Big Will |
by Shannon Azzato Stephens

On days off, usually Mondays like today when the restaurant's closed, I take showers as long as the hot water lasts. When I get out, I drip all over the floor because I never got around to buying a bath mat, but it’s okay. It always dries up by the next time I get in the shower, especially in one of these bad Pittsburgh summers.

The mirror’s already clearing up, the steam leaving like clouds the way they do sometimes after it rains. That thought, you can’t wash ink away, Will, it slips through me like it always does when I look in the mirror. It’s been a while since I could remember the way Ma’s face looked when I was being bad, but I can hear her voice clear as day, you can’t wash ink away, every time I see myself. I never thought to listen to her and now the past is written all over me. When Rich brought me in for my interview at the restaurant, he said it was a good thing that a tattoo doesn’t show up much on me. He said it’s the first time he’s ever seen a black man’s skin help him get a job.

I got the dragon on my back when I was fifteen, and I used to pretend his wings were my wings, and together we could fly. Now, he's a little wrinkled. A little lower down than he used to be, just like the rest of me. His back is cut in half with the big scar. They had me open for seven hours. I don’t like to imagine what that looked like, the doctors’ hands all over my back and in my brain, but they say I’m lucky to be walking after what happened to me, so I can’t complain. They say I’m lucky to have a memory.  But when I woke up in the hospital I remembered everything about my life before, and remembering felt like something else, not luck.

The snake wrapped around my neck hurt the most, because I got him done inside. My cell mate was a real artist, but it took a long time, night after night of him dipping a needle into a puddle of pen ink and dipping the needle into me. He used to sing real quiet while he was working. Way over yo-onder is a place that I know, where the sweet-tastin' go-od life is so ea-s-ily found, that's where I'm bound.


I’ve been working at the restaurant for almost two years, and my favorite part is still the end of the night. After they stop taking tables, after Rich and the line cooks have gone home, it’s just one waiter in the front, serving the dessert, and me in the back, finishing up the plates. I keep most of the kitchen lights off and let the dishes soak slow.

I don’t go out onto the floor anymore. Once, right after I got the job, we were short a busboy and when I went out to clear tables an old woman with yellow pearls on her ears looked at me for a long time, and shut her eyes tight when they came to the snake on my neck.  She left before the check came out, and Shelly, the owner, hired a new busboy real quick.  I told Rich I thought maybe I should’ve reminded the old lady to wait for her check, because she was old and probably forgetful.  He laughed and said, go look in the mirror and then stick to the kitchen from now on.  I still don't know what he meant because I saw the same thing as always when I looked in the mirror that day, but I took his advice because the kitchen works just fine for me.

When Shelly comes around, she doesn’t look at me much, and usually asks Rich if everything is “okay” with me. I think it’s good of her to care, when she’s so busy. She usually has darkness under her eyes, and sometimes her hair is curly in the back even when she makes it straight in the front. I think it's a gift I got from my accident: ever since I woke up in the hospital I’ve noticed things like that, things I never noticed before. I see how good people are, or how scared, and how nobody else sees what I do.

Maybe that’s why I like closing up with the new waiter Liam. He’s quiet in the kitchen, double-checking his orders before he brings them out, but I can tell he’s been doing this a long time because he can handle five dishes on each arm without even a little wobble. Tonight, he keeps his head down when he backs into the kitchen with a stack of dirty dessert plates, like he’s got something heavy resting over him.

“That’s them done,” he says.

The first time Liam told me where he was from, the word “Dublin” came out of him like two marbles he kept tucked behind his lower lip. He never talks about his home, but I hear it in his voice all the time.

“Did the last table go?” I ask, making room on my counter for the plates.

 “They’re sorted. Just left,” Liam says, and unbuttons the top of his shirt. The skin on his neck is white like the dishes, and clear, so I can see his veins like thin blue roads.

“Be back in a few,” Liam says. “Got to close up the front.”

The plates are quick and easy, just cream and crumbs, but I’ll have to wrap my hands again tonight. When I work alone, my knuckles crack so deep I swear I could store pennies in them. It used to hurt something bad, but either I’m used to it now or my fingers just don’t feel it.

Liam comes back into the kitchen, closing the door quietly behind him. He looks around and comes over to me, picks up a wet fork and starts drying it off.

“No man, I got it,” I say.

“It’s grand,” he says, sitting down on a stool. “I’m all done out there anyway.”

Never ask a man to do your job for you, Ma always said, but I didn’t ask and Liam doesn’t seem like he wants to stop. I don’t think I knew what people meant when they said “happy to help” until now.

Liam doesn’t say much, and neither do I. We listen to the water draining and people walking outside and the light in the bathroom buzzing like it’s a radio. He’s a different kind of waiter. He’s the only one who sits out in the alley with me and Rich during break time, and now he likes to help with the dishes. Sometimes when I look at him I don’t see a white man.

Liam’s got the keys and I don’t, so we close up the kitchen together. The night is so hot I think I could hold the air in my hand and carry it around with me. When he’s done jiggling with the lock he tells me safe home and I know it’s not just something he’s saying to be polite.


This morning, I took three beach chairs on the bus with me and put them in the alley behind the restaurant. I like them better than the plastic ones we used to have. Better for my back. Rich thought it was stupid. This isn’t the beach, he said. But my beach is anywhere, and I know Rich doesn’t care as long as all the dishes are ready when he needs them. Plus, Liam seems to like the new chairs, which is what I wanted after him helping me last night.

This time of day, the street wiggles in the sun and nobody comes into the restaurant because nobody wants to eat Italian food in the summer. If I’m being honest, and these days I always try to be, I don’t know why anybody would pay $15 for pasta, no matter how good a cook Rich is. Shelly says that people pay for a good experience, but I had a good experience with my Spaghetti-O’s last night, sitting on my porch listening to the crickets and the cars. That cost me less than a dollar.

Liam rests his head back and lets his smoke go free. He’s sucking on the end of his cigarette like he doesn’t know you can’t smoke the filter. It burns out and he grinds it slowly under his shoe, even though there’s no light left to it, then leans forward and picks up the butt, puts it in his pocket. I know he’ll throw it away in the bathroom, instead of leaving it outside like the rest of us do. I’ve seen piles of little flat filters in the trash, seen him lean into the bathroom real quick and throw them in before heading back onto the floor. He likes to clean up after himself, and I think that means he’s careful, and kind, and maybe a little scared of something I don’t know about, like he doesn’t want to leave any of himself behind.

I'm telling him about this documentary I saw on TV a couple weeks ago.  “So they found dinosaur blood in a mosquito,” I say.  “They took the blood and they used it to make real dinosaurs.”

Liam looks at me the way people do when they're trying to decide something.  “Are you sure it was a documentary you were watching?”  He asks.

“Yes,” I say.  And the documentary bothered me, too.  I have enough problems with raccoons getting into my trash, and I definitely don't need dinosaurs in my yard.

“What was the name of this documentary?”  Liam asks.

Rich comes out of the kitchen, banging the screen door behind him as usual. I always know when he’s coming and going because of the bang, bang, bang.

“Is he telling you about that 'documentary' he likes?” Rich asks Liam.  He lights up one of those Chinese cigarettes he gets from his cousin in New Jersey. You should switch to these, he always tells me. But I don’t see why I should smoke Chinese cigarettes from New Jersey when I can get good American ones here in Pittsburgh. 

“It's called Jurassic Park, if you ever want to take a look for yourself,” Rich says, and winks at Liam.  He takes a seat. He doesn’t seem too good for my beach chairs now.

“See?” I say. “It’s good, right? More comfortable. I’ve got a bad back,” I tell Liam.

“That's what happens when you break a forklift,” Rich says, grinning now.

“Break a forklift?” Liam looks like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or not.

Rich likes to tell my story more than I do. I don't mind, because he does such a good job.  He starts off slow, like always. “So Big Will was inside for a while.” Liam nods. I wait for him to look at me, like people usually do at this part of the story, but he doesn't. He just plays with the cigarette butt in his pocket.

“Right before he got out, Big Will was in the work program, making benches. Did you know that most of those benches in the park were made by men on the inside?” Rich takes a long draw off his cigarette, holding it like a joint. “Fuck slave labor in China, we've got it over at Allegheny Correctional.” Rich sometimes likes to get political with my story.

“Anyway,” he points at me, “So Big Will's working in the wood shop for five cents an hour, but one day he doesn't look where he's going – Will, why weren't you looking? – Doesn't matter. He walks right behind a forklift that’s backing up too fast, and – BAM!” He smacks his hands together and I swear the whole alley shakes.

Liam looks at me. “Forklift,” he says, real quiet.

“Yup,” Rich says. “And Big Will, obviously, he's motherfucking big. So when the forklift runs into him, he bends its fucking frame – ” he's already laughing. “Taught the foreman to look behind him when Big Will was coming.”

Rich always laughs for this story, but I don't mind. It's one thing I don't remember, and anyway, what I've got now is better than what I had before. Liam looks at me and I must be smiling because he starts to laugh, too.

“Is that true, Big Will? You really broke the forklift?”

“Oh yes,” I say. “Always look both ways, you dig?”

“Always look both ways, he says,” Rich howls, wiping his eyes. “That's true, Big Will, that's true.”

“You know,” Liam says, still smiling, “‘You dig’ actually comes from Irish.”

Rich lights up another cigarette. He plants it in the corner of his grin. “Now you're just bullshitting, man. We’re telling real stories here.”

“No bullshit,” Liam says. It comes from 'An dtuigeann tu?' It means, 'Do you understand?'”

“An diggin too,” Rich repeats slowly, like he's tasting the words. “It sounds similar. But that could just be coincidence, man.”

“No, that's what I'm telling you.” Liam's leaning forward now, like he's Rich with something up his sleeve. But he's not smiling. “There were Irish slaves in America, too.”

Rich’s lips tighten around the end of his cigarette.

“Most of them were just people who couldn't pay their debts, but some of them were criminals,” Liam says. “Instead of putting them in prison, they shipped them off – mostly to the Caribbean. The slave owners usually made them foremen, because most of them understood English, so they could understand what the slavers wanted.”

He takes that cigarette butt out of his pocket and starts to pull apart its ends. “So they were the guys explaining the tasks to the African slaves,” he says. “And that's where 'you dig it' comes from – they used to go out in the fields and say, an dtuigeann tu, like do you understand what we're doing today, do you hear me, and everybody picked it up, and started saying, you dig it.”

He sits there looking from me to Rich like he's just served up a meal that might not taste right.

Rich stubs out his cigarette and looks at it, like it might want to say something first. “Where'd you hear that from?” He asks Liam.

“I've got a friend at home whose family is from the Caribbean. They can trace their history all the way back to slave times.”

“Pretty crazy,” Rich says. “But it sounds like the Irish down there were just more white guys. If they worked for the slavers, they were a problem, too.”

Liam folds his hands in his lap and looks down, like he was afraid that's what Rich would think.

“I think that's a very good story, Liam,” I say.

“You know, Will,” Rich says, “before that forklift got you, you would’ve said something different.” 

I want to say it doesn’t matter what happened before because I’m a man who sees and says the right things now.

Liam looks up, but he’s staring at something behind me, something skipping gravel all over the road. I turn around to look and suddenly my back hurts, suddenly it’s too hot outside. I want to go back to the kitchen, where the sun doesn’t pump through my do-rag and people don’t come up behind me, kicking stones.

Gary shuffles – he always shuffled – up around the side of my chair. He's standing too close. His hands in his pockets, moving like he's got mice in there trying to get out.

I look at my hands. When my hands were smooth, my knuckles were big and hard and I don't like that I'm thinking about what I used to do with them.

“Big Will,” Gary says. “You carryin'?”

Rich says, “Get out of here, man.”

Gary doesn't listen to Rich. “Big Will,” he says, “I know you got some. You always used to hook me up, man.”

“Go on,” Rich says. He's standing now. “You know Big Will doesn't do that anymore.”

“For-real,” Gary says, kicking more stones up around my chair. “Big Will's retired? I don't believe that for a minute.”

He yanks a hand out of his jeans and holds it in the air above my shoulder, like he's thinking about touching me, like he might actually touch me, and I push my hands in between my legs because I don't like what they want to do. I'm not gonna look at him, because my life is better now. I am better now. Stop running with those boys, William. If I’d listened to Ma, I'd have been there for her when she went. Stop it. I am better now. I can't look at Rich and Liam.

Gary’s hand comes down on my shoulder and Liam's out of his chair so fast it throws up its own gravel when it hits the street. He pushes Larry off me, and now I look.

People call me Big Will for good reasons. If I didn't think it would hurt his feelings, I'd call him Little Liam and that would be the truth. He's as skinny as Gary, but he's got Gary up against the wall, his phone unflipped in Gary's face.

“I swear to god, if you don't fuck off right now I'll call the cops,” Liam says, shoving his palm into Gary’s neck so his head smacks against those bricks and I don't like how much I love that sound.

Rich is on his toes, talking so low. “No, no no, no.”

“That's the number. You want me to press send?” Liam waves his phone in front of Gary’s closed eyes.

Gary's shaking his nappy head, making a scrubbing sound on the walls. Liam shoves Gary sideways. I don't look, but I listen to the gravel scrambling under him all the way back up the alley.

Liam picks up his chair and puts it right and sits down like he can't stand for another minute. His face is all red. He takes the last cigarette out of his pocket and tries three times to light it before it starts to burn. I fold my hands in front of me. I don't know what to say.

Rich is rocking back and forth on his still-dancy feet. “That was great and everything, Liam,” he says. But you know you can't go calling the cops. Shelly finds out they were here, 'cause of a guy like that? I can't lose my job, man.”

“You think I was gonna call the cops?” Liam says, letting cigarette ash fall on his knee. “What would I do if they asked about my work permit?”

Rich laughs so much he's coughing, and I almost want to pat him on the back to see if he's okay. “Oh man,” he says. “You're it, man. You're just it.” He pulls Liam up and starts walking him back to the kitchen. “White boy calling the cops. We've gotta keep you around.”

“But Liam's not white,” I say. “He's Irish.”
Rich looks back at me, his head going side to side like he's throwing something around in there to see how it feels. He shrugs and turns back to the door. Maybe he didn't understand me. But Liam puts his hand on my shoulder and leaves it there for a minute. He knows what I can see.

Shannon Azzato Stephens holds a BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University and an M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin.  She lives in New York City, where she teaches writing at Baruch College and Columbia University.