That is what filled the room after Sam dropped the change in the mans balmy hand. Just another day, another transaction with another heedless stranger. One of hundreds.
Sam watched as the man took his tray and hobbled to the condiment station to load it up with salt and ketchup packets before plopping himself on the plastic bench seat. He looked out of place in the corny, carnival-themed atmosphere. Or exactly where he belonged.
“If you have time to lean—,” Tracey, the boss lady, came around the corner from the kitchen. “Say it with me.”
“You have time to clean,” their voices forced, out of sync with each other. Sam had to struggle not to roll his eyes with pure annoyance. He was nearly eighteen, too old to be spoken to in trite nursery rhymes. Nevertheless, he voraciously began stocking the condiments behind the counter in front of her, exaggerating his enthusiasm for his pitiful job.
It was almost nine o’clock, time to close. Sam could almost taste the nighttime air just outside the brightly lit building, and feel his ankles crossed on the coffee table at home, when a man walked through the door.
He drifted to the counter where Sam stood underneath the bill of his fast food hat. “There’s about thirty of us in a bus outside,” the man said. Sam’s shoulders slumped. “We’re touring the rural south and were wondering if we could come in and eat.” Sam looked at the clock. 8:58. It seemed almost like a cruel joke.
The man with balmy hands just watched, waiting to see what Sam would do. He got up from his seat, dumped his trash along with the tray, spilling his drink down the front of the garbage can.
“I’m sorry, we’re about to close,” is what Sam would have said if Tracey hadn’t overheard and hollered, “Of course! Bring them in!” It was policy, after all. If a customer came in just one minute before close, they were to be served.
Thirty people flooded the door, cramming their way in. Orders began flying through the air:
“I’ll have a hamburger!”
“Cheeseburger for me!”
“Fish sandwich with slaw!”
Nobody waited for their turn. Sam tried to assign numbers to each customer, but could not keep straight who had what. Each customer shouted what they wanted, interjected by another customer shouting what they wanted.
To make matters worse, everybody in this particular group wanted a complete six-course meal—main course, two sides, drinks and a dessert. Every order was modified in some way or another—no onions, pickles on the side, light mayo, just ONE tomato.
Sam’s tired fingers flew across the keys, punching in numbers as fast as they could move when the computer froze up. Total stillness on the screen. Absolutely no response. Panic festered in his stomach. His cheeks felt hot.
Tracey cranked out patties and fries in the kitchen behind him, blissfully unaware.
“Uh,” Sam stammered, “Just some technical difficulties. One moment please.” Customers huffed and puffed and tapped their toes.
When he tried everything to fix it but nothing would work, he started taking orders by hand, using the calculator to total up the orders, accepting only cash. Members of the group grew impatient, hangry, and the rude comments began to surface:
“As soon as possible if you could,” one woman smugly tacked on to the end of her order.
"You're lucky I brought cash!" lamented another.
“Where’s your smile, anyway?” one man pointed out.
Sam just about lost it. He wondered if smoke was visibly jetting from his ears, because he could certainly feel the heat from it. He would not smile for anyone, lest they say thank you.
But nobody said thank you. Just stated what they wanted and walked away, expectantly.
Sam glanced at the clock. 9:30. He should be at home already, just getting out of the shower and into his pajamas, cozying up in front of Netflix with a bowl of buttery popcorn. He considered his circumstances for a moment, the harsh fact that all the stress and he had endured in the last half hour had only netted him about five dollars. Was his job worthless, or was it him who was worthless?
“Hellooooo?” A woman demanded his attention, waving her hand between Sam’s gaze and the clock. He nearly bit it clean off.
“I need a chicken sandwich. No Mayo. I have an allergy to mayo and if I eat it, I might die.” Sam was struck by the severity of her request. Was he solely responsible for this woman’s life? Was such a responsibility worth minimum wage? Was she really going to be so rude to the person making her life-or-death sandwich?
No one waited for their orders at the pick-up counter. All just sat their spoiled bottoms down on the plastic furniture, talking amongst themselves, waiting for food to magically appear in front of them.
A young girl, about three, waddled over to the counter, smiling. She asked him for a cup of water. He poured it, and handed it to her in a cup with a lid and straw.
“Thank you,” she said. Sam nearly fainted.
“You’re welcome!” he announced, grinning from ear to ear, almost scaring the poor girl who looked up at him with wide eyes. His heart rate slowed, and his gaze softened. Sam felt humbled and calm, feelings he rarely felt at work. He realized how angry he was at work, how resentful of ordinary people. It was not like him. He was not himself, and could never be himself in such a demoralizing environment. He knew he deserved better, and decided he would quit his job the next chance he got. He didn’t know what he would do for money, but he knew it wasn’t this.
Sam shuttled the trays into the dining room, two at a time, a newfound sense of peace colored his demeanor just in time for the inevitable complaints to trickle in.
“This isn’t what I ordered!”
“I said a LARGE fry!”
“Where’s my mashed potatoes?”
Sam was exhausted, his feet hurt, and his ability to focus on the task at hand was rapidly slipping from him. The group proceeded to swap sides and drinks and sandwiches wrapped in wax paper amongst themselves, repairing the shit-show that was their order. They could tell he’d had it with them, but it was like they didn’t care, like they were trying to drag it out, make his night hell.
It was nearly 10:15 by the time the group finally emptied from the building. It was quiet again. The dining room looked like the end of a rock concert--absolutely trashed.
By the time he'd finished cleaning every last french fry, straw wrappers and crumpled up napkin, it was nearly 10:30.
“You go ahead, I’ll get the lights,” Tracey said.
Sam was coated up and ready to brace the cold, but just as he was about to push the door open, a gentleman pulled it open and walked in.
“We have about twenty people in a bus outside,” he said.
Sam just stood there, baffled.
“We were wondering if we could come in and eat,” he said.
Sam did the only thing that made sense.
“I don’t work here,” he said, smiled, and let the cold, dark air welcome him.