Are you Maxwell? [Short Fiction]

Inspired by a conversation with a real-life Maxwell. In South Africa, we have plenty of them.


Are You Maxwell? by Imran Lorgat

Don’t you sometimes wonder what it would be like to be someone else? Another person? In a different time, in a different place, in a different life. Do you wonder? From time to time we all wonder what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. Today let’s wonder. Today you’ll wonder. For a moment you are going to be someone else. You are going to be Maxwell. Repeat after me:
     “I am Maxwell”
     “I am Maxwell”
     “I am Maxwell”
You are Maxwell. Hello Maxwell. Your parents named you Maxwell because they thought it sounded regal. But no one respects you enough to call you Maxwell. They all call you Max. Hello Max, are you well? No you aren’t; you are only Max. You are unwell.
     This morning you woke up and your stomach was burning. So was your throat. It feels red, raw. “Heartburn,” your aunt told you: “You should go see a doctor”. You would go see a doctor, only doctors charge R300 for a twenty minute chat. You don’t have R300. If you had R300 you would eat like a king. You are no king, you are only Max.
     Today is a Friday Maxwell, are you ready to go to work? It’s 4:00AM, it’s dark outside and the sole light-bulb that dangles naked overhead has stopped working. You are going to have to replace it at the end of the month, if you have some spare change. Or maybe you should replace your tattered shoes: the soles are peeling off the bottom and your boss commented rudely the other day that you take no pride in your appearance. You try, Maxwell, you try. Right now you’ve just lit a match and you’re brushing your teeth by the paltry light. The toothpaste could last another week if you cut open the tube and use the paste that sticks to the sides. Thank God for small mercies. And thank God you managed to get up today at 4:00AM. You aren’t always this lucky. Sometimes you sleep past 5:00 and you miss the bus. If you don’t get up at 4:00, then how can you expect to get ready in time to catch the bus to the train station, and then catch the train into town, and then walk 2.5 kilometres (approximately 28 minutes) from the train station to the Waterfront so that you can start work at 7:00AM sharp? The manager doesn’t like it when you’re late. He’s told you so more than once: “We open at 7, you should be here at 7. Don’t give me excuses, we all have it tough”. We all have it tough Max, we all have it tough.
     You work at a trendy mid-income seafood and sushi restaurant. It’s part of a franchise, a popular and successful one. Do you remember Maxwell? You are a waiter. You are not paid. You told me this yourself Maxwell. You are not listed on the restaurant’s books (everyone is trying to cut costs you understand? You are a cost). No, instead you are reimbursed for your time by whatever tips the customers leave you. How generous of those customers. And how generous of the restaurant Maxwell; it is offering you employment. Many people in this country do not even have jobs. You should be grateful. Are you grateful Maxwell? Are you grateful Max?
     Some days things go well, Max: the customers are more generous than usual and you finish a shift with over R150. Most days things do not go as well, you take home about R70 from an 8-hour shift. Some days they do not go well at all and you only manage to scrape about R30 together at the end. You were just unlucky Max, today the fish weren’t biting; perhaps tomorrow the restaurant will be packed to the brim with generous customers. It costs you about R40 in travel fare just to get to the restaurant and then to get back home. You live far from town you see? Travel costs money. Next month it will cost you almost R50. A colleague at work told you that the petrol price has gone up and the bus driver needs to make a living. You understand that, don’t you Max? He needs to make a living.
     On a normal day you manage to get home with about R20 to R40 left over after travel. Since you’ve pinched bread and water from the kitchen (free bread is served to all customers as a starter), and a leftover morsel from a customer’s plate here and there, you manage to get home with your belly semi-full. From here you can usually tough it out and endure the hunger until your shift the next day. Congratulations Maxwell, you’ve managed to save about R30. Did you hear that Maxwell? You have savings. Well at least until an expense other than food pops up. But those are tomorrow’s problems, aren’t they Max?
     Today is not a normal day. It is 2:30PM, 7 and a half hours into your 8-hour shift, and Tuyeni is nowhere to be seen. If Tuyeni does not show up, you will have to work a double shift today. “It’s a Friday night and the restaurant is going to be full. We need all the help we can get”. The restaurant needs the help, you understand that, don’t you Max? Let us be honest though: you do not really have a choice. Last week Hope complained to the manager that she had worked three double shifts in a row, she was not prepared to work another one. She was Hopeful things would change. The manager told her that she could go home. He also told her not to come back. She hasn’t come back. The restaurant is Hopeless now. But you don’t have time to think about that Max, there are customers to serve. You can’t keep the customers waiting, you understand that don’t you Max?
     “Excuse me,” says an old woman. There is poison in her voice, “I asked for this salmon medium-well. This is medium. Do you even know the difference?”
     You do not know the difference Maxwell. You don’t, Max.
     “I am so sorry about that Madam,” you tell her, “I’ll take this back to the kitchen right away and get you a new one.”
     “Hmph!” she frowns, hateful, “The service really is pathetic at this place,” she tells her friend, “Last week when I came here, they brought the drinks too early so we had nothing left by the time the food arrived. I was practically choking on my calamari with nothing to wash it down with!”
     You do not understand why the lady is so upset, Max. This piece of salmon that she has tossed away like rubbish is priced at R140. You do not understand how anyone could possibly afford to spend R140 on a single meal but sometimes these middle aged men wearing fancy shirts arrive at the restaurant with their families and order seafood platters and dessert and the bill comes to over R1000. You like it when those men visit the restaurant; if they come to your table, they’ll usually leave a healthy tip. The poisonous woman and her salmon-faced friend do not leave a tip however. Before they leave the restaurant they complain to the manager that their food was undercooked and they claim they won’t be returning. Last week and the week before they also threatened never to return and yet here they are. They manager has a word with you. Tells you to “pull up your socks”. Your left sock has a hole in it from which your toe sticks out and your right sock barely resembles an item of clothing anymore. You have always suspected that your manager does not actually know your name. He always refers to you as “you”.
     It is 3:00PM. Tuyeni has not arrived. Sorry Max, you will have to work a double shift. It is a Friday and the restaurant will be busy tonight. You cannot leave your colleagues to handle it all on their own. This is a team effort. You understand that, don’t you Max? You’re a team-player Maxwell. You work in a team. Tuyeni is no longer a part of that team however. The manager has just fired him (no messing with labour law when you aren’t even on the books). “This is the second time he hasn’t pitched up on time,” the manager says, “He had his chance”. When Tuyeni shows up later at 3:45PM and complains of heavy traffic due to an accident on the highway, the manager isn’t interested. “Don’t make your problem my problem,” the manager says. He sends Tuyeni home. Tuyeni has spent all that he had left on the fare required to get to work. How will he get back home? But you don’t have time to think about that now. You have your own problems, don’t you Max? Tuyeni gives you a filthy look on the way out. In his mind, you have stolen his shift; you have stolen his job. You never wanted it. You would give it back with two hands if the manager would allow it. You’ve been on your feet for 8 hours running up and down and now you would just like to go home. But the manager isn’t interested. “The rules are the rules. If I make an exception for Tuyeni, I have to make an exception for everyone else”. Those are the rules, Maxwell. You understand the rules don’t you? Sixteen hours it is.
     Good luck tonight! It’s 9:30PM and four young people, two couples, have just walked in and told you that they’re hungry and plan to eat large. You do your best. You ignore the tiredness, put on your winning smile and tell them that you’re here to help them. Their order is complicated. One of the couples wants a seafood platter but with the mussels exchanged for additional prawns and the calamari crumbed. The other young lady orders a prawn and hake combination but she wants the hake prepared Cajun style with lemon butter on the side and she wants the prawns to be Prince-size only. Her partner young man wants to order something that isn’t exactly on the menu. You have a word with the manager who says it is possible and the young man places his order. The two young couples seem like nice people so as complex as their order is, you are determined to get it right.  You succeed. When their meal is done, the young couples order dessert. They ask your advice. Did you hear that? They want to know what you think, Maxwell.
     “The Bar One cheesecake is always a favourite,” you tell them. You know this because on Monday when they throw away the leftover cake, you manage to nick a slice when the manager isn’t at the restaurant (health and legal implications prevent them from giving week-old cake to staff). One slice of the cheesecake costs R38. You do not understand how someone can spend R38 on a dessert. The two young couples order three desserts between them. One of them follows your suggestion and orders the Bar One cheesecake. Did you hear that Maxwell? They listened to you.
     10:45PM has hit and now the restaurant is preparing to close. The end of your 16-hour shift approaches and the word ‘exhausted’ is too weak to describe how you feel. In fact: the word ‘weak’ is too weak to describe how weak the word ‘exhausted’ is to describe how you feel. You are alive, Maxwell, at least that much can be said.
     When you take the bill over to the young couples’ table you ask them whether or not they enjoyed the cheesecake. They are emphatic in their praise (emphatic, Maxwell!). “That was amazing,” says one. “Incredible”, says another. You smile. It is all you have to offer. A conversation ensues. You are not sure entirely how it has happened but, before you know it, they are asking you about the job and the restaurant (“Wow, you guys are busy tonight,” perhaps that is how it started). When you tell them that you aren’t paid, they are horrified. You see from their eyes that they do not really believe you. You shrug. But it is not all bad, you tell them, next week you are going for an interview at a popular steakhouse franchise and there the pay and the working conditions will be better.
     “Most of your tips probably go to transport,” one of them says.
     “Ah tell me about it,” you sigh. 
     “What time will you get home tonight?”
     “2:00AM maybe.”
     “And what time do you start tomorrow?”
     “I’ll get up at 4:00AM. I have to be hear by 7.”
     The young people are shaken. After the meal one of them slips a R50 note into your hand. You thank him with all your heart. His display of kindness means you can finally replace your light bulb (R10). Or maybe pick up some tablets for the heartburn (R18). Or maybe finally get yourself a new pair of socks (R13). The possibilities are endless (but new second-hand shoes (R60) will have to wait).
     The restaurant closes. Time to begin the long trek home. Outside the train station you are held up by a violent-eyed man with a knife. You manage to convince him that you have nothing but the R20 in your pocket. He takes it and runs away. Luckily you had the foresight to hide the rest of your takings (and your generous R50 tip) in your underwear. You had foresight Maxwell, yes you did. Without that R20 for the train and the bus, you’re going to have to dig deep into your takings in order to get back home. You do. It breaks your heart to think that three hours of hard work (roughly R20) all amounted to nothing, but it could have been worse. You understand that don’t you Max? It could have been worse. You sleep on the train. You nearly missed your stop but luckily the operator shook you awake in time for you to get off. You know this operator, he is a decent man. Not all of them are so kind. You catch the bus from the train station to your home. The fare is slightly higher at night. On the bus you rest your head against the seat. You fall asleep. You dream. You dream of a world where life isn’t quite so crushing, so cruel. In your dream the restaurant pays you a salary, your manager greets you with a smile, you never work double shifts. In your dream the customers don’t glare at you with despisement when their order isn’t perfect and they smile at you before you leave and tip well. In your dream your shoes aren’t broken and your heart doesn’t burn. In your dream your life doesn’t reek of decay and neglect. In your dream you have more to look forward to than your funeral policy paying out when you die. In your dream people call you Maxwell, you are someone else in a different life. You wake up. It is 2:30AM and you are back home. There is enough time to catch a short nap before 4:00AM when the day begins anew.

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