A Vacuum Is a Space Entirely Devoid of Matter
A Storyby Sherman Alexie
“Are you a doughnut man?” the owner asked me.
I was surprised by the question. By how serious it was. By how serious the owner seemed to be. I was interviewing for a job at a doughnut shop, so I knew I’d be asked about my work experience with doughnuts—with food prep and service in general. But I had prepared for simpler questions. For a week before the job interview, I’d walked small circles around my small room in the halfway house and practiced.
—Chocolate cream is my favorite.
—Usually with coffee, but good with milk too. But never with soda. Don’t understand people who think Pepsi or Coke is good with doughnuts.
—Never made doughnuts before, but I grew up baking and selling bread and cookies with my mom. That’s how she made extra money to buy us school clothes and supplies and stuff like that.
—I was line cook at IHOP for two years. At Denny’s for about six months before that. Made hamburgers at the Tribal Café on my reservation when I was a kid.
—Not allergic to anything, so I can eat, or make, any kind of doughnut.
—I didn’t cook when I was in prison. I washed dishes. My sentence was for only eighteen months. They gave cooking jobs to guys doing serious time. They wanted continuity in the kitchen.
Continuity wasn’t a word I’d use on the regular. But that’s the word the prison used. And I instantly liked the sound of it. Con-ti-nu-i-ty. So it was a word I’d kept in my brain for later use. When I could impress somebody with my vocabulary. I’m a smart guy—above average, at least—but there are some words that can make anybody sound smarter. You have to be careful, though. There are some people who feel insulted if you use a word they don’t understand. And if you insult somebody in prison, or on my reservation, then you might have to hit a guy in the face and get hit in the face in return. I wasn’t a natural fighter. I wasn’t born making fists. But in some places, you are forced to be a bare-knuckle pugilist.
Pugilism is one of my favorite words. But it’s a complicated word that doesn’t lend itself to everyday conversation. And it’s definitely not a word to use during a job interview, unless maybe you’re applying for a job at a boxing gym. You have to use the right words when you’re trying to get hired. And I’d figured a word like continuity might help me get that doughnut job. I don’t know why, but it seemed to me that doughnut and continuity were two words that went together.
“Hey,” the doughnut shop owner said. “I asked if you’re a doughnut man.”
He was a small guy, barely over five feet tall, and weighed maybe a buck-thirty, but his hands were huge. They didn’t fit his body. Not even close. It was cartoony. Like he was a comic book villain named Big Fingers. He leaned across his desk and stared hard at me. He wanted an answer.
I decided to be honest.
“I don’t know if I’m a doughnut man,” I said. “I don’t even know what a doughnut man is.”
The owner smiled.
So I smiled back.
The owner leaned back in his chair.
So I leaned back in mine.
My career counselor at the American Indian Center, Jana, had taught me how to mirror people. She said it creates a subconscious emotional connection. So I practiced mirroring her for twenty minutes during a pretend interview. Then I asked her on a date. She said no. Some emotional connections can’t be mirrored, I guess. Jana was Lakota. One of those Indians who hunted buffalo. And killed Custer. She came from a famous tribe. I come from a tribe that no white people have ever heard of. Most Indians have never heard of my tribe, either. So me dating a Lakota would be like an auto mechanic from Idaho dating a lawyer in Seattle. That kind of romance probably happens, but not very often.
I hoped mirroring the doughnut shop owner would work out better for me than mirroring that Lakota did. After all, I needed a paycheck a lot more than I needed to be kissed.
“So, John,” the owner said to me. “Do you want to guess at what a doughnut man is?”
It felt like a trick question. If a cop had asked me something like that, I would’ve demanded a lawyer and then shut the hell up. I would have put my face on the table and stayed there until my public defender slumped in. But that job interview was only 49 percent interrogation, so I knew I had to give him an answer.
“I don’t like guessing at things,” I said.
The owner nodded his head. I think he liked my answer. I felt like maybe I had a real shot at getting that job. I’d already been turned down by twenty-six other places since I’d gotten out of prison.
“Don’t let this demoralize you, John,” the Lakota career counselor had said about my marathon of no, no, no, no.
