Charlotte’s daddy is dead. You can see it sometimes. The anger from it radiates off her like the heat off the hood of a car. Not all the time though. Abigale is the little sister, so I guess her daddy is dead too, but she doesn’t show it as much. She mostly seems confused. The mother doesn’t radiate anything. She used to be different, but right now she’s all sewn up. Closed in tight, and nothing gets her undone. At least not from my perspective as their order taker.
I should know. I see this family every Tuesday. That’s more than some people see their own families. I bet there are things about these people that no one else knows but me. Though they have changed a lot lately.
The mom used to be very into manners, teaching the girls to hold the door open for people, wait patiently in line and not be too loud. Their dad didn’t care so much about keeping quiet, but he taught them to say thank you when we handed them their cups, or gave over their food. He would use our names too, and he was good. I never saw him looking at my name tag. He’d tell them, “say thank you to Stacey.”
They always come to Taco Bell straight from soccer practice still wearing their crinkly soccer shorts and their cleats which leave dirt clods all over the floor. I don’t care. Dirt is the cleanest thing on these floors.
They have specific rules for their visits, which I know about because it comes up a lot. The rules are:
1. Eat inside at any table they choose, excluding the high up chairs at the countertop. 2. Choose any three items from the Value Menu. 3. Get a small soda as long as it’s Sprite or Root Beer. No refills unless it’s water.
These rules have several amendments, such as no fighting at any point with anyone, and the attendees can vary. It used to be mostly the daughters and the dad and sometimes the mom. Now it’s daughters and mom and sometimes aunt. Regardless of who is present, none are allowed to argue. This is the rule that is most frequently recited. Also, all rights are forfeited if handwashing is refused. Even if the food comes up fast and the guy in the bathroom is taking too long. Handwashing is nonnegotiable.
Once, a soda refill allowance was permitted when Abigale got too much ice in her cup and only got, like, three sips of soda. The refill was approved by the dad, who always was a more lenient judge. There used to be a loophole in Rule #1 that allowed the girls to choose different tables. The way it was working was Abigale would choose a table, Charlotte would choose a “better” table. To keep Abigale from becoming upset at the suggestion she chose an inferior table, the dad took turns sitting with them. He made a big production of traveling across the dining room to get to the other one. He’d steal a bite of a taco, then make his way back across. People don’t really like to eat inside Taco Bells that much, so this arrangement was fine by everyone, but the mom eventually closed the loophole and I think the dad was secretly relieved.
The issue at hand is Rule #2 which has never, to my knowledge, been challenged. Until now.
“I should get four things because I’m older,” says Charlotte.
“You can have three things,” says the mom.
“I want four if Charlotte gets four,” says Abigale.
“You both get three like normal.”
“But it isn’t exactly normal now, because I’m older and hungrier than Abigale.”
Her argument isn’t without merit, but seems a bit underdeveloped and off the cuff. Someone else comes in and the mom tells him to go ahead of them. That they are still deciding.
“I already decided,” says Charlotte.
The man steps up, orders, and I cash him out. His order is done and he is walking out the door by the time the girls are ready to try again.
Abigale goes first. She orders in her usual way, practically whispering, “burrito with no onions, taco with no lettuce, and a pintos and cheese please.”
It’s Charlotte’s turn now, but she is standing close to the mom, practically on top of her feet and says, “I need to get four things.”
“You can have three things or zero things.”
Charlotte clutches her shirt collar, stomps her cleats, and says so passionately as to convince me and all my coworkers, “I need four” and she repeats it over, and over, louder and louder stomping and flailing and getting red “I need four. I need four. Please. Please. I need four.” She pushes her hair out of her face several times with the palms of her hands only to have it fall forward again.
“Excuse us,” says the mom. She turns and walks outside. The girls follow at her heels. The three of them stand out in the fluorescent eves with the dark parking lot behind them. They stand in purgatory, on the brink of being drowned in the darkness, or burned by the light. The
POS beeps at me, in a purgatory of its own, halfway through an order with no resolution in sight, hungry for the dollars of the heartbroken.
I watch them out the window from behind my plastic cash register in no rush to void the items of Abigale’s order. No other customers in sight. The mom stands so straight and looks down at her daughters while Charlotte yells until she cries and Abigale watches her yell until she cries too. The mom rubs her temples, looks at her wristwatch then starts talking to them. Abigale clings to her legs and Charlotte stops crying. The mom hooks Charlotte’s hair behind her ears, then they all come back inside.
Charlotte is first to the counter, “soft taco, crunchy taco, regular nachos please.” then she walks away.
Abigale repeats her order, and the mom gets nothing but orders them small sodas. They go to wash their hands, fill their sodas, then sit in silence. They choose a table behind a post. I can’t see them and I don’t hear them either. Not them swinging in their chairs or hitting the table legs against their shin guards. I have a fantasy of giving them four items, or hell, the whole Value Menu, but even if I could, it wouldn’t help anything. They’re already sick on grief, no point making them sick on grease.
I wish they could see the things I’ve seen. Like the dad used to give the girls a nickel to drop in the dumb countertop coin game. While they angled their change for a precision landing on the golden pedestal of the elusive free taco, he would cross his fingers behind his back. He even once asked me for tips, but I don’t know any.
And Charlotte, she puts a hand above Abigale’s head while she swings on the metal bars that guide the line. Abigale hangs from the bar until she drops to the ground, then she pops back up so quick and sometimes Charlotte’s hand is the only thing between her little skull and the metal bar.
And the mom, I don’t even know her name, but I know the most about her. I know she is sad and scared, and so sick of being herself. I know despite all that, she comes to this Taco Bell every Tuesday evening, and it isn’t because we make the best food in town. I can’t talk too much about it, I need to stay sewn up too. I’m at work.
They’ll never know I know these things, because there’s no way to tell them, and that’s fine. It’s just me wanting them to know I see them. It’s just me wondering if anyone sees me. They don’t need me anyway. They’re not short on love. They just have an excess of grief and no one can fix that. Not even their Taco Bell cashier.
Their order is ready, all lined up on the purple tray. I take the tray to the counter and call the number on the receipt, “256.” A gasp and shuffling of chairs being turned out, then snapping back on their springs. Clunking cleat steps. Charlotte appears at the counter with wet eyelashes and a splotchy red face.
“You got all this?” I say, pushing the tray towards her.
“Yes,” she says. Then, “Thank you Stacey.”
I didn’t even see her look at my name tag.
Miranda Manzano is a fiction and screenplay writer in the Pacific Northwest. Her novella, ”Well Fed”, was published by Running Wild Press in 2017. She is an attendee of the Yale Writers Workshop. She would like you to know you can, (and maybe, probably should) tip fast food workers for their quick inexpensive little miracles. Please contact her @Miranduh_M to let her know what you’re having for dinner.