By William Aime
On his first day, his boss gave him a pair of t-shirts. She asked his size, which was extra-large, but she only had large or medium. She gave him two larges and told him that she’d give him the right size when more shirts came in. He wore the shirts once or twice until he realized that no one else wore them. They were not a uniform. They were just a pair of fairly ugly shirts, with some joke about gluten intolerance on the back that he wasn’t entirely sure wasn’t offensive. Either way, he never wore the shirts again, nor did he ever think about them.
That is, until he got his first pay-stub two weeks later. This was not his first job, so the deduction for taxes came as no surprise. Still, he idly scanned the stub, looking at all the places his money was going—federal taxes, Social Security, state taxes—the usual. But there was one more line, one he wasn’t expecting. “T-shirts: -$24.00.” It took him a moment to remember, and then he experienced the peculiar feeling of anger and shame occurring at once. Why hadn’t his boss told him about the charge? Would it have mattered? Could he have turned down the shirts? And if he ever did get the extra-larges, would he be charged for those?
As he contemplated this, he took stock of his situation. What had he lost? Twenty-four dollars off an already small paycheck. What had he gained? Two bad t-shirts that were already balled up in his bottom drawer and a new job. And then he moved on.
The first few weeks were hard on him. The food service industry has always been a constantly moving enterprise—people need to eat and food needs to be cooked, but many people don’t like to do it for themselves. He was expected to learn on the job, quickly. The more experienced prep-cooks showed him how to do something once, watched him do it to make sure he had it, then moved on. He needed to focus on what he was doing until his muscles memorized it, and he needed to watch the other cooks work on other projects at the same time. If he could learn from them without asking, then they wouldn’t need to waste time specifically showing him, and the kitchen gained some efficiency. He was a moving part in a large, difficult to control machine that was only useful when running at peak efficiency. He was a prep-cook, and he was making food for well over five hundred people a day. He sliced meat, he mixed toppings, he built salads so that customers could see all the ingredients at the top. At the end of the day, he collapsed into bed, his feet burning.
Slowly, day-by-day, he improved. He didn’t have to watch the other cooks work. He found shortcuts that no one had shown him. He learned how to slice ham as thin as paper, how to mix berry schmear perfectly. He learned how to peel a hard-boiled egg in two seconds while it was still hot, the vinyl of his gloves softly melting into the grooves of his fingertips. He worked and he worked and he worked, a part of him dripping into the food he made like sweat from his brow.
The more he worked, the more he began to think he wasn’t making enough. Those paychecks always seemed to be just a little too small, just a little too lean. At first, he thought nothing of it, hoping that with diligence and hard work, he’d eventually earn a raise. But then he was talking to one of the older prep cooks—one of those cooks who was so old his wrinkles looked like they were carved by knives, who looked like he salted his grievances so they’d store better—and he had a great many things to say.
I put lemons in with the eggs, makes them peel easier.
I once had a girl that looked just like that waitress, you know. It’d be good to stick my dick in something like that again.
You don’t need those oven mitts, just grab a towel and move quickly.
Don’t let that pretzel get dark like TJ over there. You’re aiming more for Diego.
Slice that melon down the sides, and don’t worry about leaving a little rind. We can take that off later.
Those bastards used to cut me short on my paychecks all the time. Still do, when they think I’m not looking.
And it was that last one that stuck out to him. It wormed its way into his mind and found a quaint little corner to snuggle up in, rearing its head every time he looked at his paycheck. Only then did it strike.
He devised a plan. He spent two weeks counting his hours, noting exactly when he clocked in and out. He added it up each day, noting with pride when he passed thirty, then fifty, then sixty hours. When the pay period came to an end, he had worked a total of eighty-two hours, and he felt proud. That’s a respectable amount of work, after all. He fed a lot of people working those hours. He should feel proud.
He waited the five days from the period ending to payday. He might have even forgotten about his scheme for a moment, caught up in fantasizing about what he could do with his especially big paycheck. He forgot that he ever doubted his employer.
But then he examined his next paystub—extremely carefully—and it was right there, out in the open. “Time worked: 79 hours.” The maximum amount that didn’t push him into overtime.
Like any sensible person, he went straight to the manager. Not his manager. The manager, the one who runs the whole shebang, reporting only to the owner. He pointed out the discrepancy, that he was sure he worked eighty-two hours. He did his best to not say, “wage theft,” but they both knew it was there. The manager was apologetic and extremely embarrassed and then let him in on a little secret.
