I think I’m ready, he says. What was it like for you? Did you
do anything special? The story is, yes, it was, in fact, special,
but not because of any particular planning, or creative
proposal-ing. It was spontaneous and, actually, I don’t
want to talk about it. Despite all my admonitions
to students about vanquishing vagueness, it’s not
a story I like to share. It involves Santa Cruz and sea lions
and a tall bearded man playing bag-pipes in the midst
of a mournful fog, and that’s all I’m going to say.
The story is for me and for Karen and, maybe, one day
for our children. I hold it tight to my chest and I want
to keep it like that, an heirloom.

Except, it’s nearing five a.m. when he asks,
and I’m mopping the floor. Sort of.  It’s been
a long, unnerving night, ice and snow and roads
that want to bite, and he’s counting money
in the register and accomplishing other mysterious
paperwork-related functions – I think I made
about $105 in tips, add on the 54 cents per mile
and the $5.25 an hour salary and I’m around 180
bucks for eleven hours, not horrible – but the floor
sneers daunting and salty and the water in the mop-
bucket already swims swampy, so I’m swishing back
and forth as quickly as I can but the truth is the world’s
not a whole lot cleaner and my arms and upper back feel
like I just survived six minutes of wrestling against a State
Champ, so I’m half-tempted to tell the story just to cheer
my own damn self up.

A university professor earlier tipped five dollars
on a ninety-seven dollar bill, and he also declined
to meet me at the door in the midst of the snowiest
bluster. Sent down a student clearly unprepared
to schlep seven pizzas (including one gluten-free)
upstairs to the classroom, so I did it for him, an extra
ten minutes of my time while another customer’s
delivery camped in the car, and I don’t know what
kind of class it was, possibly marketing, something
in the how-to-make-money-by-lying-to-people genre.
About thirty undergrads inhabited the classroom, each
likely capable of chipping in a buck, though none offered,
and I considered making a public announcement exposing
their instructor as a 6% tipper after he asked me a bunch
of bullshit questions like do I get sick of pizza and does
my car smell like pizza and so much of me wanted to say,
listen up, students, the dude here who’s grading your papers,
or more likely, foisting that job onto a graduate assistant who
gets paid little more than expired lettuce, is trying to make nice
with me, act like he recognizes the complexity of my humanity,
but he just tipped 5 bucks on a 97-dollar bill and you do the math,
that adds up to an asshole at the extreme tail of the bell curve
and I got two kids I’m not putting to bed right now, not helping
with their homework, not standing next to in the washroom
as they floss and brush their teeth and I still got nine hours
to go on this shift, then it’s sleep two hours and snap my sorry ass
awake for my son’s hockey game, so if you learn one lesson this semester –
how about it’s every person who’s ever served you anything, fed
you or cooked for you, or refilled your coffee or refolded a sweater
you left in a heap after fingering through the bargain rack – every
damn one of them might have a magical story comprised of sea lions
and bagpipes and mournful fog they hold close to their chests? 

But I don’t say any of that and I feel smaller for it. I want to be
that fiery teacher I once was, unafraid of losing his job, unwilling
to compromise a principled belief or stand in muted silence
when an explosion’s brewing in his throat and the manager’s
looking up from his register, his own shoulders looking like
pumpkins three weeks after Halloween, deflated and nibbled
apart by squirrels, and I push the mop harder, try now to make
the floor Cinderella-sparkle, for we who close the store at five a.m.
must be our own fairy godmothers, our own Prince Charmings,
there is no one else in this moment for us, no one thinking of us
but us, and I polish that floor so it shines like a glass slipper
and the bark of sea lions lurches upward from hundreds
of feet below the craggy cliffs and it roars onto my tongue,
actually, I say, special doesn’t begin to describe. It was in Santa Cruz
and we were on this bluff and the wind had that kind of chill like somebody
pressing fingernails into the hollow of your back so I gave her my sweatshirt.
It was royal blue with, for some reason, the number 88 sewn onto the front
on a white patch, and we could hear some guy playing bagpipes, sending
his screeching prayer into the mist and down below on the beach sea lions…

down below on the beach … and she looked at me … and we
could hear… and she started nodding her head and I said
what are you saying yes to? What are you saying yes to? 

But I already knew.


Jeff Kass