“Order for D2!” shouted one of my managers as he threw a plate full of cheese breadsticks up on the counter. His white shirt was spotted yellow from the grease and grime of being worn to work hundreds of times.
“Thanks, Tim!” I yelled back as I grabbed the plate of sticks in my left hand and rushed out to my table. Drink refills rested on the tray in my right hand, and as I walked the sticks out hurriedly, I ran over where each drink went. The Pepper is the guy in D5, and the two Dews are for E1. But which person gets which drink?
In my haste to take out the drinks, I slipped a little on a bit of Ranch dressing that had dripped onto the floor next to the salad bar. I felt my balance slipping and time seemed to slow down. Oh no, I’m going to lose all these drinks, I thought to myself as I struggled with my reflex to flail my arms in attempt to regain my composure. They’re going to fall over and spill on these people sitting here.
But they didn’t. I caught myself in time and the drinks remained standing, the customers next to me remained dry. Instead one of the two clear plastic containers of sauce that had been resting atop the pile of breadsticks slid down the greasy cheese and off of the plate. I watched the small sauce cup fall, turning itself over face down as it fell. Great, now I’m going to have to clean this mess up. The customers at the table next to me, whom the cheesesticks were intended for and who almost ended up covered in soda, watched the sauce fall to the floor, as helpless as I was to prevent its plunge.
But again luck seemed to be on my side. The sauce cup flipped over again in its descent to the ground. Wow, centrifugal force in action. It’s not going to spill after all. The cup landed perfectly on the floor completely unharmed; had it been a gymnast, the judges surely would have given it a ten for a perfect dismount.
But the impact with the ground sent the sauce in the cup hurtling back up into the air, all over everything in sight, the side of the salad bar, the tile floor, the table occupied by the customers hungrily awaiting their cheesesticks, the carpeted area where the people were sitting, and--for the most part--onto me. Hot spaghetti sauce landed in my hair, sprayed in my eye, and covered my red shirt and black pants, apron, and shoes.
I looked around at the customers in the restaurant. Every eye was turned upon me; I half-expected applause to spring up at any moment. If my hands weren’t full, I’d take a bow. But my sarcastic thoughts left me when I noticed that I had not been the only victim of the splash of the sauce; a brown-haired woman with glasses sitting at the table next to me, who had been the one to urge her husband towards ordering the cheese sticks in the first place, had been showered as well.
I instantly began groveling. “Oh my goodness, ma’am, I am so sorry.” I set the sticks down in front of her and began pulling napkins out of my apron, some of which had managed to remain untouched by the sauce. I handed them to her so she could clean herself up, again and again repeating my apology with my head hung low.
“It’s OK,” she replied forgivingly, wiping specks of sauce off of her arm. “You didn’t get any on my clothes, just my arm, and that comes clean pretty quickly.” She obviously felt bad for me, while her husband tried desperately to stifle a chuckle.
“I’ll bring you out a new cup of sauce,” I said to her quietly, embarrassed, before I shuffled off to deliver the drinks and return to the comfort of the kitchen. In my haste I did not pay any attention to who got which cup of Mountain Dew. I think I gave them the right ones, the drink on the left to the guy on the left. If not, they’ll figure it out.
After returning to the floor to give the couple with the cheese sticks a replacement cup of sauce, I retreated for the back of the restaurant to clean myself up. Damn customers staring at me like I’m some kinda freak, I thought to myself as I wiped the sauce out of my eye with a paper towel. Days like this make me understand why postal workers snap.
“Nice,” said a delivery driver walking in the back door, having just returned from a run.
“Thanks, Brian. You don’t look too bad yourself.”
“Hey did you think any more about what I told you the other day?” he asked me as he slung the empty pizza warmer onto a rack and glanced over the orders sitting, waiting to be delivered.
“About Candy? I dunno.”
“Come on, man! I guarantee you you will get some.” Brian was getting married in June and he wanted me to be his fiancée’s maid of honor’s date. The girl was named Candy, she was from Chicago, and if Brian’s accounts could be believed she was a certifiable nymphomaniac. She wanted someone to hook up with while she was in town, and for some reason or another Brian had picked me. Maybe because his fiancée flirts with me every time she comes in, I pondered.
