Small Dr. Pepper by Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue

Through the tinny, staticky speaker came the single order, “Small Dr. Pepper.”

When I repeated it back, I couldn’t help but wonder why anyone would get in a line that reached all the way to the street for just one small DP? Must be one thirsty dude, I thought. Spotted him in my rectangular drive-thru mirror, some skinny punk on his little rinky-dink 90cc Suzuki, who for some reason had to end his day with Texas’ own carbonated prune juice.

I hadn’t much time to cogitate on it. As the only employee at the Jack-in-the-Box on Edgebrook Drive, I was too busy running my butt off–chucking frozen patties from the freezer to the grill, shaking fries and rings out of hot grease, stuffing crackling hot tacos with their American cheese and damp lettuce fixings, popping tops on a gazillion carbonated beverages, taking orders, getting money. In short: doing every damn thing because I was it, the sole employee at Jack-in-the-Box #233. 

It was Sunday before Labor Day and my manager Max had only scheduled me, one person after 10, not figuring that a whole crowd would be out having a great time on a Sunday night because of the holiday, and then all of them end up getting munchies and craving at exactly the same moment some of Jack’s greasy, fattening fare.

“Twenty-six cents,” I announced to my DP-loving customer as he puttered up to the window.

“Forget about it,” he said.

“Huh?” I studied how his tinted visor hid his face. At 11 o’clock at night? What the hell?

Then he said, like he’d been practicing the phrase all day, “I want all your money.”

“Huh?” I repeated.

“I-said-I-want-all-your-money,” he repeated extra specially slow, as if as a baby who had been dropped on the head.

“Are you serious?” I finally managed to get out. Then my voice cracked, betraying me, interrupting the Robert Stack bass I’d been cultivating, to replace it with the worst voice ever for a teenage boy, a Jerry Lewis falsetto. “This some kind of joke?”

“Dead serious,” he said, making his voice sound deeper to contrast with mine, while at the same time putting his left hand into his coat pocket, like he was packing heat and was more than ready to use it.

I slowly backed away from the window. It’s not that I had a plan exactly. Sure, beaucoups of thoughts were caroming around my cerebral cortex at that particular moment. A big old butcher knife to cut onions was near the sink in the back. Or, maybe, I could scrounge around for one of those cups we had for the brave few who could stomach Jack coffee. Then if I found one, I could fill it up with some boiling grease, and throw it at him, but all I could think to do was to keep backing up, till I ended up next to the milkshake machine, a good 12 feet from the motorcycle want-to-be robber.

“Hey, man, don’t worry about it,” Mr. Motorcycle Guy said, tons of pseudo-empathy oozing.

“Huh?” I repeated. By this time, he must’ve thought he was talking to a future rocket scientist.

“Look, it ain’t your money, is it? It’s Jack’s money, right, and hell, dont’cha think Jack has planned ahead and has insurance in case of robbery?”

I leaned against the milk shake machine and chewed on this interesting factoid. “Hmm, guess you might have something there.”

“You bet, hoss. Believe me, the money in that register─no matter how much it is─ain’t worth risking your young life over. And, you know, these things happen fairly often these days. Some think it’s because we’ve banned prayers in school, while others believe it’s because we’re living in the end times. Not a theory I personally ascribe to, but I think the biblical evidence is, let us say, somewhat intriguing.”

So, I was being robbed on the Sunday before Labor Day by a motorcycle riding fundamentalist. What was next? After the robbery, were we going to bow our heads in prayer?

After checking the register, I realized I had a bigger problem than a Jesus Freak who wasn’t clear on the eighth commandment. Max our manager had drilled into us that we were neve to have more than $50 in the register after 10p.m. Now because of the rush, I had at minimum 10 times that, so yours truly was now stuffing at least $500 in cash into a Jack sack for a Jesus-freak stick-up man.

Making it up as I went along, I decided to put all the loose coins and even some coin rolls in the bag. After that I pounded those coins into the bottom of the sack, thinking that maybe, just maybe, the bag would burst open as the motorcycle robber’s mass times velocity would equal─oh, something. Least-wise, I was hoping.

Then as I handed him the Jack bag crammed full of cash and coins, I, much to my eternal shame, reverted into a total Jack-in-the-Box automaton, “Thank you. Have a nice day. Come back,” I droned.

Mr. Robber didn’t respond with “you’re welcome,” or even bust a gut laughing, as he had the perfect right to. He just grabbed the Jack bag and sped off. 

I tried to get a look at his license plate, but wouldn’t you know, he’d tied a rag to cover it. The next car in line cruised to the window with a car packed full of hungry young dudes,all with cheeks dotted with infected zits and long greasy hair. I shouted over their 8-track stereo blastingout Eric Burdon singing Cisco Kid was a friend of mine, “Sorry man, I’m closed. I just got robbed!”

“Shit, let’s go get him,” shouted the driver. Then he peeled out of the drive-thru, fishtailing when he hit the street. He sped down Edgebrook, chasing after the fundamentalist motorcycle robber.

***

The first thing out of my manager’s mouth was, “Let me guess, some bro from the Fifth Ward paid us a little visit tonight so he could supplement his monthly welfare check, right?” He was busy opening the safe, getting enough change and bills into the cash register so I could reopen.

