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THE ALL-AMERICAN GRILL TEAM


by

Ed Lynskey



"So, who's gonna run grill tomorrow?" Ralph again asked Josh while tying his shoes. "You already signed up. Plus, you're the quickest."

Downstairs behind the stocks of paper products, they were donning the Chelsea Restaurant uniforms -- black slacks and baby blue smocks reeking of mustard and raw onions. The pervasive fast food's raunchiness, it seemed, thrived on them.

Josh yanked at the zipper. "Who me? The plain fact is, I'm too slow.
Nope, better enlist Herman."

"C'mon, Holmes, you on grill, me on buns -- like The Dynamic Duo," Ralph persisted. He polished his granny glasses with a red bandanna. Burly and athletic, he had remained Jack's best friend. "Mr. Piper goes on and on how we'd blow away the competition," he slyly added.

"Hmmm. Maybe so." Josh selected his next words with care. "The point is, tomorrow I'm busy."

"First place advances on to District for cash prizes," continued Ralph 
Wooden spoons in hand, he next nailed a snazzy riff from "Wipe Out" on the salt barrel's lid before thundering up the steps.

Scowling, Josh pitched the store manager's Buffy St. Marie tape to
clear a spot for his ashtray. True to form, the break room was a mess.
Plastic trays smeared with catsup were strewn on the 8-track tape player and shag carpet. Sandwich wrappers and soiled napkins along with Styrofoam coffee cups spilled over in the trash receptacles. A red hairnet dangled from the swag lamp. Chocolate and boysenberry syrup jugs were stacked to the wahzoo. He lounged back, propped up his feet.  Close was midnight. What was more, Friday night meant Greyhounds as well as the post-football game stampede.

Yet, Josh would rather spend the rest of his life here tossing burgers
than to return home. Annette, his kid sister, three nights ago herself
had fled on a Greyhound to stay on their grandparent's Angus beef farm in Oklahoma. If it were not for working this shift, he'd trot off right behind her. Oklahoma summers meant good things like the clean, fit smells of mown hay from vast, sun-basked fields.

Was it time to go char beef, snort grease, and feed the masses? Josh
loitered, puffing on a second Marlboro, his finger on the J.C. Whitney
ads for discounted glass-paks. Would he ever own a rod to hang them on? Not by toiling for peanuts -- Nixon's minimum wage was $1.60 per hour. Cursing, he plodded upstairs. Ralph, taping the silly paper hat atop his Afro, waved at him to hurry. Costumed in criminally baggy uniforms, the girls were powder blue parachutists dropped into a hot zone, their front registers. The day grunts rotated off their stations, crusty faces refusing eye contact, further irritating Josh. Hearing his name called, Josh after several glances stared over the food bin smack-dab into Mr. Piper's broad smile.

Mr. Piper winked and announced: "Charlottesville phoned. Expect five, maybe six Greyhounds." He semaphored three fingers, thick and dark as Honduran cigars. "We're all ass and elbows until close, ace."

"Yippee-yahoo," Josh muttered through his teeth with a wry smile.

"Give me eight Chelsea Doubles, all cheese," Mr. Piper barked, checking his inventory in the bins, his black forehead beading with bright sweat under the unremitting heat lamps.

"Cherry pies, sir?" Ralph effortlessly arranged the buns like checkers
on the stainless steel tray.

"Six, backed up with six more."

"Thank you, sir. What else?" Ralph popped the bun trays into the steam oven, knelt to sneak a sip of Pepsi.

"Oh, lemme have a couple runs of Chelsea burgers, no onions on three, plu-eese," shouted Mr. Piper.

Josh arrayed the pucks of frozen meat to sizzle in rows of six. Dousing the auxiliary grill with pickle juice and bearing down on a scraper, he scuffed the gunk off down to the glimmering hot metal. Sweat sluiced off his nose, dribbled down his arms. Air-conditioning was a cruel mirage. Mobs herded through the lobby doors as cattle into an abattoir where famished tourists banged flaccid fists on the counter. The Muzak stereo system pumped out easy listening tunes. Plumes of gritty smut excoriated Josh's red-rimmed eyes. Paddies snatched off the grill that skidded to the floor were hustled onto half-toasted buns, next hastily propelled to Mr. Piper. Did customers care? Dinner was all. The grill crew obliged them, shoveling out the fabled burgers. Finally, during a lull at almost eight o'clock, Josh skulked into the back toting a giant Pepsi. Ralph took over, swabbed down the dressing table.

 

 

* * *


When Mr. Piper later trudged downstairs, his navy blue tie was askew, his usually affable face haggard. Dried milkshake speckled his wrists.  The final Greyhound had chuffed down Gallows Highway -- destination: Fort Lauderdale. The high school football game lagged at halftime. A bunting draped across the scabby plumbing cheered "GO FALCONS!".  Sprawled across two wicker chairs, Josh hummed along with the tuba solo wrecking the radio's speakers.

