Friday, May 23, 2014

Short Order Cook

The thing I like least about summer vacation is the role I have to play: short order cook. I've talked about this before, and I'm not here to lament the situation. But as I gathered the ingredients for Melina's lunch today, I was reminded that as of next Wednesday, I'll be making lunch for four, not one. Such is life.

I was also reminded of a short story I wrote. The one that got the ball rolling way back in 2012. (It seems like so much longer than just two short years.) The one that I never shared with most people. The story didn't win a prize (nor was it written well enough to do so), and since I haven't done anything to make it any better, it will never win a prize. So I thought, why not share it here? Feel free to read it, laugh at it, correct it's errors, or print it out and use it as toilet paper. You get the gist.

Short Order Cook

The Danube Diner is the place to be on Friday nights. That’s when I’m there, cookin’ up my specialties. Who am I, you ask?  Nobody but Jackson Fairfield, Short Order Cook Extraordinaire. I stand 6 feet tall, with broad shoulders and olive skin, and my eyes are so brown, you could call them the color of espresso, something we don’t serve at the Danube Diner. In fact, most people in these parts wouldn’t know an espresso from regular Folgers, if you know what I mean. But I grew up wantin’ to live in a city where sippin’ espresso and doing lunch was the norm. You might wonder, then, how I ended up here. At the Danube Diner. 858 Highway 411. Sometimes, I do so myself.

I was the sort of kid that everyone felt sorry for in high school. The product of divorce, I lived half-time with Pops and, in the summer, went to live with Ma out on the farm. To be honest, and I always try to be, summers weren’t much fun. As much as I liked the outdoors, the farm work was so hard -- arduous, tedious and demanding -- that I didn’t have much time for doing what I liked to do best:  write. I’d scrub the animals and compose poems in my head. I’d gather eggs and construct a short story. I’d spread the manure and outline a novel. I often kept a notebook with me, just so I didn’t have to remember everything I wanted to say. In fact, the only thing that kept me going through the long days of summer farming was knowin’ that in the fall, come September and the shorter days, I’d get the chance to go back to school. I’d dream about sittin’ in class, any class really, and writing my heart out.

“Your ticket to better pastures is your writing, Jackson,” Mrs. Millar, my 9th grade English teacher, always said. She knew about my life on the farm, considering I’d written about it so much. She knew I wanted something different, and she wanted something more for me.
Living with Pops was hard, too. I know he worked his fingers to the bone to give me what he could, but what I needed at the time was his attention. He spent long days at the local garage, where he served as manager. On the weekends, he made extra money mowing lawns and taking on light landscaping jobs. We always had food on the table, I always had clean clothes, but I never had him. I would have given anythin’ to ride in the pick-up truck with him to head out to a landscapin’ job. Just me and him, shootin’ the breeze, listenin’ to the radio or tellin’ stories, and makin’ someone’s life a little nicer by way of shrubs. I actually told him as much one day, but he wanted me to do something more with my life.

“Head over to the library, Jackson. I know you like to read and write. It might be your ticket to a better life, you know?” 

Sounds like my dad and Mrs. Millar might have been in cahoots.

Funny how the life you imagine and that which you actually live are different sometimes, though. How the tickets you think you buy and the ones you actually get are different. Sort of like when you buy a ticket for a raffle but then when you look at the fine print you realize that oh, they aren’t rafflin’ off the $10,000 car, but the $500 used one from the local car dealership. And you say to yourself, How did I miss that?

Anyway, how does this all come together?  Well, after I graduated from high school, I packed myself up, bought a used car (much like the $500 one Lucy Cooper won at the high school raffle), and took off for the great beyond. I had a map in the glove compartment, a bag of food, and some money, but I didn’t know where I was goin’. I was just goin’. And I knew that I wanted to make my living as a writer. If Jack Kerouac could do it, why couldn’t I?

I stopped in several small cities along my way (to what, I never did really know), chatted with the folks in town, gathered stories and such, and one day, when I realized that my money was low, I applied for a job. Here at the Danube Diner. Did they have a writer-in-training position?  Well, no. But they did need a short order cook. I guess I forgot to mention that I cooked for my mom and the day farmers, as well as for my dad. I could make a really mean omelet and pancakes as fluffy as clouds. My desserts, especially my apple pie, were to die for, as they say. I figured that diner food was something I could do well, and in the off hours, I could write. Right across the street was a long-term motel. A job and shelter?  That’s all I needed.

