Retail pay is lousy. Back in 1989 I had worked at Sears for a couple years and decided that it would be nice to be able to afford both my car AND its insurance, so I handed in an application to Taco Bell on Ridge Road. One day later, I had the job. That should’ve raised a red flag about their desperation, but back then I figured I was much too brilliant and talented for them to pass up the chance to employ me. My first day, they handed me a polo shirt and an apron that stank of rancid grease. I don’t remember the manager’s name, but let’s call him Hank. Hank seems like a good fit for him. He pressed a nametag into my hand and said, “If you decide to quit, make sure you wash the shirt and apron and give them back to us.” “Oh yeah. Of course!” I said, wondering if the gig included free food. (It didn’t.) He spent the next hour instructing me on how the food is made, how to work the cash register, and where the mop bucket was. Satisfied I knew what I was doing, he nodded and said, “All right. You ready to go?” “Sure!” I was nothing if not enthusiastic. Although I was a little freaked to know that they reused the melted cheese over and over again and it was highly likely some of it dated back to 1983. “Wendy will supervise you,” Hank continued, pointing to a scowling blonde. I gave her a little finger wave, and she crossed her arms and glared at me as if she wanted to tear off my head and stuff it beneath the heating lamps. I was already off to a fun start. Wendy strutted over to me. “Ever worked a register before?” “A cash register? Uh. Yeah. I work at Sears. I sell draperies.” She narrowed her eyes. “You do? That’s probably pretty boring, huh?” “No…actually it—” “You’re going to be on register today. Take-out window.” “Oh. Okay.” She whirled around on her sneakers and padded away. I stood there twisting the apron in my hands, wondering what I was supposed to do next. I didn’t have to wait long because a car pulled up to the drive-thru window and a beefy man with a mustache was peering inside at me. I stared at the register. It had buttons with words on it like, “Bean Burrito” and “Small Drink,” and “Taco Salad.” So many buttons with so many names. Hank had showed me this, but all the information leaked out of my brain like 6-year-old cheese sauce. “Hank?” I called. He sped over to me. “Yeah? Something wrong?” “What do I do?” He glanced at the screen behind us, told the man what he owed, took his money, and handed him change. The customer eyed me suspiciously as I rushed to make his food. I stopped and stared at the stainless steel containers that held the vegetables and the meats as if I’d never seen them before. “Uh…Hank?” Hank ran to me, tie flapping over his shoulder. “Yes?” “How do I make the…” I pointed to the screen as it blinked the man’s order. Hank had dealt with people like me before, I could tell. He didn’t roll his eyes, like I imagined Wendy would…and where was Wendy, anyway? Wasn’t she supposed to be supervising me? “You take the tortilla. Two squirts of cheese sauce…” He went through the routine, making it seem so easy a toddler could do it. And yet, for some reason, I couldn’t picture myself getting the hang of this. There was a lot of memorization involved. And if I remembered correctly, memorization was the reason why I almost failed third grade multiplication. He finished putting together the order as a buzzer sounded, letting me know someone had arrived at the take-out window. I dashed to the window, avoided the beefy man’s annoyed stare best I could, and spoke into the microphone. “Welcome to Taco Bell. May I take your order?” “Yeah. I’ll have the grilled steak soft taco, a Burrito Supreme with sour cream and guacamole, Nachos Belgrande, two orders of—” “Wait,” I screeched. “Hold on…I have to find the button for the chicken soft taco.” “Steak soft taco,” the man said, his voice coming out distorted through the speakers. “Yeah, okay.” I found the button. Pressed it. “And two Mountain Dews,” the man continued. “Wait, hold on,” I said, wiping my brow. “What came after the steak tacos? I have to find the button for it.” “Are you kidding me?” the guy asked. “I thought this was fast food.” “It’s my first day, sir,” I said, fanning my armpits. I turned around. “Hank?” Hank flew over like he had wings. He spoke into the mic and splayed his fingers over that cash register like it was a favorite girlfriend. Seconds later, he was making change. “Are you having trouble keeping up?” he asked. “Uh…no. Why do you