Hamburger Hill

by John Higgins

fast food kitchen

It wasn’t the blue, checkered shirt, an optical illusion that still stank of the last employee’s sweat; it wasn’t the frayed trousers, with a torn ankle that hung open like a mouth; it wasn’t the greasy, slip-proof boots that wouldn’t be out of place in a gulag.

No, it wasn’t any of these things that made Jack Cranly cringe into the changing-room mirror. No, it had all been fine, he had been relatively ready to sleepwalk his way through another minimum-wage job for as long as it took him to hit the big time. He didn’t even mind how his belly hung over his waist like a chessboard sac.

It was the hat. That dark-blue, second-hand hat, the inside stinking of hair gel and spotted with dandruff; the peaked cap slipping down over his eyes to occlude the faces of anyone over 5′10; the words embossed upon the center, yellow, luminous, ‘Burgerjack’s’, underlined with a signature flourish, the ‘J’ capped with a miniature, yellow, plump hamburger. It was the hat, the hat was seriously humiliating. He had bemoaned that hat to his parents since receiving the uniform, but there had always been a tongue-in-cheek tinge to those complaints. Here, now, trying that fucking hat on beneath those unflattering, blinking fluorescent strips, it was really beginning to sink in.

Descending the poorly-lit, box-strewn stairs, he felt his stomach twisting. He went through the usual routine: clenching his teeth, pulling his arms away from his body to prevent sweating more than he already was, pushing away the question that was bursting through the fog covering his mind. He slowed down on the stairs, taking each step with deliberation, and the question slowly receded as he signed his name to the clock-in sheet affixed to the wall, beside a tallyboard encouraging upselling. The question, what if anyone sees me?, became less and less clear as he walked into the kitchen and started work.

At the orientation a coffee date with the manager, who had outlined the ethos of the restaurant he had been told that he would be under the tutelage of a Transylvanian woman who had lost her milk teeth cooking for soldiers in Norfolk. For the first quarter of his inaugural ten-hour shift, he would be under her filmy, drooping eyes.

The knot of tension had loosened somewhat, as the sound of bubbling, spitting fryers and whirring fridges, the ripe smell of grease and the smoky smell of burning assailed him, and softened a little the misery of uncertainty that pervaded his mind. A layer of grease on the dull-white lino made his shoes schlep as he took tentative steps through the empty kitchen, to his workspace, the grill.

He walked the length of the grill-area: about fifteen-feet of steel, three of that being the scuffed grill itself, the metal dulled golden-yellow by grease and wear. Above the grill was a screen, currently empty, that showed orders; in the right-top corner, a stopwatch at rest.

The rest was a dressing-station, a strip of polished metal stocked with sauces of every color in plastic guns, racked up with their butts jutting out; plastic tubs of onions, two different kinds of lettuce, stacks of cheese, dripping tomato, and pickles with raised serrations so defined they looked cartoonish. Beside this stack, a bun toaster; at his knees, stacks of buns with freezer condensation misting up the plastic bag they came in. On the wall behind him, a how-to guide for each burger: The JACKpot: Regular bun, 1 squirt Mayonnaise, 1x cheese, 1x regular beef patty, 2x tomato, grilled lettuce, 2x pickle; The JACK of all trades: Sesame bun, 1 squirt JACK’s secret sauce, crispy lettuce, 1x regular beef patty, 4x tomato, 1x cheese, 1x regular beef patty; Mighty JACK: Sesame bun, 2 squirts BBCUE sauce, crispy lettuce, 1x mighty patty, 2x pickle, 2x tomato, 1x mighty patty, 2x cheese, 1x mighty patty, 1 squirt BBCUE sauce.

Her face appeared around the corner of the grill, the laugh she’d been having with the solitary cashier slowly vanishing from her face.

I’m Nunu, she said. He took the proffered hand like a hiker’s foot and gently shook it. She took a spatula from the bucket hanging by string over the edge of the grill, and handed it to him. You’re on grill, she said, before he had time to formulate an introduction. She went to the fridge on the other side of the narrow thoroughfare that brought you from the back of the kitchen out to the counter and the dining mezzanine. Her hands moved quickly, her fingers fluttering, over the unmarked plastic tubs of wrapped beef and chicken.

