Snack Pack • Golden
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
Around twelve-thirty, by some small miracle, all of us were caught up on our tables, turning in fresh orders at the window, ignoring the cooks’ baleful glares. Nora wiped her forehead, fanning herself with a ticket pad. “We’re out of regular coffee. I’ll get some going.”
“Great,” I said. “Have we got enough salads? Last I looked, we were running low.”
“Just made some,” Marki said.
“Okay. I’m gonna pour a bunch of ice waters to have ready.”
“I’ll wrap some more silverware—” Trish started, but we were suddenly interrupted as Ronnie came stalking through the galley, eyes straight ahead and face grim, scattering us like chickens.
“When you’re all finished gossiping back here, there are a few customers that might need some service,” he muttered, wheeling around the corner before anyone could say a word.
Silently, we all turned to our tasks while the slow burn of acid crept into my throat.
Up front, the phone was ringing, ringing, ringing. I stalked out to the counter and grabbed it. “DownHome Kitchen, how can I help you,” I snapped.
The clamor of the restaurant faded to nothing as I stood there with the phone against my ear. On the other end, there was only silence. A waiting silence. A listening silence. On the other end of that line, something had been waiting for me all night, something was probing, tasting me, something was grinning, was—
With a jerk, I clawed the receiver into its cradle. I stared at the phone, cold flesh crawling inside my sweaty uniform.
Because the storms to come would be like nothing the world had ever known. In their wake, there would be no more restaurants. No more music. No more walks in cow pastures with a sixpack of Bud Light. Cats, dogs, birds, trees, gone. Cinnamon rolls, Mondo or otherwise: gone. Jokes and tears, fights and hugs, all gone. Instead, there would be rivers of flame, sulfur skies raining blood. And laughter. Laughter, black and hideous—
“Weather Forecast Office, OAX.” I hadn’t even noticed I’d dialed Valley WFO. This time it was Andy the hydrologist on the other end. Good old Andy, who always asked my hair color, my age, my favorite song, all to no avail. Suddenly, I wanted more than anything to tell him exactly who I was. To see his face and let him see mine. To tell him what was coming, tell him if the thing that had been dialing the restaurant all night, waiting patiently for me to answer so it could freeze my heart, so it could suck my soul right out through the phone lines, if it got through…
But somehow I knew my job was now more than just to warn. I had angels on my side. I had my mouth open to say something, but—I blinked, looking around at all the tables. I seemed to be awakening from a dream, grasping at its fading strands, finally left with only a vague feeling of dread, of…duty.
“Um,” I said. Crackerjack, Marshall. You just called the WFO from inside the restaurant.
“Well, whadaya know, it’s you! And you’re not even on a payphone this time, it’s…DownHome Kitchen?” Why did he sound so shocked by that revelation?
“I, um, was just eating here.” Shit. “No.” I sighed. “I work here. I’m a waitress here, Andy. Will you keep me on the down-low?”
“I will if you tell me your name, beautiful.”
“Victoria.” The hell with it. “Victoria Marshall. People call me Tori.”
“Whew. Wow. TM, you have my solemn word.” It sounded like he meant it. “Look—our ground-based system detected a lightning strike directly on your restaurant fifteen minutes ago.”
“Yep. Knocked the lights out for a bit.”
“Knocked the lights out.” Andy laughed shakily. “Here’s the thing. It was a positive strike, okay, not negative. And by the recorded discharge, you shouldn’t even be calling me right now. ‘Cause right about where your restaurant sits? Oughtta be a nice, big crater and not much else.”
“Guess we had an angel looking out for us.”
There was a pause. Then: “Shit.”
There was the clunk of another phone. “Who is this?” Vicky, operations officer. I’d never heard fear in her voice before. “Is this you? Did you make this happen? You knew about it!”
The accusations faded as I slowly hung up.
By one a.m., the restaurant was in total chaos. Two bussers were AWOL, and I was hastily clearing off my corner booth, when someone grabbed my ass. I twisted around, fist half-cocked. A group of people who’d apparently bypassed the Please Wait to be Seated sign were now all standing around innocently, looking off in different directions. “Gonna have to ask you all to leave,” I said, grabbing the loaded bus tub and sliding out of the booth.
