Maureen is working at Kentucky Fried Chicken, where she is an assistant manager. I'll meet her tomorrow, on my first day working there. Her boyfriend Brad is at rehearsal, playing bass in a Christian death metal band, which is so totally ludicrous that I will never quite learn to let it go. There are three girls somewhere nearby as well, girls that I am dating or have dated or should not be dating anymore but still am. None of their names are used here so it doesn't matter what I say about them. Alex Trebek is also in this story. He's hosting "Jeopardy" on the television in my house, and in Maureen's house. Probably in your house too. It doesn't matter. Like I said, he's in this story, but really he plays a very tiny part. None of us will ever even meet him.
In the morning, Maureen and I open the store for the first time together, something we'll do over and over during the next three months. While she shows me where to get sanitizer buckets and towels, Maureen says, "When I was sixteen I had my first abortion." Later, while showing me how to tray biscuits she tells me about her second, which she had when she was eighteen.
She says, "My mom drove me to my first one, but only because I didn't have my license yet. I went to the second all by myself. Neither of the guys even offered to come with me."
By the time I ring in my first bucket of Extra Crispy Fried Chicken, Maureen's described moving past the grief and the anger. We make mashed potatoes to the story of how she found Jesus and started going to a nondenominational church near the freeway. She uses the word saved a half a dozen times in fifteen minutes. She tells me they have an excellent teenage outreach program, then asks me what I'm doing Wednesday night.
Work, I say. Hopefully, I'll be working.
Maureen met Brad through church; his band was playing a benefit show for a sick boy from the congregation. She calls his style of music Christcore, which I think cannot possibly be an actual thing but will in fact turn out to be one. Maureen and Brad have matching Jesus fish tattoos on their ankles. Only one of the band's songs was written by him, the one about a girl who decides not to have an abortion, but to ask for God's help raising her baby. Maureen says, "The first time I heard that song, I wished so hard that I'd been that girl instead."
Maureen is a stocky girl, built like a volleyball player, with a thick trunk and thick legs. Her hair is dyed flame red and cut shorter than mine. She wears two tiny silver crosses in her ears, and a wooden cross around her neck, which Brad carved for her himself. According to her, he's training to be a carpenter.
She says, "Jesus Christ was a carpenter, you know."
I swear. This is really the kind of stuff she says to me.
Maureen tells me all these things and more, alternating between her own history and company policy, quoting both the Bible and the official KFC handbook. She's the kind of person who tells you everything about herself the first time she meets you, and by the end of the day I know more about her than I do about most of my friends I've known forever.
What bonds Maureen and me is that we both watch "Jeopardy" every night that we're not working. Knowing that there's someone to discuss the show with makes watching it more fun, and for a while we both become obsessed with the show. Maureen focuses on getting the answers right, but of course no one ever gets all of them right. She keeps her own score on a notepad, and from what I can tell is incredibly honest about it. Some days she shows up at work frowning, telling me that she didn't even get to play Final Jeopardy the night before because she was already out of money. Other days she does well, betting heavy on Double Jeopardy and winning. Those days, she's elated with her knowledge. She tells me, "I watch 'Jeopardy' to improve my mind. I'm trying to be a better person."
I say, I watch to feel like I actually got something out of my education. I tell her that I was eighth in my class in high school and voted most likely to succeed, and now I work here. She glares at me because I'm implying that working here is a bad thing, which is true. I am, because it is. I won't even start making the full minimum wage until I've been employed for ninety days, because there's a probationary wage that's fifty cents less than the normal minimum. It's optional but my employer uses it to save on his labor cost. If I've figured out the timing right between when I started and when I'm leaving for my new job, I'll work for Kentucky Fried Chicken for exactly ninety-three days. Three days at minimum wage is the best I'll ever do there.
When I watch "Jeopardy," I don't keep score, but I do pay a lot of attention to how the contestants play, specifically to how they hold their signaling devices. Some contestants clamp onto them, their knuckles white until they know an answer, when they'll suddenly press their plungers rapidly, even though once is enough to signal that they'd like to answer. Other people hold them loosely, leisurely, their faces as emotionless as their grip. These are often the people who do the best, their nonchalance slowly unnerving the other contestants. There's something about their pretending not to care that appeals to me. I'll never be on "Jeopardy," but that doesn't mean I can't emulate their technique in other areas of my life.
At Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mother's Day is the busiest day of the year. Graduation parties are hell, and once we even cater a wedding, which is so trashy that we talk about it for weeks afterwards. An elderly man comes in every Wednesday and shuffles to the counter so slowly that we've got his order bagged and rang up by the time he gets to us. He never changes his order, but of course we never give him time to try. He tips Maureen a dollar if she waits on him, but never gives me anything. Another customer comes through the drive-thru every couple of days and orders a pound of potato wedges. No matter how fresh they are, she complains and asks for new ones. I walk them around the kitchen once, twice, three times, then give them back to her. She thanks me and tells me the new ones are much better, even though they're actually colder. Still, I know what it means to want someone to do something special for you. Her dollar bills are greasy, her mouth full of fried potatoes when she tells me to have a good day. Maureen and I, we often try to make people happy, but we also try not to work too hard doing it.
After work, I go straight home and throw my single shirt and pair of pants in the washer. They've only given me one uniform, and if I want more I have to buy them so I decide to make do with one. Sometimes I fall asleep without taking a shower and wake up to a pillow soaked with the fryer grease that's trapped in my hair. My whole life becomes a constant cycle of laundry and showering. I smell work everywhere, so I develop a habit of wearing too much cologne that I will never break. I feel like I'm always eating because I'm always around food. I lose my appetite but never any weight. Everyone I work with has pimples from the grease. Our uniforms are shapeless masses meant to fit a wide cross-section of people. We all float inside them, buoyant but never really going anywhere.
Our store is purposely too small. We have a tiny counter with four seats and four small tables, one of which only has three chairs so that the number of seats is exactly one less than the number that would legally require the owners to install public restrooms. When Brad comes to visit Maureen, he always sits at the table that's missing a chair, because it's the closest to the cash register. He brings a small black notebook that he supposedly writes song lyrics in while Maureen works. Brad's look is Hot Topic punk rock: corporate, sanitized, only ostensibly counter-culture. Even though he plays heavy metal, it's metal cleansed of the obligatory satanic references and injected with evangelical Christianity. In an attempt to justify his own musical choices, he calls other kinds of music "secular rock," as if the Rolling Stones were just hack followers of the true Christian rock pioneers. This is just one of the things that makes me dislike Brad.
The other thing, the real thing probably, is that he's dating Maureen. It's not even that I want her. I don't. What I hate is that someone like Brad has someone when I have no one. Everything I hate about him, and still there's that.
It's not exactly true when I say that I don't have anyone. I don't have a girlfriend, that's true, but there are several girls I sleep with during the time I work in that store. One is the ex-girlfriend who's recently left me, my high school sweetheart that I started dating when I was a senior and she was a junior. Football player, cheerleader, that whole story. She's dating someone else now, a person who used to be one of my best friends but isn't anymore, for obvious reasons. She still comes over to my house sometimes anyway, and we sleep together in the basement of my family's home, which I've just moved back into. Another girl I find in a coffee shop. We both have eyebrow rings and work in fast food restaurants. She'll lose her virginity to me but lie about it, and six months later she'll become a lesbian and move out of town. The third girl is someone I meet chatting on America Online. At first, she'll tell me that she's nineteen and a single mother, and that I have to fuck her in the garage so that I don't wake up her kid. Midway through June I'll find out that she's sixteen and lives with her parents. The picture of her kid she carries in her purse is just someone she babysat for. She's obviously deranged. I don't break it off right away, but I do promise myself I will soon. Eventually she stops e-mailing. I never even learn her last name. Maybe I'm not alone, not technically, but even when I'm in a room full of people I often feel so lonely that it's easier to just leave because it's only when no one's around that loneliness makes any sense. I am jealous of people who seem to fit together, even imperfectly. I am jealous, ridiculously, of Brad and Maureen.
Sometimes I go to see a band because they're my favorite group in the whole world, and I'm certain that it's going to be a brilliant time. Other times I go because I know I'm going to hate the group and everyone else there and will leave feeling vindicated. I've done both on more than one occasion, but towards the end of the summer, when Brad invites me to go see his band play, I know I'm going for the second reason.
I arrive too early, although I try not to. I am out of place, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt. Brad is onstage with his band mates, setting up their equipment. They're all dressed in black and white and red, leather and vinyl. Costumes. Maureen is there too, although I barely recognize her as she walks over to me. It takes me a moment to realize that this is the first time I've ever seen her in street clothes. She looks great, better than I'd ever imagined she could. She's wearing a tight skirt and black boots with a red halter top, plus a leather choker with a silver cross hanging from it. With the possible exception of the cross, nothing suggests that she's a girl who goes to church every other day. She hugs me and thanks me for coming.
While the band continues setting up, we sit at the bar and talk. I'm not old enough to drink, and Maureen doesn't for religious reasons. She talks to me about Brad's band, about her faith. Although we talked about it that first day as she trained me, this is only the second time we've had a conversation this personal. I tell her that I don't believe in God anymore, that I was raised Catholic and that I was an altar boy and a lector and even though I read the Bible and prayed every day I never really felt anything, so one day I quit. Maureen hugs me awkwardly from her adjacent bar stool, and although we are not really friends I know that she means well when she tells me that God loves me anyway, and that she'll pray for me. By now other people she knows are starting to come in, and she wanders away to greet them. Most of the others are from her church, some dressed like her and Brad, some like missionaries in pressed slacks and white button-down shirts. When the band starts playing, everyone hits the dance floor except for a few stragglers and wallflowers. I am one of the ones who stay behind.
Despite the jarring combination of the musical style and lyrical content, most of the people in the bar actually seem to be enjoying themselves. Guys in leather biker vests headbang next to girls in floral skirts with crosses round their necks. The band plays several originals, then metal versions of hymns and traditional songs. They play "Amazing Grace" using power chords and an erratic time signature. It's only bizarre if you listen to the lyrics, but hardly anyone does. I'm the only one who cares, and for a moment I watch how much fun everyone is having and then wish I could stop caring but I can't, because it's a time in my life when I believe that having a different opinion makes a person better somehow. I leave before the band finishes. In the morning, I'll tell Maureen I had a good time and despite myself it will not be completely untrue.
Two weeks later, Maureen's locked in the employee bathroom, crying and yelling to me through the door. It's my last week, and although I couldn't care less about the job anymore I'm still hustling, trying to get the front of the store set up by myself. After three months, it's an easy enough task. The reason Maureen's crying is because she's pregnant again. She knows this because she's just taken a pregnancy test in the bathroom. She says, "Brad's going to leave me," her voice muffled by the heavy bathroom door.
No, he's not, I say, turning on the hot wells, filling them with water. I'm running. I've got biscuits baking and two baskets of potato wedges frying. The cooks in the back are dragging their feet because Maureen's not out there to yell at them, and they know they don't have to listen to me.
"Yes, he is," she says. "You can't be in a Christian band if you have a pregnant girlfriend. I mean, everyone in the band took a chastity pledge. Now they're going to know we broke it."
Maureen often took her breaks out back with Brad. That was the real reason he'd come in and wait for her. Sometimes I'd take a bag of trash out the back door and see them making out on the hood of Brad's baby-shit brown Buick, him climbing atop her as she leaned backwards against the flaking paint. I remember his hand searching upwards underneath her polo, and how I always looked away quickly, my eyes always falling on another of Brad's crosses tied to the rearview mirror before I turned and headed back inside.
I say, He got you pregnant in the parking lot, didn't he?
"It's the only place we can have sex without getting caught!" She's wailing now. I have to open the front doors in five minutes. By this time, the cooks are out back themselves, smoking cigarettes and making fun of Maureen. Whatever else happens, they won't be held responsible. Maureen will. She's the manager, not me or the cooks. I keep moving, keep working, keep covering for her. Chicken goes in the fryers, barbecue sauce in the warmers. I turn on the lights. The floor needs sweeping, but you've got to have priorities. I step outside and cajole the cooks back inside with promises I don't intend to keep. A half hour later, I open the front doors and keep things running until the rest of the shift comes in. Except for me, no one says anything to Maureen when she finally comes out of the bathroom.
