A cheeseless Cheeseburger and a Dangerous Redhead by Maoly Hernandez
You are standing behind the counter of a fast-food restaurant looking into a line of people that could eat you alive. They don’t care that you’re 17 years old, that you’ve only been working here for a few months, or that you graduated with honors from The Orme School. “I would like a cheeseburger, no cheese” says a woman in a demanding voice. “You mean a hamburger,” you reply. She says “no, I want a cheeseburger without cheese; make sure they don’t put cheese on it. I am going to be mad as hell if they put cheese on it.” You say, “Yes, Ma'am” and your eyes wander for a second above her head; the restaurant is big with bright colors that create a happy mood. The walls are adorned with posters of gigantic burgers with melted cheese, perfectly placed pickles, spread out onions, lettuce, ketchup and, of course, the juicy meat. Your gaze turns back to the lady; her mouth is still moving, but you can’t hear what she’s saying over your own thoughts. She looks angry. The woman is short. She has red hair, but black roots surround her scalp. You notice that the woman flails her arms when she speaks to you. You know better than to argue, so you say, “Okay Ma'am” again, and you press the red button on the top of the monitor that says “no” and then the yellow button that says “cheese.” After you slide her debit card on the side of the cash register, you give her a receipt with a bold $1.27. You run to the kitchen because you don’t want your co-workers to make a mistake. You want to let them know that this lady is a difficult customer and that she doesn’t want cheese on this “cheeseburger.” As you rush to the back, you begin to feel the heat of the kitchen. Past the ice cream machine, you are always reminded by the heat wave that attacks you that your co-workers making sandwiches in the back don’t have any air conditioning. You begin to melt faster than the ice cream in the little girl’s hands that stares at you with bug eyes and an ice cream mustache before she asks you, “Excuse me, Miss, can I have some ketchup?” You look at the beige counter that is always full with all kinds of stuff, especially with ketchup packets. You and your fellow co-workers would rather carry ten pounds of ketchup packets, all at once, from the basement rather than have to fly down the stairs every time a customer asks for the red condiment. “Listen Yaheidy, don’t put cheese on the burger,” you quickly tell your coworker. Yaheidy says “I know. It's a hamburger.” You reply with a simple, “I know, but you know how they get.” She knows exactly what you mean by “how they get.” You stare at your colleagues’ annoyed faces. Yaheiry purses her lips, and her eyes drop when she looks at the slices of bread on the table. Her brown fingers reach for the red tongs before she carefully smacks the meat onto the burger. Rosaury on the other hand, looks up at the heating tray, her full lips perfectly visible. She exhales fast, a clear attempt to cool herself down from the incredible heat that emanates from the burner, fryer, and the heating trays all around you. You smell the oil burning with the chicken tenders, so you quickly glance at the fryer. Bits of chicken squares are grouped together and are almost invisible under the sheet of oil that covers them. Hmm, how come it doesn’t bubble? you wonder before running back to the front to attend to the red headed lady and the little girl. You are reminded of how lucky you are to be in the front, right next to the lobby, because at least you get a wave of the air conditioning from the eating area. The catch however is that you get to smile to the ladies who demand that there is no cheese on their cheeseburgers and to guys who change their orders when you tell them there is no wifi in the store. So in the split second that you grab the ketchup packets and hand them to the little girl, you think back to the handsome guy who came in, began to order, “a chicken sandwich,” and asked if there was wifi in the store. When you replied, “No, there is no wifi at this Burger King” he replied, “I’ll have the Whopper then.” You have no idea why or how, whether there is wifi in the store or not has influenced this man’s preference for beef over chicken. You’re just there to smile, even though you know, and even they know, that the customer is not always right. Yet, that is not what the manager tells you, even after the day you witnessed a customer throw his half eaten food at him. You are sometimes unsure of whether you're working in a mental institution or at a Burger King on 141st Street. “Ma'm, your burger will be done soon” you reassure the lady with the red hair. She replies, “No cheese right? I said’ no cheese’” to which you answer her, “yes Ma’m, I told them no cheese in the kitchen.” The day is bright. That Adele song plays on the radio, “Never mind, I’ll find someone like you!” and you feel nostalgic for the summers when you didn’t have to work. You yell for your co-worker Rosaury to take food orders while you run to the other side and delight the crowd by screaming numbers, carefully closing