Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Behind the Counter at the Burger Shack


[This is now (since I have changed the order of the stories and will be rewriting one of them) the fourth piece of my ten-story cycle, a series connected more or less tenuously, depending on the story, by the Rocket’s Burger Shack setting. If you missed the first story, you can read it here, the second here, and the third here. These are interrelated stories rather than a novel, but the last story brings them all together.]

      “Welcome to Piggy’s. May I take your order?”

      One day those words would slip out of her mouth, and on that day she would lose her job, and it would be all Rhonda’s fault. If she were lucky, it wouldn’t happen before she had her associate’s degree, and if she were very lucky that associate’s degree would get her into a good college, so that from there she could go on to graduate school and, finally, a job in social work. Becky wanted to help people in a meaningful way. She wanted to make the world a better place. Hawking burgers was a temporary necessity, paying (barely) her share of rent and groceries. Rhonda, the difficult roommate, always poking fun at Becky’s job and calling Rocket’s Burger Shack “Piggy’s" found humor in Becky’s career aspirations, too.

Becky didn’t hate her job. She saw it as yet another opportunity to learn about people, all this learning a preparation for the real work she would have someday. So okay, fast food wasn’t her career, but it still mattered, didn’t it? Becky believed she could make a difference in people’s days, especially when she worked the early morning shift. She smiled at everyone, bantered with the men who wanted to flirt (as many of them did, because she was young and cute and knew it), kept her cool when dealing with teenagers, and calmed harassed parents and noisy children by not rushing them through the line. She saw and pitied the chronic overeaters, who acted like they wanted their bodies to be invisible, and she took note of men and women who never ordered anything but coffee and then sat for two hours over the newspaper, circling want ads and then turning to the crossword puzzle to kill time. She observed parents who ordered meals for their kids but not for themselves, and she thought about the sacrifices her own parents had made for her. There were all kinds.

Yes, she saw all kinds at Rocket’s. Loud adolescents whose bodies and voices took up three times the space of even the fattest customer, these lanky young ones pushing each other in loud groups, ordering fries (“Large”) and soft drinks (“Large”) on their way to school. When they made their noisy exit the whole building seemed to heave a collective sigh. A few business people, mostly realtors or salesmen, used Rocket’s for morning or noon meetings, and Becky wondered why. Did they not have offices of their own? Maybe they just preferred Rocket’s atmosphere. Bland and anonymous from coast to coast, it seemed an unlikely to do business but maybe it worked well for just that reason.

At two o’clock Becky either rushed to the restroom to change clothes before driving to the community college across town or, on days when she had evening classes, returning to the apartment to study for the remainder of the afternoon.

The hours weren’t bad. She didn’t mind the work or the customers. The worst thing about her job was the uniform, a silver 1950’s retro design with high shoulder wings and short flared skirt. Becky filled it out nicely but still hated the horrid little minidress. Wings and flares! She could have designed a better look in her sleep!

      “But it’s not just a ‘stupid job,’” she argued with Rhonda. Rhonda had lasted only four days in her most recent job before she walked off in disgust. “You seem to like the food I buy with my paycheck okay!” Becky hated to hear her voice slip into sarcasm, but Rhonda’s expression never changed. “Besides,” Becky went on hurriedly to get past her conscience, “the people who come into Rocket’s, or people like them, they’ll be my clients someday.” She regretted that sentence even more, regretted it while the words were still issuing from her mouth. She wouldn’t have said it if she hadn’t believed it, but she regretted having offered her cherished dream to Rhonda, who never let any serious observation pass by without subjecting it to ridicule.

      Now, since that slip, on Mondays and Wednesdays, Becky could count on a sarcastic greeting as soon as she walked in the apartment door. “Did you leave Piggy World a better place today? Save anyone from suicide? Oh, by the way, the pope called while you were out. You need to call back. Something about sainthood, I think. Or maybe it was only beatification—I can’t remember.” Rhonda didn’t smile and her tone was dry and ironic, as always.

      Becky blushed furiously but held her tongue. How would you ever know if you’d given someone a reason to go on living? What would it take? Maybe just one kind word! Rhonda accused Becky of being sentimental and naive, but what did Rhonda ever do but sit around on her butt and make fun of everyone and everything? She certainly wasn’t making the world better! She didn’t even make life in the apartment better, and how hard would it be for her run the vacuum cleaner once in a while or do a few dishes or clean the refrigerator or the bathtub or just pick up her own dirty clothes and empty potato chip bags?

