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By Stephen Graham Jones
Dzanc BooksCopyright © 2013 Stephen Graham Jones
All rights reserved.
I come on at four, right after school, and tie my apron and lower my hairnet and get my goggles in place before rolling the gloves on. By the end of the night the pads of my fingers will be pruned from sweat, and the skin around my eyes will be clammy from the goggles—my dad says safety goggles would do the trick, but I prefer the seal of the swimming kind, thanks—and I'll have earned between thirty and forty dollars of what, technically, should be gratuity. I know better, though.
I probably wouldn't care about my fifty-one other cents either. If it was even policy that employees could roll through the drive-through like a normal person.
We're not supposed to handle family either, but that's not so much an issue: I don't have any brothers or sisters, and, my mom, I don't know what I'd ever do if she ever came through. Probably kill myself. Will an aneurysm. Choke on my fist.
The girl who works the day shift, Tandy, she has five older brothers.
For the first few weeks we were open, when the news trucks were here every day to document the process, the phenomenon, her brothers were in line each lunch hour, just to razz her. Make her do her job.
Because it looks good on the six o'clock broadcast to have cars stacked in the drive-through, my dad looked the other way.
I assume that, anyway.
There has to be some reason he'd let policy slide for her and then jam me up for not washing my hands.
And before you ask, no, she's not the cheerleader/yoga type, Tandy. But then I'm not forty-four either, I suppose. Or a dad. On a black-and-white monitor, sitting primly on a toilet in a unisex bathroom, maybe she's every bit the cover girl. Or close enough.
Except—if the camera was actually aimed at the toilet, either head-on or from the top, then I'd have been busted for not washing my hands and for cigarettes. Unless my dad's letting them slide for some reason. And he doesn't let anything slide.
Five hours, I tell myself. Five hours then I can hand the keys to Roy, the night guy, the one who has to deal with the people weaving home from bars, who think our place is the logical halfway point to the drive-through wedding chapel they've always known was at the end of this road they're on.
The novelty's a big part of our draw, I know.
It doesn't make it any easier.CHAPTER 2
Aside from it being the only shift my mom would allow me to work, the four-to-nine slot is what I would have picked anyway. Because the sun doesn't go down until seven-thirty or so. And daylight hours are the best, by far. Or, to say it differently, my dad's customer base mostly slinks out under cover of night.
While the sun's up, the drivers-through are just as embarrassed as you are.
Early on, my dad accused me of wearing my swimming goggles as a disguise, along with the hairnet, so nobody would recognize me. He was half-right. Because the job was supposed to be just temporary back then, I hadn't invested in any of the sleek Olympic models yet, like I have now, but was still wearing my old mask with the snorkel attachment molded to it. Like I was exploring some alien, underwater landscape. My dad calls it the "adult" world.
This from the guy who staged a fit when I declined his job offer, then moped around for four days and finally stepped into his bigger man boots, said he would just take that shift, then: be the proprietor, manager, and stand in the drive-through window.
This was fine with me, but then, sneaking in one night well after midnight—it was a Saturday—he was waiting for me in the darkness of the living room. I imagined him sitting in a wingback chair we'd never had. An evil chair.
I was under the influence of a couple of parking lot beers, sure, but that didn't change anything.
The voice he came at me with was the voice of the devil.
And it's not scary at all, that's the thing. It's simpering, kind of mewling. Like someone with hard shoes is standing on the knuckles of his fingers while he's talking, and he doesn't even want to be talking that much in the first place.
"Guess your mom laid down the law this afternoon," he said.
"I'm only two hours late," I cut back on instinct, my hand already on the banister, to pull me upstairs.
"What? No, I mean ... an ultimatum. I guess that's what you'd call it."
I kept my hand on the banister.
"About the Hut?" I said, not because his tone was giving it away but because everything for the past year had been about the Hut.
In the thick air of the living room, my beer-tuned senses felt him nod yes, it was about the Hut.
"What?" I said, my eyes half-closed now, in a kind of innocent anticipation I shouldn't have even had in me anymore. In the later stages of my parents' ridiculous, days-long arguments, I mean, I usually ended up some kind of hinge point between them, able to tip things one way or the other. And I knew full well that the only way to avoid all that was to say nothing.
But this is why he was evil: he guilted me into that what.
"You know what an ultimatum is, right?" he led off.
"One of those organic tomatoes," I said. "Sure."
The flash of liquid white across the room was my father's smile. But then he covered it with his hand.
"She said if I—if I don't follow through on my promise, then, you know."
"It'd just be a trial thing. Nothing that serious."
"I shouldn't even be telling you this. You should just worry about your own things. How was school today?"
By now my eyes had adjusted enough to see his velvety grey shape in the chair. He was holding one of his alcohol-free beers, the fourth one of the night, I'd guess, going by how weepy he was.
"You mean she wants you to follow through on your promise about how this one's going to work?" I said.
