Evan McMurry graduated from Reed College and received an MFA from Texas State University-San Marcos. His fiction has appeared in Post Road and The American Drivel Review, and is forthcoming in Euphony and Corvus Review. He is currently an editor at ABC News.

A Short Story

By Evan McMurry

 

So Miles got promoted.

This was at a restaurant I worked for in New Boon, Texas, the year before I went to college. I stood before the kitchen window where the food came up, pulling the entrée dishes and plopping sides and garnishes on them. It wasn’t hard work, but my dad said it never hurt anybody to have a job, though the way he came home every day it seemed it hurt him a lot. Anyway, I needed money for new clothes: I had just visited the university out in Austin, and seeing the way everybody there dressed made me feel like the hick I guess I was.

Miles was one of the waiters. He stored his bald head beneath a skull cap, rode a handmade bicycle to work, and exuded an eerie stillness, like that one house on the block where you never see lights on inside. He wasn’t the hardest working, or the fastest, but he had a certain grace to him as he moved on the floor, and maybe he did work hard, maybe that calmness just made it look easy. Anyway, I overheard Gregor, the owner, explaining to one of the servers that you don’t promote the hardest workers, the dedicated ones who come in early and send sugar caddies through the dishwasher; you promote them, who cleans the sugar caddies? So Gregor went with Miles as his closing manager, a job Gregor had just done himself up until then, watching the television at the bar until it was time to count the banks. Soon, it was Miles sitting at the bar gazing at the TV instead.

Here’s the thing, though: nobody really minded when Gregor spent his nights slouched on that second barstool. Gregor had run his first two restaurants into the ground, but this one was making money three years in, and after a certain amount of failure we reckoned a man is entitled to enjoy his luck. At least that’s what I figured, because I couldn’t explain why I never cared that Gregor sat there while we all us hustled, but it bothered me to see Miles watching the news with the sound off. That last part was what really got me. Unless Miles could read lips, I didn’t see what he was getting out of the news, in which case he needed to get back into the trenches with the rest of us.

I got the job through my mom’s cousin Jackson, who knew Gregor from back when the two of them bartended at this Mexican restaurant off Seeter Street. He still remembered when Gregor was taking all the money coming in every night to his first restaurant and blowing it on coke. That was why the first restaurant went down, anyway. Jackson said Gregor was over all that by the time he opened his second place, which went down because of plain bad luck. But Gregor was convinced it was the cooks, these white guys out of the local tech school’s culinary program; after the dinner rush they smoked pot with the servers on the back pad, got hungry, and cooked up elaborate comfort dishes, having a little chicken-fried party in the back of the house on Gregor’s food costs. Jackson said that was why all the cooks in our kitchen now were Hispanic and didn’t speak a lick of English. Any trouble they wanted to get into they’d have to do on their own, and in Spanish. To Gregor’s credit, it worked: the kitchen staff didn’t talk to the servers, the servers avoided the kitchen. Even at the Christmas party the cooks sat in one corner, in maroon guyaveras and snakeskin boots, mugging at everyone.

So I blame everything that happened next on Gregor. I mean, when nobody can talk to each other, you gotta figure something’s going to go wrong.

*

So Miles got promoted, and then a couple weeks later we got this new dishwasher, Cesario, spindly, fierce, with a glare swift and sharp like a French knife. He did his job a hell of a lot faster than the guy he replaced, but he resented every dish you brought back there; it got to the point that the servers rinsed their plates in the handsink rather than brave the dishpit.

Getting along with the kitchen staff wasn’t hard, but you had to accept that those guys spent their nights broiling in 120-degree heat, so that even their fun had a meanness to it. My first week I tried to learn their names off the purple print sewn onto the breast pocket of their chef jackets, but after a few days I was utterly confounded as to who was Jorge or Felix or Emmanuel, until I realized they’d been rotating their coats between them. After that we were all maricon to each other and we got along fine.

But meanness isn’t everyone’s thing. Maybe two weeks after Cesario started, Miles ambled his way back with a cocktail tray full of dirty appetizer platters, the last time I saw him actually do work, and Cesario just cut him with that glare. The crash of porcelain on tile rattled the whole restaurant.

