This installment features new fiction by John L. Sheppard, our co-conspirator Mickey Hess (Louisville), and Chicago's Erika Mikkalo. Read on for Sheppard's "Graveyard Shift" or click here for details on the release show February 8 at Skylark (2149 S. Halsted in Chicago) b/w the launch party/show for Terry Plumming, an audio magazine.
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At first it wasn't so bad, graveyard shift. We came in at 11 at night and left at 7 in the morning. The day's heat radiated out of the asphalt at night, but the industrial air conditioning blew it away indoors. Sleep has never come easily to me, which made not being allowed to sleep at night tougher than it should have been.
My brother Sparky, who was also my college roommate, was the graveyard manager. I rode in with him. He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt and a black necktie. His nametag said, "Assistant Manager." He worked around the restaurant, where needed, mostly the registers, for which he was responsible. Eugene was the graveyard porter. I was the graveyard cook. Sometimes Sam the Arab worked with us. Cathi was the graveyard waitress.
I hadn't met Cathi yet. She was a new hire. Newer than me.
Sparky always made sure we were there ten minutes early. The books and cash register had to be turned over. On this night, Sam the Arab was working the cash register during the evening shift. "Buzz," he said to me. "Buzz, you have not met Cathi?"
"Nope," I said.
"Have you seen her?"
"No, man. What's the big deal?"
We all looked like idiots with our bowties and paper hats on.
The front door tinkled, the automated, cherry-scented bugspray misted out, and a redheaded girl came jiggling in the restaurant. She wore a green tubetop and white shorts that matched her white skin. Flipflops slapped against her pink feet.
Two bowtied idiots stared in dumb fascination. She said, "Hi, fellas," to us with a charming hint of a lisp, barely noticeable. Like Linus in the animated Peanuts specials. She had her work clothes slung over her shoulder. She winked at Sam.
After she left the room, we finally could take a couple of gasps of air.
"This country is a great country," Sam said. "Much better than France."
"You're from France?" I asked him.
"I lived in France before here," Sam said. "And before that, Lebanon."
"Lebanon," I said. Every night on the TV news, they showed the same high-rise Holiday Inn in downtown Beirut getting the fuck blown out of it.
"It is not so good there," Sam said. Sam was a burly guy, shaped like a barrel. He seemed at once dangerous and incredibly likable. Like a good guy pro wrestler, maybe.
"Sam!" my brother shouted to him from the back. "You want to watch me count this cash and sign off?" He went into the back. Eugene came in, looking depressed.
"How's it going, Eugene?" I asked him.
"Ah, fuck you," Eugene said, smiling. He sat down at the counter and I poured him a coffee. Eugene dug out his cigarettes and a lighter. There were no customers yet. The drunks were still in the bars and strip clubs. "How much extra you getting an hour for this bullshit?" He lit a cigarette then shook one out for me. We smoked together for a moment.
"Nothing," I said, leaning on the counter, exhaling. "What do you mean 'extra'?"
"Shit, I'm getting a quarter extra an hour for pulling these bullshit hours. You telling me you're not getting 30 cents?"
"No," I said. I felt myself getting angry. "Nothing." I remembered something about a buck extra an hour. But nothing had been written down. "Fuck!" I shouted. I picked up the spatula and threw it across the dining area. I hated feeling like a sucker.
I went out in the dining area and picked up the spatula. On the way back, I tossed my cigarette out the front door. I took a deep breath of warm moist air accented by cherry-scented bug spray.
Cathi looked much different in uniform. She sat down next to Eugene at the counter and helped herself to a sip of his coffee and then to one of his cigarettes. Pink lipstick. They sat there silently for a few moments like an old married couple who'd run out of things to say to each other. "I'm Cathi," Cathi said finally. I'd gone back around the counter and busied myself scraping down the grill.
"Of course you are," Eugene said. He stubbed out his cigarette, killed his coffee and took the cup and his smokes with him into the backroom.
"Hey, little boy," Cathi said to me. "What's your major?"
I turned around and looked at her face. Don't look down, don't look down. "Who says I have a major?"
"Undeclared?" Cathi asked. She was less attractive than I'd originally thought.
"Yeah," I said. I turned back around.
"That isn't a real name," she said.
"What isn't?" Scrape, scrape.
"Buzz," she said. Damn nametag. "You don't mind if I crawl up on this counter and take a nap, do you?" Cathi asked.
"Not if you don't mind my sticking straws up your nose and your hand in a bucket of water while you're doing it," I said.
"I think you're going to scrape all the iron off that grill," Cathi said.
"Take your nap," I said, putting down the spatula and turning around. "Who's stopping you?" Her breasts were hidden behind the counter. As long as she kept them hidden, I could keep up. She sat up a little, and my glance shot downward from her face, then snapped back up. She smirked a bit at me. I took a ragged breath and said, "What do you expect?"
She shrugged. "Out of little boys? Not much." She did a quarter spin and hopped down from the stool and loafed into the backroom, possibly pursuing Eugene. I had confidence in Eugene. He was older than I was, and less hormonally addled. The muzak service, piped in from a mysterious speaker above me, played cruelly bastardized Blue Oyster Cult.
I saw Eugene outside, watering the flowerbed that circled the restaurant with a green PVC bucket. He was pouring pickle juice on the flowers because Nick wanted him to maintain them. The flowers didn't have long to live.
Sparky came out with the register tray filled with ones and fives but no twenties.
Sam walked out with the drop-bag for the bank. "Buzz!" Sam said. "Now you have seen Cathi. Ha, ha!" He left.
"This has got to be ribs," Eugene commented about one puddle.
"It doesn't look brown enough," I said.
"No, no," Eugene said, swirling his mop in it, "he's been eating light bread with it."
"Ah," I said, "I see your point."
After a few weeks, we became Ph.D.s of vomitology. I drew our degrees on the back of paper placemats.
"Damn," Eugene said, when I presented him with his, "You got hidden talents." I'd drawn dolphins leaping out of mop buckets where the university seal would go and chunky vomit as the fancy work around the edges. I drew in all the Old English type. We had a lot of slack time most nights, just sitting around from about three until five, when I'd convert the grill over to breakfast, and Eugene would do the prep work for the day shift, cutting up tomatoes, onions and lettuce, and creating his gruesome chili. Most nights, a random bum would come in and ask when we were going to throw out the trash. I'd offer the guy a meal if he'd mop up a little. I was always turned down.
I found myself passing out more and more during those slack times. Eugene said we should put spoons in our mouths. "What'll that do?" I asked, sitting next to him at the counter, my head bobbing and jerking.
"I figure that when your head starts to go down, your mouth opens. Then the spoon falls on the counter and wakes your ass up," Eugene said.
It sounded reasonable. We stuck spoons in our mouths. Sure enough, my head bobbed forward and out came the spoon. We both awoke with a jerk.
Cathi was on the other side of the counter. "Go home, Eugene," she said. "I'll punch you out at seven."
Sparky wouldn't like it, but Cathi had big tits and could do whatever she wanted.
"You mean it?" Eugene asked. "I'll do the same for you sometime." He got up and quickly left.
I went in the back and found Sparky conked out at the manager's desk. I left him there. I came back out front.
Cathi was sitting where Eugene had been. I filled up another cup and gave it to her. She sipped it. I turned over a paper placemat and drew a reasonably accurate representation of her. I hated the bright fluorescent lighting, though. It fucked with my shading. The lead in the Athens pencils was nice and soft though, almost like a real drawing pencil. I used my pinkie knuckle as a blending stump. I did a pretty good job on her hands, the way they clasped the cup. She had very soft rounded knuckles. I wasn't pleased with the way the chin turned out. I was about to wad it up and throw it away when she noticed what I was doing and took it away from me. "Jesus," she said. "Did you just draw this? Right now?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Do I really look like this?" She was beginning to percolate a bit.
"I got your chin wrong. It should curve more softly," I said.
"No one's ever drawn a picture of me before," she said. "Can I keep it?"
"I don't know," I said. "It's not very good."
"You have to sign it," she said. I wrote "Buzz" at the bottom. "This is so cool. I might have it framed."
I'd forgotten why I never drew in public, and now I was reminded. I hated this kind of attention. It creeped me out. Suddenly, people who treated me like shit wanted a piece of me instead. Draw me. No, draw me. Jesus. You scratch the surface and most people are narcissistic children.
The next night Eugene let Cathi go home early. Sparky was sawing logs again in the backroom, drooling on the desk blotter. He hadn't caught on to the shenanigans yet. An actual customer came walking in and sat down in the dining room.
"You want me to get him?" I asked Eugene.
"Naw, shit. I told Titties that I'd cover for her, and I will," Eugene said. He picked up an order pad like it was a foreign object and walked over to the man. The man told him what he wanted, and Eugene brought me the ticket. "Order up," he said.
I studied the ticket and couldn't make sense out of it. Eugene took the coffee out to the man in the dining room and poured him a cup. The ticket had written on it, "HO WEE TOSE."
The restaurant industry has its own codes for certain things. For instance, Y on an order equals "mayo" because M equals "mustard." I studied the note. I didn't want to ask Eugene because I didn't want to be unmasked as the idiot that I am. Finally, Eugene came up to me and asked what the hold up was. I said, "I'm sorry, I can't read your writing."
He clapped me on the shoulder and smiled. "It ain't in no code," he said. "It's exactly what it says." He walked over and picked up some bread out of the bread drawer and popped it in the toaster.
It finally came to me: "Whole wheat toast." How could I look at Eugene now? He was functionally illiterate. He'd see it in my eyes, the pity.
Shit. "I'm going to cut some tomatoes," I said. "Since you're doing my job for me." I felt like an ass saying that. I went to the back and found a crate of tomatoes and ran them through the slicer. The poor fucking guy. No wonder Nick didn't make him midnight shift manager.
Fucking asinine life.
I brought the sliced tomatoes out front and put them in the cooler under the make-table.
Eugene's big hand clapped me on the back. "Thanks, Buzz," he said. It was the first time he'd ever called me by my name.
The next night, Cathi let Eugene go home early. They'd each offered to let me go, but I pointed out to them that the snoozing boss in the back was my ride. Cathi sat down at the counter and started telling me about her love life. Her boyfriend was two-timing her, she was sure. The guy was probably a cokehead. He was in a cover band that performed top 40 fuck-all hits.
I stopped her. "Why're you telling me this?" I asked.
"Well, you know. Because you're sensitive and all," Cathi said.
"Sensitive?" I made a big show of looking around. "Me? You're talking about me? I'm about as sensitive as a rock." I was outraged. She might as well have told me that I was a gerbil-jammer while she was at it.
"You're out of your mind!"
She laughed at me, sweetly. Indulgently. "You sensitive boys are so cute when you get upset."
"Are you hard of hearing?" I shouted. "You want to see how sensitive I am? You want to see it?" The rage could boil up so quickly then. God, how I loved it. I was out of control. I had no idea what I was going to do next. I spotted the grill out of the corner of my eye. "This is how sensitive I am!" I shouted, and slapped my hand palm down on the grill.
"Oh my God, oh my God!" Cathi yelped. She leapt to her feet and rushed around the counter.
I whipped my hand off the grill and studied it. Luckily, the grill was so greasy that my hand couldn't weld to it. The palm was bright red, and by the time Cathi got to me, it had already started to bubble up.
The pain was exquisite.
"That's your drawing hand," she said.
"You're damn right it is," I said. "Now get away from me."
She switched to evening shift after that. When I came in for my shift, she wouldn't even look at me. She'd punch out and leave. By the time the hand had partially healed, my first semester of college had rolled by. I was not ready for it. I hadn't slept like a normal human being for months.
John L. Sheppard was born in Lakewood, Ohio, in 1963, the son of a cardiac care nurse and a failed paper salesman. While growing up, his family bounced all over the Midwest before landing in Florida in the mid-70s. He spent four years in the United States Army as a graphic artist until honorably discharged in 1991. He's now a community newspaper editor in Florida. He is the author of the novels Small Town Punk, Midnight in Monaco, Carl Versus the Men From Mars, Bad Men Driving, and The Runner-Up.