It was midnight on a Friday in Springfield, Missouri, and I was working prep counter at Steak and Shake. We were short-staffed, but the rush hadn’t hit us too hard. I was a little irritable, but I always felt irritable at that job, even when it wasn’t very busy. I never could understand what all the hurry was in food service. Everybody was always on edge, pushing me to go faster. What for? All we were doing was hurrying up to get nowhere. At least, that was my opinion.
“Chili mac, side of fries, side of toast, what’s the hold up?”
But I was concerned with ethereal troubles. I had grown up Christian, of no particular denomination, and it had served me well. God was good, there was an order and purpose to life, and I generally had few complaints.
“Hey, do you hear me? Let’s go! If I lose out on my tips because of you, I swear to God…”
Then it all started to dissolve. I don’t mean to place the blame on God, or any particular religious authority figure, or my parents, or any other party. For all I know, it’s just me. Maybe God is sitting by the phone, waiting for me to call. If that’s so, then I certainly apologize.
“Oh, what do you know? He is faster than a snail! Fuckin’ amazing!”
Frank was working grill that night. He was in his early thirties, and seemed generally unaffected by all of existence. Why, in my crisis of faith, I turned to him for sympathy or advice, I can’t explain.
“Hey, uh, Frank?”
“Oh, nothing too much. I guess I just wanted to ask you something.”
“Huh? You started mumbling, kid. I didn’t hear you.”
“Oh, sorry. I said I wanted to ask you something. Like, advice. About…life…stuff.”
“Heh. Yeah, actually. That’s kinda where I was going. Have you ever lost, you know, your faith in something? I mean, I don’t want to assume anything or judge anything about what you believe. I just wanted your opinion, I guess.”
“Oh. I thought you had a real problem or something. Kid, I…fuck, I don‘t know. We‘re at work, man.”
He turned back to his grill. I meekly returned to my station. We never spoke of it again.
At 3:30 am, a balding man with a mustache who smelled of cigars sat down and ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich on a bagel. He said very little, with the exception of requests to refill his coffee. He and Frank might have exchanged a few words, but if his name was mentioned, I don’t remember it. He was clearly a regular. When the man finished his meal, he wiped his mouth with a paper napkin from the stainless steel dispenser and looked at Frank approvingly.
“That was the shit, Frank. You are the man.”
Frank smiled out of the corner of his mouth and nodded. My shift was over. I took off my apron, got a coffee for the road, and started the walk home. I walked past the still-sleeping businesses, lights ablaze even in the absence of humanity. The absolute quiet of night, disturbed only occasionally by a passing car, or the buzzing of street lamps, created an atmosphere that was disquieting, yet solemn, almost peaceful. Nearing home, I stared up at the trees whose leaves were in autumnal freefall. I admired the old houses in my neighborhood, and wished I could live in one of them. But I couldn’t. Before I fell asleep, I remembered the night’s last customer and laughed.