“Demoralize,” I’d said. “Good word.”
The doughnut shop owner rose, walked around his desk, and stood next to me. I was sitting down but I was still taller than him.
“Guy came in yesterday wanting this job,” he said. “I asked him if he was a doughnut man. You know what he said?”
“What?” I asked.
“That guy looked me in the eye,” the owner said. “And he swore he was a doughnut man.”
“You didn’t believe him,” I said.
“What makes you say that?”
“He ain’t here.”
The owner laughed and clapped his hands.
“You’re a smart one,” he said. “You see things.”
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Sometimes is better than no times.”
“I guess it is,” I said.
I was shaking a little. And sweating. Your own nerves sometimes feel like they’re rioting against your blood.
“You know what else?” he asked.
“The job is all yours.”
I almost cried. Almost. Because happiness can hurt.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m going to work hard.”
“I know you will,” he said.
He opened a tall cabinet, grabbed an apron off a hanger, and handed it to me. I stood and knotted it around my neck and waist. I felt better than I had in maybe half my life.
“Hey,” I said. “What is a doughnut man?”
“Hell if I know,” the owner said. “It’s a bullshit question I made up yesterday.”
The owner laughed.
Mirrors, man, mirrors.
The owner’s name was Wes Walden. The shop’s name was Superstar Doughnuts. It was on Maple Street. Yep, a doughnut shop on Maple Street. Wes said he’d never realized it until a customer pointed it out to him.
“Just a coincidence,” Wes said. “So for about two seconds, I thought of changing the name to Coincidental Doughnuts.”
Wes had owned the shop for almost twenty-five years. And it wasn’t just a shop. It was a doughnut factory too. We made and sold forty varieties of doughnuts inside the place. And customers used the three tables and six chairs to enjoy their favorites. But we also baked doughnuts in wholesale and delivered to fifty local restaurants, coffee shops, small grocery stores, and convenience stores.
Each day, about two thousand people thought Superstar made pretty good doughnuts. It was a small business, like a million other small businesses. But it was doughnuts. Everybody loves doughnuts. So a doughnut shop like Superstar is beloved. And because we made the doughnuts, Superstar’s employees were beloved. Regular customers quickly learned and used my name. Amazing how that works.
Howard was the head baker. Wendy kept the books. Darren and Sarah were the assistant bakers. Eddie and Julio drove the delivery trucks. Wes Walden was in charge of everybody, of course, and it seemed like everybody was in charge of me. But that was cool. I was making only minimum wage, but any cash feels like a fortune when you start from zero.
I did whatever needed to be done. I filled in the gaps. I baked, ran the cash register, bussed the tables, and cleaned up the store before opening, during working hours, and after it was closed. Forty hours a week usually turned into fifty or fifty-five. But Wes didn’t pay me double or even time-and-a-half for working overtime, and he didn’t pay me for each and every extra hour I worked. But I didn’t go on strike about that or threaten to start a union. Wes shorted me maybe thirty or forty bucks a week. But I figured that was the price I had to pay for being an ex-con. I had to accept it.
Shrug, man, shrug.
But being shorted wasn’t the worst part of the job. Wasn’t even close to being the worst part. You see, I had to wake up every day at 2:00 a.m. in order to shower, shave, and ride the bus to start work at 3:00 a.m. If you’ve ever worked the graveyard shift, then you know how weird and slightly disconnected it makes you feel. Like you’re an alien living on a planet that is only five inches away from Earth. But it’s worse to wake up at two in the morning. After a week of that, you don’t even feel like you have a body. You become a raindrop rolling down a window. You become the wind rattling a traffic signal. You become a staticky radio signal where every fourth word is clear.
So, yeah, I felt unreal working a doughnut man’s hours. But I was still grateful for that real job.
And the job was broom and dustpan and garbage sack and Dumpster. And it was mop and bucket and floor cleaner. And it was toilet brush and bleach. And it was dirty plates and cups and forks and spoons and knives and a sink full of soapy water so hot that I lost three fingernails. And it was sugar and eggs and maple and flour and cooking oil and chocolate sauce and coconut sprinkles and cream and cinnamon. And it was a constellation of burns and cuts on my arms.
