8: Playground for the Unimaginative

She expected the phone to ring again immediately after she hung it up, like it always seemed to do when the last thing they needed were more orders, but it didn’t.

Dori went to the register with a handful of paper towels so she could dry her hair and face, looking out at the table that had come in earlier and were still there.  They were sort of an odd couple; he was a tall thirtysomething guy in a suit that was expensive but looked sort of rumpled, like he’d slept in it.  He had a beard that was disturbingly close to being a Kenny Loggins rug, too.  Not good.  He was all burly, almost like a football player or a lumberjack, bigger than Daniel even, but the suit suggested that he really did something else.  The chick he was with was Asian–Dori wasn’t about to venture a guess as to where from exactly–and also tall.  Dori had never seen an Asian chick who was taller than she was till now.  She was also bald.  Two long, partially green-dyed locks of hair just in front of her ears suggested that it was an intentional shave rather than chemo or something.  Her baldness wasn’t the only thing that made her look like a chemo patient, either; she was wearing sweats, and she was really thin.  She looked more than a little bit sick in fact.  She wasn’t too skinny to have a nice set of tits though.  Dori noted with absent interest that the chick wasn’t wearing a bra, and her tits were real.

From what she could hear by eavesdropping from the counter, they had just met each other; the conversation was in that feeling-out phase common to all early-stage relationships.  They were talking jobs and other light stuff like that.  Dori drifted off into her own head before long, imagining that he was a Vietnam vet talking to the chick who’s rescued him from a POW cage.  He had never met her until now, and he was showing her what American culture was all about.  Of course it was silly, since neither of them was old enough to have been in Vietnam, but it kept her occupied.

As the couple was getting up to leave, a pickup on oversized tires pulled into the parking lot, exhaust roaring.  Dori had hoped that it was Daniel coming back, or that it was Smile come to fix her tires, but neither of them had a Bigfoot-looking truck like that (or would have been interested in one, she imagined).  Doors slammed, then male voices shouted and laughed, a tangle of indistinct syllables through the glass.

The bearded man came up and paid the bill; he gave her an apologetic smile that said he’d heard the noise when the shelves fell down and felt sorry for Dori for the night she was having.  She gave him a big grin back and told him to have a nice night.  He and his Asian girlfriend-in-trial-phase were out the door (Dori wagered privately that they weren’t going to screw tonight, she could tell by the way they both walked that neither of them was thinking about it seriously yet) before she realized that they had left her a fifty-percent tip.  That kind of generosity deserved a bigger smile, in retrospect.  Sometimes she could tell who was going to tip big, and sometimes she couldn’t.  Dori preferred the pleasant surprises like this one. 

The voices outside had risen to shouts, tinged with a bit of anger.  There was a loud thump as something was thrown against one of the windows.  Dori looked at the back door, willing Daniel to appear there, but it wasn’t going to happen.

That was when she smelled something burning.  “Dewayne!” Dori yelled.  “What the fuck’s on fire?”

“On fire?”  He came out of the office with a four-month old People magazine in his hand, sniffing the air.  There was a definite smell of carbonization.

“Are you making food?”  All of the night staffers took it upon themselves to make snacks whenever the mood struck them.  There were ostensibly rules and limitations to what they ate, but they went largely unenforced.

Dewayne jumped as if stung.  “Oh, shit!  My dinner!”  He rushed over to the oven and pulled the observation port in the side open.  Dori saw a flicker of flame inside the pizza oven’s dark guts.

For the first time all evening, Dewayne looked like a seasoned pizza-preparing pro.  He grabbed a set of tongs from the prep table without even looking, reached into the oven, and pulled the flaming pan out the side.  Exposed to more oxygen, the flames doubled in height, but he wasn’t fazed.  Three backward steps through the cramped kitchen area and he was at the back door; he slammed it open with his shoulder and pitched the whole pan into the parking lot.  There was a clatter as the metal struck the asphalt; the flames turned to sparks and disappeared in the dark.

“So, um, what was that?” Dori asked.

“I had some leftovers from China Garden,” he said.  “I took my girl up there last night.  I put them through the oven to heat up.  I don’t know why the shit lit up like that.”

Dori managed not to roll her eyes, but she did chuckle.  Dewayne was most definitely a newbie.  “Dude, cardboard burns,” she said.  “You have to take stuff out of the carryout boxes before you put it through the oven.”

Dewayne looked properly chastened.  “Damn,” he said.  “That was some good almond chicken, too.  Shit.”

Dori laughed again.  The kitchen was hazy.  “Block the back door open, would you?  It doesn’t look good if customers come in and see the place full of smoke.”

When Dewayne opened the door, they could both hear the voices from the parking lot, which had reached a fever pitch.  Apparently the carload of guys who had pulled in was no longer so chummy.  From the front of the store, they heard more thuds against the window.  Someone threw a bottle down in the parking lot with a tinkle of shattering glass.

Dewayne was looking to Dori for guidance.  “Should we call the cops, or wait for Daniel to get back, or what?”

