I’ve wasted my life. I’m fifty-years-old and cooking french fries for people who are too lazy to do it themselves. Droplets of grease weigh down my arm hair, and my skin shines with sweat. It’s a hundred degrees back here, and all day I’ve been lugging twenty-pound boxes from the freezer across the slick floor so these slobs can have their chicken strips, onion rings, and breaded fish fillets.
I yank a large bag from the mini-freezer beside the fryer, rip off a corner, and tilt it over an empty basket. Frozen fries tumble out in chunks of stuck together sticks. Crumbs escape through the mesh and crackle in the three hundred and fifty degree oil. I lift the basket from the holster and set it into the amber pool. The frost coating the fries explodes to steam with a symphony of sizzles and snaps. The surging bubbles form a mound above the fryer basket as if soon to be followed by an emerging submarine. Oil mists onto the surrounding stainless steel, some dotting my work shirt.
“You realize we’re in the middle of a lunch rush, correct?” my boss, Richard, asks. “We don’t have time for you to stand around daydreaming. Wake up and drop more cheese curds.”
Silent, I open the mini-freezer and extract a bag of curds. I don’t speak to Robert much. I don’t look at him much either if I can avoid it. Passive aggression is the only way I can safely communicate to him how much of a douchebag he is without risking an outburst like the one that got me in trouble ten years ago.
I didn’t take this kind of shit in prison. I wouldn’t have survived if I did. But I’m in the real world now, and sometimes in the real world you have to bend over and take it or they’ll find someone who will.
“How long on the grilled chicken?” the expediter hollers.
“Thirty seconds,” someone responds.
Sounds string together endlessly through the day, the slam of microwave doors, the clink and scrape of metal spatulas on the grill top, beeping timers, rustling wrappers.
Back again comes Richard’s nasally, never-quite-left-puberty voice: “I need those cheese curds now.”
“I can’t make them cook faster,” I say, still staring at the rumbling oil because if I look at him I might throw a haymaker. Eight hours a day, four days a week I listen to this shit.
“If you would have dropped them five minutes ago instead of wandering off to La La Land they’d be done by now.”
“It’s too late for that, isn’t it? I don’t think anyone is going to starve to death if they go another sixty seconds without cheese curds.”
“Cut the smart-guy act and get it done. Why don’t you have more chicken strips cooking? There’s only four left over here.”
“I’m getting to it.”
“Then hurry up and get to it!”
He speedwalks toward the counter. His arms pump when he walks. Nevermind that he treats me with such disrespect, that prissy strut alone is enough to make me want to swing a mopstick at his temple.
Thirty-two hours a week of minimum wage is not enough to rebuild a life from scratch. I used to work a full forty until my old manager quit and Richard got promoted. Now he creates the schedule, and he has been chipping away my livelihood ever since. Next week he only put me down for three days.
With so much struggle and so little to show for it, my quality of life begs questions about the purpose of living it at all. I rent a mattress on the floor of an old classmate’s unfinished basement, and his welcoming nature has been fading ever since his girlfriend started staying over more. I eat only the food I can sneak from the restaurant. When I have several days off in a row I’m forced to ration it, and it does not age well. Hamburgers harden and buns turn stale, grilled chicken becomes oddly gelatinous, onion rings grow soggy and amoebic.
Beep beep beep… Beep beep beep… The leftmost digital display flashes red zeros. I lift the basket and rack it. Oil rains from the golden, glistening fries and lands in the fryer like drizzle on a pond. I press the ‘Clear’ button to silence the timer. The display to the right is counting down from twenty. Robert’s precious cheese curds are nearly done.
I wouldn’t say I ever had it all together. I used to work construction with cash from odd jobs on the side, respectable enough but nothing to brag about. I had a son. His mother left me. I had a girlfriend. After the incident, she left me too. My son visited me once in prison. I was escorted, wearing handcuffs and a pink jumpsuit, into a room so thick with disinfectant it was hard to breathe. Not much was said. We sat across from each other at a crumbling fiberboard table in scratched folding chairs and tried to blink away our tears and stifle our quivering chins. I don’t blame him for not coming back. Visits between us would have only served as painful reminders that I was no longer the father he deserved.
He turned twenty-five last week, and wherever he is, he is old enough to know he doesn’t want me.
I lost everything and everyone because of Benny Parisi. That skinny little rat fuck shouldn’t have been even a sliver of my life, but he became the biggest piece.
I don’t care what they say, marijuana is not a drug. If it weren’t for the random drug tests mandated by my parole I’d be panhandling and robbing change from wishing wells just to buy it. And if I were high, Richard’s pathetic attempt at the biggest ego in the restaurant would make me laugh instead of pulling on the hairs of my patience. I bet alcohol does more harm in a week than marijuana has done in its entire existence. The only bad thing I’ve ever known weed to do was introduce me to Benny Parisi.
He was like the junkie’s farmer’s market. If it was in season, he had it. For a long time I resisted his sales pitches and stuck to the pot, but he was like a cracked-out used car salesman with an enthusiasm that made his invitations for test drives strangely convincing.
One evening, ten years ago, Benny offered me a sweet deal on a car he had just got on the lot, and as he talked through cracked lips and looked at me through bloodshot eyes bulging from sunken sockets, he couldn’t say enough good things about it. It was sleek, white, sexy, and fast. It was cocaine.
