(NOTE: I changed the name of this rough draft to “Phatty Burgers” because I learned “Fatty Burgers” had already been used.)
After three weeks, I finally was going to get a day off. Phatty Burgers was closing down for Thanksgiving, which I gathered the Navajo called “Little Christmas.” I was surprised by how the city of Gallup emptied out and shut down, the day before.
In 1984 the day before Thanksgiving in Gallup wasn’t like Christmas Eve was in other places, where businesses might hope to snare some frantic, last-minute shoppers. The only thing anyone shopped for was food, and, while the lone Gallup supermarket stayed open into the afternoon, everyone else looked like they were hurrying to close after breakfast. Even when I drove from the campground into work before lunch I seemed to be the only car inbound on the dusty frontage road through the sagebrush, while there seemed to be an unnatural amount of cars leaving Gallup. Through windshields I saw smiling faces with dreamy eyes, as people left town for some gathering outside the city limits; even most bars in Gallup were closing.
This gave me something to ponder. As a Mutt-with-Puritan-heritage I’d always thought of Thanksgiving as a Puritan holiday. Naively I thought it was only big in New England, or among transplants from the northeast. In fact, I’d assumed Indians would resent Thanksgiving, (thinking they’d gotten the raw end of the deal), but apparently around Gallup they’d embraced the day and made it their own, in a way I didn’t understand.
I’d become increasingly aware (with the help of Splendor) there was lots I didn’t understand and was ignorant of, but I didn’t have as much time to ponder as I would have liked, for two reasons. The first was that Fatty Burger’s manner of training ran me ragged. The second was that on the day before Thanksgiving Quincy Phlabutt grew cross, as the “efficiency number” produced by the cash register dropped from four to three after breakfast, even when Quincy put nearly all the employees on unpaid breaks. The public apparently wasn’t interested in fast food, just before a feast. When the “efficiency number” dropped below three Quincy began sending everyone home. The workers were happy, as they wanted to begin their festivities, but it didn’t please me much; it meant I had to do a lot of the clean-up alone, after we closed when no lunch rush developed at noon. (Quincy had become extremely crabby when the “efficiency number” hit zero). But I attempted to look cheerful, for I knew the district manager Ike Weed was dropping by, and I’d undergo my “appraisal” after work. (“Appraisal” was the word Fatty Burgers used to describe whether they’d give me the boot or not.) I was fairly certain Quincy would bring up much I “needed to improve upon”, and I didn’t want to give him any extra ammunition, by being a sourpuss.
I wasn’t as worried about the appraisal as much as I was worried about whether I’d be able to get my paycheck cashed. Phatty Burgers policy made employees wait for nearly a week before a check was issued for a prior fortnight’s “pay period”. Consequently, it was possible to work a fortnight and then wait nearly a week, nearly three weeks in all, before seeing a penny. Fortunately, when I began working I’d worked three days of an earlier pay-period, and, (though I got no overtime despite working ten hour days), I still got a check for $135.00, minus $15.00 the government raked off for taxes. I had to wait a week for that $120.00, but a $50.00 advance from Ike Weed enabled me to eek by. Then I eeked by a further two weeks on $120.00, waiting for my big, fat paycheck to come rolling in. It was going to be nearly $600.00, (after taxes) with all the overtime I’d worked.
Getting by on what amounted to roughly $57.00 a week hadn’t been easy, especially as Raydoe remained absent and I had to pay the $25.00/week rent on his trailer at the campground. I practically lived on Triple Big Burgers, (as managers ate for free at Phatty Burgers) (but not other employees; other employees only got a 10% discount.)
If it were not for the free food, I could never have afforded the $40.00 I spent, returning to the gas station at the edge of town where I’d briefly worked, and having them weld my muffler back onto the tailpipe, one morning before work. That was as close as I came to splurging for 21 days. Cigarettes had been few and far between, but, even with rationing, my addiction had reduced me to removing the butts from my car’s stuffed ashtray and rerolling the rank tobacco.