ask?” Wendy appeared from what turned out to be her half hour cigarette break. “If you can’t handle it, you should just go,” she called flippantly over her shoulder as she passed by. At midnight, exhausted and sweaty, I helped clean up. I slid the stainless steel containers of meat from the heated water, which is how they kept the meat moist and warm. Then I pulled on potholders and slid the tray of taco shells from above the hot water. Heating lamps kept the shells crispy, but they’d tan your hands darker than a sun-roasted granny soaked in baby oil. Finally, I lifted the heavy vat of special red sauce off the counter and hauled it to the fridge. “See you Thursday,” Hank called out as we slunk out to our cars in the parking lot. My body felt as if it had been stuffed with refried beans and rolled into a burrito. Smelled that way too. But I waved bye, determined to see this job through. I’d learn it if I had to write the answers on my hand, a technique perfected in high school. When I stepped into Taco Bell wearing my freshly washed employee shirt and apron, which still stank of rancid grease, Wendy glanced at me in surprise. “You’re back?” she asked. I think I may have stepped up a notch on her respectability scale. She didn’t glower at me the way she had on day one. “Sure, I’m back.” I rubbed my hands, eager to begin. Day Two was fairly identical to Day One. One thing I learned—people did not like to have to repeat their orders more than three times. The second thing I learned—Wendy had a terrible nicotine addiction. She took more smoke breaks than a heart surgeon. I never did get any good on register. After Hank had his fill of cussing coming from the speakers, he sent another kid to take over for me. I spent most of the time cleaning up spills and filling taco shells. When midnight came, I was so relieved I could have cried. But it was time to clear away the food. Place the containers in their proper places in the refrigerator. I pulled the tubs of meat out of the hot water and set them on the counter by the refrigerator. I returned to the taco shells and forgot to put on the potholders before reaching for the trays of taco shells. The word hot isn’t a harsh enough description. As soon as I lifted the trays, one in each hand, I knew I’d made a horrible, irreversible error. I automatically let go, and the trays tipped, sending all the taco shells into the hot water, the tray following. I jumped back so I wouldn’t be splashed by boiling water, and my elbow knocked the giant vat of red sauce, which tipped forward. I tried to catch it, but it was too late. Like a volcano erupting, the contents flew everywhere. I was soaked in steaming red sauce. The floor looked like a bloody crime scene. Hank, Wendy, and the other employee stared at me, eyes so big I thought they’d pop out of their heads. I glanced at the floor. Then at the taco shells bobbing in the hot water. Then at my dripping arms. No one asked if I was okay, even though I was sure I’d received first degree burns over two-thirds of my body. I could tell they were all thinking the same thing: “Damn. Now we’re stuck here for another hour cleaning this f’in mess.” Somehow, we managed to get everything cleaned up before the sun's morning rays hit the horizon. Wendy muttered under her breath something about knowing all along I was a putz. Hank avoided my eyes. And then we all trudged out to our cars, and I found a blanket in my trunk to place on my seat so it wouldn’t become slick with sauce. At home I washed my apron and shirt. A few days later, right before I was to pick up my paycheck and work my next shift, I went to the doctor’s and discovered I had strep throat. I brought the freshly cleaned apron and collared shirt back to Hank. The apron’s rancid grease smell had been replaced by the odor of red sauce. “I have strep throat,” I said. “I can’t work today.” Hank took the clothes from me and “You’re quitting, right?” “Um…yeah.” He nodded. “It’s probably for the best.”
“Yeah.” Wendy flung my paycheck at me, smirking, probably thinking my strep throat was some pathetic B.S. I didn’t care what she thought. I was going back to the easy life of selling drapes while she spent her days puffing away on cigarettes trying to avoid her job. I stuck my paycheck into my coat pocket and left, feeling a little bit lighter and a lot better about my life. Sometimes awful things happen for good reasons. This happened to be one of those times, and I was grateful. Thank you, Taco Bell.