I should’ve known something was wrong when he offered me the price he did. I told him the ounce of weed I was buying would help me celebrate my fortieth. He convinced me to take the party to the next level, and offered me a “special birthday price” to do so.
That shit was laced with something. A half-hour after the first lines I started getting dizzy. I began to sweat at forty-five minutes and soon after had to peel off my shirt, because it looked like I had jumped into a lake. After an hour my muscles started twitching. My jaw locked. Sounds grew washy. My mouth dried of spit, and my tongue tasted like metal.
I didn’t know what to do. I needed help but couldn’t call 911 unless I wanted to wake up cuffed to a hospital bed. Benny will have answers, I thought. He fucking better, I thought. He lived on the opposite side of the trailer court. I put on a dry shirt and stumbled toward him through copper streetlamp spotlights, tripping over speed bumps, paranoid of black-veiled night-ghosts flashing in and out of my peripheral. They haunted me the whole walk though they were never there when I looked.
I scaled the wobbly steps at the back door of Benny’s trailer and knocked. No response. I knocked again. No response. I knocked again.
“Who is it?” came a muffled voice from the other side.
“Mark,” I responded, holding myself up with help from the railing.
“It’s one a.m. What do you want?”
“I need more shit,” I said, knowing to appeal to his greed, because he wouldn’t open if I told him the real reason I came.
He laughed. “You’re a fiend, bro.”
I heard the knob unlock, and the door opened my direction. He turned and led me to the living room. My hands guided me along the walls down the hallway.
“That coke’s good shit, huh?” Benny said.
“What’d you do to it?” I asked.
I reached the end of the hall. Light bled across the living room from his iguana tank.
“What’re you talkin’ about?” he asked.
“What the fuck did you do to it? There’s something wrong with that shit.”
“You’re trippin’, bro. You need to go home and sleep it off.”
“Goddammit, Benny, what did you do?” I’m not sure if it was the adrenaline or what, but something breathed clarity through the fog in my mind, and behind that fog lived rage.
“Leave, bro,” he said with a finger pointed toward the back door. “Now.”
He stood beside the couch as did his four-foot bong. I grabbed it, turned my hips, and brought it up like a golf club into the bottom of his chin. Gray, burnt-smelling water poured down the tube and along my arms, cascading down the sleeves of my shirt, soaking into the front and running down to seep into my underwear, lukewarm. Benny pancaked backward onto the coffee table with a thunk and the splintering of wood. I brought the bong over my head, the remaining resin water pissing into my hair and rolling down my face, and I swung it down like an axe. The orb on the bottom, clear glass swirled with cream to look like smoke and streaked with lime green and orange, buried itself into his abdomen. The oxygen burst from him with a whoof. The table legs snapped from the screws and the top dropped. Off rolled Benny. The strength of the bong astounded me. I brought it down on his lower back again and again, and it did not shatter. I whipped it at the iguana tank which was apparently not as hefty, because it exploded with the sound of miniature bells and shot forth glass shards glistening like icicles. His stunned iguana lay trapped, perhaps dead, underneath the bong, and though spiderwebbed with cracks it still had not broken.
I vaguely remember tripping down the stairs outside his back door and the feel of gravel on the side of my face. Despite my previous precaution not to call 911, I woke up cuffed to a hospital bed.
Due to Benny Parisi’s broken jaw, ribs, and internal bleeding, the jury considered the bong to be a deadly weapon and found me guilty of felony aggravated assault.
My body jolts sideways. Timer beeps echo back into my ears along with Richard’s voice, “What the hell are you doing? They’re burnt!”
I look over and see the redness of his face behind steamed glasses and his arm extended toward me, and I realize he just pushed me.
“Which hand do you write with?” I ask.
“Are you right-handed or left-handed?”
“Right,” Richard says. “What does that have to do with anything?”
I snatch his left forearm and clamp all ten of my fingers around it. He tries to wiggle free, but he’s not near strong enough.
“I asked,” I say, “because I don’t want to disable you too badly. I just want to teach you a lesson.”
I rip his left arm in the direction of the fryer and push it toward the oil until his hand disappears beneath the surface. It crackles and roars like popcorn and static at full volume. The grease bubbles violently as does his skin. Drops spatter the air. They fall on my arms and the backs of my hands with the tiny stings of nettles. He doesn’t scream as I expected him to, but rather his mouth bursts open in silence, and his eyelids peel back nearly as far as his thin lips. I pull his hand out and shove him. His feet wipe away from the slick tile, and his head crashes down upon it and bounces back up before he rolls over and grabs his forearm where my hands were only a moment ago, his crispy skin sagging from his bones. Finally he finds the air to scream, and he bellows with sobs and indiscernible babble.
I step over him and walk to the expediter window. I survey the food waiting to be handed to the customers. I take two bacon cheeseburgers, their warm buns squishing under my fingertips as I clutch the waxy wrappers. I pull a large cup from a stack beside the register and walk to the soda fountain where I fill it halfway with ice then to the brim with frothy brown root beer.
There’s a lot of commotion around me, people and voices and movement, but for the first time in a while I feel peace. At least in prison I had a few friends, real conversations, and a hot meal three times a day. I sit at a booth by a window while I wait for the police to arrive. The sun is beautiful today. The breeze nudges the heads of tulips to and fro. I eat a couple of burgers. I slurp my root beer through a straw.