I walked out of Staples, already wearing my blue McD’s shirt, my hair neatly packed under my black hat. The clear, blue sky and warm afternoon smelled like a triumph. To say that my future was written in stone was premature, but this weird and uncommon tint of optimism gave my life a brighter hue. My thoughts were of Gabby Vazquez and the subject of our meeting. My assumption indicated that she would ask me the questions Celestino, Marlen, and Blanca asked me the previous day. Still, I also had a feeling that we were going to talk about something else.
On a regular day, the walk from Staples to McDonald’s was short because of the apparent distance. They sat vis-a-vis in The Camino Real Market Place, with only a big parking lot between them. I walked, my stride firm yet unhurried, as though I had all the time in the world. However, my gait had stagnated that day, and the triumph and optimism I perceived at first decreased as I got closer to the restaurant’s main door. I was suddenly overwhelmed, unsure why, but I deduced the obvious: you are about to get a step closer to becoming a manager, my Internal Self said. Do not blow it, you son of a bitch.
I stopped looking around, which was a mistake; the horn of a car that had to stop on its tracks when I crossed the street without looking forced me to pay more attention to my surroundings.
My heart also stopped, but I was still breathing for some reason.
“Sorry,” I mouthed, looking apologetically at an angry, corpulent male driver behind the wheel of a white sedan. His long beard made him appear even more irate, and his shoulders comically expanded to the sides, making me think of a frog about to get his tongue out and eat me like a fly. I kept on walking, ultimately not giving a rat’s ass whether this guy was pissed or not. So long as I was alive, nothing else mattered.
I know, thinking this way only made me look like a callow youth who didn’t know how to wipe his own ass, but I guess that’s exactly who I was back then.
He rolled down his window exclusively to yell obscenities at me. Still wrapped up in my own world of possibilities, I opted to quell the situation by ignoring the frog driver. Keep walking, Gabriel, I said to myself. You need to be on your best behavior. Gabby Vazquez is at the restaurant a couple of inches away. Think of her as an excellent motivator to eschew violence.
Sometimes I think my Internal Self is a psychopath.
When I was at the main door, people’s flow in and out felt surreal. It felt like an eternal Black Friday where a bag of fries was free if you bought a double cheeseburger. Once inside, I listened briefly to the rhapsody of overlapping conversations people had at the booths and tables as I made my way through the lobby. Some of them were intellectual and voluble speeches, like the couple next to the main entrance who discussed politics, opining on what they thought was the best case for an Obama presidency.
“Now picture this, babe,” a black guy said to his blonde and starstruck woman. “Next year, January 20, 2009, it’s gonna be the first time in the history of the United States that we have a black president.”
I knew Obama was black but was sure he also was a very educated man with more profound characteristics.
Other conversations were pointless and mindless, such as the one where a couple of clueless, obese, and unkept women reminisced when Britney Spears shaved her head back in 2007. “You shoulda seen the video!” One woman said to the other, as a ranch-coated piece of nugget made its way to her mouth. “The bitch went nuts and shaved it all off!”
Walking by, I rolled my eyes, chastising myself for paying attention to mediocre and uneducated ramblings.
But lo and behold, next up, I was looking at Gabby Vazquez, sitting at the same table Celestino and I sat before. A thought occurred to me right in there: we all liked that table for some unknown reason.
“Hi,” I said to her, timidly, positioning myself at a distance, awkwardly looking down at her as she scribbled on a yellow pad with one of the pens I had sold her two hours earlier.
She looked up, and the click of her pen hid the tip in slow motion. Her smile was the kind of smile influential people use. She was slightly intimidating yet ultimately inviting. She made me think of Vladimir Putin, only better looking and with a Latina hue that stood out more than plain vanilla with a dash of vodka.
She looked me up and down. “That’s the kind of uniform I like to see,” she said while outreaching her hand to shake mine. Her grip was as firm as her presence.
