When my twin sister Joy and I were high school freshmen, our older sister Ellen – by then a teacher in another town – got us jobs at the ice cream stand where she’d worked throughout high school, the Shake Shak.
For a couple of high school freshmen, working at the Shake Shak was about as dreamy as dating Johnny Depp in his 21 Jump Street glory. We were almost entirely unsupervised and were, therefore, free to consume soft serve, hot dogs, and shredded chicken sandwiches until the preservatives leaked from our pores. And we did.
The gig also had its negatives. The criminally meager pay, for one, but the primary flaw was the odor. Walking inside the door of the building’s tiny metal back end doomed you to reeking of coney sauce until showering. Forget about picking up your check and then heading out for the night. One foot in, and the clothes had to be burned.
That back half of the building – concrete floors surrounding the giant freezer; metal tables supporting vats of the saucy meat product – stunk the worst. The front half benefited from a breeze via the sliding-window openings in the three walls of glass where patrons placed the orders – decisions they’d come to after pondering our wares from dozens of fading, grime-covered fliers taped to the window fronts.
Joy and I worked evenings and weekends, which, coincidentally, were the shifts owner Jon Drummer was too cheap to stock with a manager. No, sir, strictly teens being paid well, well below minimum wage.
Joy and I worked with scary Cara, the high school senior who sold drugs from the drive thru window and filled her pockets with every twenty dollar bill in the register before leaving work at shift’s end. I began smoking at 14 because of Cara Bloomville. She handed me a cigarette one day and I obeyed.
Cara loved Iron Maiden and, therefore, hated everything else the 80s vomited forth as metal. She used to sing a song to herself as she worked, one she’d written to the tune of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive”:
I’m a faggot
and my name is Jon Bon Jovi
and I got AIDS
and I’m gonna die
Aside from hair metal, Cara hated Dawn, this cheery, pastel-wearing co-worker who beamed with an earnest sense of accomplishment and high self concept. She was easy to loathe.
I had the great joy of working the shift where Cara, apropos of nothing, called Dawn’s name in an unusually cheerful tenor. It was the chipper tone that caused me to put down my Star Hits magazine featuring a new Duran Duran foldout and take note.
Dawn spun about with her trademark effervescent zeal, only to face a double barrel onslaught of condiments. Cara wielded a catsup in one hand, a mustard in the other, and squeezed those bitches like their contents might put out a raging fire.
Or one super sparkle smile.
But Dawn simply skipped back home to change, her house sitting beyond the large yard out back where Jon kept a couple of rickety picnic tables and a rusted green dumpster. On lucky days, Jon – shirtless, sweaty, and unmistakably obese – would mow that patch of grass between Shake Shak and Dawn’s house. I would Brillo that image from my very eyeballs if only I could.
Filling out the cast of characters was another set of twins – hillbilly sisters. One sister was constantly scarred up with hickies. She was a redhead and for the life of me I can only remember her as Reba. This is not her name, but I somehow replaced her name in my head, and so, now and forever more, Reba it is.
Her sister was just an idiot. I don’t remember her name, either. Idiot will work. Reba I liked, but Idiot was intolerable. She pinched off chunks of shredded chicken sandwich and then put her sandwichy fingers in her mouth. She smiled with the seductive naivety of an adolescent with pubescent hormones and pre-school brain function. I found her repellant.
Her friends, though – the half dozen or so that loitered in front of the building eating ill-gotten treats whenever either sister worked – they were a riot!
Idiot’s boyfriend got into an argument about Monster Trucks (presumably), in front of our glass-encased building and eventually pulled out nun-chucks. Nun-chucks! How awesomely white trash is that?! He was even wearing tube socks and a wife beater. That part is probably inaccurate, but he totally had nun-chucks. And a mullet.
So he hit some guy and blood slapped across the window front like something from one of Cara Bloomville’s condiment guns. At which point the group out front scattered like cockroaches, but it was glorious while it lasted.
And so it was, a smattering of rubes congregating in front of the order windows, one day as I shared a shift with my sister and Reba. The lesser sister stood outside the open order window pilfering free food, when one of her buddies said, “Do you know there’s a dead guy out by the dumpster?”
I responded with the contemptuous grimace I’d been working on, which would eventually become my go-to response to all queries. He mistook it for a quizzical, perhaps ignorant, expression.
“Out back. By the dumpster. There’s a dead guy.”