The idea of free sex was rather enticing, but I still wasn’t too sure. I was still a virgin at that point because of my religious beliefs, and I wasn’t too sure that, if I was going to compromise my ideals, I wanted to do so with a girl I had just met. I told Brian, “I’ll think about it, man. It’s still two months away, so there’s plenty of time.”
“Well if you don’t want to, I need to know so I can find her somebody else.” He grabbed two of the pizzas sitting on the shelf, scooped up the order tickets beside each of them, and headed for the door. “Opportunities like this don’t come up all the time.”
“I know, I know,” I said to him, but he had already scooted out the door towards his car. I glanced at the pizzas on the shelf remaining in wait for delivery. Guess he decided that those two would be better tips than these older ones. One ticket told me that the order had been taken over an hour ago and the pizza was yet to be delivered. I better get up front before people start calling to complain.
I stepped back out front and looked over my tables, checking their drinks from a distance to see if anyone needed refills. Thank goodness I made a fool out of myself on a slow night, I thought then as I turned towards the dish sink in front of me to wash some dirty glasses and silverware. But the Friday night rush will be starting soon, and things will pick up. I hope it waits until nine so I can get out of here, not get held over.
The phone rang and I set the dishes down, wiped my hands on the parts of my apron not covered with spaghetti sauce, and reached for the receiver. Before I picked it up, though, I glanced towards the back to see if my head manager Dan was nearby. He was nowhere to be seen. “Psst. Tim,” I called out to get my other manager’s attention. He turned towards me and I gave him a wink as I picked up the phone.
In the past ten months that I had been working there at Pizza Hut, I had become quite good friends with Tim, even though he was my boss. We were in a bowling league together on Saturday mornings with some of the other male crew members, and he had several times done me a favor by bringing in his mom’s vacuum cleaner when the store’s was broken. He was twice my age, but he liked the same science fiction movies I did and enjoyed jokes about the male anatomy.
Also in the months I had worked there, I had become quite good at rattling off our spiel on the phone, announcing special prices and the like. I could speak so quickly in fact that I could sometimes change the words and the customers would hear something completely different.
I took a deep breath before I said into the receiver, in one quick burst of energy, “ThankyouforcallingCentraliaPenisHutmynameisStevehowcanIhelpyou?”
The customer noticed nothing out of the ordinary and began to make their order. “Yeah, I’d like to place an order for delivery.”
I took down their name, address, and phone number while Tim stood by the oven trying not to laugh out loud. His gut was slightly shaking as he stared at me, and I could hear him snort every now and then. “Now, what would you like to order, sir?”
I looked back at Tim, who suddenly turned back toward the counter, pulled a pizza out of the oven, and violently cut it into pieces. “Steve. Door,” I heard a voice to my right say.
It was Dan, the head manager, and while the person on the phone read off their order to me, I cupped my hand over the phone and began to argue with him. “I’m taking a delivery order.”
“Customers at the front door are your first priority,” he replied. “You need to seat them.”
“I’m almost done!” I differed as I scribbled quickly on the order pad. First priority. That doesn’t make any sense. If I make the people on the phone wait, they might hang up, take their business elsewhere. The people in the doorway are already here.
As he walked away from me, Dan said, “If you hadn’t been arguing with me, you’d have seated them and be back to the phone by now.” He then disappeared into his miniscule office in the back of the store.
I told the man on the phone his total briskly and hung up. “You were the one arguing with me. Should just let me do my job,” I muttered under my breath as I headed towards the front door to greet the customers waiting there. Every time he comes out of that office, I’m doing two things at once, and every damn time he says I should be doing one over the other.
For the first five months that I worked there at Pizza Hut, it was undeniably the best job I’d ever had (and would have been even if it hadn’t been my very first). I was working at the place where all my friends came to hang out and I had tip money in my pockets constantly. But after those five months we had a manager quit for a better paying job, and Dan had moved in to head the store.
Since then the job had become less fun and more of a grind, as each day passed with me being lectured about how I wasn’t following proper procedure. He had recently promoted a waitress who I had seniority over to a shift manager spot, and that had been the straw that broke the camel’s back, the impetus for me to go out in search of a different job. He’s just playing favorites. I’m not his little yes-man, so I don’t get the job. I wish he’d gotten shot when we got robbed last month.
Tim stopped my angry pace out to greet the people at the door with a grin and a whisper. “Did they notice?” When I looked at him blankly, he repeated himself, still grinning. “The people on the phone—did they notice?”
His smile made me forget my anger at Dan and return his goofy smirk. “They always pause for a split second, like they’re thinking, ‘He didn’t just say... No he couldn’t have.’ Then they always just go on like nothing happened.”
He chuckled and I couldn’t help but laugh a little too as I walked back out into the seating area. I stepped up to the front door without really looking at the people standing there and started to speak to them. “How many will be dining with you this eve...”
I stopped in my tracks when I noticed who was standing there. It was the two Jennys, Craney and Stedlin, two girls I knew who came into the restaurant all the time. I worked with both of them on the school newspaper, both had been in a recent production of Flowers for Algernon with me for our drama club, and both had slight crushes on me. But Jenny Stedlin was the one whom I liked, the one whom I had chosen to break things off with my previous girlfriend in order to date. Her father had tried unsuccessfully to run for state representative recently and I had helped with the campaign.
“I don’t even need to give you menus, do I?” I said to them both with a sly smile.
Jenny Craney laughed lightly to herself and replied, “Well, since we probably don’t even need to order, probably not.”
I led them both to a booth in the non-smoking section, right up against the wall next to the front door. As Jenny Stedlin climbed into her seat, she shook her raven hair loose and then, once she had situated herself, she pushed it back behind her ears with her hands in a fluid motion. She looked up at me then, smiling at first then quickly turning her expression into a confused frown. “You have sauce in your hair.”
“Yeah, it’s been a long night,” I said dismissively. “Pepsi for you, Pepper for you, and pepperoni for you both, right?”
“You got it,” she replied with a laugh.
When I returned back behind the counter to turn in their order, Tim said to me, “You can take off whenever you want. Just catch your tables up.”
“Thanks a bunch, Tim. I need to go home and get some sleep for the ACTs tomorrow morning.”
“You’re not going home; your groupies are here,” Tim said jokingly. “Go change and then join them.”
I didn’t argue. I merely collected the checks off of my tray and took them out to a few of my tables, giving them some leftover PEZ along with their bills, before I brought the drinks out to the two Jennys. I set three drinks down in front of them, and they both looked up at me with eyebrows raised.
“The Dew’s for me; I’ll be joining you in a minute,” I told them. “I made the pizza a medium. Is that OK?” They both smiled and nodded in silence and I headed to the back and clocked out.
Minutes later I had changed out of my work uniform, cleaned most of the sauce out of my hair in the bathroom, and was seated with them at the table. We talked about Cobain’s suicide, and they told me about the local radio station playing all of Nirvana’s songs in alphabetical order over the course of the next few hours. I sat next to Jenny Stedlin in the booth, and our legs occasionally bumped together, by accident, underneath the table. At one point the clasp from my necklace had shifted to the front, and she reached up and adjusted it for me. Her fingers slightly brushed the back of my neck when she did so, and it made my skin tingle with goosebumps.
When our food came, we ate it slowly. The restaurant filled with people and had emptied again by the time we were finished. They asked me about my birthday PEZ and I filled them in on the details. Finally, I glanced at Jenny Stedlin’s watch and said, “Man, it’s getting late.” Almost a full hour had passed since I had joined them. “I’ve gotta be at KC at eight in the morning.”
“Why?” Jenny Craney asked.
“ACTs,” I turned to her and said. Then I looked back at Jenny Stedlin and continued speaking. “I was supposed to take them back in February, had signed up and everything. But I forgot all about it and slept through it.”
“That’s thirty bucks down the drain,” Jenny Craney said.
“Yeah,” I responded curtly. “So do you two need a ride home?”
