Fast Food Sunrise
So, it turns out my soulmate was a grill chef in a seedy downtown Appalachian McDonald’s. This discovery came in the twilight hours on the first day of midnight swing shift training. I was not looking for him and not expecting him, but there he was swabbing the fry vats with a scouring pad on a stick, wisps of unruly hair clinging to his face, and suddenly I knew—the man of my dreams wore black tapered slacks and a grease-stained visor. I had been at McDonald’s a few weeks shadowing and monitoring the clumsy hands of future teen impregnators making Big Macs through awkward plastic gloves, and then there he was. He melted into my scene and assimilated perfectly. Slinking too close to the vats and too close to him, I stared, memorizing his shape and trying to find a name tag. The vapors of fry oil diffusing through the air burned my eyes and coated my lungs as I inhaled. The name tag read TRAINEE. Damn. He glanced up from his cleaning. Desperate to divert my attention, I rolled my eyes away, feigning great interest in the line of sandwiches whose cheese had melted hard against wax paper. He chuckled when I got so close to the grill I toppled a bag of frozen pancakes. “Shit,” I fumbled. “Um, Crystal the manager asked me to shadow you to get an idea of how the grill and kitchen work.” He nodded, and with an effortless smile, he bent to help me clean my mess. “Okay, Pancakes. I’ll show ya how it’s done.” Pancakes. Great. I stood still for good portions of the night, nodding stupidly when he would demonstrate to me. I washed his dishes. I swept circles around him, praying he would strike up an actual conversation with me, but he was significantly lacking in words. The night deepened. The dark became more permanent. The fluorescent lights became more aggressive. And the customers became more sporadic and dull with drink. Our co-workers danced around us, tired and punchy. Night manager Crystal—who was barely three years older than me—locked herself in the office with a joint. Fed up, he looked at me, “You wanna go smoke?” I did not hesitate, “Yes.” I also did not smoke. He held the door to the back entrance for me as we stepped into the summer night. Crouching by the dumpster, he lit his Camel. “So how long ya been here, Pancakes?” “Few weeks or so. Not long. You?” “Less than that. My mom and I just moved into town. I worked at the McDonald’s back home, too. Sucks.” He exhaled a plume of smoke. “I hate it, don’t you?” “Hate it? Are you kidding me? McDonald’s is my promised land. I intend to retire here on no benefits after working until my eighty-seventh birthday because I had to support my children sired by a seventeen-year-old counter jockey.” He choked on his smoke. “Ahh, you’ve got jokes, Pancakes. What is your name, anyway?” “Sloane.” He repeated it slowly and diligently while exhaling a white cloud and making my name sound alarmingly sexy as he did, “Sssslllloaaannee....” Crystal burst through the door, interrupting him. Stoned, she called us both assholes, burst into vulgar laughter, and told me to come in, clean the toilets, and stop trying to seduce boys. I felt my face redden. “So, that’s what you’re doing out here. Smoking with me... without cigarettes.” A sly smile curled his mouth. My flush deepened. “I’m... um... quitting.” “Right,” he said, “Sure.” He smiled, flicking his cigarette like a pro. It arched high against the black sky, then shattered into shimmering sparks on the pavement.Butterflies I didn’t know I had erupted in flight. As night broke and breakfast began, dozens of dried-out patties and rubbery nuggets were trashed. Crystal made a list of heinously but hilariously misspelled instructions for me. I walked past him frying round eggs as I cleaned. “Those look like eyeballs,” I announced. He laughed. “All the better to see you with, my dear.” By 5:45 am, the smell of sausage had permeated the restaurant and my soul. I glanced at the clock repeatedly, but still, I watched him through curious eyes as he burned the breakfast meat. Outside, while cars punctuated the time—one order, two order, three order, four—the sky was breaking into dawn, and our shift was almost complete. At the glorious hour of 6 am, I clocked out, but he was gone. Not at the grill. Not at the counter. Not at the drive-thru. Defeated and without his name, I walked out the metal backdoor and into the world. There was no smoke floating through the air. He was not at the dumpster. I huffed and headed toward my car. Over the bank behind the golden arch, the sun was waking up. As the horizon came away from blue and morphed into a watercolor spectrum of shades, I realized there was something wonderful and complete about the sunrise finishing off the deep night of a midnight shift, marking reemergence into the world. It was as though something magnificent, yet imperceivable, was ending so gradually and gracefully that it was gone before anyone could name it. And in the moments I spent noticing the transition from dark to light, I felt so much more significant than a seventeen-year-old girl watching a fast food sunrise. I almost could have smiled. “SHIT! FUCK!” A loud, metallic clang knocked me out of my reverie, and there he was again. “Car troubles?” I asked and gracelessly strolled over to him, trying to play it cool. “Fucker won’t start.” He hit his truck with both hands. “You got jumper cables?” “I do not.” There was a long pause. I gawked. I did not want to be useless to him. “But I can give you a ride,” I might have said a little too eagerly. He softened and accepted. “What’s your name, by the way? I was taught never to give rides to strangers.” He smiled the smile I was already coming to crave. “Always with the jokes, Pancakes. I’m Mike.” “Well, Mike... your chariot awaits,” I gestured grandly to my vintage Honda Accord, and together, we walked to it. Nothing was open yet, and the quiet on the street was almost spiritual. The city was still asleep, save for a few junkies reeling from benders. The Tattoo Parlor had hairline cracks in its front window that they’d tried to bandage with duct tape. The Snack Shoppe was boarded up with plywood, having lost most of its business when the local drug of choice shifted from marijuana to meth. A man was passed out on the bus bench, his cardboard cut-out of a cross beside him. JESUS SAVES. A modern day Methssiah. When I was a child, the town had been beautiful and bustling, but meth became a living, breathing, seething dragon that had taken over the city and turned it to ruin. Mike was stewing in my passenger seat, and I was awkwardly mute. “So, uh, how long have you been in town?” I finally forced out. If I wasn’t being sarcastic, I had little to say. “A couple of months. My mom and I moved here from Philippi. Divorce. She grew up here and thinks the school is better.” He shrugged. “How do you like it?” “It’s a school, and I can read and write. I mean, I don’t really have any comparison for it. I’m Bridgeport born and bred.” “So you’re one of those Bridgeport Bitches I’ve heard tale of.” “Guilty.” “Hate to tell ya, but you don’t really live up to the bitch hype.” I giggled, “You’ve only known me eight hours. Give it time.” “I’d like to,” he said, “give it time. Get to know you.” The butterflies did the Cha-Cha across the dance floor of my stomach. As the streets began to narrow, he pointed out a few more turns toward his home. Porch lights left on from the night flickered at us as we passed. “Sorry. We’re out here a ways, but it’s not much further.” He patted me on the knee and made a slight stroke up and down my thigh. I shifted, hyperaware of my horrible pleated uniform slacks. When I did that, he quickly removed his hand. “I’m sorry,” he said. “No, no! It isn’t you... what you did. I’m just... I am worried about my pants.” “Your pants?” He erupted in laughter. “You’re really something else, Sloane. I can already tell you’re different from other girls. You’re witty, and funny, and collected.” “Only on the outside. I’m a hot mess everywhere else.” He put his hand back on my knee, and my soul stirred in déjá vu—like I was living for the first time something I’d always known, and it was comfortable... despite my slacks. We stopped at a complex that looked like four tiny houses all linked together by miniature front porches. The parking lot was mostly empty. “You wanna come in for a drink?” “It’s 6 am. You drink at 6 am?” “We work at night, Sloane. This is happy hour.” I noted the crumbly sidewalks approaching each porch. The grass was littered with cigarette butts. Still seated beside me, he nodded toward his door. “Last chance...” “I’d better not. My mom....er... your mom?” “Work. She’s a psych nurse. Early hospital shift.” He shrugged, hopped out, and lit another Camel. “Thanks for the ride.” The cigarette bobbed with his words. “Yeah.” Unsure of what to say, I settled on, “I’ll see you around?” “You will.” He grinned.