Regularpattiesmightypattieschickenbreastsgrilledbreastsbreastsforfryingchickenportionsnuggets, and then she shut the fridge, the last tendrils of frost dissipating in the heat of the kitchen. She pointed to the screen, orders, hovered her hands over the grill, you make, then looped around to present to him the dressing-table. Dress. She pulled at onion, onion, then released it back in a snowfall of grey crescents, lettuce, she waved a leaf, then picked up another, crispy and grilled, she pointed into the tub of tomatoes, tomaytos; with two hands, she held a stack of cheese, cheese; and finished by drawing his attention to the pickle slice she was waving around, pickle.

OK, OK, Jack nodded, doing his best to act as though to him this was the most interesting display of veg he’d ever seen. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the sauces so she waved her hand underneath the shelf. Every sauce. She patted her knees. Buns.

Right.

Quiet now so try practice with the buns. Come on come on.

Jack approached the dressing-table. She didn’t move when he bent to take a bun. Using his fingers, in the sesame-strewn gloom, he searched for a seam on the plastic bag of buns. Must be one here somewhere, a little tear or a seam or even a pouch or flap. She sighed and batted his hands away. She ripped the bag apart. Buns spilled onto her boots. She picked them up and threw them back into the packet. You just rip, she said, handing him a bun. See? she demonstrated, taking the torn chasm and miming the rip. You understand?

Yeah, I just was looking for a… He shrugged. He laid the bun down on the metal table, dissected, crown and heel kissing the steel. Wha, uhh, what’m I making? he asked, after a few sweaty moments tugging at the different sauces, inspecting the contents of the opaque plastic tubes, pretending to be applying a process to his lack of understanding.

Oh any, any. I’m tired and I want to go home.

Uhm, OK. How about, uhm, he turned to the wall and scanned the list of burgers. JACK’s, uhh, Faithful?

Yes yes.

Jack went for ketchup, 1 squirt, onion, 4x, lettuce, grilled, cheese, 1x slice, and presented it to her.

No no no no. You need to dress the crown. She picked up the heel and waved it at him. Cheese, onion, lettuce, sauce slid down it, leaving a Jackson Pollock. You dressed the wrong side.

A lot of this. As Jack began to get the hang of it, he started to get more wrong: the way he was holding the sauce guns, the orientation at which he was placing the cheese, the unequal way he was distributing the slivers of onion across the bun. He felt like throwing the spatula across the grill the surface peppered with the skin of burgers that he hadn’t been able to lift without peelingand telling Manos or whatever the fuck her name was to get off his case. It wasn’t difficult to make burgers; he was well capable of it. Wasn’t he?

No no you wrap it like this. She snatched the mass of bun, meat and paper out of his hands. She did a hasty demonstration, the majority of which was blocked by her hands, and handed it around the corner to the cashier. She glanced up at the clock, beneath the steadily-ticking timer that was reset every time an order was logged as ‘through’. She unstrapped her hat and sighed as her head reflated or whatever the hell it was.

Done, she exhaled, her voice catching in her throat to produce a baritone effect. Back home to sleep.

grill

Now Jack was by himself, and thriving, he felt. He entertained notions of being the regular fixture, the guy they called in to man the grill whenever some newbie was making a balls of it, something kinda like ‘the fry guy’ but for the grill. Hey Jack you got any tips and tricks for the new guy here? Well you wanna hold your spatula at a more upright angle than that more 45 degree if anything otherwise I tell ya what lemme just show you.

And it’d always be stuff for his book and probably his Wikipedia bio. Cranly’s experience working in a Burgerjack’s in his hometown became the basis for his first novel, etc. etc.

Nah never mind him he’s just uptight, he could say to the new guy about the manager, the main thing here, he’d add, dropping his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, is to chill and not really give a shit. That timer up there? Ignore it.