My dad hissed a laugh out through his teeth.
"It's going to work," he said. "That's not the issue. The issue is who's going to work."
"Nobody's calling about the ad."
"Not the right person."
"Listen, you just go on to bed now, cool? I've got some thinking to do. Whether I want this business to fail, too, whether I want to, you know, support my family, or whether I want to take that shift myself, then support my family from, like, I guess one of those Indian Village apartments, probably ..."
The silence after this wasn't thick or cloying or any of that. It was stupid.
I understood now why he had the lights off: so he wouldn't have to see my eyes, accusing him, hating him.
"Somebody'll call about the ad," I said, finally.
"I'm sure they will," my dad said. "Until then, though—"
"I'll take it, okay? Just until you get a replacement."
The silence here was even stupider, because it was filled with my dad's pride. He was beaming.
He held his nothing-beer up, tilted it so the glass caught the moonlight, and asked if I wanted one.
It was supposed to be a father-son thing.
I went upstairs, dug through all my old boxes until I found my snorkeling kit, and didn't even notice for three weeks that the help wanted ad wasn't running anymore.CHAPTER 3
I'm more religious now than I used to be. What comes around's been around before, all that.
When I was twelve and it was summer, all the kids on the block would have these running water gun and water balloon fights. Me and Greg Baines were the oldest two kids, so we got to soak all the third-graders to our heart's content, pretty much. And they liked it just because it meant we were playing with them.
I don't know.
Standing over them with Greg Baines once, this little kid's face and hair and shirt dripping wet, I felt a twinge of guilt that would eventually melt into shame, and make me stop hanging around with Greg Baines.
The thing was, all the water in our pump-up guns, it had been drawn from the toilet.
Now I'm that little third-grader.
My first customer dings the drive-through bell at twelve minutes after four, and the PA system outside cycles on automatically, instructing him to pull forward to the second bump, please, then turn his vehicle off, let us do the rest.
The driver catches my eye for a nervous instant—a Hut virgin, great—then eases forward, kills his car. Five seconds later the metal tracks grind on; they're from an old car wash from the sixties. My dad actually cried when he found them in working order. They're supposed to be able to deliver up to three tons of Cadillac or Buick or minivan or whatever from one end of our drive-through to the other, a total distance of maybe thirty feet.
So far, nobody's got stuck fifteen or twenty feet in.
If they did, though, it's not like we'd have to call the fire department. Just give them a golden rain check from the pad and apologize.
Anyway, every time the tracks grind on and the whole place shudders, my dad, even if he's across town, he smiles.
He really feels like he's providing the world a service here.
I want to touch a scratchy place on my cheek, but that would mean putting the rubber of the gloves to the skin of my face. Instead, I wave the guy in.
He approaches at what I've calculated is about six inches a second, all the junk on his dashboard dancing with the gears and chains under the tracks.
I stop his car when his window is even with mine.
"John or Jane?" I say, not because I can't tell but because it's policy to ask, just to avoid lawsuits.
"John, I guess," the guy says, no eye contact.
We could have this part automated, even have some kind of dispenser, forty-nine cents for a bottle or whatever—and my dad can see the day when that'll be the norm—but for now we're into the personal touch, into keeping things human.
Not to mention that it's hard for a machine to upgrade the sale. In my four months here, we've had nineteen sales meetings about "Selling Up!"
It works in the burger industry and it works at the lube shop, so why not here, right?
I've considered running away, yeah.
"Privacy curtain, sir?" I say in my best cheerful voice, pretending that I actually am a machine, a dispensing unit. That the words have just been programmed into me; that his wheels on our comes around's—the track's painted yellow, even has one corner where my dad tried to stencil in bricks—that his wheels have activated my start button, my sales routine.
"A curtain?" the man stammers into his steering wheel.
I could be cruel here. If I make him wait, there's always the chance he'll wet himself.
Except I've made a customer service pledge, and am already on tape for not washing my hands.
I shape my mouth into a tolerant grin and show the guy the velcro at the top of the curtain, fix it to the fake headliner above me: a demonstration of what he can have for just an extra seventy-five cents. Nothing really, considering.
He nods and I pass it over.
"Gloves?" I say then.
They're in a tissue box like emergency rooms have. I hold them out the window.
"No charge, sir. We believe in hygiene."
He takes one, starts to take another, but I've already drawn the box inside the window again.
"Just one, sir, so we can keep this part of your experience with us free. If you want your own box for the car, however, for your next visit, you can—"
I don't get the eight-dollar box quite hoisted up into view before he's stammering.
"Left or right?"
"Either, both," I tell him, "whichever feels natural. And, in case of accidents—overspray's the industry term—you can have one of these windshield and dash wipes for twenty-five cents."
He takes two, is studying the leather interior of his car in a new way now.
The wipes were my mom's idea.
"What else do I need?" he says meekly.
He's exactly the consumer my father dreams about.
