one VINCENT part 2

©2022 J.R. Schaefers

< part one

Kyle was a glow-stick raver with stainless spikes in his ears until he got hold of a bad dose of sunshine and shit himself at Coachella, found Jesus Christ while sucking on ice cubes and staring at the ceiling of a darkened recovery tent. Now he was a Promise Keeper in pleated Dockers and he didn’t make a move of any size, personal or professional without consulting Pastor Mike at the beige-domed megachurch out on Highway 99. More talk show than temple, Elijah’s Fortress was a spiritual day-care center for adult souls like Kyle, weirdos who prayed and swayed with their arms in the air like moonie pilgrims riding a soft-rock roller-coaster toward Salvation.

When Kyle considered adopting a dog Pastor Mike prayed on it, then advised a tank full of tropical fish would contribute more serenity to Kyle’s household. When my beloved coworker Liz gave two weeks’ notice we took her to Lobsterhaus Buffet for dinner in a side room with a banner and balloons. Before we ordered Kyle tapped on his crusty Bluetooth earpiece to speed-dial Pastor Mike and ask whether it would be acceptable for him to eat shellfish. Like Pastor Mike was some kind of ultrakosher Haredi rabbi from the old country.

What dietary advice did Kyle expect to receive from a spiritual leader who hosted Thursday night men’s Bible study at Buffalo Wild Wings?

Unable to reach Pastor Mike, Kyle chose jalapeno crabcakes and a Sprite.

Our server brought Liz a complimentary wad of spongecake drizzled in sundae fudge and sprinkles, then led the table and a press-ganged chorus of servers and busboys through a double-time variation of “Happy Birthday”. We clapped along at a stinging pace and watched the lit sparkler buzz on top of the cake. Chives and crabmeat clung to the wire in Kyle’s teeth as he sang.

I was ready to bet every penny of my ransomed tips that Kyle called Pastor Mike to beta-test my termination speech from his car, or from PapaTaco at his desk on speakerphone. Kyle was one of those assholes who makes calls and checks voicemail on speakerphone. Among the daily amplified transmissions to and from corporate SYSCO and our beverage guy I’d hear bits of Pastor Mike’s topical wisdom echoing off the cinderblock walls of Kyle’s office, a digital burning bush heralding the divine word of God.

Maybe the tip thing was Pastor Mike’s idea. Or maybe Kyle had done more than locate his backbone. Perhaps my skills were in sharp decline.

I was invited to pick up some extra hours catering a group baptism of seven born-again adults in the swimming pool at Pastor Mike’s house, back when Kyle was new to the job and still pulling me into his office to share more of his “story” or propose a professional mentorship.

Kyle reckoned my tattoos and my attitude were holding me back.

Corporate will help pay for laser treatment, he said. They’re working with Jenny to put her gang past behind her. Now she’s on track for assistant manager.

The draft of Jenny’s hate for Kyle drew fathoms compared to my feet but she was smart enough to only say so in private. Like the day before I was fired, when we met in the walk-in to get very high before opening.

I’m not using this word as a slur, she said, speaking from the bottom of a bucket in a distorted voice, holding her hit.

I shivered and she passed the joint back. Jenny exhaled, scratched at the square of gauze taped to the side of her neck. She had to wear rubber gloves in front of customers until the scabby spiderwebs between her thumbs and forefingers healed completely.

But I honestly think in some ways Kyle’s like, borderline retarded. Like, I don’t think that dude could hold down a job proofreading M&Ms.

Jenny was dead right about Kyle being, as Margaret liked to say, on the pointy part < of Less Than. I slept through the baptism gig and woke up hungover to find a dozen texts from Kyle. His tragically misspelled messages formed a timeline that made it possible to chart the half-life decay of my mentor’s faith in me as it wavered, then fell away completely like scribbled spikes of a heart monitor dropping to sawteeth, growing weaker and fading to a flat line:

i guess well chat later when your ready

I’ve got no respect for anyone who fails to master the proper use of your and you’re, their and they’re or to, too and two. Those things don’t vary overnight like the value of a volatile commodity. The alphabet is a simple, closed set of twenty-six symbols. It is not the fucking Matrix. Don’t get me started on the mystery of the apostrophe.