I smirked. “Well, I think I like red more, but blue seems to be more promising.”
She squinted as I pulled a chair and sat across from her. “How do you mean?”
“Money-wise, I mean. I do like the color red, but Staples doesn’t pay enough. I was just making a comparison between the colors of the shirts and, um…” I stopped, realizing that the simile (or was it a metaphor?) had lost its magic.
“Oh, I get it,” Gabby said, but I got a feeling she was trying to be polite.
“Yeah,” I said and looked down. I was usually very good at holding eye contact, but at that moment, I couldn’t do it for more than three seconds. I had a lot in my mind, and the anticipation of knowing I was about to be served with questions on holding times, cooking times, and all that jazz (like my good friend and confidant Roberto said), made me sweat like a burger patty on the grill.
“Tell me,” Gabby said as she wrote something down on the notepad. “What does your last name mean?”
I wanted to tell her a variation of what I have told other people, and the first thought that crossed my mind was what I had said to Margaret about my first name, but since Gabby and I were named the same way, I needed to make a good impression, even if it meant I had become someone else. If I wanted to be myself, I would not have gotten this job; that’s what my Internal Self would suggest.
See? He is a psychopath.
“That’s a mystery,” I said. “My mom claimed my dad didn’t know exactly where it came from, and since I never met him, I never got the chance to ask.”
“What happened to him?” Gabby asked, and what looked like genuine concern took over her face. But I didn’t know for sure since something about her eyes didn’t seem truthful.
“I heard he was killed,” I said, unable to use the common euphemism ‘pass away.’ I’ve never liked to sugar-coat death. I guess I was acting a bit like my usual self.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Gabby said, and that look on her face remained in place.
“It’s ok. I never met my father, so I really don’t feel anything.”
“You don’t feel anything?” Gabby asked, now looking really concerned. “That doesn’t sound good.”
I swallowed saliva and collected my thoughts, realizing that what I said might have come out heartless and a bit creepy. “I don’t mean it in a bad way,” I said. “What I’m trying to say is that since I never got to spend time with him, I don’t feel his loss the same way someone feels it when he or she spent time with a parent before they died.”
She nodded. “That makes sense. How old were you when he died?”
“I was six months old.”
Her nod was more pronounced this time. “That explains it.”
I smiled. “It does, doesn’t it?”
We shared a brief moment of silence while the world around us went crazy over muses and cheeseburgers, fries and McFlurries, strawberry shakes, and yogurt parfaits. The guy I heard talking about Obama walked out, slapping his woman’s ass ever so slightly. She looked up at him and licked her lips. Who would have thought that talking about politics could get you laid?
Then Gabby Vazquez spoke, her voice breaking through the silence like a wave on a surfer’s face.
“So why do you want to be a manager, Gabriel?”
The urge to be me came back. I wanted to say it was because of necessity, but I had a feeling that was not what Gabby Vazquez wanted to hear.
“I’ve been curious about it,” I said, unconsciously holding my nose, afraid it would grow because of the blatant lie. “I see the managers have a lot more knowledge about stuff. It’s like school, I think, and since I like school.”
A shade of a smile brightened her lips. “Oh, you’re going to school?” She asked while writing something else on the notepad.
I shook my head. “No. I went straight to college. I’m in the ESL program.”
“What’s your first language?”
I thought that was an odd question. Didn’t she know the answer to that?
“Spanish. I thought you knew that.”
“No, I didn’t,” she said. “With a last name like that, it’s hard to tell. I thought you were Italian.”
I shrugged. “Fair point.”
“So, are you from Mexico?” Gabby asked, ever so cautious, knowing for a fact the reach of the Spanish language.
“Call me Gabby.”
She put aside the pen and the notepad. “Where in Mexico are you from?”
“I’m from Jalisco. We’re neighbors. You know, Jalisco is right next to Michoacan.”
I nodded. “I went to Jalisco once,” I said. “Guadalajara, to be precise.”
