Writing Challenge week 3
“Christmas Eve, 1989”
Working the night shift at a fast food joint was a drag. Working any shift at a fast food joint was a drag.
Outside it was snowing and quiet, and nobody had stepped in the store for almost an hour. The suburbs were closed, Christmas was tomorrow and most folks were with their families at home. Sam didn’t really care that he was working, but he was bored and the manager tonight was Isabelle, who tolerated no horseshit. Meaning he and Mike would be having no gunfights in the kitchen with the condiment guns, he’d be stuck at the hot grills and Mike would be tied to the drive- thru and register, both pretending to be busy which was a job in itself.
There weren’t even any girls working, other than Isabelle, and she frightened Sam too much for him to even fantasize about. In his sixteen year old mind she was probably in her late thirties but in reality she was twenty-six and already disappointed with most things.
He leaned against the grill and stared at it, going into his mind and trying to picture all the girls he liked. There were too many, at least one in each class. Well, not gym but every other one. It made the misery of school tolerable. There were three or four in his social studies class he’d sure like to get to know. He knew he wouldn’t, so he went further into his mind where he would have a chance. The vision of himself on a couch with Jenn Mindota blurred into his mind’s eye, then quickly shimmered and evaporated.
Shit, he couldn’t even score in a daydream.
He poured some water on the grill, watched it sizzle and boil, then scraped it. He enjoyed seeing the grill get clean with each stroke of the scraper. Like cleaning a windshield, which he also enjoyed, he pushed the brown sizzle-juice to the back of the grill and then with one sideways scrape sent it into the grease trap on the side. He took off his hat and wiped his brow with a forearm, smearing the greasy sweat.
Mike came out of the drive-thru bay, his headset on, and casually kicked the meat patty refrigerator. He had black, curly hair and a brooding disposition.
“Fuck, I’m bored. I usually hate customers but I’d fuckin’ bone one right now, just outta’ gratitude for comin’ in. Break this bullshit up.”
“What if it was a dude?” Sam asked, leaning on the prep table. “Would you still bone him?”
“Who gives a fuck.” Mike motioned riding someone, giving a little fishtail slap while he undulated.
Sam figured that Mike had probably boned before, unlike his own loser-ass. Mike smoked cigs and talked about weed a lot, and according to Sam’s calculations that usually opened the door to some boning. He quickly imagined a woman blowing weed-smoke in his own face, but he never smoked weed so… rather quickly she morphed into blowing a white cloud into dark air… then she was naked, then she had a red dress on and was leaning toward him and he could almost see her nipples and she had dark red lipstick on and--
“Fuck, I want a smoke.” Mike walked toward the manager’s office, a small cubicle with a computer and tons of papers taped to the wall. Isabelle was in there, looking through page after page of readouts and writing on clipboards.
“Isabelle, can I take a break?” Mike leaned into the doorframe.
Isabelle looked up from her clipboard, her round face sending no vibe other than irritation through the heavy makeup. One of her penciled-in eyebrows lifted.
“Didn’t you have your break before Juan left? Like and hour ago?”
“Yeah, but I want another one. It’s so fucking boring out there, let me just go have a smoke.”
Isabelle shook her head and set her clipboard on the small, cluttered desk.
“What do you smoke?”
“Bum me one and I’ll go with you.”
Mike shrugged, nodded and walked back to the kitchen, peering through the food window at the empty counter on the other side.
“We’re gonna’ go have a smoke.” He said to Sam and thrust his hands in his jacket pockets. Isabelle appeared beside him in a massive down jacket, her thin legs sticking out the bottom. She was a little thick in the middle and the jacket made her look almost cartoonish to Sam, like a Rocky & Bullwinkle character.
“Just for a minute. You got the window, right?”
“Yeah, gimme the thing.” Mike handed Sam the headset and Sam put it on, walked over to the drive-thru.
He could see them smoking and talking outside of the restaurant, clutching themselves against the cold. What were they talking about? Were they having an affair? Was Mike banging Isabelle? Suddenly he was jealous of Mike for all the banging he figured he was doing.
Sam looked down at his apron, covered in mustard and ketchup from leaning into burger buns while prepping. He always smelled like a sour burger. Jenn would have nothing to do with him. Would Isabella? She was a woman though… and Mike was probably already sleeping with her. Look, they’re laughing about something. Why couldn’t he make girls laugh like that? Why was he always freezing up, or saying something nerdy or… awkward? Always so awkward.
Man oh man, Jenn. Soooo beautiful. He thought of her face and a small warmth came over him. Was it bad that she was dating Mark, a rugged jock with chiseled broody looks and a Grand Am? Sam knew it was a Grand Am because Jenn had confided in him during Social Studies that she’d found out he and his “pussy posse” referred to it as the “Grand Scam” because of all the scammin’ they were doing in it during the weekends. Sam really thought he’d had a chance at that moment. But she stayed with Mark and continued to complain about him to Sam and Sam sat there and listened. He looked forward to it, like one day she was going to suddenly look into his weird face and be all “I’ve been so blind, it’s been you all along”.