I still remember the day I started. Friday, April 13, dawned bright and warm, and I was charged to do something other than driving. I walked into the diner for my shift, not knowing what to expect, and then, meeting the unexpected. That day was a little slow, but as time wore on, things picked up. Each day, I chatted with the people that came through the diner, whether they were stopping for coffee or for some actual chow. I disclosed my secrets of the trade:  how to make the best pie crust and how to grill the cheese sandwiches just right without burning them. I told them of my secret spice that went into the hamburger patties (1/3 of a pound and not an ounce under) and the real cardamom that jazzed up the peach cobbler. And all the while I was doing that, cooking and dishing up food and secrets, I was also serving up stories. I told my customers of my plans for a bigger, better life once I could get published. The people were charming, and once word got out that I could entertain and cook, customers flocked to the diner. In fact, we must have been situated between a couple of bigger cities (I never even bothered to check the map) because who would have thought that a little diner sitting on the corner of Route 78 and Highway 411 would be such a busy place? 

I’ve been here almost two decades now, and there are a few people that stand out in my mind for one reason or another. Usually, I can remember them because of the story I told. Way back now, when I first started working here, a young lady came in that I will just never forget. She was British, and we don’t find too many foreigners around here. She was a single mom with nothing; she was so worried about her family. I gave her a $20 bill and a story. What was that story?  A nice little tale about a boy wizard. He didn’t know he was a wizard, but he soon found out and spent his time at a school for wizardry. I thought it was pretty ingenious that before he knew he was a wizard, he lived with his aunt and uncle, under the stairs of their home. I once had a hiding place in my Ma’s house, under the stairs. I’d sit there for hours, just thinking up stories and imagining myself in other worlds.

It was awesome, the story I had for this lady. It had magic, mystery, intrigue, good and evil, and it would have made millions, I am sure of it. I remember the lady’s name even, at least her first name, because I thought it funny that my name was Jackson. JK, she said it was, and she loved my French fries. She called them chips or something like that, and I remember laughing at her confusion when I handed her a bag of Lays. Sometimes I find myself wondering how she is doing these days. I sure hope she found a job to help her with those kids.

Another time, I cooked up a special Western omelet for a young lady who had graduated from Brigham Young University. She was tired, so tired, from being a stay at home mom. She loved her kids, but just needed to do something more. At the time, I think she was on a road trip of her own, just a few days away, to try and reclaim her energy. I could tell she needed a little adrenaline and romance, so I made up a great story for her.

She came back for an entire 5 days, eating omelets and finding out what happened to the characters, my characters!  I wove a story about a high school girl, living with her dad, who feels out of place at a new school. She finds acceptance and love in a very strange place:  with a coven of vampires who just happen to live nearby. Of course, just to shake things up, I added wolves to the mix; the wolves served as natural predators of the vampires. This lady laughed out loud when I told her of my idea to make the vampires a bit more humane by having them feed off animals, not people. “Sort of like being vegetarian?” she said, and giggled.

One of my other favorite stories poured forth from my mouth the day a woman walked in and ordered one of everything. She was hungry, she said, just hungry. But she was a writer and needed some comfort food. Writer?  My ears itched. She sat on the stools, telling me how she enjoyed writing about dystopian societies. “Have you heard of them?” she asked. Well, I had learned about them in high school. We swapped life stories for a while and then I told her of a story I’d been thinking about for a bit. It was about the world in the future, run by a government that makes kids fight each other (to the death) in an arena. I had started this story back in high school, adding details here and there over the years. The story got bigger and bigger, and I swear I saw this lady, Suzanne maybe, scribbling on a napkin as I droned on. I thought perhaps I was boring her, but the rest of the customers seemed enthralled.
That day, one of the other cooks, T.C., said to me. "You know, man, you could be a writer. What the hell are you still doing here?"
"I just don't know," I said. "I guess I can't find the right story."

No comments: