Stacking Dishes at the Lipstick Hotel by Al Ortolani

Stacking Dishes at the Lipstick Hotel

The head dishwasher smoked like a kid with a plan,
flicking ashes, picking tobacco
off his tongue, explaining
his next best job, how this
was nothing
compared to selling cars.

In the evening, after the kitchen closed,
we were left alone with supper’s
stock pots and room service trays.
We played a game with coffee cups,
pictured the women
who left lipstick
on the cups.
We judged
the color, the full lips.
We took liberties,
imagined one of them the call girl
rumored on the 5th floor.

We kept the water hot, scalding, wore
rubber gloves, scrubbed fast
with nylon bristles, polished
with steel wool. With the sink empty,
we cleaned the drain trap, smacked free
the beans and pork, the gristle into the trash.
We dried, stacked pots,
dishes, tumblers, coffee carafes.

Tomorrow needed a start fresh.
The cooks
arrived before the sun, maybe
as the call girl was closing her door
I owned a motorcycle.
Home in minutes. Studied algebra
to stay clear of Vietnam.

The head dishwasher waited

for the police to pick him up. He was
witness to something protected.
Some nights I waited with him.
He snuffed his cigarettes

in a coffee can, kept
his eye on the corner, the neon
above the bar. He never talked
about the names he could name.
I could stack dishes, keep
my mouth shut. Happy
with a motorcycle that went
nowhere special.


Al Ortolani’s poetry has appeared in journals such as Rattle, poetrybay, New York Quarterly, and Prairie Schooner. His most recent collections are The Taco Boat, released from New York Quarterly Books in 2022, and Swimming Shelter which was named a Kansas Notable Book for 2021 by the Kansas Library Association. Ortolani is the Manuscript Editor for Woodley Press in Topeka, Kansas, and has directed a memoir writing project for Vietnam veterans across Kansas in association with the Library of Congress and Humanities Kansas. He lives in the Kansas City area with his wife and Zen Buddhist dog, Stanley.

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