Jenny Stedlin answered quickly with a nod. “My mom dropped us off here after we finished taking pictures of the baseball game for Hodges. I was supposed to call her when we were done, but if you wanna drive us...”
When I got up to pay the bill, Tim knocked it down to half-price for me since it was my birthday. He also gave me the tips from my tables that had left after I had gotten off work. The lady I had spilled sauce on had apparently felt so sorry for me she had left me a five dollar tip. Huh, I thought to myself when he handed me the money. I should spill things on people more often.
Before I took the Jennys home, we drove through town a few times, listening to the Nirvana tribute on the radio and continuing our conversations from dinner. Jenny Stedlin sat up front with me, and Jenny Craney sat by herself in back. We talked about the play that had just ended, our slight feelings of depression that always accompanied a show’s closing. We cracked inside jokes about some of the more inept cast members, one of which was a friend of theirs who too had a crush on me and played my wife in the play. She normally joined them for their meals and was conspicuous in her absence that night. Another hour passed us by quickly.
“I like your new car, Steve,” Jenny Craney said finally.
“Thanks.” I didn’t say anything more. The uneasy silence that followed let them know that, for some reason, my new car was something I did not wish to talk about it, and it gave me the perfect excuse to take them home.
I dropped Jenny Craney off first, since her house was in town. I waved goodbye when she got out and then pulled out of the driveway. Jenny Stedlin and I rode in silence to her house. We drove down dark country roads without speaking a word, her staring out the side window intently all the while. I was just as intently watching the road but all the while I was thinking over and over, Should I kiss her?
“Oh my God! Stop!” she cried out so suddenly that I slammed on the brakes and we screeched to a halt.
Dirt flew up from the road to surround the car. “What? What’s the matter?”
“Look!” She pointed out the front windshield.
All I could see was the dust from my abrupt halt hanging in the air in front of the car, clearly visible in the headlights. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“Here.” She reached across me to turn off my headlights. Her arm brushed against mine as she drew it back and I felt the hair on the back of my neck come to attention.
Now with the lights out I could see through the cloud of dirt. The full moon shone down on the field beside the road, and hundreds of lightning bugs flickered on and off repeatedly as they danced back and forth in the air.
“Wow,” I said, after a long pause. “It’s like thousands of little angels just suddenly appeared.”
She laughed to herself a little before speaking again. “Every spring this happens, the fireflies all come here to frolic. You’re the only person I’ve ever shown who thought it was as cool as I did.”
I turned from the fireflies and looked at her closely. I noticed that she had moved closer to me to turn off the headlights but hadn’t slid back into her seat. She was facing away from me, gazing out the window at the beautiful sight outside.
I couldn’t take my eyes away from her then. My right hand moved from the wheel without my guidance, brushed up her back and stroked the hair at the back of her neck lightly, just as she had to me when she fixed my necklace hours before. I had not told my hand to do this; it had acted independently of me.
She turned back towards me then and darted in quickly to kiss me. She moved towards me like she was afraid, and the kiss was over before I knew it had begun. When she pulled away, I brought my other hand away from the wheel and up to her cheek to stroke it lightly. It slid down from her soft cheek, down to touch the side of her neck lightly with first my fingertips, then my knuckles. I pulled her in close and kissed her again, this time slow and tender.
When I walked her to her door, she kissed me again, lightly but lovingly. She said to me, “I like your new car too,” and then dashed inside.
I was strangely sad when I walked back to my car, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. This has been a tremendous day, I thought to myself as I started the car up again, headed back down her driveway for home. What reason is there to be sad?
When I reached the field again, I stopped the car and watched the lightning bugs for a moment again on my own. At that moment the radio began to play my favorite Nirvana song, a sad ballad called “Something in the Way.” I watched one of the bugs fly close to my windshield, blinking off and on, off and on all the way. I listened to a dead man sing on the radio slowly and solemnly, and suddenly I began to cry. I lost sight of the firefly I had been following as the tears poured from my eyes. The sobs pushed past my lips uncontrollably and I wished that Jenny were still with me, thinking to myself, Please explain it to me. Tell me why he has to die.