“No, Max, I hate to disappoint you, and while I didn’t see much of his skin, I saw enough to know he was definitely a member of the Caucasian persuasion. Can’t say whether he was supplementing his welfare check or not. I was kinda busy, so I forgot to ask.”

“Did he have a gun?”

“Well.”

“Well, what?”

“I don’t know, Max.”

“What do you mean you don’t know? What are you saying? You’d give money to anyone who’d ask for it? Jack, I’d like a Jumbo Jack extra cheese with all your cash. And you’d respond, Do you want a large fry or apple pie with that?”

Sometimes, well, most of the time, Max was a smart ass, which usually endeared him to his employees, smart ass teenagers, in the main. But tonight he was a little worse than usual. I guess getting him up out of bed with the Mrs. at midnight had really spoiled his day.

“Listen, Max, maybe, he had a gun, acted like he did any ways, like he had something in his coat pocket, but I didn’t ask him to show it to me. I didn’t say, Excuse me, Mr. Robber Dude, I need to see your gun and how big it is before I can give you any money. My manager said so‘ Then risk getting my ass shot for Jack.”

“Yeah, well, I guess, maybe, you did right,” Max responded absently as he was counting out money for the register. He was trying to sound positive, but I could tell his heart just wasn’t in it anymore.

“So I presume you told the cops all you told me?” Max asked.

“Yeah, and I gave them a good description of the bike, too. Hope they find that skinny bastard.”

“Me, too. And I hope they get all that cash back.” Max whistled, showing me he’d already figured out how much cash I handed out.

I felt my face getting hot. I wanted to jump in, defend myself, but I didn’t a clue one what to say.

“So you want to stay till 3,” Max fortuitously changing the subject, “like you were scheduled or do you want to go home? I remember the first time I got robbed, and I know it can wipe your ass out, so whatever you want to do is fine by me.”

“I’ll stay, Max. It’s okay. I want to clean up.”

He nodded. He stood there with his back to me, his big body slouching over the cash register, a thick sheen of sweat on the back of his fat neck, his wide shoulders sagging.

A powerful pang of sorrow hit me. Poor guy. He looked so exhausted, so totally put upon.

Then it occurred to me that the way he was standing would make a great statue, like Rodin’s The Thinker, we’d been studying about in my Western Civ class. Except Max would represent something different, not philosophy or great learning, more like the total futility of managing a bunch of teenagers at a Jack-in-the-Box.

***

Jesse poured the clear liquid out of the pint bottle. It spread a yard-wide puddle on the bright

orange tiles. Then nonchalantly he lit a match and flicked it on the spill. Immediately it flamed, a bright blue fire in the middle of Jack’s dining area. Then just as quickly the flame went out.

“Cool,” I said.

“Yeah, imagine if it’s this flammable, hell, flammable as gas, what it’s doing to our insides right now?”

I nodded thoughtfully.

“So you want more vodka in your Coke?”

“Hell, yeah.”

He poured some in both our cups. Then took a toke of his Marlboro and flicked the ashes onto the gold color cheap-ass ashtrays emblazoned with the Jack logo. Normally, when we got bored, we used them as Frisbees.

“So you got robbed? Cool.”

“Yeah, I guess. Hadn’t thought so till you mentioned it, but I guess it is pretty cool. I didn’t think so at the time, though. Also, I’m kinda worried. I think Max might fire me. I had way too much cash in the register.”

Jesse squinted at me through his usual-half-closed, stoner lids. “Listen, don’t worry about Max. Sure, he fired my ass for coming to work stoned once, but I always thought Max was pretty fair as Jack managers go. And, anyway, the extra cash you had in the till is his fault when you think about it. Who was the idiot that only scheduled one person after 10 on the Sunday before Labor Day? Did he really think nobody was going to be going out?”

“I guess you’re right,” I said, more than a bit relieved, but maybe it was the vodka finally

kicking in.

“Well, I’ll tell you, life sure is shit sometimes.”

“Yep,” I nonchalantly answered, trying to sound as grown-up as possible. “Tell me about it.”

“People die. Bad things happen. Sometimes Jack-in-the-Boxes gets robbed. Hell, my old man ran off last year, and since then my mom spends most of her time drinking when she isn’t hitting on any guy with 2 legs and a dick. Shit, I’ll be damned if I know what to do about it.”

“Really?” I checking out Jesse’s face, pinched with anger. I’d never heard him speak of any of that before. “Man, that sucks.”

“Gotcha!” Jesse chuckled. “I just made all that shit up. It ain’t true. None of it.”

“Oh, shit. That’s almost as bad as being told ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary and believing it.”

“Man, you should’ve seen your face.

After that, Jesse and I sat in silence, sipping our Cokes with dashes of vodka, the fluorescent lights abuzz over our heads. We looked out at the mostly dark 2 a.m. Edgebrook Drive. Our neighborhood’s main drag, our teenage fastfood heaven, was now quiet and almost totally deserted.

What a night. I had worked my ass off, got robbed by some fundamentalist punk on a dinky Suzuki, got yelled at by my racist boss, and now the vodka was beginning to erode any edge the past few hours had slapped on me. Maybe this was life boiled down to its essence? If that’s what it was, it didn’t seem too bad. I’d had my doubts before, but just maybe this life thing was something I could manage.

Maybe?

“Hey man, you want me to light the vodka again?”

“Sure, Jesse. Why the hell not?”

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