(Art by spoon+fork.)
“I’m not your boss or anything,” Howard said when I came back to the stand. “You know, though, that your lunch hour was too long today.”
“Go take your lunch now,” I told him. “I’ll give you an extra half hour today.”
“Well, I’d rather wait a little bit,” he said. “You know I like to eat late in the afternoon.”
“Just go now,” I said annoyed. “You can take as long as you want.”
“Can’t argue with that!” he said and promptly disappeared.
I turned my back on the order window and sat on the counter. I decided to make myself a grilled-cheese sandwich because it wasn’t a burger. I tried to save money by eating as much as I could at the stand, and then taking a burger or two home for reheating and I was already sick of them.
A knock came at the window when I was finishing my sandwich.
“Break time over yet, son?” asked an older man with fuzzy white hair sticking out from the collar of his shirt. A lot of our regulars were old ugly people. Or maybe our food was making them old and ugly.
“How about cooking me two hot dogs, already?” asked the man.
“Coming right up, pops.” I went to the refrigerator and rustled up some crap dogs.
When we were getting ready to close for the day, I noticed that the griddle was a little scummy and a lot of smoke was coming off the charred stains on the surface.
“You clean this thing every day?” I asked Howard.
“Honestly, no,” he said.
I looked under the sink.
“You’ve got plenty of grill bricks here, that should do the job.”
“I hate using that thing! It smells like a bad fart.”
It was true. The bricks were porous and looked like dark chunks of pumice. They broke down into black crumble as you scraped them around, releasing a smell like fresh shit.
“If we don’t use the bricks,” I said, “we’re not going to get the griddle clean and we probably won’t pass a restaurant inspection.”
“Fine, but I’m not doing it.”
“Oh, but I’m supposed to?”
“How about I give you a steady supply of these babies?”
Howard reached into his pocket and pulled out a joint.
I leaned against the sink, crossed my arms and looked at him hard. I had never wanted to get high any less in my life.
I wasn’t going to screw it all up now. My whole life was frankly about fucking up all over the place. The work ethic I had learned in jail, all the reading I had done and the grace of God that the younger Sean Kerry had served so well would ensure that I was straightened out for life.
I had a vision of me, years and years from now, up in heaven, sitting with my mother’s mother and father, whom I’d never met. They were holding me, telling me they loved me and were so proud that when the Devil acted through that dirty boy Howard, I had turned him down flat and sent that serpent scurrying for a weaker soul to tempt.
I looked Howard directly in the eyes and knew exactly what to say.
I took the unlit joint in my fingers and held it against the incredibly bright window shade. I shifted in bed a little to get away from the morning light and accidentally dropped my lighter in the sheets.
I fished around for it for a little bit before I found it. The lighter was made out of cheap orange plastic and I could see the fluid trembling in it. I ran my fingers over the grooves on the lighter’s flywheel.
If I lit this joint, I would be in violation of my probation. I could go back to jail for several years, and this time it wouldn’t be in the Romper Room section.
Then I figured that by just having it in my possession, I was already in violation of my probation. If I got caught.
I lit up and inhaled. When I let it out, I could see layers of cold ocean mist in the smoke.
When I was done I got my slippers on, glided to the bathroom and dropped the roach into the toilet. Less than a week out and I was already smoking pot again. At least I waited through the whole night.
I felt pangs of shame. But the feeling didn’t stick. It never did for me.
I was already feeling vaguely good about myself by the time I got to work.
I cracked my neck as I walked into the door. I opened the freezer and I checked the date on the hamburger patties. I pried out two and threw them onto the grill. I pulled the lid off the plastic tub of potato chips and vacantly munched as I watched the burgers cook.
“So what’d you think?” asked Howard.
“That was some good shit you gave me,” I said. “Where the hell you get it from?”
“Heh, I have a connection who gets the stuff from the Southwest. It’s grown in a special lab and genetically modified.”
No wonder Howard moved like he was underwater. I was nearly sleepwalking and it wasn’t just because this was my first hit in a while.
It was worth a joint a day to deal with the grill and fart brick.
