The Ghosts I Met at Taco Bell
A bony, drunken ho with hoop earrings and fake eyelashes comes lurching toward the counter. In her luminous neon party garb, she almost looks like a new breed of pilgrim: spectral and retro and tattered and horny and hyped up on a bunch-o-bullshit. And here I digress. Because to get through another frustrating day of work I ultimately think it best to romanticize her, making of her person something more lovely in its having finally burst through an imagined temple door, something more reasonable on such crazing brinks of enlightenment. But this image remains difficult to compose, because unlike her, pilgrims don’t shriek.
“Ho-ly SHIT!” she shrills wildly. “Tacos are 65 CENTS today?”
“Well, it is Taco Tuesday.”
“My GOD… I’ll take 5!”
This is the point at which I’d like to jump over the counter and do something really truly righteous. Like telling the Wasted Pilgrim to chill out, because this is Taco Bell—not Mecca, not anything. And I want to ask her if we’ve already met, in a dream, some other life. Alas! All of this is just a pause before I remember how everyone, including myself, would rather just not know; how every time the dollar-green outpouring of anyone’s expectations comes looping around my neck, I choke; and the stupid clarifications I have to make—Will that be all? You said 12 tacos, right?—I make. My whole life people have been telling me I’m going to do something special. But here I am, smiling behind the counter at Taco Bell.
Honestly, I’ve been in this position before. In the orphanage where I grew up, I was always smiling. Always calculating, refracting, and affecting an emotional reality to suit the needs of an algorithm I wish I had never come to understand. Because now it’s like I’m too smart: I can’t feel anything. And when I consider that hard-won, well-manicured ability to please others, I recall those indefatigable nights spent praying, babbling like an idiot into some second-hand pillow for my Mother.
The Wasted Pilgrim looks like my Mother. At least how I imagine her to be: haggard but cheerful, bleary-eyed, wasted, hunched over the counter, waiting in the wrong place for the wrong answer. Not that I’m any better. In fact, I’m no different. When I encounter the unfathomable I also have a tendency to belittle it by projecting it into an order I understand. The way the Wasted Pilgrim’s eyes project the dimly glowing epiphany of the menu they are staring at. The way I project the memory of my Dead Mother, whom I never met, into the living.
It’s not so strange, not if you believe in zombies, or ghosts, or people that live like an after-image of themselves. X-Tina, my 40-plus year old coworker, is one of them. She too is a transaction, because time doesn’t just passively elapse, it passes like sand through her small cracked teeth, which carry the goofy, gapped elegance of Stonehenge. Her green eyes are two dwindling orbs flecked with gold.
“Twenty or so years ago,” X-Tina once told me, finishing off the last of her beer in the break room, “I was a stripper in Fairbanks, Alaska. There were girls there from all over the world. From Thailand. Africa. All us bitches lived in trailers beside the bar. Guys weren’t allowed, but whatever.”
“It’s crazy to think about you stripping in Alaska. In the 90’s.”
“I know, right,” she says, taking off her Taco Bell hat and tossing around her hair. “It was dark all the time. And 60 below.”
“Was everyone depressed? I can’t even comprehend 60 below.”
“No, people were normal,” she said, putting her hat back on and throwing the empty bottle in the trash. “Everyone just walked everywhere real fast. And you had to take little breaths, or else your lungs would totally literally freeze. People left their cars running all the time. It was crazy!”
“Are you from here? Iowa?”
“Yeah,” says X-Tina, tossing the affirmative over her shoulder as she saunters from the break room to the work line situated behind the counter, which borders the lunch-loud, noon-bright, glassed-in lobby. “Just a shy girl from Small Town, Iowa… Stripping in Alaska! For three months! It’s not really in my nature to take my clothes off and dance in front of a bunch of assholes, but I’m glad I did it.
“Not that I never thought about leaving. I mean it’s not like things never got totally literally weird. Once, I was dancing for this one guy and he bit my butt. There were teeth-marks, bruises… They kicked him out,” explains X-Tina, gulping. “Anyway, it was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”
When she turns away, thrusting a spatula through the thin, hard crust that’s formed on an undisturbed surface of refried beans, it’s like the whole human world goes silent. The incessant nom nom nom of Revelers eating in the lobby, the cars rumbling by outside, another customer at the counter impatiently tapping her debit card against the faux wood—it all goes away. I can’t even hear my rapidly beating heart. And I don’t want to. It feels like I’m floating. But I’m just walking towards X-Tina. Because there are things a person deserves to hear. Beautiful things. Life-changing things.
“Are you all stocked?” I ask. “Do you…need anything? Tortillas? Chalupas? More Potatoes?”
“No. I’m good,” says X-Tina, sounding suddenly very old. And just as suddenly, she too looks so much like my Mother that I snatch up a potato bite from the work line and ponder it deeply. Until suddenly, the aforesaid human world comes back with all its man-made noise and the first thing I can hear is that Annoying Fat Bitch behind me tapping her debit card against the countertop.
Glaring, I make what I like to think of as a sassy 180 degree pirouette. But about 90 degrees in I decide that mutiny is for kids. It’s time to grow up. My shoulders begin to slouch. And the trench between my shoulder blades grows deeper. I imagine the soldiers there, digging. I imagine the war, lost. I imagine my last words, and I say them.
“What can I get for you today?”
But she isn’t listening. She is slack-jawed, gazing up at the menu, tapping her debit card furiously against the faux wood countertop, sweating profusely. Then looking me squarely in the eyes, which are fixed on her shiny tapping debit card, she says, “Oh. Sorry. Is that annoying?”
I look around to make sure none of my managers can see, bashfully nod my head yes, and it’s like the most humiliating, pathetic form of self-empowering honesty I’ve known in a very long time.
“You’re so cute! Just look at you in your little uniform!”
The next day the same customer comes in again. But this time it’s with her Fat Husband and an array of bony children ranging in age from 4 through 9 years old. Because some of them have smooth, dark, sunglass-like skin, and others carry the wild yellow tones of the summer sun I assume they are unrelated, adopted. And that Horrifying Bitch is their Foster Mother.
These children are like the skeletons of me. I imagine them in Taco Bell uniforms. I mean I dress them in my skin, which I know might sound crazy, but not if you’ve been in their shoes, not if you know where they’re going. I look from the Horrifying Bitch to her Fat Husband. And with all the feverish conviction of someone who knows it won’t be okay, I say, it’ll be okay. I say it as loud as I can without speaking. But nothing happens. X-Tina is still assembling tacos in the work line behind me. The Fat Husband is still adding bulk to his already massive order.
“Alright,” I say. “Finally. That’ll be $23.57.”
He hands me that shiny, indefatigable debit card of his. I swipe it but it doesn’t take. I grumble at the register and smile at the Fat Husband. His arms are crossed now, and he is looking at me over the wire rims of his spectacles like I’m the idiot and he’s the professor. I swipe again and wait for the slow, stuttering printer to print out the receipt. I tell him his order number, and he rolls his eyes, then leaves.
I’m so melodramatic, I think, turning to address the creepy stabs of cilantro breath assaulting my neck: Dr. Manager.
“Come with me,” he says, tugging at my filthy shirt, escorting me behind the work line where he feeds a dented VHS tape to the television set there. In the enclosed glass drive-thru window, the reflection of a fat woman with a black mullet whirrs like an itch bursting to life on the screen.
“There’s a tiny little camera hidden in her broach,” Dr. Manager explains, pressing his index finger on a small stone no bigger than 6 pixels on the screen, affixed to a droopy lapel.
“Once a month,” he says. “A secret shopper comes in, and if you ask her about something unrelated to the current transaction—a good example would be asking about the weather outside—you win 200 bucks! Two! Hundred! Bucks! This,” he says, pointing. “This on the screen: that’s her.”
Then draping an arm over my shoulder in this bogus gesture of man-to-man intimacy, Dr. Manager squeezes my shoulder and says, “All you have to do…is care.”
“Thanks for the heads-up. Sorry.”