      In her classes, Becky felt alive and motivated. She couldn’t learn fast enough and couldn’t wait to put her learning into practice, which was why liked to imagine, secretly, the Rocket’s customers as social work clients in need of her understanding. It kept her from being bored by the work or irritated by some of the people she had to wait on. In that way, work was almost as good as classes. Only at home, in the apartment, the one place she should have been able to relax before another day of work and school, were her nerves were scraped raw by chaos and ridicule. The place was completely out of control, sink and stove full of dishes (Rhonda’s), bathroom floor and bathtub edge draped with wet towels and discarded underwear (Rhonda’s), and Rhonda was almost always there, hanging around doing nothing, television blaring. If only she would say nothing, too, it might be bearable, but no, she was always ready to slip her verbal knife into an opening, and she would make an opening if need be. There, she was never at a loss. 

“It’s my talent,” she replied nonchalantly when Becky asked her once why she had to be so nasty all the time. “Don’t you see how stupid and pointless life is? Well, I do, and I say what I see.” She stared at Becky fixedly, like a border collie staring at a sheep to hold it in place but with an expression of purely human contempt.
Rhonda’s smart mouth a “talent”! Becky started paying attention to the movies and TV programs Rhonda liked, and sure enough, her favorite shows were satire (so-called!) that held nothing sacred. The more outrageous the script or ad-libbed patter, the higher Rhonda rated the show. She liked movies with nonstop action and plenty of violence, refusing to recognize any of it as gratuitous. Only “sincerity” put her off. That was where she drew the line.

“Please! All that crap about pretending we’re not animals. We’re animals! Jeez, gimme a break!” Her brown, almond-shaped eyes smoldered darkly. She was a beautiful girl, really, long-limbed and naturally graceful. Draped the length of the sofa, for example, her eyes on the TV screen, her body fell into unconsciously artistic poses. But there was something frightening about her, too, an alertness that never slept but was always coiled and ready to strike.

What could it mean to be talented in cruelty, at taking advantage of others? And why would someone be intentionally mean, anyway?

“Don’t confuse motivation with intent,” counseled Martha, absent-mindedly pulling her hair back into a rubber band to get it out of her face. Pre-law and the plainest of the three roommates, Martha was oblivious to appearance and lived only to study but could be tempted away from her books if a topic connected to her field of interest. “Intent means you did something on purpose, not accidentally. Motivation is why you did it.”

Becky took a moment to consider the distinction, hoping she could wring useful information out of Martha if she kept her talking. “Like, someone can do something bad on purpose for good reasons? Like killing someone in self-defense?”

“It’s an extenuating circumstance, yes. It puts the killing in a different light. But say you—you, Becky—take money out of the cash register at Rocket’s. Say you don’t have any money with you and you need to buy milk before you go home because there’s none left. You tell yourself you’ll pay the money back tomorrow. But you’re careful to make sure no one sees you slip the money out of the drawer and into your pocket.”

“So my intent was to get money to buy milk--.”

“Your intent was to take money that wasn’t yours and not get caught taking it. Buying milk was your motivation. But who cares about your motivation? Even if you were motivated to steal because you had to buy medicine, it would still be stealing!”

Martha’s tone was so triumphant that Becky wouldn’t have been surprised if she had added, “I rest my case!” Martha could be a riot sometimes without ever intending to be funny, probably without even realizing that others were amused by her emphatic pronouncements.

“So it’s stealing even if I’m going to put the money back in the drawer the next day? I don’t get it. Why isn’t it borrowing?”

“Think about it. What if you forget the next day? Or what if you remember but you still don’t have the money? You only took a five-dollar bill, and you ask yourself how much difference that can make to Rocket’s profit margin. Several days go by, and the five dollars completely slips your mind. But it was just as much stealing when you did it as it is when you don’t pay it back day after day. It was stealing right from the start.”

“I didn’t intend to forget,” Becky objected.

“But you intended to sneak the money out of the drawer, and that’s exactly what you did. If you’d asked someone at work to loan you five dollars, that would have been borrowing.”

“What I asked about was motivation,” Becky reminded her. As usual for these late-night conversations, she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, facing Martha, who turned from her desk to lean on the back of her chair.

“Like, what motivated you to steal instead of borrowing the money you needed?”

“That was your example, and it’s totally academic. You know I would never steal! What I want to know is, if someone is always making smart-aleck remarks, cutting other people down--.”