“We’re too small a company,” she said. “We can’t afford to give everyone health insurance, and we always try to avoid overtime, because it might make problems for us. We’ll put the hours back on your next paycheck though, I promise.”
And she was so charming and so friendly that he forgot his outrage. He made the concession, and she thanked him for being so understanding. Sure enough, on his next paycheck, there were three more hours than there should have been.
It took him a while to see the problems. He remembered that thirty hours is considered full-time and therefore worthy of health insurance, not forty. And even though they gave him the hours back, he still missed out on time-and-a-half pay. He had been duped, plain and simple. But by then, it was too late. The manager had already dealt with it, the way she’d been dealing with the same problem for twenty years. So then he moved on.
Part of his complacency, he had to admit, was fear. He’d been on the job long enough to see some people get fired. That old coworker with salted grievances had finally gotten fired for saying something racist or sexist—nobody was actually sure which—a little too loudly. Another got fired for showing up late once, even though his manager had also been late that day. He learned that taking food is fine up until the sorority girl took the wrong apple and was fired on the spot. He heard about the co-manager being fired for refusing to cut a corner that could have broken a health code. Then the next week, the manager who fired the co-manager was fired and the co-manager rehired. In some sense, he knew that all these firings were “justified”—as in there was a stated reason that was legal. But he also knew that there were less savory reasons underneath, reasons that couldn’t be proven. The prep-cook who was fired for being late had been a good worker, smart, keenly aware of health codes, but he also had Asperger’s, and something about that had always rubbed the manager the wrong way. The sorority girl, a week before being fired, had refused to slice meat because the slicer was broken in a way that made it unsafe to use, something that everyone knew but had tried to ignore. And the manager had never seemed to mind the old racist and sexist cook’s many faults, until the old racist and sexist cook talked about his wages with the other cooks. But of course, none of these were the stated reasons.
Sometimes, he would wonder what happened to these people. He wondered if they ever found other jobs, if they managed to hold onto that one. He wondered if that one baker was able to get her daughter the toy she wanted, or if that dishwasher ever saved up enough to go to college. He wondered if it could happen to him. And then he moved on.
He can’t deny that the work did him some good, that it gave him experiences he’d never forget. His skin turned brown in the face of a roaring oven. He ate a pretzel that had been drenched just a second too long and cooked just a second too short, so that the leftover lye tingled on his tongue and his gums bled for a week. He collected knife scars up and down his hands. He made something truly delicious, and then he repeated it. The work, though hard and mindless and grueling, never crushed his soul.
Inevitably, one day, he got sick. It started as a cough—a plain old cough. But slowly it grew. Eventually, he had a full-blown fever, was coughing his lungs out, and was throwing up in between. There was no way in hell he was able to work. So, he called in and let his manager know. Even then, though, he was given another task.
“Find someone to cover you,” his manager said, “or bring a doctor’s note.”
The second task was particularly unfair. The company didn’t give him any kind of health insurance and his state insurance covered jack shit. His manager herself had complained to him about how she couldn’t go to a doctor to look at her jaw because it cost too much. Now, on top of having to miss work—for which he’d get no sick pay—he also had to get a doctor’s note? Instead, he called people.
The first person he called had class. The second was out of town. The third was working a second job, as was the fourth. And so on. There were only so many replacements he could call, and all of them were busy. So he called his manager back.
“I can’t come in,” he repeated, “and nobody else can cover me.”
“Get a doctor’s note,” his manager said.
He held his head in his hands. “I can’t afford a doctor,” he said. There was a moment of silence from the other side. “Look, I’m throwing up,” he continued, “I’m coughing, I have a fever. It’s the flu. You don’t want me anywhere near the food. I’d come in if I could. Trust me.”
“If you can’t get a doctor’s note,” his manager said, “then don’t bother coming in tomorrow either.”
“What?” he asked.
“You heard me. I have to let you go. You’re not reliable anymore.”
No amount of pleading could save him. He told his manager that this was bullshit. He told her he was just sick, that it happens to everyone. He promised to work just as hard as always in the future, that he’d get well as soon as he could. Nothing. He tried the restaurant manager too, with the same result. He begged. He pleaded. He bargained. No matter what, he could not get his job back. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t his fault, but believed himself less and less each time.
And then, just as everyone always does, he moved on.
William Aime is an American writer whose work premiered in November of 2016. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was a finalist in the 2016 Fiction Vortex Contest. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana, with his partner, Rachel.
Photo credit: Paul Sableman via a Creative Commons license.