Damon flipped back and forth between two blank pieces of paper in front of him on the table, pretending to read them. The itchy red and black Newsworthy Burger polo shirt that constituted his uniform clung to his skinny frame. Sizzling and clattering sounds from the busy restaurant filtered through the closed door and into the windowless office. The applicant, an expressionless teenage kid named Bryce, slouched in a chair facing Damon and picked at his yellow teeth with a piece of plastic he’d somehow broken off of the underside of the table.
“What is it that makes you want to work here?” asked Damon.
Bryce snorted but didn’t answer, instead turning to squint at the clock on the wall behind him. There was a violent, incomprehensible image on the back of his t-shirt that turned Damon’s stomach.
Damon tried a different question. “You said your last job was ‘driving.’ What did you mean by that?”
“I drove and got paid,” said Bryce.
“Everything. Do I get free food working here?”
“You’re not hired yet,” said Damon.
Bryce grinned. “I can’t work on Tuesdays. Ever.”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Damon. “I’ve got a few more questions for you.”
“Oh, come on,” said Bryce. He closed his eyes and pressed the knuckles of his left hand to his forehead.
“How are you at being on time?” asked Damon. “We expect you to be punctual.”
“And I expect you to shut your stupid mouth and let me get out of here,” said Bryce. “Am I hired yet or what?”
Damon sat for a moment with his jaw clenched, his pulse throbbing in his temples, his hands trembling. Then his shoulders slumped and he said, “Yes. You’re hired. You’ll start tomorrow and I’ll be your shift manager. We need you to fill out some paperwork before you go.”
“Tomorrow’s Tuesday,” said Bryce. “See you Wednesday.” He strolled out of the office and into the kitchen, letting the door stand open behind him. Damon watched Bryce grab a hamburger and spit on the floor on his way out the staff entrance.
The kitchen was crowded with employees, arguing and laughing and singing along to whatever they were listening to under their headphones. An abnormally large number of them had shown up today. Very few were preparing food. “Let’s get to work, guys!” shouted Damon. The employees ignored him. He looked up at the monitor displaying the orders that still needed to be prepared, groaned at how backed up they were, and began assembling the meals himself, seething and counting down the seconds until Molly would show up to relieve him for the evening shift.
Newsworthy Burger, the only fast food restaurant in Dalcette, was the vanity project of Ross Gallup, the town’s only wealthy resident. Ross’s fortune was secure. He would always be rich, whether Newsworthy Burger was profitable or not. As a result, he took a very hands-on approach to the fun parts of owning a small town hamburger restaurant and neglected the unpleasant parts almost entirely. He hung expensive drapes in Newsworthy Burger’s windows, installed fancy light fixtures with incandescent bulbs on the walls, covered the floor in plush rugs which he replaced whenever they’d had too many fallen French fries ground into them, and set up little televisions at each booth on which he played home videos he’d shot while vacationing at national parks.
What he didn’t do was fire people. He didn’t believe in firing people, especially young people. This belief stemmed directly from a traumatic event in his childhood. Ross had been fired from his first job as a plant-waterer at a sunken garden because another kid who worked with him, envious of Ross’s natural charm and custom-painted watering can, had told their boss that Ross had sprayed pesticide at an old woman for straying from the footpath, which was a complete fabrication, but their boss had believed the story and fired Ross on the spot. The experience was so painful that Ross couldn’t bring himself to fire, or allow his managers to fire, anyone. No matter what they had done, Ross always assumed extenuating circumstances, even if multiple eyewitnesses corroborated their guilt. He didn’t want to make the same mistake his boss had made four decades ago. He didn’t want that on his conscience.
Sensing that Damon had more potential than everyone else who had ever interviewed for a job at Newsworthy Burger, Ross had hired him as a manager and immediately assigned him the contradictory tasks of making sure the restaurant ran as smoothly as possible and never firing or threatening to fire anyone. For Damon, it was a recipe for aggravation and stress. He was sure that there were many better jobs available just a twenty minute drive up the road in Multioak, but he couldn’t quit Newsworthy Burger for fear of looking like he was just like all the other employees who stopped showing up out of sheer laziness. Damon couldn’t bear the thought of being lumped in with the rest of the quitters, so he stayed on, beaten down and embittered.
Every so often, when Damon felt he’d been pushed too far, he would go to Ross’s downtown office and plead with him to fire some of his employees.
“No,” Ross would say, smoothing his graying hair back over his skull with his graceful hands. “No, no, no. No firing.”
“But they don’t do anything. They rarely show up, and when they do, they just screw around. They’re unsanitary. They prevent work from being done. They insult customers. They steal food from you. They steal money from you.”
