Fiction • Antoine Wilson
[CASSETTE ONE, SIDE A]
If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music, and the arts, and obtaining food by hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, so-called glory, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside, money is what makes the world go around. Or so it is said. If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, if I was going to live to so-called ripeness or rottenness, instead of meeting the terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I might talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind or other highly interesting subjects, but seeing as I could die any minute, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll begin by telling you about those things most important to any young man starting out, namely money and work. [Clicking sound—tape stopped and resumed.] First of all, ignore common advice such as a fool and his money are soon parted. Parting with money is half the pleasure, and earning it is the other half, there is no pleasure in holding onto it, that only stiffens the vitality, especially in large amounts, though the world will advise you otherwise, being full of people who would make plaster statues of us. Second, I haven’t made knowledge of my life yet, I’m only twenty-nine years old, when you get to be my age you will know how young that is, and if you’re a man of the world by then I salute you, the road isn’t wide or straight. Everything you need to know is contained in my experience somewhere, that’s my philosophy, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make the knowledge out of it yourself. The world operates according to a mysterious logic, Juan-George, I want to illustrate some of its intricacies, so that you can stand on the shoulders of giants, not, as Paul Renfro used to say, the shoulders of ants. [Click—tape stopped and resumed.] After my father died, that’s your grandfather, after he died, I left Madera, where I lived for my first twenty-seven years, where all my friends lived, where I was known as the Mayor, I left Madera to begin a new life down in Panorama City. Aunt Liz secured me my first so-called real job, I mean it paid money, at a fast-food place which shall remain nameless, as they say. I started as a floater, doing whatever tasks Roger Macarona assigned me, I will get into that later, but after a short while I was promoted, because Francis, who had been doing the french fries and who had trained me to work the industrial dishwasher, decided to more actively pursue filmmaking. One morning Francis failed to show for work and through no effort on my part I rose rank from floater to french fry cook, in keeping with the nature of promotions, to be discussed later, if I live to tell the tale. But despite the catbird-seat location of the french fry hopper, from which I could watch Ho and others working the front counter, and from which I could see all the way past Roger’s tiny office to the freezers containing the giant bags of french fries and all the frozen dirt and grime that came off the trucks every week, and beyond that to the giant dishwasher where Harold, the new floater, who arrived at work in a special van, who was brought to work every morning by some kind of counselor, was standing there with a finger in his nose or ear, or mouth, as if the tip of his finger would come off if it was exposed to open air, Harold loading the industrial dishwasher incorrectly, having to run the trays through twice, and so on. Despite my prime location at the french fry hopper, I missed being the floater. When I was the floater I roamed the restaurant, the restaurant and beyond, I took out the trash, I caught up with Orlando, who though I caught him shitting in the dumpster corral turned out to be an extremely kind man who through patient application of the Twelve Steps, his words, stayed away from alcohol for eight days at a stretch. The thrill of the promotion, the sizzle of frozen fries sinking into hot oil, the fact that I had become an active participant in actual food preparation, all of it wore off quickly for me, quickly all of it became routine. I passed the time by making up tunes, I made up tunes and whistled them, or I didn’t get a chance to make up tunes, I was still feeling my way around the notes when Roger told me to shut the fuck up, he couldn’t concentrate on whatever he was concentrating on in his office with me making that spooky racket, his words. With great freedom comes great responsibility, someone said once, well, it doesn’t work the other way around. [Hissing sound.] When your mother, that was your mother, when she sits in her chair all the air goes out through tiny holes in the stitching. Last night whenever she got up for the bathroom, which was often, you push on her bladder, she says you like to keep her moving, whenever she came back and sat in the chair, hissing snakes and punctured tires invaded my dreams, it was not restful sleep, I dreamt that the air was going out of my life. When I awoke I asked her to fetch from the house this cassette recorder and the only cassettes I own, both gifts from Scott Valdez of the Lighthouse Fellowship down in Panorama City, and at first it looked like the cassettes weren’t going to work, but Felix the orderly showed us how to put medical tape over the tabs so we could record over them, he only did one, he crossed himself after, he said Carmen would have to do the rest, he couldn’t be a party to recording over the word of God. Your mother laughed and said it would be the least of her sins, and Felix repeated that he didn’t want to be involved. You’ll be able to find the word of God anywhere if you’re so inclined, Juan-George, hotel rooms for instance, just don’t expect him to make much