Burger Empire

By Matt De Reno

Six burgers sizzled on the grill at Burger Empire. The cook, 21-year-old Caroline Friday, could give two flying squirts of Heinz 57 ketchup if they sizzled away to complete brown and black grease. She could care less if her life did the same too. Of course she realized that today she was in a rather despondent mood. 1989 had not turned out the way she wanted and next year—and maybe the entire new decade—promised more of the same disappointment.

Image: The blue block highlights where this chapter falls in the story. The green blocks are Chapters and the arrows indicate the way they flow. The red dots are characters. 

It was early in the afternoon. A Christmas song—Frank Sinatra’s rendition of I’ll Be Home For Christmas cackled over the dining area speakers in a sad effort to shovel seasonal spirit into this greasy spoon. The song gave her a headache. Additionally, the constant jingling of the decorative bells on the entrance doors to Burger Empire, opening and closing all morning and afternoon, grated on her nerves. 

Caroline was pissed. In a laughable incident ten minutes ago, she had been lectured by her boss, Pete Gardner, about her lack of “team enthusiasm” and unwillingness to work toward the coveted Employee of the Month recognition plaque he had hammered up on the wall back in October.

She was told that she was nothing at all like November’s winner, Demarco Cropley, a smart black teen who was on his way to Carnegie Mellon University next year. Good for him. She liked Demarco. Still, she had no qualms about her lack of ambition for Employee of the Month—especially at this two bit restaurant. Old Pete, however, took umbrage with her piss poor attitude. 

Pete told her that Demarco came from a poor family and worked his tail off while Caroline came from a relatively well-to-do upbringing and slacked her way through her job and treated it as if she were too good for it. He was right. She was too good for it. 

Gardner also said she was never thinking about what she should be doing at the moment. He was right about that too. Then again, neither did Pete focus on his work either. As Caroline noted on more than one occasion, he was prone to staring at her melons more often than the ones that comprised their sad fruit medley.

Caroline Friday, the young, tattooed grungy white chick—replete with rogue strands of purple in her otherwise dark brunette, shoulder length locks—had started her job at the Burger Empire only a week ago. She arrived with two things: a bad attitude and a desperate need for a job that could carry her to Christmas. 

Caroline was two years out of high school, broke, had no Christmas money, and was about a universe away from celebration and honor on Pete’s much ballyhooed Employee of The Fucking Month board. The award came with it a fifty dollar bonus if one’s face festooned one of the twelve Employee of The Month zodiac signs. 

The laughable employee inducement, which was proudly displayed in the shitty break room hallway next to a clip board of schedules and the time clock, still featured Demarco Cropley’s beaming, ear-to-ear, smile. They wanted to give it to him again but apparently he had called off too many days lately. So much for Mr. November’s loyalty in December.  

As she stood over the grill lost in thought, the burgers cooked away. Her lips became taut and tight. She grimaced as the burgers burned. Her dark coal eyes revealed a young intelligent mind that was, as Pete Gardner correctly had noted, not focused on where and what she was doing. She tilted her head and then whipped wayward purple locks of hair away from her eyes. She leaned on her hip, then tapped the side of the metal spatula on the grill, as if she were contemplating someone to kill with it. She caught herself in a grease and grime streaked mirror to the side of the grill. She walked over and took a good look at herself. 

The black wool beanie cap she had worn to work was fine. Her white thermal long sleeve undershirt, which revealed a good bit of cleavage when she hunkered over to ring orders and wash dishes, was accentuated with a black and red, box-plaid flannel. It was an old shirt of her older brother’s and she had made it short-sleeved with a hasty pair of scissors when she suspected he long forgot about the garment. She liked this look for the cash register, but felt totally uncomfortable in the greasy and hot kitchen. 

Her wooden bead necklaces felt heavy. Her nose ring felt oily. The white apron she wore, after they told her she had to “man the grill”—a phrase that agitated the emerging feminist in her to no end, was stained beyond recognition. She sighed and pouted. Sadness clouded her features. This wasn’t what I pictured when I told my dad to go fuck himself.

The nagging feeling that had been pressing her recently, returned in full force: It’s been two years since high school and I have accomplished nothing.  

Caroline Friday reminded herself that she only wanted a couple of things from this job: earn enough money to save up for a beater automobile so that she could get around town more easily and out of it when she needed to. She also wanted to afford an apartment of her own and move out from home. That could be counted as some kind of progress. However, since she had wrecked two of her fathers cars (not bad, but dinged them nonetheless) her father told to save up her own money and get a car for herself. Then, he smugly told her, she could plow her own car into trees all by herself—and on her own dollar. 

The first time she crashed into the tree on Wellington Avenue she had been drinking. Her father didn’t know that, or at least she didn’t think he knew. However, ever since that accident, he seemed to take more notice of the liquor around the house and paid a slightly more detailed glance at the number of beers that remained in the fridge. As much as she loved her Dad, he treated her like a little kid. Hell, she turned 21 a month ago. What did he care if she drank? On that sentiment, her expression dulled. What do I need a car for anyway? I have nowhere to go. It was not like she would park a decent car down here at Burger Empire anyway. 

Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood was crime-ridden and poverty-stricken. However, she liked it. Life in West View, where her family lived for a generation, and where she had grown up, was boring. West View was filled with long-winded stories about bygone roller coasters, hearkening back to a time before West View Amusement Park had closed its ticket counters for good in the mid-70s. Now West View was filled with hoary gray-haired folks who milled about Isaly’s Deli all day eating chipped ham sandwiches and sipping black coffee. These folks enjoyed watching the traffic pass along Perry Highway (as their lives passed along after it). Much like the expiration dates on the containers of coleslaw they ate and the creamers they put in their coffee saucers, they expired with little fanfare. 

Ouch! She got splattered with hot grease. “Sonuvabitch,” Caroline snapped, banging the spatula against the grill. Now she was even more pissed. 

Pete’s Burger Empire reeked of grease, laziness, uncleanliness and cheap food. She had not agreed to flip burgers when she took this job. Her job was to simply to work the cash register but it appears she had being shanghaied into joining the kitchen freak show because Mr. November quit without notice. Could you blame him? Still, a part of her wanted to make this job work. 

This was her first gig she took on her own accord, she told herself. As a matter of pride, she had to make it work too since she declined her father’s nepotist desire for her take a cushy hostess position at the family restaurant in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. She was fast beginning to regret that decision. 

Friday’s Pizzeria and Italian Eatery was opening two restaurants in the Pittsburgh area and her dad told her another one was slated to open in Cranberry, a growing town north of Pittsburgh, sometime next year. Another of her father’s partners wanted to open a fourth restaurant in the South Hills.   

That was all well and good, but she wanted to show her father that she could make it on her own and she certainly didn’t want to stand around like a bimbo in a tight skirt and halter top flashing her boobs at old men. Still, the more broke she became the more she thought about the options her father gave her and what the hell, she looked pretty darn good in a halter top. College was another one of those options.  

Her father had offered to pay her to go to college, Point Park College, his alma mater, though she hardly had college worthy grades at North Hills High School. She angered her father when she said she didn’t want to go to college at all. She called it Pointless Park College. It was pointless to her at least. Standing here in the kitchen, getting splashed with hot grease behind the grill, however, made her reconsider.  

The song changed over. Another Christmas dirge. Baby It’s Cold Outside. She despised this song. This annoying Christmas music recycled every hour on the hour it seemed. She sighed. It was going to be a long week. 

“You are burning the fuck out of my burgers Caroline!” barked the franchise owner of Burger Empire, the balding obese and slovenly, Pete Gardner.

The man had appeared in the front archway like a troll under a filthy bridge. He was right. The burgers were nearly burnt down to nothing now. Black smoke meandered its way to the air filter. He picked his bulbous nose with a fat finger as he loomed over her and let loose a torrent of obscenities about the condition of his burgers. 

