A Food Court in Space
When the assistant manager called me into his office (the area between the two big garbage cans in the backroom) and I saw he wasn’t smiling, I was a little worried I’d done something wrong. Gary was a round, squatty man who almost always wore a broad smile.
He must have noticed my nervous expression because onto his right hand he slipped the oven mitt with the face on it.
“Hello, Robby,” he said in a high-pitched voice, squeezing his hand to make it look like the oven mitt was talking. “How ya doin’?”
It was the same thing he had done when I interviewed for the job at Arby’s and, just like then, it made me laugh. He put the mitt down.
“Don’t worry, Robby,” he said, now speaking in his regular voice, which was also rather high-pitched. “This is good news, great news even, news that might change your life.”
I thought, just for a moment, that I had been promoted. But really the next highest position was Gary’s and he often said to anyone who would listen that he would have to be dead and buried to give up the job. Plus he had no interest in being manager as it was “just too much pressure.”
“Are you aware,” he continued. “That Arby’s is planning to expand into previously uncharted territories?”
For some reason, the thought that immediately came into my head was of an Arby’s on the seafloor: people swimming there in scuba gear, submarines going through the drive-thru, really fresh fish sandwiches. I smiled.
“Not underwater Arby’s,” Gary said, reading my mind. “They could never get the water-proof buns right.”
He went on to tell me about Arby’s plans for the future, big, bold plans that involved traveling into space. When he got to the part about the Arby’s on Mars, I was enthralled and didn’t catch what he said next. He stared at me, his salt and pepper mustache twitching slightly.
“What?” I asked after a moment.
“You, Robby. Arby’s wants you to run our first restaurant on Mars.”
I was stunned. After all, I had only worked at the Arby’s in the Willow Fields Mall food court for a little over three months.
“What? Me? I don’t understand, why would they want me?”
“Listen, Robby,” he said putting a hand on my shoulder. “You’re a natural. I’ve never seen anyone take to roast beef like you.”
He was right, I was a natural. After a week on the job I was taken off cleaning duty and put on a register. After two weeks of that, I was on curly fries. And for the last two months, I was the roast beef man. No one could make sandwiches as fast or as precise as I could. And no one, not even that kiss-ass Brian Melkin, had as high a customer satisfaction rate as I did.
“Why don’t you take some time to think about it.” He glanced over my shoulder. “Oh, looks like the lunch crowd is upon us, you better get out there.”
I took the long way home after work, trying to get my thoughts together. The whole thing seemed crazy. I mean, I was still living with my parents. I had just graduated from college with a degree in philosophy; Arby’s was only supposed to be temporary until I found that great philosophy job. And now I could be running my own restaurant in space?
That night I discussed it with my parents. Of course Mom was dead set against it right away as I knew she would be. What about grad school? What about finding a nice girl and settling down? How will you get that oatmeal you like in outer space?
Dad, on the other hand, thought it would be a great adventure, a once in a lifetime opportunity, and when would I be leaving?
Because of the cost and legal restrictions, I’d be going to Mars alone. The restaurant was already set up, I was assured; the deep fryer, the ovens, everything was ready to go. All it needed was someone to start cooking.
“But what about the customers?” I asked Gary a week later after I had told him I’d decided to go. He smiled and for a moment I was terrified he was going to say something about Martians, Martians hungry for cheddar melts and horsey sauce.
“Don’t worry about customers; right now hundreds of astronauts are up there working on the new space station. Plus, you won’t be alone; I hear that other restaurants are following Arby’s lead and will be sending their own people up there. McDonald’s, Burger King, you name it. Why, after a little while, it’ll look just like the mall here; you’ll be at your own food court in space.”
I was flown to Cape Canaveral so they could perform a number of tests on me. After being poked and prodded, weighed and x-rayed, asked to fill several cups with a variety of fluids, I was found to be a perfect physical specimen for the trip.
Then I met with a psychiatrist to have my mental state evaluated. The white-haired man with thick glasses asked me all sorts of questions about why I wanted to go, if I understood the risks, did I realize what I would giving up?
The truth was I was really excited to go. Besides my parents and a few friends, I wouldn’t be leaving too much behind on earth.
But that all changed with Cindy. My space training took place from Monday to Thursday but I still had to cover my shifts at the food court so they would fly me back every weekend. I met her on a Saturday afternoon. She was a beautiful, athletic blonde who worked two doors down at Hotdog on a Stick.
Endearingly clumsy, she had bumped into me outside of the food court bathrooms. Her bag fell to the floor, spilling its contents and I leaned down to help her.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered, gathering her things.
I noticed something small and shiny under the water fountain and grabbed it.
“Is this yours?”
She blushed when she saw the hotdog-shaped nametag.
“I’m afraid it is,” she said, touching my hand slightly as she took it.
“Don’t feel too bad,” I said, unzipping my jacket so she could see my own tag. She smiled a bright, dazzling smile and we introduced ourselves.
We happened to meet again later that day on a mutual break and it wasn’t long before we were rearranging all of our breaks so we could take them together. Like me, Cindy was fresh out of college and was just doling out hotdogs until she found that great art history job. She was really smart and had a bit of a wicked sense of humor (she’d made more than one old lady blush with her showy presentation of their skewered foot long) which I found irresistible.
The more time we spent with each other, the more I began to have second thoughts about Mars. The mission was top secret and I was forbidden to discuss it with anyone other than my parents and authorized Arby’s employees so I couldn’t talk to her about it. I didn’t know what to do.
I finally decided to speak with Gary. Late one evening after a hectic day, I found myself alone with him as I cleaned up and he counted the tills.
“Uh, Gary, can I talk to you?”
He finished counting a stack of tens and then looked up at me. “Sure, Robby. Should I get the oven mitt?”
“No, that’s okay, I wanted to talk to you about the trip to Mars, I just-“
“You all ready to go? It’s getting close.”
“Yeah, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about. I’m not so sure I want to go anymore.”
He frowned. “What’s the problem, Robby?”
“It’s just that, I mean two months ago, I was right there, I was rearing to go, but now, well, it’s just that I met this girl and…”
Gary smiled. “From the hotdog place, right?”
“I understand. You know, I hold a little sway down at HQ. I’ll see what I can do for you.”
I wasn’t sure exactly how much sway Gary held but I was relieved nonetheless. A few days later, he summoned me back to his office.
“Well, Robby, I found out some interesting information, most of which I can’t disclose to you but as for your situation, I’m afraid there’s nothing that can be done. Do you remember all those documents you signed a few months ago?”
I nodded, suddenly feeling a little sick.
“That was a binding contract with Arby’s. If you don’t go to Mars, you break it and trust me, you really don’t want to break an Arby’s contract.”
He put his arm on my shoulder.
“But don’t worry, Robby, it’ll be great. Remember what I told you, once you get up there, it’ll be just like it is here, a food court in space.”
He winked and walked back into the kitchen.
I figured I had two choices: I could either break it off with Cindy right away to make things easier later or just spend as much time with her as possible. It took me all of about five minutes to choose the latter option. Soon I began taking longer and longer breaks and leaving work early just to be with her.
One day she met me at our usual table in front of I Love Sushi. When she sat down I noticed her eyes were red. I put my hand on hers but she quickly moved it away.
“Robby, I need to tell you something,” she said, averting my gaze. “We can’t see each other anymore.”
I was shocked.
“What? Why? I don’t understand.”
“It’s just that…I can’t…it’s just not a…it’s not a good time and I, I don’t know what else to tell you. I have to go now, I’m really sorry.”
I felt numb. Cindy got up quickly and her small bag dropped to the floor. Some papers fell out of it and I started to crouch down to help her.
“I got it,” she said with a sniffle.
I noticed among the papers a shiny red pamphlet. Before she could grab it and shove it back into her bag, I was able to read the words “Hotdogs on Mars.”
After she walked away, it hit me. I got up and smiled. Maybe our restaurants will be right next to each other, I thought, as I headed back to Arby’s.
| COPYRIGHT 2006-2011
Portland Fiction Project
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED