By Jamie Dill
“Will that be all?” says a voice that hasn’t decided if smoking two packs a day are doing it any harm. Is it a man or a woman? I can’t decide, then conclude that it could be either. In this moment, the voice is everyone and everything, crinkling like tissue paper about to rip at the slightest touch.
I see myself there, in that voice, taking orders day in and day out, touching buttons to seal the caloric fate of all who drive through, sure they will find what they’re looking for at the bottom of a cold fizzy cup. Or maybe a warm, bitter coffee; who am I to judge? Then they drive off and the voice rinses and repeats, never feeling accomplished because no matter how many fatty dreams it makes true, the cars keep on coming. Tall, black trucks that barely fit, vans full of babies screaming at their harried mom, tiny old beat-up rust buckets driven by teenagers who no doubt complained when their parents couldn’t gift them anything better but take pride in their freedom anyway. They all arrive here for some buzz, albeit temporary. And on some occasions, maybe hating themselves the moment they pull up, seeking to fill their belly but knowing it’ll turn sour the moment it’s down their throat.
Will that be all? Jim, Louisa, Alex, Tiana …The voice needs a name. It deserves that and far more. No, Jerome, Betsy, Richard, or Sal, that is not all. I want so much more than your smiling franchise facade can give me. Tell me, can you give me a reason for why I am here, idling at your speaker, its handicap assistance sticker peeling and faded like my optimism and sense of adventure? Yes, why here and not out there, somewhere, anywhere, with oxygen that is free of exhaust fumes and grease. Should I stall out, unable to move from this spot for all eternity, what would you give me then?
A horn beeps from behind, patience defined by the assumption that all fast food should be fast, the one promise you can rely on from such an establishment. I blurt out my consent, “Yes, that is all,” but I hardly mean it. I came here for a reason I’ve now forgotten, and I pull forward, not knowing where I am meant to go. Stuck between a faded Jeep and The Horn, I’m neither here nor there. I’ve escaped time, hanging precariously close to the concept of not existing. I’m only car number “umpteenth million” in this procession. I’ve not yet paid for my order, yet they scramble like ants inside, arranging cholesterol and sodium into thin little wrappers, all for the sake of that quick and easy promise, that rush that ensures you can leave this trap and pretend you never came, go quick before you come right back. It is my duty to keep my end of the bargain, remain here in the middle, waiting for my turn to exchange value for emptiness, cash for what is ultimately waste.
If I drive off, I can break this cycle, snap out of the hypnotist’s trick and find that which would actually be all. The Horn would like that. It would move forward even faster. And me? I would be out of reach, finally beyond the mundane and in the palm of purpose, a hand that would serve me far more than salt and preservatives. I’d hold it tight and follow it to places of dreams, places where hope isn’t a wish but an arrived at destination. I could be there, that somewhere over the rainbow and through this madness to a brighter place I’d go, no longer contemplating the possibility of finding it “all” but being there already.
Yes, I could drive off, away from these buns and condiments, the ones prepared for me so speedily! So swiftly! But then…what would come of them? Oh no. The thought trickles in before I can stop it, and now it’s there, rising in volume until all I can sense is enormous fear over the fate of the order I placed but haven’t paid for, my pennies saved but theirs lost. I could get over that, this tiny theft that will no more set them back than if this whole store burned to the ground. A mega grill of international reputation could surely do fine without my few pennies. But what then of the food itself? Surely they wouldn’t toss it into the trash. Would they? Oh, this I cannot dismiss. I was not raised with a stomach for such abuse of resources (processed foods qualifying, even if barely). I make my donations, and I care about plastic in the ocean and elephants with no tusks. Those are important causes, no doubt. Perhaps this one little order, still with no pay, would not hurt them.
And then a voice enters my mind, not the two pack a day nameless speaker box but the soft and gently provoking voice of some missionary on TV, sweetly holding emaciated children in the jungle, sharp angles supporting basketball bellies and dull, sad eyes. He’s judging me. Not harshly but disappointed, which is even worse. Then my old dead gran joins him in saying, think of all those starving children in China, and while I don’t know these children, or why they’re in China, or why my habits affect them, I’m now convinced that I must see this transaction through or some poor helpless child will die tonight from my lack of food. That’s it: finish this for the children.
So I resolve to stay, and soon enough it is my turn to creep up to the sliding window that never stays in one place on its own, jerked open again and again by nails too long for the task and too expensive to result from just one paycheck by this merry-go-round. “It’s a dollar ninety-one, sweetheart,” says Amber. (Huh, I didn’t see that coming, and her voice is not nearly as raspy as it first sounded. Maybe she quit her cigarette habit while I was in line.) I’m suddenly overwhelmed with the need to make her feel human, appreciated, so I tell her, “Have a good day, Amber,” before she can say it to me, before the brown paper bag is fully through my lowered window, across my lap, and passengered beside me. She is already looking somewhere else, somewhere ahead to The Horn behind me when she says, “You too, honey, come back and see me, okay?”
And having saved the children, paid my dues, and slipped back into the stream that pushes me on, I know I will.
Category: Featured, Short Story