Here we are again, at Burger King, with the mild remnants of the morning’s hangover lingering in your gut. It isn’t the deluxe Burger King in your town, the one with the indoor playground and the ball pit that gave you the flu twice. It’s the one on the coast, on the way back home, where you stop sometimes before embarking into the stifling solitude of seven hours on the road. A Whopper Jr and fries works wonders on the melancholy, at least for a little while.
Look around and you’ll see the usual crowd is in attendance, the special Sunday afternoon mix you’ve grown accustomed to. Young people in their swim trunks, fresh off the beach, hair still wet and sculpted by the crashing waves. An old man, slack-jawed, turned as far as his back will allow to watch the shock of white hair that is his wife attempt to order a small coffee from between the shoulder blades of two mustachioed truckers. A man with a distended stomach the size of a beached whale leaning awkwardly at the ketchup stand, unsure of what to order, or perhaps having already ordered and now simply waiting for digestion to run its course so he can order again. A young woman, just off the highway, still looking a bit frazzled, stepping out of the women’s bathroom with a look on her face that can only be described as the look of a woman who has just discovered the Burger King bathroom is out of toilet paper.
We’ll find the real circus, as usual, behind the counter. The burger jockeys are new every time, the high turnover rate resulting from a combination of dull working conditions and the crippling dysentary one gets from working daily with sub-standard meat. Nonetheless, let’s append names to the poor souls struggling to make minimum wage with only a handful of brain cells to pool together. It is only the way to make them human, acknowledge their existence, believe, if only for a moment, that these employees are essential members of the workforce and could not easily (and profitably) be replaced with a robotic assembly line.
Steve is taking orders. He’s the new guy, easily identifiable by his well-groomed, tucked-in look, and the fact that he couldn’t pass for 16 if he grew a full beard. “Spicy chicken sandwich and a value fry,” you announce, the vague rumble in your gut a reminder that you ought not overdo it on such tentative gastric footing. “To go,” you add quickly.
Too quickly, perhaps, for Steve is handing you a receipt and smiling the wan smile of one who was never trained to smile and has learned only just recently that this is an important aspect of good customer service. The obese man behind you shuffles forward and you move on down the pathway to where a handful of other customers clutch receipts, waiting anxiously for their meal.
You’ll notice that things haven’t been running smoothly at this Burger King. The well-oiled machine that is franchise fast food has lost a nut, a bolt, or perhaps even a significant gear, and now the black oil is spreading across the floor in a vast, viscous plain that obscures the low-lying condiment bins. A man who looks like Vernon Dursley minus about 400 pounds stumbles out from behind the fryers. He eyes the screen listing orders and then peers out into the group of receipt-clutching customers, squinting as if they are much farther than three feet away.
“Cathy?” Vernon asks, then asks again, louder. There are no women nearby. He looks at each of the three receipt-clutching customers, his eyes so bead-like that they might be false and in danger of popping from his skull if he squints any longer. “Is Cathy here? For a small coffee?” He holds the coffee like a trophy, above his head, proud that he’s poured hot liquid into a cup today.
Needless to say, Cathy does not take the coffee. Vernon sets it carefully on the counter, then strides over to Steve. “Have you taken their orders?” he asks, pointing at the receipt-clutching customers as if we are all simply here to take in the healthy benefits of grease-soaked air.
Steve nods. He doesn’t say much. He hasn’t been trained to speak yet.
Vernon rumbles back towards us and asks, “Are you waiting for food?” still impressively oblivious to the receipts in our hands and the starving anguish writ large across our hollowed cheekbones.
A shrieking noise from the back precedes the arrival of the cavalry in the form of another manager, Donald. The shriek is not a battle cry, but merely his normal speaking voice, the chords possibly withered from years of hammering nails into his neck. “Are all these people waiting?!” he asks incredulously. Beads of sweat dot his forehead, not from the heat of the grills, but from a moment some twenty years earlier when he had an orgasm near a woman and the sweat of that limited interaction permanently stained his visage.
One of the receipt-clutchers steps forward, as if from a trance, and hands Donald his receipt. Giving up this treasured object, the man seems somehow diminished. It’s as if he expected to clutch the receipt for the rest of his life, until he fades to dust and the Burger King crumbles around him and the kingdom of God descends unto Earth so as to remake it within His Second Coming.
