by Devan Hawkins
Early in the evening, there was never any rhythm. The night of the Redcoat Club Reunion was no exception. A waitress would bring in a tray loaded with plates of uneaten food and crumpled napkins every few minutes, and clearing it was more like reaching for a glass of water at night, random and careless, not the choreographed dance it would become later. When those trays arrived, one of the three of us who were assigned to the big machine on busy nights would need to get off our milk crate seats and go through the motions. There was no standard rotation, but somehow, we always knew it was our turn when the time came. I think, during my first few weeks at the restaurant, I got up more than my fair share.
Everyone followed the same steps. First, glasses and cups into the three racks above the cleaning area: one for coffee cups, one for water glasses, and another for everything else. Then, pull off the napkins and cracker wrappers, many with crumbs still inside, and toss them in the trash. Next, lift the plates and bowls off the tray and push them across to the other side of the counter. Tilt the tray, and let the silverware slide into the soaking container. Wipe the tray down with the old rag, which probably made it dirtier than before, and stack it with the rest.
On the other side, another dishwasher, usually Mike, was waiting. He would save one fork and push the leftover food into the pig bucket before stacking the plates and bowls. Once there were enough, he would place each into the dish rack, use the cold steel lever to open the machine, and slide two racks inside at a time. After the machine went through its cycle, at the other end, a third dishwasher—usually me—would lift the lever, let the hot steam come out of the machine, reach in to pull the trays out, and begin stacking the wet plates and bowls. At the end of a busy night, when we would get almost ten trays every minute, and we couldn’t get one clean before a waitress needed it, we were like guests at a wedding, moving to one of those songs with lyrics that tell you which moves to make; but early on, that wasn’t necessary.
The Redcoat Club had been an old sports and music bar, located a mile down the road from the Manassas Junction restaurant where we worked. It closed something like twenty years ago, but the fifteen-foot-tall revolutionary British soldier caricature, which served as the club’s sign, was still there, waving and smiling at passing drivers on Route 2-A. Every March, former patrons of the Redcoat Club would have a reunion in memory of the place. I thought that a reunion was unnecessary, most of the attendees were townies, who probably saw each other monthly if not weekly anyway. Stephen, my friend and one of the other dishwashers, said his dad used to go to the Redcoat Club a lot. He was in a band that gigged there.
The Redcoat Club was only remembered by anyone other than the townies because it’s where Feasant played some of their first gigs. Although Feasant’s songs were never on the radio until they stopped touring, they sold out practically every show they played, mostly with the same people who followed them from city to city, summer to summer. That night, the Redcoat Club Reunion was a bigger deal than usual, because they had landed Tom Loewe, the bass player from Feasant who was launching his solo career, as a headliner. Stephen and I were excited. He’d grown up on jam music like Feasant. (His parents followed the Dead around until he was seven and Jerry died.) He had turned me on to the music last summer, when he would play burned discs of Dead and Feasant shows when we drove to work.
Stephen’s dad had always said that Feasant was just a cheap Dead rip-off, but really, they didn’t sound a thing like the Dead. They just had the same approach. For both bands, songs were just like trailheads in the woods, where the music set off, and where it eventually would return—most of the interesting stuff happened during the bushwhacking in between. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see either of the bands live, but their shows were all over the internet to download for free.
We were talking about one of those shows that we had been listening to on the way to work that night when Lou, the owner and head chef of Manassas Junction, told us to shut up.
“I can’t hear any of the goddamn orders if you keep talking like that. I’m gonna need to send one of you downstairs to the small machine.”
It was a common threat. The small machine was the dishwasher that was used on most nights to take care of the tap room. Because there were fewer customers down there, it only required one person to run it.
Lou’s father bought Manassas Junction fifty years ago. More than half of the restaurant’s staff were either related to Lou or his wife, Beth. The place was a town institution. It hosted the weekly Lion’s Club meeting and countless charity dinners. Lou had been a selectman until a few years earlier, when he was forced to resign after he said something bad about the Iraq War in a Veteran’s Day speech. He was alright. He just hated when we were talking during meal orders. Lou didn’t care if we sat around when there were no dishes coming through, but Beth did.
She worked at the front of the restaurant, greeting customers. The kitchen was supposed to be Lou’s domain, but every once and a while, if she came back and saw us fucking around, we would hear something about it. Honestly, she had a point. There were things we could have been doing—putting bottles back in their six-packs so they could be sent away for their deposits, breaking down boxes, cleaning soggy food out of the dishwasher’s filter—but we knew those things could wait. I remember when we were sitting around, avoiding doing any of those things, telling Stephen how it was pretty sweet that we we’re getting paid to be at a gig with someone from Feasant.
“I guess,” he said, “but I don’t think he even plays any of their songs at these shows. It’s all his solo shit.”
“Yeah, but at least he’s going to jam,” I said.
“Maybe, but it was really Chad who made most of their jams exciting when they were together.”
Chad Gianni was Feasant’s guitar player, and a legend. He had been out of the spotlight for a few years since the band broke up and he got caught with more pills than he would ever need in the trunk of his car. But even when he was in jail for that, he was still the star of the old concert recordings Stephen and I listened to on the way to work.
Mike had overheard our conversation.
“Oh my god, do you remember that solo Chad played at Red Rocks in ninety-eight? Fucking amazing.” He spoke with an exaggerated Donald Duck lisp, spraying his spit on the floor.
Mike was Beth’s nephew, and even though he was two years younger than me and three years younger than Stephen, the family connection let him get away with a lot. Stephen and I didn’t care. We knew we weren’t cool, and, honestly, I think we felt cool knowing that. No one else at school or at Manassas Junction listened to Feasant, no one talked about Finno-Uralic languages, and no one discussed the New Deal when they washed dishes until a cook told them to shut the hell up. No one, except us. We just ignored Mike and kept talking about Feasant.
Manassas Junction has been around for a while. The restaurant’s website is filled with myths about its history. One page said that Paul Revere rode past it warning about the British, but Stephen and I knew this was bullshit. Paul Revere only got a few miles outside of Boston before the British captured him, and Manassas Junction was an hour from Boston by car.
The story of how the place got its name was at least a little bit more believable. During the Civil War, the first battle was fought in a place in Virginia called Manassas Junction. Supposedly, when word made its way to the North about who had won the battle, two messengers came to the tavern at the same time, one saying the Union had won and the other saying the Confederates had won. They both got in a fight, and someone said, “Looks like the battle of Manassas Junction was fought right here,” or something like that.
The strangest myth was about the Elephantis. The Elephantis was a bear-monkey-ape hybrid whose head hung over the fireplace in the restaurant’s taproom. It was clearly just some arts and crafts concoction, maybe with eyes from a deer or something, but people got a kick out of it anyway. I still don’t know what possessed them to hang it up in the taproom. I lost my appetite looking at.
The Elephantis didn’t have much of a story behind it. The website just said some hunter had shot it and hung it over the fireplace in colonial times. I guess Feasant had stopped by Manassas Junction a few times after playing the Redcoat Club and saw that thing—whatever the hell it was—and decided to write a song called ‘The Elephantis.’ But calling ‘The Elephantis’ a song is a bit generous, especially for those not used to Feasant’s music. It was really just an exuberant, funky jam during which the band would shout “Elephantis” at seemingly random moments. When they performed it live, in the middle of the tune, Chad would narrate a different story he had made up about the Elephantis, usually trying to add some local flavor from wherever the band was playing that night. It was weird. Songs like that probably drove a lot of people away from the band.
“Remember that time we pulled up to your dad’s place after work and he heard ‘The Elephantis’ playing?” I asked Stephen as we got up to clear a new tray. “He was pissed.”
“Yeah, I thought he would never talk to me again. He acted like most parents would if they caught their kid smoking weed.” Stephen had just taken an uneaten roll from a plate and thrown it into a box to be made into bread crumbs.
Stephen and I never smoked or did any drugs, despite what our long hair and musical tastes may have suggested, but Stephen’s dad certainly had and, at least occasionally, still did. He would tell us stories all the time about driving down to some club in Providence tripping on mushrooms, getting kicked out of the garden after he got caught with a huge bag of weed, some really bad trip he had at a speedway in Maine and how he got over it.
“There’s a reason they say shit like, ‘When you get confused just listen to the music play,’” he used to tell us, referring to a line from a Dead song. The stories were cool, but they mostly scared Stephen and me away from trying any of that stuff. We just listened to the music and never really got too confused.
“When do Monty and the Burnses start playing?” I asked when Stephen sat back down.
“As soon as they finish clearing dinner,” Stephen said.
Monty and the Burnses were a band made up of kids from our high school. They had won a contest to decide who would open for Tom Loewe. Monty, the lead singer who played keyboard, was my age. He bussed tables at Manassas Junction a few times a week, and everyone loved him. He sang all the time when going through the kitchen, and no one ever told him to shut up. When Manassas Junction had its big Easter brunch, they would ask him to bring the food to the buffet tables. They didn’t let Stephen or me out there because of our long hair.
Stephen and I had tried out for the opening spot with our friends Jimmy and Brett. We knew it was a long shot, but we thought that our jam inspired songs would fit in well with a show headlined by a former member of Feasant. Stephen played drums, Jimmy played keyboard, Brett played bass, and I played guitar. At the tryout, we performed some of our own songs and ended with a cover of ‘The Elephantis.’ We thought Steve, the sound guy who was judging the contest, would get a kick out of it, but it didn’t go over well. Stephen dropped his drum sticks at least five times, and Jimmy’s keyboard stand collapsed, so he had to perform sitting cross-legged with the keyboard on the ground. He looked like a kid playing in the mud. Steve said our playing was all right, but we needed “to tighten up the screws.”