There was a time when each admission of guilt, true or false as any intimacy, felt unsettling and weird, because I was always moving in one direction, by any means, toward a family, normalcy, insatiable sexuality. Out here, in this aimless, needless place, ontology recedes like a voice into the fog, into the faces in the fog, into the ghosts all around me. Until there is nothing left to do but look so hard through the ceiling you can convince yourself that behind it is the sky. And it really makes you wonder: how does anyone speak?
Dr. Manager snaps his fingers in my face. “Pay. Attention. This is important.” I blink, lowering my eyes and knitting my brows together in a state of mock absorption. “All you have to do…” he reiterates, smiling as he reaches over my shoulder to pick up the clipboard from the counter, “is care.”
“I know. I know. I’m sorry. I’m just a little out of it. I haven’t been getting much sleep.”
“It’s okay,” says Dr. Manager, pursing his stiff lips like a beak, puffing up his chest, obviously relishing the stumbling effects of his power. “It’s no big deal. I understand. We could all use a bit more sleep.” And clutching the clipboard to his chest, he twirls around like a weathervane propelled by yet another great Whoosh of bullshit, and sweeps into the freezer to tally up the afternoon’s inventory.
And this bullshit is nothing new. At the Fixing Place it was believed that behavior could be standardized if given numerical values. Excepting Dr. Manager—who is always donning out Champion Cards to reward employees who have championed Cleanliness, Hospitality, Accuracy, Maintenance, Product, or Speed—this does not seem to be a sentiment shared by others employed at Taco Bell. At the Fixing Place, a meeting marked the end of each shift. Our behavior, evaluated and calibrated in terms of the Moral Inventory, which was a list attributing a positive or negative value to each action, granted each the inscrutable clarity of logic. In this way, progress could be charted and observed indiscriminately.
A month before I turned 12, the orphanage told me it could no longer adapt itself to my implacable and uncanny sexual desires, and I was sent away, to the Fixing Place, where whatever in my nature was misaligned might be realigned for the sake of the society I would eventually, ideally, be re-integrated into. There the beds were framed by metal, not wood. And the staff members were older, easily incited, uneducated and self-righteous. On bad days the frustrations from the lives they led outside of work crept like a slow poison into the workplace where we lived, which was just a hallway lined with doors, a thin strip of sky-blue linoleum illuminated 24 hours a day by the buzzing, winter-stark, fluorescent lights of Program 2.
When I turned 12, there were things I was old enough to know. Dr. Manager told me I had two sisters and one brother, and that my mother was a prostitute.
“And where does she live?”
“Actually,” said Dr. Manager , observing his clipboard. “She’s on parole, just 15 minutes away. Would you like to pursue some form of contact with her?”
I looked out on an abandoned basketball court, and like everything there, a fence bordered it. A trail of 10 or so of the boys from my program—ranging in age from 9 through 13 years old, and ranging in IQ between 50-something and 90-something—marched through the rain with their arms crossed. They stopped at a heavy steel door, perpendicular to the Plexiglas office room window I’m pressing my red forehead against like a rose. One of the boys looked in then, and unlocking his arms briefly, looked me directly in the eyes and rubbed his groin. And even though I was crying, I remember the almost instantaneous way my cock stiffened. Reprimanded by a savage, mole-faced man, the boy turned and stared straight ahead.
His lithe Spanish frame swayed in the windy deluge. Slyly, he unlocked his arms again. His hands were tremendously fucked up, mottled and dwarfed, ending in nails the imbricate, jagged shape of shark’s teeth. A few years ago, the boy’s Father shoved his hands in a bucket of boiling grease. They inched downward then like snails toward a small, hard lump that’s formed beneath his belt. And I looked out that unbreakable window, thinking about my mother, thinking that no, I would not like to pursue some form of contact with her, and staring at the boy rubbing his cock in the rain.
By now, it’s 4 o’clock and I have one hour left of work. I feel like a cave of sighs. Excusing the interminable presence of that Horrifying Bitch, her Fat Husband, and their depressing Flock of Future Fuck-Ups, the lobby is empty, the dishes are done, the work line is stocked, the lobby is stocked and swept and mopped and glistening; the cardboard boxes, once bulging with frozen bags of meat and lettuce and cheese, now drained of their contents, have been broken down and taken out with the last of lunch’s garbage; and the trash cans, fit anew with empty white bags, look so pure and so promising that I forget that what you fill them with is garbage. The dishwater is fresh, the sun outside is shining; the dizzying, molasses-thick odor of apple blossoms pours in through the drive-thru window like a dream. This one hour of work will be the last.
