I'll tell you something about me. I'm not a rocket scientist. People have told me I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, a few fries short of a Happy Meal, and a few slices short of a full loaf for the past forty-two years. In case you're wondering, I'm forty-two years old. I couldn't tell you if those words hurt; they're just words. But they do get to a guy, you know? You hear them long enough and you start to believe they're true. I suppose that's why I've worked at a steady stream of dead-end dives as a short-order cook. One thing I do know is people really like my food. A pile of messy napkins, an empty bottle of Coke, and a full belly were all signs that I'd done my job right, and if the customer left with a smile, so much the better.
My last job was at a diner in Smithfield, Pennsylvania. Smithfield was a town that was grateful to have its own zip code. It consisted of a big hill and nothing else. At the top of the hill were a shoe repair shop, the post office, a pizza joint, and the diner. We were open from six in the morning till eight at night, and I toiled in that kitchen for fourteen hours a day, sweating off the pounds like a bad Richard Simmons video. Of course, I'd put them right back on when I sat down to eat a hoagie or a burger when I was on break. My weight was in a constant state of flux the whole time I worked there. I'd go to work skinny and come out a fat-ass.
My boss was this ancient woman named Geraldine. She chain-smoked and came to work loaded for bear. I liked her, but I'm not naive enough to think she had a soft spot for me. Geraldine had a heart made out of Kryptonite, and if you showed her any kindness she'd make you feel about as small as your dick. I still liked her, though, because she defended the cooks and waitresses if a customer started complaining. She looked after her people, but you didn't hear that from me.
The last month I worked at the diner was the coldest in Pennsylvania history. Temperatures hit twenty below in the morning with a daytime high of, say, two degrees. Factor in the wind chill and you're talking some bone-gnawing cold. I was finishing up a grilled chicken salad an hour before closing time on a Thursday when Geraldine entered the kitchen and tapped me on the shoulder.
"Go take the trash out to the burn pile," she said in her razorblade voice. "I'll finish this up."
"You want me to start the fire?" I asked her.
"Not tonight," she replied as I took off my apron. "Save it for Friday."
"Good deal." I laid my apron on a chair and collected the burnable trash--cardboard boxes, wooden containers, that sort of shit. I drug it out the kitchen door and around the back of the building to a round patch of brown grass with a rusty trash can in the center. Pieces of wood, shingles from the roof, and other assorted bits had been piled to the left of the can. I dumped that day's trash onto the pile as the Pennsylvania cold started to numb my toes.
When I walked away from the pile, a wooden container shifted and tumbled to the ground. I looked back and decided to leave it before I got frostbite. Something else caught my eye, though--a finger sticking out from the bottom of the burn pile.
I approached it, feeling my fingertips freezing up on me, and lifted the trash a notch. The finger was a charcoal black. I lifted the pile further, more trash tumbling off the top and onto the ground. The finger was connected to a blackened arm, which was connected to a blackened shoulder, and finally a blackened head. By the time I was done, I had uncovered the entire body of a man, burnt as black as chimney soot, lying naked on his stomach in the frosty grass.
"He stank like a sonuvabitch," Geraldine's voice spoke up from behind me. I whirled around and saw her standing at the edge of the grass, a cigarette in her hand and a big white sweater draped over her arthritic shoulders.
I didn't know what to say so I kept my mouth shut. This had pulled me through most of the things I'd experienced in life.
"His dick burned off first," Geraldine continued. "Serves him right, the prick." Geraldine took a drag on her cigarette. "I never got the chance to finish the job because of the fuckin' smell." She exhaled slowly through her nostrils. "Maybe you can do something about that." She flicked her cigarette into the grass and walked back to the kitchen, her hands jammed into the pockets of her sweater.
"You wanna stand out here all night and freeze your balls off, that's fine by me," Geraldine said from the kitchen door, "but some of us here have actual work to do. In case you didn't notice, that includes you, 'ya ass wipe." She entered the kitchen and let the metal door clank shut behind her. I stood out there, the cold gnawing at my flesh, and I wondered just what the hell I was supposed to do now.
I covered the dead guy back up with the burn pile's trash and left him there. What else was I going to do? I couldn't move the body without Geraldine knowing, and I sure as hell couldn't lift it, not with my extremities as numb as they were. So I left him there and went back inside, where Geraldine put me to work on a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a hot Italian hoagie. She acted as if nothing were wrong and nothing had happened between us, but something had happened--I was now involved in one of her problems, and she believed I was the solution.