Ross would then adopt a wise, instructional tone and say, “No firing. If the current staff won’t get the job done, just do some more hiring. Hire, hire, hire. Hiring is the key. Hiring rather than firing.”
“But there aren’t any good applicants. It’s still just a bunch of dumb, irresponsible, disrespectful kids.”
“They just need to be given a chance,” Ross would say. “These kinds of kids need a place to work where they don’t have to worry about being fired all the time. Hire them!”
“But they’re openly hostile. They-”
“Hire them! Hire them!”
As promised, Bryce didn’t come in at all on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he was three hours late, refused to wear the Newsworthy Burger uniform on grounds of its obvious gayness, gorged himself on onion rings, and somehow fell asleep in the freezer, which didn’t really necessitate a visit from the EMS, but resulted in one anyway. Right before Damon’s shift ended at 5, Ross made a surprise visit and gathered everyone in the kitchen to make an announcement.
There were approximately a dozen employees present, but it was hard to pin down an exact number because they milled around and chatted among themselves, roughhousing dangerously close to the hot grill and using the brooms for anything but sweeping.
“Hush!” said Damon.
“They’re fine,” said Ross. “They’re just excited. I can talk over them.” He set up a step-stool he’d brought with him from home in front of the walk-in freezer at the back of the kitchen, raised his voice, and said, “I want to thank each and every one of you for all of the hard work you’ve done to make Newsworthy Burger the restaurant it is today! I never thought we’d make it this far, but according to the numbers, if we’re as busy as we usually are, sometime tomorrow during this shift we will be serving our one millionth customer!”
Damon doubted this was true. Business was never good at Newsworthy Burger since most people in Dalcette understood that the staff was an undisciplined mob, but every day a handful of citizens and unsuspecting out-of-towners tried their luck for reasons that remained mysterious to Damon. Sometimes it was all he could do to keep from shouting, “Why? Why are you here?” But if Ross wanted to pretend they were going to serve their millionth customer tomorrow, well, that was his right as the boss.
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Ross continued. “There will be a counter on the register screens all day tomorrow letting you know what number each customer is. When the one millionth customer places his or her order, a message will flash on your screen and that customer will be our winner!”
The employees were suddenly interested. “What do they win?” asked Davey, a sullen high-school dropout who sometimes sold pot to customers over the Newsworthy Burger counter.
“They earn the right to make a special request of me,” said Ross. “Anything they want, they can ask me for it, and I cannot deny them. Within reason, of course. I will refuse no reasonable request.”
“What if they ask to kill you?” asked Lacey, who was inexplicably barefoot.
“I wouldn’t consider that a reasonable request,” said Ross.
“Hey,” shouted Bryce, pointing at Ross as if making an accusation. “Can employees win?”
“No,” said Ross. “This is for customers only. Employees aren’t customers, they’re employees.”
The employees broke into a chorus of boos. “That’s prejudice!” shouted someone. “That’s racist!”
Ross flinched and held up his hands as if warding off blows, taken aback by the ignorance of his employees. “Thank you all,” he shouted, struggling to keep a brave face. “Again, thank you! I’ll see you all tomorrow!” He turned and hurried out of the restaurant through the staff entrance, leaving Damon to deal with the indignant employees and their misguided senses of fairness.
The next day, Ross was already at Newsworthy Burger when Damon’s shift started at 10am. By the time Bryce showed up at noon, a mere two hours late, the counters on the registers indicated that Newsworthy Burger was only thirty-three customers short of number one million. Watching his employees in action for the first time in months, if not years, Ross was dissatisfied with the efficiency of the staff and at one point he pulled Damon aside to suggest that he hire a few more people. Damon was too furious to even meet Ross’s eyes.
Customer 999,978 received a burger that hadn’t been cooked. It was a frozen beef patty on a bun with ketchup, mustard, and pickles, which customer 999, 978 had actually requested not be on his burger.
“Who was responsible for this?” asked Damon.
“Some guy,” said Bryce, which he seemed to intend as a witty retort.
“We all need to try harder,” said Ross. “This is a special day.”
Customer 999,989 claimed that she had seen an employee sprinkling something from a little glass bottle he’d pulled from his pocket onto her salad.
“Which employee?” asked Damon.
“I don’t know,” said the woman. “His back was to me and then he moved where I couldn’t see. But I can’t eat this.”
Damon bent down and looked at the salad up close. He didn’t see anything abnormal, but he didn’t blame the woman for not wanting to eat it. Her story sounded plausible, not to mention alarming.