You can be happy just about anywhere, I think, picking up a copy of the Daily Iowan. The front page features a burning dumpster and a dog show. I check the help wanted ads, but it’s useless. I read the police blotter, but it’s boring. When I finally give up on the paper, the back door swings open and Half-Hearted Mike walks in carrying a damp cardboard box, trailed by the wet smells of spring. And Melvin.
People at work say Melvin’s different. I look down on him. Although I sport the same uniform as him, I talk to him the way I talked to the children I once knew in the places I grew up. Children who were never still, and who—when they were—stared. Children with an absolute-zero tolerance for hygiene. Children with rotting teeth. Children with childhoods slowly beaten or boiled or carved out of them. Children with nothing left. Silent children. Sinister children. Sexually active children. Children who never laughed, but who, when they did, projected an undercurrent of blood and spit and rage churning behind the crumbling façade of their haunted-house-like faces.
“Yeppity yep yep yep yep yep yep yep yep yep,” says Melvin. “Right, Mike?”
“Yeah, I guess,” says Half-Hearted Mike, sidling into the safety of the freezer with a box marked TACO MEAT.
Performing an immediate about-face, Melvin turns to me and takes two colossal steps forward. He is suddenly very close, and Face-Talker that he is, leans even closer to ask how I’m doing. I explain that I’m good, relaxed.
Melvin opens and closes his mouth like a fish out of water, like there isn’t any air in the room, and slowly bringing his hand to his throat, he looks up at the blank white ceiling, massaging his throat and opening and closing his mouth. I shift around a little, looking for something to do, but there’s nothing left. When I look back at Melvin, he is twitchy, more insistent.
“There’s this girl I like,” he says. “You can tell me about her. I bought her sandals. Pretty little red flip-flops—should I give ‘em to her? Would that be weird?”
I blink twice, very slowly, like I don’t understand the question.
“Nevermind,” Melvin says quickly, clasping and unclasping his long, knotted fingers: exasperated, panting.
“I had some really good ice cream today.”
“Oh you did, did you? Was it good?”
“Wait…” he says, raising a lily-limp hand to his heart. “I can’t remember.”
Then the freezer door bursts open and out shambles Half-Hearted Mike, smiling. He looks like a jolly, hairless lumberjack. He is over 40 years old. His front teeth are missing, but the blood-red aura surrounding his toothlessness seems to say, you don’t need teeth to smile. You don’t need a forest to appreciate the trees. I’m not sure how there anyone really needs to feel. Not with all the irradiated, odorless vegetables that are used to make tacos at Taco Bell. Nothing, it seems, wants to remain altogether present.
“The goal at the end of every workday,” says Half-Hearted Mike. “It doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be simple. Be happy. Manage to stay happy. And if you can do that, well, you’ve had a successful day at work. Today’s been a good day,” concludes Half-Hearted Mike, filling the ice bucket.
“Mike. Let me get that. I’m 22. Your back. It’s messed up.”
“Don’t be fooled,” grunts Half-Hearted Mike, wincing as he lifts the ice bucket. “I’m an asshole.”
At first, this seems hard to believe. He looks like a middle-aged man struggling to lift an ice bucket. Also, he survived cancer. And cancer survivors are not assholes. I learned about his disease bitching about my shy boyfriend’s refusal to be the first person to enter a party, because Half-Hearted Mike, assuming that my boyfriend was embarrassed to be with me, straightened his back and barked, “If you went out with me, I’d treat you right. I wouldn’t be ashamed.”
“Yeah. I used to be an asshole. A real bigot.”
“They pumped me full of estrogen. I had cancer.”
