“Dropping a loaded basket of fries”: life in the minimum wage zone
The fryer spits fat on his arm. He swears under his breath, tries to keep loading the fries into the basket but he doesn’t trust his hands. The residue from the fries is coating his fingertips, colleting under his nails. He doesn’t want to drop the basket like he’s seen some of the other newbies do. He’s been there for six months now and he likes to think he’s graduated to something better than a newbie. To be called a newbie is the most grievous of insults to the night crew, a moniker he hopes he has left behind, a hope that could be destroyed in an instant by doing something stupid like dropping a loaded basket of fries, or accidentally burning yourself during an unexpected rush.
“Where are you going, newbie?” Bhav grunts. Bhav is the one who trained him and any mistakes he might make will reflect on Bhav, something that Bhav seems to communicate with every word and gesture he makes towards him.
“The fryer’s going to kill someone! Andre!”
Bhav yells across the make station, towards the office. He just stands there, holding his arm, not sure if he should put it under water or keep it ready for an inspection from Andre. The pain is getting worse.
“Go put it under the tap,” Bhav says, grabbing the fryer baskets and plunging them into the oil, shoving him towards the doorway with a bump of his hip in one quick movement. “Don’t just stand there. Jesus. I’ve got this. Hurry the fuck up. Jesus.”
He does as he’s told, seeing the dockets flying out of the printer, abandoning Bhav at the worst possible moment. He shuffles into the prep area, turns the tap on full and lets the water pour. His arm is trembling. He didn’t realize how much pain he was in, until it stopped.
“You gotta shake them. You didn’t shake them.”
He turns around to see Andre, the giant, his strawberry blonde hair poking out from under his filthy plastic cap.
“Get here. Fuck.” Andre grabs his non-burnt arm and drags him back to the fry station. “I watch you. You think I don’t, but I do. And I’ve never once seen you shake them.” Andre grabs a handful of frozen fries and throws them into the basket, shaking the frosty, fat-flakes over the two of them.
“Who the fuck trained you?” He shoots a look at Bhav who parries it straight at him.
“They’re frozen. And the oil doesn’t like lazy shits who can’t be bothered to shake the basket before they put it down. Not my fault if you can’t follow instructions. I didn’t fucking hire you and Mr Botha aint here.”
He nearly says something. He can remember someone saying something, about an accident log, and it being their responsibility to use it, but one look at Andre tells him that the accident log book is the last thing he should be mentioning right now.
“Fuck off home. And if you try and say shit about me, no one’s gonna believe you, and no one’s gonna give a shit even if they did.”
He just stands there, stunned. He wants to ask if he’s still going to get paid for the shift, but again thinks better of it. His arm is starting to swell.
“What are you looking at? Fuck off.” Andre whips him with the filthy tea towel he keeps tucked in his apron. The tip of the damp rag flicks his arm, not far away from the burn.
“What, gonna cry?”
He tries to get past without touching her, but the hallway isn’t wide enough. She is standing in the middle of the high-ceilinged white corridor, her small frame taking up all possible space.
“Another big weekend planned?”
“Fuck off, Sarah.”
“You’re so articulate.”
She looks back in the mirror, wiping foundation on her nose with the round pad, standing on her tiptoes in her heels and miniskirt. She clicks her tongue. “Yep, another night in with pizza and Porn Hub, right?”
He shoves past her, into the kitchen, her laughter following him and he grabs the bench top of the kitchen island. Pain stabs in his still throbbing arm and he lets go of the marble as if it were a white hot poker.
She isn’t finished with him yet and walks into the kitchen and opens the fridge, taking out her tiny premixed vodka can and taking a sip.
“You stink like french fries. It’s absolutely disgusting. You need to shower as soon as you get home. Dad, he needs to shower as soon as he comes home.”
Their father’s eyes drift between the rugby on TV and his children.
“He’s working, Sarah. You might want to try it sometime. Might want to take a leaf out of your brothers book I’d suggest.”
She glares at her father and then back at him, rolling her eyes. “You’re an inspiration, to all of us. Daddy’s so proud.”
“That’s enough Sarah.” The tone hardens, their dad is a pushover in nearly all respects, but he’s never tolerated meanness.
“Whatever. I’m leaving. Have a great night, you two.”
“Do not be late tonight, Sarah. I’m serious. Tomorrow’s going to be hard enough—”
“As if I’m going to be late for tomorrow.”
“Good. I know you won’t. I know.”
She walks to her father and kisses him on the cheek and he turns back to the rugby. She shoots him a glance behind their fathers back, mouths the words, fuck you, which he returns by mouthing the word, slut.
His father hauls himself up and waddles to the fridge, grabs himself a beer and opens it with a hiss.
“It’s not easy for her either.”
“It’s not easy for anyone, Dad.”
“I know that. I know.” His father exhales and rubs his eyes. “I know that.” He throws himself down on the couch, the foam from the beer landing on his white business shirt. He tries to pat his son’s arm but he swerves out of the way. He doesn’t want to be touched right now.
“You can have a beer if you want one. They’re in the fridge.”
“No thanks. I’m going to bed.”
“You’re always sleeping.”
His father attempts another pat but misses again.
“I’m proud of you, you know. You’ve got a job. You’re earning money. Be proud of that. I’m proud.”
“Have a beer if you want one. I mean I don’t know what tomorrow will be like…well, it might…not be easier. I’m not saying that. But this year, you know…of course it won’t be easier. I don’t know.” His lip wobbles. “I don’t know a fucking thing.”
He gets up from the chair. He can see the road his dad is about to go down and he doesn’t know what he might do if he has to even silently participate in it.
“Good night, Dad.”
Wind is pouring over the cemetery in deep, powerful arcs and despite the physical sensation it creates in his lungs, the stinging in his eyes, all he can feel is the burn on his arm. He rolls his sleeve up and looks at the mortified flesh. The film has burst. The wound is itchy. He wants to scratch it down to the bone. His father reaches over and pulls him close, grasping at his son as if he might fly away in the wind if he doesn’t hold on tight enough.
They stand side to side. His father’s body is trembling and not from the cold. He’s been like this all day. He’s like this every year. There is no escape. For any of them. He tried that too, but didn’t have the guts. The only thing tying him to the world is fear. Not hope, not love, for the girl standing over the grave, tears falling onto the poorly weeded grass, or for the quivering figure next to him.
Sometimes he can’t see her face anymore.
His father is sobbing now. At least he’s let him go and walked over to his daughter, his arm around her waist, her tears falling onto the poorly weeded grass. He’s never cried. Not once. Maybe that’s why Sarah hates him. He doesn’t know and he doesn’t care either. In a few years he will have left for good. He can imagine himself never calling either of them ever again. Disappearing into the corners of the world and never coming back. Not exactly like she did, but dying all the same.
His father twists his head towards him, they are nearly the same height now:
“I’m so angry with her. I know I’ve never told you that. I’ve never told myself that. I’ve only just realised it. After four years. I’m a slow learner. But know it now, oh I know it alright. I can’t sleep anymore. I just lie there, yelling at her in my head. And myself. I’m angry with me too. For not being able to make it better for her, and you, and Sarah. And me. For all of us. And I tried so hard. You’ve got to know that. I tried so hard. To make it better for her. And then we could be a family, and maybe that would make it better for her, and she wouldn’t be in pain anymore, and maybe she might have some hope, you know, to fight it, to fight her own brain. The whole things fucked. I mean, what kind of animals put themselves through the kind of pain we do? Humans do. It’s not natural. It’s not right. I just don’t know how she could have done it. I just don’t know. How.”
It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before.
Next week’s short story is by Charlotte Simmonds.