*

New Boon wasn’t a big town, maybe ten thousand during the holidays. Gregor was descended from the family that founded the place in the eighteen forties, and it was a long running joke that the Sihms had set themselves down on the one piece of west Texas not floating atop a big lake of oil. The family turned to entrepreneurship—they owned all the grocery stores in town, and Gregor’s uncle had the big truck dealership on the frontage road—but a sense of folly clung to the name. Nobody was surprised when Gregor’s first restaurant shuttered after eight months.

Christoph, Gregor’s uncle, advertised all the time about how his truck dealership was the biggest in West Texas, emphasizing that it beat any of them up in Lubbock, like he had driven up there with a tape measure to be sure. Gregor worked the front desk at Christoph’s throughout high school. I remember, when I was seven, going with my dad to buy a GMC at Christoph’s. Gregor was a senior, attempting a mustache, and even back then he made small talk with my dad about these guys who came up through the border and worked eighty hour weeks just to pay off the trucks they bought at Christoph’s.

He was right: the men who worked the line at Gregor’s restaurant all drove brand new trucks with extended cabs and spinning rims and all. Jackson told me that when Gregor wanted to staff his new restaurant, and not with white potheads from the culinary school this time, he got a list of names from his uncle of who still owed thousands on their leases. Now it was impossible to park in our lot because of the resting mammoths, every one with a license plate frame reading Christoph’s Truck Superstore, and then, in smaller print on the bottom: Biggest Selection in West Texas.

*

So Miles got promoted, then they hired this new guy Cesario to wash dishes, and maybe a month later, scotch started disappearing from the bar. At first it was just some J&B. Jackson went around demanding to know who had dropped a bottle and not told him. After that the J&B stayed put but Jackson noticed other scotches were walking away in minute incrementts. Gregor accused Jackson, to which Jackson responded that it didn’t make much sense for him to steal his own scotch, thereby destroying his liquor costs, and then be the one to tell everybody. Jackson always talked to Gregor like that, like just because Gregor owned a restaurant didn’t mean he owned common sense, too. When Jackson finally figured out who it was, he was so pissed at Gregor for accusing him he just let the drama play out.

Around that time Miles tried to get Cesario fired. A good case for this could have been made on account of the kid’s attitude, but that wasn’t Miles’s objection. I overheard the conversation from Gregor’s office, back by the bathrooms, out of range of the satellite radio. From the hall you could eavesdrop on the office, real convenient when you needed to step out for a minute: if you caught Gregor and Miles talking, or, like as not, arguing, you had a good ten minutes to hop out back and get high or check your phone or whatever you had to do that wasn’t work. So I crept down the hall one day, cigarette prepped between my first two fingers, and heard Miles saying, “I just think he’s slow,” and Gregor giving his usual reply, “Miles, you ever wash dishes before?”

This was Gregor’s response whenever one employee had a problem with another, like when one of the line cooks, Felix, got in a long bad mood and began throwing the plates up in the window so hard that a couple slid off and damn near hit me. I went to Gregor about it and he said, “Kid, you ever work on a line before? You know how hot it is back there? You think you would be in a bad mood if you had to stand in 120-degree heat all day long?” Gregor thought he was giving this put-yourself-in-their-shoes argument, but really he was just avoiding having to do anything to resolve the conflict. I returned to the line and empathized with Felix while he hurled plates at me.

And now, Gregor saying, “You ever wash dishes before?”

“No,” Miles said.

“Well maybe you’d be slow at it, too. Maybe we should schedule you a shift back there and see how long it would take you.”

Gregor wasn’t serious, I knew; he never meant any of his threats, they were just his way of intimidating people into leaving him alone. But Miles—Miles was a serious guy.

*

The servers started messing with their new manager. I could see both sides of this: on the one hand, Miles was just sitting on that damn stool while the rest of us lugged bins overflowing with dirty plates to the dishpit and hauled racks of glassware still dripping hot back to the bar. This server Byron attached a counter to his leg that tracked his footsteps and converted them into miles walked. He claimed he averaged 6.1 miles per shift. Which, he told Gregor, was 6.1 miles more than our manager.

“You ever manage a restaurant?” Gregor replied.

“No,” Bryon said.

“Well, then, you don’t have the right to criticize,” Gregor said, and thought that was that.

