The Dishwasher

Chemical steam poured from the Hobart industrial dishwasher into my face. My nose dripped onto my chest hairs. A rash peeled the skin from my left hand. I rattled a crate of teapots and knives that the dishwasher refused to release. The door bit my spine when I stuck my head in the mouth. The cook pounded his bell and drawled about Thai chicken salad and tofu soup. Staggering against a trolley of Cajun risotto and Chinese pork, I rubbed my eyeballs on the blue seersucker dishrag that protected my right hand. This precaution was necessary because the right did most of the work on stage, playing time on the hi-hats, ride cymbal, or floor tom, while the left clobbered the snare and came along on fills. I drained the dessertspoons from a pink ice-cream bucket onto the bowls stacked up on the next crate, but the dishwasher kept its mouth half shut, so I jiggled the crate until the bowls caved in, and when I slammed the door the engine backfired.

All through Christmas and the New Year, I strained my back washing dishes at Kay’s Place. I never talked to her at work. I didn’t want to disturb her. I stayed behind the kitchen’s saloon door and peeked through the wooden slats to discover what was going on in the restaurant. The floorboards were warped and unvarnished. There were nine round tables and 21 hard chairs. All industrial steel. Designed to look spare and futuristic and feel uncomfortable enough to keep the customers moving. The scrubbed back, ready-to-renovate look of the place attracted the rich professionals who had infested Kings Cross. They sat there, or stood there, chattering about renovating their own places. An ancient cash register squatted on the counter, and behind that was a flame grill, where the cook perched on a stool all night playing with the food and adding up the hours it would take him to get out. He was from New Zealand and he wore a blue bandana on his head. He told me that he sprung a leak in Botany Bay on route to Edinburgh in a ship that he built in Wellington. He drank Bundaberg Rum.

After closing time, Kay and I would enact this hitchhiking rendezvous scenario. She stuck out her thumb as she walked up Darlinghurst Road, a high-class prostitute abandoned to the street by her pimp, and I cruised by in the Valiant, a mute interstate drifter. She climbed into the passenger side, without making a sound, and we cruised out along the Princes Highway until we got to this dump called the Rainbow Motel. Our silence broke into moans during sex and later into words as we lay on the white sheets and watched the bushfires glowing through the curtains. She could have afforded a better place than the Rainbow Motel but she said the seedy image turned her on. She agreed too strongly with my hypothesis that our relationship only existed because Thomas Pitman had shattered her confidence and ruined her acting career. She told me that he bought her the restaurant, a converted Victorian terrace, as a consolation prize for not giving her a baby. I was too addicted to her beauty to worry about the implications of how I fitted into the psychology beneath that flesh.

Everything was fine until the waiter walked out and Kay hired this new guy called Jimmy Smith. I was peeking through the slats when he turned up. He stood erect outside the restaurant’s front window, looking like the kind of guy that straight guys say they’d get with if they had to get with a guy. He had a scraggly chin-beard and a nest of golden hair. Over his eyes there sat a pair of silver-framed pilot sunglasses. He came inside the restaurant and asked Kay for a free meal. He was about my height but suntanned. He wore an off-white T-shirt, dirty blue jeans that pushed his genitals into his pelvis, and giant, mushroom-coloured hiking boots. I thought he must have recently come back from a long walk in the desert, but his boots were new, so maybe he exhausted the other pair or went barefoot like a religious lunatics. I figured he was from somewhere in Eastern Europe because he didn’t wear a belt. When I spoke to him later, he used an American accent.

The sound of the yellow telephone clanking on the wall next to the door brought me back to the present. I flung the dishrag over my shoulder and snatched up the receiver. After angling the speaker beside my right ear, and twisting my left middle finger into my other ear, I rested the mouthpiece against my throat.

“The guitar player says you’re late for practice. You have to work on new songs for some competition. And those video detectives came snooping around last Tuesday. I won’t let them in. I’m not your manager.”

“I told you, Ma. Only call in an emergency.”

“This is an emergency.”

“I’m not looking for a manager.”

“Why didn’t you slip the rent in my purse? I know you’ve been in here. Somebody’s been here. And it wasn’t those detectives. I would have smelled them. And it wasn’t those kids. The only thing missing is your drums. And they’re no good to no one.”

“The drums are in the Valiant.”

