Dad and Uncle Jack opened a new hamburger stand on Valley Mills Drive. They named it The 20th Century, which I guess sounded really modern, although the century was now more than half over. Still, it was a brand new place, and it meant that Dad’s business was growing.
Best of all, Dad decided that I was now old enough to work there on weekends and during the summer.
Dad let Uncle Jack manage me, I’m guessing because it would look too much like favoritism if Dad were my immediate boss.
On my first day, Jack whispered to me that he was paying me the princely sum of $1.00 an hour, but he cautioned me not to tell the other employees that he was paying me so much.
If you knew my Uncle Jack, the great jokester in the family, then you knew that something was funny, so I asked one of the other guys what his salary was. It was $1.10 an hour. When I confronted Uncle Jack, he just laughed and agreed to pay me the going rate.
Uncle Jack didn’t actually run the place. That responsibility was delegated to a large and boisterous woman named Geneva, whom I alternately adored and feared. She was the one who taught me the ropes and who kept “the boys,” as she called her teenaged work crew, in line and out of trouble. Geneva spoke a uniquely fractured brand of English, mangling words and adding and subtracting vowels and consonants in hilariously unpredictable ways. But somehow we always understood her.
I was pretty good at the work. I actually enjoyed doing the jobs that the others regarded as drudgery: chopping lettuce, slicing tomatoes and preparing the onion rings, which involved slicing the onions and separating the rings, dipping them first into a milky solution and then into a big tray of breadcrumbs and repeating the process.
I proved to be a natural on the grill. When there was a lunchtime rush, the orders would pile up, jotted down on slips of paper clipped to a wire on a pulley. If you were working the grill, you had to keep track of them in order, knowing how many #6 or #8 patties to cook, how many single or double-decker buns to baste and toast, and which sandwiches had which combination of lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions, mustard, ketchup or special sauce, all the while making sure that the patties were cooked properly. Often there were as many as two dozen on the grill at once. Next to the grill was the deep fryer for French fries, onion rings and corn dogs. In the summer, it got to be more than 100 degrees over that broiling expanse of grease and stainless steel.
When the orders were piling up on the wire and I was in rhythm, I felt like an orchestra conductor. I was a true artist. One sweltering summer day, as I slaved and sweated over my sizzling domain, flipping burgers, pulling fries and rings from the deep fryer, assembling orders of burgers, dogs, fries, rings, soft drinks, shakes and malts, all at breakneck speed, hips gyrating, knees and elbows flying, Geneva dubbed me a “perspirin’ heathern,” which I took to be a compliment. Evidently she was taken with the phrase, because she repeated it every time I worked the lunchtime grill.
When there was a break in the action, I retreated gratefully to the walk-in freezer, where I could cool down in just a few minutes amid boxes of raw hamburger patties, french fries and onion rings. It smelled of onions and potatoes, but on a steamy day in August after a sweltering lunch rush, it was heaven on earth. Oh, if only we had one of these at home, instead of that useless window air conditioner.
The place was often dead after the noon rush, a time when, after cleaning the grill and straightening up, I could experiment with my own culinary inventions. Why not pair a burger and a dog on the same sandwich? How about a corn dog layered with chili, tomatoes, onions and a turkey patty inside a hot dog bun?
My signature invention was a refreshing new drink I named “The Double Bubble.” If you mixed Coke, root beer, Dr. Pepper and orange soda in precisely the right proportions, you brewed a carbonated elixir that tasted exactly like liquid bubble gum. I was certain that if we promoted it, it would be the next big thing, but Uncle Jack refused to put it on the menu and told me to stop wasting the company’s inventory trying to reinvent the wheel.
Thus was genius thwarted.
The only real difficulty I had was when high school girls came to the walk-up window, where orders to go were handed outside. I became completely undone by the sheer impossible beauty of the female form, especially in summer, when it was barely concealed by a few achingly thin square inches of cloth. Then my normally calm and authoritative demeanor abandoned me, and I was reduced to a stammering idiot.
One afternoon, a particularly gorgeous young thing wriggled out of a black Chevy Corvair convertible and came to the window for her order. She was the very vision of loveliness, her lithe body covered only by a skimpy halter top and pair of blue jean shorts rolled as far up the thigh as they could go. Her bare shoulders and legs were tanned the color of honey, and her hair was sunshine itself, pulled back in a ponytail that caressed her long, luscious neck.
She asked for the order she had placed by phone.
I was struck dumb by the sight of her. I could not utter a sound. I nodded stupidly and managed to deliver the large root beer and the bag containing the burger and fries safely through the window despite my shaking hands, but in giving her the change, my sweaty palms betrayed me, and I spilled the coins, which went bouncing over the counter and out the window, scattering across the pavement. I nearly swooned in equal parts embarrassment and desire as she bent down to retrieve the change.
As soon as she was gone, Geneva let out a hoot. She was laughing so hard I thought she was going to pass out. Nooo! She’d witnessed the whole humiliating fiasco.
“Oh, Fer goodness sake, Eddie, did that pretty l’il girl scare you so much you couldn’t even open yer mouth?” How der you ever expect to get a date if you cain’t even talk to ‘em?
My throat was so tight I didn’t even try to speak. My cheeks were flaming with shame and I was suddenly dripping with sweat.
“I bet throwin’ that money at ‘er really impressed that filly.”
I retreated to the back room, where I decided that I desperately needed to inspect the walk-in freezer.
“Next time try talkin’ to ‘er,” she called after me, her whole ample body shaking with laughter. “An’ I hope you din’t drool on the change afore you tried to hit ‘er with it.”
I pulled the door shut, but not before Geneva had the final word on the subject.