“Oh, God, you’re talking about Rhonda again! Why didn’t you just say so? With her, who the hell knows? Maybe it’s the only way she ever learned how to get attention. Or she’s jealous of you because you’re such a cute little cheerleader type. Or maybe she likes you and thinks you’ve got potential to be as smart as she is, and she wants to sharpen you up!” Martha laughed at her own joke, a sharp little puppy bark. “Because you know she thinks she’s pretty smart! But do you really care why she does it, or do you just want her to stop? How about you just stop letting it get to you? Analyze the problem, Becky, and figure out what you want. I need to study for a test tomorrow. Rhonda! Jeez!”

Martha turned back to her desk and hunched over her notebook, and Becky flopped backward on her bed, stretching and flexing her toes and ignoring the open textbook on her pillow. She could practically see, on the ceiling over her head, an outline with three branches representing the possibilities Martha had laid out. Okay, she had a pretty good imagination. Where would the possibilities lead?

She imagined first figuring out the why but not knowing how to stop the comments and still hating Rhonda. Sure, she might feel differently if she understood Rhonda’s motivation, but what if she didn’t? Or say she got Rhonda to shut up but never figured out why the strange girl had been so mean in the first place--or why she stopped! That would be better, but Becky liked to understand why people did things. Anyway, how was she supposed to hit on a strategy to make Rhonda stop without understanding Rhonda’s motivation in the first place? Trial and error could take forever!

If she didn’t let Rhonda’s jibes get to her, would Rhonda stop or go on being Rhonda? Probably stay the same, but it wouldn’t matter, and that was the beauty of the third branch. It was the old “The only person you can change is yourself” advice. Good advice! But how was Becky supposed to just stop being bothered? Easier said than done! I’m the way I am just like Rhonda’s the way she is, she thought resentfully. Why should I be the one who has to change?

“I analyzed, and I’m still stuck,” she told Martha the next day.

Martha sighed. “Becky, you’ve got three choices. Change your attitude, try to change the dynamic, or do nothing. It isn’t rocket science.” She paused and smiled. “It isn’t even burger science,” she added slyly.

“I hate the way things are now!”

“Do you? Maybe you don’t hate it as much as you think you do. Maybe you like everything to be Rhonda’s fault. Is that possible?”

Becky’s stare registered shocked disbelief. This was the roommate she’d trusted! This was crazy, Martha turning on her like this! An image from an old TV cartoon flashed into Becky’s head. She and Martha were the ones pulling a heavily loaded haywagon while Rhonda lounged on the bales of hay, riding along at her ease, laughing and playing the ukulele! Didn’t Martha see this, too? Jeez! This was hurt from an unexpected direction! “Burger science”? What was that supposed to mean?

The next morning at Rocket’s, taking an order from the fat man who always ordered the Super Galactica breakfast, Becky suddenly wondered how the fat man saw her. Did he see her as friendly or condescending? Did she look like a complete phony to him? Sound like an empty-headed ditz? As she took the twenty he handed her and reached to make change from the register, she glanced at the stack of five’s and remembered Martha’s silly example. The face of Honest Abe on the top bill of the stack leered up at her suggestively. Damn! Damn Rhonda and Martha both!

I’m a good person! She wanted to shout at the fat man, Can’t you see I’m a good person? I just want the world to be simple and good! She smiled desperately into the shiny red face, choking back a lump in her throat and watching with fascination the beads of perspiration that ran down his fleshy creases. He met her gaze timidly, while she maintained eye contact and a smile, ignoring the mocking faces of the bills in the drawer, faces she could still see clearly in her mind though the drawer was closed.

“Enjoy your breakfast!” she said to the fat man, as kindly as she could, but at the same time she couldn’t help seeing that he didn’t look any happier now than he had coming in the door.


Laurie said...

I love me some Becky! Very compelling characters, ma'am, and I like the way you've woven a discussion of philosophy into the dialog. It's delicious reading your stories, and looking forward to the next and the next and the next.

P. J. Grath said...

This story still seems weak to me. Lacks punch. Needs work. But there it is, and the next one will come soon. Thanks for reading, Laurie!

Helen said...

Becky seems to be struggling with how to make her life meaningful -- and her roommates seem to exacerbate her struggle. At the end of this story, it's brought home to her that she's made little if any difference to the man she was serving and trying to please.

Becky has a good heart and a basically positive outlook, but she is nevertheless, a bit lost. I'm curious to see what she'll do next...

P. J. Grath said...

Do you think Becky is at a crossroads? If she is, does she know it yet? Can she expect guidance from her roommates? She doesn't seem to be giving them any. Three young women, so different, they are like planets temporarily in alignment, each in a separate orbit. Or am I getting carried away by the "rockets" theme?