“I know the drums are in the Valiant. That’s how I know you’ve been here. I’m worried about you, Henry. You don’t know what you’re getting involved with. If you love me, you’ll come home after practice and end this femme fatale nonsense.”

I hung up on Ma’s jealousy rant, slugged a Corona masked by a group of empties on the loading bench, and went back to work on the uncontrollable dishwasher.

Machines need to know who the boss is or they get you down and start telling you what to do and before you know it they’re in control. They ignore your commands even when you give them a chance, or bribe them, or threaten them with violence. It takes brains to figure them out.

I pulled the cook’s best fish knife from the pink bucket, gripped the blade between my teeth, and crawled under the dishwasher. Water trickled down the corroded legs, forming a pool of dust, bread, and hair. I yanked out the plug, jiggled the lead to expose the wires, and dug the blade into the unhinged wall socket.

Jimmy Smith banged through the saloon door. His mushroom boots slurped the tiles and kicked my Levis. “What bullshit have you been spreading, Hayes? You’re not even allowed out there. Where’s the power-hose? What have you done to the nozzle?”

I resurfaced, scratching my head.

Jimmy Smith raised his hands past his chin-beard. His mouth was smirking, pleading innocence for kicking me, and his eyes were closed. When he opened his eyes, I looked down because I couldn’t handle how his left eye throbbed from its socket, darting all over the place, unable to settle on one object for more than a few seconds, as if it wanted to make sure the world was still there, and his right eye was a frozen ball with a violet band around a black pupil that looked as if it could see through objects and read people’s thoughts and memories.

I glanced up, after he turned around to test the power-hose, and noticed a pawnshop label stapled where his belt should have gone. He was wearing a white long-sleeved shirt and a pair of faded, black nylon trousers with iron-patched thighs and razor-sharp creases. I sat up and squinted at the pawnshop label. It said $5.

“If you want to sleep,” Jimmy Smith suggested. “Do it in the cold room.”

Jimmy Smith was always going on about the cold room, trying to get me in there, for some reason or other. He probably wanted to mess around because he’d never been with a real drummer. Every time I glanced at the cold room door, it reminded me of Leatherface’s entrance in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where he tumbles out, grabs that skinny hippy girl, and dumps her on a meat hook.

The phone was ringing again.

We both stared at it for a while.

Then I got up.

“Run along now, drummer boy.” Jimmy Smith pushed me against the dishwasher, so I shoved him into the draining rack, and the dishwasher started.

When I got to the phone, and picked it up, the other end was silent. I scratched the mouthpiece. Jimmy Smith admired his reflection in the dishwasher’s steel body. Jimmy Smith was always admiring his reflection. But it wasn’t a vain kind of admiration. He seemed suspired that he could look that good, and he appeared worried that at any moment the looks might disappear, as if they belonged to someone else and he was seeing them for the first time, a stranger in the role assigned to him.

The smell of Chivas Regal came down the line. “What the hell’s going on over there? Where’s the boss of that asylum?” Thomas Pitman never called the restaurant.

I cradled the receiver with my shoulder. One eye focused on Jimmy Smith, lurking by the draining rack, and the other peeked through the saloon door at Kay twirling her folk, lowering her fruit juice, and backing away from the window. She brushed her white collar, glanced at her golden watch, and stood up. She draped her pinstripe Gucci jacket over her shoulder and aimed a kiss at the young lawyer couple at her table. They drooped into a huddle and polished their wine glasses with their thumbs.

The cook slapped a National Geographic over the calculator on the chopping board. A doctor in a sky-blue suit stubbed a cigar into his risotto. A magazine editor with stringy brown hair and matching rectangular glasses slipped a Perth travel brochure under her lettuce. Kay had banned music, phones, laptops, and printed literature from the restaurant. She said they destroyed real communication and human interaction.

“I think she went out,” I explained to the voice of Thomas Pitman. “She was here before but now she’s somewhere else.”

Ice jiggled in a glass. “Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You sound familiar.”

The dishwasher finished its wash cycle and paused before hitting rinse mode. “I’m a drummer.”

“Do something useful for once and get my wife.”

“But I have to stay in the kitchen.”

As soon as rinse mode stopped, Jimmy Smith lunged. I tried to stretch the phone lead over there, to clamp down the handle, but he was too quick for me. The receiver flew from my neck, and Jimmy Smith was gone with a bunch of hot spoons though the saloon door.


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