short story    

Boston Market

Kev's mom breaks a roll of quarters against the edge of the register tray and watches the coins spill out, a sudden liquid rush of metal money that fills one of the change compartments, the one next to the dimes, dimes then nickels then pennies. Used to be, back when she started this job, she always had to peel open the quarter rolls-starting at the top, doing it slowly, apologizing to the customers (who generally smiled or looked away or said something like take your time I'm not in any hurry) and she envied the high school kids who'd been working at the Boston Market ever since the minimum hiring age of sixteen and who could crack the quarter rolls in half with whip-smacking efficiency, smashing it down, causing change to leak out like yolk from an egg shell (which is something she still can't do— crack an egg, not even when she's cooking breakfast for her grandkids). She's been working quarter-time for a good four months, and by now she's come to think of herself as a halfway decent — not great, not exceptional, not ooo-wow-look-at-that-let's-call-the-home-office-in-Golden-Colorado—but a pretty good nighttime cashier, which isn't easy when you're only working fifteen hours a week, because there's no continuity and no way to really get into the job. At her other place of business, she works in a quiet room by herself, which isn't in her nature, and in fact one of the reasons why she took this quarter-time job was so that she could experience a new kind of challenge, because at age fifty nine, things tend to slow down—in life and in the workplace—but Kev's mom has always been an 'up' kind of person, and given her choice, she'd much prefer to work on a team, which is one of the things this particular job has going for it. Another thing that she enjoys is the chance to be around young people, even the teenagers who listen to their headsets all day and curse too much and don't always work to the best of their abilities. With one kid of her own, she's always told herself that what young people need most — especially the rebellious ones — is a strong adult presence in their lives, whether it's a parent or a teacher or a co-worker, and the whole point of working in a place like Boston Market isn't necessarily to earn a few extra bucks (because after all, we're not talking about a whole lot of money) but to provide an inspiration to young people who might be thinking: well, what do I do with my life? and where do I go from here? and questions of that nature. Kev's mom always tries to set a good example by showing up to work promptly at four and then working real hard until the end of the shift, always maintaining a cheerful disposition, even when there's a not-very-pleasant customer, which isn't often because most of the people who eat at the Boston Market are real nice — a few exceptions here and there, one blonde-headed businessman in a blue suit who said something nasty about the green bean casserole, then called Kev's mom a fat old bitch, but that was an unusual circumstance and didn't really bother her that much once it was all over. Fact is, Kev's mom likes working at the Boston Market even more than her regular job, and she wouldn't mind going up to part-time, but whenever she asks for the extra hours, Denny Krueger gets mad and points at the time sheet and says "What am I supposed to do about CJ Martinez?", like it's all her fault.

Handing the change to her customer, Kev's mom says, "Okay, if you'll just slide on down, your order'll be right up," then points across the room, where there's a sign over the service counter that says 'PICK UP HERE' in red neon, easy-to-read letters, just like the sign over the cash register: 'ORDER HERE', both signs separated by twenty feet worth of counter space, a row of cooking shaeffers under a slanted screen that resembles bullet proof glass, although the only reason why it's there is to keep people from spitting in the food, which again isn't too likely given the fact that most of the people who eat at Boston Market tend to be — not rich, certainly not that, but definitely a different breed than what normally turns up in your average McDonald's (both owned by the same company). The Boston Market Corporation tries to project a down-home public image — good old American cooking, pot pies and chicken sandwiches and wholesome things to feed your children, apple pie for dessert, real tasty and everything low-fat because obesity is one of the leading problems facing Americans today, along with gun violence and road rage and teenagers getting raped by their uncles. The Boston Market where Kev's mom works is no different from the other six hundred fifty Boston Markets across the country (at least a dozen others in this state alone). There's one big room, two dozen booths and a counter where people can take their food if they're eating by themselves. The inside of the restaurant is bright and looks like a happy jewel from the highway at night. No music, just the occasional clatter of conversation and crew chiefs yelling order for Williams! and order for Daniels! and order up, order up! and the drive thru attendant talking too loudly into her wireless headset: Thank you for choosing Boston Market, may I interest you in a Nestlee's Tollhouse Cookie? The soda is all serve-yourself, with two great-gushing, nozzle-ridden cooler machines under a sign marked 'COLD DRINKS'. Other signs, too: one in the vestibule, stuck to the front door, 'TRY OUR SCRUMPTIOUS NEW DESSERTS' and another painted above the highway-facing plate glass windows, 'DON'T MESS WITH DINNER', which Kev's mom pointed out on her first day at work, just making conversation, trying to reach out to the youngsters, That's sure a funny sign they have up there, 'Don't Mess With Dinner, I think that's real cute and clever, the way they have that painted on the wall and the girl she was talking to said, That's been up there for a long time, no big deal, not impressed, and Kev's mom stared back at her — this little girl, one of the weekend high-schoolers — with such a sense of envy and wonder, because she wanted to say those things too, wanted to project the same kind of nonchalant self-confidence, shrugging at everything, I remember when that was blue or I remember when that used to say 'TRY THE PEACH COBBLER! ' or things of that nature, things which now—going on four months, and no longer the most recent employee — she feels more at ease with, having lived through her first seasonal ad-prep change-over, and another one coming up in two weeks. She feels comfortable here. Everyone on the crew adores her, even the teenage hip-hoppers, the young boys who don't seem to like anyone, not the customers, not even themselves. All of the kids wear buzz-fade haircuts, and they call Kev's mom 'Gramma G', which means something positive — she tells herself — in the hip-hop language.

One of her favorite regulars comes up to the 'ORDER HERE' counter with her little boy, who looks sleepy and too-warm in his red winter parka. Kev's mom smiles first at the boy, then at the mother, who is holding her son's hand, a mitten on a chain dangling between them. "Looks like we got a tired little soldier," Kev's mom says, and the other woman lets go of her son's hand and skims her fingers through the boy's long but not too long honey-brown bowl-cut. "We just bought a DVD player," she says, then gazes up at the menuboard, musing, "I think we're gonna try something different tonight."

The word 'tonight' surprises Kev's mom, and she looks out at the highway-facing plate glass windows and sees red and white car lights streaming past the restaurant, the sky not yet black but the deepest shade of blue possible. Looking back at the woman, she says, "No harm in changing every now and then. Lessee... we got the Bar-be-cue Chicken Carver for $4.49. That's a real good one." The woman still looks undecided, and so Kev's mom reads out loud from the high-hanging menuboard, half-turned behind the counter, saying, "I don't know if you all like meatloaf. There's the Meatloaf Carver for $4.49, and you can get your choice of side dish, medium drink, all included. That one's real good, and they got a special where you can get a Nestlee's Tollhouse Cookie for dessert, and that's only twenty nine cents, so that's a good deal, and that's only running through 'till the end of the month." She has to stop herself; she has this problem of giving the customers more information than they really want, and it always makes her feel so clumsy and awkward, and like a failure at the job.

"Maybe I'll do that," says the woman, getting ready with her purse, but Denny Krueger swoops up from behind and tells her, "We're out of meatloaf," his voice sudden and obnoxious — rude, Kev's mom thinks to herself, given the fact it's not the woman's fault that they're out of meatloaf, and so to lighten the mood she snaps her fingers in this big exaggerated way as the man passes behind the crew counter and takes a left into his office. "We got no more meatloaf," he repeats, and a door closes behind him. The whole area behind the counter smells like warm chicken meat.

"Oh shoot," Kev's mom says — then, apologizing, "I didn't know that, otherwise I wouldn't have said nothing, because I just sold a whole bunch of them Carvers about an hour ago." Again, she has to stop herself; she hates it whenever she uses that word, sold, speaking to the customers. It's not the right word to use when you're talking about food-makes her feel like she's working in an appliance store, selling toasters and refrigerators and cold hard things that don't have any life in them.

The woman frowns, biting her lip. "Well then it looks like we're..." ...back to square one," Kev's mom completes the thought in her head. A button pinned to her apron reads, 'IF WE DON'T SUGGEST DESSERT, IT'S ON US!' Her silver blonde hair, cut short and done up in a permanent, bulges under a green Boston Market baseball cap. Part of the team. Waiting between customers, she sometimes takes the cap off and wipes her forehead, doing it quickly, on and off, just like a real baseball player.

The woman finally decides on a half chicken dinner for her and her son. Kev's mom punches the colored buttons on the cash register and something inside chirps. She is pleased with the woman's decision; she feels that she's done her part, that she's set a good example for the rest of the staff, the kids working window, the kids working line. Hands behind her back, she asks, "What kind of side dish do you want with that? You get one, two or three."

Above her head, there's a long list of side dishes, all of them hearty and healthy and made fresh in the back room, the kind of stuff you have to eat with a fork, no french fries or onion rings, just real mashed potatoes and creamed spinach and black beans and rice—substantial food, not junk, real food on a real plate with real utensils, just like you'd have at home with your family if you had time to cook for yourself, carrots and peas and pearl onions, warm and traditional and served just right. The smell of it reminds Kev's mom of nameless movies she's seen about multigenerational families living on southern plantations where they all gather around the dinner table, all seventeen of them, and they pass the food in a circle, and someone — usually one of the girls — gets up and throws her napkin down and runs off in tears. Memories such as these always make Kev's mom feel lighter inside. She beams at her customer, who takes a bill out of her wallet, asking, "How's the cranberry relish?"

"Oh it's just real good," Kev's mom lies — she's never had the stuff before. "My favorite is the garlic dill new potatoes, but a lot of people seem to like the cranberry relish the best."

"I think I'll do that."

"Cranberry relish?"

"And a Coke."

Kev's mom takes an empty paper cup from a stack of twenty. "That'll be a serve-yourself," she says, pointing at the drink machine across the room. Remembering the button on her apron, she asks the woman if she'd like to order a dessert, maybe a Nestlee's Tollhouse Cookie, but the woman declines and pays for her meal, her dollar bills stiff and fresh from the bank. Unconsulted, the little boy fidgets, his red winter parka going swoosh swoosh as he shifts from side to side. Kev's mom makes change, then waves the customer and her son down to the end of the counter, saying, "You two enjoy that DVD player, now." She winks at the boy as he trots along behind his mother. "I know you will," she says, teasing him. It's almost Christmas, and all of the little ones are excited about their presents.

Towards the end of the shift, some kids from the back room come out with a pail and two mops and start to do the floors. It's a little early for clean-up — there's still a few people eating their dinners, but everyone's tired and wants to go home, including Kev's mom, who drove directly from her other job and wolfed down some food in the parking lot before coming in to work. Tomorrow's a Saturday — no reason to stay inside tonight. She's thinking about maybe having a few drinks at the TGI Friday's, just past the service drive onto Ninety Five. There are two TGI Friday's near her home; one's closer than the other one. Standing behind the register, she asks the head carver — a skinny boy with a reverse mohawk that he keeps under his baseball cap — about his girlfriend, who stops in every now and then to drop off a textbook, or a CD that she wants him to hear. The boy is sixteen, and this is his first girlfriend; he seems very much in love with her.

"We're going to Ft. Lauderdale for New Years'," he says, then helps himself to some food from the service counter. At this time of night, the cooks generally stop bringing out new stuff from the kitchen. Whatever doesn't get eaten usually winds up in the trash. The boy takes some change out of his pocket and buys himself a cookie. He speaks over the sound of the cash register churning out his receipt. "I'm kind of nervous about it," he says.

Kev's mom leaves her post behind the counter and pats him on the shoulder. "What are you nervous about?" she asks. Talking to her co-workers, especially the younger ones, she always tries to ask a lot of questions, because she finds that teenagers are more likely to trust an adult when they feel good about the relationship, and that means asking questions and not being judgmental and not making the young person feel resentful or defensive by telling them what to do.

The young man sets his cookie down without taking off the cellophane wrapper. His tall, bony frame does a bad job of filling out his uniform; his green Boston Market apron hangs like a dress over his blue jeans. "She's got this problem with her blood," he says, "and I'm supposed to get her to take her medicine, because her family's not going to be there."

