The Long Shift (1987)


It took him a moment to come up with his name. His mind was still locked and spinning until he gave his head an Etch a Sketch shake. Todd. He heaved a sigh and let himself fall back against the tiles on the wall; refreshingly cool through the smooth polyester of his shirt. Odd. He was at work already, front register, though he didn’t remember punching in or putting on his uniform. Todd stood and ran one hand along the edge of the counter; the so-called stainless steel smeared with the oil from his hand.

“Hey, man, if you got time to lean, you got time to clean.” Todd looked up at his friend Jon standing at the register dressed in his best civvies; black shirt, blue jeans.

“Go to Hell,” he shot back lamely.

Jon laughed a little out of the side of his mouth. “You can do better than that,” he said.

“My head hurts.”

Jon laughed again, “Yeah, that was some pretty good stuff, wasn’t it?” Todd had to agree. Two hits and he was flying. He probably shouldn’t have driven to work that way, but then, he was here, so it didn’t really matter.

Which reminded him of something. “How come you’re not closing tonight?” Todd asked. They usually worked the same shifts; dinner shifts on school nights and closing the rest of the time.

“Lucky, I guess,” replied Jon. His smile vanished as the man in manager blue shirt and tie came up front. “Well, see you later.” finished Jon soberly.

“See ya.”

The manager was new. Todd had seen him around on his days off, but had never worked with him before; he couldn’t remember his name. Todd rubbed his temples where the company issued visor cut a furrow into his forehead. His brain was throbbing; still sparking something fierce. The new manager didn’t seem to notice. Didn’t notice he was alive, much less hungover. He just took a gray rag and half plastic tray from the old pickle bucket behind the counter and handed it to Todd.

“Check the dining room before the rush starts,” he ordered. Todd gave him a nod and walked out. The manager was a part timer; probably mad working the long shift until closing, probably had some other plans. Oh well, broken promises. Todd knew all about that. The dining room was deserted; the customers obviously ran screaming from the plinkety-plink music oozing out of the speakers in the ceiling. Todd ambled from table to table, swabbing straw wrappers and ketchup crusts with one quick flick of the towel into the tray. Practice makes perfect, he thought to himself. And I’m already way too good at this. It wasn’t until he was done and walking back into the kitchen when he realized the strings and flutes had been playing some grunge tune. Nirvana. Todd shook his head. Was nothing sacred?

The rush began in earnest seconds later. Todd was working the only register, and the line grew longer and longer, snaking back and forth across the front of the restaurant. It never failed. The new managers would schedule fifty people to work the afternoon, so they all got off before the dinner rush began. There were no other registers open, Todd didn’t even have a pusher up front to get his orders out. On top of that, every order was a special; no mustard, no lettuce. He even got an order for a burger medium rare. Where did they think they were? A real restaurant? No. A woman ordered five cheeseburgers; no pickle, no ketchup.

“That’s going to take a few minutes,” Todd explained. “Special orders always do.” The woman frowned unpleasantly the way customers always did.

Todd’s headache was going away, but the events of the day were still fuzzy. He still couldn’t remember punching in, but he was beginning to remember the wild ride to work. Flashing lights and cars that seemed to be racing past at a hundred miles an hour. Need to sleep it off; just a few hours. Despite all the company training, Todd found himself looking at the kitchen clock again and again though he knew it had been broken for months. The limp hands hung down perpetually at six thirty.

Cheeseburgers slid down the aluminum chutes, bathed in the molten glow of the heat lamps. Todd grabbed a tray from the tall pile next to the register and ripped a liner out of the giant Kleenex dispenser. Despite the heat lamps, the cheeseburgers felt warm at best in Todd’s hands, but he placed them on the tray anyway. It was time to take another order.

“You forgot my drink,” said the woman coldly. Todd nodded wearily. He filled a cup with ice and filled the gaps with Diet Coke. Five cheeseburgers and a Diet Coke. What’s the point? Todd almost giggled, but managed to retain the signature bland expression taught in the company videos and took the next order. Soon, it fell into a pattern. Take an order, call it back. Pick up a tray, wipe it down, throw on a liner and wait for JOE, the kid on the burger boards. JOE (as his nametag read and how Todd thought of his name) was slow at the best of times. He was working there via the high school training program which meant he didn’t have enough on the ball to get a job in fast food all by himself. Todd sighed. There was no use yelling at JOE. It was all JOE could do to remember what went into making the standard burger, much less all of these special orders.

Todd waited and waited. The clock still read six thirty, but it felt like years were passing. He could feel the eyes of the customers in line radiating invisible laser beams into the back of his neck. Soon, someone would complain that fast food should really be… you know, fast. For crying out loud. Todd marched back into the kitchen, yanking the microwave doors open to no avail. The cupboards were bare. The order hadn’t even been started. In the back office, Todd saw the new manager on the phone.

