Janine is already sorting hamburger wrappers when I roll in through the back door, hang up my coat and climb into my fast food clown suit. I don’t know where Captain’s Burgers gets their staff uniforms, but I’d like to meet the bastard who actually charges them money for these get-ups. Toni is lugging her huge frame back and forth from the cash to the deep fryers. I throw on my smock and look for Maxwell. He’s not in yet and I smile at both girls, knowing that he’ll be victim of the very rule he dreamed up: last one in takes the drive-thru window.

“Is Maxie coming in?” I ask.

Toni makes change for an old woman at the counter and twists around to answer.
“He’s running late. He’ll be here soon. He had that exam tonight, remember?”

It’s just after 4 p.m. and dead calm. Two tables occupied. Janine saunters over and nods towards a small stainless steel fridge unit with a bright green label on the front.

“It’s here,” she says with a grimace.

The Arctic Mint Whip machine has arrived. I take a cup, walk over, and draw some chilly green paste. I take a cautious sip. Toni and Janine stand nearby, grinning.

“Shit, it tastes like frozen toothpaste,” I tell them.

They both talk at once, Toni holds up her hands in surrender so that Janine can vent first.

“It tastes like hell. Mr. Harper was by when they were installing it. He wants us to offer it to every customer for 99 cents. That’s the introductory price. It’s horrible stuff, we should be giving it away.”

Toni chimes in, “We should pay them to drink it. It’s raw.”

“It’s just another thing for us to deal with,” whines Janine.

“I hate that asshole,” says Toni, referring to Mr. Harper, the franchisee.

* * *

The drive-thru tone sounds and Janine rolls her eyes and makes for the headset. Toni goes to the deep fryers and I mind the counter. Outside it’s dark, cold and threatening. The girls are totally fed up and I’m feeling like something terrible will go down tonight. The feeling rumbles below the pit of my gut, somewhere around my bowels. I chuck the cup in the garbage and refill the ketchup container and the napkin dispensers. I’m just finishing up when Maxie walks in, brushing a few beads of rain from his jacket.

“How’d it go?” I ask.

“I think I failed.”

“Exams will do that to you every time. You passed,” I insist.

“No, Greg, I drew a blank. I crashed.”

“You did fine.”

“Don’t patronize me tonight, Greg. I’m no mood. I’m boiling right now.”

He goes to the back and smocks up. Pins his Assistant Manager tag onto his pocket.

Maxie and me have a bit of history. If you look across the street from Captain’s Burgers, you can almost see the halfway house where he used to live, and where I’ll be hanging my hat for the next year. The only thing preventing a clear view of the halfway house is a bank and hair salon. Just as well, really. It’s nice to get away from the place.

Maxie’s been at Captain’s for just shy of a year. He’s taking travel and tourism courses and living at home with his mom. He made assistant manager last month and says it isn’t worth the extra $1.25 an hour. He helped get me the job here; Wednesday to Sunday, 4 until closing. And soon I’ll start some courses of my own, just some basic computer stuff, but I’ve got to start somewhere. So I’m told.

When Maxie rounds the corner and notices the Arctic Mint Whip machine, he stops dead.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“Arctic Mint Whip. Tastes like toothpaste.”

Maxie shakes his head.

“Harper better hire more people, mate.”

He shuffles to the machine, draws a cup full.

“This thing takes forever to pour a serving,” he says.

He sniffs the contents of his cup like it’s emitting poisonous gas.

“Bloody hell,” he says. His Yorkshire accent creeps further into his voice when he’s disgusted.

We look at each other, neither of us speak. He wipes his hands on some paper towel and picks up the drive-thru headset, wedges it on his head. Toni joins me at the counter and we wait. In the parking lot, rain comes down hard and it’s tough to say if it will drive people in, like it does some nights, or keep them away. One thing’s for sure, the drive-thru will be steady. I look over at Max and he frowns, adjusts the volume control on his belt.

I was arrested three years ago on the doorstep of a home in Leaside, a cozy little enclave of North Toronto where BMWs and Mercedes sit proudly on almost every driveway. Two plainclothes cops appeared out of nowhere, knocked me to the ground and wrestled away the package I was delivering before they even identified themselves. Consequently, I drove the chubby one in the throat as they tossed me in the dirt. They opened up the padded envelope and emptied three small bags of cocaine onto the walkway. Possession for the purposes of trafficking, assaulting police, and resisting arrest.