“What for?” said one of the guys, scooting right past me into the booth and pulling his girlfriend in after him.
“Yeah,” said another guy, grinning up at me as he followed suit. “What for?” I was suddenly certain he’d been the one. Two more of their friends crammed into the booth with them.
I turned and plopped the tub of dirty dishes smack in the middle of the table and went to find Ronnie, ignoring the squawks of inebriated outrage in my wake. He was alternating between calling names off a waiting list and running the register. I elbowed my way through the crowd of hungry drunks. Ronnie didn’t look up, so I tapped him on the arm.
“I need you to tell some people to leave.”
“One of them just grabbed my ass.” Someone nearby heard me and guffawed.
Ronnie’s hands paused. Then he went back to his list of names. “Takahashi?” he called loudly. “Party of five?” I stood there staring at him, waiting. “Tori, I’m kind of busy here. Help out and show these people to their table and then go take care of your section.” He handed me five menus and turned back to the podium.
I stood there a moment longer. Then I escorted the Takahashi party to their table before looking towards my section. At the corner booth, the tub had disappeared, and Ronnie was vigorously wiping down the table, his face pale. He straightened as I approached. “All your meals are on the house tonight.” His voice had a slight tremor. “And I’ll get you a different waitress.”
“Oh, no!” The guy who’d grinned fixed me with bloodshot eyes. “Uh-uh—we want her!”
In all, I made seventeen separate trips to their table. First it was coffee, then a side of toast, then ’57 Sauce, then a parade of other shit they didn’t even use—all ordered piecemeal, of course. Once, I had to clean a nonexistent spot that was bothering them. When I pulled the ketchup bottle out of my pocket, the folded want ads plopped out on the floor. The girlfriend giggled. “Better hang onto that after tonight.” Laughter. Face burning, I grabbed for the paper, but it disappeared, trampled underfoot by a noisy crowd of exiting diners. While I was bent over scrambling, there was a click, a flash, from the corner booth. When I straightened up, Guy Smiley was fanning the air with a fresh Polaroid.
After an eternity, my lovely guests rose, leaving the table heaped with dirty dishes and uneaten food. A couple of them glanced in my direction, smirking as I waded in to clean up the mess. I filled two tubs and was lifting the last plate. It was Guy Smiley’s second order of pancakes, barely touched. Submerged in the lake of syrup was a single quarter.
Slowly, I lowered the plate back down on the table, a dull pressure beginning to throb behind my eyeballs. The quarter swelled in size, filling my vision. It seemed like the throbbing pressure was coming directly from the quarter. From a great distance, I saw my fingers plunge into the syrup and pick it up. I slid out of the booth and walked through the restaurant, shoving squawking customers out of my way. Out in the parking lot, the Snack Pack was just getting into their car. Guy Smiley was waiting for his door to be unlocked.
I walked up behind him. “Hey, you forgot something.” When he looked around, I stuck the quarter on his face. It stayed there, looking like a big shiny booger.
I turned, walked back in through the rear door of the restaurant, and grabbed my backpack and keys. When I came out, their car was still there, now vacant, and my mind was churning over what had just happened. The only job I’d ever had. The only true love I’d ever known. Both most certainly over now. The fact that the entire city had nearly been destroyed again seemed a distant footnote.
I drove west on Van Dorn, over the viaduct, out past the baseball field, turning onto the utility road that runs alongside the old grain elevators on the edge of town. I drove out to where the road ends in a T and parked there at the picket sign with its crazy, broken arrows pointing nowhere. As I got out of the Buick, a chilly breeze sliced the stagnant air; my skirt rippled around my knees, and I gathered it in my fist to climb through the barbwire fence.
Walking along the ridge to where the mouth of the canyon spills onto the flat, dry pond bed with only the lightning to illuminate my path, I gauged the approach of the shelf cloud rolling up I-80. In a few minutes I’d have to get back in the car, but right now I just needed Marissa.