the mouth of their bags by rolling. When they see you carrying the bags, your arms extend toward them. You are Santa Claus and it is like Christmas here at Burger King. “Rosaury! take the orders please I need to give out the food.” The monitor is clear when the blue words pop up on the screen. There are so many people ordering that some orders have gotten erased. You ask Rosaury, “What were the first few orders?” You are giving them everything they want: fries, chicken tenders, kids meals. Yup! Burger King is like Christmas all year round, you think to yourself. Finally, you arrive at the “cheeseburger no cheese order.” You turn back to look at the red headed lady, and you find that she is glaring at you. You grab the burger from the heating tray and you burn your index finger. Concho! you shout in your head, while you press the newly forming blister to your palm with all your might in an attempt to numb the pain. You are about to hand the bag to the woman, and you notice that she already looks annoyed. You think about the fact that Yaheidy has handed you the wrong order before. You yell the lady’s number, so that she knows it’s her order. "44!" Your throat is dry, so your voice sounds a bit shaky. The woman grabs the bag from you, perhaps sensing your fear. "Thanks" she says. She grabs the bag like you're some kind of liar, like you've been lying to her all her life even though you just met her. She wants to know if you've kept your word. You stare at her for the few seconds that it takes her to open the bag and inspect the burger. You stare because you're just as anxious as she is to find out what Yaheidy has put on it. You hope, dream, pray, not to get a glance of the melted cheddar cheese. "Dam there's cheese," you whisper to yourself before the woman opens her mouth. She is outraged. "What the hell?!" she bursts. You apologize, but she is already yelling. Robert, your manager, will be upstairs any minute if this continues. He hears everything, knows everything, get’s mad at everything, and it doesn't help that the lady says that she will have you fired. "Listen, Ma'am, we'll give you a new one" you say softly hoping she’ll lower her volume. Your heart is racing, and you hope the lady doesn't ask for the manager. "I don't wanna wait," she says. "This is too damn much. I can't believe it." Her black and red ponytail swings from side to side with each uttered word. By now you can't smell the chicken or the fries. All you can smell is the hot air and the oil from the burner. "Yaheidy, make her a new one," you say calmly even though you feel like screaming at the top of your lungs, but you can't because your throat is too dry. Yaheidy insists that she made the burger without cheese, and that it should be on the heating tray in the front. "Did you check the heating tray?” she asks. All you can think of, is of Robert climbing the stairs any minute now. You know he heard the yelling. He will lecture you and you will stare at his gigantic mustache, because most of the times that he talks to you it appears as if the mustache is talking to you and not him. Robert is too big of a man, and you don’t want to look him in the eyes while he tells you again that, “no matter what, the customer is always right.” The lady is impatient. “I want to see the manager!” she demands. His strong footsteps bang the stairs as he climbs them one by one. You can hear his heavy breathing and the “ahhh” that usually comes before, “This dam leg is killing me!” Remembering his bad leg, you realize that you have about 40-50 extra seconds to solve this. “If you made it then where is it?” you urge Yahidy to tell you. You look at her with big eyes and point to the stairs while you draw the word ROBERT in the air. She drops the piece of bread and rushes to the front. “Let’s see,” she says. Her eyes wonder around the heating tray and she inspects the cover of each burger. The lady demands again “Where the hell is the manager?” Oh my God. This is it. You are so fired. You take a glance at the stairs. You estimate that Robert is 5 stair steps away from arriving at the top floor. “Anha! here it is!” says Yaheidy. She holds the burger up to the light the way you imagined you would hold your puppy, if you had one, after seeing the movie, The Lion King. “I didn’t mark it,” she says. There is no time for reprisals or sermons. You grab the burger; Robert must be only two steps away now. You say “Ma'am here is your cheeseburger, no cheese. I would also like to offer you some free fries for the wait. These are large fries Ma'am” The lady looks at you with untrusting eyes. She scrutinizes the bag, the fries, and the burger. Finally, after seemingly decided that this is a good deal, she says “Okay” and walks out. As the lady is opening the front door to exit the store, Robert finally reaches the kitchen floor and asks “What the hell is going on here?!” You shrug as if to say, “What? Everything is fine here.” And in that moment, you can’t help to wonder about the day you finally graduate from college and get a job that pays so well that you feel that dealing with difficult people is worth it.