My older sister posted bail and I did what seemed like the brave thing to do. I paid my boss a visit. I asked him what he thought he was doing, setting me up like that. He told me that he didn’t set me up. That maybe one of the guys in the back was stuffing his drugs in the packages, turning the drivers into blind drug-runners. No way, I wasn’t buying it. It took me approximately two minutes to break his nose, pop three of his teeth, sprain his wrist and demolish most of SpeedSmart Couriers’ front office. Assault causing bodily harm, breach of conditional release, and malicious property damage. They plea-bargained the resisting arrest and property damage down the toilet. Still, I got some time and this halfway house thing. And now I’m here, flipping burgers, being coached from all sides about how patience rules the day. Just stay out of trouble and my skies will brighten. I look out the window at the rain pissing down. Yeah, that about sums it up so far.

* * *

A middle-aged couple wander in with two kids in tow. The children are pumped, making their requests while mom takes off their jackets and dad fishes a worn wallet from his back pocket. He says hello and gets right down to business, looking back at his family to confirm that he hasn’t forgotten anything. I give him his change and holler back the hamburger orders to Toni. Maxie is busy at the drive-thru window, so I drop some more fries in the oil and get their drinks. I remember the Arctic Whip offer, but I don’t bother to push it. Dad has seen the machine and hasn’t mentioned it.

Two other customers drift in. They take their orders to go. Toni rushes up as they leave, tells me that Mr. Harper is on the phone and she can’t find Maxie anywhere. I follow her to the back and take the call.

“Greg? Where’s Maxwell?” asks Harper. He talks like he’s calling 911, big panic.

“He’s probably in the bathroom,” I say.

“Well, that’s fine. How are the Whips going over?”

“We haven’t sold any yet, Mr. Harper.”

“Haven’t sold any! Greg, I’m in on the trademark for this thing, I’ve got a shitload of my own cash sunk into this. It’s a mint frozen dessert; it should go huge. Get one on every tray.”

“We’ve only just started the dinner rush—”

“Greg, you’re not getting me, I’m the man behind this whole idea. I had to do a handstand down at head office to put this thing in play. I don’t care if you have to tip it down their throats, sell the Whips!”

“OK, Mr. Harper.”

“Get Maxwell to call me stat! I’m on my cell.”

The drive thru-tone chirps and Janine shrugs her shoulders and grabs the headset. I take off to find Maxie. I find him in the walk in fridge sipping from a bottle of vodka.

“Maxie, Harper wants you to call him.”

Maxie tucks the bottle behind the bags of coffee creamers. He wipes his mouth and gives me the innocent look.

“You ought to watch that, Maxie. Harper finds that bottle and he’ll fire your ass.”

“Thanks, mum!” says Maxie, brushing past me.

About four years ago, Maxwell Leonard got nabbed for impaired driving. He’d been weaving home from a house party and blew twice the legal limit. He lost his driver’s license for the year and got canned from his job driving a streetsweeper for the city. After a month of unemployment, he got drunk, broke into the city works yard and drove off in a backhoe. He managed to crash it into a bus shelter. They gave him community service and sent him to an addiction counselor. A month after that, hammered once again, he shot a seagull with a pellet gun, except he missed the gull and the pellet struck a bricklayer, working on a nearby construction site, in the ass. He got three months for that. He got in several fights while inside and piled up his time. He claims that he fought because he was grouchy; lack of alcohol and open spaces.

Vinnie has wandered in and placed an order with Janine. Vinnie comes in three times a week. He orders the same thing, a Captain’s bacon deluxe, no fries, no drink. He unwraps it immediately and eats it right at the counter. As he gulps it back, he makes small talk with the girls, who pretty much ignore him. Tonight I fix him up with his bacon deluxe and he goes through his ritual. Customers are dribbling in and the girls are too busy to even say hello. Vinnie stands in silence and chokes back about fifty grams of fat.

It’s really picking up, everyone’s darting around filling orders, bumping into each other, sweat trickles down my back. The fryers seem extra hot. My skin just can’t breathe in this cheap polyester outfit. My probation officer, Mr. Leclair, will probably drop in soon.

He comes by for a Captain’s Chicken-Que on his way home some nights. He kills two birds with one stone, grabs a fast bite and checks up on me. His caseload is insane and I feel sorry for the guy. He tells me I’ve got a decent head on my shoulders. Obey the law, keep busy, and avoid anything that could possibly turn into a fistfight. He warns that if I get done for assault again I’m, in his words, “toast.“ All I have to do is stay away from scrapes no matter what. Every now and then I slip him a free order of fries, which he reluctantly accepts.

A group of giggly high school girls stumble in. Small Cokes and small fries all ’round. They count their coins and have more than enough between them to cover the $7.39 total. I figure they have maybe a buck to spare, so I point out Harper’s Arctic Mint Whip machine and drop the 99 cent bait. They bite and I pour one and provide three spoons. One of them touches her tongue to the green muck and looks at me like it’s my fault.

“Blagh,” is all she says.

Toni’s forehead is a sheen of sweat and she’s out of breath when she reaches the counter. She can’t be more than twenty—my age—and I wonder if she’ll make forty at this rate.

“God, he’s a royal pain,” she says.

“Who?”

“Harper. He’s on the phone again.”

I ask her to watch the counter, pull and drain some onion rings on the way past the fryer, and set off to track down Maxie. This time I find him in the stairwell, nursing his bottle. He looks up at me and wipes his mouth.

“You’re as bad as me bloody mum, following me about.”

“Harper’s on the phone again.”

Maxie caps the bottle, hands it to me.

“You know where this goes,” he says.

I’m tempted to pour it down the sink, but an image of Maxie ripping off his smock, storming out, and leaving the three of us to cope with a Friday evening rush stops me. I tuck the bottle in behind the bags of coffee creamers

I throw three deluxe meals together and jog up to the counter. Janine’s working furiously, managing the drinks, fries, and the cash. She moves with precision and I wonder if she knows kung-fu. Her movements are fast, circular, and smooth. I also wonder what she might be like in the sack. She turns and makes a face, nods to the fryers, and points to the empty trays on the counter.

“Bring me up three large fry and one junior meal,” she says.

Maxie rejoins us, grumbling under his breath. When I shuffle over to the french fry basket he says, “Harper want s me to ‘tip those Whips down their fucking throats if I have to.’ That’s what he tells me. I’ve had just about enough of this bloody place.”

“Maxie, don’t jack in your job tonight. Think of us poor souls.”

He clears his throat and begins filling cups with Arctic sludge. To my amazement, he yells,

“Arctic Mint Whip, 99 cents. Cool, fresh, and silky smooth, people. Only 99 cents.”

I check out the half dozen impatient customers at the counter. They look at Maxie and watch him pouring the Whips. A young couple starts whispering to each other.

“That’s great, Maxie, you’re a born salesman,” I say.

“Bugger off, or I’ll tip one down your throat.”

* * *

My probation officer arrives at 7, decked out in bright yellow rain gear that gives him the appearance of a giant canary. The girls give me a wide berth as I rush the counter, all smiles, nods, and efficiency.

“Hello, Greg. Working hard or hardly working?” he chuckles.

“Mr. Leclair, how are you?”

“Nothing two weeks in Mexico wouldn’t fix. I’ll have the usual.”

I personally pack each part of his order, including the free fries. He scrunches up the top of the bag in one hand, gives a sideways glance to the end of the counter. I meet him there and he leans in close.

“All OK?”

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“When do you start those courses?”

“Next week.”

“Good man. Keep your nose to the grindstone and your stick on the ice, all right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll need you to come in for a full interview before the end of the month. I’ll call you.”

“OK, Mr. Leclair. Thanks.”

“What the hell are those?”

“Those are Arctic Mint Whips. It’s a sort of peppermint milkshake. You want one?”

“Sure, what the hell.”

I fix him up with a freebie. He turns around at the exit, delivers a rabbit punch in the air.

“Stay out of trouble,” he says.

* * *

Gus the janitor from the shopping mall down the street comes in, soaked to the bone. Maxie rolls his eyes and relieves Toni for her break. Janine is on the grill. That leaves me to serve Gus. He looks larger with every visit and his face is impossibly greasy and sallow. He orders two junior burgers and drums his fingers on the side of the cash register. I try to make like I’m preoccupied, avoiding eye contact with Gus. I finish his order and he stands there, smiling.

“You and me, my friend, we take my car, go down to Yonge Street and pick up girl. Take her back to my place.”

I ignore him and give him his change, trying like hell not to touch his oily hand as I dump the coins.

“We take her, have some drink, and then the fun begin, eh?” He roars with laughter.

“We’re pretty busy in here tonight, Gus. Can I get you anything else?”
He points back to Janine.

“I’ll take her,” he says.

“Look, man, I’m really busy—”

“You just tell me the day. We go hunting. Bring the carcass back to my cave.”

He leaves, snorting and laughing, drags his work pants out of his ass crack as he swings open the door. He’s been warned not to make inappropriate comments to the girls.

Harper won’t ban him, the girls won’t go near him. Whenever he visits he suggests the wild night on the town, culminating in a threesome—and God knows what else—in his basement apartment. I have no doubt I’ll see him on the front page of the newspaper one day.

