The man sucks at the straw rising from the plastic covering on his Dr. Pepper. There is nothing left of his cheeseburger but the grease-soaked wrapping and a few stray minced onions, and the only fries left in the fry box are cold or burnt. He gulps the last of the soda until he is sucking at the ice, and he lets the rattling gargle in the straw stretch out for a few seconds, until the mother at a nearby table glances over at him. When he notices her look, he plants the cup back on his table and the ice clatters in the cup. The man lets out a satisfied sigh. He lets the whole place hear it.
The mother murmurs toward her husband. The husband looks over at the man and then back at his wife. He murmurs his tired response. He is agreeing with her, but also asking that she mind her business. When the girl at the register calls out a number, the mother goes to get their food. When she returns with their tray of primary-colored cups and kid's meals, the man takes another noisy drag from his empty cup and belches. The small boy at the nearby table giggles. “Oh my God,” slips out of the mother's mouth before she shushes the boy. The little girl wrinkles up her nose and says, “Gross.”
“My fries are too hot,” the boy whines. The father pulls the box away from him. He whines louder, realizing he has made a mistake. They have played this game before, but the boy only remembers that once the father takes the fries away. When the child grunts and whines again, the father eats one of the fries. The child screams. The man eats two more, stone faced, and watches other patrons look over at his family and pass judgment. The father watches the silent faces shout things like “spoiled” and “brats.” There is genuine fury about the family's assault on the otherwise peaceful fast food atmosphere.
The boy's sister chimes in, “I want to go to McDonald's!”
The man in the corner winces at the interactions. He is closing his eyes and breathing deep, cleansing breaths. Each whine is added weight on an invisible crown. His head droops a little, and when the boy says, “I want it,” six times in whining, panicked succession, the man's head droops a little more. When the boy kicks the side of the booth, the man grips the edges of his table and squeezes. He is holding back a rage. The man picks up his empty cup and for a few seconds is content to gently slide his straw in and out of the drink cover. He lets the squeaky plastic take his focus. But the squeak of the straw blends with the squeaking complaints of the grunting children and soon he is listening to their parents' exhausted attempts to quell the building tantrums and he stops the sliding straw. The man slides across the booth toward the family. They notice him scooting awkwardly toward them. They watch him bend forward to scramble around one of his pockets.
He brings out a wrinkled twenty dollar bill.
“I'll give you this to leave right now.”
The parents are confused. They heard what he said but they ask “what?” anyway. It is the polite way to deal with a suddenly present, rude stranger while you gain your bearings. The man slams the twenty down on the table. “That's yours, if you take those walking vasectomy ads out of here right now.”
The father looks to his wife. Her eyes demand that he do something. Her eyes ask “Are you going to let him talk to us like that?” and the father goes to stand up. He doesn't want to be bullied in front of his family like this, but his butt doesn't make it off the seat. As he presses his hands into the table and goes to stand, he looks into the man's eyes. He finally, really, sees them. He sees what is looking back at him. He sits back down and looks at his wife, then to his two kids, who have stopped whining.
“Grab your food, kids,” he says.
The kids collect their boxes and drinks. The wife starts to object.
“Tell your wife to stop,” the man says quietly. He doesn't look at the wife. He keeps constant eye contact with the husband. “This could all get really messy if she doesn't stop.”
The wife gasps but doesn't say another word. When she looks to her husband, his eyes beg her to keep her mouth shut. She does. She scoops up her burger and fries and pinches her drink between her arm and chest. When the lid pops off and soda splashes out onto her corduroy coat, she pretends not to notice.
“Come on, kids,” she whispers, moving toward the door. They follow her silently.
“You're welcome,” the man says. The father grabs the twenty and jams it into his back pocket. He goes to the door, out into the parking lot, and only glances back briefly before ducking into his mini van and driving away.
The man imagines the family driving home in relative silence. Maybe the kids are the first to speak, maybe amid their confusion and the obvious stress of the encounter with the strange man in the burger joint, they start to cry. The young boy cries first, and then his sister, and the mother tries to console them but ends up just staring into the side of the father's face. The father doesn't return the look. He stares out of the windshield, watches break lights blare their red warnings, watches blinkers click at odd intervals, and he blinks along with them as he merges onto the freeway that will take them home. They will unload their things from the car and walk into their house and wonder if the strange man is there, in the dark, waiting for them. They will sit in front of the TV and when they find nothing on that will take their mind from the man with the sinful eyes, they will put in a movie the kids have seen more than a dozen times and they will wait as the buzz of danger slowly dies down. The wife will wait until she is alone with her husband to bring it up again, but he won't want to talk about it. She will insist. She will ask why he did nothing, why he let some guy just boss him around like that. She will tell him they need to make a plan for if anything like that ever happens again. The husband will answer that he is used to being bossed around, and when the wife asks what he means by that, the husband will roll over, away from her, and wait for a sleep that won't come.
