Then there was that one time last winter when there were two days and two nights of dust and wind-- a dirty butterscotch sky. Of course it is useless to sweep, to mop on days like that, like bailing water out of a sinking boat. But it’s what we do, this sweeping and mopping, it’s what they pay us for, sah? Don’t get me wrong, we do other things, We have to, it says so right there in our contracts: wash dishes, scrub the toilet, place new bottles of mustard and ketchup on the tables, things like that. Sometimes we even roll the blue garbage container out of the backroom and police the parking lot. That’s what Nizar our manager calls it--policing. I like the sound of that but of course it has nothing to do with badges and sunglasses, nothing at all to do with guns.
Yesterday Nizar called us into the office and told us to stand up straight, straighter, just a little more—‘Yes, that’s better.’ Said we needed to polish our shoes and maybe brush our teeth just a little harder, longer in the morning. We nodded to all of this, Juan and me. Finally Nizar changed his voice, cleared his throat, and said he had something to tell us, that he, as manager, hated to say but he had to: sad to say, our pay for the month would be late; he didn’t know why just that that is what they told him—late--but not to worry because it would be here soon, he was sure of that. Inshallah. He stopped here and all three of us waited before he finally changed his voice back, his duty done, saying if there was nothing else we could go back to work. “And remember to polish your shoes.”
Later, Juan was the first to say he wasn’t happy. Once he said it I agreed. We were both unhappy about the late pay. Juan said it could be the beginning of something bigger, worse—“You never know.” And if anybody would have taken the time to watc us closely, they could have seen how unhappy we were by our sweeping and mopping. In fact, Eva, being Eva, noticed it right away.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Who me?” said Juan.
And of course Eva didn’t answer, I wouldn’t either.
“Nothing,” said Juan. “Not a thing.”
“How about you? Same nothing?”
“Me too, nothing,” I said.
She didn’t believe us, and I wouldn’t either; but Eva hadn’t been at the diner for six years for nothing, and didn’t ask again.
Next day Nizar stayed in the office talking on the telephone, smoking cigarettes. Day after that Juan wanted to call in sick.
“Sick? Are you sick?”
Day after that Nizar said that our money was on the way, said not to worry because it was on the way. I had never thought of money like that, as if it were walking, or taking a bus to get here, but that’s what he said. ‘It’s on the way.’
To all of this we said nothing, Juan and me. And although Nizar had said it and even included a smile with ‘on the way’ part, there was something all wrong with how he said it, and he quickly returned to his office and shut the door.
Next day Juan called Nizar and said he was sick and wouldn’t be in. When I asked Juan what Nizar said, he said nothing, just ‘I see’.
That day I did both the sweeping and the mopping. Some loud, unhappy baby spit up at table six, and I had to re-mop there. Table one’s eggs ‘tasted funny’ and he and his wife refused to pay.
After five days of no pay, and Juan calling in twice because he was sick, I told Juan it was my turn to be sick. “Fine, you be sick tomorrow.”And I was, and Nizar said ‘Fine.’
During this time Eva was good for one “Good morning,” followed by empty work talk: ‘Let’s clear the corner table, table three would like another spoon, missed a spot here and here, please give the plate a rewash’—things like that.
Then it happened—Nizar didn’t come to work. He didn’t call to tell anybody, and of course he doesn’t have to, he’s the manager, just no Nizar. Still, this was something new and different, and not the way it was supposed to be. That was on a Thursday, and we were busy and customers seemed especially impatient and demanding, with one even insisting to speak with the Manager. When we told him he wasn’t in, he said, “Figures.”
By now Eva was worried too. She didn’t say anything, but you could see it in her shoulders. That was Thursday.
On Friday, when Juan and me got off the bus and walked to the diner it was closed, locked. We put our faces flat against the glass. All the lights were off. Somebody had placed a bright red sign on the door: CLOSED. We waited for Eva but she never came. We called Nizar, no answer. I asked Juan how much money he had.
“Not much. You?”
We both wanted to say more, but the best we could do was Juan saying, “I told you so.”
The more I thought about it, looking through the glass at the diner floor that I mopped every day, the more I wanted to be angry at somebody, like one of our customers, demanding to see the manager, owner, begging to see anybody.
Anything like a small answer would do.