You’ve probably seen doughnuts being made at Krispy Kreme. You’ve probably seen them rolling along on that conveyor belt, all smooth and clean and fresh. We had a conveyor belt too, but it was an antique. We called it Eden because we wondered if the very first doughnut had been made on that machine.
And that machine had so many nooks and crannies and gaps and bolts and screws and chains and rollers and washers and metal and plastic and rings and tubes that it took me at least four hours to clean it every night. I did that task all by myself. Using rags and a bucket of water, I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed.
My hands bled.
The only person left in the shop.
And my knuckles were ten miles of gouged dirt road.
That cleanup accounted for most of my overtime hours. So, yeah, some of that bloody work went unpaid. And when I finished cleaning, I’d set the alarm system, close up the shop, and catch the bus back to the halfway house, and fall asleep at two or three in the afternoon, sleep for eleven or twelve hours, and then wake up and do it again.
Circles, man, circular.
After three weeks at Superstar, Wes Walden asked me if I wanted to train as a delivery driver. I was surprised. After all, I was a new employee and I was an ex-convict. So there were two good reasons why it seemed too early for a promotion.
“What about Eddie and Julio?” I asked.
“Eddie will still be the lead driver,” Wes said. “But Julio wants to cut back on his hours here because he’s going full-time at his other job. And he has a new baby. Wants to be home a little more too.”
I have no clue how people working minimum-wage jobs support their families. They’re like alchemists, I guess, turning eleven dollars an hour into full refrigerators.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll drive. As long as it’s cool with Eddie and Julio, I’ll give it a try. But I don’t have a driver’s license anymore. I don’t even know if they let ex-cons get a driver’s license.”
“Why don’t you investigate,” Wes said. “You get your license, and Eddie will teach you the early delivery route.”
It turned out that the state wants ex-cons to earn or renew their driver’s license after they get out of jail.
“It improves the ex-con’s employability,” Jana the Lakota said.
“I’m already employed,” I said.
“Then it makes you a better employee,” she said.
Jana drove me to the DMV office. I didn’t even have to take a paper test or driving test to renew my license. I just did the eye test to prove I could see, and then I had my license back.
The next morning, I climbed into the passenger seat of the delivery van. Wearing sunglasses, Eddie looked at me and said I couldn’t smoke in the van.
“Don’t smoke,” I said.
“I thought everybody smoked in prison,” he said.
“It was against the rules where I was,” I said. “But that didn’t matter. I was never a smoker.”
“Huh,” he said, as if I had revealed something important.
“Yeah, huh,” I said back.
“So what did you do?” Eddie asked. “When you were inside?”
I got asked a lot of questions about my time behind bars. Especially by men. They were obsessed with prison rape. And they were eager to tell me how they would never allow themselves to get raped. They swore they would die fighting. Strangers on the bus would tell me their carefully planned strategies for defeating prison rapists.
I guess every man believes that he would become a prison gladiator. But almost every man is completely wrong about himself.
“What did you do to get there?” Eddie asked. I could smell his testosterone. Another civilian trying to show off for a criminal.
“What did you do?” Eddie asked again.
I knew what Eddie wanted to know, but I played him along.
“I worked at a few restaurants before I came here,” I said.
“No,” he said. “Why did you go to prison?”
“I killed a delivery driver,” I said.
Eddie didn’t laugh. So I didn’t, either.
“You’re not serious, are you?” he asked.
“Actually,” I said, “I robbed a Starbucks.”
“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never even heard of that happening. How much did you steal? Did you just walk in with a gun like it was a bank?”
“I robbed the drive-through,” I said. “And I was riding a horse.”
Eddie believed me for a second and then he cussed at me.
“Come on, you asshole,” he said. “Tell me what you did.”
“It’s none of your business,” I said. “And I’m guessing you asked Wes about me. And he didn’t think it was any of your business, either.”
“Whatever, John,” he said, started the van, and pulled onto the street that was empty of traffic at 4:30 a.m.
I don’t know why Eddie and I had suddenly decided to dislike each other. We hadn’t talked to each other all that much before that day. And we’d only talked business. We rode in silence for a while. And then it seemed like Eddie was okay with keeping the talk all business.
