By Elizabeth J. Wenger
“Listen here, Jumbo Jake.” I puffed out my chest real far like I was a man, and this was the Old West, and Jumbo Jake was a real threat, not just a smiley face some doofus had painted on the dumpster out behind our Applebee’s.
I did this whole cowboy routine on breaks sometimes, when no one else was out back sneaking cigarettes. Louie, our manager, hated cigarettes, and even though he couldn’t technically fire us for taking cig breaks, he could always come up with some other reason. Right-to-Work laws and all that.
None of us really got the laws, but that was the power in them, and that’s why Louie was always firing us. More like disappearing us, like he was a mafia man and not just the manager of some Kansas Applebee’s.
“You think you can beat me down, but I know better.” I continued with my dumpster role play. “I’ve been looking for you, and you’re gonna get it this time. Get it straight to the head.” I pulled a finger gun out of its imaginary holster.
I was about to shoot when Mark pushed open the Applebee’s back door with his butt, so I had time to compose myself and re-holster the gun before he turned around to face me. He was the bartender, which made him the Real Cool Guy of our workplace. He was probably sleeping with Frida, one of the waitresses, but I heard he saw Patty, who was just a hostess, on the side. I was a dishwasher, so I sure wasn’t one of the Cool Ones.
Mark nodded at me and pulled a Camel from its pack.
“I came from Walgreens.” I pointed to the drug store in the lot next to ours so as not to let him in on the truth of my little game. The strip mall where our Applebee’s was located offered lots of excuses. One time, Frida almost caught me doing my game, and I pointed to the Genesis Health Club and said I had been working out on break. This was double good because not only did I seem like I wasn’t talking to the dumpster, but I seemed like I took care of my body too.
Mark smiled and offered me the cigarette pack.
I almost shook my head because I didn’t smoke, but then I remembered he was the Cool Guy, so I took one.
While he lit the cigarette for me, I looked over his shoulder at the dumpster. Jumbo Jake would be very intimidated by me smoking.
I was feeling real good as I breathed in until Mark said, “Why are you always talking to yourself out here?”
I started to cough, and he reached out to pat my back, which didn’t help. The good thing about the coughing was that it gave me time to come up with a lie.
“I call my mom on breaks.”
“How come you never have a phone?”
“How come you’re sleeping with Patty when everyone knows you could have Frida, and she’s cuter anyway…” All these words burst out without me thinking what I was saying.
Mark raised his eyebrows.
I took a long drag on my cigarette just for something to do.
He laughed. “You’re a weird girl.”
“Yeah, well we both work at a shitty restaurant, so it doesn’t matter much if I’m weird. You got something in common with a weird girl, and that’s how it is.” I shook my head matter-of-factly, the way my ma did when she got drunk and told me the story of how my daddy left, even though I’d heard it about a bajillion times.
“Really, what are you always doing out here?” Mark blew smoke out his nose. Yeah, he was the Cool Guy.
I considered for a second what might happen if I shared my shameful secret, and Mark got freaked, told Louie, and I got fired. My ma would be so mad since I couldn’t buy her groceries anymore and especially because I couldn’t buy her Budweiser. Man, if she wasn’t drinking Budweiser, she wasn’t drinking anything. How the hell would I get her to drink water? Maybe she would just die of dehydration without her Bud.
I figured that I could wash dishes anywhere, so I ended up telling Mark.
“See that face on that dumpster there.” I pointed. “I pretend that’s a bad man, and I talk to him when I’m angry. It’s sort of like how I get out my bad emotions.”
Instead of laughing at me like I expected, Mark nodded and sucked the rest of the smoke out his cigarette.
“I got something like that,” he said.
“Yeah. My friends and I got boxing gloves, and after a bad day of work or whatever, we meet up and beat on each other. Just to let loose, you know?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Mark lit another cigarette.
I had to go back inside soon, or Louie would be out here yelling.
“Can I try it?” Mark asked.
I shrugged. “Isn’t my dumpster.”
“Right.” Mark moved to stand in front of the smiley face.
His whole face went slack for a second, and then his mouth formed into a mean snarl. He took a deep breath, and as he exhaled, he screamed. “Motherfucker, you ain’t the boss of me. You got the body of a ten-year-old and some rank halitosis. Shorter than Napoleon. Little man with no guts…” Mark went on like this for a while, all in one single breath, and I worried he was gonna have a heart attack or an aneurism or something, but then he stopped, sighed, and shook all up his spine like a demon was going out of him.
“I liked that.” He put his cigarette out and went back inside.
Once the door closed behind him, I turned to Jumbo Jake.
That dumpster sure looked happy.