Chapter One: New Blood

Joseph Campbell took the spat from the trainer’s hands and got to work. The feel of the wooden handle, chipped, rubbing against his palm just felt right. The fryers beside him bubbled, spat up their boiling phlegm. He slapped patties down on the grill, peeling the heat-resistant gloves he was wearing away from the minced-meat saucers. He let them sizzle for a bit, savoring the smell of frying meat, mixed with the underlying cadaverine of long-digested meats. He loved the wet slap of meat on the silver slab, loved the overpowering, almost dangerous, howl of the meats before they subsided into a low, venomous hiss.

Hey. A new cashier now. In the midst of his methodical reverie, he hadn’t even noticed shift-changes come and go. Can you start paying attention to orders, she said. There’s been like six complaints today. Her shirt, supposed to be pressed and immaculate, was flecked with breadcrumbs from manning the chicken station, breading the breasts and fillets and dropping them in baskets into the oil.

Oh. Jack flushed. He cleared his throat and tried again. Oh. Still sounded feeble, pathetic.

I know it’s your first day, but try and do a better job, ‘kay? She smiled, thin-lipped but there was something sweet, amiable, in that round, spotty face. She disappeared, her shadow on the lino and her voice low under the sizzle and hiss and bubble and toil the only indications of her existence.

The redness slowly, slooooowly, ran from his face. He shrugged to himself, reassured himself that everyone, of course, everyone fucks up on their first day. But think of the fucking creatures they’d had in before him. How bad had they been? He was aware, as was everyone else in Ballycottrell, of the high turnover rate at Burgerjack’s. He consoled himself with more fry guy projections, coupled with sexual and romantic fantasies involving a certain chubby, pizza-faced cashier, as the evening rolled on. It was already three o’ clock. Only seven hours left.

Through a narrow space between the soda machine and the grill, he could see the window of the restaurant, out onto the forecourt; he could see the spotlights in the dining-area; he could see the tables, the white Formica covered in trays, the trays overflowing with paper fry-and-nugget papers, ripped burger cartons, bleeding, twisted ketchup packets, half-empty salt sachets; he could see the queue of customers slowly milling towards the till.

fast food trash

Then a face appeared. He recoiled, disappeared from sight. Was it? No. Yeah? He peeked out, slowly. He could see an Adam’s apple, embedded deep in a neck craning up to accommodate a face scanning the menu overhead. A small head, perfectly-round. Smattered with freckles, so close they bled into each other. Barry Brennan. A couple of years ahead of Jack in secondary school, but not so far ahead that he wouldn’t recognize Jack; unfortunately, also not so close that he wouldn’t love, fucking love, to be able to tell everyone he could about how the big college boy was back in town, flippin burgers. He was talking to the cashier now. His lips moved soundlessly, the words drowned out by kitchen noise. His thin lips pulled back, to reveal rounded, dull teeth. He was wearing a black fleece, the right breast emblazoned with the crest of some quarry firm, probably, or the name of an abattoir. Jack imagined his boots, splattered in offal and blood.

Barry pulled out his wallet, a heaving slab of leather packed with paper, and thumbed through notes. Laid the correct amount on the counter. His order popped up onscreen.

‘Course he’d want a fucking JACKpot. How generic. Almost as generic as slopping about in a slaughterhouse or on a building site or in a factory with only a Leaving Cert to decide your self-worth.

Jack made the burger, hiding behind the soda machine and waggling the wrapped JACKpot around for the cashier to find. He went back to work, keeping one eye on Barry, devouring his burger and fries in big chunks.

The manager came out of the office, finally, and strolled towards the grill. Her black shoes slapped off the lino and heralded her approach. She was a portly woman, and carried herself like a government minister, with her hairy arms crossed at the small of her back. To accompany the sound of her steps, she also tapped her knuckles against her palm. She smiled. Most of her teeth were hidden up in her gums, ashamed of their twisted form.

How’re we getting on? she asked. Jack whirled around the from the grill and stammered.

Good, she said, after he spluttered out an unconvincing ‘fine’. Have you gotten your break yet?

Uhm, nuh no, not yet. The smell of burning brought him back to his patty. He flipped it, turned back to her, then saw her gaze going towards the cooked meat and the beeping timer above his head. He turned back, made a thin laceration with the edge of his spatula a cursory check for pinkness in the charcoal-black meat and scooped it onto the dressed bun. He wrapped it, in the untidy way he’d taught himself, keeping his work hidden from the manager, and handed it to the cashier. Their fingers almost touched over the grease-spotted paper. He made a mental note to reach further. The timer stopped beeping.

Mark’ll be here to relieve you ‘round six, the manager said. Gertie, the name badge pinned to the breast of her Colgate-colored shirt said. Gertie. What could he bastardize her name into in his book? Bertie? Bit too on the nose.

Oh, uhm, uhh, that’s fine, he nodded. The screen pinged for another order. Here was the time, to prove how much of a natural he was. He went to the fridge, then realized he didn’t know what he was looking for, went back to the screen to get the order one JACK of all trades and went back to the fridge, realized he still had the spatula in his hand, darted back to the grill, with one foot still in front of the fridge, left the spatula in the bucket, returned to the fridge, got the meat he needed, and waited for the compliments to come.

Two meats, she said. He looked at her. He felt his eyes goggling, bulbous. Two meats for a JACK of all trades.

Sh fu yeah, yeah, I I, uhh, yeah. He rectified his mistake. Wisps of fridge frost cooled his burning face. He made the burger in silence.

Jack didn’t reckon he was doing so bad. He had successfully made some burgers. He had saved the day with his quick reflexes. He’d even had a moment free of brain drain, wakening from the sleepwalk that set in between three and five, where he had had to act with clarity.

The problem was, he’d read a single order as three different orders, due to the fucking stupid screen, and so ended up with three JACK’s Faithfuls. His first instinct, as he’d handed the actual orders to the cashier, had been to throw them in the bin in the corner of the kitchen, reserved for dropped dressing and end-of-day meats. Instead, he’d wrapped them, leaving them to warm beside the grill, and when the time had eventually come to serve a few of JACK’s Faithfuls, he’d been ready ahead of time. The timer had barely had time to begin counting down. He’d saved the day. Well, no, he had the capacity to realize that he was aggrandizing slightly, but genuinely, he supposed, he had saved time, effort, even saved money on burgers that would have been thrown away.

Mark came in. He was unshaven, but not the stylish kind of unshaven. More the shadow of last night, red-eyed kind. The beard was brown, but the strips trailing down from the corners of his mouth were tinged with ginger, the same color as his hair and the same color as the almond freckles that contributed to his body’s sunken appearance.

You’re the new kid are yah? he asked, approaching the grill.

Uhm, yeah. Jack pulled at bits of lettuce and onion littering the counter, wiped crumbs to the floor with his sleeve, hopped lightly from foot to foot.

Mark. Another hand came his direction. This handshake was firmer. Mark’s hand was as speckled and brown as his face. You local are yah? he asked, taking the spatula from the bucket and scraping red streaks of grease off the grill with it, using it like a plow.

Yeah. Then, Jack added hastily, but I’m just finished college in Enn-You-Eye. Gee. Looking for work to keep me tipping over ‘til I figure out what I’m doing.

You were in Galway? What were you studying? He dropped the spatula on the grill. The blackened tip sizzled.

Arts. But I try not to brag about it that much.

Probably a good idea. He was crouched now, shaking up the bag of buns, tutting at the hole ripped in the plastic.

Yeah. Well. It’s good as a stepping stone.

Mark straightened up. His spine cracked as he stretched. He could nearly touch the ceiling. He was tall enough, and then his spindly fingers gave him that little extra push. That’s fair enough. I’m only in college meself. Lettercarrick during the week, Burgerjack’s at the weekend.

Ah right. Jack did a cursory scrape of the grill, dragging the spatula with one hand over the dots and ridges of grease.

Not telling you your business now, Mark said, nodding at Jack’s in-out hand motions, but you’d be far better off usin’ two hands for that. Like this, show, and he took the spatula, did the demonstration again, and handed the spatula back to Jack. Dumbly, Jack mimicked, ever wary of the spatula giving way, shattering into millions of pieces, and sending Jack flying face first onto the scalding grill.

Not telling you your business, but you wanna go a bit harder. Really get into that auld grease an’ shite. Jack complied, digging into the pools of black grease and burnt hamburger hills.

Two hours later. Mark, after much complaining and box-punching, after three different petitions to the manager and after nearly breaking his foot kicking the fridge, finally got his break. He passed Jack out, tipping him a satisfied wink that belied his earlier displays of rage. His tray was loaded up with chili-fries, onion rings, and a somewhat overdressed burger, the crown soaked through with a kaleidoscope of sauces, the heel broken with onions, lettuce, and different kinds of patties. Jack was alone on grill now.

That cashier came round once to complain on a customer’s behalf. Crispy lettuce not grilled lettuce. Jack scrambled for a joke, came up with: Eh, what’s the difference, sure?

One’s grilled and one’s crispy. Make him another willya?

Uhm, yea yeah, sure. Right away.

The slap, the sizzle, were getting tiring. They were turning his stomach. The heat of the grill forced fresh drops of sweat to roll down his slickened body. The hair poking out below the band of his hat was plastered to his forehead. He was tired of the grill now. He instead took his pleasure in the methodology of dressing.

Some staff night out. Jack in the center of everything. The flash of the nightclub lights mixing with the flash of phone cameras immortalizing the staff of ’18. Jokes about that guy who comes in for a cup of pickles every now and then. Drinks on me. Next round’s mine. Jack and shitdidntgethername Amy, call me Amy, out in the smoking-area. Usual country nightclub, in some small town they’d had to hire a bus to get to. Same Fifa ’17 songs blaring from the one speaker hung up over the locked fire-exit. Same brown shoes and pints of cider clutched in ringed hands. And here, in the smoking-area, Jack and Amy. She asked him for a rollie, and to roll it for her too.

Jaysus you want me to smoke it for you too? he winked, flattening a skin out on the back of his hand and sprinkling tobacco into the trough. She laughed. She slapped his arm. Her soft hand lingered a moment, one tender moment, and her fingers traced little grooves, just for a second, into his bicep.

Chapter Four

The thing with Amy was that, even though she was fully supportive of his artistic career, she wasn’t invested enough in anything outside of the world of minimum wage. They’d had rows, blazing rows that usually culminated in angry, bedrocking riding, over his apparent lack of interest in career.

But there’re careers outside the fast food industry, Joseph would say. She’d flick her blonde hair, pout a little, and reply:

None available immediately to you though. What about this supervisor position? You basically have the job anyway, why not just apply? You know Orla’d be delighted if you took it. Otherwise fucking Mike gets it.

Mike’s been there longer, Joseph shrugged. He made a rollie and smoked.

He’s shite. His head is gone with all the drinking up in Lettercarrick.

Every guy needs a hobby.

Yeah, well, he isn’t interesting enough to drink.

Maybe that’s why he drinks. So, what, you want me to give up writing?

Oh, c’mon, you’ve sold six stories, isn’t that enough? Isn’t your legacy there. If I look up

Joseph Campbell, your stories come up.

It’s not about legacies. It’s about truth.

You can get your break, she said, as Jack handed her the new, improved, grilled-not-crispy-lettuce JACK of all trades.

Thanks, Amy, he replied.

Huh?

Oh, uhm, nothing.

He sat in the break room. Jack watched himself eat in the mirrored walls, watched himself scoff down salty fries, watched himself munch on a squirting hamburger, watched himself sip off-brand fizzy orange from a straw.

Once he’d eaten, wiped the ketchup off his face, pissed in the adjoining unisex crapper, and scraped his tray into the pedal-bin, he went to his backpack and fished out his book. He sat back down, and thumbed open John Mcgahern’s The Pornographer, sitting with the cover to the door, proudly displayed.

Gertie came in. She stood at the door, patting her pockets, for a moment. The tinkle of keys and coins took Jack’s attention from the book.

D’you think you can stay on after ten?

Huh? Oh, uhm, I err, I have a lift, he shrugged. Her eyes bored into him. He felt his face reddening, even in the cold of the draughty staff room.

How far of a drive’re you out?

Uhm, maybe 15 minutes?

I’m on ‘til close, I’ll drop you home. We’re gonna need you to stay on to help Mark shut up the place.

I guess I can then.

Coming down the steps again, he was kicking himself. Fuck, he was nearly done as well, only he checked the analog clock mounted above the sign-in sheet two hours left of his shift.

Still, he must be fairly indispensable already.

Chapter Six

They asked Joseph to stay on later. It was a regular occurrence. No biggie for him. He’d clean down the grill, mop and sweep, exactly like that Tom Waits song, then get back to his baby, Amy, lying in bed, waiting with the light on. She’d be busy reading the latest excerpt, the latest periodical, of his book. He looked forward to collapsing into her arms, looked forward to hearing her exult about the latest, breathless, hilarious truths he’d imparted on paper. He looked forward to that, as he cleared up the job ‘done’ by the new kids on the block. The place was spotless and deserted. He went home.

Chapter Twelve

They asked Joseph to stay late. He told them he’d love to help them out, but he couldn’t. There was nothing left here for him anymore. Amy and him were over. Citing irreconcilable differences and artistic dissimilarities. He’d done all he could. He’d withdrawn from the supervisor position and had put in a good word for Mark. He was done. He hung the blackened spat on the rail and left.

He dodged out the fire-exit, not wanting to complicate the goodbye, and crossed the forecourt. The smell of frying hamburgers gave way to the ripe stink of petrol. He took this as a foreshadowing of his life. What was left for him was on the road.

He checked his break with a chewed pencil on the sign-in sheet, pleased with how he’d taken two minutes extra but rounded down to the exact half-hour he had been allotted; already learning the tricks of the trade. He went back to the grill.

The screen was overloaded with orders. Mark had one foot in front of the dressing-table, the other foot in front of the grill, and he was stretching from one to the other, flipping half-cooked burgers, sprinkling onion, dropping buns down the toaster chute. Jack hovered, uncertain, not wanting to disturb his flow.

Ah there y’are. Here, can you go get those dishes done? He jerked his thumb around the corner, to the sinks piled up with plates, knives, forks, spoons, pots, pans, metal strips detached from the fryer that steamed half-submerged in the yellow water, the cage for deep-frying chicken in its own sink, the utensil a crowbar-looking yoke, with two rounded handles for dipping the cage into the chamber of oil poking up through the sudsy water beside it. Jack went to the sink and started washing.

Sometimes, reaching tentatively into the grimy water, he touched the soggy skin of chicken, or a cluster of limp fries, and he recoiled, splashing his lap with water. His shirt was spotted with spreading, black patches where the water hit him. He scrubbed the dishes with the crushed sponge on the draining-board. He let them drip-dry on the metal trolley beside the sinks.

To his right, Mark appeared infrequently. Usually, Jack just heard a swoosh, or sometimes Mark swearing, and sometimes he happened to be daydreaming, washing on autopilot, and Mark’s freckled neck would hove into view. The insistent beep of the fryers, the clank of chicken dropping into baskets and then the snakeyowl of the basket being lowered into the narrow vats, the rattle of fries being shook from the ends of plastic bags. Jack drowned all these sounds out with the rush of the tap, bleeding warm water into the sink.

Stop doin’ that, Mark said, appearing suddenly at his shoulder. Jack jumped. He dropped a plate into the water. The water grumbled and burped.

Clean this yoke first, Mark continued, slapping the chicken cage. It rattled. We need it Aye-Ess-Aye-Pee.

Right, right.

And not tellin’ you your business now, but you wanna use a bit more washin’-liquid. What you’ve got isn’t half enough. He turned to go. If you can see the water, you’re not usin’ enough.

Jack turned his attention to the chicken cage. The metal bars were encrusted with chicken skin. The sickly yellow from years of grease setting into the metal caught the light. Jack rinsed the sponge under warm water and started running it along each thin bar of the metal grilles that made up the sides of the waist-height cube. Some chicken skin came away easy and tumbled into the drain, other flecks clung on stubbornly. Jack picked at it. His nail began to hurt so he gave up this course of action. He grabbed one of the knives lying on the draining-board and began to hack away at the crust on the bars. Then he scrubbed, trying to restore some semblance of freshness to the tarnished cage. After forty minutes, he had one side done.