I don’t understand why the hippies were complaining about gene modifications if it made pot better. A lot of good could come out of playing God.
Two of those joints would make me think I was God.
It was still hours before the lunch rush started, so I even took the time to put on tomatoes and lettuce before I ate the burgers. Between bites I said, “C’mon, Howard. Seriously. Who is this guy?”
“Dude, I can’t tell. I swore it up and down.”
I stared at the bubbles in the bloody runoff on my plate.
The first few hours of work were a haze as usual, but I had a pleasant, furry feeling that took a while to go away. When it did, I felt like my safety blanket had been yanked off. I shivered a little and drank some coffee to warm up. Then I drank more coffee to wake up. When I was ready for my break, I went back to the boardwalk.
My eyesight was incredibly heightened. I walked by a sausage-stand guy and saw his eyelid zits.
I found myself at the Sweet E salt-water taffy stand by the amusement park end. Like nearly every building by the shore, the stand was made completely out of wood, even the doorframes. It was a defensive measure because the sea air ate away metal like it was a Crunch bar and had a taste in particular for cars. It left rusty bite marks if you didn’t wash and wash your car regularly.
The Sweet E was a gleaming white illusion against the sand and sun. It was always cool inside and smelled like powdered milk. There were mixing and packaging devices in the back, but the puller machine was way up to right behind the counter. It was fascinating to watch. The puller had several horizontal metal pegs that weaved in and out. The guy would come out with a ghostly mass in his hands and put it on the pegs. As the puller stretched the stuff into taffy, the guy poured syrups into it, creating colorful shimmering ribbons.
The whole process is hypnotic, especially if you’re buzzed.
About seven people were standing in front of the puller when I came in. A man in his 50s stood behind the register, wearing a splattered sleeveless t-shirt. His huge arms were crossed over his chest and his eyes were fixed on the ass of a girl in front of the puller.
“This job’s got its perks, huh?” I said.
He turned to me and a faint smile came over his face. When a man in his 50s smiles big, he could pass for 45, even when he’s lost most of his hair.
“I barely have a job.”
“Seems like you’re doing good business.”
“Can’t charge ‘em to look. Wish I could.”
” I’ve been coming here more than 20 years, you know?”
“Look, Joe Blow,” he said leaning into me, “I don’t have time to waste talking to a fucking pothead. Use some fucking Visine at least.”
I nodded and left. The high was now completely gone.
I let a guy sucker me at a goldfish stand. It was the easiest ring toss on the boardwalk. If you weren’t a complete idiot you could win a fish on the first dollar. Thing is, though, once you had the goldfish in a plastic bag, you were obligated to buy the fish bowl for another $5 and then some fish food, gravel and a little ceramic house for another $5.
So I was down $11 when I got back to the hamburger stand. I rinsed out the bowl and gravel in the double sink and then poured the fish in. I put the bowl in the shade outside the stand and shook some flakes into it.
“That’s a nice fish,” Howard said.
“What’s his name?”
“I’m not going to give him a name.”
“No name? Isn’t that kind of mean?”
“He’s happier without one. Nothing to tie him down.”
“Well, how far can he go? He is stuck in a bowl.”
I wanted to drink something sort of healthy so I made myself a cup of Sprite with ice. It had natural lemon and lime.
“Howard, how long are you going to keep working here?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been here five summers already. Why not a couple more?”
You measured your jobs by the summers, not years, because almost every job in Shore Points was seasonal.
“You worked here while you were at Sack, right?”
Sack was short for Shore Area Community College. We had a saying in high school. “If you can’t hack it — Sack it.”
Howard said, “I used to sit right here and read novels from the jazz age.” He patted the back of his plastic chair. I didn’t want to ask him about it in detail because I hated jazz music. It sounded old.
I thought, Christ Almighty, I went to prison, he went to college, and here we had the same job. That showed you how useless school was, or at least how useless Sack was.
When I got home, I put the fish bowl on the window ledge above the toilet. I ran the bathtub water and got in. I sank my head under a few times, trying to play hide and seek with the goldfish, but whenever I came up he was staring right at me.
(Part 4 next week.)