearing the part about how I’d already quit. I’m sure he felt really big, but to me he looked so small and so trapped inside himself. If he’d just gotten to know me, maybe he’d see that we weren’t that different. I wonder how he took the news when he walked back into the shop and his father told him that he was being demoted back to table-clearing, dish-washing, floor-mopping bitch until another sucker came along in response to their perpetual ‘Help Wanted’ sign in the window.

The End

This short story started as a writing exercise from my textbook. I already read an edition of the textbook, cover-to-cover, but I am now reading the newest edition and working through a selection of the exercises. This assignment was to think of a past job that I held, and then write a fiction based on it. I won’t say how much of this is true, or how much is fiction, but I will say this, the sandwich shop was at Bloor, but not at Bay & Bloor, and I wound up describing a different building because I could’t remember what the actual building looked like. I’m sure that sandwich shop is long gone, though. My focus, for this story, was significant detail, as well as painting the scene so the reader can actually picture it in their mind. Point of view and theme flowed naturally – although I worry the theme and meaning of the story might be a bit too subtle. Please let me know what you think! I tried to pay attention to pacing as well so I think the story flows nicely and has an appropriate balance of long, meandering sentences, and short punchy ones. Again, comments and feedback welcome!