The three weeks had been rough, but poverty had its benefits. Not only did I smoke less, but I had to stay sober. Also I could barely afford the gasoline to drive to the campground and back each day, and therefore couldn’t drive to the ranch to see my ex, who I still wanted to make my exex. I was such a fool that I still thought of my pay as “our” money. My last decent paycheck, when I worked helping a lumberyard conduct its inventory, had enabled me to spend eighty dollars on new boots to replace my disintegrating sneakers, and I then drove to the ranch and gave my ex another eighty, so she could buy boots, because her sneakers had completely disintegrated and she was walking about barefoot. But for the past three weeks I couldn’t be a noble fool like that. My life was stuck on hold, on a treadmill of ten-hour shifts, day after day. The prospect of having hundreds in cash to ruffle in my hands was wonderful, but a problem lay in the way. Who would cash my check?
Even cashing the earlier $120.00 check had been a problem. The bank wanted to charge me $10.00, which sent me fuming out the door with the check uncashed. Quincy had agreed to cash that check from a Phatty Burgers register, but he balked at this far larger check. He said I’d have to ask Ike Weed.
I was actually, in some ways, hoping I flunked the “appraisal.” I wasn’t hoping to a degree where I stopped trying or sabotaged anything; I still tried to be a good trainee. But getting the boot would in some way have been a relief, as long as I got my check cashed. I could have gone back to writing poetry and working on my novel. At times pretending I was a management trainee and not a poet felt like I was a sheep in wolf’s clothing. But I had no time to ponder. I hadn’t written a poem in three weeks.
And now I was rushing about dealing with Quincy’s anxiety about Ike’s imminent arrival. Everything had to be perfect, and Quincy kept glancing searchingly through the front window, as if seeking the sight of Ike’s car pulling into the parking lot. The reason Quincy sent everyone home was apparently because he wanted the Wednesday’s “efficiency number” to look good for Ike, but that left him with no employees to make the place look spiffy for Ike, and therefore he harangued me. I was overworked to begin with, and very tempted to tell Quincy not to be such a pathetic brown-nose, but also felt a sort of pity, so I hurried about attempting to make everything spiffy, though I wanted to be a true manager and sit back with my arms folded in a commanding manner like Quincy did.
I nearly snapped when Quincy sent me out to chase down wrappers blowing about the parking lot and put them in the trash, as that was a job for the lowest of the low, but I also have always loved the outdoors, and I also relished the escape from Quincy’s haranguing. The lot was already clean, as we had few customers, but I policed the grounds, looking for the smallest bottlecap or cigarette, and it was while stooping to pick up an especially long, only half-smoked cigarette (which I frugally thought might be worth keeping) that I saw Ike.
Ike had parked by the Supermarket and was attempting to sneak up to the Phatty Burgers back door. I assumed he was sneaking to observe how we ran the place when we didn’t know he was watching. But I knew. I knew because Ike Weed had a jaunty and marvelous manner of walking, and sneaking only exaggerated his walk and made it into a walk like no other’s.
When most sneak they crouch forward and bring their hands up in front, like kangaroos, but Ike couldn’t do that, for his ordinary manner of walking was duck-toed and leaning backwards. Therefore, as he snuck, he actually leaned backwards even further, feeling forward with his feet with each step, as his arms pistoned simultaneously downwards behind him. It looked remarkable, and could be no one but Ike, but I pretended I didn’t notice. I adopted a stern, concentrating expression, as if cleaning parking lots mattered more than two beautiful women walking by. In fact I put on a performance, first glowering left and then frowning with a furrowed brow to the right, and then nodded to myself as if feeling approval, before I hurried in to warn Quincy.
Quincy was in no mood to be warned. He wouldn’t listen. He had noticed I hadn’t policed the far end of the parking lot and began to berate me for my neglect. I tried to interrupt, but he wouldn’t allow it, and then I saw the door behind him crack open.
I immediately changed my tone, and stated, with such brash intrusiveness Quincy was taken aback, “Of course you are absolutely correct. I had assumed I need not check that trash receptacle because the new one you ordered hadn’t arrived yet, after the local teenagers blew the last one to smithereens with cherry bombs and M-80’s. But you are quite right: I should have checked.”
Quincy closed his astonished mouth, swallowed, nodded, and then, rather than just telling me to go back out and check, began to deliver a prissy lecture about how the public is so stupid they will throw trash into a space where a receptacle isn’t. I felt he should be interrupted, so I said, with an expression of gladness, “Hey! Who is that? It must be Mister Ike Weed!”
Quincy wheeled with his jet-black hair flying, and staggered backwards, his bronze face turning gray, as the door swung open and Ike walked forward in his jaunty, duck-toed, manner, smiling broadly, to conduct my “appraisal.”
It seemed a very odd appraisal. Quincy kept aiming the subject towards things I “needed to improve upon”, but over and over things exploded in his face, and turned into things Quincy needed to improve upon. I accidentally made things worse for Quincy by, early in the appraisal, mentioning I urgently needed my paycheck cashed and that the banks were all closed. This revealed the size of my paycheck, and the fact I’d worked ten hour days seven days a week for three weeks, which made Ike raise his eyebrows at Quincy.
The entire interview was conducted in a hurry because Ike wanted to go to his Thanksgiving, which was apparently going to be held in Las Vegas. He had three more Phatty Burgers to inspect, before he turned south at Flagstaff to zoom south to his holiday, and therefore every shortcoming he uncovered was a delay, and made him more impatient with Quincy than he needed to be.
His questioning revealed I had worked three shifts, over and over, but had never worked the shift that was most important. I had worked the lunch, dinner and closing shift, but not the breakfast shift. The breakfast shift was important because that was what I was going to be transferred to, across town.
This was all news to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d be accepted, as a trainee, and was steeling my nerve for the possible blow of learning I was not an acceptable prospect. Quincy kept bringing up my shortcomings, things I needed to improve upon, but over and over Quincy got dressed down for his failures to train me properly. As this continued, I found myself no longer so much the subject of the interview, and more of a bystander. I had the strange sense I had stepped back, and was no longer in the crossfire, but rather was watching two combatants go at it.
Of course, they didn’t know they looked like combatants. They were just two men utterly engrossed in their business, which happened to be Phatty Burgers. They were like baseball fans totally absorbed in batter’s statistics and pitcher’s ERA’s, who so enjoy the game that they aren’t even aware they are arguing as they argue. I was gifted with the detachment of an outsider, vaguely like a housewife who cares not a hoot for baseball.
One thing I noticed was how quickly Ike cut Quincy down to size. At first Quincy was a bit puffed up, seeing himself as an authority about to deliver an opinion, but, as Ike brusquely hurried through his own agenda, he dismissed Quincy’s opinions and wanted only facts. At first Quincy seemed to get defensive, and wheedlingly tried to explain certain things, but when Ike wouldn’t listen and hurried on to the next item on his agenda, Quincy seemed to become offended, and sat up taller and prouder, and even seemed to become slightly frosty. He opened a notebook and coolly took notes, only occasionally asking for a clarification.
Other things bewildered me. They raced through a discussion about a second Phatty Burgers across town, which was apparently just constructed and unbelievably successful. Quincy seemed prepared to start my training for the breakfast shift at that place the Friday morning after Thanksgiving, which caused my guts to lurch, as getting up at 4:00 AM didn’t fit in with my plans to be visiting my ex on a ranch over an hour to the south. But Ike said Quincy had to be present to oversee my training, and Quincy swiftly decided Monday likely would be better. I assumed Quincy wanted to enjoy a long weekend and anticipated getting up at 4:00 AM with an eagerness like my own.
Their hurried discussion made me feel like a pawn between two men playing chess. For the most part I sat back as a detached poet, mentally taking notes on the behavior of two men who had no idea they would someday appear in my novel. Only once was my opinion required, and it sprang upon me abruptly. I responded without thinking, and was sorry I did, for it made Quincy look less than wise yet again.
Ike abruptly turned and asked me what I would do differently if I ran a Phatty Burgers. I spread my palms, looking about, and said, “Most everything looks very good to me, except…maybe…for that.” I pointed at six-foot-high placard advertising “Phatty’s Phabulous Thanksgiving Pheast”, and showing a glossy family sitting down smiling at plates of turkey, green peas, and mashed potatoes with a small, perfectly circular, brown pool of gravy in the middle. I added, “I don’t recall selling a single one of those.”
Ike turned to Quincy and said, “I told you it was a stupid promotion.”
Quincy became more rigid and frosty, and jotted something in his notes.
I laughed, “Oh well, we only ordered twelve of those platters”, and then asked Ike, “Can I grab one of those things? They’re just sitting in the cooler, but I wasn’t sure they were included in the free meals Managers are allowed.’
“You might as well,” Ike sighed, “Otherwise they’ll just rot.”
“Thank you”, I said, which seemed appropriate for Thanksgiving, but the hint of baleful frost in Quincy’s glance towards me seemed less than thankful.