“Okay,” he said. “We only have twelve stops on this first leg. Figured I’d start you easy. We call this run the early-early. Then we go back for the regular-early. Each place on this run takes a different amount of doughnuts, but it adds up to seventy-two dozen assorted.”
“Eight hundred and sixty-four doughnuts,” I said after doing the quick math in my head.
Surprised, Eddie glanced at me.
“Whatever,” he said again.
The imaginary headline: EX-CON ADDS QUICK.
The other imaginary headline: ARROGANT INDIAN GIVES SHIT TO HIS COWORKER.
“First stop is Al’s Grocery,” he said. “They get three dozen.”
“All right,” I said, then took out my little notebook and wrote down some details.
“What are you doing?” Eddie asked.
“Want to make sure I get it exact,” I said.
“I didn’t know you math geniuses needed to write things down.”
“I’m no genius,” I said, trying to play peace now.
“Whatever,” he said for the third time. “It took me about a month to learn all the routes. It’ll probably take you longer.”
And so we delivered eight hundred and sixty-four assorted doughnuts, in various quantities, to Al’s Grocery Store, three different Ferch Coffee Shops, two diners on either side of the Greyhound station, a little café inside the Amtrak station, the restaurant in Sacred Heart Hospital, the dining room of a retirement community on the South Hill, and three twenty-four-hour Fast Marts.
We worked fast. It took us less than ninety minutes.
I wrote down all the pertinent addresses, names, and numbers. I figured that I would have it all memorized after I ran the route three times. Or maybe four times since my brain was so boggy that early in the morning. But it wasn’t going to be all that complicated. So why did Eddie think it was complicated? Was he just giving me shit? Or did he struggle with learning things? It didn’t really matter. We both just wanted to do our jobs.
“How long did it take you to get used to these hours?” I asked Eddie when we returned to Superstar to pick up the next load.
“Been working here five years,” he said. “And I’m still not used to it.”
“Damn,” I said, depressed about the exhaustion that awaited me but also happy that Eddie had told me a true fact about himself. So I decided to be true as well.
“Hey,” I said, “I’m sorry I was a jerk earlier.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s the job. We all snap at each other once in a while.”
“Cool,” I said. “And, hey, I went to prison because I shoplifted shoes from Foot Locker.”
“That’s all? You went to prison for shoplifting?”
“Well, I broke into Foot Locker around midnight and shoplifted fifty pairs of Nikes. And the cash register. And one of those stand-up posters of LeBron James.”
I laughed too.
Because it was the Crime of the Century.
Back in the shop, Wes Walden smiled and clapped and welcomed us back.
“How’d it go?” he asked Eddie. “Can John handle the route?”
Eddie hesitated before speaking. And then he went carnivore.
“I’m sorry to say this,” Eddie said. “But John has a problem with details. He writes things down but he still forgets stuff. Even on a small run.”
My first instinct was to punch Eddie in his lying mouth. In jail, or on my reservation, you’d get your teeth loosened for lying like that.
But I was an ex-con working a minimum-wage job. If I punched somebody I’d end up back in jail. I’d served my full sentence and I wasn’t on parole. But every ex-con is forever on unofficial parole. I realized that I would always be subject to fair and unfair judgment. And I also realized that I couldn’t contradict Eddie. He’d worked at Superstar for years. He had seniority and had earned trust. I was the new guy, the unknown factor, the captured thief.
“John,” Wes said. “Why didn’t you tell me you had memory problems?”
In my whole life, I have never wanted to do anything more than I wanted to shout the entire list of names, addresses, quantities, and qualities of that delivery route. I could have shouted out the colors of the clothes of nearly everybody on the route. I could have told you what drink the barista at Ferch Coffee on Division was brewing when we delivered the doughnuts to her. And, okay, I wouldn’t have remembered all those details perfectly, but I would have still displayed an impressive amount of recall for a kid who had once robbed a goddamn Foot Locker.
Sabotaged, man, sabotaged.
I looked at Eddie, expecting to see a smirk. But he looked genuinely concerned for me. That dude was an actor. A cold-hearted thespian. Colder than half the guys in jail.
