I stood in front of today’s schedule still holding my skateboard, still drenched from the ride over, and still desperately wishing that I hadn’t dropped out of college. But wishing wouldn’t erase Sam from the counter slot and rewrite it under the grill slot. No matter what, my job kind of sucks, but on the grill it sucks less. On the grill, you don’t have to handle customers. Something about the fast food uniform makes people think it’s okay to treat you like crap. Personally, I’m always polite to anyone who handles my food. There are lots of horrible things that can be done to your meal before it gets to your plate.
Maybe I could switch? No, the schedule told me Ramon worked grill today. Nothing short of fifty bucks and a twelve-pack would have made him switch, and I didn’t have either of those. I groaned and leaned my head against the wall.
Someone walked in after me and slapped me on the shoulder. “Should’ve stayed in school,” he said.
I recognized Ramon’s voice without opening my eyes. Not surprising, since I’d known Ramon since sixth grade. I wasn’t shocked by his lack of sympathy, either.
“You didn’t drop out, and yet you’re still here,” I said, rolling my head to the side to look at him.
“What, and leave my man Sammy all alone? What kind of friend would that make me?”
“A smart one.”
He laughed and tossed his black hoodie on the coat hooks, trading the sweatshirt for an apron. I did the same, but with much less enthusiasm.
Ramon was the only person who called me Sammy. Everyone else called me Sam, even my mom, except when she was pissed and did the full-name thing.
I signed on to my register slowly, glad that nobody stood at the counter waiting to be helped. While the manager, Kevin, counted and checked my till, I stared at the pictogram of a burger nestled between similar representations of shakes, sodas, and fries on the front of my register. I wondered why humankind seemed so dead set on destroying all of its accomplishments. We draw on cave walls, spend thousands of years developing complex language systems, the printing press, computers, and what do we do with it? Create a cash register with the picture of a burger on it, just in case the cashier didn’t finish the second grade. One step forward, two steps back—like an evolutionary cha-cha. Working here just proved that the only things separating me from a monkey was pants. And no prehensile tail, which I wish I had. Oh, the applications.
My name is Samhain Corvus LaCroix, and I am a fry cook. I tried to take some pride where I could. If I was going to be a dropout loser, then I was going to be the best dropout loser. That pride came with some complications because it always depressed me to spot anyone, short of a manager, working fast food over the age of eighteen. I didn’t look in any mirrors until I got home and out of my uniform. It was better that way.
“There you go, Sam.” Kevin shut my till and wandered off. We had a bet going to try and guess what it was he did in his office. Frank was pretty sure he was into some sort of online role-playing game, Ramon thought he was planning to take over the yakuza, and Brooke was convinced that he had a crippling addiction to romance novels. These all sounded plausible, except for Ramon’s, though he insisted he had proof, but I didn’t think Kevin could be that interesting. He probably just slept. Kevin also had the misfortune of sharing his name with my biological dad, so Ramon referred to our manager as the Lesser of Two Kevins. I slapped on my name tag and settled in.
I had my mom to thank for my name. My dad took his sweet time showing up to my birth, and in an uncharacteristic moment of spite, she named me Samhain just to tick him off. Apparently my dad wanted to name me Richard or Steve or something. But Mom got there first, and since I happened to be born on the happy pagan holiday of Samhain, well, there you go. I’m just lucky I wasn’t born on Presidents’ Day. She might have named me Abraham Lincoln, and there is no way I could pull off a stovepipe hat.
To retaliate, my dad started calling me Sam, since he said Sowin—which is how Samhain is pronounced—sounded funny.
Their divorce surprised no one.
The Plumpy’s crowd was in a lull, so I watched Frank, the other counter jockey, triple-check his condiments, napkins, and the rest of his fast food accoutrements. Frank was younger than me, and so he still had a little enthusiasm for his work. Brooke, Ramon, and I had all started a pool on how long it would take for this place to suck the life out of him. If he cracked next week, I got ten bucks. Brooke had this week, and she was doing her best to get Frank to break early.
Brooke left her station at the drive-thru window and sauntered over to the milkshake machine. I wasn’t much older than Brooke, but she was young enough and tiny enough that Ramon and I both spent more time protecting her than ogling her. Not that we couldn’t do both, really. I just felt a little dirty after. But I couldn’t help my programming, and Brooke looked like a cheerleader in a dairy commercial: bouncy blond ponytail, clear blue eyes, and a wholesome smile that could turn any guy into man-putty. Frank didn’t stand a chance because, although she tended to be a sweet girl, she could be devious when she wanted something. I probably wouldn’t get my ten dollars.
Brooke finished pouring a large strawberry shake, snapped the lid on, and turned to look at Frank while she took a long sip from the straw. He ogled. I watched as she slid her hand over and flipped the machine’s off switch. Frank manned register one and was responsible for the milkshake machine. He missed the tiny movement, his eyes intent on her lips as they wrapped around the straw. She sauntered back to her station, and I wondered how long it would be until Frank noticed the machine was no longer chugging behind him. If she kept on the offensive, Brooke would have him in tears before the weekend.
After about two hours, a dozen surly customers, and a minor shake machine malfunction, I decided to take a quick break. Frank could mop up shake mix and man the counter. Sure, the mess might make him crack early, but if I helped him, he’d never learn. And really, wasn’t learning more important? I saluted him and hopped over the mess, stepping out back with Ramon. On the way, I grabbed my broom and the doorstop so we could leave the back door open in case someone needed to shout for us.
Ramon had quit smoking a year ago, but he never let that get in the way of a good smoke break. I had never smoked in the first place, but that didn’t keep me from taking one, either. And since the rain had finally vamoosed, nothing stood between us and a decent game of potato hockey.
It is a relatively straightforward game. You get a medium-sized potato and two brooms, designate the goal areas, and you’re ready to go. Today Ramon defended the garbage bin by Plumpy’s back door, and I defended a shiny silver Mercedes because, according to Ramon, it represented the privileged white aristocracy of America trying to keep the Latino man down.
“Our duel,” Ramon said, spinning his broom like a bo staff, “will represent the struggle our nation’s currently engaged in.”
“Please, we both know you’re just going for home team advantage.”
“You wound me, Sam. I can’t help it if your crackerlike oppression gives me the better playing field.” He did a quick hamstring stretch. “Suck it up.”
“Fine,” I said, “then I get the handicap.”
“Sam, you’re Texas. Texas always gets the handicap.”
“I’m Team Texas again?”
He grinned, rolled his shoulders, and wiggled his arms, loosening them.
I gave up and nodded at the Mercedes. It looked old and expensive, especially in our parking lot. “Shiny.”
Ramon snorted. “Classic. Check out the gullwing doors.”
“Fine. Classic Shiny.”
Ramon tossed an empty Plumpy’s cup into the Dumpster. “Sometimes, Sammy, I question your manhood.”
“A car is to get you from place to place. That’s it.”
Ramon shook his head at my ignorance.
“Whatever. Just try not to dent the car, Team Mexico.”
“It’s Team South America,” he said.
“You do know that Mexico is in North America, right?”
“Yeah, but I have the whole continent behind me.” He held up his fist dramatically. “They support their cousin to the north.” I laughed and he dropped his hand back down. “And it’s that guy’s own fault for parking in our lot so he could sneak over to Eddie Bauer or Starbucks or whatever.”
UVillage was an open-air shopping orgy that sat behind Plumpy’s restaurant. Between the Gap, Abercrombie, and not one but two freestanding Starbucks, the place attracted a certain clientele that rubbed Ramon the wrong way. Mostly because UVillage had its own parking structure but their customers still parked over here because it was slightly closer. I didn’t know why that pissed him off. He didn’t like Plumpy’s either. Maybe it was the principle of the thing. I was more disgusted than annoyed by the effort put forth by people just so they didn’t have to walk ten extra feet.
I leaned down to tie my shoe, the leather pouch around my neck sliding out from under my shirt. I slid it back in without really thinking about it. A habit born from years of repetition. Personally, I didn’t think UVillage was totally awful. Some of the food was good, and I found it hard to hate the bookstore. Of course, the bookstore contained the third Starbucks in the complex.
“Whatever,” I said. “Game on.” And I rolled the potato into the center.
Brooke came out to watch after Ramon scored another goal, making the score a depressing four to one.
“Ramon, order up,” she said. She reached for his broom. “I’ll pinch-hit in your absence.”
“And leave Frank all alone up there?” he asked.
Brooke grinned deviously.
“That’s my girl,” Ramon said. He had already lost the bet, so he was now considered a free agent and worked to aid both of us. The important thing, he felt, was that Frank crack, not who won. Ramon handed Brooke his broom and walked inside.
“The devil in pigtails,” I said.
Her grin widened as she adjusted her stance.
“Okay,” I said, “but we’re switching sides.”
Brooke straightened up and sighed. “Fine, I’ll be Texas.”
I could be a man and admit that Brooke was much better at potato hockey than me. I didn’t know what sports she played in high school or if she just worked out, but she was a better athlete than I was. I didn’t even skateboard very well. My board could move me from point A to point B okay, but I couldn’t really do anything fancy on it like Ramon, so I didn’t feel the least bit ashamed in asking for the home field advantage.
We crouched down, brooms ready. I saw the faintest twitch around Brooke’s eye before she flipped the potato into the air with the tight-packed bristles of her broom. Then she leaned back and gave it a whack with the handle. I blocked it from the garbage bin, barely, but only by slamming my own body into the bin’s green, chipped side and taking the spud directly in the chest.
I squinted at her. “Dirty move.”
“My brothers played lacrosse.”
We both hunkered back down, eyes never leaving each other as the breeze pushed the gray clouds overhead. I blocked out the chatter from the shoppers in the distance and the sounds from the kitchen behind me. Then I tried to duplicate Brooke’s move.
I didn’t have any brothers who played lacrosse. Hell, I didn’t have any brothers, period, though I’m pretty sure my little sister, Haley, could’ve given Brooke a run for her money. My lack of skill meant that my shot had force behind it but little aim.
The potato flew so far to the right that Brooke didn’t even try to go for the block. I got the point, and Classic Shiny got a broken taillight.
Brooke picked what was left of the potato off the ground, walked over to me, and threw it in the bin. “Game over,” she said.
I stood, stuck to the spot. “In retrospect, the choice of goals might have been poor.”
Brooke grabbed a wad of my shirt up by the neck and pulled me to the door. I felt the leather cord holding my pouch snap. Brooke let go with a “sorry” so I could snag it. “They shouldn’t have parked there,” she said, motioning toward the car. “Besides, that’s what you get for being Texas.”
I kicked the doorstop out and held the door open for Brooke. “I hear Austin’s nice.” I shoved my broken pouch into my hoodie pocket as we walked back in.
We were slammed for the next hour as the dinner rush invaded Plumpy’s. We were busy enough that the Lesser of Two Kevins actually popped out of his office for a moment to tell us he was too busy to help. Not a useful gesture, but his concern was noted by all. I supposed we were lucky. Lesser Kevin usually only surfaced for Armageddon-level events. Actual Kevin never surfaced at all.
Finally, the people trickled out, and the place became ours again. I wandered toward the grill while Brooke made Frank mop out the newly puke-spattered Plumpy’s Fun Zone. Brooke leaned against the counter, watching Frank and keeping an eye on the few straggling customers. Ramon and I started a rousing game of “Guess What I Put in the Fryer.”
I closed my eyes and leaned against the back of the shake machine. There was a fairly large plop and a hiss from the fryer. “Pickle,” I said.
“That’s uncanny, Sam,” Ramon said.
“Not really. I just helped Frank get the bucket out of the walk-in.”
“Damn,” he said.
After the pickle, a bun, one set of tongs, a spoonful of mayonnaise, and a hat, Ramon ran out of ideas, and I decided not to eat the fries here anymore. I stared at Ramon’s spatula.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s spatula, Sammy.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not in the Bible,” I said.
“How do you know? Have you ever read it?” He slapped a chicken burger on the grill.
“Not really, but I’m still pretty sure that’s not in there.”
“Trust me,” he said.
“Fine,” I said, “what version, then?”
“The King Ramon version. Spatulas are considered very sacred in the King Ramon version.”
I folded my arms across my chest. “Well, I’m not Christian, so I can covet. I can covet like a fiend.”
“Won’t get you back on grill, flame-boy,” he said.
So I’d caught the grill on fire a few times. Okay, more than a few. Lesser Kevin had to remove the smoke alarms when I cooked. “I can’t help it if grease is flammable. Besides, it’s not like it hurts the grill.”
“And what about last time?” Ramon asked, flipping the chicken burger onto a bun and placing it on a tray.
I handed the tray up to Brooke. “You’re referring to the Plumpy’s kids’ meal incident? A lot of crap over a few boxes. Water under many bridges.”
“Sam, the toys ignited and exploded melted plastic onto your apron, which also burst into flame.”
“That’s what fire extinguishers are for.”
“The little girl at the counter started to cry because she thought you were going to immolate.”
“You looked like the Human Torch, man.” Ramon made an explosion-like noise and scraped something off the grill. “Flame on, Sam. Flame on.”
I waved him off. “Psh.” And since my arm hair had totally grown back, no permanent damage had been done.
“Besides,” he said, pulling out a hotel pan full of precooked bacon, “can I help it if the grill responds to my raw Latin heat? You skinny white boys cook the burgers, but I make love to them.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said.
In the last hour before closing, I crouched under a table with a putty knife and chipped old gum away. I led a very exciting life. Brooke was going to make Frank do it, so I offered before that could happen. Instead he got to sweep, and I was that much closer to winning the pool. Brooke sulked behind the counter, blacking out teeth and drawing mustaches on the people pictured on our tray liners. There were no customers, and the only sound besides the scrape of my putty knife and Frank’s sweeping was Ramon, who for some reason hummed show tunes while he cleaned the grill. Right then it sounded like “Luck Be a Lady.” He danced too. Ramon was a triple threat.
As I ran the putty knife along the wood-style plastic of the table, I wondered why people would pick this as the final resting place for their gum. Seriously, we had garbage cans, trays, wrappers—hell, they could stick it on Frank—so why always the table? While I considered this, I heard the door swing open. The sound wasn’t loud, but I hadn’t expected anyone else to come in so late on a weeknight. Especially with what appeared to be dress shoes. Plumpy’s caters to the sneaker set. I tilted my head so I could peek out.
The man seemed to be of average height, but since I was lying on the floor, it was hard to tell. Everyone looks tall from that angle. I twisted my head so that I could follow him with my eyes, and as he got closer to Brooke, I decided that he must be just about an inch or two shy of six feet. He was skinny too. No, lean. But he gave off the impression of being much bigger than he was. His shoes weren’t like anything I’d seen in a department store, and his charcoal suit looked expensive. He held an old-fashioned doctor’s bag in his left hand and a piece of potato in his right.
He held the potato out to Brooke. “I’d like someone to explain this,” he said.
The guy had a preacher’s voice, smooth and rolling, worn with use.
That voice sent a shiver of unease down my spine. I froze under the table, not even daring to bring my arm and putty knife back down.
Brooke looked at the man, her eyes cool, her body language saying casual indifference. She pointed one dainty finger at the man’s right hand. “It’s a potato,” she said.
The man didn’t respond. “You know, a kind of tuber? Grows in the ground. Almost killed Ireland. Any of this ringing a bell?”
I could see Brooke’s face and the pink fingernail polish she was wearing as her hands gestured at the man.
“I know what it is,” he said.
“Then why did you ask?” Brooke rested her hip on the counter and crossed her arms.
The man didn’t move, but I saw his grip tighten on the handle of his bag.
I stayed motionless under the table, even though my arm was starting to get tired from holding the putty knife up. I didn’t know why Brooke wasn’t scared of the man, but my guess was that being the only girl raised alongside a bunch of gigantic, lacrosse-playing male siblings had more than one benefit. When she first started going to shows with me, I’d insisted on staying close to her, afraid she might take a rogue fist from the mosh pit or get swallowed by the sweating mass of the audience. That was until I saw her split the lip of an overly affectionate drunk at an all-ages show at El Corazón.
Brooke doesn’t scare easy. Wish I could say the same about myself.
The man took a deep breath. His grip relaxed around the handle of the bag. I could only see the back of his head, but I bet his anger never showed up on his face. “What I want to know is why it was in the broken taillight of my car, which was in this parking lot.”
Brooke put her elbows on the counter and cupped her chin in her hands. “Oh, I love riddles,” she said. She kept her eyes wide and innocent, her pink lips straight. Her blond ponytail slipped forward, and she absently twirled the end of it with one finger. Brooke had long ago mastered the vapid look. “I give up. Why did you put a potato in your taillight?”
“I didn’t. It was there when I got back.”
Brooke’s eyes got a little round. “Oh, a mystery.” She straightened back up off the counter and let the vapid look fall away. Her eyelids drooped a little, and her lip quirked up at one side, pure devilish disdain. “Well, then I’ll just get Shaggy and Scooby, and we’ll get right on it, mister.”
The man laughed, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was the most joyless sound I’d ever heard.
Ramon sauntered up from the back, drying his hands on a towel. “Is there a problem here?” He’d asked Brooke but kept his eyes on the man.
The man held up the potato. “I found this in my shattered taillight.”
Ramon shrugged. “I don’t know anything about it.”
“I’d be grateful if I was you,” Brooke added. “Your car could have been impounded for being in our lot. That’s why we have signs posted every two feet saying ‘for Plumpy’s customers only’ and ‘park at your own risk.’ We aren’t a parking garage, we’re a dining establishment.”