But Byron pressed him: “I show up every day and do my job. And when we knocked down that wall to put in the lounge I was the one who came in on Sunday with the sledgehammer I borrowed off my brother. So I thought if you were handing out promotions, maybe it should have gone to the guy who comes in on his day off with his brother’s sledgehammer.”

“You ever promoted somebody before?” Gregor asked.

“No.”

“Well then you don’t know what all goes into it. It ain’t as simple as that.”

“Well maybe you should tell me how it gets more complicated than not promoting the guy who comes in on his day off with his brother’s sledgehammer.”

“You don’t promote the ones who work the hardest. You know how Kaylie comes in early and runs the sugar caddies through the dishwasher? You promote her, who cleans the sugar caddies?”

Well that logic stopped Byron cold, like he’d come upon a road sign he’d never seen before, and gave Gregor his chance to escape. The next day Byron showed up before Miles arrived for the dinner shift, turned the volume all the way up on the television, hit the mute button, and spent the rest of the night lying in wait.

But like I said, I could see both sides of the thing, because I had actually encountered Miles outside of the restaurant. This was crucial: you work with people in uniforms and they all come off as uniform, but if you hang out with them in real life you learn which one’s an alcoholic, who thinks the government’s reading his e-mail, who’s got a kid in Abilene. Early on, when we all went to the MoPac Lounge after the dinner shift—so long as I was in the same polo shirt as everyone else nobody carded me—we invited Miles out. He politely declined. Which of course made him the focus of conversation for the first couple rounds: who the fuck did this guy think he was?

One day after class I was out biking around and got thirsty, so I turned onto Schüll Street, down by all the coffee shops and antique stores, and rode over to Common Grounds. Sitting at a sidewalk table, with a tiny espresso cup next to a stack of books, was Miles. He spotted me and nodded; I nodded back. In the couple months I’d been at the restaurant I hadn’t exchanged much beyond pleasantries with the quiet server who wouldn’t drink with us, so I thought if I just swallowed a cup of water and took off it wouldn’t be a thing.

But he called to me as I locked up my bike. “Where you riding to?”

I shrugged. “Don’t really need a destination.”

“Good answer.”

He was reclining in the position we would later come to resent, but on that afternoon, with the sun slanting across the slumbering street, he appeared almost beatific, as if I’d come upon him mid-meditation. With a long leg he scooted a wire chair toward me. I’d barely sat down before he started in on twenty questions about my bike, talking more than I’d ever heard from him at the restaurant. He told me he’d worked for years at Schüll Street Bikes, the repair shop where I took my roadster, before landing a job at Gregor’s to earn more money. He talked about how riding saved him a fortune on gas, not like the servers who drove their cars into work, spent the first twenty bucks they earned on the fuel it took them to get there, then blew the rest on booze after their shifts. Those people at work, he told me, got a duality problem.

I side-eyed the stack of books. A painting of a monk in psychedelic orange radiated from the top cover; Budhislava, it announced, and in smaller print, The Guide to Staying Above it All. It was a cheap trade paperback, with that grainy yellow paper colored burgundy on the side, like those old novels I saw in Colleen’s Used Books, piled under a sign begging “Five for a Dollar.” It looked, actually, like the copy of On the Road I had bought from that store for twenty cents a couple years before, which had led me and a friend to borrow his father’s truck and drive west until we ran out of gas and had to call my dad to come get us. When we pulled up to our house, my dad called the thing my misbegotten adventure, and said it was the only misbegotten adventure I was allowed because next time he wasn’t going to rescue me. Looking at Budhislava now, those were the words that popped into my mind: misbegotten adventure.

“Is Budhislava a monk?” I asked.

“It’s a state,” Miles said, with the same practiced gravity as when he overdescribed the tenderloin special. “The best I can describe it is the simultaneous state of being immersed in something yet peering down on it. It’s untranslatable into English.”

I said something about there being 200 pages of English about it in that book.

“Those are exercises in achieving Budhislava.” He pulled off his skull cap, his bare head a light bulb of flesh. “Imagine you’re in the middle of the ocean, nothing but water around you, no land in sight, and that your body is underneath the water but your head is above, so that you are completely immersed in the ocean, yet you can see the whole expanse around you. Most people perceive this as a dual state. They’re scared of the immensity of the ocean around them, so they struggle to bring their body out of it even though they can see there’s nothing around them but water. In this struggle they drown themselves. The idea is to bring the immersion of your body in line with the clarity of your head, to make them the same. That is Budhislava.”

I nodded. I had to admit I couldn’t think of a word for it in English.

By then his espresso was gone and the sweat from my ride had dried. Glancing up at the sky as if he regularly communed with it, Miles predicted we had about a couple hours of sunlight left, enough for a ride. He stuffed Budhislava into his backpack, swung the sack over his shoulders, and pulled his roadster from behind him, where it had stood waiting the whole time like a trusty steed. He moved with that grace I’d seen on the floor. It was all I could do to unlock my bike and hurry after him.

We quickly cleared the flat grid of our town, bound for a trail Miles knew of to the west. He rode forcefully, muscular legs churning the pedals as if powering some central machine, the thin bike trembling beneath him. Used to cutting languid circles around New Boon’s middling traffic, I now had to rise on my haunches to keep pace.

We zoomed farther out of town than I’d ever dared on my own. Miles was pushing ahead of me up a narrow dirt trail when the sun sunk below the horizon and a pall fell over us. He ground away at his pedals, grunting as if each revolution forestalled the darkness, but the grayish path beneath us blurred with the dirty dusk; soon I had to use the texture against my wheel to tell when I was veering off, nearly tumbling over brush to the left, then to the right, Miles becoming less distinct with each minute into night. Finally I called out: “I can’t see.”

The shape ahead slowed reluctantly to a stop, panting; it shifted around, man and bike moving in a single black shade. “Sorry.” He sounded sheepish compared to his stately server voice. “Thought we’d beat the sun to the top. The view up there…”

Only the bare outlines of the hills were visible now. I felt in my pocket for my phone before remembering that I had used up my one phone call to my father.

“How—” I caught the tremolo in my throat. “How do we get back?”

Miles led the way slowly down the trail, our bikes rattling with each little hillock, until at last they made contact with solid asphalt. Only the tiny reach of our bike lights illuminated the road in front of us; we rode back at an agonizing pace, matching our slim tires with the yellow lane divider. A car swooped by us, too fast to even honk; I nearly crashed checking over my left shoulder for headlights. Fear wobbled down my spine, as it had when I’d huddled roadside in the spent truck, waiting for my father, as it had when the eyes of college sophomores had sloped along my form at the university with barely-contained mockery. Watching Miles riding ahead of me in a perfect tall column, his back flashing red like a beacon from the LED light clipped to his bike seat, I wondered if he was practicing this Budhislava, imagining that grope of darkness as an extension of him, partnering with it. It was as though the void was holding him aloft.

I followed him all the way back to New Boon, eventually pulling in front to lead us back to my house. At the curb by our driveway, where my dad and I had idled, Miles dug into his backpack and handed me what was clearly his only copy of Budhislava.

“Read that,” he said, “and you won’t fall into the same trap like the rest of them at work. You’ll keep above it all.”

That was the only time Miles and I hung out. Then he got promoted and started watching the news with the sound off, until Byron came in early, turned the volume all the way up and hit the mute button, and near the end of the shift when all the customers were gone, walked casually by the bar, reached over behind Miles’s slumped form, and hit the mute button again, blasting the guy out of his stool.

*

So Miles tried to get Cesario fired, but his argument was that the kid was slow, which confused the hell out of me because Cesario was the third dishwasher since I’d started and he was a hell of a lot faster than the first two. By that point the servers were begging me take their dishes back for them, so that he came to have an intense hatred for me, and yanked the plates from my hands before I could even scrape them off. I finally decided I would make the case Miles for some reason hadn’t, so I went to Gregor and said we got to do something about this Cesario guy.

“You ever wash dishes before?” Gregor said, but by then I’d been accepted to the University out in Austin and didn’t care whether I pissed off my temporary boss.

“No, but I pull the window, and I don’t see how the two are materially different.”

So Gregor said, “I started in this business by washing dishes. I still remember how your arms are covered in grease and soap at the end of the night.”

I showed him the burn marks on my fingers from the hot plates, the one across my forearm from when I had dropped a sheet tray out of the hotbox.

He huffed. “I remember how my pants were soaked up to the shins from standing back there all night.”