Kev's mom notices a change in his voice. She backs away from the register, arms folded, ready to offer whatever help the boy needs. A few feet away, tired people are eating their suppers, bringing the fork up, putting it down. "What's wrong with her blood?" she asks.

"There's not enough cells in it."

Kev's mom gasps; this isn't the answer she'd expected. "And she's sixteen years old...?'

No, she's just a sophomore. They think she's going to die in a few years." He says it quickly, as if it's all he can do not to burst out laughing. Kev's mom feels like she's missing something. Confused, she asks, "And what do you think about that?"

The boy picks up his cookie and starts to peel off the clear wrapping. "I dunno... it's scary. She doesn't want to get married if she knows she's going to die."

"How long have you two been dating?"

"Three months."

Kev's mom nods slowly; three months is a very long time from the boy's perspective, and she wants to respect this and to understand that when you're only sixteen years old, you don't realize how much life you still have ahead of you, and how many tragedies and heartbreaks will naturally get forgotten over the course of time. Her own husband has been dead for many years. She considers mentioning this to the boy, but changes her mind; she doesn't want to trivialize whatever he might be going through by comparing his life to hers, her six decades worth of working as a data entry specialist, living for a few years in a red-brick condo with her sister and her sister's husband, then going up to North Providence, buying an apartment, renting out the top floor to a single man who sold steaks for a living — nice guy, stayed there for a good seven or eight years before he got married and moved into a bigger place. Kev's mom knows that the things she's experienced in her own life are not interesting to anyone but herself, and the best way to win the friendship of the people around her is by listening to their concerns and treating them like equals, because that's what they are, and it's not the boy's fault if he can't understand the way things work—that when he's sixty years old, he won't even remember the girl he dated for a few months back in high school.

Twenty minutes before close, Denny Kreuger comes out of his office and sets a yellow 'CAUTION—WET FLOOR' sign near the drink machines, then another a few feet away, blocking off one part of the dining room. It's easier to deal with the customers this way, if you kind of herd them off into one corner of the restaurant. The line at the drive thru has started to go down; a customer's voice crackles over the loud speaker: What comes with the chicken pot pie? and the girl at the window answers: cornbread and choice of side. There's something steaming in the kitchen — steel tongs and skewers soaking in hot water. The cooks have turned on the radio; after hours, they like to listen to rap and contemporary R&B, which is a whole world that Kev's mom doesn't know much about. Just the sound of it makes her feel reckless inside, and she's often considered asking them: if I were to buy one rap album, which one would you recommend? but she realizes how pathetic that would sound, and she doesn't want to spoil something that means a lot to the young people by being interested in it herself. There are some things that other people expect of a woman like Kev's mom, and listening to rap music is not one of them. Her own tastes have not changed over the years; she still likes disco music from the late seventies, because it reminds her of being in her thirties and going to dance clubs with her friends and having a good time talking to strange men over the loud sound of the music. Having sex with strangers was okay in those days, and she now wishes she'd taken better advantage of it. In lonely moments, she wonders what it would have been like to have sex with a person for whom she has no feelings. The thought both excites and depresses her, because she knows that the only sort of man who would be interested in her now would be a sex pervert with a thing for ugly women. She is old and she is overweight, and she tries to be cheerful about it but it's hard sometimes.

Denny Krueger approaches the service counter with a clipboard in his hands and tells the crew to start shutting down for the night. The last ten minutes are always slow; sometimes there's a surprise rush, a big order of last-minute family meals that makes everyone stay until eleven, which is why the managers like to shut down a few of the tables early, just to indicate that the place is getting ready to close, and it's no longer appropriate to dawdle and chew and play with your food. Whatever down-home public image the Boston Market Corporation tries to convey must be set aside at some point. A few of the customers haven't got the message yet; about a dozen of them are still eating their meals, including an old man who has been sitting at the same table for more than an hour, sipping his coffee, flexing his fingers, making a fist (must have bad circulation). Kev's mom asks her manager what he would like her to do for clean-up. She must look tired, even more drawn-out than usual, because he sets down his clipboard and says, "You just watch the register, Gramma. We'll take care of it."

Kev's mom smiles through her disappointment. There are times when she feels as though others are making an exception for her. Weakly, she asks, "Would you like me to restock the overheads?"

Krueger snorts. He tries speaking to her in a nice voice. "No, it's too late. That'll just open up a whole can of worms."

From across the counter, one of the hourlies calls out, "Gramma G, you got it goin' on!" This is a slang expression that a few of the kids use; it means something complimentary—she's not sure exactly what—and so she answers with a gesture, a little shrug and a wave that means nothing at all, just a way to respond without having to think of something to say. Two other crew kids gather around the first; one of them has taken off his uniform, and he holds it in a green lump against his chest — a wadded-up apron and a folded-in-half baseball cap. "Gramma G," he says, joking with his friends. "You-all just stand there and look pretty." All three kids laugh in a pleasant way. The people here like to tease each other — sometimes, it's the only way to get through the shift — and Kev's mom is happy to be included. Playing the game, she leans against the register and says, "I'm not pretty." The banter continues for awhile; the boys are more comfortable talking to each other, and so they joke in whispers as Kev's mom watches and smiles and tries to catch on. Denny Krueger has already gone back to his office. The smell of roasted chicken has thinned out a bit.

The front door opens and three figures sweep into the restaurant — all men, tall and skinny and dressed vaguely alike in denim jackets and dark knit hats. One stays near the entrance while the other two stumble ahead, screaming at the customers, pointing with their weapons: "...all right, everyone get the fuck down!" A woman shrieks; her voice sounds like a steam whistle. This sets the others into a panic; some dive to the floor, while others stay trembling in their seats; their warm chicken dinners lying in brown pools of gravy, half-finished, forgotten. The old man has spilled the rest of his coffee. He sits with his hands raised high above his head.

Stuck behind the register, Kev's mom keeps her eyes on the front door. She can see her car waiting in the parking lot.

One of the men comes up to the counter and broad-arms a stack of plastic serving trays. The trays scatter and strike the floor with a great noise that sounds like gun shots. A pistol in each hand, he waves his arms around, looking like a crazed crossing guard as he points first at Kev's mom, then at the kid with the reverse mohawk, then at both of them at the same time. Kev's mom can feel herself trying not to cry. The gun is aimed right at her. She hasn't noticed the man's face yet.

"Don't move," he tells her, then raises his voice: "Everyone shut the fuck up! Do what we say, and we coo'."

An altercation has started up on the other side of the room. Two men are fighting underneath the 'DON'T MESS WITH DINNER' sign, throwing punches, fending each other off with half-cocked fists. The man near the door leaves his post and strides across the room. He is carrying — not a gun, but a rifle, a rifle with an actual scope, the kind of thing you use to shoot deer with. Rescuing his partner, he pushes the customer away, then hits him in the head with the butt of his rifle. The man goes down, and the two assailants light into him, pistol-whipping him about the head and shoulders until finally he stops moving. The man's wife and little boy have not gotten up from their seats. There are three trays on the table in front of them—two on one side and one on the other.

"Purses and wallets... come on, let's go, let's see 'em!" The man with the rifle goes around the room with a large plastic bag, collecting handouts from the customers. The bag is from Staples, the office supply store; it's the kind of bag with built-in handles, little ovals cut out of the top so that you can fit your fingers through. The man with the rifle does not use the built-in handles as he makes his way across the room, barking at the customers, snagging loose purse straps with the barrel of his rifle and dropping them into his sack. A young man near the soda machine takes too long getting his wallet out of his pocket. The man with the rifle kicks him in the face and some teeth come out. Everyone in the room goes ooooo.

Still brandishing his two pistols, the leader of the group paces in front of the service counter, trying to keep his weapons trained on everyone at the same time. Above the counter, a sign shaped like a talking balloon in a comic strip reads 'TRY A SAMPLE... TODAY!' The sign seems to be pointing down at Kev's mom, as if she's supposed to be saying it herself. The man thrusts one of his arms across the counter and yells, "Bitch, open the cash register!"

