Doris and the Bubblin’ Mop Water
by Joseph Johnston

Dinner shift at the college dining hall. Cafeteria trays rocketed down a conveyor belt and my task was to pull the sporks off and toss them into buckets of dishwater at my feet. Then Clarence, Potter, and Bubs scraped the remnants of the trays into a hungry hippo garbage disposal. Ruth nearing retirement placed the empty trays onto a different conveyor belt and everything disappeared into a stainless steel tunnel named Hobart.

First day on the job and once I figured out the protocol I made a game out of trying to guess what animal the entrée came from. Some of the detritus looked like chicken; others something gamy and sinister.

After dishes, I shadowed Doris the custodian. Now you gotta have this water hot or it won’t clean anything she said as she ran hot water into my mop bucket. Then she poured disinfectant in and affixed a mop wringer to the gunwale. We walked over to the range tops where Doris had a cauldron of water boiling. I like my mop water a little hotter than yours. I like it prit’near bubblin’ she said and she grabbed the cauldron and poured it into her mop bucket. She reached into it with these catcher’s mitt hands and started stirring the disinfectant around. I looked closely at the skin blistering off her bare palms. She smiled right through me and grabbed two mops.

We cleaned the cafeteria floor and I couldn’t stop obsessing about the burns on her hands until she told me that Clarence sometimes falls asleep in the breakroom and everyone enjoys giving him a tickle with a broom bristle because he giggles in his sleep. It was all a blur and I tried to punch out but Doris told me the time clock hadn’t worked in years.

IMAGE: “Janitor” by Aloysius Patrimonio. Prints available at


NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: When I was 16, a few friends and I got jobs washing dishes at the local college dining hall. I was saving up for a guitar. The shifts were hot and sweaty, the work was tough and fast, and the Hobart dishwasher was a beastly thing. Our minds wandered in and out of the characters employed there, and the situations we were put into. Lotta ghostly stories told. Lotta fun had, too.

AUTHOR’S PHOTO CAPTION: I don’t have a photo of myself from those days, but this is the Hobart that we were terrified of getting dragged into.


Writer and filmmaker Joseph Johnston made his first movie at the age of 11, an industrial espionage thriller that continues to play to excited crowds in his parents’ living room every Christmas. His prose, poetry, and video literature have appeared in Midwestern GothicArcadia, and Iron Horse Literary Review. He currently resides in Michigan, where is working on a documentary and book about third-shift lounges.