I showed him the remoulade stains on my jeans. Gregor glowered at me, and I briefly thought he was going to fire me instead of Cesario. Then he said, “I’ll take care of it,” which maybe he would have, except the next day Jackson figured out that scotch was vanishing, and I don’t think Gregor ever gave another thought to the dishwasher.

But I had been there when Miles dropped the dishes. Cesario ventured into the dining room shortly after starting in the dishpit, maybe just to check for himself what orgy was producing all that dirty plateware. He saw Miles sitting on that second stool, staring at the silent news, and looked like he wanted to stick the man into his dishwashing machine on high. Later that night Miles brought back a cocktail tray full of dishes, Cesario shot him that glare, and the tray hit the tile with that excruciating porcelain clang.

Miles was so flummoxed he turned and scampered out of the dish pit, leaving the shards in their scattered plot upon the floor. Cesario tore after him, cursing, jabbing in Miles’s direction with one hand, the other one clenching into a fist. I thought he was going to chase Miles right out the kitchen doors and tackle him in the full dining room. But Miles scooted behind me, wedging himself between the hot box and the wall, so that I was the only thing keeping the dishwasher from him. I caught Cesario beneath his armpits just as he swung. His punch landed on my back and we plunged to the floor in a violent hug, knocking over the garnish tray as we fell, lemons, sage, parsley flying. Pushing his palms against my chest Cesario vaulted himself up, but before he could lunge Felix and Emmanuel each hooked one of his shoulders, grunting as they tried to restrain the screaming dishwasher.

From the floor I watched Miles wipe his eyes as if a film had shrouded them; he squinted, that eye-wrench when you try to fix on some hazy marker in the infuriating distance. Every cook and server in the kitchen gawked at him. I alone knew he was frantically imagining a vast ocean into which he would never sink.

But Budhislava couldn’t be translated into Spanish any more than English. Miles retreated into the front of the house, Cesario was dragged into the back, and I swept up the mess. Miles never stepped foot into the kitchen again, which was Gregor’s plan from the start. Like I said, I blame the whole thing on Gregor, because maybe if Cesario could have just called Miles lazy, and Miles could have explained Budhislava to Cesario, the whole thing with the dishes and the scotch might never have happened.

*

Jackson figured out that Miles was stealing the scotch. He came over to my parents’ for dinner, listened to my mother’s litany about was he going to be a bartender forever or what, and after my parents had retired to the den told me the whole thing.

“Before I leave one night, I mark each of the scotch bottles, right?” Jackson said. “Next day there’s this tiny bit missing, just enough to make a couple drinks. So it happened after closing. Now, I got access to the security system, because I gotta let in the deliveries in the morning, right? Check this out: back when Gregor closed up, he’d be done by around one, so that’s when the system would be armed. But now the security log is saying the system’s being armed at three in the morning. So there you go! That Miles guy is sitting in the bar after his shift every night guzzling my liquor.”

He clapped his hands in victory, less concerned about the missing scotch than that Gregor the Restaurant Owner could never have figured all that out if given a million years.

But zero of that matched what I knew of Miles. I retrieved the battered copy of Budhislava—my blinkered reading of which had sprung no revelation about duality or anything else—and read aloud a few of the ridiculous exercises. “I mean, the guy wouldn’t even go to the MoPac after work,” I said. “I can’t see him sitting around chugging scotch.”

“Well,” Jackson said, “he’s doing something until three in the morning.”

That’s when I remembered Miles’s complaint: that the dishwasher was slow. The next night Jackson and I sat at the MoPac, comparing a printout of a week’s worth of clock out times to the security system log. Each night the same: Cesario clocked out at three in the morning and then a minute later the security system was armed.

“Well, what do you make of that,” Jackson said.

Just then his phone rang. Gregor was on the other end, screaming that the silent alarm was going off and Jackson needed to get down there right away. They argued for a while about didn’t Gregor promote Miles to take care of shit like this, and eventually I gleamed that Miles wasn’t answering his phone.

At the restaurant we discovered the side door unlocked, all the lights on, the satellite radio rotating through its set list to an empty dining room. I peered down the wine cellar stairs, out on the veranda with its plastic chairs stacked and chained, but found nobody. Jackson doused the lights and the radio and was about to lock up when from the back of the kitchen came the sound of plates crashing together.

