It’s 10 pm on a cold-for-California winter night, and there’s nothing I want to do more than to leave the ice cream shop. I drag the mop along the floor behind me, letting its weight act as an excuse for my lack of movement. I’m unaware of my surroundings; my past, present, and future rest in this shop, and I’m unable to escape until I finish the task at hand.
“Why do you have this job?” I glance up at my coworker, his mouth just closing after completing the question. It feels a bit too profound a question to rest in a scenario where I’m holding a dirty mop in my hands. Nonetheless, I consider the question. I stare back into the puddle below me and observe my reflection, hoping that an ability to see myself will help me read my inner thoughts. It doesn’t.
I shrug my shoulders and stare at the ground as I mutter, “I don’t really know. I just like working.” It’s true, but it doesn’t sound valid. If his question is a wall, my response is not strong enough to permeate its barrier of believability. I tap my foot to the ground, hoping that its sound can mask the fact that I have no idea what I’m talking about. My thoughts, guilts rather, spill out into my mind to the rhythm of my foot. My privilege. Tap. My education. Tap. My security. Tap.
“I guess I like having a responsibility other than school. Something to take my mind off of homework, and tests, and other stuff.” Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“School is important.” I glance up. My coworker’s eyes soften at the edges, demonstrating that his statement is not a threat but a piece of advice. He’s a short, muscly, kind man with enough tattoos to make any mom glance twice. He’s not young enough to be my friend but not old enough to be my Dad. I haven’t worked there long. He’s completely foreign to me, but, somehow, in the way his tongue maneuvers around his mouth, he is able to construct statements that I can’t help but to adopt as my own.
“I didn’t finish school.” Perhaps it’s his uncharacteristic tone, or the way his soft eyes water a little when he says it, but, when I stare back into the puddle, I notice my eyes mirroring his. Friends in processing emotions that feel much too heavy for a Monday night on the job. Much heavier than the tears I’m now trying to hide.
“Make sure you work hard in school.” I promise him that I will in a way that’s a dichotomy of watery and soft yet more serious and rigid than anything I’ve said in a while. But, I’m lucky I can even say that. I have the ability to work hard in school. I don’t need to be here. The mop drags behind me. My reflection in the floor disappears, though it’s likely the only thing that won’t stick with me from that night.
“I don’t even get much of my salary.” I peer up at him through that vision obscuring ice cream-case glass. I can’t entirely make out his face, but his words paint the image of someone whose long hours and sleepless nights are wearing at them. Wearing at them enough to trigger them to say something like that out of the blue. I duck out from under the glass, and my thoughts are confirmed as I am met with dark, tired eyes and soft wrinkles that seem 10 years premature.
“Oh, yeah, because of taxes.” I sigh with knowing empathy.
“No. Because of my court payments.” I glance down at the ice cream and pause. The shop where kids scream with joy and people smile after a hard day at work doesn’t seem to contain that same excitement anymore. I didn’t even know the court could take part of someone’s salary to pay for court debts, but I don’t want my words to show that. I find myself searching for something not too intense but not too nonchalant to say, but I end up floundering and reaching for something not-so-perfectly in the middle.
“Oh. That sucks,” I mumble.
“I’ve worked 18 hours today,” his hollow, tired eyes seem to sink as he says that, influenced by my newfound perception of him. 18 hours.
“I might quit this job.” he adds.
“Why?” I selfishly don’t want him to leave.
“My wife wants me to… she takes care of the kids, and I can barely help out. I only have one day off from work a week and use it to catch up on my sleep. I never see them.” His statement is so ridden with guilt that to a casual observer it might sound like a confession.
I envision that time when his kids came to the store.
“Papi. Papi. Can I have strawberry?” one yells, hopping up and down and clapping.
“Mango. I want mango,” the other exclaims, jumping up to see the flavors over the counter.
Their dad hands them their cones, and, their mouths dripping ice cream, they ask, “Mommy. Mommy. Can we go home?” She asks if they want to stay with their dad any longer. Other customers walk in, chatting happily about some event they just left. I knowingly go and help them, watching my coworker smile down at his kids.
“Can Papi come home with us?” his younger kid mumbles.
Their mom shakes her head. “He’s working,” she sighs. With a child-like naivety, they shrug and hop gleefully outside. They take turns making funny faces through our shop’s glass walls. I watch my coworker as he emulates their jeers, but I don’t fail to notice how his face falls when they turn away to bound Falling Apart by Ashton Melton 34 into the car.