The buffalo grass had filled this spot in years ago, concealing the place where the old tan Rambler had sat for years rusting in the sun. Tonight, I didn’t need any mark or sign to tell me where it had been. I stood on that insignificant patch of ground, feeling the sun through the windshield, hearing her sandpaper voice from outside the car, where she squatted peeing in the grass in the fall of our senior year, before we’d settled on Norman, Oklahoma.
“My promise to you, Doc. Graduation day, diploma in hand. I’m crashing your reception.” She zipped up her jeans, and in the rearview, I could see her digging in her pocket for a lighter. “Staggering in with my cap and gown still on, trashed outta my fuckin’ mind!”
“You are not.” I cracked open another beer. “You’d never, not in front of my dad.”
Marissa reeled in mock inebriation, flattening one palm against the side window and squinting in at me with one eye. “That’ll be the fun part. You gotta cover it all up so none of your relatives notice. Ha!” She dropped into the passenger seat and slammed the door, produced a joint from the pocket of her bomber jacket and lit up. The jacket had belonged to an ex-boyfriend of Rusty’s current girlfriend, and as Marissa stuck her feet up on the dash, sinking into the seat, she disappeared into its stiff creases ’til all that was visible was a tuft of straw-colored hair. A jet of smoke erupted from the collar. “A year from now, you’ll be blowing their shit at MIT. Or Texas, maybe. Or Duke.” She handed me the joint. “Whatever, man. What matters is—dude, you’ve got the ol’ weatherbone in there.” Her knuckle rapped the side of my skull. “That shit is real. You’re golden.”
“And you’re gonna be the rockstar CFO of some badass corporation,” I reminded her.
She was silent a few seconds. “Yeah, that, too.”
Thunder pounded across the fields, and I opened my eyes, the dusty smells of sunbaked old vinyl and mouse turds fading into a distant past. The storm was coming at last—just an ordinary, late-summer storm, forward flank radiating out over the plains, pink branches of lightning walking across the hilltops and canyons like the legs of giant spiders. Silhouetted within that flickering kingdom of cloud, a massive shape spiraled slowly upward, a muscular river wreathed in miles of electricity, disappearing at last into the vast cauldron of the sky.
I wanted to call out to the angel.
What are you?
What am I?
But of course I didn’t have the language.
Then I turned and walked back up the ridge.
Sitting in the Buick with the windows shut tight, I watched the shelf cloud racing towards Lincoln like a tidal wave. The front slammed past my car, leaving behind a gritty blanket of dirt, and seconds later the rain roared down, turning it to mud before washing it away.
This weather would slow things down at the restaurant. Chances were Ronnie’d let one or two of the girls off early. With me out of the picture, he’d keep Marki on in case the storm didn’t last and they still got a late rush. I could’ve told him not to bother. It wasn’t going to let up for good ’til early morning. Marki was going to have to do some serious drinking to catch up with the others tonight.
Earlier this evening, I’d turned down the invite to be one of the Waste-resses, preferring instead the solitary communion with the sky and things past.
Now? I was all in.
“You didn’t even change?” Nora greeted me at the door of her trailer house, her face flushed with laughter and alcohol. We usually went straight from work to partying, so it was no big surprise Nora and the others were still in uniform. None of them, however, had just gotten themselves fired from the restaurant.
I shrugged, coming inside, swiping rain from my glasses. “Not gonna be wearing this thing again. Why not give it a good sendoff?” I whipped a bottle of Jack out of my pocket, and the rest of the Waste-resses (except for Marki, who was still working) cheered in approval.
Nora went from laughter to tears, embracing me. “Oh, Tori, you’re the best!” She said more, but I couldn’t understand her because she was crying into my hair. I hugged her back, but resisted the urge to cry. The present situation was still better than all of us being dead, after all.
“What happened, anyway?” Cindy, who’d missed most of the drama, was staring at the rest of us with concern. “You’re leaving the restaurant?”
I started to reply, but Nora interrupted me. “Some assholes came in and were acting all high and mighty, and Marshall here stuck it to ’em! That’s what!” She wiped her eyes angrily.
Trish, the newest member of the Waste-resses, had had less to drink than Nora. “And Ronnie took their side!”
“Oh yes, Prince Ronald Junior—Oh yes—” Nora nodded at me defiantly. “That is what we call him when you’re not around—” she turned back to the other two— “not only took their side, he made her serve them all night! They left her a fucking quarter. So she went out in the parking lot and stuck it on one of ’em’s face and when they came back in to complain, he told ’em she was fired. I heard it myself!”
I breathed deep. In my heart, I’d known I was out of a job, but her words made it really real.
“What?!” Cindy looked outraged. “He is so beneath you, girlfriend. You need to kick him to the curb!”
“To the curb!” Nora echoed. “I mean, he used to be cool and everything, but now he’s getting to be just another honyock like his dad.”
“He’s not that bad,” I said, but no one heard me.
Thunder crashed outside, and the lights flickered. The other three seemed to become aware for the first time we were in a mobile home in the middle of a violent storm. “It’s getting bad out there again,” Trish said. “Last I heard, we were in a tornado watch.”
There was a knock on the door. Marki didn’t wait for Nora to answer; she yanked it open and bolted in, her eyes flashing over me as she shed her wet windbreaker and plopped a twelve-pack of Bud Light on the kitchen table.
“No tornado, just hail.” I started mixing a Jack and Coke. A second later, the clatter of hail on the tin roof was nearly deafening. From outside came the tinkle of breaking glass.
Unfazed, Marki held her arms out to me. “Girl, bring that shit over here right now.”
The look on her face broke me. I rushed into her embrace and we clung to each other, sobbing. Nora threw her arms around both of us, bawling again, and Trish and Cindy quickly joined in. We cried ourselves silly while the thunder boomed and the hail hammered. We cried until we were exhausted, eyes puffy and sore.
“If there’s a tornado, we’re gonna have to run up the block to the firehouse,” Nora sniffled at last, looking out her window.
“Got a quarter?” I said ironically, lining up the glasses. Between the five of us, we had about two tons of quarters.
“If Marshall says no tornado tonight, then rest assured.” Marki sat down across from me and bounced a quarter off the table into a glass. She pointed at Trish. “Drink, y’all.”
“So anyways, we were just telling Cindy about those asswipes that got Tori fired,” Nora continued as if there’d been no interruption, “by none other than Prince Ron—”
“Yeah, he was a real prince tonight,” Marki muttered.
“Oh! Yeah!” I was starting to catch their momentum as more quarters flew. “You guys missed the part where Casey Byers came in and called McFarland a…the n word—” GASP!! The momentary vacuum sucked all the oxygen out of the room. “—and Ronnie got mad at me for telling him off!”
“I always knew that Byers was a racist piece of shit!” Cindy shot a quarter off her boob and pushed the glass towards me. “He never would call me by my name.”
“First of all,” said Marki, “He never called any of us by name. Second of all…” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re black?”
Cindy flushed. “I am so! Look!” She held out both arms.
“Okay. Maybe you’re—” Marki sketched massive air-quotes. “’Black,’ but give me a break.”
“She’s black enough to be the first black president,” I heard myself say. Marki and I exchanged a look and were overcome by a brief fit of giggles. The trailer was groaning with the force of the wind, but no one seemed to care.
“The first female president!” Trish added.
“Now, let’s not get carried away.” Marki started pouring another round.
“Well, we were all there except Cindy when his royal highness did his little, you know, storming through the galley thing,” said Nora, mincing across the floor in imitation of Ronnie. “Like he was catching us screwing around instead of working!”
“That’s the thing,” Marki said, looking genuinely hurt. “We were working! We were figuring out what still needed to be done and designating jobs!”
“Fucking asshole,” I said, and this time everyone heard me loud and clear, snarling in agreement.
Nora slammed her drink on the table. “We should call him!”