“Please,” Ross said to his employees. “Please don’t sprinkle mysterious substances on peoples’ food. People want to know what’s on their food.”
Customer 999,999 came in well after the lunch rush when nobody else was in the restaurant and ordered a dish of strawberry ice cream. When Bryce heard this, he ran up to the counter from the back of the kitchen shouting, “Strawberry ice cream is pink, man! That’s girl ice cream!” Then he reached out and slapped customer 999,999 across the face.
“I demand that you fire this punk right now!” screamed the customer, the mark on his cheek disappearing as his whole head flushed red with rage.
“Sir, I’m very sorry,” said Ross. “The ice cream is on the house.”
“I don’t want the ice cream! I want this kid fired and then I want to kick his teeth in out in the parking lot!”
“A month of free ice cream,” said Ross in desperation. Bryce stood behind him, serene and confident, eating the very strawberry ice cream customer 999,999 had ordered, turning the spoon upside down in his mouth and making loud sucking noises with each bite. Damon had never seen less fear on a human face.
It was too much.
“Ross,” said Damon. “I quit.”
Ross turned from the customer long enough to say, “Damon, no, wait,” but Damon didn’t look back. He dropped his nametag in the garbage on his way out the staff entrance.
Outside, Damon peeled his Newsworthy Burger shirt over his head and tossed it out into the parking lot toward the dumpster. It landed well short in a crumpled heap on the smoldering blacktop. Then, in his rumpled undershirt, Damon walked around the building, entered through the front door, and walked up to the counter where the customer was still raging and Ross was still trying to placate him and Bryce was still eating the ice cream and silently egging the customer on with impudent facial expressions.
Damon rapped his knuckles on the top of Dineh’s cash register to draw her attention from the scene down the counter. She was a dull girl who had managed to drop three different cell phones into deep fryers in the span of two months. She tore her eyes away from Ross and customer 999,999 and said, “What, Damon?”
“I want to order a small drink.”
“Why? Just take something.” She turned back to watch the screaming customer, who had now begun directing personal insults at both Bryce and Ross.
“No,” said Damon, reaching out and tapping Dineh’s shoulder. “Punch it in.”
“Ugggh,” said Dineh, blowing her stringy black hair out of her eyes with an exasperated puff of air. “I hate working register.” She punched Damon’s order in, one slow, most likely incorrect keystroke at a time.
A bell went off, an alarm clanged, the lights in their fancy fixtures blinked on and off, on and off. Everyone froze, looking around in confusion, except for Ross, who massaged his forehead with his fingertips. Customer 999,999 stopped screaming. Bryce, startled, dropped the ice cream on the floor. Damon looked Ross in the eye and watched the understanding spread across his features like ink from an alarmed octopus billowing through deep ocean water.
Dineh mashed at her register’s keys until, all at once, the bells stopped ringing and the lights stopped flashing. She narrowed her eyes at the screen and read, “Congra- Con- Congratulations. You are customer number, uh, 1-0-0-0-0-0-0.”
“I know what my request is,” said Damon.
Ross shook his head. “This isn’t how this was supposed to go.”
“Fire Bryce,” said Damon. “That’s all I ask.”
“What?” said Bryce. “Employees can’t win!”
“I’m not an employee,” said Damon. “I just quit, remember? Ross, fire Bryce. I’m the millionth customer. That’s my request. It’s reasonable. It’s beyond reasonable. You should really fire everyone. They all deserve it. But all I’m asking is that you fire Bryce. He needs to be fired. He slapped a customer in the face, Ross. Firing him is the right thing to do. But I know even that isn’t enough for you. So here’s your reason. The one millionth customer’s official request is that you fire Bryce.”
Ross gripped the edge of the counter, his head down, his eyes closed.
“You’re not really the millionth customer,” said Ross. “You’re actually more like 400,000. Somewhere in the 400,000s. It was all made up. Just an event to inspire the employees.” He shook his head sadly. “I thought that their performance would improve if I appealed to their sense of pride.”
“Ha!” said Bryce. “You just quit for nothing, retard.”
Damon ignored him.
The angry customer, seeing his intercessor fall short, pointed at Bryce and said, “I’ll be waiting for you when you get off, kid.” He kicked the front door on his way out and cracked the glass.
“Come on, Damon,” said Ross. “Take your job back. With a raise. A big raise.”
“No,” said Damon.
“You can have it back anytime” said Ross. “You don’t even have to wait for us to be hiring.”
Damon barked a dry laugh and left Newsworthy Burger to collapse under the weight of its principles. It was only once he was in the car and on his way home that he realized that he hadn’t received the small drink he’d ordered. It was probably for the better. He knew where those straws had been.