“That serves potatoes,” the man said softly. He set the remnants down on the counter.
She shrugged one shoulder. “A mashed potato taillight is getting off easy.”
The man pushed the offending spud closer to Brooke before straightening up and squaring his shoulders. He inclined his head. “The manager, if you will.”
“He’s busy,” Ramon said. We all knew that Lesser Kevin wouldn’t come out of his office unless it was closing time or the building was burning to the ground.
Ramon’s eyes flicked down to where I hid under the table. His eyebrow raised just a twitch, and I shook my head frantically. I didn’t know who the complaining man was, but he scared me. The primitive part of my brain screamed predator, and I believed it. With predators, if you move, if you’re seen, you’re eaten, and this man in his expensive but understated gray suit could swallow me whole.
Ramon looked back at the man, but it wasn’t fast enough.
I watched the man glance over his shoulder, just a short peek down to me hiding under the table, before he returned his attention to the counter.
I let a breath out slowly and tried to stop my hands from shaking. He hadn’t really seen me.
Then he jerked back around.
His footsteps echoed in the empty restaurant as he headed my way. I scooted farther under the table, but I could feel the uselessness of the action already. The man leaned down, grabbed me by my Plumpy’s T-shirt, and dragged me into the open. I heard Brooke and Ramon shout something, but I couldn’t make it out. All my attention was focused on the brown eyes of the man in front of me. Lean as he was, he held me up by the shirt with little effort. Hanging like that was awkward, so I grabbed his wrists for balance. I felt a cold snap of electricity, like frozen static shock, and I immediately released his wrists.
“What,” he said slowly, “do you think you’re doing here?”
“I work here.” My lips felt cracked and dry all of a sudden. He tightened his grip on me and pulled me closer. Not really a place I wanted to be. I swallowed hard.
“Not here, fool. Seattle.”
“I live here.”
His face got even closer, and I grabbed at his wrists again. The shock was still there, a chill crackling up my arms, but I held on anyway. Unpleasant, but I didn’t want to let him get his face any nearer to mine. The man’s voice dropped to a low whisper. “You live here and you haven’t petitioned the Council?”
“When you moved here, you should have contacted us, asked permission”—he looked down at my name tag—“Sam.”
Oh, good, he was crazy and scary. What an awesome combination. I let go of his wrists with one hand and leveraged myself back enough so I could pull my T-shirt out of his grip. I dropped to the floor, knowing full well that he let me do it.
“I have always lived here,” I said, enunciating each word in that peculiar way people do when speaking with the insane. I straightened out my shirt. “I was born here, and I’ve never heard of any Council.”
“Impossible,” he said. “I would have known.” His face was an odd mix of concern and disdain.
“Perhaps my mother forgot to send you an announcement.” My hands shook. I shoved them into my pockets. At least that way the shaking would be less visible.
“Is there a problem?” Lesser Kevin had finally come out of his office.
I didn’t look at him, thinking it best to keep my eyes firmly on whatever threat this man represented. My body still wanted to run screaming in the other direction, but I held it there anyway. I couldn’t quite figure out which would be the safer choice.
“No, sir,” I said, “no problem.”
A moment passed as the man stood, eyes still locked on me, face unreadable. Then he grinned; the smile unfurling slowly on his face reminded me suddenly of the old Grinch cartoon they show on TV every year during Christmas. It’s much creepier on a human face than on an animated one. He reached over and restraightened my shirt.
“No,” he said, “just a misunderstanding.” As the man turned toward Lesser Kevin, his face lit up, changing the smile to something lighthearted and normal. “A case of mistaken identity. You know how it is.”
Kevin looked confused. “My employee tells me you had a complaint about your car?”
Behind Kevin, Frank cowered, his eyes wide, broom still firmly in hand. He gave me a little wave.
The stranger shook his head in dismissal. “No, no. It’s not a big deal. Again, a simple misunderstanding.” He walked over and shook Lesser Kevin’s hand. Kevin still looked sort of apprehensive, but he didn’t seem to be having the same problem touching the stranger as I did. In fact, the contact seemed to relax him. “Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.”
He turned to leave but nodded in my direction on his way out. “Sam,” he said, like he was my friend, but it wasn’t friendly. It was ominous, like when my mom spoke my name in public with that tone that meant I was going to get an earful once we were alone.
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Text copyright © 2010 by Lish McBride
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