I tried again to chill him with my withering glare of superiority and hate, but the others had heard, and so the situation suddenly required investigation.
Several more members of the Free Food Rabble moseyed to the back of the building to have a look while, indoors, Joy, Reba and I began to wish Cara Bloomville were working. Just in case. Surely it was a lame joke, or else there was a passed out drunky. No doubt he’d take off with the approach of the mob.
Still, Cara probably knew what to do with a dead body.
“Yep,” informed Jimmy Slackjaw. “He’s dead. I burped in his face and everything.”
OK, his name is not Jimmy Slackjaw, but I swear to God, that’s what he said.
Idiot concurred. “No, seriously, you guys…” she began, with her trailer park sultry overemphasized s sound. “He’s dead.”
The overfed, under-appreciative group looked to us to take charge of the situation. We chose not to respond. They eyeballed us with disdain. We closed the order windows and hid in the back end of the building with the meat vats.
The Hick Posse got bored and wandered off, but the three of us couldn’t quite enjoy the taste of our Oreo blizzards or butterscotch dip cones. What if we really were trapped inside a glass building while a corpse rotted in the summer sun out in our parking lot?
Surely it wasn’t so.
Joy, Reba, and I opened the back door and, clinging one to another, peered around it to see how much of the mysterious body we could glimpse.
None of him.
Nobody was there. We were sure of it.
How could we really be sure of it, instead of lying to ourselves as we clearly were doing at this point?
We called Dawn. Our strategy was to lure her over under the pretense of friendship. She’d have to walk right past the dumpster on the way.
Dawn wasn’t home. She was at synchronized swimming lessons.
Of course she was!
We’d have to do this ourselves. It would require leaving the building.
We stepped as one teal-wearing, coney-smelling body toward the dumpster. Reba saw a shoe.
We screamed, arms flailing, and stumbled over each other back inside.
Should we have phoned the authorities at this point? Undoubtedly, but this is why you don’t leave your business in the hands of three Tiffinite teens.
“We should call Cara,” Reba recommended.
“Go ahead,” I tentatively agreed.
“I’m not calling her. You call her,” she told me.
“You should call her, Hope. She’s friends with you,” Joy counseled.
Really? Did Cara Bloomville like me?
“She’s lying,” Reba clarified. “Everybody likes Joy best.”
But Joy wasn’t calling. And at no point did it occur to any of us to call the shop owner.
Based on what amounted to my experience with similar situations, I explained to Joy and Reba what was bound to lie ahead.
“Dawn will stop by on her way home from synchronized swimming. She’ll see him and tiptoe in closer, hoping to help. He’ll reach out with the cold grip of someone returned from the dead, and he’ll kill her.
“We’ll hear the screaming and open the door, only to see his limping, tattered rage as he turns his attention to us.
“We’ll slam the door, but he’ll begin pounding relentlessly. He’ll circle the building. We won’t be able to go near the window. He’ll slap wildly at the glass out front, and then all will go silent.
“Terrified, we’ll lock ourselves in the freezer, but eventually we’ll hear Cara at the back door, wanting to get in for her check. She’ll curse and bitch about how slow we are. We’ll hear her voice trail beside the building, out around front, and then we’ll hear the wet thump of her mangled body against the window. We’ll scream and scream, utterly incapable of saving ourselves as he uses her lifeless corpse to bust through the glass.”
“Let’s go back out,” Reba whispered.
We gumptioned up and headed back out, this time with a small amount of air between each body. I took the lead, but would walk only so far ahead of Joy that I could still reach back and grab her. She kept a similar distance from Reba. We inched forward.
There was definitely a whole guy attached to those dirty Converses. He was on his side, wearing ratty athletic shorts and a green tee shirt. He was freakishly pale. Fishbelly white. Nasty white.
We threw a stone. Nothing.
We called to him. Nothing.
We called and threw more stones. We offered him ice cream. We asked him to please, please get up and go away. We huddled desperately together and decided one of us had to touch him.
We had to know for certain to intelligently determine our course of action.
It was the obvious next step.
I would be the one to go.
Why was it me? Why was it always me?!
I made my move toward the heap of dude. I crouched. I looked back at the clinging JoyandReba mass behind me in the parking lot, the door to the building behind them ajar and letting out waft after waft of coney stench. I looked back at the dead guy at Shake Shak.
His eyes were open.
“You didn’t call the cops, did you?”