Excerpt from upcoming manuscript by Sam Pink.
I’m kneeling on a greasy floor before a grilltop.
Looking at the pilot light through a hole by the temperature knobs.
That little blue flame.
It’s always there.
Every time I look.
And that amazes me, for whatever reason.
And the pilot light becomes an orange spike when I turn the knob.
And the grill is now on at Pop’s, where I flip burgers.
Pop’s is run by Mary, 66, and her mom, Vicky, 91, who bakes the pie we sell.
There’s an occasional night/weekend employee, but it’s mostly Mary and me.
Mary and Vicky are generations deep in town.
I’m almost a year.
First out of towner Mary’s ever hired.
She told me so at the interview.
‘Everybody does everything, she says, tapping a notebook open to a page where, I notice, her only note is a 3d cube.
In her flannel shirt and ripped jeans, tinted glasses.
She has long, curly gray hair that looks wet from the shower. ‘Soooooo that’s how it is,’ she says.
She does a shrug where her head sinks into her body and her arms/hands look like they’re holding up the ceiling.
Like if you say to a kindergartner, ‘Who did this.’
‘You’re gonna,’ she says, not quite making eye contact. ‘You’re gonn-a, I mean, heh, look I’ll tell ya like it is, you’re gonna do it all, k? People come in here and wanna do this that, I tellem, I says look, ya do it all. Ya work the grill, ya bartend, ya serve. That’s just how it is, alright? Sound good?’
‘Yeah sounds good.’
She slaps the table, smiling, and says all right.
I’m smiling as well.
We shake hands.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Mack told me to say hi.’
Knowing only one other person in town, the old man who runs a small ‘camping supplies’ shop a few doors down.
Mary laughs. ‘Heehoo. No kiddin? Big Mack, huh? You must be a whacko too then.’
And she tells me she has to go check on her chili, pulls herself out of the booth saying, ‘Yuhboy.’
I flip the switch for the hood exhaust, turn the fryer on, and get a bunch of ketchup containers out of the fridge.
Oh yes this thing we call ketchup.
I squirt fake butter on the grilltop and move it around with a spatula.
Shluck shluck shing.
Pop’s is the only bar in town and one of the only places to eat for a couple miles in any direction.
It’s named after Mary’s dad, who died in a booth one night.
Everyone carried him over to the duck pond where he ‘officially’ died, for some tax/liquor license or some purpose I can’t remember.
Probably nobody can.
So I’m told.
I put waxpaper into a few baskets and stack them, then check the flame again, adjusting it to the right height.
This is the most key moment of the day, I tell you.
The taming of the flame.
Not too high or the grilltop blackens, burns everything.
And not too low, or food takes forever.
A moment that cannot be fully weighed by eye alone, no.
A balance, to be sure.
Guts, no thought.
Though I myself err on the higher end, in a method I call ‘hotrodding.’
What exactly is hotrodding, you ask.
Hotrodding means taking life’s turns fast.
Bigger gambles/bigger payoffs you see. . .
A lifestyle even.
Yes, pursuing the higher flame.
There’s a handwritten note on the ticket line that says, ‘Craig can only be served 2 beers and that’s [h added in smaller] it!!—Mary.’
‘I’m serious about this,’ Mary says, flicking the ticket. In her tinted glasses, flannel shirt, and ripped jeans. ‘See-ree-us. He was in here talkin this and that and all the other,’ she licks her top lip, ‘aaaand I says, I says, you watch it, aaand,’ she makes a face, ‘sure nuff, heh.’
She’s holding rags, cocktail napkins, and a metal box with cash/coins in it, under her other arm.
‘Which one’s Craig,’ I say.
‘Craig,’ she says, staring at me, somewhere between my eyes and mouth. ‘He’s, uh.’ She adjusts her tinteds. ‘You know’im. He’s got the—’
A moment in which, essentially, I jump ship.
I think we both do.
Mary puts some money in the register, talking to herself.
The lights are on.
The grill is on.
Pop’s is open.
Everyone does everything.
I’m taking foil off the ingredients station when the door opens.
A sound in my bones by now.
A certain creaking, yes.
A certain vacuum.
And there’s Frank.
Pants up high.
Frank’s an old man who walks with a cane, always wears a safari hat.
Him and Mary have known each other since he retired here.
And he has begun showing signs of dementia.
Mary told me someone from his family called after Frank yelled at her one day.
‘Eyyy Frankie!’ Mary says, turning on the TV.
Frank looks up as the blue screen gives way to a soap opera.
And the volume is incredibly high as the theme music sweeps through the bar.
And for a moment, there is the deepest beauty imaginable.
Yes, you have not experienced beauty until the theme song from a soap opera plays at terrible volume in an empty bar.
In the dusty sunlight.
Sweeping and complete.
‘I’m changin it, I’m changin it,’ Mary says, lowering the volume.
She switches to a game show.
People invariably yell at her for not finding sports or a game show.
She asks Frank what he’d like, as I take the remainder of foil off the ingredients station.
What’ll it be today, boys.
Sir, victory, or nothing, sir!
Haha fine fine.
‘They keep doing that crankin the volume stuff at night, they think it’s suh cute, I’m gonna killem,’ Mary says walking up, talking to herself.
She snaps a ticket on the line.
The ticket says, ‘Grilled Chz/XP/4ff.’
‘Grilled cheese, extra pickles, and. . . four fries?’ I say.
‘Yep, just four fries,’ she says. ‘He’s a old man, he doan eat much. You make a bunch he’s just gonna tossem.’ She adjusts her tinted glasses, then puts her hands on her hips. ‘He says, I only wanna couple, I says alright.’
And she shrugs and goes to the back kitchen and tells me to holler if I need her.
So I drop four fries.
Grab some white bread, and begin the grilled cheese.
A grilled cheese is one of the easier things to make, sure.
Quite simple, really.
You wipe some bread over the butter wheel and lay it on the grill and put cheese on it.
Let time make love to it, sure.
Alright, easy enough.
But what does it really take to make a grilled cheese.
What is the true sum.
I consider this as I slap down three slices of cheese, extra pickles.
This thing we call a grilled cheese.
What is the true sum.
Well I can tell you I have near cried in submission to an un-peelable slice of American cheese.
Nearly wept in blackout rage at the awe-inspiring resistance of a slice, unwilling to come off the block, deep into lunch and up to my tits in tickets.
Stuck in place and saying no, I will not go.
My fingers, unable to do anything other than—seemingly—seal it further.
Mush it to indistinction.
Yes I have conceived, implanted, and destroyed entire white-hot galaxies of rage, trying to peel a single slice of American cheese off a block.
The thrall of my own impatience.
So what am I saying.
I’m saying such is but one minor hazard in the daily war of a grill cook.
I’m saying close your mouth unless you’ve been in the pit.
And watch your ass even with the lowly grilled cheese.
Because the operation is: no target disrespected.
I ‘come-to’ from staring, hypnotized by the hood drone and the sounds of the gameshow.
Spatula the grilled cheese together.
Both sides, golden brown.
Chop it into two triangles.
Lift the basket from the fryer.
Four fries, the color of the richest king’s gold, bathed in sunlight.
For Frank, this is no problem.
For anyone really.
Because I’m on the grill.
I place it all in a wax-papered plastic basket, and grab some napkins and a ketchup squeezebottle. ‘Here you go, Frank.’
‘Oh,’ he says, surveying the basket. Open mouthed, hands shaking as he grabs the ketchup container. ‘Thang you, young man.’
I notice his notebook and pen on the bar.
He always has them.
When I asked Mary once, she said, ‘I dunno, he likes to write stuff down’ while shrugging.
Frank and I watch the gameshow together as he eats.
Admitting to each other, neither of us fully understand how this one is played.