The Spatula Rebellion
Three bad things happened during fall term of my sophomore year in high school. First, I got D’s in Algebra and Spanish. Then, I was suspended for three days, just for putting ice cubes down a girl’s shirt. Finally, as the pressure mounted, I freaked during a challenging arrangement of Take Five and stormed out of jazz band, waving my oboe at anyone who came near, vowing never again to go near a wind instrument or guys with high voices. Okay, maybe it was four things if you count each D separately.
Come to think of it, I forgot about the fifth bad thing, which began when my parents decided we needed to have a family talk the Sunday evening after the final “disturbing incident.” Technically, there were just the three of us at the meeting, but I felt like the entire extended clan was in attendance, glaring down in their disapproval. Our den was plastered with photos of big-haired aunts, mustached uncles, questionable cousins, and generic infants. Some were framed tastefully, and some just pinned to the walls, but they all stared down at me with their penetrating smiles, trying their hardest to keep their spirits high so close to their profligate teenage relative. To this day I swear my dad had rigged my grandmother’s photo on a motorized swivel, so that she pivoted from side to side in disgust while we talked.
I knew the meeting had officially begun when my dad removed his glasses, placed them carefully on the coffee table, and interlocked his quivering fingers. As I watched his ever-tightening grip it occurred to me that instead of yelling he was going to punish me by squeezing his fingers so hard he would never be able to use them again and I’d be forced to support the family. “I know it’s hard to think about it at your age,” he began, “but I think we need to talk about your future. Where are you headed? If you stay on this course, what will your life be like when you’re thirty? Who’s going to hire a high school drop out that can’t do quadratic equations, write a decent three-point essay, or even play an instrument? Your generation is competing with Chinese kids who can do all of this, and in Chinese damn it.”
“Bob,” my mom added, “don’t get so upset. They can’t all speak Chinese.”
My dad glared. “Joanne, let’s stay focused here.”
I knew I couldn’t counter such ancient rhetorical tactics. Instead, I tried a red herring. “C’mon you guys, it’s not like I dropped out. It was just two bad grades, and an innocent cube toss gone horribly awry. I did get an A in English, remember? And at least I’m not pregnant.”
They then informed me that if I wanted to have a place to live I better not even think about dropping out, and it was a very good thing that I wasn’t pregnant since I was their only son.
My dad swallowed hard, and turned to my mother. She returned his gaze and added a slow, knowing nod and smile, as if the plan they were about to implement had been weighed carefully by panels of experts in windowless bunkers, and deemed the only option considering budget constraints and personnel issues. “We think you should get a job. It will help if you learn some marketable skills. Build a resume. Do something constructive.”
It was at that moment I decided that for the rest of my life I would never use the word ‘constructive,’ unless I said it so much irony it became meaningless. As in, “That was one constructive bong hit, dude.”
One short week later I found myself with a job at Taco Bell. My dad’s friend owned the restaurant. I was surprised that he’d given me a job, considering I had proudly displayed my thingy to his daughter when I was five, and ten years later she still introduced me as “The Little Pervert.”
When I arrived, the manager’s arm was elbow-deep in the ice bin, and he was digging around furiously, like the last wine cooler was buried down there somewhere and he just had to have it. “Where did that thing go?”, he yelled.
“Um, hello,” I uttered meekly.
He ripped his hand from the bin and yelled, “Yeow, what a rush.” His arms were thick with wet brown hair, glistening and pink from the cold. He dried his palms on his bean-stained pants and extended his right hand. I could feel chunks of food between us as we shook.
He said, “Hi, I’m Earl. Brody is it? Good, nice to meet you. I see your wore black pants and shoes. Good. Follow me.”
We walked past the food prep area to his tiny office, plastered with football banners and motorcycle photos. “You a fan?” he queried.
I mumbled “No,” since I wasn’t a fan of football, motorcycles or fast-food burritos. He didn’t seem to hear, and grabbed a shirt off his desk and tossed it at my head.
I fumbled with the shirt, and reached for it as it shot back and landed on his desk, knocking over a cup of ice.
He brushed the ice onto the floor and dabbed a few wet spots with a white sock. “No problem, but you gotta make quick decisions and react fast if you wanna work here. Things can get pretty hot and heavy when there’s ten people up front and some jack-o is yelling for his burrito supreme in the drive through.”
“OK, I’ll work on it.”
He looked terribly sad and puzzled for a brief moment, then perked up immediately as if the best parts of all his favorite TV sitcoms ran through his head all at once. He smiled again and danced a little jig.
Drugs, I thought to myself, powdery drugs.
With his extended thumb he pointed to the right and winked. “You can go into the storeroom and put your shirt on so we can get started. I promise I didn’t install any cameras in there.” I gulped, and looked down at the floor. “Just kidding. Man. We’ll get you to lighten up soon.”
When I emerged he congratulated me on my new apparel. “Most people don’t look good in violet and teal, but they accent your skin tone. Really. I mean it.”
We walked into the main kitchen area, and his tone changed from scurrilous prankster to concerned uncle. Even though he was probably only five years older than me he said, “Well kid, I usually do the hiring and firing around here, but Mr. Stevenson told me to find something for you to do since you’re his friend’s son and all. It’s kind of good really. There are lots of projects we haven’t been able to get done lately, so I’ll put you to work.” When he said ‘projects’ I perked up a bit. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? I envisioned creating a budget, coordinating a color scheme for the vegetable layout or planning the winter formal.
He handed me a spatula and said, “The gum on the sidewalk is getting pretty thick, get as much up as you can.”
I was too stunned to respond or look at him. I just took the spatula, went out the double glass doors, and surveyed the situation. It appeared that in the recent past the sidewalk had needed repairs, but since no concrete could be found it had been resurfaced with various styles of gum, ranging in hue from black to off-pink. I looked back inside, but no one seemed to be paying attention to me and Earl wasn’t in sight, so I made my first quick decision of the day. With my only spatula to protect me, I headed north into the wilds of the city, and walked straight to a record store a few blocks away. Once safely inside I went straight to the jazz section and looked for records featuring the oboe.
My dad was surprisingly mellow about my decision to quit without giving the customary two-week notice, once I had related the horrors of my first project. He made me return the shirt, but he didn’t say how, so I mailed it back in a Gucci shoebox and included several handfuls of Burrito Boy and Taco Time napkins, and various condiment packages.
He didn’t know about the spatula, but I decided I should return it to make a clean break. I got drunk the next weekend and parked across the street from the Taco Bell with three friends at 4 a.m. We chewed as much grape bubble gum as we could fit in our mouths at one time, then all spit it in a cup. I ran up to the front door, and stuck the spatula to the window with globs of dripping gum. I skipped back to the car, giggling and flailing my arms in wild circles. As we drove away I kept my eyes on the suspended spatula as long as I could, wondering if I had just experienced the happiest moment of my life.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED