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COW, COME HOME
Steven Phineas--former-master-of-cut-dishgrease Phineas--stood for his first-day's helm at the McDonald's drive-thru window like the new stallion that he was, digital headset bridle, body swiveling at hips in ninety-degree pivots to register, to window, back to register and hands deftly arranging the cash, counting the change, body-pivot again to the window and please and thankyoucomeagain and slamming the register on the backswing. Through the digital headset crackled a raunchy-South voice for a Big Mac and a Coke, large. His boss walked up and slammed a clipboard on his table. The change in the register-drawer rattled. "Goddamnit, Phineas!" The Boss glowed red and mumbled something about dividends. Phineas adjusted the digital headset, swiveled to the lane, cup of Coke in hand. A man on a horse sidled up to the window, bending down and tipping his hat, upward, just enough to show his face. Hard, blue eyes smiled up from under the brim. "Howdy," he said. Phineas gulped the price, handed over the drink.
"Goddamnit!" screamed the Boss--Steven Phineas liked his job, even before, when a dishman, liked it in a sort of relativist's way, could stand here all day every day long as the free food kept rolling--"Listen now boy, what did I tell you about..." Phineas moved aside so the Boss could see through the drive-thru window, outdoors.
"Howdy," came the voice again.
And the Boss: "Well, I'll be damned. That pavement'll put a damn swell sight on that buck's feet there, you know." The Boss was a large man, a fat man, shedding sweat and bumping you with fleshy protrusions every move he made.
"That's allright," the Man said, raising the plastic straw to his mouth to drink. "I sure do love them Big Macs."
Steven Phineas turned to the Boss and his eyes blew from his head. The Boss chuckled, wiping shrapnel from his chin. "Well, I'll be a damned cowboy..." Phineas was short, incalculably short and even shorter than the stocky figure of the Boss. Phineas turned and handed the brown paper sack full of the Big Mac to the Man on the Horse, who (the Man) handed Phineas three dollar bills before spurring the big beast and trotting off into the afternoon. "Would you know," the Boss said, "would you know in this town of all places, a goddamn joker on a horse...".
Next day he was back. "Big Mac, large Coke." Steven Phineas stood munching/sucking a Flurrie, drive-thru helmsman again, and this time he snapped-to at the ding of the bell, the pronouncement of the order and a glance on his part to the monitor, which showed, alternately, a fisheye view from a hole in the metal grate of the speaker in the menu board and an overhead shot of the rear parking lot. Phineas laughed at how big the people's mouths would get when they leaned way up close to the speaker to say their order. But right now he was only catching the distended snout of the white horse; the monitor flashed to the empty parking lot.
The explosion had left him with one bitch of a sinus headache, caverns ripped out and dry with a pulsing like somebody was going to the backs of his cheekbones with a fine-toothed comb, teeth of the sharpest diamondcut or say stainless steel like forks at home.
"Yessir!" Phineas pivoted and snapped to attention, facing the window, and stood there even as the rider came up on that fuzzy white horse. The top of the rider's Stetson almost caught the awning it was so tall. Bent down now, dirty brown hand resting on the sill, behind the windowglass, the pin-needle prick-hairs of his beard, the dirty yellow teeth, "What you just standin there for?" came the voice, and Phineas jerked now to the stack of empty cups, shot full the Man's drink from two separate machines. The Boss came waddling over in orthopedic shoes and blue linen slacks with the Big Mac, bumped Phineas with his gut and handed over the bag.
"Well goddamn if it ain't the only cowboy in the whole state. How you, Mr. Wayne? Didn't I tell you what that parking lot'll do to them feet?" handing the bag with Big Mac to Steven and trailing off back to the kitchen blurting the ½-jolly, ½-caustic laugh of a fat politician. The Cowboy mimed something. A car behind him was honking its horn, not frighting the white horse a whit. Phineas looked to the monitor and sighted the gaping maw of a former school teacher. He swung open the little window and gulped the price. He sqeezed shut his eyelids. When he dared open them, the drink and bag had been replaced with three folded dollar bills and the Man was saying, "Listen, son. You don't like this, now do you? Don't like it no way. Listen I got a herd over that ridge there, back over the freeway and we're going to Chicago. You'd make quite a ride on a horse. Short as you are."
Phineas stood mute, concentrated on the backs of his own eyelids. The car continued to honk. Eventually the Cowboy rode off in the direction of the highway.
They usually closed up around nine, unless the Baptist church just across the street--snug up next to the onramp on the one side, the peepshow shop on the other--happened to let out Wednesdays before they could get the lock on the door. It was Tuesday. Phineas wiped blood from the corners of his eyelids with paper napkin. His hands were already chapped from the dirty money and this only his second day at the drawer. In the light from passing cars' headlamps his hands looked pimpled and pocked, fungal, little lumps of growths distending in shadows, stretching and engulfing the length of his fingers. Dreaming of free rides up this hill and to his home, Phineas. Men in horse-and-buggy. Women in pink '57 Chevy's all polished and roan, with half-cocked and sequined nighties pulled up about the chest. "Need a ride, honey?" His mother pulled up in the rattling Pinto and he got in.
She told him she was proud of his holding this job, damn proud. He closed his eyes tight, thought of the Man on the Horse.
On the third day Phineas was relegated to the dining area. Boss planted a mop and bucket in front of him first thing. "Can't keep the drawer balanced, can't work the drawer. This'll teach you." And when around mid-afternoon he'd cleaned the lunch mess and made to make himself a Flurrie the Boss told him no, such was the way of the demoted, which didn't make a whole lot of sense, did it. But still he coughed up three and had a Big Mac and a large Coke. The new guy rang it up at the drive-thru and slammed the drawer a little too quick to suit.
Later around dusk Phineas was out front sweeping the parking lot when he heard a quiet rustling like a man sneaking up on him. He whipped around to come face to face with a blackeyed Daisy-cow, who jerked her hindquarters when Phineas jumped back startled. The coweyes rolled a bit; the rear jerked a little more, before settling back. His own eyes stood now wide open and staring ½-alarmed, ¼-curious and the other ¼ appalled at the picture and unbearable stench of the beast as she settled back into a placid state. She made her way around him, farting with each step. She followed the grass border of the parking lot slow around the side of the building, stopping here and there to bend down for a bite, looking back around at him and pulling her head back to front in a quick motion like beckoning. She disappeared around back of the building.
Steven breathed through his mouth, swept the lot.
Ten minutes and he was finished. Daisy-cow reappeared at the edge of the building. He jumped back a little once more. She rolled her bulbous eyes. Then another cow appeared behind her, this one a Red with whiteface and white rear end. Then another. Two more and the whistling started. The drive-thru speaker burst into crackling life at the other end of the building. The new helmsman barked for the order and Phineas recognized the voice. "Bic Mac, please, large Coke." The whistling tripled in volume at the pronouncement, a rumbling undertone rushing up from the rear of the famed fastfood restaurant where he'd been dishmaster for a month, tops, drive-thru clerk for two days, front-trash-and-sweeper boy for this not even halfday...Phineas loped cautiously to the front door thinking whether he might be able to connive the Boss into letting him off early. He looked back out to the road and watched a car pull into the peepshow palace. The Daisy-cow appeard then in profile through the front plateglass windows, stepping hooves on the front walk one carefully after another like it hurt her to do so. She walked right up to the door and swung her rear end around so she faced him, nose in the air, sniffing. The Boss wailed "Goddamn Hell-Fire!" over and over from a point way back of the kitchen.
"Thank you, kindly," came the voice of the Man on the Horse from the open drive-thru window, where the new clerk stood, eyeballs dripping blood and tears‹the crinkle of the brown paper bag as he handed the Mac to its now rightful owner. The Daisy-cow she backed up a little when Phineas walked out, with a shudder of her rear end as he pushed open the glass pane. He walked out; she hitched and slid past him into the restaurant. Cowboy came trotting, head bent down and atop the white horse, from under the drive-thru awning. He gripped the Coke. Steven Phineas greeted the Cowboy with a howdy-do and wide-open eyes.
"Well-well," Cowboy said, "Looks like they didn't fire you after all. I feared the worst."
"Nossir,' said Phineas.
"You'll be needing a ride?" Cowboy said.
Phineas nodded yes. Didn't move.
"Well," Cowboy said, "Well, jump on."
Phineas didn't move. The Boss was now wailing in the front kitchen: "Phineas! Phineas! Why is there a goddamned cow in here?..Phineas!" wailing like in those old cartoons about the cavemen all laid out in cities of rock huts where the man screams his wife's name over and over and over. And the cattle poured out from under the awning. They poured from around the grassy other side of the building. The boss burst through the front glass door with a crashing and the zinging twinkle of blue linen. Following close at his heels was the Daisy-cow, trotting like she really couldn't be bothered. The whistling surrounded them, other men on horses, among the cattle, a cluster of which had gathered around the uncut grass and weeds at the base of the tall freeway signpole.
Phineas threw a sneakered foot into a stirrup, grasped with one hand the braced arm of the Man on the Horse. He swung his free leg up and over the back of the saddle. The boss, tripping after being followed by that Daisy-cow down to the edge of the road, crashed down the hill and face first into the drainage ditch. She nuzzled his rump when he tried to get up.
Phineas let a whoop and a yell and the Man on the Horse chomped his burger while guiding the white beast with his free hand past the peepshow palace, cattle all around, until they hit the freeway median, forming a spacious single file line (in some places doubled) that streched, eventually, for some miles, on it's way North.
Todd Dills has a fly on his bum.
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