With what seemed to me amazing efficiency and rapidity the interview was over. In terms of what mattered most to me, (the cashing of my paycheck), Ike asked if the day’s deposits could cover the check. Business had been so slow the deposit was only a few dollars larger than the check, a fact Ike noted with a wry shake of his head towards Quincy. Then he opened the deposit bag and counted out the money, handing it to me and taking my check, and telling Quincy to rewrite the deposit slip. I felt a little guilty because I knew Quincy took great care over deposit slips, and also because I knew he wanted to be done and to go home to Thanksgiving. A new slip was extra work. I also felt sorry for Quincy, because Ike never asked for Quincy’s “efficiency numbers.” That might have made Quincy appear more praiseworthy, but he seemed to receive less than little praise from Ike. He received zero. As Ike stood up to depart I notice Quincy’s shoulders sagged slightly.
The cash I suddenly fondled in my hands included many ones and fives and made a beautifully fat wad, making me feel very rich. It included a single large bill, a fifty, and I held it out towards Ike to repay him for the advance he had given me. He looked a little confused, gave me a sort of scornful glance, snapped his briefcase shut, and left without taking the bill, or even asking why I held it towards him. I felt like I had transgressed in some way, but was baffled about what my transgression might be. Quincy was regarding me suspiciously, as he gathered up the deposit bag and went back to the office to write a new deposit slip. I felt like holding out the fifty might have looked like some sort of bribe, and I wanted to defensively explain to Quincy I was only repaying a loan, but Quincy curtly stated, “You can punch out now”, over his shoulder. Something about his tone suggested I should just leave rapidly, so I grabbed a Phatty’s Phabulous Pheast from the walk-in cooler, and left.
I had a lot to think about, driving through the sagebrush to the campground. What’s more, I actually had some time to think. It was only three in the afternoon on Wednesday, and I didn’t have to work until just before noon on Friday. I had a whole forty-four hours! But I resisted the urge to swing into the one place still open, and buy a six-pack-of beer. Instead, I swung in and bought a carton of cigarettes for my ex, because part of the forty-four hours would involve my heading to the ranch and seeing if my ex had any desire to become an exex. I might have forty-four hours free from Phatty Burgers, but I wasn’t truly free. The lot I had to think about included things beyond Phatty Burgers.
As I pulled into the campground I was struck by how myopic my appraisal had been. It was all Phatty Burgers this and Patty Burgers that; nothing but Phatty Burgers. It seemed an ultimate atheism, as if there was no life after Phatty Burgers.
To me it seemed a strange denial to pretend people were so small, and to call it “businesslike”. To me it seemed obvious there definitely was life after Phatty Burgers, beginning with the campground I was driving into, and continuing into an uncertain future of attempting make my ex be an exex. To try to see me only in Phatty Burgers terms was like attempting to judge an elephant by its ear. In like manner, to try to see Ike and Quincy only in Phatty Burger terms was missing what I, as a poet, could see in both characters.
As I switched my tiny Toyota’s engine off in front of Raydoe’s trailer in the campground I had the urge to just sit in my car. Not that I wanted to think. In fact I missed Raydoe, and the way he never gave me time to think. I missed the way he’d say, “Hey Stupid Gringo, why are you just sitting there?” But Raydoe was gone, and I had time to think.
The campground was wonderfully quiet. The barrage of Blue Northers we’d endured was over, and a calm had descended. Rather than from the North Pole, I think the wind wafted north via the Rio Grande from the Gulf of Mexico. It was milder, calmer, and much moister, though there was not a cloud in the sky. There was also not a tourist in the campground. I had time to think.
The tourists had seemed annoying when I was attempting to work on my novel, not many weeks earlier, because they’d invite themselves to the picknick table where I chain smoked and typed, and pretend they were interested in what I was typing, when they actually wanted to brag how far they’d driven. But now I wouldn’t have minded their interruptions, for I wasn’t sure I wanted to think.
Sometimes thinking was harder than working. Working ten-hour-shifts was relieving, compared to battling the banshees of thought. Thought could make me crazy, but work was therapy, like the basket weaving they make madmen do in mental institutions. I took a deep breath, as I sat in my car. I had survived Phatty Burger’s appraisal of me, but I wasn’t so sure Phatty Burgers was going to survive my appraisal of it.