The next day, I’m late for work, lugging my bike through the back door and down the stairs, apologizing to everyone as I run back up the stairs, flush and heaving, having biked against the wind. The world doesn’t slow down until I feel someone deftly smooth and crease my rumpled collar. It’s Half-Hearted Mike.
“Hi, Mike. Sorry I’m late. My Mom… Well, Foster Mom… I dunno. She returned this birthday present I got her. She’s different now that I’m back. I don’t know how to explain to her that it’s not my job, my fucking responsibility, to fix her problems. I moved home to move forward. Not that I had much of a choice, but still. I moved home to fix my own problems.”
A few hours later, during a lull in the late afternoon, Half-Hearted Mike gulps and says, “I know what it’s like.”
“I know what it’s like,” he repeats. “To be hated by your parents. When I was born, well, I didn’t have no parts. My Daddy was, is, an old-fashioned man. You think you know old-fashioned. But you don’t know nothin’ ‘til you met my Daddy.”
“Wait. What? You mean, you’re like, a hermaphrodite or something?”
“No. Well. I had this little hole. I didn’t know how it was supposed to be down there, ya know. I didn’t even know the difference between boys and girls.”
“Oh my God. Of course not. Yeah. There wasn’t Health Class or the Internet back then, was there? God. That sounds hard, Mike. Really.”
“When I was young,” says Half-Hearted Mike. “I looked like that girl across the street.” Everything about her is pudgy and amorphous—her figure, its aura, her face. “I didn’t choose to be this,” says Half-Hearted Mike, looking profoundly ironic in his uniform. “I’m Mike. And what I am is what I am,” he adds, fist-pumping like Popeye. “And what I am is all I have to offer.”
Half-Hearted Mike stares out the window at the girl on the other side of the street. She's sapling-like and sways in the light before she crosses, dwindling in the distance, and then, gone. I look up at the clock, contemplating the last five minutes left of work.
“What are you doing?” asks Half-Hearted Mike.
“Restocking sporks,” I explain, shuffling through a box beneath the counter.
“Least I got kids,” says Half-Hearted Mike suddenly. “I always wanted kids.”
“Have you ever considered…” I say, looking up at him and mouthing the last word, “Doing drag? It’s a way, I think, for people to express that significant other side of themselves.”
Half-Hearted Mike starts to massage his temples. Tears aren’t exactly streaming down his face, but his eyelashes—like the string of four harps I found abandoned in a dream—are beaded with water. It is morning. And wind combs loudly through the wheat field the harps have become. Peering through the golden stalks, I perceive a place as formless and dim as my childhood. Anxiety slips over me like an electric coat when the sound of the wind runs through the stalks, which suddenly recede into the earth, and I can see that this amalgamated place borders a graveyard which was once this field. Then everything blots together, melded by inexplicable fire, for the graveyard is burning. Something somewhere stops screaming, and I look upon this new ash, an apocalypse of dust and of silence—all creation—electrified!
And the imprint of my Mother’s face is at my feet, opening and closing its mouth, but it does not speak. I bring my face to the earth, fitting it to the concave image of her face, and I gulp. Flakes of ash pinwheel all around me through smoke. My body fills with dirt. I think: this must be what it’s like to be in communion with the dead.
Half-Hearted Mike blinks, dropping his blood-shot eyes down to me like two filthy moons, and I return that gaze of the lost, the possessed. Standing, I look out the lobby windows over the slow vista of the street, its spectrum of rusty cars sliding about their business in the middle of Iowa. And I wonder: will the world finally split open now? Will my Mother finally open her mouth to speak? It seems possible as I slump against the counter, gripping a spork so hard that blood-black veins have surfaced from deep within my hand, waiting as it seems I always have to receive the Drag Queen lain dormant inside Half-Hearted Mike, somehow woken now, unbroken now, looking out at me from the Forbidden Half of his heart, gently growling in my Dead Mother’s voice, “No, boy. No. I haven’t.”
Charles Shields attends community college online in the middle of Iowa. It sucks. Currently, he is applying to art schools in the Chicagoland area to study Marketing and Poetry, because he believes the only creative writing every American deals with is designed to sell you stuff. He is 23 years old. This is his first published piece.
© 2010 prickofthespindle.com