“How did you like it?”
I should have rephrased that. The truth was I had gone to the Guadalajara airport in the middle of the night just to board a plane that brought me north. But I decided to keep some facts for myself.
“It’s a beautiful city,” I said.
She looked back at her notes, getting a hold of where the conversation was going.
“So, you want to be a manager because you like to learn new things?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Can’t think of anything else.”
She leaned back against the chair, her arms folded across her chest. “You can’t think of anything else?”
That sounded like a test, not the test I expected, but something else that I deemed unrelated.
She looked at the front counter and smiled at Juanita and Marlen, the two of them paying attention to our conversation while taking care of business. I glanced at them, too.
“I can think of many reasons why someone wants to be a manager,” Gabby said. “You just said that Staples didn’t pay enough, so that makes me think you’re in for the money.”
Oh shit, I thought. Is that what she was writing on the notepad?
I waited. The first words that wanted to come out of my mouth were defensive, so it was prudent to hold on, think, and breathe. I wanted to say, ‘is there a problem with that?’ but I knew that would not help at all.
So I said instead, “I believe money is always a reason for anyone to try and get a better job. It’s what I would call ’a common reason,’ and hence, due to its commonality, pardon the redundancy, I didn’t think it was necessary to emphasize the point.”
I had an intellectual boner as those words came out of my mouth. And so did Gabby, I could tell, since her eyes sparkled like fireworks on the Fourth of July, and she had to look for a better way to position herself on the chair.
“Um,” she said, and I could see for one second the soft texture of her vulnerability. “That’s a great answer.”
Did I just outshine the master? I thought. At that moment, it felt great, but later I found out that it is usually a mistake to make the boss feel inferior. Unfortunately, I was far away from knowing how to tame my ego, so I went on and took charge of the conversation, no longer feeling intimidated by her.
“I guess I passed the test?”
She swallowed, looked back at her notes, and said, “No. I, uh… I thought you could show me what you can do in the kitchen.”
“I think that’s a great idea, Gabby,” I said, feeling like I could conquer Everest if I were asked at that moment.
Joel didn’t work in the kitchen that day since it was his day off. He had previously walked me through the job and taught me a thing or two about being a cook. As a manager, I realized I would do a lot; I wondered if I would be up for the task. In Joel’s place, there were three women. I barely had conversations with them, mainly because I was not a social butterfly, but the few words we had were always friendly.
One of them was Fatima, a skinny, tall brunette with deep brown eyes and black hair who could have been four years older than me, but I never tried to guess so I could avoid being slapped across the face. She worked on the friers, tossing bags of chicken nuggets and other crispy products into the hot, boiling oil. The other woman was Reina, a shorter brunette who was clearly older than Fatima, but then again, I never ventured a guess. She took care of the meats on the grill, where an iron-looking base would come down hard on the frozen patties that Reina laid in there. The only thing she had to do was press a button, and technology would take care of the rest. And lastly, Leticia, an older -much older- woman with a kind smile and olive skin. I always thought of my mother when I saw her.
That day Leticia did not look so happy but somehow managed a polite smile when Gabby and I entered the kitchen. My natural, nosy self wondered what happened to Leticia as Gabby observed how the three women did their job.
Leticia was in the front line, acting as the kitchen manager since Luna had left. The constant beeping and flashing of orders cascading on the screen above didn’t overwhelm her. With grace and posture, her right hand fished the thin wrappers while her left dropped burger buns in the toaster, a grey, vertical contact machine that would slide several buns at a time, making it look like a playground slide.
The wrapper on the front line waited patiently for a base (that’s how they called the bottom half of the bun), while Leticia dropped a couple of droplets of ketchup and mustard on the crown (the upper side of the bun). Once the bottom and the crown were on the wrapper, Leticia would grab the meats Reina carried from the grill to the meat cabinets. With the proper utensil, a green tong that hung next to the cabinet, Leticia grabbed the meat and placed it on the bottom, along with a slice of American cheese. Then came the onions, the pickles, the lettuce, and the tomatoes. Lastly, the crown.
