By Tyler Sones
The new guy looks almost frail, but he’s got this swagger like the gestural equivalent of a teardrop tattoo. It says Josh on his nametag. He smells like menthols and grocery store cologne and you can see his boxer shorts hanging out the back of his pants even though we’re supposed to keep our shirts tucked in. Salad Kid’s guarding the salad station like he’s got his secrets buried there. He was supposed to train Josh on salads but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen. I show Josh the soup station, which soups are which, which one’s nacho cheese, and the difference between a bowl and a cup. I demonstrate how to put on latex gloves and how the hat is meant to keep his pretty blonde hair out of his face. He calls me the n-word like a term of endearment, says he probably won’t be working here long so he doesn’t care about soup. Then Bambach teaches him about the baked potato station.
The lights had gone out about an hour before and we’d booed when they came back on. Thunder and lightning strike at the same time, and I can feel the soup station vibrating when they hit. I’m worried I left my windows down and my radio will electrocute me when I try to start my car. I’m hoping that the power will go off and stay off so we can leave early. It’s 8:30 and we’re slammed and this Josh dude keeps looking at me like he’s going to steal my identity.
When the lights go out again, forty-five minutes before close, Bambach walks around the dining room handing out gift certificates to those who haven’t got their food yet and to-go boxes to those who don’t want to eat in the dark. By 9:30, the dining room is empty and I have the soups cooling in ice baths. The lights come back on at a quarter to ten.
Even in the kitchen you can see the lightning. I don’t know what you call it, sheet lightning or what, but the sky outside the dining room windows goes from blank to silver-bright and everything stops the instant it lights up. No one speaks, no one blinks. It’s like in church when your particular sin gets mentioned, that instant when your heart misses its beat.
The door chimes and through the ticket window I watch a man enter, looking all around himself like he’s lost his keys. His hair is messy in the way you expect your science teacher’s hair to be even though it’s always just some coach with a buzzcut. He orders a Reuben with double ingredients, because, he claims, he just got struck by lightning in the parking lot. Bambach thinks this is great, maybe even publicity, and he gives the guy his Reuben for free. He pops his head in the kitchen and tells me to show Josh how to make it. No one asks if the guy is okay, but he seems to be holding it together.
“So,” I ask Josh, “Reuben goes on what?”
“Yep, it’s a sandwich. Good. But, like, what kind of bread?”
“Pumpernickel,” he says.
“Yeah, that’s not one of the kinds. We got sourdough, rye, croissant, or pita.”
“No, man, just the ones I listed like a second ago.”
“For real,” he says. “It’s probably pita.”
It’s not pita, and I explain to him that it’s rye and how to pile it with sauerkraut and corned beef. “But this one,” I say, “gets extra everything.”
I’m talking to him like assholes talk to babies, and I hope he won’t notice. I show him how the sandwich enters the grill, how he’s supposed to comport himself while it’s grilling.
When the first sandwich falls apart and drops into the guts of the machine, I teach him how to make it again. He freaks when the Swiss cheese catches fire in the coils, but I tell him that’s just part of the job. We double the ingredients again for the lightning dude. I had an uncle who’d been struck by lightning while he was water skiing, and, if he hadn’t died on the spot, I imagine he’d have wanted something similar. Not a last meal, but like a first meal. Like how today is the first day of the rest of your life.
The sandwich exits the grill fully cooked. Josh watches me put the toothpicks in and slice it diagonal. Salad Kid cuts himself bad and bleeds all over the cherry tomatoes. He’s holding his hand in the air and fucking up the Lord’s prayer. Josh tells him when he goes to the hospital, the first thing they’re going to ask is if he has AIDS. “Even if you do,” Josh says, “don’t tell them.”
Salad Kid turned fifteen in September and rides his bike to work down the shoulder of Highway 84. He asked me once if you blaspheme the Holy Spirit, does it mean you go to hell no matter what? I told him I didn’t know, but I asked my dad and he said, yep, that’s the one unforgiveable sin. I asked Salad Kid what he meant by blasphemy, but he wouldn’t say. He’s got no chin and these long white hairs at the corner of his mouth that he won’t shave. He was terrified about hell, but he’s taking this AIDS thing pretty well. He asks Josh how he’ll know if he has AIDS. Josh says, “You’ll know.”
Bambach promises to drive Salad Kid to the hospital for stitches, but first he has to count the cash drawers and wait for us to close the kitchen. Josh says, “Smoke break,” and disappears, so I do most of the closing duties, his and Salad Kid’s and my own.
By the time Bambach finishes counting the money, we’re mostly done. I sit on the table by the meat slicer watching Salad Kid’s finger. It’s pulsing but it’s stopped bleeding entirely. He looks pale and like he’s going to be sick, but he always looks like that. He doesn’t want to go to the hospital. He holds his finger up at eye level like he’s got a question. He wants me to convince Bambach he’s okay. Josh is supposed to be dragging boxes out to the dumpster but we can see him smoking again on the security camera monitor with a box over his head to keep the rain off. Salad Kid says if he has AIDS he doesn’t want to know. His face goes slack when he’s thinking hard, mouth agape, eyes unmoored in their sockets. He has to kind of wince himself back together.
Bambach tells me to do a walk-through, meaning check the restaurant to make sure everything’s clean. I knock on the ladies’ room door and inside everything is spic and span. In the men’s room, I see feet under the stall, maroon loafers with tassels and gray socks with little men playing golf. I hear the moist fricative of skin manipulating skin, a noise I’ve heard before, but out of context it doesn’t make sense. I’m halfway to the office to tell Bambach when it occurs to me what the dude’s doing.
“Hey, Bambach. There’s a guy in the bathroom.”
“Tell him we’re closed.”
“Um, I think you better tell him.”
Bambach tries to assert his authority but it doesn’t come naturally. I just shrug and he’s stumped. I tell him straight-faced and kind of like clutching my pearls that I feel threatened by the dude’s presence. Bambach exits the office and locks the door behind him. I follow him at a distance and Salad Kid follows me. We can hear Bambach in the bathroom going like, “Sir? Sir, excuse me?” When the door opens, out comes the man who was struck by lightning. He looks satisfied, glowing like a pregnant woman. When he passes us, he raises his palm and he and Salad Kid exchange a high five. Over his shoulder, he says, “Thanks, boys. Y’all keep up the good work.”
In the bathroom, Bambach furiously decontaminates surfaces with a spray bottle and a rag. Me and Salad Kid peek our heads in and Bambach mimes exasperation. He whispers, “That man was masturbating,” and he says the last word even quieter, like sotto voce. Salad Kid says, “Fuck me,” and races to the kitchen holding his one hand in the other. I stay and help Bambach bleach the bathroom
When we return to the kitchen, Salad Kid is swabbing his wound with alcohol and Josh is replacing a fluorescent lightbulb with one foot on a ladder and the other on the vent-a-hood.
Bambach says, “Get down. Put the ladder up. Everybody get out.”
We collect our belongings and Salad Kid cuts arm holes in a black garbage bag and tapes two more to his legs like pants. Bambach offers him a ride home but he declines.
It’s true I left my windows down, all four of them. Standing in the doorway, I can see the rain slanting in. I run to my car, jump in, and contort myself to roll the windows up. My car jiggles when I try to start it, makes a grinding noise, and when I turn the key again it doesn’t do anything. When Bambach’s car passes, I honk my horn and his brake lights throw up a bleary red wall.
Bambach’s heater blows air that smells like maple syrup, and Josh is in the passenger seat reclined way back so I have to angle my knees like I’m riding sidesaddle. We pass Salad Kid pumping against the rain and Bambach toots his horn. The radio plays Christian music, that “Our God is an Awesome God,” song, and Bambach turns the volume up because how could you not connect the dots between God and thunderstorms. Lightning slashes out of the sky ahead like a fang from the mouth of death and all the traffic lights go blank. I look out the back window for Salad Kid, and I swear I see him pedaling in the dark, one hand steering and the other holding his salad knife in the air, like fuck AIDS and hell. If they can’t kill him, maybe lightning will. Or maybe it’ll only make him hungry for big sandwiches and public masturbation. And then in that case, fuck lightning too.
TYLER SONES is originally from Texas. Currently an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University, his work has appeared in The North Texas Review, The Journal, and Us for President.