It’s a couple weeks later, and we’re swamped. People flood the store in those never ending waves that make me wish I could just get swept away with them.
“Vanilla. In a cone . . . please,” one little girl declares through a cheek-to-cheek grin.
“For sure,” I smile back. It’s kids like her who remind me that these lines contain real people.
I look down at the vanilla container, which is currently empty. I scurry to the back of the shop to get another one before someone starts writing an angry Yelp review.
As I reach for the freezer, I use the spare second it takes me to yank it open to glance at the break room down the hall. My coworker’s in there peering intently at the phone screen in front of his face.
“Papi. Papi. Can we get a puppy?” a chorus of two voices rings from the phone’s speaker.
“I don’t know. Let’s talk about it later,” he says with a sigh unlike the one he produces when a customer complains for the billionth time.
“But later we’ll be asleep,” the older one cries.
“I know… I know.” As he says it, the second “I know” trails off, and he looks up, as if only then disillusioning himself of the belief that he would be home in time to tuck them in.
I grab the pan and sprint back to the front, realizing my observation of one familial moment has perhaps incited a slightly more negative one in the front. I hear bickering as I scoop the vanilla, careful to situate it just right in the cone. As I hand it to the little girl, her mom gently lays a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you,” she says.
“Yeah. Thank you,” the little girl adds, her words barely escaping her ice cream filled-mouth. They turn, and I watch them walk off together, the mom’s hand remaining on her daughter’s shoulder. My coworker appears beside me. His break is over. Back to work.
It’s closing time again, and I’m leaning on the counter, lazily rubbing it, trying my best to emulate the behavior of someone actually working. I chat with my coworker, as we so often do when the noises of the customers have ceased and no longer drown out our thoughts.
“One of the worst nights of my life was when I got arrested.” This type of spontaneous confession has become characteristic of our conversations.
“I used to read to my kids every night. Every single night I would read to them and put them to bed. Then, one night, I was arrested for a DUI. That night, my wife later told me, my kids cried themselves to sleep, because I never came home to read to them.” Following his confession, my heart dropped so fast that I could practically hear it thump down on the counter. Not solely because of that heartbreaking story, but because it’s 10:30 pm, and, even out of jail, he still can’t be with them.
“After that night, I promised myself I would never get arrested again, and I kept that promise.” I’m not sure whether to grin at his achievement, or unmask the fact that I am still broken from his previous statement. Before I have the chance to contemplate further, he adds, “but now, I’m in trouble with the judge.”
“Oh, my mom’s a judge,” I respond. It’s the only thing in this conversation I feel I can meaningfully add.
He looks up with a glint in his eyes that I rarely have the pleasure of seeing from him, “Do you think she could write a letter for me?”
“A letter, why?” I ask, genuinely confused.
“Well, I am under threat of deportation, and I need trustworthy people to vouch for me.”
“Ok. I’ll ask.” I grin as I say it, feeling as though I can genuinely help someone. It’s not the kind of help where you’re funding some far-off kid living in poverty. Instead, this is the type of help where you’re responsible for kids suffering a few miles from you, ones who are probably crying for their dad right now. But my smile morphs into a mangled frown when I realize the true weight of my newfound responsibility. It sticks with me the rest of the night. These children are now my own, and their smiles are just as ingrained in my mind as that of the girl who asked for the vanilla ice cream or that of my own little brother. I finish up my closing tasks sweeping and mopping. I cleanse the store to perfection in hopes that its cleanliness will transfer to my own conscience. It doesn’t. I walk out of the store and observe my coworker still inside. All I can envision are his kids, jumping up and down, trying to drag him out of the store.
I ask my mom for the letter. Of course, she is unable to write it. It is against the law for judges to write letters in support of defendants.
I return to the store. I glance up at my coworker. I take a deep breath and propel the words out of my mouth faster than the time it takes me to change my mind.
“My mom won’t be able to write the letter.” The ends of my mouth crumple as I say it.
“Oh. That’s ok.” He sighs in a way characteristic of someone who has been let down so many times that everything seems “ok.”
In my mind, our defining characteristics fade away. Our ages. Our backgrounds. I’m young; he’s old. He’s been convicted of a crime; I haven’t. In spite of all these things, we are equals. We work together, and we perform the same tasks the way any diligent employee would. I drive home each night and so does he. But there is one fact that will never be able to obscure itself. I will get to leave my minimum wage job soon. For good. He likely won’t. Maybe once in a while, I’ll come back and visit. I’ll peer through the glass walls and, over the flood of people, see his sunken, tired eyes propelling him through another 18 hour work day.