“Where’s JOE?” Todd mouthed. The new manager glanced at him and waved a hand. Hold on. Todd stood shaking with impotent anger. Hold on. It’s not like we’re busy or anything. Cooked meat was flowing out of the broiler at a steady pace, flopping onto the drip pan with a greasy squish. The toasted buns had already overflowed their catch bins and were now falling onto the floor. Todd salvaged what he could from the bins and surreptitiously dusted off the ones that had fallen on the floor. He arranged them on the stainless steel of the burger boards, assigning them each a piece of waxed paper. Let’s see, Todd conjured up the right memory from the jumble in his head. A clockwise squirt of mustard, a counter-clockwise squirt of ketchup. Wrap it up and nuke the whole damned thing, wrapper and all. It wasn’t quite the company’s standard procedure and Todd was sure the blandly smiling zombies in the training videos would not have approved. The microwave chimed and the burger was done; steaming and laminated and ready to go.

The kitchen was less than twenty feet from the front register, but it was amazing how long that distance seemed as Todd walked back and forth from register to kitchen, taking an order then walking back to make it, again and again and again. He was running out of burgers and had to add another forty feet to his trek; a trip to the freezer for a bag full of hamburger patties all frozen together into a long meat cylinder two feet long. The new manager was still holed up in the back office, Todd noted wryly while looking for something to split the patties apart. No doubt he was counting the money and putting it into the safe. Todd couldn’t attract his attention. He found a long knife at the deserted specialty station crusted over with old mayonaisse. Gripping it tightly, Todd sliced the burger patties apart and plotted murder in between cuts. The way this night was going, it wouldn’t take much more to put him over the edge. But he was getting very tired. Lodging the knife in the new manager’s throat would just take too much out of him. Hurt me more than it will hurt you. Todd smiled wanly.

Todd wasn’t sure when the kid on the fry station vanished. He was numb with fatigue, and didn’t see him leave. One second he had been there, the next he was gone. Or maybe he had never been there. Todd shook his head to clear some of the wool wrapping his brain. He couldn’t even think of who had been working the fryers. And, now that he tried, he couldn’t remember whether the fries had been there in the bin, or had he been making them all along? Not that it mattered now. Yet another job for him to do. And of course, there were no fries ready under the heat lamps. A bead of sweat rolled off his forehead and fell into the boiling oil, vaporizing with an electric snap. A drop of oil flicked out and burned a small white spot on his right arm, but Todd hardly noticed. There were no fries in the heated bin, no fries being cooked, no baskets of frozen fries hanging on the rack ready to be cooked. Todd closed his eyes, wishing it all away, but when he opened them again, everything was still the same. The line in front of his register was as long as before, the new manager was still hiding out in the back office and the time was still six thirty.

Todd found his body shuffling from station to station; taking an order, cooking the meat, the bun, dropping an occasional basket of fries. Spots of grease speckled his bare arms and spattered his uniform. Long lines of sweat ran from his arms down to his shoes. The polyester of his uniform clung uncomfortably to his bare skin and collected the overpowering smell of broiled meat mixed with the sour smell of endless toil in the ninety degree heat of the kitchen. There was something else in the air, faint. The broiler. Hope it blows up, Todd muttered to himself. He wanted to smile, but it was too much for him now. It took all of his concentration to keep his feet moving, step by step, station to station.

Weeks, months, maybe years went by before Todd noticed the rush finally dying down to a trickle of customers. He could see the end of the line now, a stretch of solemn faces passing before him. Some seemed familiar, but he could barely remember his own name much less someone else’s. At long last, the final customer was helped and the final order was unfrozen, cooked, fried, wrapped, bagged and handed out with the customary bland expression Todd had completely internalized.

“Why don’t you take your break,” said the new manager. “Half an hour.” Todd jumped, startled. It was the first time he’d seen the new manager since the start of the night. There were a million things Todd wanted to say, to scream at him, but all he could do was nod. Todd stumbled back into the kitchen and broiled himself a hamburger piled high with pickles and ketchup. Company policy frowned on one making one’s own food, Todd seemed to remember. But then, there was no one left to do it for him.

The dining room was completely deserted. The trash bins were full and the paper wrappers poured out making piles on the floor. Ketchup smeared the tables and the booths and the floor was a crushed mass of cold french fries turned gray by age and abuse. Todd eased himself into the cleanest booth he could find; directly in front of his register. His hamburger was tasteless, despite the extra ketchup and pickles he had piled on. He was so tired. Too bad he couldn’t go by the clock in the kitchen. Stuck at six thirty, his break would last forever.

He stopped. His crescent hamburger frozen in his right hand. In the kitchen, on the wall behind the broiler, the clock had come to life. The broken hands were inching their way up the face of the clock. As he watched, 6:35 turned to 6:36. And the new manager. He was standing in the back office again on the phone, but Todd could still — somehow — make out his nametag quite clearly.

It read “LUCIFER”.

6:41. Todd nodded and let out the breath he realized he’d been holding. His hamburger was cold now, but Todd figured he’d better finish it and relax while he could. Company policy gave him one and only one break per shift.

And he was going to be working here a long, long time.

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