“Ezra. Ezra? Ezra! You lissenin’ to me man?”
Ezra’s gotta be the world’s oldest junior fry cook. Dude gets on my nerves. He used to man the ice cream store here back in the day, dipping chocolate ice cream bars into sprinkle buckets, talking my mom’s ear off and doing lame magic tricks. Now he’s a husk as dead as this mall. He trails off after every sentence almost like he wants you to do the work of finishing it for him. His smile has long gone, replaced with a fifty-yard stare settled right onto the fading Sears sign across the grand lobby.
“Oh? Yes of course,” he says.
“We moving the fryer tonight, right? You not letting me do it by myself right?”
Ezra doesn’t respond, instead, he gets a look of worry on his face.
The monstrosity is a i-Line Makeline unit with a built-in fryer. It’s all metallic sheen with high walls that we need to move from the kitchen into a small storage space in the basement of the mall. I’ve put it off for a few days but the owner finally called me yesterday screaming about his security deposit and how Ezra and me don’t do nothing.
And it has crossed my mind to take the unit and just chuck it down the stairs, but it was Ezra who was worried about damaging it. Why he’s so worried about other people’s stuff is beyond me. I’ve long suspected that I mistook Ezra’s cheeriness for a loose screw. Ezra ain’t all there and I don’t just mean the deafness. He wanders, and he worries, and sometimes he smiles at nothing. I’ll be glad to lose him and this job.
“It looks too heavy to move” he says.
“No shit. It’s why I need you to help me out. Otherwise I’m chucking it.”
“Please, Ramon, don’t do that. It would anger…you know…”
“No, I don’t know. So since you insist, you gotta help. None of my idiot friends ended up agreeing to help so it’s just you and me.”
Ezra nods silently in response and I put my broom down. I unplug the i-Line from the wall outlet and start pushing it. Thankfully it’s on wheels. Ezra stands on the opposite side of the machine swaying away from it.
“Jesus, Ezra, if you’re not going to pull you can at least open the door.”
Ezra opens the door and finally puts one hand on the machine to guide it through the side door of the Taco Bell. A few parts of the i-Line are still burning hot. I reposition my hands to the cooler parts of the machine.
We roll the i-Line across the mostly empty mall until we finally reach the entrance to the storage area. I make to gather the keys but Ezra just opens the door. Figures, no security.
“Well, we might as well leave this thing here! We can’t even lock it downstairs!”
“Ramon, no, we should do like we were told. I wouldn’t want to get in trouble.”
“Jesus, Ezra grow some balls.”
I push the machine towards the door and we take a moment to think logistics.
“We can shimmy it down the stairs, left and right, but one of us has to do the shimmying and one of us has to make sure it doesn’t fall down.”
“I could steady it from downstairs…” Ezra says.
“Okay. I’ll lift it up from the top of the stairs. I’ll pull it up after every step. We both hold on tight, got it?”
We push the machine towards the stairs and take positions. Ezra walks to the bottom, holds on to the bottom half, with his back towards the basement. I hold the i-Line near the top of the stairs. After a ready check, I grunt and lift the machine up and over the first step. Ezra grunts and keeps pace. The machine lifts and lands down with a hard thud. My palms sweat. I lift the machine, and it lands with another thud—down a step. I can’t see Ezra behind the tall middle partition of the i-Line.
“Are you okay?” Ezra says.
“Yeah I think so.”
I lift the machine again. My grip slips. The i-Line Makeline doesn’t land, it glides, speeds off like a hungry shark, straight into the darkness of the black basement. It sounds like machine gun fire. Ezra disappears behind it. The machine falls for an eternity. It finally lands at the bottom of the stairs with a loud bang.
I run down the stairs while gripping the walls. I finally see Ezra’s brown shoes jutting out of the side of the machine. They aren’t moving.
“Talk to me! Ezra! Are you okay!?”
After a beat I hear him.
I feel my heart beating in my chest.
“I thought I killed you! I thought I killed you.”
I lift the machine and Ezra pushes, but it barely moves. He ends up just peeling himself off the machine and the wall. He is bleeding slightly from his head and his arm. He is gripping something on his sleeve but I can’t see it.
A clear smoking liquid starts to seep out from underneath the machine.
The Johnstown mall parking lot is black and blue at night. The lights here are sparse enough that they allow some stars to sneak through our sky. I’ve spent the last hour or so of our very last shift patching up Ezra using an old first aid kit I found underneath our table counter. Never had to use it before. What a send-off.
For an old guy he’s resilient. Only a little bleeding here and there. Just some scratches. He still doesn’t let me see what he’s gripping between his chest and his arm. I start to bandage his head.
“Thank you, Ramon, but you didn’t have to do all this. My wife used to be a nurse.”
“Oh shit, I didn’t know you were married.”
“Forty eight years. Give or take a few…or was it forty five…”
“Either one is impressive.”
“She’s picking me up tonight, just like she does every night.”
“Alright well I’ll wait with you, obviously.”
“Where did you learn to bandage like this?”
“Aww, just movies, and I got two brothers so my mom was always patching me up, you know how it is.”
“And, my friends, we get into some scrapes. You gotta learn how to take care of yourself where I’m from.”
“That’s how it is for you? That is…unfortunate.”
“Yeah unfortunate is the right word. Won’t be for long. I’m going to community college next year. Maybe…hopefully end up in NYU.”
“NYU? I’m sure they’d love to have an intelligent boy like you.”
I laugh. I finish up his head bandage and place my arm on his shoulders. I scan his body for any signs of broken bones or fractures. I still don’t believe the fall down the stairs left him mostly fine. He still has his arm pinned to his chest, but before I can ask him about it, he whips around to find his dirty old Jansport bag he carries around with him.
“I almost forgot. I made this for you as a goodbye gift.”
He takes a wrapped Burrito Supreme from his bag and hands it to me. Had he handed me this an hour ago I would have chucked it, but now, after the high of almost killing this dude, I find myself exhausted and hungry. I try to unwrap the burrito but find that my hand is shaking and my finger joints aren’t moving. The Burrito Supreme falls out of my hands and quickly unfurls on the parking lot pavement displaying its naked insides like busted organs. It is now a flat tortilla next to a perfectly square greasy block of beans and cheese.
“Holy hell, man!” I say.
“Oh it’s just the adrenalin. It’ll wear off. Give it time.”
I sit on the parking lot ground next to Ezra. Look at the mall, at the glittering stars, at the mall full of light.
“What do you think is happening to the mall?” Ezra asks me.
“What do you mean? Happening?” I say.
“Do you think the food court will re-open?”
My face shrinks. I can’t hide my confusion.
“Who wants it to re-open? Don’t tell me you wanted to be all nice-nice to the owner cuz you still wanna work here?”
“I like it here. The families. The smiling children. I hope they’ll hire me back…you know…if the Taco Bell reopens.”
A lone car pulls into the parking lot. We both stand up. Ezra gathers his backpack. While he gets up I catch a sight of his arm in the reflection of the car headlights: pockets of red grease burns have scarred and peeled his skin.
“Good luck with your schooling, Ramon.” He says as he walks into the car. I watch as they drive off into the night.
K. Joffré is a gay Guatemalan-American writer happily married in New York. He has non-fiction published in Slate and fiction published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Spectacle, Cosmonauts Avenue, PANK, and elsewhere. He hosts a podcast called “Writing Is Annoying.” He is currently on the hunt for an agent. You can find him on twitter @kjoffre_ and at kjoffre.com