M. P. Jones IV is a working writer living in Alabama, a prospective graduate student of environmental literature, and editor of a small ezine, Kudzu Review, an online southern literary ecojournal. Recently, he received a BA in English from the University of Montevallo. Several poems he’s authored recently appeared and are forthcoming in A Few Lines Magazine. His poem, “Mutualism,” is forthcoming in Bolts of Silk, and a handful of poems appear in the current issue of Wilderness House Literary Review, InkTank, & elsewhere, and has a cycling memoir in the current issue of Sleet Magazine, and a book review forthcoming in the next issue of I.S.L.E. He lives in a cedar shack on the Cahaba River, spending days playing banjo in the pecans.
On busy nights there is little time for reflection, only long lines of salivating mouths. Angry eyes stare at me from the back of the rope fence. Richard, my boss, tells me “never leave the line when it gets like that, not even if you run out of meat.” I just stand there in the swelter, feeling hollow as the customers complain about
not getting a big enough scoop of steak.
I have to cut the bags of meat open in the back room and dump them in plastic tubs, runny juices splashing out pink puddles on the floor before I bring them onto the front-line, as if these people cared where their meal came from. All they want is a bigger scoop.
I almost laugh when they waddle over to the sneeze-guard, turning up their nose when I ask them what kind of beans they would like.
“NONE!” they shout, “I’m watching my carbs.”
When they say this I really pile the steak and cheese on, picturing their arteries with a smile.
The worst people are the pork-eaters; pork is the closest thing to human flesh we sell. Only five or six people order the slimy strands each night, but I am ordered to throw it out every four hours either way, probably to stave off a roundworm epidemic. You can always tell a pork-eater by their beady little eyes, turned up noses, and the way their skin glows pink, like they’d been all day at the tanning bed.
Camera lenses stare at me from dark corners, recording as I do my closing work. On screen, I struggle against the mop-handle, its head lolls back-and-forth against the tile. Rick says it is better for your back if you move the mop head side-to-side instead of pushing it forward like a broom. A sanitized glossy film shines in our wake like Saran Wrap as sweat beads under my soggy cap.
The cameras are there so I don’t put my hand in the cash-drawer or try to sneak a cookie. Only Richard can put his hand in the cash-drawer, he is a manager. The owners have wireless access to the camera’s feed. I try not to picture them at a computer in some corner of their Mountain Brook house, watching me scrub, but their eyes follow me like God. If I don’t leave the plastic tubs in the sanitizer water for the full two minutes or if the ramekins are still a little damp when I put them on the dry-rack they’ll know. I’ll be fired.
Sometimes I like to strip down on the ride home, peeling my clothes like a rotten banana-skin and tossing them to the floorboard. Cool night air blasts through my open windows and makes my bare body tingle. I howl into the breeze, awake, alive. Most nights, though, I am too defeated and I sit listening to the hum of truck-tires on the interstate. Those nights I am too exhausted to undress; I stand in the shower fully clothed, a High Life in my hand, and let the water soak the grill-cleaner from my eyes, the oils from my hair, salty hot water streaming like tears down my face.
On good nights it is slow, and there is lots of time. I can polish the metal dividers and the big doors to the hot-box and the cold-bar.
When it is like this I’m allowed to take smoke-breaks. Rick thinks I’m a smoker, but I am not. I ask him “can I grab some air?” He nods commiserately, and I slip out, careful to prop the back door with a piece of cardboard or a trash-can.
Out back is a solitary hill, an earth mound left over from when the bulldozers carved out the parking lot for the strip. The grass is dewy and soft as I lie with closed eyes, feeling myself breathe. Sounds of honking cars and teenagers’ loud music are barely audible over the low hum of the A/C compressor. Occasionally, I hear an ambulance carrying away a heart attack victim.
On best nights it is clear; the dry air smells like lime dust and I can taste fresh dew over my own stink. From the slope, the wine-dark sky looks so deep that I, at times, forget I’m on the live feed stream, and stare up from the broken silence at the stars.