“Tom!” Donald cries, his gonads seemingly strangled by a taut bit of twine. “Oh yeah, I’ve got you on the monitor here.” He reaches up to tap the screen, where no less than twenty orders are continually scrolling. “Yeah, we’ll get your food for you right away. I know you’re hungry.”
Vernon has begun to make a vanilla ice cream cone.
“Sheryl!” Donald cries again, the twine digging in. “Sheryl, did you tell Sandra to make more fries? We’re gonna need fries for all these hungry customers.”
Sheryl shrugs out of the back looking like she accidentally went through a load of laundry with her clothes. “No, I didn’t tell Sandra,” she slouches.
Donald chuckles, as if he and Sheryl are the only two people alive and this is just a funny game they play to keep themselves amused and forget about the fact that everyone else is dead and there really is no point to keep on living. “Sheryl, you’ve got to speak up sometimes. You’ve got to yell! Tell Sandra we need more fries.”
Sheryl turns towards Steve and sighs, as if this is somehow Steve’s fault. Perhaps it is, he’s the new guy after all. “Sandra,” Sheryl states in a tone that couldn’t command garden snails. “Someone needs to make more fries.”
“Noo,” Donald says with an impish grin, “tell Sandra that she needs to make more fries. It’s her job.”
“Don says you gotta make some fries,” Sheryl says limply. She has visibly withered throughout the exchange, the simple act of asking for something other than a hit off the bong a truly strenuous act.
Sandra’s face appears through the fry station. She also carries the look of a woman who has discovered the Burger King bathroom is out of toilet paper. “Two minutes on the fries, Don.”
Donald turns to us with a grin that bears a striking resemblance to Jabba the Hutt sucking down something fleshy. “You hear that folks? Just two minutes. We’ll have your meals shortly. I know you’re hungry.”
We are placated, if only for the moment. Donald’s shirt has come untucked, or maybe was never tucked in, or it’s possible he has nothing down there to tuck a shirt into to. He rubs a hand across his hair, polishing down the smooth, shiny mass of a man who both wears a hat and sweats profusely from his scalp.
Vernon is now making a chocolate milkshake.
Donald eyes the screen, reading through the orders perhaps for the first time in his life. “Oh heck, we’ve got an Angus Grilled Steak Deluxe coming down the line, Sheryl I need you back there making it, sweetie.”
Sheryl looks like she would rather throw up into her own butt.
Abruptly, Vernon is back at the counter. He holds the small coffee once more. “Cathy?” he asks, plaintively now. Maybe she’s his dead wife, you realize. Maybe he does this every day.
“Is Cathy still here?”
Donald is attempting to manage the handful of burgers that suddenly slid down the pipe. Someone is working back there, manning the grill and condiment station like it’s his job or something. Donald picks up two burgers with one hand, a look of wild joy spreading across his flacid features. He shakes the burgers at us before plopping them in a bag. “Here we go, getting you guys some food! I know you’re hungry.” It’s becoming clear that Donald only knows one thing.
“How long until those fries are ready, Sandra, honey?” Donald calls into the back.
“Two minutes, Don,” a distant voice responds. Sandra might be on a smoke break out back, or maybe in her car, pawing at the cover of 50 Shades of Grey in an attempt to open the book.
“Oh good, just two minutes. We’ll get you guys food soon! I know you’re hungry.” Donald nods like his neck is on a spring. A dribble of something has appeared at his lips, saliva, frothed milk, or some mucous film that’s holding in his true alien form. His eyes are wild now, a wolf on the prowl. He crumples the bag in his hand, even though it contains two burgers, and slides it onto the counter.
The man without the receipt reaches for it slowly. Is it his? Did he order two small burgers in a crumpled bag? His arm shakes from hunger or old age. A vein appears through the thin skin of his wrist, all twisted and blue like a broken clothes hanger.
Donald suddenly leans forward and grabs the crumpled bag. “Oh, sorry, this guy wasn’t finished yet. We’ll get you your food soon.” He doesn’t say it, but it’s quite possible he knows we are hungry.
“Cathy?” Vernon asks again. “We have your small coffee.”