sense. She’s shaking her head at me now, the fluorescent lights are gleaming off her golden smile, or off some of her teeth which are gold and some which are regular, she has nothing but tenderness in her eyes, your unluckiness in losing a father will be made up for by having her for a mother. [Extended pause. Click—tape stopped and resumed.] Back to the fast-food place. I had more responsibility than before and I wasn’t allowed to whistle tunes, it was a low moment. But low moments are more valuable than high moments, because when you reach a high moment you just want it to go on forever, which is impossible, whereas when you reach a low moment you look everywhere for a way out, and so things present themselves that you might not have noticed otherwise. I had just lifted the fry basket out of the hot oil and secured it to the rack so that the grease could drain before the fries got dumped into the trough under the heat lamp, I had just done that, and I saw, lying atop all the other fries, a single fry, normal in color and texture and width, but exceptionally long. I had probably seen one before, they occurred maybe every hundred fries or so, but never before having been in a low moment had I recognized, not until Roger Macarona told me to shut the fuck up, had I recognized its potential. I set aside the abnormally long fry, and from that moment on, I made a point of setting aside every abnormally long fry, I pushed them to the edge of the trough until I had enough to fill one of our cardboard fry cartons, at which point I shifted my attention to the counter, to determine the recipient. I could pick whoever I wanted to, it was liberating, I wasn’t bound by my job description. This is an example of the thinking man’s way to empowerment, Paul Renfro’s words. I was doing my job well, and at the same time I was enjoying a sense of freedom and authority that I hadn’t known even in my days as the floater. First I picked the most interesting person of the day, he had no hair, he had shaved his head, and instead of regular clothes he wore an orange sheet, like a toga, he had running shoes on and a big white plastic digital watch. I wanted to reward him for being interesting by giving him what were in my opinion the most interesting fries, but for some reason he didn’t notice his interesting fries, maybe he had so many interesting things going on in his life already that interesting fries didn’t make much of an impact. It was like giving the gold medal winner a certificate of participation, you know it’s going to end up in a drawer or the trash, not like the one they give to the kid who comes in fifth, who wants to remember that he was there at all, who might even take the certificate of participation and frame it, if he’s so inclined, which I was. My first experiment a failure, I thought about delivering the next carton of abnormally long and interesting fries to the least interesting person I could find, except that I’m interested in all kinds of people, I can’t remember ever not being interested in another person. After some deliberation I decided to bestow the fries on the meekest customer of the day. Meekness was something they mentioned a lot at the Lighthouse Fellowship, because Christ, one of the three gods, along with the one from the first half of the Bible and the Holy Spirit, who because you never see him might seem like the least important but don’t let them hear you say that, oh boy, they turn white at that. Anyhow, Christ said that the meek shall inherit the earth. I’ll cover religion later, after bicycles, if I live long enough. [Extended beeping sound. Nurses talking.] An automatic pump sends painkillers into my veins, without them I would be in unspeakable agonies, Dr. Singh’s words. The doctors have made a plaster statue of me, but only literally, I am a rigid mass of what Dr. Singh called bonesetting, the setting process, all we can do is wait, his words, wait it out and see how you do, he said, at which point I knew he was a man to trust, because my philosophy is, my philosophy has always been, that most problems can be solved by waiting. When I first heard that the meek shall inherit the earth, I felt bad for the meek, because after the Rapture they would be left behind with the sinners, but Scott Valdez said I had my stories mixed up and that in this particular speech inheriting the earth was a good thing. I don’t know if Panorama City is bolder than other places, but it took some time until a meek person stepped up to the counter. He was a skinny and pale man, bald except above his ears, and when he ordered he couldn’t seem to bring his eyes to meet Ho’s. I had to leave my station, I had to leave the french fry hopper to get close enough to hear him speak, he nearly whispered his order, which, fortunately, included french fries. I returned to my station in time to position the carton of abnormally long fries where Ho was sure to grab it, and everything went according to plan, as they say. In that moment, the moment of him walking away with the abnormally long fries on his tray but not having noticed them yet, I felt quite good about myself, I had given the meekest customer a preview of his future inheritance, french fries coming from the earth and all, I had not only solved the problem of my lack of freedom but also changed someone’s life in the process. I had not yet realized, or rather Paul Renfro had not yet enlightened me, that most people despise change, that most people, when faced with a change in their lives, will ignore it for as long as possible, until they are forced to face it. Most people are not thinkers like you and me, Paul’s words. The meek man went to his table with a preview of his earthly inheritance right there on his tray, and, because he was so meek, there was no telling what his reaction was, or whether he even noticed. Which was a disappointment, but which got me thinking that all of the energy I had put into selecting the right customer had been misplaced and that instead I should focus on putting together a carton of fries with more obvious impact, with what Francis would have called mainstream appeal. Which got me started collecting some shorter fries along with the longest fries. I had realized that an entire carton of long fries might look, to someone without a set of reference fries, unremarkable. I began to arrange for a customer, for a random customer, interesting or plain, meek or proud, a carton of fries expressly designed to highlight the single abnormally long fry, a carton that might replicate the joy of discovery I had felt upon finding that first abnormally long fry among the rest. The group consisted of a bunch of below-average-length fries with, slipped in among them, the longest abnormally long fry I could find. When the carton was ready, I turned to the counter. The customer standing there had what some people call a mousy face, people who have never looked closely at a real mouse, that is. I listened to make sure she ordered fries, which she did, and then I personally delivered the special carton directly to her tray, which disturbed Ho, who was working the register, he scowled at me, he looked like he wanted to kill me. Ho did not respond well to having his space invaded, as he put it, he did not respond well to a lot of things, and sometimes he would be overcome by some kind of spell, and he would mumble nonsense words, his eyes staring at something in the distance, all of which was explained by the fact, Roger Macarona’s words, the fact that Ho was a refugee, or had been a refugee, from someplace in bumfuck Asia. In general, though, if you did not invade his space or catch him during one of his spells, Ho was a nice fellow, you could always talk to him about cards, he was a poker fanatic, and his shirts were always perfectly ironed, he did them himself. The woman didn’t notice the fries on her tray, and I almost lost hope that I could bring anyone to pay attention to their fries, and indeed she would later claim that she had not noticed them until she got to her table and sat down to enjoy a nice peaceful meal alone and without any disturbances, her words. From a corner of the dining room I heard a squeaking sound that I would accurately describe as mousy, and then she was at the counter again and Roger was asking her whether there was anything he could do. I heard her say that she had received a carton containing an obscenely long french fry, that she had looked at that fry alongside the others in the carton, and that she couldn’t imagine how a fry this long had come from a real potato. It was disgusting, she said. Her mind had flashed immediately to an image from her childhood, which had been an unhappy childhood, though that didn’t come out until later, to an image from The Guinness Book of World Records, of the man with the world’s longest fingernails, and this image, which had come to her by involuntary recall, her term for it, this was not a laughing matter, her words, the image had so disgusted her, prompted by the obscenely long fry, that she had lost her appetite completely. She made a gagging sound that convinced me but that Roger later said was fake. She demanded from Roger Macarona that something be done, starting with holding accountable whoever was responsible. Together they looked at me, the tallest employee, six-and-a-half-feet tall, standing at the fry hopper, the evidence was my body itself, my height, I was making fries in my own image, as they say, and I had picked her, I had singled her out for harassment, when all she wanted was to eat anonymously and in peace. I didn’t know what to say or do so I kept my mouth shut and stayed put, which is a useful strategy, unless a pickup truck is speeding at you. Roger walked to where I was, it was only a few steps, really, he walked over and silently loaded a cardboard container with a bunch of average length fries, with the freshest fries in the hopper I might add, though I wouldn’t expect her to know it, he loaded it up, not a word to me. Of course I thought I had ruined everything, I thought I was about to lose my job, I stood there trying to figure out where and when I had gone wrong, maybe I had not deserved the promotion after all, I thought, but I didn’t yet understand the nature of promotions, I couldn’t bear to face Aunt Liz, I thought, after she had so courteously arranged a real job for me and I had ruined it, especially while I was doing my best to apply myself to Aunt Liz’s plan for me, as part of my clinical trial, more on that later, all of these thoughts were going through my head, and then I saw, or I thought I saw, I couldn’t bear to look directly at Roger, I thought I saw Roger, his back to the woman, wink at me before turning to deliver a new carton of fries. Then the new carton of fries lay on her tray next to the carton with the obscenely long fry sticking out of it. You could see now that the seemingly average bunch of fries in the offending carton were in general shorter than those in the replacement carton, further evidence against me. She stood there like she was waiting for an elevator, looking at nobody. Roger took the offending carton from her tray and threw it away. She said, I heard her say, her voice wasn’t so mousy, she said that Roger didn’t understand, she didn’t want new fries, her appetite had been ruined by the old fries, she couldn’t get the image of a horrifying spiraling fingernail out of her head, it was disgusting, she wanted Roger to do more than replace her fries, her problem wasn’t solved by new fries, what he was doing, her words, was trying to replace the heater in a building that had already burned down because of the original heater. Roger said that he thought they were talking about french fries, what did heaters have to do with it? This was a ruse, he admitted later, he had gotten her point completely. He declared himself responsible for the food only, he had no control or influence over what mental images popped into her head, and while he was sorry for, he used her words, her flash of involuntary recall, he couldn’t exactly go back in time to her childhood and prevent her from opening The Guinness Book of World Records. Kids are naturally curious, he said, what can I do about that? As a paying customer she declared herself entitled to compensation for her negative experience, she described the whole incident over again now, as if Roger hadn’t witnessed it and hadn’t heard her describe it already, and he listened patiently without interrupting her, nodding the whole time, which was when we heard about her unhappy childhood. After she re-detailed everything that had been said and done, Roger said that he was very sorry for what had happened to her, and if there was anything he could do to make up for the unpleasantness of her dining experience at our franchise, anything at all, she shouldn’t hesitate to ask. I didn’t realize it then, I didn’t even realize it when he did it a second time for a customer whose chicken bites weren’t cooked as well as they should have been, I mean they’d been precooked, they weren’t uncooked, that would have been dangerous, they just hadn’t completely unfrozen in the center, and Roger had done the same thing, he had offered to do anything at all to make it better. Even then I hadn’t understood, Roger had to explain it to me, he asked whether I’d noticed that nobody ever took him up on his offer to do anything at all for them. If he had offered coupons or vouchers or a refund, his words, they would have snatched them up, that’s what customers did, they wanted to hold on to their money, it was their nature. But by asking them whether there was anything at all he could do for them, he was in fact offering them nothing. He was telling them that if they wanted something, they would have to ask for it, and if they had to ask for it, Roger’s thinking, they would have to give up what Roger called the moral high ground, which customers cherished even more than money. If they managed to ask in a roundabout way, Roger explained, using words like compensation or recourse, he waited for them to ask directly for money or coupons, but they never did. The woman never got past the word compensation, she huffed and puffed and left without even taking her food to go, vowing never to return to our franchise in as loud a voice as she could muster, to which Roger replied in a calm and soothing near-whisper, so that everyone in the restaurant had to quiet down to hear him, which they did, that she could make whatever dining choices she liked, that this was America, that she was free to go, and that he was sorry she was having a bad day. Once she was gone, he shrugged his shoulders and apologized to the other customers for the commotion, as if to say that she was unbalanced and overreacting and we were all better off without her, or at least that’s what it looked like to me, I had seen that look before, I didn’t like it. Roger had been cruel to the woman, I thought, and I said so. He explained that he had been nothing but accommodating with her, but that she was clinging to an unrealistic expectation of customer satisfaction, that the problem lay in her mind, not in his actions, he explained that individual customer satisfaction was not important, it had never been important, that the emphasis on individual customer satisfaction was only a strategy, a business strategy, a means to an end, and that it had become shopworn, customers had begun taking advantage of it, which was damaging the business ecosystem, like picnickers feeding the bears. I told Roger that I had only wanted to brighten the woman’s day with the same wonderful feeling of discovery I had experienced upon recognizing a very long french fry sitting atop a pile of otherwise normal fries, I had only wanted to provide a unique and exceptional dining experience, I hadn’t meant to cause any trouble or hurt any feelings. Roger shook his head at that, he said I hadn’t caused any trouble at all, what I had done was root out someone who was trying to take advantage of our franchise, I had eradicated vermin, his words, I had done a very good thing. But from now on I should maintain a consistent variety of fries in each carton, because people had certain expectations when they dined at our franchise, expectations which should be met, not exceeded or fucked with in any way, and consistency was the hallmark of our franchise, Roger’s words, it trumped quality every time. Even though I would become next month’s Employee of the Month, even though Roger said I had done a good thing, I couldn’t help, I can’t help but be haunted by the image of the woman who had only wanted to eat in peace, gagging at the sight of the french fries I’d given her, which was an unintended consequence, they tend to spiral outward from every action I’ve ever undertaken, which makes it very difficult to make any knowledge out of life. Now if you… [Extended beeping sound. Click—tape stopped and resumed.] If you ask Aunt Liz, your grandfather’s sister, she’s still down in Panorama City, she’ll tell you that no good deed goes unpunished, which is her philosophy, not mine, she has her reasons, everyone is different.
Antoine Wilson is the author of two novels, Panorama City (HMH) The Interloper (Handsel Books). He lives in Los Angeles.
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