"What's the score, ace?" Mr. Piper raided a chair from the other table
and rode it straddled backwards. "You mind?" He tapped out one of
Josh's Marlboros.


Josh flashing his Zippo lit Mr. Piper's and next himself a new one.
"Falcons are getting skunked, 47 to 0. Turkeylegs Benefit has hurled
three interceptions." Josh's voice trailed off, bland if not dispirited.

"No Tri-State Finals this year," Mr. Piper dryly commented. "Last
year's pampered pups have all graduated." Studying Josh, he drew down on the Marlboro. "Trumbo ended up at Duke, I believe." He expelled the indigo smoke.

"Naw, East Carolina, God help him," Josh interjected. "Next thing Mr.
Quarterback does is crack his kneecap during an inter-squad scrimmage."

"Huh? After the way he broke bones for us?" Mr. Piper now scrubbed his hands at the porcelain sink, his bushy Afro rustling in mock astonishment. "I can picture him now decking 330-pound nose tackles."

"Maybe he was Bobby Douglas last year," Josh said, "but now he's a gimp collecting splinters on his tush."

"Don't go skewering my predecessor." Mr. Piper chuckled. "That's
right. I replaced him."

"Good God, Mr. Piper. Why did you come to this pit? I mean what did you do before that?"

"I hustled Firestone tires over in the Valley but couldn't make a dime
off commission." Mr. Piper crumbled the paper towel to toss on the
mound. A gold chain bracelet clinked along his ebony wrist when he
preened a Fu Manchu mustache before the sink mirror. His palms briskly patted on Aqua Velva.

"And before that?"

"Are you writing my memoir? Maybe I was a raggedy-ass gravedigger in Selma-godawful-Alabama. Anyway, my job is to get you here for
tomorrow." Mr. Piper circled his index finger around Josh, then jabbed upstairs.

"Uhhh, sorry. No can do," Josh mumbled.

"Ralph can always team with Herman on grill." Mr. Piper sat down. "But between you and me and the flagpole, Herman's too much of a fancy pants to win."

"Tomorrow is off. I told you yesterday." Josh noisily unfolded himself to rise from the chair, re-planted the silly paper hat. "My break is over," he declared before disappearing, skipping two steps at a time.

Staring after him, Mr. Piper flicked the ash off his Marlboro. Josh was
an all right kid. He'd hired Josh himself after school one snowy
afternoon when the sophomore, all breath and britches, diffidently
inquired about an application. It was strange -- no other white kid had
ever before tackled mastering the grill. In fact, no white kids had
ever applied at Chelsea for a job before Josh arrived. Mr. Piper kept
his initial doubts largely to himself -- his boss, the store manager,
had raised enough criticism. Yet, the brass plaque studded behind the
fry vat for Employee of the Month touted the name, Josh Fleetwood, three times. Lately though, Josh's attitude, convoluted by girls or something far worse, had deteriorated.


* * *


"Man, you driving to the Club?" Ralph was hefting a steamy tray of
heels from the oven to the dressing table just when Josh stepped back to the grill.

"What on Friday night?" Herman deftly squirted tartar sauce onto the
heels. "You bet I am."

"Solid," Ralph affirmed.

"What Club?" wondered Josh. He set the meat timer.

"Ain't for you to know," Herman glibly responded.

"True, you just can't waltz in," Ralph agreed. His laugh intended to
sound nonchalant was more evasive. He didn't meet Josh's gaze but
instead readjusted the silly paper hat.

"The Club ain't designed for everybody," Herman half-sneered. "You, for instance."

"Why is that?" Josh twisted around to confront Herman, his face
purple-colored with anger.

Herman leaned far over the dressing table, his lips silently uttering,
"Because you ain't a real brother."

"Well brother, get bent." Josh glared into Herman's yellow, slightly
crossed eyes. They appeared too luminous, especially when coming
closer.

"Whoa, that's enough from you chumps." Ralph, barely able to suppress a smirk, wedged himself between them. His bulk was imposing enough.

"Josh, you been scraping that grill so long, why ain't you blacker than
me?" Herman scoffed. He peeled off a cheese slice to stuff inside the
sandwich collar.

"Actually, I dip my head in a bucket of white wash every night," Josh
retorted. "After that, everything's pretty much okay." The buzzer
screeched; he flipped the burgers. Perverse red juices pooled to their
centers -- it reminded Josh of a smashed, bloody nose.

"This has got to be emptied," Josh grunted. Swaddling a dishcloth over each hand, he slid out the hot, narrow grease trap. It was top-heavy.  His elbows wobbled, the trap started to tilt toward Herman who skittered back. Ralph lunged forward, fingers outstretched, but Josh countered, "It's okay. I can manage."

"Easy does it, Josh. Don't mess up your pretty shoes," Herman needled him.

"Shut up, Herman," Ralph ordered.

Running, Ralph forged ahead, mashed open the rear door. "You see,
Herman is an in-your-face dude. Don't let him razz you," he told Josh.

Traversing the sun-parched pavement to the corral, Josh's full arms
throbbed. Heaving the grease trap at the waste drum, he didn't bother
to dodge the splashing gunk -- his smock was caked in filth. He
squatted, tipped the match to a Marlboro, inhaled. Feeling dumb and
ashamed, he fretted about home. His mom and dad both expected his
loyalty and the conflict tore him in two. In such vexing moments, Josh
liked to reinvent himself as Detective Frank Serpico who seemed to shed troubles like an April rain off a mallard's ass. But before that, a
backfiring GTO convertible pulled up in the parking space beyond him.  The Shreve twins stretched their coltish limbs, unconfined in tie-dye cotton halters and cut-off jeans. The roundness of their breasts and the caginess of their bare shoulders and arms put him in a funk. A mere whiff of their Hawaiian Tropic tanner rendered his own domestic strife inconsequential. Grabbing the lobby door, Mr. Piper was all smiles, bows, and nods. He whistled in Josh's direction, then his returning eyes widened in awe of their derrières.

Back at the utility sink, Ralph was shaking bags of frozen fries into
wire baskets. "Hey man, how about tomorrow, huh?"

"Forget it," exclaimed Josh. In a moment, his tone less belligerent, he
noted, "The judges, you know, ask a lot of technical questions."

Ralph eagerly replied, "Like what?"

Josh sprayed the grease trap clean with scalding water. "Well, for
example, what kind of fish makes up fillet?" Hand on his hip, he ceased spraying to await Ralph's wild-ass guess.

After squishing his eyes together as if deep in thought, Ralph grinned.
"Why, the stupid kind that didn't swim away."

"Man, you're not serious." Josh's hoisted spatula landed with a
deafening racket against the pickle cans.

Jerking up his head, Ralph stopped grinning. "What kind, then? Tell
me. Cause I'd like to sashay around all educated like you."

"Bluefish."

"Bluefish? Who in the world eats bluefish?" Ralph attached the wire
basket to the top row on the fry rack. "But say, man, what's really
eating you?"

Josh aimed a stream of scalding water at a mop and, after whittling away the layers of grease, he knelt to scour the fry rack's platform. "It's my parents," he blurted out. "They're getting divorced. Okay,
divorced." The outburst left him deflated.

Ralph crammed the empty fry bag into the trash. "That's it? That's
your hassle? Balls, man, I've survived on my own since I was old enough to talk. My mom? She died, tragically I hear. Moreover, my pap? He could be Redd Foxx. Maybe he's Loup-Garou. I'd know him by his howl.  But the thing is, it doesn't mean squat. I'm still me. You follow, Holmes?"

Josh straightened up. "Tomorrow I'm moving furniture. My mother's
rented a roach coach, over in Pottstown. I can stay with her. Or else,
stay behind with my dad. And I despise both places equally."

Ralph snorted, tilted his blue eyes to the water-stained ceiling. He
returned to filling the fry basket. "So, you never had to make a choice
before?" he continued at last. "Just pick one. Flip a damn dime. I
don't care how. But do it before tomorrow."

Loafers slapping with loose change and keys jingling in his pockets, Mr. Piper skated around the corner from up front. Whistling, he casually unlatched the walk-in refrigerator door, craned his neck inside. "Jeez, I thought we had two boxes of Chelsea Doubles." He dealt Ralph a quizzical glance, motioned with his head. "Do me a huge favor, please sir. Check downstairs and provide me a tally ASAP."

"You got it, sir," responded Ralph.

"Game's ended. The Falcons were skunked, 54 to zip." Mr. Piper sipped from a dented can of Mr. Pibbs. "We'll go absolutely berserk in precisely three minutes. All systems a go?"

Josh strained a pickle can's juice into the sink. "Yep, I guess so."

"Ralph's sure yakking it up about the competition," Mr. Piper said
matter-of-factly.

For a moment, Josh froze before lifting the grease trap. "It kicks off
tomorrow sort of early, right?"

"Nine o'clock. Judges are from the Baltimore district. Corporate
weenies out to bust our chops." Mr. Piper crushed the soda can between his thumbs. "You can't get here, huh?" He dabbed his lips and forehead with a red handkerchief neatly folded into quarters.

"Is it too late to enter?" Josh meekly queried.

The creases in Mr. Piper's pinched forehead relaxed a bit, and he
smiled. "No sir, just show up before nine." His raised hand lightly
rested on Josh's sagging shoulder.

"My thing for tomorrow," Josh tried to explain. "You see, it's pretty
much flown by the boards."

 

 

 

THE END

 

   


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Lynskey's short fiction has appeared online
in such ezines as Unlikely Stories, Stirring,
Copperfield Review, Dead Mule, and EWGPresents.


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