Suddenly his mood became bitter and reflective. They probably spent Christmas together, going with each other to their respective families. He pictured Mark in an expensive flannel, probably J Crew or some shit, her in a fuzzy and clean and soft Christmas-type sweater and both of them smiling with perfect teeth surrounded by the soft focus glow of red and green lights and in the just out-of-focus background were their perfect parents, all sets of them smiling happily and their houses were always very big and clean with the safety and comfort of money and privilege and Sam thought of his own house and the frightening things that often happened in it and the splintered & confusing holidays spent frantically and terrifyingly going from one place to the other and the divorce and the step-dad who was as unpredictable and moody as real dad and his own hopeless ugly face and crooked teeth and thick greasy glasses and the zits and-
Mike and Isabelle came back in and smelled like smoke. Sam handed the headset back to Mike and sauntered back to the kitchen, grabbed the broom and cleaned up a bit.
* * *
“Rush or Yes.”
Sam thought for about a millisecond. “Rush, dude, no contest.”
Mike stepped back as though struck. “You realize that every fuckin’ member of Yes is classically trained? They are virtuosos? All of them?”
“And they sound like it, too.” Sam mimicked a somber musician weepingly picking at a classical guitar. His fingers flicked in the air like spiders while his eyebrows knitted themselves into an expression of pure, painful playing. He stopped and nodded. “One word for you. Peart.”
“Fuck him, fuck that, Yes forever. Heart Of The Sunrise, motherfucker.” Mike was smiling.
“Never heard it. Gimme A Farewell To Kings anyday.”
Sam started singing “Xanadu” and Mike shook his hands at him, stepping back. “No. Stop. Stop it. I don’t want to hear about the honeydews of Shangri-La or any of that shit.”
“Both of you nerds shut up in there, I’m on a call.”
Mike shushed Sam and they both leaned. Sam looked at his greasy tennis shoes, they were white but every crease and stitch was stained dark brown. He blurred his eyes until the shoes were out of focus, the stained lines barely visible.
“You got plans for tomorrow?” He asked Mike, but wasn’t sure why. He didn’t really care if Mike had plans.
Mike stared at the grill but also stared through it.
“No, not really. It’s just me and my mom, and she’s probably working. I’ll probably just sit around the apartment and play Nintendo.”
And like that it hit Sam, that Mike was one of his people. That brief statement crushed the cool-guy status he’d assigned him and he immediately saw that Mike was from his side of the tracks. The side where parents were frightening and unreliable, or at the very least disappointing in a universal way – they weren’t wealthy. The school they went to had two types of kids, rich and poor, and ultimately every student fell on one side or the other and it was always Mike’s cavalier attitude that distracted Sam from the fact that he was, in fact, from his side. The side that was always laced with uncertainty or the queasy notion that things weren’t going to work out like they did in the movies, the knowledge that life wasn’t perfect and you had to get used to things rather than rise above them, that small things were to be held on to – the pleasures of music, of movies, of books, because the things you’d been taught that were measures of success and the height of enjoyment were things far beyond your grasp. Guess Jeans, designer clothes in general. Vacations. Hair gel. Clean skin. Fancy cars. Big spacious homes. He pictured Mike’s mother’s small apartment, comfy but dark and cramped, and suddenly it was very easy to picture Mike in his boxers sitting on the floor with a bowl of cereal waiting to be eaten on a very crowded coffee table. He thought of his own ranch home, he thought of his mother and stepdad’s first apartment and the scattering roaches that forbade him ever having friends over.
“Your folks divorced too?” He asked, relaxed now.
“No, my dad’s in prison.” Mike responded, matter-of-factly.
Of course Sam wondered why he was in prison, but knew better than to ask.
“Fucked up a bunch of cops.” Mike offered.
“Yeah. They pulled him over for a DUI and he…” Mike’s face changed, lit up a little and he stood straight, extending his arms and looking at his balled fists. “He just gets outta the car and is like, ‘come on, fuckers’. He’s a big dude. Like fuckin’ big. Took six fuckin’ cops to take him down.”
“Yeah, he’s a fuckin’ badass.”
Sam nodded and they were quiet.
“What about you?” Mike asked.
“Ah, I got about four different places I gotta go. You know, fuckin’ divorce.”
“Dude, that’s sweet though, you get four times the presents.”
“Yeah.” Sam smiled with his crooked teeth but not with his eyes. It was not as good as it sounded but he couldn’t explain that to anyone.
With that the conversation ended but neither felt the need to fill the dead space with bullshit. They were thinking about their own situations.
And as was usually the case with Sam, his thoughts eventually led to movies he’d seen.
“Dude, you see Evil Dead 2?”
“Naw, I don’t really like movies.”
Sam nodded and picked up the scraper to give the grill another go but Isabelle appeared at that moment, tired and irritated.
“Alright, it’s dead as shit. Start clean-up, I want to get out of here.”
* * *
The worst part of the clean-up was the grease bucket. Sam had to slide the filled grease trap from the side of the grill, and it was burning hot and very heavy and awkwardly wide and flat, like a sideways table top. He then poured the steaming grease into a five gallon steel bucket without splashing on the tiled floor because it was a nightmare to mop, then carry the bucket out back which was a two-man job.
He looked at the bubbling brown mess in the bucket.
“Hey Mike, you wanna help me take this bucket out back?”
Mike was usually kitchen so he knew the drill and he was done counting his drawer out. “Yeah, I could use a fuckin’ smoke.”
He got his jacket on, Sam didn’t bother, he was too warm from the grill.
“Isabelle, we’re taking this bucket of shit out back.” Mike called toward the office. There was no response.
“Hey, Isabelle, we’re taking the grease out!”
“Fine!” Her irritated voice.
Mike smiled at Sam and put a smoke in his lips, and they lifted the heavy, steaming bucket together. It was slow, shuffling going. They set it down with a clang while Sam opened the back door and the freezing air whooshed in, then set it down again once outside so Mike could light his smoke.
They lifted it once more and the outside was crisp and very cold. Mike grunted and inhaled from his cigarette, the cherry glowing hot red as they shuffled along. Inside the bucket the thick grease sloshed and steamed. Mike exhaled through the side of his mouth and started laughing.
“What?” Sam said, freezing and trying to keep his footing on the icy parking lot as they made their way toward the dumpster on the far side. The synchronization of their shuffling steps was critical to keeping the grease inside the bucket.
“This! This fucking sucks!” Mike said, laughing. Sam was concerned that Mike was going to lose his handle on the bucket. He suddenly slipped on the ice but regained himself quickly.
“Yup.” Sam responded. They were almost there.
“I mean, seriously, fuck this. I hate this job.” Shuffle, breathe, shuffle, grunt.
They made it to the dumpster and set the steaming bucket down. Sam opened the lock and swung the wide door out, expecting, as usual, some sort of creature to leap out of the darkness but as usual nothing did. In the blackest corner was the oil drum they were to dump the bucket into. He walked over to it and looked inside. Just a frozen, light brown mass inside there, and Sam looked forward to dumping the hot grease on top and the strange chemistry of it mixing, watching it coagulate and sink into the frozen part.
“Let’s get this over with,” He said, grabbing his handle on the bucket.
“Lemme finish this smoke.” Mike said, leaning on the inside of the door.
“I’m freezing out here, you got a jacket on!” Sam was beginning to get irritated.
“Fine, pull your panties outta your crack.” Mike took his side of the bucket.
They had both done this many times and had the timing down. The procedure: Lift with one arm, get your other hand under, place it flat against the very hot bottom of the bucket, and gently… gently guide it to the barrel, and evenly pour the grease in, a slow, steady stream.
They both had good grips and were guiding it toward the barrel when Mike stepped on an ice patch and “oh shit” and gravity took the bucket and them both almost instantaneously. Before Sam knew what was going on he felt the concrete hit his back and a moment later the hot grease was pouring against him, beneath him. He panicked and rolled away, already too late.
He stood up, soaked with grease but unscathed. The grease had cooled down enough that it wasn’t burning him. Mike was in the dark, laughing.
“Shit. You okay?” Sam asked.
Mike was rising, his smoke was gone and steam wafted from him. The steel bucket was on its side and Sam stepped away from the spreading grease.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” Mike responded, and shook grease from his arms. “Fuck!”
Sam was trying to figure out how he was going to make the walk home without ruining his only jacket and was he going to be able to get the grease out of these clothes and he couldn’t afford to get a whole new set of work clothes and if he ruined his jacket he’d get an ass whooping and goddam it Mike!
“You know what? I’m fuckin’ done.” Mike said, and walked back toward the store. Stan picked up the bucket and dumped what was left in the barrel. When he got back in Mike was already gone and Isabelle had a new shirt for him.
“Here, change into this.”
“Are you gonna charge me for it?”
She gave him an odd look. “No.”
He thanked her and when he came out of the bathroom, a little cleaner, she was waiting with her keys and her jacket on, everything locked up and turned off. He clocked out, put on his coat and they walked out into the cold parking lot.
“Mike left already?”
“Oh.” Sam put his hands in his pockets and Isabelle looked at him, almost like she’d never seen him until this moment.
“It’s pretty cold out, are you walking home?”
“Yeah, it’s only a mile or so.” It was longer, but he was uncomfortable with her concern.
“Do you want a ride?”
“No, it’s okay, thanks. My pants are all greasy.”
She waited half a second for him to change his mind, then shrugged. “Okay, see you next time.”
They went their ways and he stopped, turned around.
“Mike say why he left?”
She stopped, shook her head tiredly. “Said he couldn’t take it.”
Sam smiled, he thought that was funny. “Really?”
Isabelle didn’t smile, she just nodded slowly. “Some real go-getters workin’ here.”
“Okay, see you next time.”
She acknowledged him and walked to her car and Sam walked home.