Kev's mom tries not to look at him. Instead, she stares just to the right of his head, where the third, unarmed assailant is making a mess of things near the entrance. These men are not just petty criminals, they are psychopaths. They seem to have no fear of getting caught. Raging by himself, the man throws his body against the soda machine. From deep inside, there is the sound of ice breaking. The whole wall shakes. The red neon 'FREE REFILLS' sign sparks and goes out. The man takes a step back and makes another run at the machine; brown foamy soda spurts out like blood from a vein. All of this happens in a manner of seconds. Helpless, Kev's mom turns her head and looks out the window. She sees the red and white car lights passing along the highway, and she wonders what this looks like from the outside.

"Bitch, do what I say!" There is a loud noise as the man pushes over a display of Nestlee's Tollhouse Cookies, about a hundred shrink-wrapped cookies stacked under a bright yellow banner. Brown and chunky letters — 'MMMMMM!' — spool across the front of the banner. The whole thing pitches over, clipping Kev's mom in the head. With a cry, she steps out of the way. The banner slips under her feet. There are cookies everywhere.

"Fuckin' open it!" the man screams. In the background, Kev's mom can see her fellow employees lined up against the wall, execution-style, staring back at her. She holds her hands up to her chest. "Okay..." she says, looking down at the cash register, the vari-colored buttons, red and blue and yellow and all the different functions. Her mind settles. In her head, she tries to remember the right number of buttons to push, the quick sequence of keystrokes that opens the register drawer in case of an emergency. f9, something. Control, space, f9, or maybe control, shift, R Her eyes dart across the room. Denny Krueger still hasn't come out of his office. For the first time, she looks at her attacker. The man's eyes are blue, and his pupils are two little black beads. "My manager..." she says, but the man strikes her in the face with the handle of his gun.

"Shut up, bitch!" he says. Pain flows down her cheek. The chrome on the handle of the gun flashes, then goes away. The man bears down, recocking his pistol. "Just open the fucking cash register," he says, calmer this time. Slowing down, Kev's mom tries to study the keyboard. She needs to tell the man something, but she is afraid of opening her mouth. Slowly, she lowers her hand to the keyboard. Nothing comes for awhile — no words, not a single thought. From a distant place, the man yells at her, calling her a bitch and a cunt and a fat fucking freak. His bad language hurts her more than the fresh cut above her eye. One at a time, the words line up, hissing at her: I -'Don't - Know - How - To - She swallows; when she looks up, she sees that nothing has changed-the man is still there, and the gun, and the frightened people, the damaged soda machine, the cars in the parking lot, the different signs on the walls: 'DON'T MESS WITH DINNER' and 'MMMMMM!' and 'TRY OUR SCRUMPTIOUS NEW DESSERTS'. Broken, she says, "I don't know how to do it."

"Bitch, don't give me that!" The man comes closer, aiming badly with his gun. Kev's mom is so afraid that she can only smile and do nothing. Her smile is an expression of pain. Off to one side, a voice calls out, "Don't fuckin' call her a bitch!" The voice surprises the man; he tenses and fires straight across the counter. There is a jolt, then a blast of white heat that lifts Kev's mom up and throws her against a supply cabinet. Her heart explodes inside her chest. A slosh of red arterial blood sprays across the back wall; it follows the downward course of her body as she slides and drops to the floor. In silence, everyone listens to the groaning, gurgling sounds of the woman dying behind the counter. It seems as though an earthquake has happened. Almost politely, the gunman puts his weapon away. From where he is standing, the cash register looks unattended. There is broken glass in the background, where the bullet has smashed into a coffee pot. "Goddamnit," he says, disappointed in himself. He no longer feels like finishing the job. Turning away, he signals to his partners, and the three men hurry out of the restaurant, leaving the Staples bag—half-torn, too heavy to carry—near the front door. The people inside the Boston Market watch from the windows. A car starts in the distance. Headlights, then darkness.