Or maybe they will live happily ever after, the man thinks.
He takes his empty cup to the bright line of soda dispensers near the registers. He presses the cup against the Dr. Pepper lever and lets the cup overflow. The foam rushes over his hand, and when he pulls it away and takes a drink, he lets the excess drip onto his chest and down to the floor.
The girl who took his original order is still at the register. The lunch rush has slowed. There is a young couple ordering and no one else in line. The guy wants his burger with no lettuce or mayonnaise. The register girl is new and she is trying to find the right buttons. She is talking herself through it all, “Modifications... lettuce, lettuce, no lettuce... mayonnaise? Mayo, mayo, mayo...” she can't find the place to input “no mayo.” The couple look at each other. The girl apologizes and they tell her it's alright, she is doing fine. The woman asks if it is her first day. The girl nods and begs a higher power to show her the “no mayo” button before she explodes.
“Just please make sure there is no mayo on the burger,” the man says.
One of the other employees notices the girl's posture and the color of her face and walks over. The older employee clicks through to another screen and points out where modifications can be made. The girl says thank you and the employee goes to walk away when she notices the girl making another mistake.
“Are you folks dining in today?” she asks the couple. They nod and she shows the girl how to put that in and assign them an order number. The girl grabs a number tag, sixty-eight, and tells them their number will be sixty-eight. But she marks their number in the computer as eighty-six. The other employee catches it and points it out. The girl smiles. She is thankful for the help, but she would also like to make her mistakes in private and not have them all pointed out for others to see. Her mother would look over her shoulder and question every action like this. Part of why she got this job without telling her mother was to break away from those hovering corrections and constant judgments.
She thanks the employee so she will go away. She gives the couple one more apology with their receipt.
The manager appears from the kitchen. She puts a hand on the girl's back and reminds her to breathe, tells her that she is doing great and she will learn all of this stuff in no time.
The man pops a new lid down on his soda. When he steps up to the register, the girl is taking her manager's advice and breathing long breaths. When she notices him, she straightens up and cranks out the smile she's been working on at home.
“Hello, sir, can I get you something else?” she chirps.
“First day on your own?” he asks.
“It sure is,” she says, smiling harder.
“Not as glamorous as it seemed in the brochure?”
The girl laughs. The idea rolls through her and she laughs again, harder. She realizes she isn't sure what she expected when she applied for a job at a fast food restaurant, but it should have been something like: say the same things over and over all day, do the same things over and over all day, slowly get better at this terrible job until the next job appears.
“The beginning and the end is always the toughest. The beginning is tough because you don't really know what you're doing, and the end is tough because you know exactly what you're doing.”
The girl glances over her shoulder. The manager is busy at the drive through window.
“You shouldn't be so hard on yourself,” the man says.
“I guess you're right,” she says.
“This isn't heart surgery, right?”
The girl is lightening up. The lobby is nearly empty, no one is looking over her shoulder, and the man at the register is talking to her like she is a human being and not a food dispersion robot.
“I don't know, some of our burgers are pretty complicated,” she says. “Our chefs go through some of the most rigorous training in the business to gain the skills needed to craft our Double Down Deluxe.”
The man smiles and looks at the girl's name tag.
“That's the spirit, Jamie.”
“Thank you,” she says.
“Do you need anything else, sir?”
“I do,” he says, fussing with his pockets, “I need a large chocolate shake, and...”
He pulls a black Beretta nine millimeter from his waste band, jerks the slide to load a round into the chamber, and tucks it under his armpit.
“And I need all of the cash in this register and that one over there.”
Jamie's smile jams. A single hard laugh slips out catches. This man was nice and funny and joking around a few seconds ago and now he has what the girl thinks is a real gun with real bullets and real demands for money. The last five seconds play back in her mind, slowly. I saw this in a movie, she thinks. Or a TV show. Am I in a TV show?
“It is your company's policy to comply with an armed robber's demands. You are insured for these types of situations and you should do your best to remain calm and try not to escalate the situation.”
Jamie feels like that is exactly what someone would say in a movie. Those exact words. They sound familiar, but they aren't from a movie or TV. That statement, that exact phrasing and tone, was in her hiring materials. It was on the training video she had to watch. A man in a red collared shirt stared at her from the small TV screen in the back of the restaurant and told her to comply with an armed robber's demands. He told her not to try and intervene, but to stay calm and not escalate the situation.