What I say is, This is the last time I'm ever going to do this, then I take off my apron and my visor and hand them to her. I walk out the front door without looking back, without giving her a chance to convince me to stay. I don't stay long enough to ever make minimum wage, or even to learn what the eleven secret herbs and spices really are. For fifteen minutes after I walk out, it feels like one of the best days of my life, and then it doesn't.
I go back to the restaurant the next day, but not to work. I park beside the dumpster, next to Maureen's car, in the space where Brad usually parks. I don't know what I'm waiting for, if it's for Brad to show up, or if it's for Maureen to come outside for her break. I don't know if I want to talk to her or to him or to both of them at the same time.
At two, Maureen steps outside for her break, just like it's any other day. Only this time Brad's not there and it's not. She looks over at my car and stops, disappointed, her hand still holding the door open. After a moment, she lets the door shut, but she doesn't come over. Instead, she covers herself with her arms and waits for me to get out and go to her.
Hi, I say. I don't what else I can.
"Hey," she says. "Why are you here? Do you want your job back? You can have it back. I don't care." Her eyes are swollen, from crying yesterday, but her makeup's perfect, which means she hasn't cried today at all. I know she's already made up her mind.
I don't want my job back, I say. I want to help you. She's not wearing her cross anymore.
She says, "I don't need help."
I'll pray for you, if that's what you want. I'll try. I feel guilty, sick to my stomach with the feeling, and this makes me angry at Brad. Angry because he's not here, because I'm left feeling guilty because of something he did.
"You can't," Maureen says. "You don't even believe in God."
She's right, I don't. I say, that doesn't mean I won't try.
Maureen still doesn't cry, although I wish she would. We both stare away, looking out from the restaurant's back dock. It's July and ninety degrees out and all I can smell is fryer grease and garbage. There's no real view, only the back of another restaurant in front of us, other parking lots to both sides. This is where her baby was conceived. This is where she decided what to do about being pregnant.
She finally looks over at me and shakes her head. She says, "I'm not going to keep it. I can't. I'll lose Brad, and he's all I have."
I want to convince her otherwise, but I can't. That's exactly what I've always thought about her, since the moment I met her. I'd be lying if I told her something else now. I'd be lying if I said alone was better than what she was planning to do. It's not, not for her, not for me. She once told me she'd do anything for Brad. This is what she was talking about, even if she didn't know it then.
I say, When the time comes, I'll drive you, if you want. So you don't have to do it alone again.
She nods and tries to smile but fails. I think about hugging her but am unsure about how to go about it. Her break is almost over. She says, "If you want your job back, you can have it." Then she goes back inside and I don't see her for a week, until she calls and asks for a ride. I pick her up after the morning shift ends and take her to the clinic. I sit in the waiting room and watch television and wonder what she's thinking, if she's even thinking at all. I wonder if it's better with me here or if it was easier the other two times, when I wasn't. When she comes out, I decide not to ask and so we ride home in silence. It's weeks later before I drive by the restaurant again, but when I do I see Brad and Maureen sitting on the hood of his car, holding hands and talking. He'll never know what she and I did together, what we did to him without his knowledge. For Maureen, it's better that way.
Now when I watch "Jeopardy," I focus on Alex Trebek instead of the contestants. I try to picture him doing anything other than wearing a suit and hosting "Jeopardy." It's harder than it seems. I picture Alex Trebek in a swimsuit, executing a perfect forward tuck off the high dive. Alex Trebek making a grilled cheese sandwich. I try to picture him applying for jobs as a used car salesman, as a high school English teacher. I see him as a cook in a fast food restaurant, asking his co-workers if they have something interesting they'd like to share with the folks at home. I can imagine hundreds of these scenarios, but I never believe any of them. Alex Trebek is the host of "Jeopardy," and I don't think he'll ever be anything else.