He was so gross. Yellow teeth. Comb over dark hair. Psoriasis that sprouted out from his undershirt. About a hundred pounds overweight and all of it proudly drooping down from the open stained crease of his gigantic paunch. The man paraded around with a fly that was often half zipped because he was lazy or it didn’t work or he perhaps he just liked it open. Pete never shaved and always smelled like cheap booze and missed showers. The creep kept all sort of Playboy magazines in the back break room too. How gross is it that I must work for this disgusting man.  

“My fucking customers are hungry!”

Caroline frowned. “You should say, ‘My customers are fucking hungry’…. Not ‘My fucking customers’ if you had any respect for them at all Pete.” Caroline smacked the spatula hard on the cooking surface. The burgers sizzled and began to smell a little well done. 

“Just cook my fucking burgers bitch.”

She snapped at Mr. Gardner. “Another word like that out of you and you’ll be flipping your own fucking burgers from here on out.”

Pete’s face reddened and he waved his arms wildly. “You know. That’s why I hate hiring you bitches. Attitudes. I have given you a chance to man the grill. You should appreciate it you dumb broad.”

He loomed over her and continued his verbal attack. However, if Pete had been trying to intimidate her with his bullying, it had the opposite effect. “No. You did not go there!” Caroline exploded.  Her dark eyes dilated. She squeezed the spatula tightly. “You want some fucking hamburgers? Here are you’re god-damned burgers.”

 Carline scooped up a row of burgers and promptly flipped them into a mop bucket of dirty water that had been hanging around since yesterday. The dirty mop water splashed up and hit Pete Gardner’s contorted angry face. 

Pete Gardner blanched. His eyes blazed with anger. Caroline smiled triumphantly and then quickly ducked out of her stained apron. She balled up the filthy thing and then chest passed it to a mortified Pete Gardner. 

Pete caught the apron on his face and wiped his eyes. “This is not how you become Employee of the Month,” he hollered.

“Fuck you and fuck the Employee of the Month. I quit,” Caroline yelled.

She stomped toward the kitchen swing doors with her head lowered. Pete, momentarily caught off guard, stepped aside. Surprise spread across his face. Caroline did not look at Pete as she marched by him, through the kitchen and exited to the dining area.

She felt the eyes of gaping customers as they followed her across the restaurant dining area. She proceeded straight to the door and opened it. The holiday bells rang and Caroline Friday stepped outside of Burger Empire for the last time that cold December afternoon. 

A frigid Pittsburgh wind punished her face and whipped her hair about in wild movements. She glowered. The rare Pittsburgh sunshine had poked out from behind the clouds, but it was bitterly cold. Caroline’s hair whipped in the blustery wind and she folded her arms tightly around her body to keep warm in her flannel shirt. 

For a brief moment the sun reflected brightly off a shining metal and glass building a mile or so away. Ah, the Unalco World Headquarters. She squinted at the modern building. It was about a mile away geographically, but a million miles from Burger Empire. It stood like a tower above the mostly dilapidated buildings of Pittsburgh’s old and tired North Side. Must be nice to work somewhere like that place.

The sound of a pneumatic bus door opening and the black exhaling of diesel exhaust caught her attention. Ah, it was the bus back to the North Hills. The bus back to Friday’s Pizzeria. The bus back to starting over. 

She hustled down the street and jumped on the bus. She counted out her change and dropped it down the coin machine. She wondered where this bus ride would ultimately take her once she got on it. The laconic bus driver paid her no attention. The bus was empty. She sat down in the very back seat and put her black boots up on the seat in front of her. A song played. She sighed and closed her eyes. It was Baby It’s Cold Outside.   

Approximate Scene Location - Pittsburgh's north side


The inspiration for this scene is Pittsburgh's North Shore neighborhood. If you happen to visit, there is some really cool stuff down there. Not really emphasized in the scene, but the area is home a a very ecletic neighborhood known as the Mexican War Streets.