“Jamie?” the man says. Jamie's smile unlocks and her mouth rounds like she is going to say something. No words come out. “Jamie... I'm feeling escalation.”
The spell is broken. This is real life, and her consciousness comes rushing back.
“Are you trying to escalate the situation?”
“No, sir,” she says.
“Relax, this is easy. You simply need to comply with the criminal's demands. That's me, I'm the criminal. Shall I say my demands again?”
“I need a large chocolate shake...” the man nods until Jamie is nodding along with him. She punches the order into her computer. “And I need you to empty the cash drawer out into one of those brown food bags behind you and hand the cash-filled bag to me, okay?”
Jamie keeps nodding even when the man stops.
“Chocolate shake,” she says.
“Large,” he adds.
Jamie closes her eyes. She is going to cry.
“Jamie,” the man says again. She had been holding her breath and it all comes bursting out.
“Large chocolate shake...”
“And all of your cash.”
“And all of my cash.”
The man claps his hands twice.
“That's it! Easy, right? It will be one of the easiest thing you do all day.”
Jamie rings up a small chocolate shake.
“That will be one eighty-nine...”
She shakes her head and a few tears sneak out. Her automatic responses took over and she can't believe how stupid she is being. Another tear rolls out of her left eye but she keeps herself together. She hits “cash payment” and when the register opens she pulls the bills from right to left, stuffs them into a large to-go bag, and hands them to the man.
“Under the bill tray,” he says. Jamie pulls at the tray and it lifts, revealing more, larger bills. She scoops them up and the man takes them from her shaking hand. She closes the register and speaks through the tears.
“This one seems to be broken, sir, let me try the other register.”
The man smiles. Improvisation, she is starting to get into it. She moves over and repeats the process. This time, her head slightly clearer, she sees the milkshake screen options and realizes she ordered a small the first time. She orders the large and the register pops open.
“I accidentally ordered a small, sir. I'm so sorry,” she says, handing more cash to the man.
“Well, I'm sure a smart girl like you will be able to fix that,” the man says.
Jamie nods. Normally she would wait while someone on mid made the shake, but she grabs a large cup and does it herself. She plunges the straw into the lid and slides it across the counter.
“There you go, sir. Will there be anything else?”
The man takes a long pull from the shake and sighs his approval. There are customer satisfaction forms in a brochure holder on the counter and he takes one.
“Nope, that'll do it, Jamie. You've done a great job and I'm going to let it be known on one of these little cards here. Keep up the good work.”
“Thank you for choosing Bombs Away Burgers.”
The man nods and walks out to his pick-up. When the manager runs out after him thirty seconds later, he is gone. When they check the cameras, they will find what eight other fast food places in the city have found, that a man in a stolen Toyota Tacoma has managed to steal nearly five thousand dollars in small bills without getting caught and without being identified. The employees all share similar stories: a middle-aged man approached them during a low traffic time and asked for a large chocolate shake and all of the cash in their registers. They all reported the same black metal pistol, the same calm demeanor and knowledge of their robbery response protocols, and the same robbery procedure. Each also, after sustained prodding, reported a strange likability to his demeanor. None of the employees could pin it down exactly, but they suggested that they almost immediately... liked him. They were caught off guard, they were scared by the gun, but he somehow was able to put them at ease. They liked him.
When investigators asked Jamie if she, knowing the man's identity, would offer it to authorities, she paused.
“Oh,” she'd said. She'd furrowed her brow and tried to nod with certainty, “Oh yes, of course. He had a gun. He broke the law. He robbed the place where I work. Of course, of course I would tell you. I wish I could help.”
The detective saw a hesitation. He saw an effort to nod, to make the words appear, though they were in direct opposition to her actual thoughts. Her head nodded but her mouth curled at the corners. Her brow furrowed but her eyes shined. She hugged her own shoulders and slumped forward and tried to convince him of the intense fear the man made her feel, yet even as she cowered in her chair, the detective could see her cheeks trying to instigate a smile. He watched her fight the smile as she remembered what the gunman looked like.
As he walked away he considered relaying the same story, again, to his Captain. He assumed the man would screw up one of these times, that he would pick the wrong employee or pick the wrong time. The detective was content to wait for the screw up, to not push too hard, but his Captain might not agree. For a moment he considered his own job, and what life would be like charming fast food employees while robbing their fast food chain employers. He stopped, turned, walked back to the table where Jamie was still sitting.
“Sorry, Jamie, just one more thing,” he said.
He saw her shoulders rise slightly, a new tension in her neck.
“Could I get a chocolate shake?”