She thought about it for a moment, running a hand through her hair, which was beginning to misbehave as it dried.  There was a tangle, and she bought a few more seconds of thought by pulling the snag loose.  “Um…okay.  No, don’t call the cops, because it looks bad and we’ll get our liquor license pulled if there are too many drunk calls.  I heard the big boss telling Rayna that once.  I’ll just go out there and ask them to calm down, or take it somewhere else, I guess.”

“You want me to do it?”

She sort of did, but didn’t feel right about sending her short, slender black coworker out in the dark to chase off a bunch of drunken white guys in a hot-rod pickup.  “Naah.  They sound like urban rednecks, they’ll probably just try to kick your ass.”  She crossed her fingers that they wouldn’t kick her ass.  After all, guys like this didn’t hit women they weren’t married to, right?  “If you see them throw me down and start to rip my clothes off,” she added with another laugh, “you my have permission to call the cops.”

Dewayne nodded severely.

“Dude, I’m kidding.  They’re not going to do anything.”  She wondered if Dewayne was on edge because of the robbery.  Dori was surprised at how nonchalant and not in danger she felt as she went out the door into the chilly evening.  Maybe she was numb or emboldened because of the robbery, or something.  Maybe it had been such a crappy day she didn’t give a shit any more.  She imagined that a therapist could have told her what was up.  There was only the slightest touch of uncertainty in her stomach as she approached the guys.  There were four of them; they were standing in the orangey glow of the sodium-vapor light in the parking lot.  Two of them were standing chest to chest, holding implements of moderate destruction; a broken bottle for the one with the beer gut as big as a Rottweiler, and a hammer for the one who was merely chunky.  The bigger guy’s face was purple with rage, and the cords stood out in his neck.

“You fuckin’ faggot!” he yelled into his friend’s face, a high, girlish yell for such a big guy.  One of his other friends tried to get between the two men, but he was shoved aside.  “Right here and now, you little faggot!  Show me how goddamn tough you are!  Right now!”

The other guy sounded more rational.  “Man, I don’t want to see your fat ass all bloody and crying in the parking lot.  Remember when you started crying at softball?”  Okay, check that–he was more rational, but his mouth had a death wish.

“I’m gonna kill you!” the fatter one bellowed, lunging forward and shoving the smaller man backward.  The motormouth grabbed the fat guy’s arm and held onto it, trying to pull the bottle out of his friend’s fingers.  “Lemme go, Ray!  Lemme go!  I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you!”  They started to dance around one another.

Neither of the other men seemed inclined to do anything but watch any more, so Dori figured she ought to intervene.  From a safe-ish distance, of course  She stayed on the sidewalk near the door.  “Um, hey, you guys?” she called out.  That wasn’t nearly loud enough to get their attention, so she took a deep breath and yelled, “Dudes!”

The fighters stopped dancing, but remained in their clench.

“Hey, hi.  Um, sorry.  Look, is there some other way to work this out?  There’s houses behind our restaurant, you know,” she pointed toward the wooden fence at the back of the parking lot, “and people might be trying to sleep or something.”

“This don’t concern you, lady,” the fat fighter said.  He let go of his friend and pushed him roughly away.

“Well, it kind of does actually.  It’s our parking lot, and we don’t want people to complain.  I kind of like working here.”

“If you like working here so much, maybe you ought to go inside and mind your own business,” said one of the bystanders.  He had a narrow, ratty face, and sounded like he’d been smoking five packs a day since 1980 or so.

“Look, I’m not trying to be a bitch or anything, seriously.  Why don’t you guys come inside?”  Dori heard herself ask the question as if she were a bystander herself, and thought, are you crazy?  Don’t invite them in, you stupid bitch!  But there it was.

The five men looked at each other, nonplussed.

“I’ll make you a pizza or something,” she added.  “On the house.”  Sure, why not?  Daniel wasn’t there.  He’d probably be happy that there weren’t rednecks trying to kill each other in the parking lot, or cops trying to stop rednecks from killing each other in the parking lot.

The fat guy laughed.  “You’re gonna give us a pizza to make us behave.  What, do we look like fuckin’ kids to you?”

Dori chose not to answer that question, knowing that Fatso probably wouldn’t like the answer.  “C’mon,” she said, putting on her friendly waitress voice.  “It’s cold out here.  We’re open till midnight, that’s another two hours.  And we’ve got a jukebox.”  She raised an eyebrow.

“You must be really, really bored,” Ratface said. He sounded less condescending than before, though.

“Fuck that shit,” Fatso said.  “I’ll come in and eat pizza after I break this fucker’s head open.”

“No, that’s not part of the deal.  No fighting.  Just come in and have some pizza.  It’s good, we brush this garlic shit on the crust even.”

Fatso hawked and spat in Dori’s direction.  “Suck my fuckin’ dick,” he said.

Dori shrugged.  “Okay,” she said without really thinking about it.  “But come in and have some pizza first.”

They were too shocked to respond.  Sensing that she had the upper hand for the moment, Dori turned around and went back inside.  As she turned over what she’d said, she figured they’d either come in, and she’d make them a pizza, or they’d leave because they didn’t have the guts to see if she’d actually suck the fat guy’s dick or not.  Either way, she doubted they’d keep fighting.  Mission accomplished.

Dewayne was waiting behind the counter with the phone.  “Your boyfriend is on the phone,” he said.

“Cool, thanks.”  She answered it with a smile, feeling powerful and happy.  “Hey, Smile,” she said.

“What’s up?  You left a message.”

“Um, right.  I know it’s your night off and stuff, but I wanted to know if you could come down to the restaurant and help me fix my car?  Someone slashed my tires.”

There was a moment of silence.  Sometimes he threw fits about her calling him to help her when he felt like she didn’t need it, and Dori hoped this wasn’t one of those times.  She didn’t need him complaining that she asked for too much.  “Slashed your tires?” he asked.

“Yeah.  It might have something to do with that newspaper thing.”

“All four of them?”

“Yeah.”

“Shit.  We won’t be able to fix them until tomorrow.  I’ll come pick you up.”

“Doesn’t Meijer sell tires or something?”

“They do, but you need to have them installed, and there’s a Goodyear right across the street from the restaurant.  It’ll be a lot easier to take it there tomorrow and let them deal with it.”

“Do you think my insurance will cover it?”

Smile sighed.  There was the exasperation.  Well, shit, she was just asking.  He was going to tell her to call her insurance company and find out.  “Call them and find out,” he said.  “How are things there, other than your car?”

“Oh, all fucked up,” she said cheerfully.  She told him about Daniel sending all of the drivers home and then getting lost, and about the fighters in the parking lot. 

“You told him you’d suck his dick?” Smile asked, interrupting her.

“Well, I’m not going to, if that’s what you’re asking.  Don’t tell me you’re all pissed off now.”

“That was a stupid thing to do, Dori.  I am so glad I’m coming to pick you up.  You’re gonna get fucking raped if you talk to people like that.”

“Fine, forgive me,” she snapped.  “I thought it was kind of a good moment and was feeling good about it.  Thanks for crashing my high.”  She looked toward the dining room, which was empty.  “They didn’t even come in after all.”  The second and third lines chose that time to light up.  Dewayne ducked into the office to answer one of them; the second warbled insistently.

“They’re probably waiting in the parking lot for you.  Never underestimate the mentality of a man when there’s a blowjob in the offering.”

That made Dori laugh.  “I’ll have to add that to my rules of life.  I have to get the other line now, though.  Thanks for coming to get me, by the way.”

“You’re welcome.”

She clicked over; it was a call for a delivery, but thankfully outside Pandora’s area.  The caller didn’t want to come and pick it up, so Dori was off the phone before Dewayne was.  She could tell by the helpless tone in his voice that he was arguing with a customer, probably one of the four to whom Daniel was supposed to be making deliveries.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  Yes, I know it’s been an hour, ma’am.  All I can tell you is that he’s on his way.  I can’t make him show up any damn quicker, can I?” he snapped, losing patience.

Dori actually reached out and smacked him on top of the head (it felt like a globe made of sandpaper, she noticed), taking the phone away.  “Hello?”

Of course, the woman on the other end was irate.  “Who is this?”

“My name is Dori,” she said.  Giving a name was always the first step toward mollifying them.  “I’m the assistant night manager, can I help you?”  There was no such thing as an ‘assistant night manager’ at Pandora’s but it was a common phone tactic to hand angry customers off to someone else and call them the assistant manager.  Again, it was another step toward calming them down; the Voice of Authority.

“I was speaking to that young man about our pizza, which we ordered Over An Hour Ago,” the nasal voice intoned.  She sounded like she was in her fifties, and pissed off.  “We were told that delivery would take Half An Hour when we called, and we want to know where our dinner is.”

“I apologize for the delay,” Dori said.  “We’ve had some problems with our delivery drivers tonight, so the store manager is personally making deliveries tonight.  His name is Daniel, and I’m sure he’s doing the best job he can.”  Just don’t let her get a word in yet, Dori thought.  “When he gets there, tell him you talked to Dori, and tell him I said that your pizza will be free tonight.  I’m sorry for the mixup.”  She knew full well she didn’t have the authority to give away pizzas, but what the fuck?  It was a messed up night.  If Daniel had a problem with it, he could argue with the lady face to face.

“That young man was Extremely Rude,” the woman on the phone added.

“I know.  I’ll talk to him about his phone etiquette and make sure it doesn’t happen again.  Can I get your name?”  Dori scribbled the woman’s name on the desk calendar’s margin, just in case they needed it later.  The lady sounded calmer after that.  Dori thanked her again for being patient, and for calling Pandora’s Pizza, and then hung up.

She turned to Dewayne.  “Dude,” she said, “you can’t be swearing at the customers, even if they deserve it.”  There, she’d even been honest about talking to Dewayne about his phone manners.

“Woman, you ever smack me again and I’ll…”  He let the threat trail off, but he was smiling.

“Sorry.”