Here I’ll give you a hand with this yoke, Mark said, pushing Jack aside and reaching for the cage. He lifted it, then dropped it and flicked bread-crumbed skin off his fingers. Ah here, you’ve not even it a qwater done.

It’s tough to get it clean.

You don’t want it clean, you just want ta be able to throw chicken in it. Here, he took the sponge from Jack’s hand and began to scrub the bars, holding the cage still at the midway point with one hand, scrubbing ferociously, red-faced, with the other. Chicken skin skittered over the floor. He did the other three sides in about five minutes, with periodic checks of the now-empty order screen.

Give me a hand, he murmured, taking the cage and hoisting it. Jack reached for the cage, setting his hands uncertainly on it. No, no, open the vat.

Jack turned to the chamber, and unscrewed the lid with the regulation red gloves. The oil was placid, almost skinned over with inactivity. Jack reached again for the cage as Mark slowly lowered it into the oil. Jack touched the top as it plopped to the bottom.

Jack was ashamed to admit it, but he began to cry a little. Not from anguish, or genuine sorrow, or even anger. No, he cried from unfairness. The unfairness that had led to him spending two hours scrubbing pots, pans, dishes, getting his one uniform destroyed.

They weren’t rolling tears. It was just some wetness at his eyes, some stinging, and a lump in his throat that he swallowed down. Don’t act out, he told himself, that’s what the cunts want. They wanna see how little the college boy can handle. He stacked up some new dishes on the spaceless trolley.

Gertie came, clicking a pen. What time’re you in tomorrow, Jack?

Ah, I don’t think I’ll be coming in tomorrow, Jack heard himself saying.

No?

No. He let the silence hang in the air, then saw she was happy to do the same. He added, you seem to need me to be more flexible than I am and I’m not that flexible and I need lifts home I can’t walk home or anything it’s too far and so I think it’d be a waste of both our times if I kept working here.

OK, fair, she sighed. You’ll have to wash the uniform and bring it back.

Yup, will do. A beat. Sorry, uhm, again.

Close came. He didn’t really have much to do then. He’d washed all the dishes, could imagine his hands becoming a description in a book he’d read once: chapped, washerwoman’s hands. Nope, just a little pink from the warm water. His nails were sore from picking at breadcrumbs.

Mark swept and mopped the floor, collecting the muddy water into a pool and pushing it down the grate beneath the sinks. Jack scraped at some spots on the grill.

D’yeh wanna clean it again? Leave it, Mark said. Jack dropped the spatula into the bucket and ambled about the place. He walked around the dining-area, straightening the chairs stacked legs-up on the tables. When he noticed he was leaving watery footprints on the tiles, he skipped back into the kitchen.

Mark was putting away the last bits from the trolley. He slotted the rail up over the fryers with a dull click. Jack watched him drain the mop into the bucket.

Right, d’yeh need a lift or anything?

Nah I’m fine, I Gertie’s dropping me home. Thanks.

Right, well, I’ll see you ‘round here. Mark shuffled away with the mop bucket. Jack stood alone in the kitchen, wishing for his bed to come.

Back home, then, after hasty, embarrassed goodbyes hanging out of Gertie’s car. He climbed the stairs, turning off the hall light as he went up.

His room was encroachingly Amyless. No lamp left on, no fashion magazine spread out over her duvet-wrapped feet. He closed the curtains, ignoring the all-night lights of Burgerjack’s over the fields.

He opened up his laptop, fighting off tiredness by reminding himself of Bukowski, who drank all night before work and wrote, and Hemingway, Joyce, Fante. He began to write.

Chapter One

It wasn’t the blue, checkered shirt, an optical illusion that still stank of the last employee’s sweat; it wasn’t the frayed trousers, with a torn ankle that hung open like a mouth and lunged for his foot; it wasn’t the greasy, slip-proof boots that wouldn’t be out of place in a gulag.

*******

John Higgins is an Irish writer. His work has appeared in Honest Ulsterman, The Blue Nib, and Black Horse Review, among others. Check out his work on Twitter: @JohnhigginsW

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