Miles, cheeks flaring red and glassy eyes bulging, a bottle of J&B half-drunk by his feet, cap flung off and naked head sticking out of his polo shirt like a giant thumb, didn’t seem surprised to see us hustling into the dishpit at midnight. He just held up a 14-inch oval, sprayed it down, chucked it to the side. “How hard is that?” he yelled, hosing another plate by way of demonstration. “Have I ever washed dishes before? That’s what Gregor kept asking me. Well, now I have. What the fuck was taking that kid so long?”

*

So that guy Felix got into a long bad mood and started throwing the plates in the window so hard that a couple damned near hit me. I objected to Gregor and he said, “Have you ever worked a line before? You know how hot it is back there?” So I went back to the line and tried to empathize. When another plate slid off the window, I said alto, por favor. Then another one, and I said alto, maricon. Then the next day another plate came at me and I told Felix that if he threw one more fucking plate at me I was going to break an entire fucking stack right over his fucking skull.

The five guys behind the line lit up with smiles. ”We were just waiting for you to tell us to fuck off in English,” Felix told me with a grin. Like I said, you spend all night in 120-degree heat, even your fun has a certain meanness to it.

*

I got most of the story from Felix: “See, Cesario was mad because that Miles guy dropped all those dishes and didn’t clean them up,” he told me. “Cesario ain’t dumb, he knows Miles can’t close the place until he’s done washing the dishes, so every night he takes a little longer and a little longer, until soon he’s sending one plate through the machine at a time. He saw that guy sitting on his ass watching the TV and thinks, ‘Jefe don’t want to work, I’ll give him all the time in the world to not work.’ Miles goes back there at one and says ‘Listo?’ and Cesario says, ‘No.’ Miles goes back there again at two and says ‘Listo?’ and Cesario sees the second time he’s borracho. He takes even longer the next night, and Miles’s even more borracho. By the time Cesario is done, all Miles has left to do is set the alarm, that one right next to the computer where we do the clock out. So every night Cesario clocks out, watches that Miles guy put in the code, until he’s got the thing memorized, you know? Well finally Miles comes back there the other night super borracho, saying, ‘What the fuck is taking so long?’ and Cesario says, ‘You fucking do it then.’ Jefe’s shocked,, but Cesario’s already booking it toward the front. So Jefe takes the gun and starts washing dishes. Cesario sets the alarm, and walks out.”

“Neat prank,” I said, “but Cesario got fired too, so what’s he get out of it?”

“That kid’s mean, man. Rest of us just mess around for fun. I told him, you gonna lose your job over this shit. He said he didn’t care if they fired him so long as they did it after July.”

“Why July?”

Felix shrugged. “Motherfucker just paid off his truck.”

*

The next month I left for college. I never saw Miles again, so I never got to ask him the one thing I didn’t understand about the whole situation, which was why, if he wouldn’t even grab a drink with us after work, did he start in on the scotch in the first place?

But here’s the thing: my junior year at the University—this was long after I had replaced all my hick-looking clothes that were covered in demi and remoulade, and tired of explaining to kids in my dorm where New Boon, Texas, was—I took this class called Modern Spirituality to scratch off one a Humanities credit. It was taught by a professor who thought any half-organized system of belief founded after the destruction of the Second Temple was a hack cult far as he was concerned. Around November we spent a week on Budhislava. I got a new edition of the book in a nice glossy cover, learned how it had no actual ties to Buddhism, had instead been started in Southern California in the 70s in connection to some sort of rehab movement, that the whole imagine a vast ocean thing was actually some pseudo-Buddhist response to the problem of addiction, like the ocean was your desire for vice, and only once you understood that your struggling further immersed you in your temptations could you defeat it.

This professor got extra worked up in one of his lectures about how Budhislava had wormed its way into the mainstream and was now mistaken for real Buddhism. One of the final essay topics was to basically write about what bullshit it was. Working on the paper, I kept thinking back to that night I followed Miles home on my bike, his barely visible form keeping a straight proud line against the dark, as if he had braved all this before. And, I don’t know, the whole thing about him and Cesario and the scotch suddenly didn’t make any sense. I mean, if there wasn’t a vast ocean, how did he sink into it? Where did he go?