Leticia then looked at Gabby, whose face was so filled with fascination that it looked like she was watching Raul Di Blasio play the piano.
“You like what you see, Gabby?” Leticia asked, and the blissful look on Gabby’s face was an answer on its own. She had very expressive features. It was all in the eyes. With one look, she could tell you things the mouth would never be able to explain.
“What burger is that?” I asked Gabby, even though I knew the answer. Sometimes I surprise myself with the stupid questions I ask.
“It’s a cheeseburger with extra tomato. It’s not on the menu.”
“And people have to pay extra for the tomato.”
“Correct,” Gabby said and looked at me, leaned closer, and asked, “Are you ready to try?”
When Joel had taught me before, I felt ready and had no doubts. But now that Gabby was next to me, I was a bit nervous. That was weird. A few minutes early, I was sure I could conquer Everest, and then I seemed to be scared with a small bump on the road. Was my confidence wearing out this soon, disintegrating in a sea of obsolescence?
I nodded, quelling my Doubting Self. Whatever happened to my other Internal Self? The psycho must have been taking a break.
“I am ready,” I said, walking to where Leticia was.
“Sí se puede!” Leticia said and patted me on the shoulder.
“Thank you,” I said, welcoming the warm gesture.
Now that I look back at it, I realize I was beginning to act in a more pompous and overblown way, not too noticeable but obvious enough for the general public to see. My chest was up. My eyes were studying every single thing, every single word, every single prep procedure. Gabby, Leticia, Fatima, and Reina were waiting for me as the cascade of orders continued to roll. Gabby still had that look of fascination on her face, never dubious about my eagerness to learn.
But the voices in my head continued to battle, trying to win over the fight for either greatness or mediocrity.
The Doubting self and the Internal Self were arguing.
I jumped in, positioning myself next to Leticia. She stayed right next to me in case I messed up. I knew that was the reason, and I understood since we had to be quick in this business. I was in front of the condiment bar. The smell of onions and the tasty look of the fresh slices of tomatoes reminded me how hungry I was. I scanned the prep procedure chart velcroed on top of the condiment bar, all the burgers were there, and I needed to act fast, read, and move my hands quickly.
The beeping announced the presence of a new order, an easy one.
“A cheeseburger?” I said, looking at Leticia with disappointment.
She rolled her eyes and smiled, finding my cockiness both funny and annoying.
“Just wait, mijo,” Leticia said. “Ahorita viene lo mero bueno.”
The best is yet to come, she’d said. I was inclined to believe her.
Dropping the small size bun into the toaster, she asked. “You remember what color wrapper for the cheeseburger?”
That was another difference I had to memorize. The hamburgers were wrapped in a brown paper, the cheeseburgers in an orange paper, and the double cheeseburgers in a yellow paper. And if for some reason I could not remember that, all I had to do was read, since the wrappers had the indicative words for each kind of burger spread all over.
“Yellow,” I said, and she threw me a menacing glance. “I mean, orange.”
I put the paper down, Leticia gave me the buns, as the looks of Gabby and the other two cooks made holes in my back. Sporadically, Juanita and Marlen would also look at how I was doing. I grabbed the ketchup and mustard dispenser, squeezed twice each on the crown, and then took a piece of meat from the cabinet. I placed it on the bottom, then a slice of cheese.
“What’s next?” Leticia asked, seeing how I froze for a millisecond.
“Onions and pickles?” I asked, fearing to hear her say something similar to what Celestino had said.
But she didn’t. “Yes, onions and pickles,” she said. “Just three fingers of onions and two pickles.”
I did that and then put the crown on top, wrapped the cheeseburger up, and slid it towards the heated landing zone, a small, rectangular base that has the magic of keeping your burger hotter for a while. After that, I made a hamburger, basically the same idea minus the cheese, then a double cheeseburger, same idea plus another piece of cheese and meat.
“Actually,” Leticia said, “the hamburger used to have only one pickle, but people complained a lot, and we put an extra one now.”
“I remember that,” I said, thinking back to more than one occasion when people would give me an attitude for that.
“Some stores still do one pickle,” Gabby said. “The reason is they want to save on food cost.”
I nodded. “It adds up.”
We looked at the screen. More orders came up. One of them was a doozy—a Big Mac, a Quarter Pounder, and a Big & Tasty.
“Shit,” I said, loud enough for Leticia to hear it.
Leticia patted me in the arm, shook her head, and snickered while putting the buns in the toaster. This time we weren’t using the small and plain size buns. Instead, we used a sesame bun, aka hamburger brioche, which is bigger and has all those sesame seeds spread all over the crown, and the Big Mac bun, a brioche-type delicacy that is the size of the small buns but with that extra piece of bread in the middle.
Leticia pointed at the prep procedure chart. “Here,” she said. “Look at how they are made.”
These burgers’ instructions were also there, but I wanted to make them without relying on the chart. I had seen it before, many times, and had to have it memorized by then. So I tried, taking care of the Big Mac first.
“You know what paper to use for the Big Mac?” Leticia asked.
I smiled. “Trick question. That one goes in a box,” I said and then picked up one of the boxes piled up next to the wrappers. The three kinds of boxes were there, one next to the other. “All of the big burgers have boxes instead of wrappers.”
Leticia clapped her hands. “Good job!”
Reina, Fatima, and Gabby followed suit.
I opened up the box and made the infamous Big Mac. The lettuce we used for this burger was the iceberg lettuce, the shredded one that made me think of confetti every time I saw it. We used two 10:1 patties for that one. The tricky part was the middle bun, that piece of unnecessary trouble someone thought would make the burger unique. Leticia smelled my hesitation.
“Put the base on your left and the crown on your right,” Marlen said.
I hadn’t noticed, but Marlen and Juanita were still looking at me.
“Let him do it,” Leticia said, feigning anger. “He has to learn on his own.”
“What about the middle one?” I asked.
“We put the secret sauce, onions, lettuce, American cheese, and a piece of meat on the bottom, then the middle bun on top of it.”
I did as she instructed. “What so secret about the sauce?” I asked.
“Nobody knows what’s made of,” Gabby said, trying to sound mysterious.
“It’s Thousand Island,” Fatima said.
I hadn’t heard of that sauce before, so I guessed it was kind of secret for me.
Leticia pointed at the chart. “Now put the middle bun on top of the base, and on top put everything you put on the bottom, plus three pickles.”
“Then, the crown?”
“Yes, then the crown.”
I did that and then sent the box skating toward the heated landing zone.
“Now do the Quarter Pounder,” Leticia said.
“Oh, that’s my favorite.”
“You remember how to do it without looking at the chart?”
“No. But I remember how to eat it.”
She smiled. “Funny.”
The Quarter Pounder was the cheeseburger’s older brother, somewhat easier to make. It came with the same ingredients, but the only difference was the latter came with an extra slice of cheese and the 4:1 meat. I made it, put it in its box, and pushed it towards the landing zone. The Big & Tasty, however, was a different kind of devil. For that one, I had to look at the chart.
“Grab the Quarter Pounder bun,” Leticia said.
I put it into the toaster and got the box from the pile. I looked at the chart and memorized the position of the ingredients. I put ketchup and mayo on the crown, a slice of Swiss cheese on the base, and a piece of 4:1 meat, then another piece of cheese, lettuce, tomato, and the base, put it inside the box, and voila!
“I did it!” I said, feeling the electrifying goosebumps of victory all through my body.
Gabby looked at me and said, “I think you’re ready.”
“To be a manager?”
“No,” Gabby said. “You are ready to meet with Monte.”
Photo by Hannibal8height.