* * *

I can smell the booze on Maxie. He’s in a dark mood, one of his “blue nights,“ as he calls them. I leave him alone and do his share. This is happening too often, and he’s like a time bomb when he’s had a few drinks. He’s muttering under his breath and throwing things around now and again. He fumbles and drops a pile of soft drink lids and kicks them across the floor on his way back to the grill.

By 9 o’clock it slows down. It’s still raining outside, the sky black as coal. The drive-thru traffic has dwindled. I eat some french fries and hang around near the grill. Maxie is in and out of the walk-in fridge. Toni’s cleaning the prep area and Janine is standing guard at the counter.

This huge dude walks in. He’s wearing a cowboy hat, boots and a full-length leather coat. I watch him as he struts up to give Janine his order. He surveys the backlit menu, removes his hat, and runs a hand through his long black hair. He’s about to speak when his cell plays a tune and he jabs his finger at the dial pad and says hello. He fancies himself a real operator, all slang and attitude as he barks at the poor bastard at the other end. As he talks, he gives his food order at the same time.

“Look, Jerry, don’t go all child on me or the whole deal’s off, yeah, gimme a bacon deluxe, what was that? No fuckin’ way, Jerry, you tell him to say that to my face, yeah and a large fry and gimme a cherry pie too, man, you are so yankin’ my chain right now, and a large vanilla shake.”

Janine waits to get a word in, finally points to the whip machine.

“Sir, we only have Arctic Mint Whips. They’re 99 cents.”

“You tell him to come say that to me, tell him to climb in the pit with me, uh, what’s a Mint Northern Whip? Yeah, Jerry, he’s flyin’ high but the air’s pretty thin up there, you know what I’m sayin’, yeah gimme one of those if that’s all you got and put a lid on it, babe.”

Maxie is now standing beside me. He runs his tongue across his teeth as he watches the big dude showing off.

“Urban cowboy, huh? Great big ponce,” growls Maxie.

“We’ve had worse in here, Maxwell.”

“Right. He’s a big man on campus, on his own in a shitty burger place at quarter past 9 on a Friday night. Wonder how hard of a punch it would take to knock both the grin and the hat off of him.”

“Easy, Maxie.”

We watch Janine put together his order. I decide to go over and lend a hand. The big dude gives me a sarcastic smile when he spots me. He takes a split second from his phone call to say, “Extra ketchup too, slim.”

I give him a rock-hard look. He tries to stare me down, eventually shows me his back, finger in his ear to block out noise. He’s putting on a real show with the phone call and I wonder when this Jerry guy will hang up. I pour an Arctic Mint Whip and set it on his tray. Janine arrives with his hamburger and fries. He continues his conversation, wedges the cell phone between his cheek and shoulder, picks up the tray as I toss on three packs of ketchup. He stops ranting, negotiates the tray with one hand to reach for a straw from the dispenser on top of the garbage and recycling station. The phone pops off his shoulder like a champagne cork. It lands and breaks in two. He’s already started to crouch forward to rescue the broken phone. The tray is next to go. The Whip slides off, followed by the fries. He drops the rest of the order intentionally, bolts upright and yells, “Don’t you guys know how to put shit on the tray? Fuck, look at this.”

Janine looks at me and I shrug. I’m fighting my mouth, which wants to stretch into a huge smile.

“You’re losers. That’s why you’re working here. A simple task like loading a fuckin’ tray is too much for you.”

He’s looking right at me when Maxie sprints toward the counter like a man on fire. I practically do the splits trying to grab him.

“Maxie, cool it!”

He jumps the counter and pounds the big dude in the side of the face. The impact sounds like a hockey puck striking a side of beef. If Maxie had been counting on the big dude having a glass jaw, all bets are off. The big guy stumbles but manages to grab Maxie under the arm. They begin exchanging punches, a flurry of fists, the dude’s leather coat flaps, Maxie’s smock twists, rips, and hangs halfway down his back. Maxie is outweighed and takes a couple of skull-denting shots to the face. There’s blood on the floor now, near the green ooze from the fallen Arctic Mint Whip. I’m going to be third man in if it gets any worse. I’m replaying Mr. Leclair’s command to stay away from anything that whiffs of an assault charge, but I’m not going to let poor Maxie get pummeled. I have to look away for a second. What am I waiting for? I hate this place, and these so-called “opportunities“: fast food joints, car washes, telemarketing, worm picking. The wide variety of honest jobs available to the minor league criminal. I’ve had it. But I can’t get in a fight. The girls are yelling, Janine runs for the phone. The few remaining customers are standing, one lady sneaks to the side door, red-faced and trembling. My hands are now in position to vault the counter and become “toast.” The dude’s heel catches the puddle of green liquid and he goes down hard with Maxwell clinging to him for dear life. He knocks his head and I cringe at the sound of his big noggin meeting the floor. His cowboy hat spins off and comes to rest near the spilled french fries. Maxie is dripping blood from his mouth, nose, or both. Maxie winds up to punch the guy but stops midway through the punch. He leans and grabs the Arctic Mint Whip cup from the floor, glides it along to scoop up some of the spilled contents, and tips it on the face of his opponent. He forces his thumb in between the big dude’s teeth, places the cup at his lips.

“God, we are totally dead,” says Toni.

I look at her and notice that she’s no longer watching the fight. Her eyes are trained on the parking lot. I see Mr. Harper climbing out of his red Volvo.

Harper walks in and gets halfway to the counter before he notices the mess. He stops and looks at the floor: french fries scattered for several feet, a hamburger that Maxie and the giant stepped on during their battle, minty green slime smeared everywhere. The look on his face is priceless when it registers that his assistant manager, armed with a half empty cup of mint milkshake, is straddling a giant.

“What the hell is going on here?”

Maxie stands up. The big dude groans, rolls onto his side, and wipes green goo from his face. Toni is crying. Janine is nowhere to be seen. Harper looks right at me, more nervous than angry.

“Greg, what happened here?”

I clear my throat and surprise myself when I say, “Hi, Mr. Harper. We were just tipping one of those Whips right down their throats.”

The giant has gotten to his knees. He straightens his collar and looks for his hat.

“He attacked me. Never knew what hit me. And that guy just stood there smiling.”

Harper picks up the cup and scoops up some french fries. He drops the debris back to the floor. Shock is giving way to anger. He looks at me like there’s venom in his eyes.

“How does this sound—you’re fired, you and Maxwell.” He cups his hands around his liver lips and yells, “Janine, close up at ten.”

“I want the police,” whines the giant dude. He’s not so mouthy now. “I want that asshole charged and I want a new phone.”

Harper lifts his hands in an attempt to placate the guy.

“It’ll be looked after, sir. Don’t you worry.”

Toni waddles over with a broom. Maxie’s torn off what’s left of his smock and stomped back to the fridge and prep area. Harper looks at me and shrugs.

“You’re fools. I gave you both a chance. You had a good opportunity here, promotions, bonuses, flex-hours. We’re going to be a chain to be reckoned with. Captain’s Deluxe, Captain’s homemade cherry pies, and that.” He points to the Arctic Mint Whip machine and nods approvingly. “I don’t understand you two.”

The big guy looks confused. He glances at the machine and then back at Harper.

I walk to the back and Harper hollers that he’s not joking, we’re fired.

I find Maxie drinking from his vodka bottle. We hear the big guy yell that we’re losers and that he’s calling the cops. Maxie swigs back the booze and hands the last two ounces to me. I suck them back and drop the bottle on the floor of the walk-in fridge. Maxie rolls up his sleeves and pulls back his shoulders.

“Don’t know about you, but I’ve had it, and I’m going out with a bang. I’ll take on the big lummox again. You take Harper. What do you think?”

Maxie looks me in the eye and cracks his knuckles. It’s still raining hard outside. My skin has had all it can take of grease and ill-fitting uniforms. I slide my smock off and clench my fists. And we rush the counter like a couple of polyester demons.

 


Philip Alexander’s short fiction has appeared—or will soon appear—in Grunt & Groan: A New Fiction Anthology of Work & Sex, Front & Centre Magazine, The Circle Magazine, and Hardboiled. He lives and writes in Toronto, Canada.


There are a lot of novels and short stories out there that use the hardened ex-con as a protagonist, or antagonist. People who have committed major crimes can make for interesting character studies. However, I’ve always been intrigued by the “lightweight” criminal and his (or her) place in fiction, people who have screwed up just enough to railroad themselves. Shoplifters, small-time drug runners, B&E guys. They usually spend less time incarcerated, and when they emerge from prison, face some unique struggles. I think writers like Daniel Woodrell and Larry Brown have done wonders with small-time hoods at the center of their fiction.

I wanted to take two polarized guys—guys who realize their errors but feel their punishment is excessive—and place them in a typical probationary period (or post-incarceration job) and see how they did. I had no idea how the story would end up until about the third last paragraph, when I felt Maxwell and Greg’s anger and frustration over being relegated to minimum wage jobs because of one or two lapses of judgment. At that point the story accelerated and I decided that—right or wrong—people will only eat so much shit before they snap and consequently “graduate” to the ranks of major-league criminals.

 

 

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