I arrived early for my first day of work. My new manager issued me a stained tee-shirt and a bright orange pair of pedophile football coach shorts that were three sizes too big. Miss Dumpfey laughed when she saw me. “Just wear the shirt and your jeans,” she said. “When you get changed go rake the playground.”
The Hardee’s playground was of the pre-litigation variety: A good tenth of an acre of deep, fine sand for soft landings when jumping from either the swings or the tower in the middle of the playground. Less adventurous kids exited the tower via the twirly slide.
I stared at this huge expanse of sand with no idea how to rake it. Obviously I wasn’t supposed to rake it up like leaves. The only thing that made sense was to make it flat and interesting. At the time I was fascinated by the Police Around the World video, which chronicled the band’s world tour. Intermingled with the concert footage were scenes of Andy, Stewart, and Sting soaking up the local color. In the Japan segment Andy visits a Zen rock garden, a beautiful stretch of gravel with one large stone jutting out of it like the peak of Mt. Fuji poking through the clouds. Also used in that part of the film was what later became the title song from the Andy Summers and Robert Fripp collaboration Bewitched.
And so with Andy’s harmonics bouncing around in my head I began to rake. In what seemed like no time at all I stepped over the curb and raked away my last footprint and went back inside.
“I’m done with the playground, Miss Dumpfey.”
“I’ll tell you if you’re done.” She stepped out of her tiny office. We walked past Edna at the prep table, slicing onions and muttering to herself; past the racks of burger buns and the walk-in freezer and through the back door. She stared at the playground blankly.
“What in the world did you do?”
“I’m sorry. Did I mess up?”
She laughed. The sand was carefully raked into a grid of squares resembling a chess board. The assistant manager parked his Monza next to us. “Russell, come here. Look at this.”
“What the heck happened?”
“The new kid did it.”
“You an artist or something?”
“I thought I’d make it like a Japanese garden.”
“A what now?”
“Like a garden in a monastery.”
“How long did this take you?” Miss Dumpfey asked.
“Maybe an hour.”
“That’s about how long Vince used to take if you count hiding in the storage room. You’re a strange one, but I like this. Be ready to do it again on inspection day.”
And so my first duty every work day was raking the playground. I imagined myself as a monk performing some sort of walking meditation each afternoon, Andy Summers’s “Bewitched” my mantra. Each pattern that I created earned a secret, unspoken nickname: The Spiral, The Chevron, The Sidewinder. Each design had to make some sort of sense, and each day ended by erasing my last sandy footprint. There was something strange and beautiful in knowing that children would laugh and roll and stomp away my work so that I could do it all over again the next day.
After a month of raking, mowing, scrubbing, and garbage dumping Miss Dumpfey was ready to move me up to the big time: the back line, the grill. I earned my brown polyesters and paper hat. She even gave me a nickname: Beamy, as in Jim Beam, as in Jim. My first day inside was like my first day all over again.
“That’s that crazy white boy that rake the playground.”
“He’s a faggot.”
“Who else rake like that?”
Edna muttered to herself over at the tomato slicer. “You the one’s crazy. Don’t nobody call me crazy, I tell you what. Bunch of gossipy bitches. I just do my work, don’t know why you go calling me crazy.”
A skinny guy with a Burt Reynolds moustache walked past, a case of frozen beef patties on his shoulder. “Too shy shy / hush hush / eye to eye,” he sang in his thick Southern accent.
“Shut the fuck up, Lamar,” one of the kitchen ladies yelled.
“You shut up. Tell me to shut up,” muttered Edna.
“Lamar, enough,” Miss Dumpfey shouted from her office. “Is Beamy here yet?”
“Is that the new guy? He’s right here.”
“Take him with you to the back line and introduce him to Joyce.”
“You’re going to put him on the grill? I’ve been here almost a year.”
“Lamar, I’m never going to trust you near in an open flame,” Miss Dumpfey said.
Joyce was five feet of kindness and organization. She was a legend, able to handle both grills and a lunch rush single-handedly. She kept the big aluminum prep table used for assembling burgers spotless, the condiment trays well stocked, and never lost her cool.
“I don’t think I can handle this,” I said.
She leaned against the prep table. “You’ll be fine. Carol wouldn’t put you up here if she didn’t think you can do it. She’s the best manager in the whole chain.” We reviewed how to wire brush the grills, how to tell when a burger is ready for flipping; the proper amount of ketchup and mustard and how to stack a roast beef. “But you won’t be doing that until you’re old enough to use the slicer,” she added.
I made a few practice burgers and tried not to fall down or grill my hand. “I got to go, but Brian will be here soon,” Joyce said.
“Wait, I’ll be back here alone?”
“Just for a couple of minutes. No customers come in around this time. You’re fine. You’re doing good.”
So there I stood with my spatula and my condiments, waiting. I ran the wire brush over the grill, followed with a wet rag. I checked the small freezer for ample supplies of burger patties and fish filets, stirred the translucent skin back into the mayonnaise.
The girls on the front line talked to each other, but they didn’t acknowledge me. I may as well have been outside raking the playground. They were high schoolers, white, and as pretty as brown polyester allowed. Watching them up there primping, flirting with the fat old men and rolling their eyes when the poor bastards left; turning up their noses at me, Crazy Edna and the kitchen ladies. I was the owl in the eaves, watching it all, and I could see the truth not just of this little restaurant but life in the United States. The beautiful would always float to the front, the infirm and the undesirable would fade into the back, and in the middle there always would be some variation of the Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam — the men and women who keep the burgers coming.
I stirred the mayo and pondered the great mysteries of the job market until Brian arrived: dirty blond hair just past his collar, straight and parted down the middle; matching ’70s moustache three years past its expiration date; body beer thickened and coolly slouched. He wore his paper hat sharply creased and an Italian horn on the herringbone chain around his neck. Brian rushed to the first register on the front line and keyed his employee number — the Hardee’s version of punching the clock.
“Aren’t you the playground kid?”
“Yeah, I’m Jim.”
“Carol’s going to shit a brick, man. Seven minutes late and she has the playground guy on the grill.”
“She’s moving me inside starting today. Joyce was training me earlier.”
“Right on, man. Let’s show them how it’s done.” He gave me the thumb-wrap-soul-brother handshake. “First thing you do is check your condiments and your freezer. Don’t want to have to run to the walk-in in the middle of the dinner rush. Next check your bread racks and your roast beef.” He was a blur, running around the back line like he was completing the final system check for a shuttle mission. “Did Joyce tell you about the numbers?”
He stepped over to a stainless steel opening separating the front and back lines. In neat rows on the sloping floor of the window rested hamburgers and cheeseburgers.
“See these little number cards stuck on the back of each row? That tells you when to throw that food away, like 2 means ten after, so those cheeseburgers got to go.” He grabbed a plastic tub from beneath the grill. “Always put them in the shrinkage bin, not the trash. Carol counts how much food gets wasted.”
“What happens to it after that?”
“We give it to this farmer. He feeds it to his pigs.” Brian looked at the window again, reconsidered and tossed all of the sandwiches into the tub. “I don’t trust any of this shit. My customers get fresh food.”
The trickle of customers turned into a flood as the dinner hour neared. Soon the lobby was packed with hungry diners waiting for the next available register. Brian covered both grills with frozen beef patties. I furiously squirted ketchup and mustard on the buns crowding the round prep table, dealt pickle chips like playing cards. Even Miss Dumpfey got in on the action, manning registers and fry vats, slicing roast beef and dispensing milkshakes. She was the bandleader, the general, the traffic cop. The whole place ran like a well rehearsed choir, the front line shouting special orders and the back line acknowledging with a loud “thank you.” The hum of the customers was the only other human sound until —
Wooden ships on the water, very free and easy…
Brian achieved some sort of burger-related altered state. The beef hissed and the flames lashed at his face. The food vanished from the stainless steel window as quickly as we stocked it.
Easy, you know the way it’s supposed to be…
Brian wasn’t there anymore. He was deep in the crowd that magical night in Bethel, New York when Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young debuted.
Silver people on the shoreline , let us be…
Or maybe he was at Lake Bowen five years earlier, shirtless on a dock while “Wooden Ships” blared from his Mustang. All I know is that he wasn’t on the back line but his body was, effortlessly moving around the little space like he was part of it.
Talkin’ ’bout very free and easy.
“Brian, keep it down. Everybody can hear you,” Miss Dumpfey whispered hoarsely.
“I ain’t saying nothing.”
“You’re singing again.”
“Man can’t whistle while he works?”
“Please, just stop.”
“I thought this was America. It ain’t illegal for a man to whistle while he works.”
Miss Dumpfey moved in on him, grabbed his spatula. “Just get out. I don’t have time for this right now. Go smoke or something.”
Brian threw his paper hat and stomped away. The spell was broken, the soaring three-part harmonies of front line, back line, and kitchen silenced. The last of the dinner rush thinned out. Miss Dumpfey handed me the burger spatula. “Good job, Beamy,” she said and she walked back to her office, humming “Wooden Ships.”