“Al The Dishwasher in the Underbelly” by Thadra Sheridan

Al was my dishwasher
at a posh restaurant in New Orleans
with one of those angry screaming chefs
you see on reality TV,
a doughy pasty man who
had roots deep in the soil of Louisiana,
his family swarmed the restaurant on weekends
to drink his whiskey.
His nephew, the busboy,
was a willowy teenager who used
racial slurs as descriptive terms.
He reminded me I lived in the deep south.
The bright copper bar was polished nightly
in a place Tennessee Williams once frequented.

Al emerged early evening to mop the floors,
but once we were open
he stayed in the kitchen.
while chef oscillated between
demeaning epithets and
thinly veiled sexual advances,
Al slipped me candy
to keep up my spirits.
It was his solution to all problems.
Hey miss,
he’d hiss conspiratorially,
pointing at a bag of Skittles,
wanna taste the rainbow?
Hey miss,
I got a Snickers for you,
and I got a Snickers for them other dudes.

He pretended not to know our names,
just called us that girl, or
them dudes.
with an accent so thick
he’d have to repeat himself often.
shrimp were swemps
the new Algerian busboy named Hussein was
one a dem nine eleben boys.
He gonna lock us ALL in the freezer like dat
Vietmaneez woman,
referring to a recent crime
with which I was unfamiliar.
He was the light of my life,
more energy than ten of me.
He had great grandchildren,
was tall and sinewy
with the darkest taught skin,
could do more pushups
than the 23-year-old manager
and stand on his head.
If it caught his fancy, he’d
drop to a squat,
slap his knees,
dance about cackling.
In New Orleans,
there are the faces you see,
serving your food,
mixing your drinks,
checking you in to your hotel.
And there are the faces that slip
behind the scenes
doing jobs you don’t want,
mopping up the sewage
that backed up again
from two hundred old pipes in the street,
ripping the live mice
from sticky traps,
These faces belong to families
with legacies stretching back
to the birth of this city.
You don’t often see them,
but that doesn’t mean
they don’t see you.

Al knew all the city’s secrets.
He knew.
That unrivaled wisdom
barely creased his ageless skin.
As chef stormed in
furious about this or that
meat order,
Al winked at me,
Aw! He gonna need a whole box of Snickers.

Thadra Sheridan is a writer and performer from Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in Rattle, The Legendary, Specter, Talking Stick, Moxie Magazine, as well as Button Poetry, HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, Upworthy, and in several anthologies. She is the recipient of the Jerome Foundation’s Verve Grant for Spoken Word Artists, and was a weekly columnist for Opine Season. She is currently working on a memoir and a series of short films based on her poetry.

Image by Timur Saglambilek from Pexels

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