No. 9, Fast Food Counter Girl (Age 16)

Legend: a collection of stories about an admirable person or a person who is the center of such stories.

My mother became manager of the Estherville McDonald’s after paying her dues as a burger flipper, salad maker, and super-speedy biscuit baker. It never crossed our minds to be discomfited by her fast food career, as she was always quick to remind that “a job is just a job,” and to be being completely honest, Mom was the fastest burger flipper and biscuit baker west of the Mississippi. I was far more embarrassed as a sixth grader when she worked at the beef packing plant—and that wasn’t because of what she did, but because of her blood-soaked clothing and the pieces of flesh clinging to her bib overalls at day’s end.

After work she’d retrieve us from school in our copper Ford pickup, then drag us into the grocery store bloody clothes and all, opening a carton of cigarettes and smoking through the aisles, lightly quashing her butt out on the floor then quickly lighting another. Sometimes she’d poke a finger in her nose and crank her arm a good turn or two when I looked in her direction. Then, for extra effect, she’d pretend to deposit the tiny payload in a seam of her overalls, hee-hawing at how horrified I was by her behavior. Sixth graders are fragile, and it didn’t help that my mother has never been bound by social convention. 

In September of ’85 my mother suggested I work for her at the Estherville McDonald’s, as it was impractical commuting to the McDonald’s in Okoboji once school had started. I said yes when she promised a raise to the tune of $3.85 an hour, though it seemed a foreseeable nightmare switching to a small town McDonald’s after a summer working in Okoboji. At the Okoboji McDonald’s at least six crewmembers and as many as three assistant managers closed the store on weekends. Plus, I didn’t know many of the customers; most were tourists and drunken boaters.

Now I would be working in Estherville, where it was just one employee and one assistant manager closing a store with twice the square footage. And instead of vacationing strangers, the customers were my classmates, friends, and relatives. I would also be working with my mother—the legendary Pam Breiner. Everyone loved working with her. Not only did she sport trendy hairstyles (at the time it was short with the top half platinum and the lower half her natural black—the skunk, I think it was called), but she laughed constantly, swore under her breath, was compassionate to a fault, and yelled “Oopy!” whenever she farted—which was often.

(A short aside: In regards to Mom’s relentless gastrointestinal output, my younger sister Charity said to me just last week: “Farting—I think it leaked out of Mom when she died, and went into us, her mad farts. I bent over to put clothes in the dryer the other day, and out, totally spontaneously, flew one of Mom’s “quacker” farts, and I actually looked around like, where the hell did that . . . Oh my God, that was from ME?!?) 

Working with my mother was a traumatic fusion of pride and humiliation, though I never displayed either emotion, I was too busy trying to impress her by forcing my face into an “I love working” mask and resisting the urge to whine. Mom had long before taught us to value employment (or at least the necessity of it for existence). We couldn’t always count on dinner or domicile, but we could count on Mom headed off to work in a frenzy, a genuine smile on her face, returning with an exhaustive plop in a tattered chair for a cigarette, a sense of satisfaction knowing a job was well done. I both respected and loathed her zealous work ethic—it was a tremendous burden to labor at her caliber, and a tragic reminder that hard work sometimes gets you nowhere. Look where it got her.

Serving the Estherville McDonald’s endless stream of customers practically on my own proved exhausting. To sustain myself during nightshifts, I’d sneak into the cooler and stuff an entire cheese Danish in my mouth. Too often I’d be found and hurried along to deal with a rush, with no time to wipe the icing from the corners of my mouth. A dozen cars would be beeping for window service and there would be a line at every register, even the ones clearly marked closed. Having so recently been a drive-thru superstar in Okoboji, I was frustrated by the inability to demonstrate my fast food skill set under these circumstances, and was constantly filled with bad worker shame. I desperately wanted to give jobs my all, far beyond their ability to give back. In doing so, I knew I wouldn’t feel bad if I filched or left on short notice.

It became clear my days were numbered when I tried to cut myself a short month after I’d started. The plan was to slice my thumb, then arrive at work and show the open wound to the manager on duty and ask, “Does this need stitches?” Then I’d be hustled off to the doctor and not have to work my shift. Seriously, it sucked that much. I locked myself in our upstairs bathroom and tied a bandana around my left thumb, tourniquet-style, and waited until it was bright purple and tingly. I held it under running water and started slowly etching into my thumb, trying to envision a quick and painless whack into the bulging skin. It would split open; a yawning hole relieved of pressure, splaying out to reveal those hidden layers underneath.

Resting on my elbows, I scraped the blade back and forth, casually wondering if this particular activity might warrant a trip to crazy town. In the end, a simple lack of courage prevented me from joining the ranks of self-mutilators that day. I couldn’t bring myself to bring the blade down hard. I could barely filet a callus. So I gave up the butcher project and went in for what I decided was my last shift. I knew Mom would understand. My imminent exit was a lovely little secret . . .

That night I ate my cheese Danish outside the cooler.

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