Until that morning I’d never seen him near the restaurant before noon but when I showed to open Kyle was waiting at the back door, a lonely chicken scratching the blacktop, dragging the soles of his shoes over fuzzy-flat cigarette butts accumulated since the last good rain. Each time Kyle kicked a leg forward and scraped at the ground a bullfrog roll of belly fat wrapped in his lime-green manager’s polo shirt popped over the top of his khakis.

His head tipped up at the sound of my keys as I moved to open the kitchen door. I had caught him off guard and his mouth gaped, giving me a glimpse of pink gums and wet wire. He’d missed his cue, lost in meditation walking the kitchen staff’s infinite cigarette-butt mandala but his eyes explained everything. I was about to lose my goddamn job.

I was ready for this. I just wasn’t expecting it now. Thought I’d have a chance to make a cheese-heavy shift meal and sneak a pint poured into a large to-go cup. I never broke stride as I stepped past Kyle to unlock the kitchen door.

Morning Kyle.

Kyle clapped a chubby hand over the keyhole. In the other hand he held a crisp PapaTaco envelope.

Your services are no longer required at PapaTaco. I need your keys please.

His chapped lips drew tight like a powdered-sugar scar. He held the envelope high, cocked up near his ear as if he were about to take a winning trick in contract bridge.

I separated the PapaTaco keys from my ring and surrendered them. Kyle aligned their teeth and spines, sorted them by height before notching them onto a custodian’s retractable ring. They jangled backward and hung in a cluster between his Otter Box phone holster and a pouched Leatherman multi-tool. Batman’s burned-out regional manager come to give me the axe.

My act of compliance and the calming ritual of organizing the keys got Kyle back on script. He looked into my eyes for the first time. Put the envelope in my hand and began Act Two.

Thank you, he said.

It was the same chirpy tone he used at the register when comping an appetizer for a difficult customer. Kyle used that tone after every one of our “coaching conversations”. In my final week of shifts I’d tallied a human-resources trifecta of absenteeism, portion-control violations and multiple incidents of insubordination aggravated by using obscene language while speaking to a guest.

Even Kyle declined to prosecute that last one and agreed that yes, an extremely unsatisfied guest heard me refer to her as a primitive fucking thinker but I had not directly addressed the guest when I said that, and Kyle agreed she wouldn’t have heard a single word of my opinion if she hadn’t followed me into the kitchen to complain about her order. She wasn’t even in my fucking section.

Corporate propaganda required us to refer to customers as guests and Kyle flavored that word with a special tone of its own, a grossly overcooked intimacy that made me want to wash my hands twice.

My mind connected the word guest with sepia-toned portraits of elegant patrons summering at an Alpine health spa. Cello-curvy women in fine linen, handsome faces shaded under broad-brimmed straw hats. Unsmiling men with waxed mustaches dining with dignity, speaking softly of kaisers and kings. A fascinating salon of gracious ladies and gentlemen worthy of special attention.

I did not feel hospitable toward the Groupon-grubbing students, the burned-out office workers eating in dogpacks flagging me down during the lunch rush demanding another salad bowl filled with sour cream for dunking forkfuls of chicken enchilada. I could not find common language with the slack-jawed kindermensch in flowing shorts below their knees, ears pinned under oversized flat-billed ballcaps, shuffling in sport sandals like tranquilized members of Charlie Brown’s infield and forever fucking with their phones.

These people weren’t real to me, not in any sense beyond aggregated commercial data. They were only a bottomless source of noise that I wanted to make stop.

part three >

©2017 J.R. Schaefers — all rights reserved.

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