Enter the vaguely surreal world of a vaguely bored teenager stuck in a fast-food job
Jenna hated him, the garish tricolored hat, the white powdered curls fat as sausages, the tiny American flag clutched in his wooden hand. Her mother had bought the minuteman jack-in-the-box as a memento of the Bicentennial, placed it next to the miniature spinning wheel on top of the piano.
Jenna has always hated jack-in-the-boxes, the tinny music, the notes thin and shallow as a metal file. As a child, she would crank the handle knowing the cloth and china monster will eventually spring out with a leering smile. But they still fascinated her.
Even now when no one was looking, she would slowly crank the mechanical minuteman, straining to see the moment the lid would snap back, revealing a grinning head, a white painted gargoyle soldier. She knew it would always spring at the same moment in the tune even if she played the tune backwards. But it still startled her, a monster both predictable and frightening.
So it is somehow appropriate that Jenna’s first job is at a Minuteman Burger, the fast food franchise that promises, “your meal in a minute or you can chop off our head.” Although no one had ever requested a head on a platter except for the occasional teenage boy trying to impress a girl.
Jenna didn’t want to work at some hokey Minuteman franchise. But she needed an after school job. What else can she do? At least this minuteman was figurative, no tiny little jack-in-the-boxes adorning each register.
Her first afternoon at Minuteman started with polyester: polyester denim pants, a tunic top, blue and red plaid on a dingy white background. Tom, her nineteen year old shift manager thin and scrawny, his poor face cratered with pimples and blackheads escorted Jenna to a storeroom where a jumble of uniform parts lay like dismembered puppets.
The pants hit her at mid ankle, and the tunic hung like a sack on her. She could have stuffed a can of nacho cheese underneath her tunic and played Santa Claus or a pregnant fifteen year old.
“What do you want for Christmas little girl?”
“A boyfriend who is still around and a large diet coke to go.”
Jenna wanted to walk out the moment she walked in; but she figured one fast food was like another. So here she is on a blistering hot day, listening to the snap, crackle, pop of frying grease, surrounded by the heavy smell of meat. No matter how much diet coke Jenna drinks, she keeps tasting the smell of hamburger.
With the metal flipper, Jenna presses the hamburger flat against the grill. It splutters and hisses while hot grease splatters her hand. “Stupid hamburger. I hate you,” she mutters. She punches the hamburger, the metal flipper denting the frying meat patty.
“You kill it, you buy it,” says Tom her shift manager.
“Funny,” says Jenna trying to smooth the meat back into a smooth patty. Her polyester plaid uniform itches as though a herd of ants are trailing between her shoulder blades. Behind the grill, the cow shaped thermometer says 110.
In the shiny metal of the grill’s hood, she can see her face, wisps of hair plastered to her sweaty forehead. Her face is flushed and dazed with the heat. “How can people eat on such a hot day,” she wonders.
The heat is a stone in her belly; but then sometimes her entire body feels like stone. Some mornings she wakes exhausted. There seems to be little reason to drag herself though her life. Everything feels like a rerun, other people’s conversations so familiar Jenna feels she could mouth their words.
“Could we have those hamburgers before tomorrow,” asks Tom. “Remember our slogan.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jenna mutters to herself, “or they can chop off our heads.” For a moment she imagines Tom’s head falling into basket like a soft bloody melon. It would make life a little more interesting, employees lining up like automatons before the chopping block, the blood blending into the blue and red plaid.
But at least the grill is better than the fryer, huge vats of bubbling grease, the timer going off every twenty seconds. The tacos scorch your finger tips and the onion rings crack and break like cheap baubles.
Besides everyone has heard the story of the girl who dropped an earring into the hot oil. Before she could think, this girl stuck her hand in the boiling oil, looking for the escaped earring, her skin crackling and sizzling as she screamed and screamed. Her hand looked like a crispy fried special from a Friday the 13th movie, and no one ever asked her out again.
Sometimes Jenna dreams of the burned girl. She walks into a theater, and the burned girl is dancing. When the spotlights catch her scarred skin, she glimmers as though she has been dipped in sequins. People begin to fill the theater. They throw roses, orchids and irises at the burned girl. The girl shines with oil, her hair dripping wet. And when she spins, the hot oil flies towards Jenna like a swam of glittery gnats. But Jenna always awakes before the oil touches her.
“Jenna, the hamburgers.” Tom’s voice startles Jenna so much she almost drops a hamburger bun on the floor. He reaches over her arm and quickly flips the now burning hamburger patties. “I know this job doesn’t mean much to you; but some of us want to make this job into something more so please work with me.”
Jenna sighs. Tom has bought into the whole climb the ladder, opportunity for advancement, work your fingers to the bone, pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
He’s attending Minuteman managerial school at night, courses in success 101A, his head crammed with visions of a carpeted office in some mythical steel ribbed skyscraper. He isn’t going to work at a gas station all his life like his father, come home exhausted and poor with grease ridged nails.
If Horatio Alger were alive today, he would be flattening hamburgers. He wrote story after story of the poor humble boy who works hard, smiles brightly, loves this country and scrabbles and sweats his way to fame and fortune, all the cities of the world.
Alger believed. Tom believes. He will work his way up the corporate ladder hopping from shift manager to assistant manager to manager to owning a chain of the grinning red, white and blue gargoyle hamburger purveyors.
Isn’t this the American dream; the transformation of self, stripped of the limitations of class, religion and the past? Depose the father and invent yourself as something different, better than your father; something bitter, bittersweet. Transformation by another name is betrayal, sharper than a serpent’s tooth is an ungrateful child said King Lear who should know.
“This mockery, this loose federation of traitors, fools and rogues will never survive,” said King George III when informed that his colonies wanted to rid themselves of their membership in the British Empire. He wouldn’t have chopped off their heads, that was reserved for those of noble blood. He would have hung them instead if he could.
But the loose federation of traitors did survive. It spawned Minuteman Burgers, poor white trash, Horatio Alger, boot straps and dreams that maybe you could transform yourself, your old self dropping like a mask.
Sometimes at night, Jenna stares at the highway that winds through the mountains behind her house. She dreams of running away. She memorizes bus schedules, the departure times familiar as multiplication tables or rosaries. Las Vegas at 2:20, a heat mirage of glittery clanging insolence. Los Angeles, the place of angels can be had at 3:40, 5:50 and 8:30.
She will step off the bus and with every breath, she will transmute into some strange and rare creature. It will be like drinking the hot harsh whiskey that her boyfriend Todd sneaks from his father’s truck; from underneath the seat where his father hides it.
Night after night, Todd’s father sits in his truck watching the moon rise, drinking until he doesn’t remember how much he drinks. So he never notices when Todd siphons some of the whiskey into his thermos.
When Jenna drinks, the world becomes unpredictable and volatile, becomes a world that has never seen her. In this new world, she can be fickle and variable as water, no fixed shape. She wonders what she will become when she steps off the bus.
She doesn’t want to decide now. She knows in that new world that there are unknown possibilities, potentialities. She can become something she has never seen or known. But when the whiskey cools inside her, the world hardens into something known, flat and fixed. But in another city past the boundaries of what is known….
She has already written a note telling her parents she loves them, that it has nothing to do with them, not really. She picks at the idea of running away until it almost unravels; but it never does.
But she never makes out the door. Instead she sits up late, eating Saltine crackers and drinking ice tea, staring at the kitchen door until her parents sleepily ask what she is doing. She should go to bed. She has school tomorrow.
Out in the Minuteman’s dining room, Ed, Jim and Curtis smear ketchup all over the table. They write their names, then they graduate onto drawing stars, mushrooms and stripped down mustangs in the red sauce.
When Ed thinks about it, he wants to be a rock musician. So you want to be a rock n’ roll star went the song, get a few guys together, get some cool name, like the Psychic Cranberries, no too sissy, have to get something cool and dark and strange like Led, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Ramones, Sex Pistols.