The room settles as the customers slink back to their seats. Denny Krueger comes out of his office and tells his first assistant to call the police. He looks pale, almost seasick; he is no more qualified to deal with this than you or I might be. Behind the counter, he sees Kev's mom on the floor, a great bloody hole in her chest. She is still in the process of dying. Her baseball cap has been knocked off her head—there it is, a few feet away, next to the 'MMMMMMM!' sign, which is also covered with blood and broken glass. Krueger and three others gather around the body. On his knees, the kid with the reverse mohawk starts to cry, then forces himself to stop. There is no way to help the woman. What is left of her heart is now just a shred of red and velvety tissue. Looking down at her chest, you can still see the pumping action, one chamber flexing, filling with blood. The motion slows. Her eyes stay open.

Minutes pass before the police finally arrive. They are not very helpful, but everyone is happy to see them anyway — their guns, their blackish-bluish uniforms, their impractically tall and stiff and angular policeman's caps. Outside the restaurant, the swirling lights of the police cars continue to flash against the side of the building; they suggest an event in progress, something left unresolved. Cars slow on the highway as they pass the off-ramp. An ambulance veers into the parking lot, then backs up to the front of the restaurant. High above, the illuminated Boston Market sign no longer seems to communicate anything meaningful about the building; its primary identity as a Boston Market has been superseded by something else — the cops and the flashing lights and the body being taken out through the front door.

Back inside, Denny Krueger is telling his employees not to show up for work the next morning. "We're gonna be closed for a few days," he says. The line crew and service staff have all gathered in one corner of the restaurant. Some of them are sitting on the tables, while others have chosen to stand by themselves, too upset to deal with their co-workers:

"What do we do if we need the hours?" someone asks. The person with the question has been raising her hand for quite some time. Krueger bends over, hands on his knees. He is too annoyed to continue. The others wait for him to go on. They have all disliked him in the past, but now they feel nothing but sympathy for him. In a choked and hurried voice, he says, "Let me call Rick at two-eighty-seven," then runs off, stepping over broken glass on his way to the office. Safe inside, he closes the door and collapses behind the desk which he shares with the other three nighttime managers. Reaching for the phone, he calls his wife Shannon, who answers with the T.V. running in the background. They talk for ten minutes. Shannon stays quiet, sometimes interrupting her husband with a whispered "Oh God!" or "Jesus Fucking Christ!" At the end of the conversation, she turns the T.V. down and says, "I'm gonna call 1-800-FLOWERS right now. I think that'd be a nice gesture. Do you know if 1-800-FLOWERS is open twenty four hours?"

Off the phone, he stays behind his desk and cups both hands over his eyes, seeing only darkness and the leak of orange light between his fingers. His hands smell like men's cologne. He feels like staying here all night, surrounded by his monthly sales figures, the charts on the walls. On an average day in December, this particular Boston Market takes in sixteen hundred dollars in cash business. He can see it right there, under a banner marked 'LET'S DO IT IN '02'!' There is a stapler on the desk, and he wonders what it would be like to drive a staple through his tongue.

Later, calling the zone office in Braintree, he confesses something to his regional manager. "I should have put someone else on register," he says. He speaks with his hand over the receiver; for months, he has lived with the irrational fear that the room is bugged. "I should have put Oneida on register. I should have called for a shift change right before the close-out."

"Why didn't you do that?" asks the other man. Krueger hears himself asking the same question. "I don't know," he says. For twenty minutes, they discuss how to handle the payroll issue, which is a real bitch if you haven't been through it before. The regional manager urges Krueger to treat his Crew Members with compassion. "Don't worry if they start to slack off," he says. Krueger is drawing little circles on a sheet of paper.

"They've just witnessed a terrible thing. There's more to life than making a few bucks... and that's straight from the home office, you got it?"

"Yes sir. Oh-" Quickly, he flips through his management reference binder. "I do have one question." Through the phone, he can the sound of the other man breathing. The binder pages come apart in his hands. Pink and green sheets of paper flutter and spread across the floor. "Ah shit!" he says, jumping out of his chair.

"Take your time."

He bends down and crawls under the desk, reaching for scattered pages in the darkness. "I dropped the damn thing."

"You're upset. That's understandable."

"I know... my hands are shaking..."

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Excerpted from The Egg Code by Mike Heppner. Copyright © 2002 by Mike Heppner. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.