After the tryout, when Stephen and I were working in the kitchen, we could hear the muffled sound of Monty and the Burnses playing a note-perfect rendition of Rush’s “YYZ,” weird time signatures and all, at their tryout. I remember Stephen and I looked at each other when they were done playing. We knew they’d get the gig.
Clearing the trays from dinner took up about two-thirds of Monty and the Burnses’ set, but we worked fast. Mike laughed at us. He said that we wanted to see our boyfriends play.
Casual homophobia was the norm at Manassas Junction. Mike had apparently forgotten how scared he was just a few weeks before that one of the waitresses would tell his cousin, who was one of the cooks, that he was taking a drama class at school.
We did our dance and didn’t miss a step. As Stephen finished clearing the last of the trays, I ran to the back and helped Mike bring the stacked plates to the shelves, underneath the cooks’ lines.
Stephen and I poked our head out the swinging door next to the bar. Somehow, years after smoking was banned at restaurants in the state, the function room still had the stale stink of cigarettes. Monty and the Burnses were still on. Monty was behind the piano singing. I figured it was an original song, because I didn’t recognize it. It was bluesy, but the tempo was fast, something like what Aerosmith might play. During the bridge, Monty stopped playing the piano, took the mic from its stand, walked over to each member of the band, and introduced them before they each played a brief solo. He then walked back to the piano and said, “and I’m Monty,” before slamming the piano and playing a fast, chord-heavy solo of his own.
It was cool to watch, but clearly rehearsed. Like the banter between two trainers on the third shift of the day at Sea World. It didn’t have any of Feasant’s spontaneity, but everyone was into it; even Steve, the sound guy, was applauding. He turned the strobe lights on for their last song, a cover of “Johnny B. Goode.” Their screws were plenty tight.
Stephen and I stood next to the doorway talking as they left the stage. We had to keep stepping aside as waitresses came through the swinging door.
“Ending with a fifties cover is the oldest trick in the book. It always leaves the crowd on their feet. Remember how the Dead did that at the last Winterland show?”
“Yeah, especially the way they doubled the tempo and bumped the key up a half-step for the last chorus.”
“What the hell are you two doing?” Lou shouted, cutting off our critique. “There are already three goddamn trays over here and plenty more coming.”
He pointed to the dishwasher, where Mike was just starting to take the trash off a tray.
We didn’t like starting with the trays already lining up, but we knew we could dispatch them pretty quickly. As long as no one interfered with the rhythm, we could have all of the plates clean and trays stacked by the time Tom Loewe’s set started. The work became mindless after a while. The sweep across the trays to wipe them clean, the feeling of sliding the plates between the plastic partitions of the dish rack, stacking them when they came out steaming hot from the machine.
We got a free meal for every shift longer than three hours. Either a burger or a chicken wrap. One time, they gave us extra prime rib when it was about to go bad. We planned to finish clearing these trays and be able to watch from beside the bar and eat our meals when Tom Loewe went on to play. At the rate we were going, it should have been no problem.
After the waitresses finished clearing all of the tables, the trays were linked up all the way down to the prep station. Beth came into the kitchen from the tap room where the diners who weren’t at the concert sat. She looked over at us clearing the trays and saw the cardboard box under the clearing area where we stored the empty beer bottles.
“Why haven’t you been boxing these?” She pointed at the box. The bottles at the top were nearly falling out.
“We haven’t had time.” Stephen checked to see if a glass rack was full so he didn’t need to look at the box.
“Well, get started.” She walked back to the taproom.
I stopped cleaning the tray and looked at the box of bottles. We could have taken care of these at the end of the night, or even tomorrow morning during brunch, but Beth had spoken.
I knelt down. The water from spilt drinks and soups on the floor soaked through my pants to my knees. I was still boxing the bottles when Mike and Stephen finished the last of the trays. They would have been done sooner, but it took a lot longer with only two dishwashers. We always tried to dump any leftover beer into the pig bucket, but that was hard when you were rushing, so my apron was covered in stale beer that was starting to seep through to my shirt.
When we heard the crowd cheer for Tom Loewe, the beer container was half-empty. For a minute, their cheers drowned out the sound of the bottles clinking together. I had boxed at least fifteen neat six-packs. One of the cooks had just left three plates with chicken wraps and fries on the prep station, waiting for Mike, Stephen, and me.
Mike went over to grab his plate, but Stephen came over and kneeled down with me. Tom Loewe started his first song with a solo bass riff. The bass made the bottles vibrate softly against each other as we kept boxing. The whole box began to shake when the rest of the band joined in with him. We did our best not to make too much noise.
by Bryan Kim
Devan Hawkins is a freelance writer from Massachusetts. His fiction has appeared in the Penn Review, Litro, and In Shades magazine and his writing about travel, books, and politics has appeared in a number of places including The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Islamic Monthly, CounterPunch, and Matador Network.
Bryan Kim is a 15-year-old senior attending Seoul International School in South Korea. His other hobbies include playing basketball and watching action movies. He is currently preparing his portfolio for university.