I got up and went over to her cordless phone on the wall by the fridge. “What should we say?” The momentum in the room was lifting me like a dark, muscular wave originating from some long-ago cataclysm on the bottom of the ocean that was only now rushing towards the shore.
“Fuck him,” Marki said quietly, still with that bewildered look. I remembered how she welcomed him into her apartment that first night years ago, the profound and hilarious times we’d all had together.
“Fuck him! Yeah, good one!” Nora got up. “Okay, girls, get ready.” She motioned everybody to gather around as I dialed my home number.
One ring. Two. Thr— “Hello?”
“FUCK YOU!!” screamed five drunken waitresses in pink, sweaty dresses.
The lightning strike obliterated the world. I swayed in the sudden darkness, momentarily blind and deaf. The phone was somewhere underfoot as drunken waitresses blundered hither and thither, screaming in terror, crashing into one another.
I got down on my knees and groped around on the kitchen floor, searching for the handset. Just as my fingertips brushed it, someone kicked it, and I heard it clatter across the linoleum, smacking into the baseboard. I wasn’t about to attempt navigating that war zone in the dark. I stood up, pressing my backside against the side of the fridge. “Hey, Stop. Everybody. Stop.”
“Marshall? Is that you?” Marki’s voice, from the other side of the fridge.
“Right here. I dropped the phone. We’ve got to calm down and find it.”
“We’re all gonna die!” Trish’s voice was coming from somewhere in the other end of the trailer. She wasn’t going to be any help. The others were starting to settle down.
“Come on, guys,” I said. “I never hung up the phone. It’s somewhere in the kitchen.”
“Oh, shit!” Now Cindy joined in on my right, feeling along the floor. There was a click, and the weak beam of a near-dead flashlight revealed the handset over by the sink. I scrambled for it, grabbing it up.
“Wait! Don’t hang up yet!” Marki breathed in my ear. She mimed holding it up to her ear as she and Cindy crowded in on either side, and Nora brought the light in closer. Slowly I raised the handset and listened. The silence of an empty phone line would have sounded like sweet music just then. What I heard instead was the muffled sound of Ronnie’s favorite AM station on the radio above the kitchen sink in the apartment across town. Then, after about half a minute, the very deliberate clicking of the phone being slowly hung up.
I woke up on the rug in Nora’s living room to the sound of a large vehicle idling right out front. As I rolled over, gingerly got to my feet, and stepped over the slumbering forms of Cindy and Trish, the motor revved and faded down the street. I knew that sound. There is no other like it: the rumbling growl of a UPS truck.
Pushing open the door, I glimpsed the big, square end of the truck just as it made a left at the corner. I ran out to the edge of the sidewalk, nearly falling over the huge tree limb lying across the lawn, straining for another look, then leaned on the hood of my car until I was sure I wasn’t going to upchuck. In the wee hours after the storm had passed, I’d more or less played to lose.
In the corner of my eye, there was a flutter. Caught under my left wiper was a tattered scrap of paper. I gently freed it, frowning as I held it up. Slowly, I stepped off the curb, into the street winding through the trailer court. The truck had long since vanished, but I stood there staring up the block as if there were more to see than the trailers with their little yards, many littered with downed branches, dented trashcans, and other detritus left by the storm. I had no way of knowing…but I did. The scrap of paper in my hand had been left by the driver of that truck.
Over the weeks that had passed since I last saw the UPS Guy, I’d given up looking for him, just as over the years I’d gradually stopped hearing and seeing signs of Marissa everywhere. Whatever I’d read into the driver with the ponytail and dark shades, I’d known it had just been my heart playing tricks with my head.
Because the scrap of paper under my wiper was a remnant of the lost page of want-ads from last night, the one that had mysteriously appeared inside my cubby, at the same time the old photo had vanished. Because I hadn’t imagined that big brown truck turning left when I ran out into the street just now. Because while one whole side of the torn sheet was stamped with a grape jelly shoeprint, on the other side three lines had been triple-circled:
Production Assembly Positions
5200 Magnolia Blvd.
Because next to the circled ad, scrawled in handwriting I would’ve known anywhere, was one word:
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.