Ed can’t play the guitar that well. But it doesn’t matter if you really want it, and Ed really wants it. Look at some of those other bands, he tells himself laying on his bed, his long hair tied back with a bandanna just like a rock star.
On a beat up fender, he plucks chords so wild and keening he shivers, seeing hordes of people waving their lighters as he plays transformed to some rock and roll god. But other times, it seems so distant, so weird and all Ed wants is a girl or an avocado green 69 Mustang.
Right now, he is happy drawing a pointy eared gargoyle in the ketchup. “We can call ourselves the Gargoyles,” he tells his friends. In the booth behind him, a five year old girl cranes her neck to watch him. She longs to grow up so she can draw gargoyles and daisies in ketchup.
“You’re were so sweet when you were a little girl,” Jenna’s father keeps telling her.
“What’s wrong with this life,” he yelled at her when he found the bus tickets to Los Angeles on her dresser. He ripped them slowly into confetti, his eyes staring at her baffled and hurt. He gathered the pieces scattered on the carpet, picking through the heavy shag searching for them so he could shred them into even smaller pieces.
Jenna doesn’t know why she left the tickets where they were so easily seen. She will never have enough money to leave before the summer ends. And if she doesn’t leave this summer, she will never leave, her life settling into her, turning her into lead, her breath a soft slow whistle through the metal pipes of her lungs.
“We’re getting married in September,” her boyfriend told her last night. ”That will get you out of the house.” Then he kissed her, his hands searching for any opening where he could touch her. He only knew that if he could touch her, then for a moment, he could abandon everything that waited for him.
“But I don’t want out of the house,” she wanted to tell him, “I want out of this.”
She wanted to yell and hit her body, “Out of this,” not knowing what she means. “Out of this.” But she didn’t say anything. It would scare him, loony girlfriend time. Instead she disappeared into the feel of his hands, knowing it would last for only a while; but it would do.
“Two Constitutional Burgers,” yells the person at the window taking orders. Jenna sighs. “No mayo,” the window person yells.
“We don’t put mayo on Constitutionals,” Jenna yells back.
“Well he says that last time someone put mayo on his Constitutional, and he doesn’t want it to happen again.”
Choice. Free will. Have it the way you want, you can be anyone. But do we really want that. What happens when you can be anything you want, the highway stretching like a snake, empty, bleak, seductive, no boundaries except the lack of boundaries.
Is that why mapmakers and scribes drew America as a place beyond the ends of the world, a land of monsters with spines and claws delicate as curved script.
“Take your lunch,” Tom tells Jenna, taking her place at the grill.
“Remember a 30% discount on whatever you eat.”
Rubbing her neck, Jenna drifts over to the fryer with its deep bins of sputtering oil. She thinks of the burned girl. When her skin hardened, it was intricate and whorled, a maze of lines and petaled scars.
The girl became another creature, mysterious and splendid. The hot oil mixed with her blood and the morrow of her bones. They could see it in the whites of her eyes. So she had to leave. Everyone helped her to pack, they kissed her at the bus station, their hands not quite touching her patterned skin.
She climbed onto the bus and went to some place beyond what anyone knew or even wanted to know. Nothing expected would ever happened to her. Perhaps it wasn’t an accident, Jenna thinks dreamily, her hands hovering almost absentmindedly over the fryer. It would only take a minute.
Copyright © 1999 Kay Sundstrom. All rights reserved.
You can also read another of Kay’s short stories, The End.
Born and raised in southern California’s canyon country, Kay Sundstrom grew up among the disaffected youth of suburban El Cajon, where teen night life often consists of cruising the main drag in motorcycles and jacked-up pickups in search of a few cheap thrills. A graduate of both Scripps College and the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, Stanford University awarded her a Stegner Fellowship in literature, reportedly after she wrote them threatening to quit writing for law school. She has published in Threepenny Review, Blue Moon Review, Errata and other literary journals.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The preceding post originally appeared in the online multicultural journal New Tribal Dawn, which published essays, fiction and poetry from 1999 to 2007. Although the journal is no longer active, we are preserving its fine literary archive here for posterity.)