There’s a McDonald’s store that’s not operating that well. The kids who work there aren’t organised properly and fart about, which makes it hard on a certain manager who is quieter than the rest.
‘Justin, we need two Macs please.’ And this manager rests her arm on the hamburger outflow and waits — remaining calm and together.
But only one slides down.
‘We’re waiting on one more!’ Her voice rises a little.
Something needs to be said to the customer so she turns to a fat lady with kids.
‘We’re just waiting on one more. I’m so sorry for the delay.’
Back her arm rests on the outflow tray, and waits some more. But there are more customers queuing. She bends down to look behind the burger stand.
‘Justin! We need one more Mac! Now!’
‘I’m not a fucking dumb! It’s coming,’ and the second burger’s thrown on the outflow tray.
But it’s squashed. Discreetly, unassumingly the manager tries to stretch it back then puts it on the fat lady’s tray. It is a bit risky, but she figures the fat lady will probably take the mangled burger — she’s been waiting a bit too long and the kids are starting to play up.
But she’s figured wrong.
‘You the manager girl?’
‘This place is run like shit! And now you’re giving me shit to eat! Look what you give me! Would you eat this? Would you feed your kids this?’
The manager looks at it again. No — it doesn’t look too good. She then apologises to the fat lady and reaches over for a fresh Mac, (miraculously another two are already there) and puts it on the tray next to the mangled burger.
But the fat lady is waiting for something more.
So the manager offers 3 complimentary thick shakes.
‘I don’t like thick shakes. Give me 3 chocolate sundaes. Big ones.’
But as the manager explains, policy allows her to only offer complimentary sundaes in a regular size.
‘No regular! I just want a big size — three chocolate sundaes for my kids. Do you want a argument?’
The lunchtime shifts are the worst ones to do, still Carolyn’s well mannered about it, except perhaps for the squashed burger. But it’s the kids working there that she’s supposed to manage. The 16, 17 year olds who’ve ended up here through a subsidised work program. They’re nearly all boys and they’re constantly eating, so by the time it’s deducted from their wage they don’t have a lot left. And this is why there’ve been wrapped burgers returned with huge bights taken out of them. Pay for one? Well you’re only getting half.
This isn’t the only place Carolyn’s worked at, but coming next April will be her ninth year. And sitting in the small office cubicle at about 2.30 to do up a new roster, she begins feeling really pissed off.
But you wouldn’t know it. If you are Justin, standing by the frystand (she moved him from the burgers) you’d only see her writing, with her head lowered. Not writing fast, nor really slow, but doing it in that careful of hers.
What a contrast:
Carolyn knows the manager who does the shift after her. He can slam the top shelf of the burger tray demanding all burgers be done now! And he’s young, only a couple of years older than the kids he’s barking at. But seeing nine years in McDonalds, most do grow up, move on. And with this tall guy Carolyn sees, banging and striding about as he feels a manager ought, will in a year have finished his degree and left here for his new job.
His name is Milos and he and Carolyn seem to get on well. He talks about heaps of things and always asks her advice or opinion on the latest thing.
‘Carolyn, what do you think? I’m still trying to develop a theory on that.’
She’s good at answering. Intelligent responses that gets Milos thinking more.
But this one time, it’s different.
‘Carolyn, what about this. What if the human brain had to lose 20 percent of its matter, what parts would you get rid of for it to still be fully functioning?’
This isn’t him joking. And Carolyn knows where he got the question from as well, one of those extra-curricular classes. Moving her head rightways she tries to assess it but can’t. He picks up on this.
‘But Carolyn, don’t you find this interesting. That as a mathematical possibility, if there’s a way of compressing the brain matter by 20 percent for it to be configured with greater accuracy — could it work faster, quicker?’
But Carolyn can only shake her head.
‘You know Milos. You’re a really smart guy, but you can also talk a lot of crap.’
‘What do you mean?’
He lowers his head for her to answer. If it was one of his girl friends, he wouldn’t have cared. But none of them would say that: ‘I don’t understand this shit’, may have been the closest they’d come. But that’s a different thing.
She may have been trying to make him look like shit, because he had plenty of that, from older women and also men — who were frightened: 20 years older and still they’d never slam a burger tray like he does. But replaying how she tilted her neck to think about his question, and when she’d decided on it, looked at him, straight on.
‘You know Milos, you talk a lot of crap.’
‘So you think it’s stupid what I say?’
It’s turned busy and she doesn’t answer.
But Milos doesn’t dwell on it, analysis of that kind doesn’t interest him.
Carolyn’s tired by about 3. It’s the chemical smell from the buns when heated that makes her head droopy. She stands by the burger stand so she can look down. It’s after school so it’s mainly kiddy snacks.
Milos sometimes arrives early, and often sees her standing like this. From behind, her hair tied back and the hanging slant of her head, slightly to the left. For a long time now his reaction has been:
‘Mmm. That’s nice.’
But these last two weeks it’s developed to ‘Mmmm, really nice’, and it’s the strain of her neck he now looks to.
She turns and places both arms on the top frame of the burger stand.
‘Charlie, how are the junior burgers coming?’
She sees he’s struggling and if she had the energy herself, she’d perhaps go around to help him, but today she can’t.
The only thing moving is the certainty she’s not coping. The Drive thru’s stalled, and a 4 wheel drive is still waiting on their fries.
‘How long for the fries Justin?’
He picks at his teeth and looks up at the clock.
‘I’d say about 3 and a half minutes.’
‘That’s too long.’ She’s panicky.
She presses her clenched fist up against her lips: Should I? Shouldn’t I? Something’s got to be done.
‘Nuke the cold fries for the 4 wheel drive order. 10 seconds only, that’ll make them warm but not soggy.’
‘Serious?’ The finger’s dropped from Justin’s mouth. ‘We’re going to microwave cold fries? He appears excited by the prospect. It’s the fastest she’s seen him move.
Then of course he wants to do the rest of them. For the first time, she sees him elated, animated. ‘We’ll get it done quicker.’ That’s true. She sighs to consider, then is suddenly aware of Milos watching.
Oh shit! And her cheeks immediately burn. She smiles cutely, totally out of character, trying to compensate: it’s wrong I know, but no one’s really hurt. Only Milos looks serious (the way all men in her family look when they’re displeased). She turns back and sees Justin serving out fresh fries.
‘You need some help there.’ Is barricaded by
‘No, everything’s fine.’
She smiles to mask her fear. He’s dressed in black with a navy backpack over his right shoulder — he is very handsome. But when he edges closer the inside of her head thumps.
‘Where are the others Carolyn?’
‘They’re on their break. They’ll be back in a minute.’
The thumping gets worse, and then she knows why, she hasn’t been properly breathing. It’s when she’s stressed. When she used to be shouted at or given angry looks, she’d hold her breath, taking air gulps when needed.
But she’s been through all this — she knows they’re feelings only, not real. No one is trying to hurt her. But she resents that patronising tone used by her psychologist. Concentrate on breathing — tummy in, tummy out — and looks at Milos.
‘You sick Carolyn?’.She focuses on his face and continues breathing.
‘I’m fine. Just tired.’
He doesn’t know what’s happening so he’ll turn away in a sec. Not that it matters now, your job is to breathe: in, out, in, out; try also to relax. She closes her eyes. Relax.
Her eyes open. He’s still here? She focuses in on his face again, doing her breathing still, and then she’s struck by the changing ripple — his brow has creased and the mouth softened. He’s concerned, she’s dumbfounded. Wouldn’t expect that from him. She isn’t conscious of it but her breathing’s now normal.
She was in shock ages after being told. It was classified as a restructure, but the only only person it affected was herself — demoted in favour of a younger female manager. Carolyn knew her, trained her years ago. She’d be 21, 22 now and probably fatter, always had a mouth on her — could never shut her up. I am not working with that girl was her only demand. Ok they said. Ok she replied. That’s good.
Takes a while to sink in. Arseholes. Carolyn kept repeating it. Arseholes. You say it so calmy observed the teenage girls she was working evening shift with now. Yes well, easy come easy go. This feeling of detatchment gave her a surreal kind of pleasure. I am above this.
A little later she saw Justin sitting in the plaza food court, around the time he should have been at work. So they’ve sacked him, as of course they would. Oh well, but still, poor kid. Then she felt it — an awful stabbing anguish in the middle just below her breasts.
There’s a tremendous discipline in maintaining positive thinking! Similar to following a diet where you can’t have bread, can’t have dairy — only thought filtering is considerably more difficult. Exhausting. But she was sick of being defeated (correction) self-defeated. The first week was a real struggle but she established a rhythm into the second week whereby on Saturday, a couple of incidents which normally would have tripped her — didn’t.
I am stronger for this! Absurd how confident she was feeling. But Milos seemed annoyed. They were on their break, standing amongst the topiary weeds. She asked if there’s anything the matter? He looked into her face and told her he didn’t understand. Smoke rushed from his nostrils after the initial drag of a new cigarette.
‘You’ve been screwed and you don’t do anything about it.’
It fitted perfectly as the undertone. She wasn’t able to answer him. Only questions. What could I do? What option did I have? What were the alternatives?
‘I couldn’t do anything!’ She thought her tone had a level neutrality to it, except for the last bit when she got a little emotional.
Milos directed the smoke plumes upward, better shut up. Only the silence was like a sound tunnel, everything echoed back at her.
I feel crap. I feel crap. I feel crap. She knew it was her own internal hysteria. But fuck she felt awful. Carolyn tried controlling herself, which is why she stayed clear of Milos, only later to have him shout down at her from the opposite end of the counter.
‘We’re running out of white blub here!’
He’s talking about the stuff they use for ice cream. Carolyn arches her left eyebrow. Milos isn’t deterred.
‘I said we’re running out! You going to get some?’
He’s angry. The internal spin of her head accelerates. Get it yourself she wants to tell him, but goes looking for white sludge anyway. Carolyn scans the fridges for it — takes her ten minutes — then realises there’s none left.
‘So no one’s ordered it!’
‘Doesn’t look like it!’ Her hands flounce around her hips and she tries gritting a smile. This is so awful.
She’s feels sick in the tummy, too many cigarettes and orange juice. Should try and eat something. Reluctantly it’s a baby cheeseburger, and she chews and chews at it — trying to get it passed that swollen lump at the back of her throat. Hopeless. The perverse imagined: the lump will grow bigger, liquified protein and vegetables her only source nourishment, then finally coaxed into going for tests, x-rays…
It got so bad she thought she’d have to go home, but serving out front has helped calm her. This guy she’s taking an order from looks beyond her, up at the menu.
‘I’ll have 3 Big Macs, … 2 regular fries, …no wait. Change that to a large fries. Also a medium coffee and also a strawberry sundae.’
‘We don’t have sundaes, the machine’s stopped working.’
‘Oh?’ He’s disappointed. ‘What else do you have?’
‘You can have an apple pie.’
‘Does ice cream come with that?’
‘No sir, the machine has stopped working.’
‘What? Another one’s not working?’
‘No, it’s the same machine that makes the ice cream.’
He still seems a little confused, but he accepts what she tells him. Again Carolyn asks if he wants to order the apple pie. No he won’t. She then asks if he wants milk and sugar with his coffee. No, only black. She then asks if there’s anything else he’d like to order? Shakes his head, ‘Nope. Nothing else.’
Carolyn then confirms his entire order by repeating it back to him.
‘Yep, that’s right.’
She asks if he wants to eat in or take away.’
Telling him it comes to $11.45, she’s about to go and collect his order when he asks.
‘Do you want to take my money for it?
As procedure, it’s only when the order’s ready, on the tray or in the bag, when money can be transacted. But that’s really a stupid rule.
‘Sure. You can pay for it now if you like.’
Smiling slightly she takes his money from him, then when returning his change she smiles again.
‘You have a lovely smile.’
Here we go, she’s had this before.
‘But you do look very sad.’
Her foreheads going.
‘You do.’ And places the change in his wallet.
She shrugs her shoulders.
‘Can I ask how old you are?’
Wondering if she’d better not continue this, she says 26.
’26! That’s a great age, I wish I was that old again. You’re a beautiful young woman, you need to be out travelling, having a good time.’
‘Yes. I know.’
Fighting against her crumpled forehead, she just wants to run.
Milos hopes she’s alright. She hasn’t been her at work for nearly two weeks now and his calculation is, she’s not coming back. Could call her, but she doesn’t have a mobile. There’d a home number written down. He looks through the scrappy exercise book (where all staff details are kept) and immediately spots it, Carolyn’s arched, thin script. He examines it for sometime then closes the cover. What’s the use.
The look Milos gives Carolyn when she walks in the door, poor guy. She comes up and says hello.
He gives her a half nod, is unsure of how to react. He’s parked behind the counter with the added protection oft the register console. Must have really scared him.. He waits for her to say something, but she doesn’t know how to start. She wants to avoid small talk. But he moves away, down the opposite end of the counter where he points to the floor while shouting to one of the cocky arsed boys.
‘Clean that now!’
Carolyn reaches into her coat pocket for her car keys, but Milos returns and resumes his place behind the console. She loops the keys full circle around her forefinger.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t say anything when I walked out that day.’
She sees his neck and shoulders automatically stiffen.
‘You were upset.’
‘Yes I was. Still that’s no excuse.’
She sees him hesitate before asking.
‘So. You feeling any better?’
‘Yes. Much better than I was.’
‘That’s good…you look better.’
It’s the same look he’d been attracted to.
She sits with him as he has his break. The coat she’s wearing with its square collar makes her look soft and extremely feminine. Milos looks down at his triple stacked burger, he’ll finish this in three bights.
Carolyn asks him about uni and he tells her about his honours thesis. She looks impressed and offers a few suggestions.
As Milos eats his second burger, she absently stares out the window. The strip of late afternoon sun barely has any warmth and she crosses her arms up against her chest. Air conditioner still isn’t fixed.
He asks if she wants another coffee. She says no. Then as a kind of second try he nudges a box of fries over to her side of the table.
‘No thanks.’ She says. ‘Stopped eating that crap ages ago — a year and a half to be exact.’
‘What’d you eat then?’ He reaches over to take back the fries.
‘Brought my own stuff. Though that should have been the time I left. Not now.’
‘Oh well.’ He follows her gaze out past the window. ‘That’s alright.’ Then throws his head back to inhale the rest of the fries.