I was impressed. I don’t think he was book smart. But there are other ways of being smart.
Eddie had won the game I hadn’t realized that we had been playing. And then I realized that he was afraid of me. I understood. I was an ex-con, so it was natural to fear me, but the only thing I’d assaulted was the back door of a shoe store. I also realized that Eddie had been afraid that I would take his delivery job. And, okay, it wasn’t much of a job, but it was his job. And he’d wanted to end any threat to his money, to his work, to his identity.
I knew people in jail who’d murdered over five-dollar debts. So I understood Eddie was protecting his shit.
“Coming from an Indian tribe, from a reservation, and from jail,” Jana the Lakota had said to me. “That makes you part of three honor cultures.”
“What’s an honor culture?” I’d asked.
“It means you are culturally obligated to defend your reputation,” she’d said. “And depending on your circumstances, it means you’ll defend it by any means necessary.”
So I guess that Eddie was responding to some warrior impulse.
Or maybe he was just a vindictive prick.
My only option was surrender. But I wasn’t going to admit to a learning disability. I needed to protect my honor in some small way. So I had to choose my words carefully. I needed to tell the truth without telling the truth.
“I can’t do the route,” I said to Wes. “But I still want my job.”
“The job is still yours,” he said. “But I have to admit I’m disappointed. I had hopes for you.”
Me too, I thought, but did not say.
My mother died of cancer while I was in prison. She told me she was terminal during her last visit to me. My father never came to visit me once. If you think Indians are more loyal to one another because we’re Indians, then you’re an idiot. During my last week in prison, my dad told me on the phone that he wouldn’t let a thief live in his house. So I couldn’t move back to the reservation.
You ever eaten a doughnut sprinkled with shame? They taste even worse than you could imagine.
I kept working at Superstar. But I felt only a little better about my work than when I was washing dishes in the prison kitchen.
I felt like my whole life was minimum.
Then, three weeks after Eddie had screwed me, as I was scrubbing the doughnut conveyor, I had an epiphany. Maybe the first epiphany of my life. And certainly the most important one I might ever have.
I realized that I could clean the conveyor much faster and more thoroughly if Superstar bought a garden hose spray gun and a forty-gallon wet-dry shop vacuum. I’d be able to water-scour all the nooks and crannies and suck up all the dirty water in minutes instead of hours.
And then I realized that if I mentioned my epiphany to Wes Walden, I would lose my job. At least, my full-time job would become a part-time job. I would be as equally important to Superstar Doughnuts as a new vacuum would be.
And then I felt sure that Wes must have, at some point in the past, also realized that a forty-gallon shop vac would be revolutionary. That’s a big word to use for a machine that would maybe cost a hundred bucks. But I think it was the right word. That vacuum would be as magical as a time machine.
But I kept thinking that Wes had to have considered buying a shop vac. He wasn’t stupid. He must have known that a vacuum would save him time and money. So then I wondered if Wes preferred to do things the old and slow way. Or maybe he liked people—even ex-cons—more than he liked machines. So, yeah, maybe Wes liked me. He cheated me out of money and believed that I couldn’t handle a twelve-stop delivery route, but he still employed me and paid me enough money to keep my small life going.
That sounds contradictory, I know, but I knew a prison guard who snuck extra peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the elderly prisoners, even as he bullied every other inmate who even looked at him.
Humans are filled with more contradictions than bones.
So that day, after I finished cleaning the conveyor, I logged onto the company computer, searched for the best image of a forty-gallon shop vac, and printed it on regular paper. It was a blurry picture but it would work. I taped that image of the vacuum onto the conveyor belt. And I also wrote a note on it: “Dear Mr. Walden, this doughnut machine is clean. But it could be cleaner.”
Then I rode the bus home, slept for sixteen hours, woke, and bussed over to the Indian Center.
“Jana,” I said to that Lakota half-saint. “I need a new job.”
She knew all the stories that had ever been told. So she didn’t ask me what had happened with the old job. She smiled, leaned toward me, and said, “All right, then, it’s a new search.”
I leaned toward her, smiled, and said, “Let’s begin.”