I hate it, but this probably is going to go nationwide. It probably is going to pay for my college.
Next is the male lap-protector ($.49), which is just a round piece of hospital paper two feet across, with a hole in the middle—"for that extra layer of security"—and after that is the molded sponges my dad buys in bulk from the truck stop ($4.00/each or 2 for $7.00!), "for emergencies on the road or in the opera house," and after that, the guy's eyes already starting to yellow, an overflow canister "just in case" ($1.00 if used, $.25 if not), the packet of informational brochures, which includes our FM broadcast station numbers and a window decal, and then I've stepped off the button and he's easing forward, past the window, and I'm looking politely away, jangling the keys he wasn't aware he was going to have to leave with me, for collateral.
Not that drive-offs have been much of a problem yet—my dad says it's because of the "social contract"—but we'd probably be liable in some way if we were to give customers the opportunity to pee into a bottle with one hand and try to drive with the other.
I'm waiting when the carwalk delivers the guy up to the second window. It's been exactly fifty-two seconds: enough time to fill the bottle, shake off, and zip up.
Not that we're supposed to look anywhere but at the roof of their car.
He passes me the warm John and I mumble the total, push the stainless steel tray out. He fills it with whatever, I don't even look.
Aside from the smell of urine, the air of his car is thick with our FM broadcast. It's the sounds of burbling water. One of the early newspaper articles dubbed our station "KPEE"; it's part of our decal now.
I pull the money in, push his keys back out, and we're done.
All of us, I mean. People in general.CHAPTER 4
In the downtime between customers, the suggested duties of drive-through personnel is to:
a) prepare more brochure packets
b) sort through the customer satisfaction cards and mark for action any that need action
c) restock the Upsale items
What I do is go back to the tanks and smoke a cigarette, one glove off, my goggles pushed up to my forehead.
There are probably cameras here as well, but screw it.
If I had my cell on me I could call Prudence, my girlfriend since sixth grade, but something about being so close to my dad's shop-made FM transmitter doesn't allow any signal to get through. Either that or there's so many news satellites trained on us that the bandwidth's all cluttered with attention.
Behind the tanks, like she's asking to be caught, are Tandy's cigarette butts. I usually sweep them up for her. Not because it's a safety hazard—I'm pretty sure that five hundred gallons of urine are only psychologically combustible—but because I could get blamed for them, have to do another Sunday school walk of shame or something.
When I see her, trading off shifts, we don't say anything, because there's nothing to say. We know where we are, we know what we do. On Saturday, the one day we each have off per week, should we ever be under the same food court or lobby or department store security camera, and somebody's watching us on that closed-circuit feed, we'll stand out, I know: the slumped shoulders, the slack face, the vacant, war-torn stare, like we've seen too much already. If ghosts could walk and mumble and wear clothes, that's what we'd be, I think. The only place we wouldn't stand out is the nursing home.
So, no, we don't need to be reminded about this by ever talking to each other.
As far as Tandy knows, too—as far as I know she knows—the new Spanish/English signs in the bathroom about mandatory hygiene procedures are just one more of the suggestions my dad's taken from his small businessman's handbook.
In case you can't read either Spanish or English, there's a diagram as well, a stick-person me, who, after he doesn't wash his hands, ends up outside the Hut, with X's for eyes and wavy lines coming off his hands.
Whether Roy can read or has to follow the diagram, I have no idea.
Unlike Tandy and me, he enjoys the job, always shows up ten minutes early, his thermoses of coffee slung all over his body, a non-regulation bandanna tied around his head, low over his eyes.
Maybe this is what third-shift people are like.
My father used to check on him, I know, ease through the drive-through in some elaborate disguise, trying to trip Roy up, but one night after a three AM spot-check I found my dad in the kitchen, slamming one of his fake beers so fast it was spilling down his chest.
When he looked at me, his eyes were blown wide, his lower lip trembling.
I didn't ask, don't think he would have told me anyway.
After my cigarette—I balance the butt on the emergency flush plug of the first tank, because I'll be back—I drape my right glove over my left shoulder and sort the day's haul of customer satisfaction cards. They're part of the packet of brochures we give. The customer can either drop them in the box bolted to the back of the building or they can mail them in.
Mixed in with the cards, like every time, are religious pamphlets and business cards.
At the bottom, though—at what would have been the top, before the box was emptied— are two tickets for the Bantams game tonight.
I look through my window, out at the city.
He was here.
My hand shaking a little, I spread the rest of the cards and pamphlets across the counter, only stop digging through them when I get to the ones that are always there as well, the cards that are wavy now because they were wet before.
On one of them once, scrawled in pen, was: sorry—didn't have anything else to write with.
There's a reason we use yellow cardstock for the cards now, instead of the standard white.
I pull my glove back on.
Excerpted from Flushboy by Stephen Graham Jones. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Graham Jones. Excerpted by permission of Dzanc Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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